Abandon hope: Live sustainably just because it's the right thing to do

Feb 20, 2009

Do you "hope" that everyone will see the light and start living more sustainably to save the environment? If so, you may be doing more harm than good.

So say an environmental scientist and an environmental ethicist in a provocative essay in the March 2009 issue of the international journal, The Ecologist. John Vucetich, assistant professor of animal ecology at Michigan Technological University, and Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics at Michigan State University, challenge the widespread belief that hope can motivate people to solve overwhelming social and environmental problems.

"Is hope a placebo, a distraction, merely sowing the seeds of disillusionment?" they ask, in an opinion piece titled "Abandon Hope." The authors, co-founders and directors of the Conservation Ethics Group, an of environmental ethics consultancy, examine the proper role of hope in environmentalism. They suggest that hope's alternative is not hopelessness or despair, but rather the inherent virtue of "doing the right thing."

For decades, say Vucetich and Nelson, we have been hammered by the ceaseless thunder of messages predicting imminent environmental cataclysm: global climate change, air and water pollution, destruction of wildlife habitat, holes in the ozone. The response of environmentalists—from Al Gore to Jane Goodall—to this persistent message of hopelessness has focused on the need to remain hopeful.

But hope may actually be counter-productive, Vucetich and Nelson suggest. "I have little reason to live sustainably if the only reason to do so is to hope for a sustainable future, because every other message I receive suggests that disaster is guaranteed," they explain.

People are hearing radically contradictory messages:

• Scientists present evidence that profound environmental disaster is imminent.
• It is urgent to live up to an extremely high standard of sustainable living.
• The reason to live sustainably is that doing so gives hope for averting disaster.
• Yet disaster is inevitable.

"Given a predisposition to mistrust authorities, such contradictions justifiably elicit mistrust," say Vucetich and Nelson.

If hope for averting environmental disaster is not the right reason to live sustainably, what is? The scholars say we must provide people with reasons to live sustainably that are rational and effective, based on virtues rather than consequences. That means equating sustainable living not with hope for a better future, but with basic virtues such as sharing and caring, virtues that we recognize as good in themselves and fundamentally the right way to live in the present, they explain.

One advantage to such an approach is that it can motivate even people who do not believe that we are on the brink of environmental disaster, Vucetich and Nelson point out. It also clarifies the connection between environmental and social problems, a connection many people fail to grasp.

"Instead of hope, we need to provide young people with reasons to live sustainably that are rational and effective," they say. "We need to lift up examples of sustainable living motivated by virtue more than by a dubious belief that such actions will avert environmental disaster."

Source: Michigan Technological University

Explore further: Study urges 15-year plan for low-carbon growth

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Scientists say the ozone layer is recovering

Sep 10, 2014

Earth's protective ozone layer is beginning to recover, largely because of the phase-out since the 1980s of certain chemicals used in refrigerants and aerosol cans, a U.N. scientific panel reported Wednesday ...

Personal wellbeing can aid environmental sustainability

Sep 09, 2014

Our first-world problems - too strapped to buy the latest iPhone, bored by last year's clothes - are symptomatic of a deeper emotional hunger that's putting the wider world at risk, according to a new book by an academic ...

River red gum - more than just a tree

Aug 14, 2014

So much more than just a tree, the river red gum has been central to the tensions between economic, social and environmental values of rivers and floodplain landscapes in Australia - perhaps more so than ...

Recommended for you

Earthworms as nature's free fertilizer

2 hours ago

Earthworm presence in the soil increases crop yield, shows a new study that was published this week in Scientific Reports. "This is not unexpected," says Jan Willem van Groenigen, associate professor in the ...

A success in managed pressure drilling

2 hours ago

As one of BP's top 40 wells globally (and the only UK well qualifying for that category in 2012), the successful delivery of the Harding field's 'Producer North East 2a' well (referred to as PNE2a) was crucial to the business. ...

Passion for the natural world clears the waters

2 hours ago

A toxic legacy has hung over the picturesque northern NSW coastal hamlet of Urunga for almost 40 years. Although now obscured by dense vegetation, the forest of dead melaleuca trees at the edge of a wetland ...

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

earls
3 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2009
Help meet my objectives, and I'll help meet yours. Until then, enjoy our Mutually Assured Destruction.
Roach
1 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2009
While there need to interject their message is frustrating and counter productive to the rest of the article, the point is valid, don't drive a hybrid/electric car because it'll save the earth, do so because it reduces your gas consumption, saves you money, and reduces smog and harmful pollutants. And for the record you don't have to subscribe to AGW to see the negative impacts of pollution.

now all we need is for someone to come up with a real alternative so people can live sustainably... still waiting.
Arkaleus
4.8 / 5 (5) Feb 20, 2009
Human behavior is no different than any other creature on the earth. They will inevitably seek to gain the maximum amount of resources for the minimum amount of expense and labor. It is foolish and naive to expect human beings to behave any differently.

The only way to force another kind of behavior on human beings is to create conditions of oppression or artificial scarcity. So far, the longest period of time such a government has existed in modern times is 70 years or so.
GrayMouser
3 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2009
"rational and effective,"??
When have people done something because it was rational? You have to engage their self-interest.
Shootist
not rated yet Feb 20, 2009
FIT, party like it's 1979.
Choice
2 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2009
The point is to keep things from going bad to worse. Arkaleus: there are huge differences in behavior between animals.
Arkaleus
not rated yet Mar 02, 2009
The point is to keep things from going bad to worse. Arkaleus: there are huge differences in behavior between animals.


Not when it comes to feeding or using resources. Generally speaking, the tendency of all life is to acquire what is easiest to obtain, and to gain as much as possible for the least amount of effort.

Do you claim this is not an accurate description of how life operates? What is yours?