Christof Mauch on Slow Hope

What is hope to you?

Hope is the opposite of despair. Hope is not naive, it includes serious critical perspectives. Hope is a transformative power. In the course of history, hope has changed minds and worlds.

You have established the term “slow hope” in response to the concept of “slow violence” developed by Rob Nixon. How do the two relate to each other?

They work with opposing trajectories. Nixon has shown us that we, specifically in the Global North, have caused environmental destruction through exploitative practices – oil spills, toxic drifts and, more generally, through an externalisation of our responsibility. Excessive consumption, export of toxic waste and the like have contributed to the violations around the globe. This development and the violence that comes with it are not sudden. It works gradually, slowly. It is often invisible. And it hits especially the most vulnerable communities – humans and also other creatures and environments.

And slow hope? Why does it need to be slow?

I don’t believe in grand, solutionist promises or a radical turnaround of our economic system. And I don’t believe in engineering miracles. Will we be saved quickly by vast programs to electrify hundreds of millions of cars? By carbon capture or geoengineering? By cold fusion or by human migration to another planet? Relying solely on the techno approach that provoked our current environmental disaster seems counterintuitive. If the goals are too abstract, they will leave most of us behind in frustration. It is important to see that change can occur in many places, on many levels.

What is the relationship between the individual and the collective regarding climate change – and how can hope help in this context?

I believe that the focus on individuals is highly problematic. It implies that individuals are to blame and suggests that individuals can get us out of the climate crisis. We must always keep in mind that very few big corporations are responsible for global emissions and for plastic pollution. Having said that: hopeful narratives are needed as an antidote to stories of imminent collapse. Hope helps us to get out of a collective paralysis. Ultimately hopefulness can lead from new mindsets to collective action - and yes, to action of a type that big corporations won’t dare to ignore.

Ecological change may well come slowly, but we must never be slow in working towards change

Can you explain the power of narratives in the context of climate change?

For a long time we believed that arguments could create better worlds. We believed in “the unforced force of the better argument” that Jürgen Habermas has called for. In recent years we realised that sensible arguments may not be the most forceful ones. Richard Rorty has pointed out that “speaking differently” is more important than “arguing well” when it comes to bringing about change.

What kind of stories can produce change?

We need a language and we need stories that show how visions of a better world have become reality, and therefore have provided overpowering hope – not overnight, but slowly and sometimes invisibly and often despite great setbacks.

Can you think of specific stories? Can you give examples of stories that give you hope?

One of my favorite examples is the architect who turned a university in Taipei into an ecological campus; his students are doing the same thing now in different parts of the world. I like the story of London, a city known for its fog which was actually smog. London has effectively reduced emissions from traffic through the introduction of a Congestion Charge Zone and an Ultra Low Emission Zone. I like how restraint and rotational fishing, combined with overfishing of predators, has stimulated the quick recovery of octopus populations.

What is the relationship between innovation and tradition in your concept of “slow hope”?

It certainly helps if we can go back to past realities, to traditions and to practices that were less destructive than our current practices. The “slow food” movement can serve as an example. Going back to local traditions was key to success. But the related business models, marketing and global communication are all new and some of them innovative. History doesn’t repeat itself. Going back does not work. But identifying the strength of traditions and reinventing them can be a powerful force.

What are sources of “slow hope”?

I believe, among many things, that ideas, understandings - or traditions if you will - from the global periphery have a great potential to help us.

Like philosophies that put wellbeing in the centre?

Yes, exactly. Indigenous ideas of Mother Earth (Pachamama) or of living well (Sumak kawsay or buen vivir) put emphasis on social and ecological values rather than on economic ones. I am also thinking of GNH, Gross National Happiness, a counter-concept to the capitalist measure of GDP. This Buddhist-inspired and truly subversive idea calls for happiness instead of material wealth as a measure of wellbeing. I see hope in the fact that a concept that originated in Bhutan some 50 years ago has been adopted by other countries.

What are unlikely alliances that can produce change – and how?

I think some alliances with the more-than-human world can produce change. It may seem obscure, but look at the role of earthworms for instance. They are some of our best allies. Earthworms have over thousands of years created the very basis on which our agriculture and livelihoods rest. Without their labor we would not have enough humus and topsoil. Moreover, earthworms are actors against runoff and flooding because they make the groundwater permeable. If we work with earthworms instead of killing them off with chemical fertilizer, they will be great allies. We need to ecologise and “earth-isize” our thinking.

Who are the actors of change and slow hope within our society?

I would not underestimate the humanities. They are always seen as useless and unproductive. But the humanities in general have given us visions of our potential as humans. Teachers, curators, theater makers, composers, philosophers, novelists, journalists have shown us outlines of better worlds - beyond the dominant worlds of production, consumption and capital accumulation.

Do you see pitfalls in the concept of slow hope?

If we don’t recognise the enormous gap between our visions and goals and the measures that bring about change, we can be easily frustrated. Also, slow could be misunderstood to suggest that there is no urgency. Ecological change may well come slowly, but we must never be slow in working towards change.

Can you finish this sentence: for me this is personal because –

I worry about our increasingly self-destructive world, about the future of my sons and about the prospect of friends in vulnerable parts of the world whose existence is getting more precarious day by day.

CHRISTOF MAUCH is a historian with a strong focus on nature and the environment. He studied philosophy, history, literature, and protestant theology and has taught in Beijing, Edmonton, Kolkata, Vienna, Washington, D.C., and Warsaw. A member of several academic boards and committees, Mauch founded the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society at Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University – one of the largest international research centres for the environmental humanities and social sciences.

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