Environmental expert and author Susan Inches explains the importance of maintaining optimism in the face of a changing climate and shares recommendations for how we can collectively and individually mobilize for change. Credit: Unsplash

Though some people are natural optimists, many of us need to practice optimism in order to make it a habit. This is especially important to do now, during a time where we’re near-constantly confronted with the threat of worsening ecological conditions and a media intent on exploiting our inherent negativity biases. 

The practice of optimism

The key is to remember that optimism, like pessimism, is a choice. You can choose to focus on the future you want. Optimists don’t diminish the magnitude of the problems humanity faces. But they know that in order to solve these problems, they need to believe that change is possible and that people will recognize what needs to be done. There is power in choosing to be optimistic.

We can be active participants in our own thinking by noticing, refuting, and reframing. Optimism practice means recognizing when we feel defeated or deflated by bad news, and finding something more positive to focus on. To practice optimism means to refocus our thoughts over and over, until optimism becomes a habit.

Optimists don’t diminish the magnitude of the problems humanity faces. But they know that in order to solve these problems, they need to believe that change is possible.

It’s true that corporations have emitted toxic gases into the air, causing injury and illness and threatening life on our planet. It’s also true that many communities, like those in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, have spoken out against this and effected change. 

Led by retired teacher-turned-eco justice activist Sharon Lavigne, RISE St. James is a collective of ordinary citizens committed to addressing climate inequities in their region. For their work and impact, Lavigne was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2021. Credit: Gerald Herbert

But what side of the Cancer Alley story would you focus on to move toward positive change? The optimist focuses not on the size and scope of the damage, but on supporting those who speak out and on helping develop and implement solutions.

Standing in the ‘tragic gap’

Author Parker Palmer calls the difference between hard realities and what is possible the “tragic gap”.  On one side of the gap are the hard realities of the world, realities that can crush our spirit and wipe out our hopes. On the other side are the possibilities of a better world that we have seen and felt in our lifetimes. This is the human condition, tragic because it is inescapable.

An effective and optimistic advocate stands in the tragic gap and lets it inform their actions. This requires holding the grief of environmental destruction without becoming cynical or depressed. It means holding a vision of a better future without becoming disconnected from the hard realities.

Optimists use the dangerously warming climate and polluted lands and waters as the impetus to cultivate new ways of stewarding the earth and new ways of doing business. 

Using the negative to power positive action is standing in the gap, and from there, you can cultivate optimism.

That said, optimism is more than just hoping things will get better or focusing on the positive. It’s a reformation of thought that shifts your thinking from a problems-focused mindset to one that is more solutions-based. After you’ve shifted your focus to solutions, you must take steps to make things better.

Taking positive action, even small actions like writing a letter to the editor or emailing your state representative, can change your energy from negative to positive. Joining others in working towards a positive goal generates even more positive energy than working individually.

In the United States alone, there are over 22,000 environmental groups. Most are seeking contributions of time, creativity, and financial support. If you look, you’ll see that opportunities are all around us to engage others and to do the work ourselves. 

The power of community

Communities are another source of optimism. Social science research shows that our sense of community directly impacts our perceptions, our health and our life experience. Studies show that people who feel strongly connected to their community are much more likely to take action on issues that matter. People who participate regularly in community or religious groups are happier, live longer and generally have better health, too.

Communities are a great resource for skill-sharing, power-building and taking collective action. Credit: East Pikeland Township

On the flip side, people who have little sense of community are much more likely to be overwhelmed by issues, and feel there is little they can do to make a difference. 

The issue, then, of our climate crisis may seem particularly overwhelming to any one individual. With other environmental issues, there was always somewhere else you could go, a way out. Not so with climate. It is a threat to our existence and to life on earth as we know it. But, because of its existential nature, the climate crisis can also act as a catalyst for restoring and building strong communities.

For too long we have believed that we could operate as separate individuals, doing our own thing, pursuing only our personal goals.

The climate crisis is changing the way we view our future, shifting us into a more collective focus. It calls us to find ways to connect with others and take collective action. 

Communities consistently accomplish amazing things when they work together. We’ve all heard stories of communities coming together to help families who’ve lost their homes to fires or floods. It’s heartening when a serious illness strikes, and friends and neighbors raise money to pay for the needed medical treatment. 

But the power of communities goes much deeper than fundraising projects. Here are five reasons to join with others to address the climate crisis:

  1. Collective wisdom. No one person has all the answers. The complexity of the climate crisis and its connection with our economy, social justice and system of government goes beyond the wisdom and knowledge of one person. The exchange of knowledge and skills with others is necessary to solve the problems we face. 
  2. Access to resources. Networks of community members can provide materials, services and financial support. In community, the sum is greater than the parts.
  3. Emotional support. When the going gets tough, the support of the group can keep you going.
  4. Motivation and inspiration. When you feel uninspired, there’s nothing like being accountable to others to up your game. 
  5. Vision and optimism. When your group has success, you can envision a positive future, and find the energy to build more success. 

Positive community action is a tonic: it generates positive energy for yourself and helps others to do the same. There are many stories of successful community actions, from building a community garden, to passing a recycling ordinance, to building a community solar or wind farm.  

Reframing your thinking, connecting with others in community, and then taking positive action is the practice of optimism. And if enough of us do this, we will change the world. 

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Susan Inches


Susan Inches

Susan B. Inches is an author, speaker, educator and environmental advocate. Her recently published book Advocating for the Environment, How to Gather Your Power and Take Action is a