According to the Oxford online dictionary, hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” It lists similar words that drift from aspiration and ambition, to plan, to daydream.
The word optimism is not among them.
Interestingly, the definition for optimism begins with hope: “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.”
One can be hopeful, but not optimistic, like being hopeful for world peace, or simply that the vaquita porpoise will survive; but one cannot be optimistic without a combination of both hope and confidence. Certainly, the human condition is full of frailties, but one of our most significant strengths is our ability to envision a future, design it, and make it happen. Hopefulness and optimism are what catalyze that superpower.
As I write this, there is news that makes me feel hopeful: U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the suspension of oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America’s largest terrestrial protected area, at 19.3 million acres. The leases were sold at bargain basement prices in the closing days of the Trump Administration.
There is a cynical way to view this. Are we at such a state in wildlife conservation that this is how we measure success—that one of the world’s premier ecological treasures will not be developed for fossil fuel production? Really?
But the hopeful view is that this is the dying breath of a colossally-bad idea and a triumph in a decades-long struggle against the fossil fuel industry. We are here because people dedicated themselves to protecting this place, and because major oil companies and financial institutions refused to bid. They didn’t bid because they recognize the faulty business case as the world turns away from its reliance on fossil fuels, and because they increasingly understand the public relations folly it embodies.
Saving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has particular significance, because if we are to slow the pace of extinction and biodiversity loss—and note, I say slow and not stop—then we need to protect large and ecologically functional habitats. And this puts the U.S. in a stronger position of global leadership, at a time when world leaders are considering bold actions, like conserving 30 percent of nature by 2030; hopefully, on our way to 50 percent by 2050. Thank you, E.O. Wilson!
And while I am both hopeful and optimistic that we can achieve a 30-by-30 objective, my optimism fades as I think about 50-by-50. That doesn’t mean I will stop working towards the goal—it actually means that I’ll work harder, because it is less likely.
People want to be optimistic and hear optimistic viewpoints. But truth should always be most fashionable, especially in a community that defines itself as a profession. The truth is that we are living amidst the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, and the first that is caused by another species—homo sapiens. There is no hope that we can stop this event, and science is telling us that perhaps a million or more species will be the casualties. Maybe, if we work hard, it will be 750,000, or hopefully, only half-a-million.
Yes, I know, that’s not very optimistic, but it is the truth. And optimism that isn’t grounded in truth, is blind. Our general course is set. Humans are ascendant, and species that cannot live in our ecological shadow are at increasing risk. Many will perish.
Where we can find hope, and optimism, is in protecting large and intact places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in weaving them together into a global network of protected places—a network to save as many species as possible. But that network must be planned, designed, and created. We must use our cognitive superpower to envision it and make it happen.
And that presents another source of hope and optimism: the next generation of conservation scientists. The technological talent that we see in today’s young people is real reason to be optimistic that such designs will emerge and such networks will be created.