Is there hope at the end of the world?

#WR2050 11 / June 2022

Author: Valerie Waldow, Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at University of Magdeburg

The Anthropocene invokes a new catastrophic scenario, a narrative of a world in crisis constantly unfolding in which humans lack any capacity to achieve betterment. Although humans have pervaded earth entirely, they lack the means to control this pervasion's effects. Instead, it seems that exactly the set of understandings and practices related to human governance and control were actually the problem itself.

Apparently, the Anthropocene leaves little space for hope. If catastrophe appears as the revelation of what has been considered world progress, it is hope itself which becomes problematic – a suspicious leftover of the future oriented, rationalist and universalising project of modernity, disregarding humans' ambivalent position in the Anthropocene and therefore to be rejected as a reasonable societal disposition.

However, hope not only persists in the Anthropocene, it even takes up a pivotal role in a world that no longer appears to be accessible to us. Hope persists in the imaginative challenge of our time, in the urgent need to think beyond the end of the world. It persists in the affirmation of the Anthropocene as historical opportunity to give up illusionary dreams of development and progress and to radically rethink human-nature relations, agency and politics within entirely new approaches to life and world. If only we begin to embrace the deep entanglements of our current predicament new possibilities will emerge. As soon as we learn to acknowledge our precarious embroilment in the planetary whole, nonhuman actors and relations included, we will be able to set free our speculative imaginations – towards the world itself in its vitalising potentiality.

To persist in the Anthropocene hope has to transform – from a future oriented mode of hoping which negates the present and promulgates a better alternative to radical hope, a stance to something completely indeterminate and currently unimaginable, to maximal openness to new possibilities under increased ontological vulnerability. Hope survives in the critiques of modernity: as embracing of contingency, indeterminacy, insecurity and diversity, as a subversive capacity which is itself intrinsic to life.

This shift signals substantial changes in the notions of transformation and the character of anticipation. By opening up to the present and the world as it is, hope is seen to allow the cultivation of new sensibilities and forms of belonging that may contribute to reconfiguring our world beyond current crisis. However, this view also reflects more general epistemological and ontological shifts informative of existing policy frameworks of adaption, coping and resilience. If there is no other world, no alternative future to build on or hope for, hope becomes an end in itself: a substance of life that needs to be regulated, activated and contained.

Moreover, emphasis on the contingency and instability of things might foster approval of the status quo. Where envisioning of alternatives to existing injustices becomes problematic, hope becomes limited to an immanent re-envisioning of what is. Where the emphasis is not referring on hope to transform the world anymore, but to change our relation to the world as it is, hope is rather affirming the present than providing critique.

The imaginative challenge in the Anthropocene then calls for caution: In which direction do we orient our speculative forces? Is imagination today confined to only the possibility of surviving by adapting to an anticipated loss? Or is a world without the privilege of hope itself a problematic promise? It seems that hope itself needs to be turned into an analytic to understand a predicament that appears as the world’s end.