The following is the established format for referencing this article:Bender, H., and A. Rawluk. 2023. Adaptive hope: a process for social environmental change. Ecology and Society 28(2):14.
Future threats and ever-present uncertainty have become part of our social ecological reality. We need hope to respond to social ecological change, and our sense of hope must adapt to the changes we experience. Hope is known to contribute to resilience, be important for creating social change, and to instill a belief that better futures are possible. However, there are multiple expressions of hope that could be consolidated for navigating complex social ecological change. We propose adaptive hope as an integrative conceptualization for navigating change and connection in complex social ecological change, through both the short and long term, which can be expressed in multiple ways. We explore the features of adaptive hope using one of the author’s recent experiences of attending the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) as an illustrative example. Finally, we explore the implications and future directions for research and practice that converse with adaptive hope.
Amid social ecological losses, we urgently need to find hope to strive for a better future. In 2022, the UN Secretary-General Guterres described the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report as an “atlas of human suffering”, which captures the injustices and increasing vulnerabilities in our societies that are expected to unfold with the long emergency of climate change. Covid-19, drought, ongoing colonialism, environmental injustice, and racism, along with events such as recent bushfires around the world remind us of the constant uncertainty we face. We will need to be adaptable to live through current and future challenges. Hope is one aspect of remaining adaptable in response to the challenges of uncertain social ecological futures (Ojala 2012a) to enable constructive responses.
Multiple expressions of hope are discussed in the academic literature that have relevance to the social ecological complexity we are facing. How these expressions of hope are organized, however, vary. One approach to organizing the multiple expressions of hope is with three broad distinct spheres: particularized, generalized, and transformative expressions of hope (O’Hara 2014). Particularized expressions of hope focus on a specific goal or problem (Ojala 2012b), like mitigating or adapting to climate change, while holding a positive expectation and a feeling state about the future (Ojala 2017). Particularized hope “is effective when logic, and personal agency and control are viable, however provides little support when logic provides no answers, and we have no control over events and circumstances” (O’Hara 2014:6). Hope can also be generalized, centering on a less tangible goal for good at different scales (Havel 2014), such as flourishing, or living sustainably (Williston 2012). Consequently, generalized hope is likely to be best applied when a path forward is unclear. Transformative hope, on the other hand, emerges when generalized and particularized hope are synthesized, most commonly during a crisis of being, such as when an individual questions the meaning of their life (O’Hara 2014), for example, during a pandemic. It is through critical reflection that O’Hara (2014) suggested that transformative hope enables a personal change of worldview that results in contentment regardless of the outcomes. These multiple expressions of hope can each contribute to constructive responses to social ecological challenges.
A second discussion of hope is focused on how people enact hope. For example, hope that results in individuals being passive has been called passive hope, although hope that results in individuals being active has been labeled active hope (Govier 2011). Jacoby (2003) suggested that active hope includes both physical and mental activity, although others like Orr (2011:324) implied that the action must be visible, defining “hope [as] a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” De Graaf (2016:604) went further, suggesting active hope is a “temporal orientation of intentional and ethical action.” Hope that is active encompasses (1) visioning (Macy and Johnstone 2012), (2) expectations of outcomes (Govier 2011), (3) emotions (Fu et al. 2018), and (4) enacting (Boddy et al. 2021). In visioning for hope, there is a process that involves facing reality, recognizing obstacles and opportunities, relationships, and the other supports available (Snyder 2000, Orr 2011, Macy and Johnstone 2012). Visioning also involves, articulating a future amid uncertainty (Osika 2019), thinking about goals (Snyder 2000), intentions or values (Macy and Johnstone 2012), assessing a person’s abilities and agency, and identifying pathways to achieve the goals (Snyder 2000, Macy and Johnstone 2012) as well as ways to act (Osika 2019). Snyder (2000) assumed that human actions are goal directed and hope is active when an individual can perceive pathways to achieve goals as well as to conceive the possibility of agency to act on them. Fridays for the future and Gretta Thunberg’s school climate strikes are clear examples of active hope in response to social ecological system (SES) change. Taken together, active hope is an expression of hope that is likely to be visible to an external observer, and for some authors, active hope is the only expression of “authentic” hope (Andersson 2016).
In contrast, some literature casts a derogatory tone over passive hope that suggests it is equivalent to a “false” hope (Jacoby 2003, Osika 2019). Passive hope is often associated with periods of inactivity (Bright 2011, Govier 2011, Musschenga 2019), a lack of agency (Andersson 2016, Lybbert and Wydick 2018, Musschenga 2019) or motivation (Miceli and Castelfranchi 2010), fantasizing without a plan to realize the imagined outcome (Miceli and Castelfranchi 2010), “a temporal structure of unreflective being-in-the-world” (de Graaf 2016:604), and a reliance on others, whether individuals (Nalkur 2009), groups (Macy and Johnstone 2012, Yunkaporta 2019), or some form of spiritual intervention (Jacoby 2003). Passive hope is also described as patiently waiting for things to become better (Lybbert and Wydick 2018) or harm-avoidance (Fu et al. 2018). However, passive hope has been documented to occur when individuals or groups are unable to progress their goals toward a hope they hold, for example, if pathways toward a goal are unclear or blocked (McGeer 2004, Miceli and Castelfranci 2010). Blockage of pathways may lead to waiting for organizational or societal structures to change (Andersson 2016), which again relies on external processes or people. Andersson (2016:11) described passive waiting as a skill that can assist in enduring a crisis and recognizes that even passive hope “may serve as an internal help for an individual to endure a crisis that would at other times be psychologically overwhelming”. Miceli and Castelfranchi (2010) suggested that the skill in passive hope lies in maintaining readiness and recognizing favorable conditions to act. Solnit (2021) pointed out that patience counts because change is not linear, it is the indirect consequences that can be most important.
Furthermore, the SES literature demonstrates how patience (Measham et al. 2009, Frietag et al. 2014) and harm-avoidance (Soininen et al. 2019) are necessary and valued responses to critical change and remediation in SES. Similarly, imagination without a plan is valued in the form of scenario planning (Moore et al. 2014) in the transformation of SES. Moreover, reduced motivation and a reliance on others may simply be an equivalent to the conservation stage in the adaptive cycle (Westley et al. 2013) and should not mean that this gentler expression of hope, which is labeled as passive hope, is any less authentic. In short, passive hope may reflect an adaptive response as an individual or group to a reduced sense of agency (Browne 2006), an inability to act at that time (Bright 2011), or perhaps other factors. Accepting that passive hope may be a response to obstacles, may result in support toward preparing and planning for the conditions that will permit other expressions of hope, rather than a time to berate individuals or groups for their lack of visible action. When pathways are clear and traction to create change is possible, then a more active and more visible expression of hope may be appropriate. Passive hope might be most appropriate when rest, reflection, reassessing, and regrouping are required with a view to the longer-term. The existence of active and passive hope demonstrates the dynamic and adaptive nature of hope in response to changes in context. Whether an individual or group holds passive or active hope may not inhibit them from also experiencing generalized, particularized, or transformative hope, because they could manifest these expressions of hope in a passive or active form. Recognizing the breadth of hope expressions could support exploring how people can respond to social ecological change that requires hope, especially where mobilization of action is needed.
Expressions of hope can also be based on how many people are involved (individual or collective). Studies of individual and group expressions of hope have produced the clearest evidence for the benefits of hope. For example, individual hope has been investigated as a source of motivation (Snyder 2000), as an internal resource to cope with uncertainty, vulnerability, and suffering (de Graaf 2016) as well as a tool to manage stress, anxiety, and depression (Jacoby 2003). Nalkur (2009) found that hope assists to build resilience, enables response to disturbance, and can instill a belief that a different and better future is possible (Miceli and Castelfranchi 2010). Lueck (2007), Andersson (2016), and Strazds (2019) described how individual hope can be merged into collective hope with benefits such as a greater possibility of success in creating social change, building cooperation, trust, learning, and motivation. Ojala (2012a) noted that trust and connection with others is critical to supporting hope and that collective involvement is necessary to address the wicked problems of our times. Attention to group power dynamics is important (Lueck 2007). If members of a group consistently feel they have limited power over decisions pertaining to their own resources, environment, and future, the sense of agency within a group is low (Aubin et al. 2016). When agency is low, then both individuals (Cohen-Chen et al. 2017) and collectives (Aubin et al. 2016) feel more hopelessness and have a lower intention to pursue action to change the situation. These individual and collective expressions of hope align with the focus on individuals and social networks in responding to complex social ecological change.
A conceptualization of hope for responding to social ecological change needs to align with assumptions of SES thinking. For example, first, SES are dynamic and changing over time (Walker and Salt 2006). Second, we cannot necessarily know what is coming in the future of our SES and as such live with uncertainty (Biggs et al. 2015). This uncertainty can be due to external shocks and internal system changes (Gunderson and Holling 2002), interactions between system components (Holland 1999), societal values (Biggs et al. 2015), and/or institutional settings (Nuno et al. 2014). A third assumption is the nested nature of systems that interconnect and provide feedback across spatial scales (Chaffin and Gunderson 2016) and across time (Rawluk et al. 2020). Fourth, learning and critical reflection are essential parts of the governance and adaptive comanagement of SES that require careful attention to who is learning, the linkages among learners, and conflict and power imbalances in the social context (Armitage et al. 2008).
We propose adaptive hope as a concept and practice for negotiating social ecological change. We build a case for integrating multiple expressions of hope and propose adaptive hope as a dynamic and integrative concept for navigating complexity and uncertainty in SES. We explore the features of adaptive hope and suggest future directions for research. We use one of the author’s recent experiences of attending the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) as an illustrative example of adaptive hope. We first give a brief description of our example, and then we outline the key features of adaptive hope and how these features were evident in the illustrative example. While discussing these key features, we explore some implications and future directions.
ILLUSTRATING ADAPTIVE HOPE: AN EXAMPLE FROM A DEVELOPMENT IN VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA
In 2021, a group of residents from the Merri-bek local government area (LGA), in the Northwest of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, joined together to protest two “high-rise” developments (9-11 storeys) located to the west of and in the middle of the Brunswick Central Parklands (in Merri-bek LGA; see Fig. 1). One of the residents is an author of this paper. The parklands are currently surrounded by predominantly one-storey houses, one- or two-storey industrial buildings, a three-storey pub, and a newer housing development of five storeys that appears to be four storeys from the street and parks because of the extensive setbacks. The impacts to the local natural parks located to the north (Clifton Park) and south (Gilpin Park) of the proposed developments in Brunswick, Victoria, were key issues that galvanized the locals together.
The Merri-bek LGA Council rejected both development proposals, however, the developers took their cases to the VCAT to see if they could get a different decision. The VCAT has the power to decide in favor of the developer, overturning decisions made by a local council. It may reject the developer’s proposal outright, or it might take a compromise position, requiring a range of modifications that permits the development to go ahead in an altered form. The VCAT has a reputation for favoring developers (Dowling 2015), suggesting that the resident group had a reduced chance of success.
Nonetheless, members of the resident group submitted objections to VCAT. The resident group discussed the reality of their chances. They recognized that their probability was low, given the size and reputation of the developers. However, the unanimous rejection of the applications by the Merri-bek LGA Council, and the groundswell of 1400 residents who expressed concern to the Merri-bek LGA Council, meant that the council felt compelled to hire two legal representatives with strong reputations to represent them at VCAT. Furthermore, it seemed possible to curb the buildings’ height, limiting their impact on the parkland, as a precedent had been set on an adjacent block where another apartment block had been restricted to a height of five storeys. Documentation showed that the local council had argued for a maximum of five storeys, which reflected the community’s desires. It had also expressed dissatisfaction with the expert panel’s recommendation of eight storeys by passing-in the investigation to rezone. However, the State Planning Minister’s personal involvement resurrected the rezoning and planning overlay resulting in an eight-storey discretionary height limit, and this weighed heavily on the resident group members. The 1400 residents contributed to hiring a planning advocate to represent them at each VCAT hearing, thereby placing their hopes in the efficacy of another person who had had success in the past. The VCAT case is an example of place-based environmental change that stimulated hopes around protecting the environment and minimizing impacts on climate change. It is this story of fighting for these parks that we will use to illustrate adaptive hope.
ADAPTIVE HOPE: FEATURES AND ILLUSTRATION
We propose “adaptive hope” as a process for navigating social ecological change. In this conceptualization, hope is an integrated and flexible process that is both adaptable to different social ecological challenges and system states as well as enabling people to adapt to change. We draw upon the different conversations of hope to show how adaptive hope has the following features that align with the assumptions that underpin SES:
- Navigating uncertainty.
- Engaging across scales.
- Embodying multiple coexisting expressions of hope.
- Embracing critical reflection.
In the subsections that follow, we outline the four features of adaptive hope and provide illustrations with how residents expressed each of the features.
Feature 1: navigating uncertainty
Uncertainty is central to social ecological systems and will underpin many circumstances needing adaptive hope. When there is certainty that something will occur, there is a less acute need for hope (Miceli and Castelfranchi 2010). Similarly, when the uncertainty or the certainty becomes too great, hope can become untenable (Snyder 2000). Ojala (2012b) reinforced that there is no need to act when there is no hope. In such, the existence and extent of hope is predicated by both the presence and extent of uncertainty. In a medical context, Levy et al. (2019) observed patients’ level of hope to be lower when the uncertainty was very high, with adverse outcomes such as anxiety, depression, diminished quality of life, and reduced self-efficacy. Whereas, when patients were able to find “a state of certainty, within the uncertainty” of disease and its treatment, then they were able to find both respite and hope (Levy et al. 2019:1850). Similarly, Saricam et al. (2020) showed that parents of children who had a disability were less sensitive to uncertainty because they had higher levels of hope. However, Balen and Merluzzi (2021) found that perceptions of uncertainty differ between individuals and in different situations affecting their emotional state. Patients who perceived uncertainty to be particularly high associated this uncertainty with negative emotions like excessive worry and distress, which led to poor cognitive outcomes like low appraisals of both self-control and problem-focused coping as well as an exaggeration of the intensity of the uncertainty (Balen and Merluzzi 2021). This suggests that there is a relationship between the extent of uncertainty and the extent of hope, and that the uncertainty is likely to vary over time and affect the hope experienced. In adaptive hope, we acknowledge that uncertainty is contextually foundational, and people will seek a balance within the extent of uncertainty.
Both uncertainty and hope affect peoples’ emotional lives. Hope within individuals is associated with many emotions from positive (Govier 2011) to negative, such as “ a pharmakon - a poisonous substance that can have a therapeutic effect depending on the dose, the circumstances, or context” (Kirksey 2014:299). An individual’s emotions related to hope might change over time given the contexts. With people experiencing cancer, Peh et al. (2016) suggested that supportive interventions that facilitate goal setting can limit the experience of anxiety and depression. Interventions include facilitating and generating contingency plans, building mastery and motivation by reappraising obstacles as challenges instead of threats, and praising progressive successful attainment of goals. Strategies can be developed for framing uncertainty and overwhelming challenges that might shift negative emotions in a way that can make space for hope (Solnit 2016), which Zournazi (2003) suggested can be empowering for people to create change.
Illustration: how the residents navigated uncertainty
The residents protesting the development navigated uncertainty in multiple ways that resulted in the extent of hope they experienced being raised and lowered. First, there was uncertainty about which VCAT members would be assigned to hear the case. Once the members’ names were known, the resident group sought out further information about the members’ reputations to assess whether they might decide in the group’s favor. One online source indicated that one of the panel members had decided in favor of developers 59% of the time (Favre [date unknown]) leaving a 41% chance for the group to convince the member to decide against the developments as proposed. This uncertainty made space for hope of a greater extent and empowered the members of the group.
Second, during the VCAT hearing, the group observed their emotions and their extent of hope to vary with the ambiguity of information presented. For example, when poor evidence presented by the developer’s expert witnesses was rebutted, and the probabilities seemed more in the resident group’s favor, the resident group had a more positive emotional tone connected to their general hope of protecting the parkland and their particular hope of obtaining a lower building height. Whereas, when the tribunal members commented that the objector’s presentations, which included peer reviewed sources, would not be considered as evidence, then the emotional tone associated with hope became much more negative. Despite these highs and lows, the group remained uncertain about how the tribunal members would balance the mixed quality of data presented when they made their final decision. In the group’s experience, uncertainty offered motivation and presented an obstacle to action.
Feature 2: engaging across scales
Social ecological systems can operate across multiple spatial and temporal scales, including micro, meso, and mega scales (Bender and Judith 2015). In such, hope can act at both the scale of the individual and the collective suggesting that adaptive hope can be enacted across scales.
Much of the scholarship on hope is at the scale of the individual and regards hope as an attitude (Snyder 2000), an attribute (Nalkur 2009), or an innate personality trait (Snyder et al. 1991), but hope is also described as a skill that can be learned (Macy and Johnstone 2012), suggesting that hope can operate at both the individual scale and at greater scales like collectives and societies. Andersson (2016) found that when working as an individual on a social issue, the primary reasons given for hope are personal resources such as willpower, interest in an issue, or the time commitment to get involved, which may affect and be affected by past experience and agency. Therefore, the extent of hope that may be generated as an individual is limited because the agency and pathways for hope may only be generated internally (Osika 2019).
Many of the SES challenges we face now, including climate change, cannot be solved by individuals acting alone and subsequently, hope needs to support the collective. Ojala (2012a) suggested that trusting in other actors is an expression of hope and a motivational force that is part of the necessary collective response needed to address climate change. Furthermore, Strazds (2019) argued that it is through collective action that our hope is sustained. Hope that is collective builds and expands upon the conceptualization of hope of the individual, because it must negotiate the multiplicity of individuals’ agency or power, different goals and expressions of hope, along with outside forces and societal structures. Individuals that join a collective must first decide if the “shared” goal is: (1) what they desire, (2) possible, and (3) if their contribution will be worthwhile to the collective process (Braithwaite 2004). If they agree, then individual hopes can be transformed into group hopes, and the possibility of success in achieving their collective goal is increased (Lueck 2007).
At the scale of the collective, hope can increase the likelihood of success in reaching a goal for several reasons. It can bring together the different ideas and insights of many people to visualize the goal, any potential obstacles, and pathways as well as to make more flexible plans for obtaining the goal. It can also integrate the many different individual’s cognitive processes along with a strategic and anticipatory practice (Ojala 2017). Furthermore, the individuals that join groups increase their sense of collective efficacy because not only is one’s own capacity, personal resources, and pathways available and activated, but also the groups’ capacity (collective efficacy; Andersson 2016, Osika 2019), so there is likely to be an increase in the potential for the extent of hope and the scale of engagement (Ojala 2012a). It is not surprising then, that “...when collective hope is high, cooperation is high... collective hope is a stimulus for social change... [and] the vehicle for communicating empowerment and closing the structure/agency divide” (Lueck 2007:252, 253, 259). Moreover, communities of hope “make possible more complicated modes of action while contributing to the realization of new hope” because they are resourceful and courageous (Shade 2006:200). However, even with this increased sense of capability, the sense of agency and hope may vary among members of the collective (Andersson 2016), with different members of the collective in varied states at the same time, such that individuals and communities may hold different expressions of hope in sequence or simultaneously with the different members of the community making links across scales. Most exciting is that hope is not limited to the individual within the group or the group itself. Kia and Ricketts (2018) found that forming a collective can spread hope to outside individuals, increasing the group’s power, which in turn can increase the hope for the desired outcome, becoming a renewable resource for social change and acting as a positive feedback loop (Lueck 2007). Social movements are an example of a collective that creates the possibilities for change and brings together all required elements, which would not have occurred without hope for the specific outcome. Hope can operate and amplify across the different scales of individuals and communities within SES.
It is likely that adaptive hope is affected by cross-scale interactions and properties, as hope appears to be nested across social scales. Individuals can hold various expressions of hope, and collectives can contain and express broader and different types of hope, with the connections between the individuals in collectives being particularly important for cultivating hope. Adaptive hope describes the dynamic nature of hope, and its multiple expressions that are context specific, continuously changing, iterative and distinctive, much like SES, where each moment in time and space is unique (Rawluk et al. 2020). So too will be the expression of adaptive hope. Aligning these multiple expressions of hope with responses or scenario plans could prove useful in managing SES and planning for sustainability actions.
Illustration: how the residents engaged across scales
When one of the authors received an anonymous flyer in their mailbox pleading that an objection be lodged with Merri-bek LGA against the proposed developments beside the parkland, the action and the concerns were of an individual who held a specific hope that Merri-bek LGA would reject the proposal. When a group began organizing, the hope started to shift to that of collective hopes. During this process, the forms of hope became multiple, both generalized and particularized. The more generalized hope was whether something good could be achieved for the parks. Simultaneously, more particular hopes related to height were discussed, as they ranged from two to six storeys. Additionally, there were hopes about finding commonality among the group members for what they hoped to achieve, and whether these goals would align with the goals held by the individuals who were joining the group. It was very motivating to discover how aligned the group was in their desired outcomes to protect the birds, trees and green spaces from shadows, and many more visitors. This did not mean there were no differences; motivations for protecting the parks ranged from protecting existential values to wanting to maintain an enjoyable space to walk dogs. Finding commonality was sufficient to buoy the general and particular aspects of adaptive hope.
Feature 3: embodying multiple coexisting expressions of hope
Multiple, dynamic SES states can be observed over time (Gunderson and Holling 2002) and across scales (Chaffin and Gunderson 2016). Similarly, different expressions of hope can occur through time. In a study of street youth, adolescents expressed hope in unique ways that changed over time (Nalkur 2009). For example, those living on the street held generalized hopes such as having a good life and happy future when they grew up. However, when those same youth were no longer living on the street, and were attending school, their hopes changed to be more particular hopes, such as passing the national exams. Different expressions of hope are not mutually exclusive so that people can respond constructively and creatively at different times (Musschenga 2019). Hope is dynamic with different expressions occurring in sequence over time in response to changes in context.
Different expressions of hope can also coexist at the same time. Fu et al. (2018) documented generalized hope in combination with passive hope as well as particularized hope with active hope in the carers of cancer patients. In their study, there was a high level of uncertainty about “the results” of the treatment that was associated with both generalized and passive expressions of hope. Those who cared for patients held a generalized hope that was focused on avoiding death, although their passive expression of hope placed agency in others, like the doctors, to assist them. Though, as the focus shifted to the process of treatment, the hopes of the carers changed to being particular and active. Their hopes were to prolong survival and to expand the possibility of a cure with active efforts to care for diet and daily life, including efforts to “control the disease”. There is a future opportunity to further reflect on why an individual or group’s hope might take a specific expression (passive or active, particularized or generalized) and what circumstances or actions might change their expression of hope. Building skills in recognizing the expression of hope that is occurring and reflecting on whether it is an appropriate expression given the context, could arm individuals and groups to think reflectively and critically about their hope.
Just as in SES, where each moment in time and space is unique (Rawluk et al. 2020), so too, we propose, will be the expression of adaptive hope. We suggest that adaptive hope for SES change will be iterative and continuously changing. This conceptualization builds on Macy and Johnstone (2012) who emphasized the four stages of the work that reconnects spiral: (1) coming from gratitude, (2) honoring our pain from the world, (3) seeing with new eyes, and (4) going forth, which facilitates active hope. As well, it engages Raynor (2021:4) and the development of hope as emergent: “forms of hope [as] not distinct, fixed or complete, but overlapped, emergent.” Hence, adaptive hope is conceptualized as holding space for multiple coexisting expressions of hope while responding to social ecological change.
Adaptive hope recognizes that at times, such as through contemporary challenges of ongoing colonization and reconciliation (Cecco 2021a), pandemic (McMahon 2021), catastrophic flooding (Daniels 2021), and fires in different continents (Ward et al. 2020, Cecco 2021b, Mier and Becatoros 2021), we will need to respond to present crises with active hope and follow paths of activism to create a better future (Hernández et al. 2020, Kanngeiser and Todd 2020). At other times, our hope may be more passive such as when we gently care for ourselves, for example, by reflecting on what is important in our lives and communities (Rawluk et al. 2019) and resting. In adaptive hope, we may focus on ourselves as an individual, and other times be community centered, for example, during the Covid-19 crisis many of us found that we needed to care for our own mental health and safety and connect with community to support each other.
Illustration: how the residents demonstrated multiple expressions of hope
The protestors who attended VCAT held a generalized hope of protecting the local parkland for the long term, while holding a particular hope that they would be able to protect the parkland from overshadowing. The highs and lows of hope that occurred during the VCAT hearing meant that the timescale over which the hope was directed often shifted, as did how active or passive the different objectors were in the process. During the first two days of the hearing, the hope was longer term. The VCAT attendees were focused on achieving the collectives stated particular hope of a maximum of four storeys by the end of the hearing. This was buoyed by the presentations given by the LGA lawyer, and the LGA’s expert witness, who supported many of the arguments that the objectors were to later put in their submissions. In the later days of the hearing, however, when the objectors were deep in cross-examining the six expert witnesses hired by the developer, the hope was both particular and generalized but shifted to a much shorter time frame, to the next lot of questions, which were just minutes away. With the shorter time frame came very specific goals, i.e., to expose the poor logic and evidence of the expert who was up for cross-examination in relation to the building height and its impacts on the parkland.
Feature 4: embracing critical reflection
Being adaptive to SES change involves reflexivity (Patterson et al. 2017), which is likely to be essential to adaptive hope. Critical reflection, as described by Mezirow (1990) for adult learning, involves a critique of the presuppositions on which our beliefs are built. It differs from reflection, which is focused on the “how” or “why” of what we have perceived, thought, felt, or acted, and does not consider “how best” to engage in these functions (Mezirow 1990). For Orr (2011) and Evans (2015), critical reflection on the reality of the daunting problems before us, the truth about ourselves, and the uncertainty about the outcomes of our struggles for a better world, was essential. Sinclair et al. (2017:2), however, noted that it is important to recognize the “difference and diversity in interpretations of reality (a social constructivist lens), and critical reflection on foundational assumptions and structures of power that shape constructions of reality (a critical theoretic lens).” Furthermore, Sinclair et al. (2017) made clear that it is insufficient to critically reflect on reality alone, we must also question power dynamics and hegemonic assumptions, because they often remain hidden (Brookfield 2009). Some expressions of hope explicitly involve critical questioning of underlying assumptions, including the power dynamics that frame practice and hegemonic assumptions (Strazds 2019) because of a sense of something missing (Webb 2013), or to challenge dominant oppressive systems (Strazds 2019). Hope and despair are often paired in the literature as binary opposites; when despair is present, hope is absent and vice versa (Jacoby 2003, Williston 2012, Balen and Merluzzi 2021, Boddy et al. 2021). However, Cornish (2021:295) in her examination of the Grenfell Towers disaster in London, UK, documented that “catastrophic loss and destruction are not separate to caring, hopeful projects, but co-present and are implicated in creative caring efforts.” Her work suggested that grief and despair may be pathways that can lead to hope, rather than being mutually exclusive. It is by facing our multiple realities that we question how and why we are facing a range of social and ecological challenges, which can lead to questioning how best we might take action to reach a better place and assist to build hope.
Pathways are an important part of enabling adaptive hope that may be generated through critical reflection. Pathways support individuals and collectives to work toward creating hope (Nalkur 2009, Ojala 2016). Navigating how to foster hope can be undertaken through pathway identification. Identifying pathways was frequently linked with identifying obstacles (specific, contextual, or random), that may be ahead (Lueck 2007). Pathway identification is one step in the process of creating hope acknowledged by both Snyder (2000) as well as Macy and Johnstone (2012). There is an opportunity to examine how scenario planning and visioning, which are often used in SES resilience research (Oteros-Rozas et al. 2015, Thorn et al. 2020), can navigate obstacles for the future and foster hope in SES and sustainability challenges. Furthermore, considering pathways as part of the process of practicing or maintaining hope could be useful for managing SES change. Further learnings could be gained from the existing sustainability movements based in different pedagogies of hope that offer alternative pathways (Strazds 2019).
Critical reflection is a basis of the “adaptive” part of adaptive hope; it allows us to learn, change, and respond differently. According to Strazds (2019), hope that embraces critical reflection “creates a cycle of creation - as we take action, our capacity builds, we learn from our practice, and we are able to produce more action.” She went on to assert that this cyclical learning process within social movements can foster learning both inside and outside the movements and can be considered “pockets of hope.” Finally, she offered a caution, that hope as a pedagogy will not be applicable in every context because hope looks and behaves differently across cultures. This suggests that it will be necessary to question our presumptions about hope and its formation as part of the learning process in more actively bringing hope into our thinking about SES change.
Enacting adaptive hope will involve being able to critically consider what forms and practices of hope need to be drawn on, how, and when, as we encounter different social ecological challenges. We suggest that social ecological conscientization (Ferreira 2017) can serve to support having an awareness of the SES and challenge, to consider pathways to get to a different future. Adaptive doing (Rawluk et al. 2020), a process that focuses on practice as an entry point to knowing and that brings together multiple perspectives to build a shared understanding of a SES, can serve as a support for adaptive hope.
Illustration: how residents embraced critical reflection
The VCAT tribunal members have made the decision that the 11-storey towers are acceptable with minor modifications, dashing the hopes of the objectors for a reduced sized building. Some members immediately wanted to fight on, reaching out through their network to determine how they might challenge the decision or make it difficult for the developers. Some contacted the LGA to establish that the group wants to and will monitor the strict implementation of all the conditions of the building permit. Other members have withdrawn feeling there is no point in persisting. Some have refocused at a different scale, realizing that the planning scheme at the state and local levels are a reason for this outcome. The pathway became blocked and through critical reflection the objectors’ goal changed. Now a sub-group’s goal is to challenge the broader planning system that has permitted these towers to be built in the middle of limited parkland. This sub-group has connected with another collective working on heritage, which includes preserving parklands, to try and effect this change.
Our research serves as a starting point for conversations that need to evolve in SES, expanding both the discussion and empirical analysis of hope for complex social ecological challenges. These conversations will involve critical reflexivity (Sinclair et al. 2017) on the conceptualizations of hope, including shifting the common expectation that there is only one type of hope. To enact adaptive hope, there is work to be done to empirically explore each of the features in practice as well as the skills for enacting it.
Adaptive hope suggests there is no single recipe for cultivating hope. The process of building hope is likely to differ for each individual, collective, and context. There is an opportunity for individuals and communities to develop a shared understanding of the context and to seek ways of working together to build practices of hope. Social ecological changes, such as climate change, are part of a long game that requires multiple responses and multiple expressions of hope. As we embark on an era of navigating increasing change and uncertainty in social ecological systems, we will encounter diverse challenges. Such challenges can lead us to experience despair, helplessness, and isolation. It is our aspiration that we instead draw on knowledges and creativity for individually and collectively developing and maintaining an adaptive hope for dynamic futures.
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Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.
The authors of this paper appear in alphabetic order, although we have contributed equally to the design and implementation of the research and to the analysis and writing of the manuscript.
We acknowledge our colleague Prof. Kathryn Williams who inspired us to explore hope more deeply in the design of an undergraduate subject, which prompted our manuscript. We are fortunate to live and work on Wurundjeri Country and acknowledge that it is unceded. We thank the University of Melbourne for providing a context in which we can explore and develop fruitful ideas. We express gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers who offered extensive constructive feedback with great patience.
Data used in this manuscript is published literature. There is no relevant code archive.
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