Hopeless Optimism

 As a new year dawns, I wonder how hopeful we all feel about the future….


A constrained Christmas has saddened us, the chaos and confusion around Brexit continues, the UK Covid death toll has accelerated past 100,00 but the vaccine programme is underway. There are some very happy 80 year olds around town!



But I’m afraid I don’t hold out much hope for our future on this beautiful planet.  When Prince William said that ‘We should leave the world in a better condition than we found it,’ he was being hopelessly optimistic. There is absolutely no way that, when I die, I will be leaving the world in anything like as good a condition as I found it.


Talking to a group of coppicers in November, I was asked whether I felt hopeful and had to admit that I don’t. Mankind has set in train a series of vast ‘positive feedback loops’ which are beyond the scope of technology to reverse in the course of this century. 


The frightening bush and forest fires in California and Australia, caused by rising temperatures, simply put immense tonnages of CO2 into the atmosphere making those fires even more likely with every passing year.


The rapid melting of the polar ice cap means that far fewer of the sun’s rays are reflected; instead they are readily absorbed by the deep blue arctic ocean which warms far faster and causes even more ice to melt. Temperatures in the Arctic have already risen by 6 degrees.


This rise is in turn fuelling vast fires in Siberia, where temperatures in summer this year were 10 degrees above average, melting the permafrost and releasing vast quantities of methane. At 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas for twenty years this makes the fires and the melt expand further and further.


None of these positive feedback loops will begin to be reversed until we reach carbon zero in 2050 and then start removing some of the 30 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere every year. It will take more than a few thousand trees to do that.


Sadly, I am not the only one losing hope. A survey conducted by Yale-NUS college found that 92% of those surveyed had a negative view of the future. One woman said, ‘I can’t in good conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try to survive in what might be apocalyptic conditions.’ Another said, ‘I regret having my kids because I am terrified that they will be facing the end of the world due to climate change.’


These are heart-rending sentiments. But there is a paradox: for all my lack of hope, I am still optimistic. These immense disasters are man-made and man is beginning to take steps to avert the catastrophe. The Reith lectures by Mark Carney demonstrated how the financial world has begun to take note, shifting its investments into more sustainable businesses and devising ways of promoting ecological responsibility in the ways markets work.


The outcome of the US elections is a game-changer and China’s decision to become carbon neutral by 2060 is momentous.  Agreed, they are still investing massively in coal in order to produce all the consumer goods the western world wants at the prices we want to pay, but they are world leaders in clean energy technology manufacture, and one benefit of a dictatorship is that change doesn’t get slowed down by democracy!


At home, our Prime Minister has just budgeted £14bn to fund his ten point plan, and while that is dwarfed by the £43bn being spent to cut journey times from London to Birmingham by 20 minutes, it is a very welcome beginning. The radical new Agriculture Bill also gives hope that we can begin to transform unsustainable farming practices, and maybe even Europe will follow!


So there is a little room for optimism in 2021, even for the hopeless!