Optimism, Pessimism & Hope: Personal responses to the professional challenges of sustainability

Optimism, Pessimism & Hope: Personal responses to the professional challenges of sustainability presents the results of our survey of nearly 800 people working on environmental sustainability, social justice and related issues.

Over half believed things will get much worse for people and planet with little prospect of improvement within their lifetime; forty percent said a transition to a sustainable and just world is likely, but that this will involve major disruption and hardship.

Where does this leave us?

Hopes and fears

For the majority of people in the survey, social justice and environmental issues form a significant part of their personal and professional lives. Most people were deeply concerned about these and sought to live their lives in ways that would create positive change in our social and environmental situation.


About one third of people agreed that a transition to an environmentally sustainable and socially just world was possible within their lifetime. The majority however, felt that this was unlikely. Major disruption to our present way of life was seen as inevitable, regardless of the scale and rate of change.

Lacking power to engage political and public bodies was seen as a major root of pessimism. Pessimism itself was seen as part of a vicious circle, in which denial of our social and environmental situation becomes a way of coping with it.

Optimism was largely based on hope for radical social and psychological change. In general pessimism fostered deeper denial while optimism led to hope about the future. Most people described optimism and pessimism co-existing and described a wide variety of ways to hold this paradox in themselves.

Working together, having hope for future generations and being committed to making things better were all strong narrative themes. Keeping perspective and working on different scales (for example, local, regional and national) were referred to as important. Acting from present moment awareness was also a recurrent theme. Openness to feelings and emotions and being able to express them were both evident in the thematic and in the language many respondents used in their commentary generally.

There was a feeling that the public at large were in denial about social justice and environmental issues. However, this was also seen as a way for people to cope effectively with fear, allowing them to continue to function in their daily lives. Economic and financial concerns were regarded as significant in reducing public willingness to act.

Cultural barriers to change, especially the unquestioned focus on economic growth, were seen as very significant. Respondents suggested that courage and leadership was essential from those in situations of agency. Large-scale cultural change was seen as more important than personal change and as a way of facilitating greater change at a personal level.

A change in worldview was recognised across the narrative as essential. The media’s role was seen as important in the generation and maintenance of world views.


There was an approximate balance between people who thought they suffered from burn-out and those that did not. About a quarter of respondents were neutral. This suggests that around 200 of the people surveyed felt they were suffering from burn-out.

To what extent do you agree with the statement ‘I am suffering from burn out?’

To what extent do you agree with the statement ‘I am suffering from burn out?’
In some cases, burnout resulted in people disengaging from the social justice and environmental movements. In others it led to internal conflicts filled with doubt and guilt. Recovering from burnout was achieved in a diversity of ways.

Sharing and caring

There was an exact split between people who shared their fears quite openly with others and those that chose to do so only in situations that felt ‘safe’. For example, where others would sympathise with their fears.


Some people felt it was important to share feelings publicly, while others thought it was better to keep a public face of optimism. There was conflict about choosing to share feeling or not and in which contexts to do so. There was also conflict about self-care being neglected in favour of caring for others.

Where do we go from here?

We haven’t analysed the official public narratives of relevant international agencies, governments and NGOs, however our impression is that while they highlight the challenges of climate change etc, they imply these can be overcome, and that the transition will be smooth and painless.

If this impression is correct, it stands in direct contrast to the majority view in this survey — that major disruption is inevitable. If the views of survey participants are typical, it suggests that the official views of many organisations may be radically different from the views of the people working on these issues — and perhaps even for these very organisations.

This, in tandem with the other points above, raises a number of related questions:

  • What are the implications for people working on these issues when their personal views may be very different from those of the organisations (perhaps their employers) with responsibility for addressing them?
  • How can they find the right balance between being honest about their fears for the future and conveying positive and motivating messages to the organisations and communities they work with?
  • If denial of the implications of our situation is both a coping strategy and holds back the chance of addressing it effectively, how do we move forward?
  • How can people working and campaigning on these issues best look after themselves and support each other?

In response to the findings of this survey, we’ve decided to host a retreat in April 2015 to provide a space to explore how we can live and work with the burden of what we know about the state of the world: Tending the Flame.

Update 12 April 2016: Sadly there weren’t enough people interested to go ahead with the retreat, but we’re still exploring these questions in our work, see for example the resilience workshops with myself and Pam Candea at Surefoot.