Stubborn optimism is a conscious decision to have an optimistic mindset in order to make a change. Often associated with sustainability and the current climate crisis, stubborn optimism also describes beautifully how we, as tiny individuals in a massive world, can effect change through our behaviour.
I recently chatted with someone whose job is showing large companies how to become sustainable and how to implement changes, from tiny adjustments to massive transformations within the company. (Of course, a lot of this is becoming more popular due to the climate crisis, and we’re hearing more of it in the veterinary world, which is hopeful.) Many of his co-workers are suffering from despair and mental health concerns which pushes them to leave their posts due to the lack of change they see around them.
We are often in denial about what is happening around us – governments are treading too carefully and making agreements too slowly to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees. That landmark and target is long gone. The current trajectory is 3 to 4 degrees by 2050. Our children will be young when that happens. Yet there are wildfires in London, not Australia, and the floods, famine, droughts and heatwaves cannot be blamed on Putin alone. It’s no wonder these strong, optimistic sustainability experts throw their hands in the air and leave, broken.
Stubborn optimism – a state of mind
The stubborn optimist is the person who sees all this lack of motivation for change, the ineffective governments and new oil fields drilled, and still refuses to give up.
Stubborn optimism is not something they can teach you in management school… It’s a personal choice to have this mindset while accepting that climate change is happening
Stubborn optimism is not something they can teach you in management school. The stubborn optimism of the man I talked to comes from deep and frequent meditation. It’s a personal choice to have this mindset while accepting that climate change is happening and that people are being displaced and dying.
I cannot imagine how hard that is to do on a global level or even on a company level. But on an individual level, it simply has to be done. Not making change is not an option.
At home, I recycle every tiny bit of cardboard I can, I monitor my fuel and electricity consumption and reduce it, and we rarely eat meat. That’s not virtue signalling. Because at work I use 20 plastic syringes per patient, my kit is double-bagged in plastic and paper and I’m in full PPE for literally everything – it’s the antithesis of what I do at home. So, I feel guilty and a fraud.
I put this to my friend who is an expert on sustainability. (We also share a love of meditation and Buddhism.) He totally got this; however, some plastics aren’t that bad, he said. I also have to be realistic about what needs to be done at work regarding sterility, of course. Finally, he said, being guilty is one of the first steps towards throwing my hands in the air like others and giving up. Guilt will not allow stubborn optimism to become my mindset.
Being guilty is one of the first steps towards throwing my hands in the air like others and giving up. Guilt will not allow stubborn optimism to become my mindset
It’s easy to feel helpless and it’s easy to be in denial. But through tiny actions and by changing our mindset we can effect changes larger than we can imagine.
The road to stubborn optimism
Sustainability is not just about the climate. By creating a kinder, more cohesive community, we are actually part of actioning sustainability because communities coming together can effect change beyond what we usually expect.
At the start of lockdown, many people formed local WhatsApp groups. We did one for my street. We did clap on Thursday evenings together and reminded each other of when the bins were being collected. But more importantly, we created a local community of support and like-mindedness. The group chat is positive and optimistic. This is an easy thing to do: set the tone when you start the group, moderate the conversation if it’s becoming a bit heated or transforming into a platform for venting anger at the council, etc.
By being stubborn optimists and believing that we can make small changes independently, we can bring together a real collective change in what happens in our society
Now we go to the pub together. We decorated the street for the Jubilee and coordinated fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Before we made this group, people had been living side by side for 10 years, never actually meeting (such is London).
On a minor sustainability note, when anyone has stuff to dump, it’s donated to the group, and we all take what we might use. I managed to distribute five bags of slate, and my neighbours exchanged a bath for a TV.
By being stubborn optimists and believing that we can make small changes independently, we can bring together a real collective change in what happens in our society. But we have to be brave and stubborn.
Past, present and future
While it’s true that the previous generations should have had the stubborn optimism to effect change, in reality we can forgive them for not being as informed as we are now. We have more capability to effect change than they did, and maybe our children will have more ability again. However, we are no longer at a crossroads – we passed the crossroads by the time the Paris agreement took place. So we cannot leave it to our children to reverse the changes.
Stubborn optimism doesn’t just aim to slow down the speeding train of climate destruction, it aims to grind it to a halt and even reverse some of the changes. It seems impossible to me, but “impossible” does not figure in the mindset of a stubborn optimist. If everyone had given up 15 years ago, we would be in an even worse climate crisis than we are now. It’s difficult to imagine that.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed when we are receiving more news every month about how the depressing record on global warming has been broken yet again. The bushfires, the glacial melts, the heatwaves – it’s relentless. And it’s frustrating watching our governments behaving like nasty children in the playground instead of effecting change for the environment. But there are things we can do. We can be stubborn optimists, but we have to start now.
What can I do?
We can aim to make small choices in our workplaces every day. It’s easy to underestimate the impact of those small choices, but they do have an impact.
Take an example of one business making a switch towards renewable energy. A simple choice like that can be as powerful as 50 households making that decision. So, although you may be only one person in that business, you can make a much bigger difference than you could just in your own personal life.
Small achievable changes create instant wins that translate into bigger impacts down the line… We have to start somewhere and feel that momentum
Maybe you can be the person who starts recycling the paper from the autoclave bags. Or the person who puts out the idea to use environmentally friendly laundry capsules for the bedding. Be the person to request medicines from the more ethical drug companies.
Small achievable changes create instant wins that translate into bigger impacts down the line. Stubborn optimism is about starting anywhere because if you don’t start, that’s not an option. We have to start somewhere and feel that momentum. Through that we can actually, over time, compound our impact little by little.