Applied Hope

2/21/12

The early bioneer Bill McLarney was stirring a vat of algae in his Costa Rica research center when a brassy North American lady strode in. What, she demanded, was he doing stirring a vat of green goo when what the world really needs is love? “There’s theoretical love,” Bill replied, “and then there’s applied love”—and kept on stirring.

Many of us here stir and strive in the spirit of applied hope. We work to make the world better, not from some airy theoretical hope, but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about, reinforcing itself in a virtuous spiral. Applied hope is not about some vague, far-off future but is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices.

Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.

[Editors note: This post is a transcript of Lovins' 2011 commencement remarks to the Natural Science School at the University of California Berkeley. He was in Cambridge last week for our Xconomy Xchange event, appearing on stage with Flagship Ventures general partner Jim Matheson to chat on energy and sustainability.]

Fear of specific and avoidable dangers has evolutionary value. Nobody has ancestors who weren’t mindful of saber-toothed tigers. But pervasive dread, lately promoted by some who want to keep us pickled in fear, is numbing and demotivating. When I give a talk, sometimes a questioner details the many bad things happening in the world, all the suffering in the universe, and asks how dare I propose solutions: isn’t resistance futile? The only response I’ve found is to ask, as gently as I can, “I can see why you feel that way. Does it make you more effective?”

In a recent college class, one young woman bemoaned so many global problems that she said she’d lost all hope and couldn’t imagine bringing a child into such a world. But discussion quickly revealed to us both that … Next Page »

Amory B. Lovins is cofounder, chairman, and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Follow @

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  • Susan Salmon

    You are absoulty right we can make a differnce and should. It is so refreshing to read your great attitude towards life !!! never give up what you know is right ever !!! I have to go now just looked out the window and its finally snowing> I have to walk or slide home great inspiration thank you

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