When it comes to big life problems, we often stand at a crossroads: either believe we’re powerless against great change, or we rise to meet the challenge. In an urgent call to action, political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac makes the case for adopting a mindset of “stubborn optimism” to confront climate change — or whatever crisis may come our way — and sustain the action needed to build a regenerative future. As he puts it: “Stubborn optimism can fill our lives with meaning and purpose.”
Transcript in English below:
00:13 – I never thought that I would be giving my TED Talk somewhere like this. But, like half of humanity, I’ve spent the last four weeks under lockdown due to the global pandemic created by COVID-19. I am extremely fortunate that during this time I’ve been able to come here to these woods near my home in southern England. These woods have always inspired me, and as humanity now tries to think about how we can find the inspiration to retake control of our actions so that terrible things don’t come down the road without us taking action to avert them, I thought this is a good place for us to talk. And I’d like to begin that story six years ago, when I had first joined the United Nations.
00:59 – Now, I firmly believe that the UN is of unparalleled importance in the world right now to promote collaboration and cooperation. But what they don’t tell you when you join is that this essential work is delivered mainly in the form of extremely boring meetings — extremely long, boring meetings. Now, you may feel that you have attended some long, boring meetings in your life, and I’m sure you have. But these UN meetings are next-level, and everyone who works there approaches them with a level of calm normally only achieved by Zen masters. But myself, I wasn’t ready for that. I joined expecting drama and tension and breakthrough. What I wasn’t ready for was a process that seemed to move at the speed of a glacier, at the speed that a glacier used to move at.
01:49 – Now, in the middle of one of these long meetings, I was handed a note. And it was handed to me by my friend and colleague and coauthor, Christiana Figueres. Christiana was the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and as such, had overall responsibility for the UN reaching what would become the Paris Agreement. I was running political strategy for her. So when she handed me this note, I assumed that it would contain detailed political instructions about how we were going to get out of this nightmare quagmire that we seemed to be trapped in. I took the note and looked at it. It said, “Painful. But let’s approach with love!” Now, I love this note for lots of reasons. I love the way the little tendrils are coming out from the word “painful.” It was a really good visual depiction of how I felt at that moment. But I particularly love it because as I looked at it, I realized that it was a political instruction, and that if we were going to be successful, this was how we were going to do it. So let me explain that.
02:52 – What I’d been feeling in those meetings was actually about control. I had moved my life from Brooklyn in New York to Bonn in Germany with the extremely reluctant support of my wife. My children were now in a school where they couldn’t speak the language, and I thought the deal for all this disruption to my world was that I would have some degree of control over what was going to happen. I felt for years that the climate crisis is the defining challenge of our generation, and here I was, ready to play my part and do something for humanity. But I put my hands on the levers of control that I’d been given and pulled them, and nothing happened. I realized the things I could control were menial day-to-day things. “Do I ride my bike to work?” and “Where do I have lunch?”, whereas the things that were going to determine whether we were going to be successful were issues like, “Will Russia wreck the negotiations?” “Will China take responsibility for their emissions?” “Will the US help poorer countries deal with their burden of climate change?” The differential felt so huge, I could see no way I could bridge the two. It felt futile. I began to feel that I’d made a mistake. I began to get depressed.
04:00 – But even in that moment, I realized that what I was feeling had a lot of similarities to what I’d felt when I first found out about the climate crisis years before. I’d spent many of my most formative years as a Buddhist monk in my early 20s, but I left the monastic life, because even then, 20 years ago, I felt that the climate crisis was already a quickly unfolding emergency and I wanted to do my part. But once I’d left and I rejoined the world, I looked at what I could control. It was the few tons of my own emissions and that of my immediate family, which political party I voted for every few years, whether I went on a march or two. And then I looked at the issues that would determine the outcome, and they were big geopolitical negotiations, massive infrastructure spending plans, what everybody else did. The differential again felt so huge that I couldn’t see any way that I could bridge it. I kept trying to take action, but it didn’t really stick. It felt futile.
04:59 – Now, we know that this can be a common experience for many people, and maybe you have had this experience. When faced with an enormous challenge that we don’t feel we have any agency or control over, our mind can do a little trick to protect us. We don’t like to feel like we’re out of control facing big forces, so our mind will tell us, “Maybe it’s not that important. Maybe it’s not happening in the way that people say, anyway.” Or, it plays down our own role. “There’s nothing that you individually can do, so why try?”
05:28 – But there’s something odd going on here. Is it really true that humans will only take sustained and dedicated action on an issue of paramount importance when they feel they have a high degree of control? Look at these pictures. These people are caregivers and nurses who have been helping humanity face the coronavirus COVID-19 as it has swept around the world as a pandemic in the last few months. Are these people able to prevent the spread of the disease? No. Are they able to prevent their patients from dying? Some, they will have been able to prevent, but others, it will have been beyond their control. Does that make their contribution futile and meaningless? Actually, it’s offensive even to suggest that. What they are doing is caring for their fellow human beings at their moment of greatest vulnerability. And that work has huge meaning, to the point where I only have to show you those pictures for it to become evident that the courage and humanity those people are demonstrating makes their work some of the most meaningful things that can be done as human beings, even though they can’t control the outcome.
06:49 – Now, that’s interesting, because it shows us that humans are capable of taking dedicated and sustained action, even when they can’t control the outcome. But it leaves us with another challenge. With the climate crisis, the action that we take is separated from the impact of it, whereas what is happening with these images is these nurses are being sustained not by the lofty goal of changing the world but by the day-to-day satisfaction of caring for another human being through their moments of weakness. With the climate crisis, we have this huge separation. It used to be that we were separated by time. The impacts of the climate crisis were supposed to be way off in the future. But right now, the future has come to meet us. Continents are on fire. Cities are going underwater. Countries are going underwater. Hundreds of thousands of people are on the move as a result of climate change. But even if those impacts are no longer separated from us by time, they’re still separated from us in a way that makes it difficult to feel that direct connection. They happen somewhere else to somebody else or to us in a different way than we’re used to experiencing it. So even though that story of the nurse demonstrates something to us about human nature, we’re going to have find a different way of dealing with the climate crisis in a sustained manner.
08:06 – There is a way that we can do this, a powerful combination of a deep and supporting attitude that when combined with consistent action can enable whole societies to take dedicated action in a sustained way towards a shared goal. It’s been used to great effect throughout history. So let me give you a historical story to explain it.
08:28 – Right now, I am standing in the woods near my home in southern England. And these particular woods are not far from London. Eighty years ago, that city was under attack. In the late 1930s, the people of Britain would do anything to avoid facing the reality that Hitler would stop at nothing to conquer Europe. Fresh with memories from the First World War, they were terrified of Nazi aggression and would do anything to avoid facing that reality. In the end, the reality broke through. Churchill is remembered for many things, and not all of them positive, but what he did in those early days of the war was he changed the story the people of Britain told themselves about what they were doing and what was to come. Where previously there had been trepidation and nervousness and fear, there came a calm resolve, an island alone, a greatest hour, a greatest generation, a country that would fight them on the beaches and in the hills and in the streets, a country that would never surrender.
09:32 – That change from fear and trepidation to facing the reality, whatever it was and however dark it was, had nothing to do with the likelihood of winning the war. There was no news from the front that battles were going better or even at that point that a powerful new ally had joined the fight and changed the odds in their favor. It was simply a choice. A deep, determined, stubborn form of optimism emerged, not avoiding or denying the darkness that was pressing in but refusing to be cowed by it. That stubborn optimism is powerful. It is not dependent on assuming that the outcome is going to be good or having a form of wishful thinking about the future. However, what it does is it animates action and infuses it with meaning. We know that from that time, despite the risk and despite the challenge, it was a meaningful time full of purpose, and multiple accounts have confirmed that actions that ranged from pilots in the Battle of Britain to the simple act of pulling potatoes from the soil became infused with meaning. They were animated towards a shared purpose and a shared outcome.
10:35 – We have seen that throughout history. This coupling of a deep and determined stubborn optimism with action, when the optimism leads to a determined action, then they can become self-sustaining: without the stubborn optimism, the action doesn’t sustain itself; without the action, the stubborn optimism is just an attitude. The two together can transform an entire issue and change the world.
10:58 – We saw this at multiple other times. We saw it when Rosa Parks refused to get up from the bus. We saw it in Gandhi’s long salt marches to the beach. We saw it when the suffragettes said that “Courage calls to courage everywhere.” And we saw it when Kennedy said that within 10 years, he would put a man on the moon. That electrified a generation and focused them on a shared goal against a dark and frightening adversary, even though they didn’t know how they would achieve it. In each of these cases, a realistic and gritty but determined, stubborn optimism was not the result of success. It was the cause of it.
11:33 – That is also how the transformation happened on the road to the Paris Agreement. Those challenging, difficult, pessimistic meetings transformed as more and more people decided that this was our moment to dig in and determine that we would not drop the ball on our watch, and we would deliver the outcome that we knew was possible. More and more people transformed themselves to that perspective and began to work, and in the end, that worked its way up into a wave of momentum that crashed over us and delivered many of those challenging issues with a better outcome than we could possibly have imagined. And even now, years later and with a climate denier in the White House, much that was put in motion in those days is still unfolding, and we have everything to play for in the coming months and years on dealing with the climate crisis.
12:21 – So right now, we are coming through one of the most challenging periods in the lives of most of us. The global pandemic has been frightening, whether personal tragedy has been involved or not. But it has also shaken our belief that we are powerless in the face of great change. In the space of a few weeks, we mobilized to the point where half of humanity took drastic action to protect the most vulnerable. If we’re capable of that, maybe we have not yet tested the limits of what humanity can do when it rises to meet a shared challenge.
12:57 – We now need to move beyond this narrative of powerlessness, because make no mistake — the climate crisis will be orders of magnitude worse than the pandemic if we do not take the action that we can still take to avert the tragedy that we see coming towards us. We can no longer afford the luxury of feeling powerless. The truth is that future generations will look back at this precise moment with awe as we stand at the crossroads between a regenerative future and one where we have thrown it all away. And the truth is that a lot is going pretty well for us in this transition. Costs for clean energy are coming down. Cities are transforming. Land is being regenerated. People are on the streets calling for change with a verve and tenacity we have not seen for a generation. Genuine success is possible in this transition, and genuine failure is possible, too, which makes this the most exciting time to be alive. We can take a decision right now that we will approach this challenge with a stubborn form of gritty, realistic and determined optimism and do everything within our power to ensure that we shape the path as we come out of this pandemic towards a regenerative future. We can all decide that we will be hopeful beacons for humanity even if there are dark days ahead, and we can decide that we will be responsible, we will reduce our own emissions by at least 50 percent in the next 10 years, and we will take action to engage with governments and corporations to ensure they do what is necessary coming out of the pandemic to rebuild the world that we want them to. Right now, all of these things are possible.
14:36 – So let’s go back to that boring meeting room where I’m looking at that note from Christiana. And looking at it took me back to some of the most transformative experiences of my life. One of the many things I learned as a monk is that a bright mind and a joyful heart is both the path and the goal in life. This stubborn optimism is a form of applied love. It is both the world we want to create and the way in which we can create that world. And it is a choice for all of us. Choosing to face this moment with stubborn optimism can fill our lives with meaning and purpose, and in doing so, we can put a hand on the arc of history and bend it towards the future that we choose.
15:26 – Yes, living now feels out of control. It feels frightening and scary and new. But let’s not falter at this most crucial of transitions that is coming at us right now. Let’s face it with stubborn and determined optimism.
15:50 – Thank you.