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The power of the first generation without hope

The teenagers who led the climate strike embody the most important adaptation to our collapsing climate and show they are closer to the peoples of the forest than to their European grandparents


In May, I gave a talk at Harvard University on the Amazon and creating futures and I closed it by saying that hope, like despair, is a luxury we can no longer afford. Given our overheating planet, there’s no time for lamentations or melancholy. We need to act, even without hope. After my talk, a well-known Brazilian businessman made an impassioned defense of hope and received an enthusiastic round of applause from some in the audience. Hope, and not the accelerated destruction of the Amazon or the global climate emergency, became the topic of the ensuing debate. Some thought I was a kind of enemy of hope and therefore of the future (theirs). This is a telling reaction at a time when our very youngest generation, children and teenagers, are sticking their fingers in the faces of adults and telling them to grow up.

Hope has a long history—and I’d like someone to write it some day—from religion and mythology to philosophy and literature, from political marketing to the world of capitalist goods. On a planet where the ground grows increasingly more unsteady, in which nation-states are collapsing, hope has gradually supplanted happiness as a market asset. Do you remember how, until just a short while ago, we were all obliged to be happy? And whoever said they weren’t had some kind of deformed soul or was suffering from depression?

‘Happiness’, as a form of merchandise, has been dissected in depth by various fields of knowledge and also through our own daily experience. Converted into a product of capitalism, where it was a consumer good whose supply was supposedly guaranteed by consuming more, happiness no longer has the same market value, though books on it may still crowd the shelves of some self-help sections. Hope has supplanted it, at a time when the future looms darkly as a future on a worse planet.

My personal investigation of hope began in 2015. I’ll get back to it in a few paragraphs. In the last part of my lecture in May, I talked about what I find most fascinating in our era: the generation that may be the first without hope. At the same time, this generation is also the one that broke out of the stupor of this historical moment, a moment distinguished by childish adults who alternate between paralysis and automatism, even in the act of consumption. In breaking out of this stupor, the new generation gave hope to their parents’ generation. The impasse over hope reveals the impasse between the generation, their parents’ generation, that took the planet’s consumption to dizzying new heights, and the generation that will live on the planet depleted by their parents.


By Anders Hellberg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This hopeless generation looks like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish girl who last August, at the age of 15, began a solitary school strike in front of the parliament in Stockholm. Since then, she has inspired two global student strikes for climate, taking hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers into the world’s streets each time. Greta, who in barely a year has become one of the most influential people on the planet, is known for statements as brilliant as they are sharp-edged. In one of these, she answers back to the adults who gaze enthralled at her bisque-doll face and who confess, teary-eyed, that she and her generation fill them with hope. The adolescent, now 16, replies: ‘Our house is on fire. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. . . . act as if the house is on fire, because it is.’

Our house is on fire. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic

After their initial fright, adults usually fall back in love with Greta, ‘giving her a break’ because of her age—’she’ll grow up’—(and maybe grow hopeful like them?). And so they try to ignore what she says about hope—and about taking action. Even climate scientists and activists, who know the reality of the climate emergency and have the catastrophe’s numbers on the tips of their tongues, find this statement hard to take. They’re afraid if there is no hope, people will be paralyzed and fail to react or to pressure those in power to implement public policies that can combat global heating, or they’ll be unable to adapt to the changes (for the worse) already impinging on our daily lives.

On May 24, during the second global student climate strike, around thirty protesting children and teenagers in Brazil were received by Oswaldo Lucon, advisor on climate change for the São Paulo State Department of Infrastructure and the Environment. According to Folha de S. Paulo, Lucon, who is also a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that ‘conveying messages of total hopelessness to young people may not be the best path.’ Faced with these young people’s sense of urgency, he said it is ‘important to fight but also to try to find solutions to our problems.’ Our youth should worry about growing up to hold public posts and corporate jobs so they can then make change-inducing decisions. But the problem, as far as his young interlocutors are concerned, is that we have only eleven years to keep the planet from heating up more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which seems incredibly hard given the team of adults currently in charge. The climate-striking students know there’s no time and that what they really need to do is shake these men and women—grown up but dazed—before it’s too late.

The statement made by the adult in the room was well-intentioned, just like other adults are well-intentioned as they confront our species’ greatest challenge in all its history: human-caused climate change. The thing the grown-ups don’t seem to understand is that a change has occurred in the way of thinking. And it’s a deep change. It is my hypothesis that teenagers from Greta’s generation wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing were it not for this change. I cite Greta here because she is this generation’s most notable icon, but other young climate leaders likewise assign hope to a less strategic position than their parents’ generation. I don’t think they have issues with hope or that hope is on the immediate horizon of their concerns. It  simply isn’t as important in their lives as in their parents’. Hope turns up in their talk if spurred by adults.

When these young people say they don’t have hope and don’t want to give hope to anyone, much less to those who are largely responsible for bequeathing them an exhausted planet, they are displaying keen intuition. They are rejecting the hegemonic discourse, along with the very idea of hegemonic discourse. Europe, which is where Greta and most of the student climate leaders come from, is the place that developed a discourse not only about what Europe itself is but also about what other places are, a discourse about humanity and also about civilization and barbarism. Hope is part and parcel of this ‘Western tradition’. In rejecting the facile idea of hope, these teenagers intuit—or conclude—that if they want to face life on the planet-to-be, they will have to reject this model of thinking—or they won’t have a chance.

They also refuse to be consumed by frightened adults, always eager for young bodies, just like every aging generation that begins to fear death. One feature of the current generation of grown-ups is that they have been heavily influenced by the United States and its exportation of hope, packaged first by Hollywood and then by Silicon Valley. If climate students are transformed into sources of hope, they will become cute little knickknacks in times of darkness, miniatures sold in stores to keep Hummel figurines company on coffee tables. Greta would then be reduced to a round porcelain face—and not elevated to the power she effectively is.

Refusing to be an object of hope means refusing to be consumed by the cogwheels which swallowed up much older, more experienced rebels and which chewed up insurrections, only to spit them out again. Somehow, the climate youth also seem to intuit that they must make these adults relinquish their crutch of hope, because this crutch lets them remain on their metaphorical couches in a state of stupor while, as Greta says, “our house is on fire.”

how scary it must be to have my generation as parents, or the following generation, since it seems even more numbed to me, because it has been more spoiled by its supposed ‘right’ to consume

I can imagine how scary it must be to have my generation as parents, or the following generation, since it seems even more deadened to me, because it has been more spoiled by its supposed ‘right’ to consume. These children and teens see the house burning, feel the heat of the fire, and taste the bitter toxic fumes invading their lungs. And their parents are there, seeing to other matters. So these youth realize if they don’t do something, they’re screwed, because they’re the ones who will live on a much worse planet. At the same time, these adults are the ones in power and (not) making the needed decisions. When finally confronted, the adults either resort to repression, if they sense their age-granted authority attacked, or demand hope. Annoying, to say the least.

The most interesting thing is that the adult demand for hope runs up against logic. The general discourse is that without hope, people will not fight global heating. While reality shows that the people who are changing the paradigm of the climate struggle—a fact recognized by the most veteran climate scientists and activists—say they have no hope, or that having hope is not the most important thing right now. The ones who broke out of our species’ stupor were these teenagers who want adults to panic immediately and start acting now.

…the first generation to realize they don’t have time to wait for their parents to solve the problem the latter have only worsened so far—and worsened greatly

Instead of rejecting what these young people are saying, adults should be listening hard to them. What we are witnessing is perhaps the first generation to realize they don’t have time to wait for their parents to solve the problem the latter have only worsened so far—and worsened greatly. As I wrote in a previous article, ‘History has never seen anything like this—no history has. Offspring are trying to save the world that adult specimens are systematically destroying. Years of research will be needed to understand how this inversion has affected the ways in which those who will be adults tomorrow understand this world and their place in it. But for this to happen, there must be a tomorrow.’

To put it differently: What we are witnessing is a new way of thinking, adapted to the planet’s new reality. My hypothesis is that we are witnessing an adaptation to the climate emergency. Produced at a subjective level, this adaptation is producing happenings around the planet. Following decades in which climate scientists and activists screamed alone, the world has finally started to hear that the house is burning, because the new generation, the one that does without hope, is the one saying it.

And saying it in different words. This May, The Guardian announced it would change its style guide to lend greater precision to the language used in its coverage. Instead of “climate change,” it will now favour the words “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown”; instead of “global warming,” “global heating.” The pressure to make changes to language was produced in part by new, very young leaders, like Greta Thunberg.

Movement and hope, as the (extremely) young climate activists prove day after day, are not linked. It is possible to act without hope. But to act with the joy of being together, of doing together, as Anuna de Wever, the Belgium climate youth leader, told me. Her words allude to something else urgent: the need to ‘weave the commons’, to make community. Not clan, not nation. But community. Community is also what the new generation of climate activists is creating in the world, with each student climate strike. Wiping out borders and tearing down walls in the name of the commons: the fight against global heating, the battle against the masters of the world who are stripping the planet and making tomorrow not exist for those who come next, and the confrontation with the capitalist logic of consumption that swallows up worlds.

Though many don’t realize the dimension of what they see, we are watching our species reinvent itself (or uninvent itself) to survive in a hostile environment. And reinventing itself not only while the house burns but while, on a planet lead by adults, far-right populist governments dedicated to building walls and arming borders are multiplying. The present fight can be summed up as one between those who are weaving the commons and those who are shredding the possibility of the commons, like Jair Bolsonaro’s government of hatred in Brazil, Donald Trump’s government of walls in the United States, and all the monstrous progeny of the new fascists.

…far-right populists deny the climate emergency. They know it is in the fight against global heating that humanity might join together to weave the commons. Today, they tremble in fear before the children who point fingers at them, and then they try to transform these children into objects of consumption.

It is not pure chance that far-right populists deny the climate emergency. They know it is in the fight against global heating that humanity might join together to weave the commons. Today, they tremble in fear before the children who point fingers at them, and then they try to transform these children into objects of consumption. When they fail, they invent conspiracies to disqualify them, something done by both the far-right and far-left, always so alike. The demand for hope comes into play here too. ‘It’s not that these children don’t have hope. It’s that they’re still so young, they don’t understand the world,’ is what I hear said. Of course, the ones who understand the world are these experienced beings who are destroying the planet with greater determination each day.

In a magnificent text that came out in the psychoanalytical journal Percurso, published by Sedes Sapientiae Institute in São Paulo, the philosopher Peter Pál Pelbert—one of the most interesting adults now living in Brazil—writes beautifully about the commons: ‘Perhaps the challenge is to abandon the dialectics of Same and Other, of Identity and Alterity, and recover the logic of Multiplicity. It is no longer merely a matter of my right to be different from the Other or the Other’s right to be different from me, in both cases preserving an opposition between us. Nor is it a matter of a relationship of peaceful coexistence between us, where each is tethered to his identity like a dog to a post, and thus entrenched in it. It is a matter of something more radical in these encounters, of also embarking on and assuming some of the Other, and thus at times even differing from yourself, detaching from yourself, coming unstuck from your own identity and constructing unprecedented shiftings.’

This passage immediately brought to my mind the new generation of climate activists who are still in what we call puberty. This new generation isn’t ‘new’ simply because it was born this century, but because it calls for what is new and because, more than calling for what is new, it is what is new. This generation also points to how necessary it is to quit being a dog tied to a post, the one Pelbert writes about, and run the risk of other possible identities in a world where the impossible is breathing down its neck. And also how necessary it is to shift away from yourself to try on a new experience in being—and in being together. Starting with the understanding that my framework of experiences does not encompass the world. That is also why I need the Other, so he can teach me to see, and by seeing with him, I take on some of him, without fearing I’ll lose me.

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After all, the philosopher Pelbert writes, referring to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “The best answer still lies in Darwish’s poem, which puts it in Edward Said’s mouth: ‘If I die before you, my will is the impossible.’ And Darwish asks, ‘Is the impossible far off?’ And Said’s voice answers, ‘A generation away.’ It’s almost Kafka: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.’”

I believe the impossible is the condition for this generation that is no longer far off. I believe that when confronted with the impossible, we need to create a new being, do something we’ve never done, risk being what we don’t know.

The question of hope surfaced for me while I was in the Amazon forest accompanying the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant and the destruction of the Xingu River. One thing, construction, resulting in the other, destruction. I saw people who fought against death and who saw their friends felled by gunshots in past struggles over the forest, but who only at that moment felt they’d reached the end of history. As Belo Monte rose up, it violated all of Brazil’s laws while also violating the bodies of the weakest—and it still does so today—under an administration led by the Workers’ Party (PT), which these people had helped found. Their homes were destroyed and set fire to, the forest burned, animals drowned to death, convulsing. The Amazon world was transfigured.

What we saw and lived through was too much lucidity, a submersion, almost a drowning, in the deepest darkness of power arrangements and structures of submission, of the politics of controlling bodies, all bodies, the river’s and the trees’, animals’ and humans’.

the story, like history, doesn’t end as long as we have memory

But the story, like history, doesn’t end as long as we have memory. And so I, like others, have devoted myself to memory. I realized there that I had become another I, together with others who also became I and others. I discovered myself to be an I without hope. And I discovered this wasn’t sad, or hopeless. These contrasts no longer reverberated within me. Hope was no longer an issue because I didn’t feel it, not even like something missing, because I no longer missed it. Hope unmattered to me. 

What fascinated me right then, and still fascinates me today, was the joy of being together even during catastrophe, a ‘phenomenon’ I first saw and later experienced, along with the river people expelled by Belo Monte, ‘refugees from their own country’, as I called them. Joy as an act of insurrection, as your finger stuck in the eye of the hurricane, digging into your oppressor’s cornea. Before I am once again misunderstood, let me state that I didn’t replace hope with joy. Mine became another kind of being in the world. A being that laughs, if only out of insolence, and is capable of fighting, even knowing she’ll lose. I was possessed by fierce life.

In 2015, I thought about sharing this here. I wrote a column entitled ‘In Defense of Hopelessness.’ Today it seems like such a distant past, and what was bad is now worse, but in the Brazil of 2015, people were afraid the year would never end and I thought I could help by recounting what I had realized and learned. I wrote this: ‘Perhaps it is time to overcome hope. Let ourselves be hopeless or at least not lynch anyone who does let himself. I would like to state here that in order to take on the challenge of building a political project for Brazil, hope is not so important. In fact, I think it’s overvalued. Maybe the time has come to understand, given the current state of affairs, that we must do something much harder: create/fight even without hope. It’s not hope that will mend the gashes in Brazil but our ability to take on conflict even when we know we’re going to lose. Or fight even when the cause is lost. Do without believing. Do out of an ethical imperative.’

As the following years showed, most Brazilians—on the right but also on the left—preferred not to deal with conflicts and contradictions but put hate and falsification in their place. We’re seeing the result. And living through it.

One year earlier, at FLIP 2014—the International Literary Festival in Paraty—I remember that the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro said, ‘Indians understand the end of the world because their world ended in 1500’. His provocative statement referred to the fact that perhaps, if they wish, indigenous peoples might teach us to live after the end of the world represented by the climate emergency, because they understand the ending of worlds, since theirs ended after the European invasion.

the catastrophe isn’t the end, it’s in the middle.

Viveiros de Castro’s statement made an impact on me and on many others there, but I only understood it completely when I went to live in the Amazon and exposed myself to other ways of life. Other ways of life are also other ways of thinking. When I dived into this river of Other thoughts, I understood that the catastrophe isn’t the end, it’s in the middle. I understood this with my body, which makes all the difference, by living alongside people who had lived through various catastrophes, people for whom the world had transfigured itself various times and for whom life invented itself through resistance. But resistance of a dimension unlike what we are familiar with from white Western experience. Resistance not involving a heavy burden or the cross, that of martyred resignation, or of vengeance and the sword. Insolent laughter was part of this resistance, which Viveiros de Castro calls ‘rexistance’. ‘Indigenous peoples cannot not resist at the risk of not existing as such. Their existing is immanently a resisting, which I condense into the neologism “rexist”.’

On the Xingu River, where the Brazilian State and Norte Energia S.A. constructed ruins on a grand scale, I saw, and lived with, people who existed because they resisted—and resisted to exist. When I started listening to the girls and boys of the student climate strike, what amazed me was how these young people in Europe, mostly white and middle-class, drew so close to the thinking of the peoples of the forest without ever having met them. Along what invisible pathways did their thoughts cross, how did this dialogue that happened without ever having happened come about?

Maybe, but just maybe—for I am only beginning my investigation—it is the catastrophe in the middle of lives, the catastrophe not experienced as the end of history. The history of the peoples of the forest, who already lived through catastrophe and face the threat of living through one again, the history of the teenagers who know they will have to live in a post-catastrophe planet, or an ‘in-catastrophe’ one. This perception of the world, that of an ‘in-catastrophe’ life, alters the whole body, as well as how this body is placed in the world. This is a body in a state of movement. Or of ‘movings’.

our present debate has abandoned the future horizon to dedicate itself to pasts that never existed

Some months ago, in my column for El País de Madrid, I wrote that today’s dispute is over pasts. From Brexit to Trumpism and Bolsonarism, our present debate has abandoned the future horizon to dedicate itself to pasts that never existed. Caricatures like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro have (also) garnered so much support because it has never been harder to imagine a future in which we can live: for the first time, tomorrow is an impending catastrophe. Not a potential catastrophe, like the Cold War and the atom bomb. But a catastrophe unlikely to be averted, since it is almost certain the Earth’s temperature will rise at least two degrees Celsius. But this is an optimistic outlook. We’re actually on course now for three or four degrees Celsius, which will have an overwhelming impact.

The subjective product of this feeling that there is ‘no future’ is the invention of pasts to which we might supposedly return. The British voters who approved Brexit believe they can return to a powerful Britain, free of immigrants. White Middle America thinks Trump can give it back a country where blacks were passive subordinates and where every single ‘thing’ was, like them, in its place, and where everyone could live, knowing where every thing’s place was. Bolsonaro’s voters deny, or justify, the torture and murders committed by agents of the Brazilian state under the dictatorship, because they’d rather pretend they once lived in a country where there was ‘order’ and ‘safety’—where ‘a man was a man and a woman was a woman’ and men didn’t have sex with men or women with women—and can go back to living there.

As we know, these pasts never existed free from vast conflicts and tremendous violence, but who’s to say what existed? And so, far-right populism disputes the past, as a strategy for holding power, while it works on the systematic destruction of memory, even if this means destroying the bodies that shelter it.

Populists like Bolsonaro receive the support of followers who behave in politics like religious believers, even when they’re atheists, because for the first time in human history, the future is in large part a given. We know we will live on a much worse planet. What is actually up for dispute is whether living conditions on Earth will be bad or hostile, which makes an enormous difference. What is also up for dispute is how we will deal with it. Those who deny reality, however, are disputing a past so they can put it in place of the future they cannot face. Denial is generally desperate. And despair is a great driver of hate. But what is the future, after all? The future also needs to uninvent itself as a concept and go back to being imagined. Or the future needs to detach itself from hegemonic understandings of the future to open up to other possibilities of being conceived of as future. Maybe it won’t even be called ‘future’ but something else. It must disengage itself from moulds of European thought and the logic structures established by the inventors of the civilization who brought us to this extreme point. This future uninvented from the future is being woven by the experiences of minorities coming from other cosmopolitical territories. Amid so much bad news, here is some great: by surprising routes here comes the new generation of European boys and girls like the Indians. .

Main image (from the original article in El País): Swedish activist Greta Thunberg (centre) taking part in a demonstration in Viena, Austria, 31 May. Photo: Ronald Zak AP

Originally published (in Portuguese) in the Spanish newspaper El País on June 5, 2019. You can read the original here.

Translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty

Eliane Brum is a writer, reporter, and documentary filmmaker. She is the author of the non-fiction book The Collector of Leftover Souls and the novel One Two. Website: Email: Twitter: @brumelianebrum/ Facebook: @brumelianebrum