Letting go of hope

Hanno Burmester
14 min readSep 8, 2023


A keynote on the post-growth economy, Hamburg, September 9, 2023

I held this keynote at the isb Nord Conference in Hamburg. You can find a video of the talk here (in German).

Imagine: a house. To build it, total war was declared. Trees were felled, nests destroyed, soil sealed, plants uprooted, sand deported, steel broken out of the earth.

A few decades ago, people moved into the house. Over the years, they set about furnishing it. Spotlights: the kitchen bench used to be a mango tree in Indonesia. A mountain in Italy was quarried for the stone of the worktop. The plastic chair next to the kitchen door was once, 600 million years ago, phytoplankton, algae, sediment, extracted from the depths of the earth, using vast amounts of chemicals and groundwater. The cork behind the kitchen worktop once caringly embraced a Catalan oak.

So it went, room by room. Life forced into service, freed from its past.

In the garden, the house’s inhabitants created comfort as well: nature was what they allowed it to be. The trees gave way to lawn. The plants that were allowed to live had to be useful, be it as a provider of shade or fruit. The rest were cut, poisoned, corroded with salt. The groundwater migrated from the darkness to the blue finitude of a small pool. The garden’s animals were given strict rules: don’t eat any of the fruit or vegetables. Don’t mess up the lawn. Don’t shit on the garden furniture. Don’t make noise on the roof. Act against it, and the strictness of our regime knows no bounds.

This expansion would have gone on and on. But one day the house begins to burn. First it smolders, then it smokes, then it burns. Small tongues of fire eat their way through a room. Then the fire spreads, jumping from room to room.

What do the inhabitants of the house do? They gather quietly in the garden. One asks: “There is a fire, isn’t there?” A hesitant conversation begins:

“There is a fire.”

“Yes, there is a fire!”

“Indeed, it is burning.”

One begins to describe the fire in detail. The next predicts with astonishing accuracy how the fire will spread. Others analyse what negative side effects the fire will probably have for them. At some point, two of the residents begin to hesitantly throw a few hands of earth into the flames. One spits into them. The others roll their eyes. A few think this reaction is overly hysterical, while others say that nothing can be done anyway.

In other words: everyone does something. And yet, no one makes any serious attempt to put out the fire. Meanwhile, everything that has been violently snatched from the earth in the years before irrevocably goes up in flames.

The stage becomes the actor

In this scene, the unthinkable is happening: the house that the inhabitants had hitherto considered their stage has suddenly become an actor. The once unmoved background suddenly acts, tears apart the imagined plot, ignores all roles, eludes any influence by those who hitherto thought they could determine the play.

Today, we experience this surprise on a large scale. Our house is on fire. Suddenly, the stage is suddenly part of the play. All that has hitherto allowed itself to be exploited, silently, defencelessly, is making itself felt, be it as storms, floods, droughts, erosion, or simply silence and emptiness. And yet we do next to nothing. Like the inhabitants of the house, we collectively witness, spellbound, the decay of the stage of modernity.

The former state of careless and history-less self-fixation gives way to the self-fixation of worry. Different state, same result: it’s still all about ourselves, our well-being, our survival.

We leave behind what we have erased

We behave as if we are detached not only from history, but also from the materiality of the earth. This decoupling is quite a phenomenon, also because our excessive lifestyle is directly based on the organic matter of the last — literally — hundreds of millions of years. All the fossil fuels we burn today were once billions and billions of living things: Phytoplankton, zooplankton, mixed with algae, plants, among others. Our way of life is based on life that has lived and died over millions of years.

Will the creatures of the future be similarly nonchalant about our remains? What will we be useful for if we are nothing more than organic imprints?

The traces of human civilization will — so the prognoses say — be erased in about five million years. Maybe it will be — one cannot say only — one million years from now. We cannot be quite sure. In this future world’s soil, there will probably be traces of indecomposable chemical compounds, radioactive radiation here and there. And maybe — but probably not — one or the other elevation or depression in the landscape reminds us that extinct creatures once dug or built here. But that’s all there will be.

The hubris of our time, the exaggerated belief in the importance of our species — nothing will remain of it. Which also means that our long-term value is foreseeably well below that of the phytoplankton that died fifty or three hundred million years ago to power our leaf blowers today.

But wait a minute. After all, the modern, enlightened part of humanity will leave something behind that lasts well beyond our visible imprints on this earth. Namely, all the gaps created by the life we have wiped out and will wipe out in the coming decades. The future planet will be shaped in what is not: the life we extinguished, which could not evolve after its end, will forever be missing.

Source: Reuters https://rb.gy/xs91z

In other words, and this is my point, our question is not whether we will perish as humanity. The question is only when and how. We have influence over that.

Reason enough, then, to do something now to ensure that the gap of this erased life, a loss which we experience today as a steadily growing silence and emptiness, does not become even larger than it already is.

Letting go of hope

We know this. And yet, instead of doing something, we mostly pretend we do something about the ecosystemic polycrisis. While, in fact , the uninhibited exploitation of resources is steadily increasing and threatens to transgress even the last frontiers, like the exploitation of the deep seas. CO2 emissions are rising, so are the square meters of sealed land, so is the number of felled trees, just as the number of farm animals is rising, not declining, and so on. None of the available statistics match the green rhetoric of today, just as the policies adopted do not match the seriousness of the situation.

Rhetoric and reality do not match

I believe that this ongoing destruction is also fueled by the rhetoric of hope we appeal to everywhere. The hope that somehow everything will work out in the end. That humanity will suddenly and miraculously do the right thing. That the nation states will change course and de facto install a functioning world climate government. That the institutions of capitalism suddenly abandon the exploitation they were supposed to guarantee in the first place.

This kind of hope prevents us from leaving the comfort zone of “somehow we will be able to carry on like this”, to be able to truly and radically let go.

I therefore advocate that we let go of all hope. Only if we completely rule out the possibility of a return to a more manageable present, or even just maintaining this precarious, deadly status quo, will we be able to act in a meaningful way.

Instead of hoping, we should face our fear, take it seriously, feel truly threatened, and realise the immediacy of our mortality. This is the real prerequisite for taking action.

Questioning well-intentioned concerns

We should not only question the rhetoric of hope, but also some of our well-meant intentions. Again and again, I observe how those who want to save the world end up — unintentionally! –adding to its ongoing destruction.

More and more, we hear the question how we can reverse or at least stabilise the man-made ecosystem crisis. This is not only the wrong question. It is also asked from a wrong paradigm.

What do I mean by this?

Firstly, we are not experiencing a crisis. Crisis suggests that something is temporary. But the very nature of the Anthropocene is that many of the man-made ecosystem dynamics can neither be solved or ended. In other words, the situation is guaranteed to get worse — even if we do everything right now. I believe we must acknowledge this to stop creating unrealizable images of hope that by definition create frustration and desperation.

Secondly, I am bothered by the hubris that is reflected in the idea that we as humans can save the world. Since modern times, people in the West have learned to seen themselves as individuals who order and shape the world through individual action. From this paradigm, we conquered, plundered and exploited. Once of a sudden, we aim to make amends, give back, heal. I prefer the latter intention to the former. And yet, in our self-image it is still us who create order, who recognize nature as an object, not as a multiplicity of co-actors.

This hubris, cultivated over centuries, makes us forget that it is not us who create order. Nor is it us who heal. The fragile order of the ecosystem creates itself in the interplay of all life. At best, we contribute a small part to supporting this movement in a positive way.

Affectedness as prerequisite for a new anthropology

Thus, what is at stake today is not hope. Hope is sweet poison. What we need is the cultivation of the ability to perceive and be affected with all our senses. The perception of what we do, of who we were, of who we have become — but also of who we could be.

This kind of perception and affectedness brings with it an inner opening. This opening is a prerequisite for the healing that is needed. And by this I do not mean the healing of “nature” or “the planet”, but the healing of ourselves. We will be healed as modern human beings once we overcome our belief that, as human beings, we do not belong to nature. When we stop believing that we are somehow apart from the whole, not part of the web of life that produces the fragile balance that makes life possible.

If we are able to openly perceive, to be affected, we will have laid the foundation for what we really need: a mutation of the human species itself. We are faced with the dramatic task of redefining the foundations of our self-understanding as human beings and, as a result, of relating ourselves in a radically different way to all the other life with which we share the common habitat. Ultimately, it is about a new anthropology, a new image of human beings and the world they co-create.

The green economy is part of what we need to destroy

Big ideas, I know. But I believe this is only way we can leave the deadly cycle or repeating the same thing in ever new variations that currently holds us captive. By this, I do not only mean the conventional logic of capitalist economic activity, which has been milled into the DNA of Western democracy since its birth. I also mean the logic of the supposedly “green” economy.

In the green logic, those who want to do something good set up a social business, for example. This company then sells products, the sale of which generates a profit that can then be used for good. This is then called social business, but — insofar as something is produced — its ecological impact is almost guaranteed to be negative, and thus inevitably not social either.

In green business, and unfortunately also in green politics, things continue just as before: same paradigms, different rhetoric. With this logic, we will not get anywhere with 8 billion, and even more so with 10 billion people. Painting capitalism green does not make it sustainable.

We must talk about regeneration

Based on this consideration, we should distrust whenever people talk about sustainability. Sustainability may have been the right term fourty, or thirty years ago: leaving a neutral footprint, maintaining the status quo. This is no longer what we need today. What we urgently need is regeneration, that is, the restoration of the basis of life for all inhabitants of the earth. For this, we need regenerated soils, forests, seas, rivers, moors. This will only succeed if we, as modern societies, learn how to relate to our environment in a way that is viable in a long term perspective.

Regeneration asks for a different paradigm. It breaks with the human image of the enlightened, modern individual. Why? Because regeneration essentially presupposes the willingness to consciously do nothing. Anyone who wants to save the world as a human being today needs the willingness to do nothing. To stay away, to be quiet, to not act. Only then will it be possible for other life to recover, which we have so far prevented in a warlike way through our endless activity.

And yet, those who consciously do nothing need to reassess their meaning for the whole. Non-action is, of course, also action, but it is something new for our cultural repertoire, and I believe that it is an unbearable insult for the modern individual.

The post-growth economy

This brings me to the post-growth economy, the headline of this conference day.

I share the core idea that material limitation is an indispensable part of any sustainable and truly free human civilisation.

And yet, I distrust this term.

For one thing, saying post growth economy is like telling a sex addict about a life without sex. “Your post-sex life can be nice, too, can’t it?” But the sex addict wants sex. And so it is with growth. We are addicted to growth, which means destruction, exploitation, plunder — and all our systems are built on this principle. We should recognise that.

We should not make ourselves believe that we can control this addiction. It has us in its grip. Also because the modern democratic state has presupposed and fueled this addiction since its beginnings.

What is more important to me, however, is that the fundamental questions is not which economic system we want. The question is how we, as humanity, can establish a paradigmatically different relationship with the world around us. It is not about economics, but about a new anthropology and the constitution of human societies.

Thus, when we talk about the post-growth economy, let’s talk about what basic principles we need to base society on to have a long term perspective of survival and flourishing.

In my book Unlearn, I propose a new purpose for democratic societies. Modern democracy focuses mainly on guaranteeing individual material well-being.

Today’s model

The democracy of the Anthropocene must transcend this idea.

Of course, individual well-being remains important. But it must go hand in hand with

- the immediate well-being of all the other inhabitants of the earth

- and the well-being of all life to come.

The democracy of the Anthropocene thus must accept the factual limits of the ecosystem, and limits its actions accordingly. This inevitably entails material renunciation and limitation, which breaks with today’s ideology of individual freedom and choice.

The model we need

In this image, the economy is not a detached system, but an instrument to realize this democratic purpose.

A deepened democracy will not fall from the sky, we all know that. It requires the new anthropology I spoke about earlier. Or, to put it differently: a different society needs a different consciousness. A different economy needs a different society.

What to do?

So it is a long way. Maybe we won’t be able to walk it. Yet it is worth trying.

The question for our conference today is: what does this mean for us? I will conclude by sketching out seven answers:

1. Let us acknowledge that the Anthropocene is an age of fundamental transition that forces us to start all over again. Those who strive for stabilisation today are perpetuating the paradigm of destruction. If you really want to change something, you have to be ready to let go fundamentally.

2. Let us have the courage to ask fundamental, spiritual questions. Why are we on this planet? What is the role of humans in the Anthropocene? What do we need to unlearn in order to start anew? What would a constitution written today look like? These big questions help us not to get lost in trivialities and the numbing details of daily political discourse. Only by asking such questions can we consciously decide which answer to commit ourselves to.

3. At present, almost all basic social and economic defaults incentivize destruction. Let us therefore push for radical reforms that enable sustainable systemic defaults. This goes politically, but also with regard to how we consult our clients.

4. Let us acknowledge that we are in an existential war. Let us name the enemies in this war. Which forces — organizations, governments, individuals — existentially threaten us and other earthlings, both born and unborn? Honestly evaluated, a list quickly fills itself. On it we find: Fossil energy companies, automobile corporations, the conventional agricultural industry, some state governments, and so on. These are the enemies we fight — and while you may not be willing to go to arms, you at least should be willing to cease all collaboration with them.

5. Ecosystem regeneration needs the ability to think and act beyond one’s own lifetime. Regeneration takes decades, usually centuries, often millennia. We must therefore practice cathedral thinking: which cathedrals can we, each and every one of us, begin to build, knowing that they will not be finished in our lifetime? Which cathedrals can we help to build, knowing that we can only contribute a small part to the overall work of art?

6. When we dedicated us to a greater cause, humble megalomania helps: knowing that we only make a small contribution, we strive for fundamental change. We give ourselves carte blanche to think and speak on anything. We devote ourselves to big issues and goals, without thinking that we can control our impact. We are radical, which means that we unerringly focus on rebuilding the fundament instead of renovating ornaments.

7. All of this can best be done if we ourselves live a regenerative rhythm. A rhythm that nurtures and enriches the substance instead of mostly drawing on it. A rhythm that cultivates the spiritual connection to the greater whole instead of getting lost in the focus on the material, measurable. A rhythm in which we can develop self-love. The self-love we need to acknowledge: What I do is not so important. But it still matters.

The ideas of this keynote were taken from and inspired by Bruno Latour, Cal Flyn, N.K. Jemisin, and my keynote for the Innocracy Conference 2021.