Practicing hope in the age of climate change

November 2, 2022

New HHS assistant professor Finn Bell talks about why the human aspects of climate resilience matter.

A collage graphic showing a headshot of Assistant Professor Finn Bell surrounded by illustrations of people farming, wind turbines, and other icons of sustainability.
Graphic by Violet Dashi. Illustrations by elenabsl via Adobe Stock

Assistant Professor of Health and Human Services Finn Bell has been an activist and organizer in “social justice-y” circles for 20 years. But environmental justice and climate issues, now two of his academic specialties, are both relatively recent additions to his repertoire. He describes the mingling of those topics into his life and academic work in terms that may sound familiar to many of us who’ve recently found ourselves thinking more seriously about climate change. Encounters with novels like Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” helped broaden his imagination about the connections between climate change, inequality and political power. Damaging flooding in 2013 in semi-arid Denver, where he’d recently moved from, made real the freak severe weather events that climate scientists were predicting. A talk at the Ann Arbor campus by environmental activist Winona LaDuke scared him a little. “Her message was basically that we are addicted to fossil fuels, and unless we all quit this addiction right this second, we’re all going to die,” Bell says. “And I was, like, whew, OK! And especially because, as a social worker and someone who’s worked in the area of addiction, you know that abstinence-only messages don’t work! So viewed through that lens, I guess we’re all going to die.” 

For Bell, the seriousness of the subject doesn’t preclude a sense of humor. That’s partly because it’s his personality, but also because his particular approach to the topic of climate change is predominantly a human, sometimes unconventional, one. While most discussions of climate resilience focus on emerging technologies or big infrastructure projects, Bell is most interested in small communities of people modeling unique behaviors that could become useful in a world transformed by climate change. Some of his earliest work focused on an eco-justice center in the rural Midwest that was run by Catholic nuns. Bell spent months living at the center and working on the farm that sold its vegetables to local people via a CSA, a community supported agriculture model in which customers invest in the farm ahead of the growing season and get fresh produce as a return on that investment. He was impressed by many aspects of the nuns’ approach: their ability to transition from a social justice perspective focused on issues like prisoner advocacy and death penalty opposition, to a broader paradigm that incorporated environmentalism and agriculture; their “radical commitment” to each other, including their ability to care for their elders; and a level of frugality he’d never seen before. Regarding the latter, Bell counted himself as someone who’d “recently awakened” to environmental issues and was trying to be more conscious about his own use of resources. “I was in that mode where I was saving the Saran wrap from the coffee shop brownie to pick up my dog’s poop. That was nothing compared to the sisters,” Bell says. “If you dropped a seed while you were planting, there was a set of tweezers to pick up the seed. When my landline phone stopped working, there was a box of cords they’d saved and we went through the box to find a replacement.”

Finn Bell crouched down on the ground preparing soil for planting on a cloudy spring day
Bell preparing beds for planting at We the People Opportunity Farm in Ypsilanti.

Soon after, Bell got a chance to more directly blend his previous work on racial and economic justice with his newer interest in agriculture. For his doctoral dissertation work, he met with small growers in the Ypsilanti area, focusing specifically on the experiences of farmers and gardeners who were Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) or lower-income. He talked with them about how they got interested in growing, how they learned to do it, the challenge of accessing land in an area facing intense development pressure, and how they were thinking about climate change. Their experiences varied, but Bell observed some common threads. First, growing food was really, really important to them. It provided economic and health benefits, as well as a sense of community and self-reliance. Moreover, Bell noted that the growers he spoke with were very outwardly focused. “It was the opposite of a hoarder or prepper mindset,” he says. “Their approach wasn’t individual, all against all. It was, how can I share what I’ve learned, how can I share the food I’ve grown, how can I uplift my community and make it  stronger?”

Notably, this mindset isn’t something that prevails in all communities Bell has encountered. In fact, one of the big things that inspired Bell to study BIPOC and working class growers was a prior experience with a mostly white group that had a decidedly different approach to climate resilience. It was a complex group of people. He says they were generally on the left end of the political spectrum. They identified with many traditional social justice causes. And while putting them in the prepper camp wouldn’t be quite right, “apocalyptic” themes were common in their discussions. Bell noticed that, like the nuns and Ypsilanti farmers he knew, the group thought a lot about alternative ways of doing things for an era in which resources were potentially scarce. But, unlike the nuns and Ypsi growers, people in the group were not currently experiencing scarcity themselves and the discussion of who would benefit focused more exclusively on the members of that group. Talk of sharing ideas and skills they were developing to uplift the racially diverse local community wasn't front and center. 

For Bell, one of the big takeaways from his work so far is the idea that adjusting to the economic, political and environmental transitions of the climate change era will take more than renewable energy and bigger seawalls. It’s going to take cultivating alternative social structures, new behaviors, traditions and ways of relating to each other that equip us to cope with a road ahead in which good outcomes aren’t predictable or guaranteed. When Bell is occupying this headspace, he often thinks of a quote — one he comically first encountered hanging in his mother’s bathroom — from dissident, playwright and Czechoslovakia’s last President Václav Havel. “It’s a long quote, so I’ll summarize, but he’s basically saying hope is the belief that what you’re doing matters,” Bell explains. “Hope is not optimism. It’s not this hope that everything will be fine, because then you don’t actually have to do anything about it. As ecophilosopher Joanna Macy says, hope is a practice, like gardening or Tai chi. It’s investing in what you want to see in the world. It’s figuring out how to live now in a way that creates the world you want to live in.”


Story by Lou Blouin