Relentless rain, dark days, bad news all over. Savage spending cuts – with the poorest councils facing the most drastic reductions that foreshadow a wave of library, social services and leisure centre closures. The British economy heading for an unprecedented triple-dip recession and the poor bearing the brunt. Climate change taking place before our eyes. The hopes of 2011 – Occupy and the Arab Spring – seeming to fade. With evidence like this, it’s so easy to adopt the default position of many on the left: doom, gloom, pessimism, impending apocalypse.
But, as the year turns, here’s a message of hope. I’ve just finished Hope in the Dark (the third book by Rebecca Solnit that I have read this year). It began as a single essay, Acts of Hope, written and posted at Tomdispatch in May 2003, that bleak moment after the huge antiwar demonstrations had seemed to fail and the Bush administration had launched Shock and Awe in Iraq. Solnit’s message might be summarized as a rebuttal of Alice’s assertion in Through the Looking Glass that ‘one can’t believe impossible things’. For Solnit – writer, environmental campaigner and global justice activist – it’s the knee-jerk pessimism, perfectionism and defeatism of many of those involved in these political movements that needs to be resisted. For her, the only war that counts is the war waged to inhibit our collective imagination: in that war every creative act, every thoughtful inquiry, every opening of a mind is a victory for hope. We may not be able to discern their results immediately, but somewhere down the line there will be consequences.
Writing in 2003, Solnit began Hope in the Dark by accepting the future as dark, a place of probabilities and likelihoods, but no guarantees:
On January 18, 1915, six months into the first world war, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, ‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’ Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfilment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.
Who twenty years ago would have pictured a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa? Who foresaw the resurgence of the indigenous world of which the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico is only the most visible face? Who, four decades ago, could have conceived of the changed status of all who are nonwhite, nonmale, or nonstraight, the wide-open conversations about power, nature, economies and ecologies?
There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognise what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of. We adjust to changes without measuring them, we forget how much the culture changed. […]
A central tenet of Solnit’s case is that small, seemingly insignificant actions that appear to achieve nothing, can, like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, have consequences in other times or other places. She recalls one such action that seemed to go nowhere:
One June day in 1982, a million people gathered in Central Park to demand a nuclear freeze. They didn’t get it. The movement was full of people who believed they’d realize their goal in a few years and then go home. Many went home disappointed or burned out. But in less than a decade, major nuclear arms reductions were negotiated, helped along by European antinuclear movements and the impetus they gave Gorbachev. Since then, the issue has fallen off the map and we have lost much of what was gained. The US never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration is planning to resume the full-fledged nuclear testing halted in 1991, to resume manufacture, to expand the arsenal, and perhaps even to use it in once-proscribed ways.
It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. I once read an anecdote by someone in Women Strike for Peace, the first great antinuclear movement in the United States in 1963, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end of aboveground nuclear testing with its radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth. She told of how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock – one of the most high-profile activists on the issue then – say that the turning point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.
The lesson Solnit draws from this is that many activists make the mistake of expecting that for every action there will be an equal and opposite and punctual reaction. If there isn’t one, they regard it as failure. But, she argues, history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent:
It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary. And though huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences. […]
From the time the English Quakers first took on the issue of slavery, three quarters of a century passed before it was abolished it in Europe and America. Few if any working on the issue at the beginning lived to see its conclusion, when what had once seemed impossible suddenly began to look, in retrospect, inevitable. And as the law of unintended consequences might lead you to expect, the abolition movement also sparked the first widespread women’s rights movement, which took about the same amount of time to secure the right to vote for American women, has achieved far more in the subsequent 83 years, and is by no means done.
I know this for myself: my radicalism (like many of my generation) was inspired by the actions of people far distant from me in place and experience. It was the actions, words and joyful music of civil rights activists in the United States and those resisting apartheid in South Africa that galvanised me. Solnit would argue that the student radicalism of the sixties and the Northern Ireland civil rights movement are just further examples of the law of unintended consequences, and that the plunge into the dark that both of those initiating movements represented is still continuing – the fight for equality irrespective of skin colour, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation goes on. A black man wins a second term as President of the United States.
We should not confuse hope with optimism, Solnit argues. She recalls that F Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted as saying that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. What people nearly always overlook, says Solnit, is Scott Fitzgerald’s next sentence: ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise’. Solnit wonders what kept Vaclav Havel hopeful through all those years when the Czechoslovakian communist regime seemed impregnable and he was imprisoned or subject to constant government surveillance. She offers Havel’s own words as an answer:
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. Hope is a feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you. Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.
Nobody knows the consequences of their actions, Solnit says: history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways. She gives an example from her own experience. In the late 1980s she was one of thousands of activists at the Nevada Test Site, where the US and UK have exploded more than a thousand nuclear bombs, with disastrous effects on the environment and human health:
We didn’t shut down our test site, but our acts inspired the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov, on February 27, 1989, to read a manifesto instead of poetry on live Kazakh TV – a manifesto demanding a shutdown of the Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, and calling a meeting. Five thousand Kazakhs gathered at the Writer’s Union the next day and formed a movement to shut down the site. They named themselves the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement.
The Soviet Test Site was indeed shut down. Suleimenov was the catalyst, and though we in Nevada were his inspiration, what gave him his platform was his poetry in a country that loved poets. Perhaps Suleimenov wrote all his poems so that one day he could stand up in front of a TV camera and deliver not a poem but a manifesto. And perhaps Arundhati Roy wrote a ravishing novel that catapulted her to stardom so that when she stood up to oppose dams and destruction of the local for the benefit of the transnational, people would notice. Or perhaps these writers opposed the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too – poetry in the broadest sense – would survive in the world.
Solnit suggests that pessimism about the future often derives from a perfectionism that holds that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage small victories or advances:
This is earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, women will be raped, men shot, and far too many children will die of easily preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its source and foundation: these are victories.
Each December since the publication of Hope In The Dark, Rebecca Solnit has written an end of year essay for Tomdispatch. In 2006 she wrote:
The future, of course, is not something you predict and wait for. It is something you invent daily through your actions. As Mas Kodani, a Buddhist in Los Angeles, said in the early twenty-first century: ‘One does not stand still looking for a path. One walks; and as one walks, a path comes into being’. We make it up as we go, and we make it up by going, or as the Zapatistas more elegantly put it, ‘Walking we ask questions’. What else can you do? Perhaps respect the power of the small and the mystery of the future to which we all belong.
In December 2011, Solnit commented on a year that had seen the Arab Spring and the spread of the Occupy movement:
Perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions – and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters. But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.
Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.
In the spirit of calling things by their true names, let me summon up the description that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King used for the great communities of activists who stood up for civil rights half a century ago: the beloved community. Many who were active then never forgot the deep bonds and deep meaning they found in that struggle. We — and the word “we” encompasses more of us than ever before — have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to something unprecedented, a beloved community that circles the globe.
In her latest end of year essay, Solnit reminds us how mistaken we can be when we judge the past – or the present; there have been losses, but also gains unimaginable three or four decades ago:
When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts of it that were Paradise – and I also see all the little hells. I was a kid in California when it had the best public education system in the world and universities were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren’t thinking about it changing any time before the next ice age.
That was, however, the same California where domestic violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were white men, where people hadn’t even learned to ask questions about exclusion and racism.
Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when you look backward, it’s worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was neglected – including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation, corporate power, and working hours – slid into hell.
When you fight, says Solnit, you sometimes win. When you don’t, you always lose. She concludes with a return to a favourite theme – the war on imagination:
This is, among other things, a war of the imagination: the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice, or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to be.
They are already at war against the well-being of our Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight back. You have the power. It’s one of your gifts.
Solnit offers many examples of extraordinary acts of civil disobedience by people working to build a better world – one in which humankind and some of the beauty of this world might have a chance of surviving. People resisting the forces threatening our futures and the planet’s. People like 78-year old great-grandmother Eleanor Fairchild and actress Daryl Hannah (picture, top) resisting one of the world’s wealthiest multinational corporations building a pipeline across Texas to carry tar sands oil. (Fairchild was arrested for trespassing – on her own property.)
In 2012, they rose up from Egypt and Russia to Canada and Chile. They are fighting for themselves and their future, but for us, too. They have remarkably few delusions about how little our world is prepared to offer most of them. They know that the only gifts they’ll get are the ones they can wrestle free from the powers that be.
Paradise is overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And we are made to travel, not to sit still.
Take pleasure in the route. There is terrible suffering of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about it, not being miserable. In this heroic age, survival is also going to require seeing what fragments of paradise are still around us, what still blooms, what’s still unimaginably beautiful about rivers, oceans, and evening skies, what exhilaration there is in witnessing the stubbornness of small children and their discovery of a world we think we know.
Reading Solnit’s words brought to mind one of the year’s most inspiring songs for these hard times – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘We Are Alive’:
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
This rain must end sometime, these floodwaters recede.
- Getting Lost: leave the door open for the unknown
- Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage (Tomdispatch, May 2003)
- Rebecca Solnit’s Secret Library of Hope (Tomdispatch)
- The Age of Mammals: Looking Back on the First Quarter of the Twenty-First Century (Tomdispatch, December 2006)
- Compassion Is Our New Currency: Notes on 2011’s Preoccupied Hearts and Minds (Tomdispatch, December 2011)
- The Sky’s the Limit: The Demanding Gifts of 2012 (Tomdispatch, December 2012)