Idle No More: a Canadian First Nations environmental protest against tar sands exploitation

I thought I’d pass on some inspiring thoughts from a new essay written by writer, environmental campaigner and global justice activist Rbecca Solnit (no stranger to these posts – see the links below).  Ten years ago Rebecca Solnit began writing about hope with her online essay Acts of Hope, posted at Tomdispatch in May 2003, that bleak moment when it seemed that the huge antiwar demonstrations had failed as the Bush administration launched Shock and Awe in Iraq.  Solnit says that the essay changed her life and her work, revealing how the Internet could give wings to words. What she wrote spread around the world, putting her in touch with people and movements, and led to deep conversations about the possible and the impossible.

Solnit’s message – developed in her book Hope In The Dark – might be summarized as a rebuttal of Alice’s assertion in Through the Looking Glass that ‘one can’t believe impossible things’. For Solnit that notion of the impossible represents the war being 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.

Each December since the publication of Hope In The Dark, Rebecca Solnit has written an end of year essay for Tomdispatch, and now she has published a new essay that updates the vision of that first one, written in dark times ten years ago, when she ‘tried to undermine despair with the case for hope’.  In Too Soon to Tell: The Case for Hope, Continued, Solnit argues that a decade later, much has changed, and not necessarily for the better. But not entirely for the worse either:

If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it’s that the unimaginable is ordinary, and the way forward is almost never a straight path you can glance down, but a labyrinth of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.

The nub of her philosophy is this:

If you take the long view, you’ll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things change. Not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes, and sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end regardless. I’m just telling you that everything is in motion, and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.

Hope and history are sisters: one looks forward and one looks back, and they make the world spacious enough to move through freely. Obliviousness to the past and to the mutability of all things imprisons you in a shrunken present. Hopelessness often comes out of that amnesia, out of forgetting that everything is in motion, everything changes. We have a great deal of history of defeat, suffering, cruelty, and loss, and everyone should know it. But that’s not all we have.

There’s the people’s history, the counter-history that you didn’t necessarily get in school and don’t usually get on the news: the history of the battles we’ve won, of the rights we’ve gained, of the differences between then and now that those who live in forgetfulness lack. This is often the history of how individuals came together to produce that behemoth civil society, which stands astride nations and topples regimes — and mostly does it without weapons or armies. It’s a history that undermines most of what you’ve been told about authority and violence and your own powerlessness.

Civil society is our power, our joy, and our possibility, and it has written a lot of the history in the last few years, as well as the last half century. If you doubt our power, see how it terrifies those at the top, and remember that they fight it best by convincing us it doesn’t exist. It does exist, though, like lava beneath the earth, and when it erupts, the surface of the earth is remade.

Things change. And people sometimes have the power to make that happen, if and when they come together and act (and occasionally act alone, as did writers Rachel Carson and Harriet Beecher Stowe — or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose suicide triggered the Arab Spring).

If you fix your eye on where we started out, you’ll see that we’ve come a long way by those means. If you look forward, you’ll see that we have a long way to go — and that sometimes we go backward when we forget that we fought for the eight-hour workday or workplace safety or women’s rights or voting rights or affordable education, forget that we won them, that they’re precious, and that we can lose them again. There’s much to be proud of, there’s much to mourn, there’s much yet to do, and the job of doing it is ours, a heavy gift to carry. And it’s made to be carried, by people who are unstoppable, who are movements, who are change itself.

Solnit doesn’t deny that at the present juncture, things look grim, with the Arab Spring stalled, the Occupy movement dissipated, and resistance in places like Greece and Spain fading. Then there’s climate change; as she was writing the essay:

The news just came in that we reached 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the highest level in more than five million years. This is terrible news on a scale that eclipses everything else, because it encompasses everything else. We are wrecking our world, for everyone for all time, or at least the next several thousand years.

The last time CO2 levels were so high was probably in the Pliocene epoch, between 3.2m and 5m years ago, when Earth’s climate was much warmer than today.  But, argues Solnit, there are people ‘doing extraordinary things to save the world’:

For you, for us, for generations unborn, for species yet to be named, for the oceans and sub-Saharan Africans and Arctic dwellers and everyone in-between, for the whole unbearably beautiful symphony of life on Earth that is imperilled.

Occupy Sandy
Occupy Sandy: one of the examples given by Solnit of activism that has morphed out of Occupy

But Solnit is sustained by the memory that in 2003, there was no climate movement to speak of (at least in the United States). Now, she says, things have changed.

There’s a vibrant climate movement in North America. If you haven’t quite taken that in, it might be because it’s working on so many disparate fronts that are often treated separately: mountaintop coal removal, coal-fired power plants (closing 145 existing ones to date and preventing more than 150 planned ones from opening), fracking, oil exploration in the Arctic, the Tar Sands pipeline, and 350.org’s juggernaut of a campus campaign to promote disinvestment from oil, gas, and coal companies. Only started in November 2012, there are already divestment movements under way on more than 380 college and university campuses, and now cities are getting on board. It has significant victories; it will have more.

And though global climate agreements have proved feeble

Some countries – notably Germany, with Denmark not far behind – have done remarkable things when it comes to promoting non-fossil-fuel renewable energy. Copenhagen, for example, in the cold gray north, is on track to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025 (and in the meantime reduced its carbon emissions 25% between 2005 and 2011). The United States has a host of promising smaller projects. To offer just two examples, Los Angeles has committed to being coal-free by 2025, while San Francisco will offer its citizens electricity from 100% renewable and carbon-neutral sources and its supervisors just voted to divest the city’s fossil-fuel stocks.

And though Occupy may have faded from the news, it ‘began to say what needed to be said about greed and capitalism, exposing a brutality that had long been hushed up, revealing both the victims of debt and the rigged economy that created it’.  Moreover, Occupy has morphed into ‘thousands of local gatherings and networks’ such as Occupy Sandy, still doing vital work in the destruction zone of that hurricane, and Strike Debt, a movement challenging ‘the immorality of the student, medical, and housing debt that is destroying so many lives’.  She cites the xample, too, of Idle No More, the Canada-based movement of indigenous power and resistance to a Canadian government that has gone in for environmental destruction on a grand scale. Founded by four women in November 2012, it’s spread across North America, sparking environmental actions and new coalitions around environmental and climate issues.

Strike Debt
A Strike Debt protest

Read the essay in full: it’s inspiring.  This is how Rebecca Solnit sums up her message:

Here’s what I’m saying: you should wake up amazed every day of your life, because if I had told you in 1988 that, within three years, the Soviet satellite states would liberate themselves non-violently and the Soviet Union would cease to exist, you would have thought I was crazy. If I had told you in 1990 that South America was on its way to liberating itself and becoming a continent of progressive and democratic experiments, you would have considered me delusional. If, in November 2010, I had told you that, within months, the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had dominated Egypt since 1981, would be overthrown by 18 days of popular uprisings, or that the dictators of Tunisia and Libya would be ousted, all in the same year, you would have institutionalized me. If I told you on September 16, 2011, that a bunch of kids sitting in a park in lower Manhattan would rock the country, you’d say I was beyond delusional. You would have, if you believed as the despairing do, that the future is invariably going to look like the present, only more so. It won’t.

I still value hope, but I see it as only part of what’s required, a starting point. Think of it as the match but not the tinder or the blaze. To matter, to change the world, you also need devotion and will and you need to act. Hope is only where it begins, though I’ve also seen people toil on without regard to hope, to what they believe is possible. They live on principle and they gamble, and sometimes they even win, or sometimes the goal they were aiming for is reached long after their deaths. Still, it’s action that gets you there. When what was once hoped for is realized, it falls into the background, becomes the new normal; and we hope for or carp about something else.

The future is bigger than our imaginations. It’s unimaginable, and then it comes anyway. To meet it we need to keep going, to walk past what we can imagine. We need to be unstoppable. And here’s what it takes: you don’t stop walking to congratulate yourself; you don’t stop walking to wallow in despair; you don’t stop because your own life got too comfortable or too rough; you don’t stop because you won; you don’t stop because you lost. There’s more to win, more to lose, others who need you.

You don’t stop walking because there is no way forward. Of course there is no way. You walk the path into being, you make the way, and if you do it well, others can follow the route. You look backward to grasp the long history you’re moving forward from, the paths others have made, the road you came in on. You look forward to possibility. That’s what we mean by hope, and you look past it into the impossible and that doesn’t stop you either. But mostly you just walk, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. That’s what makes you unstoppable.

Rebecca Solnit: lecture on Hope, May 2011

See also

2 thoughts on “Too Soon to Tell: Rebecca Solnit’s case for Hope, continued

  1. HOPE: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
    Movie quote from: The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Andy Defresne (Tim Robbins)

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