Hope in the Dark – Rebecca Solnit writes on hidden possible futures

I’ve recently started reading Rebecca Solnit’s excellent Hope in the Dark, in the hope that it will help stiffen my spine in the face of potential climate change related horrors. 

This small book began life as an online essay written in 2003/4.  Solnit published the essay about six weeks after the US launched its war on Iraq, and was amazed when the piece immediately went the early 2000s version of viral. It was quoted in mainstream media outlets, pirated by a few alternative ones, emailed and printed and passed from hand to hand by people to whom Solnit’s ideas had spoken.  The essay’s success prompted her to expand it into a relatively slender book*, which I’m finding to be quite extraordinary.   

Although it was originally published in 2004, with a new forward written in 2015, the book’s central premise is as compelling as it must have been at first printing, when George W. Bush was still ensconced in the White House, and progressives despaired at their failure to prevent the invasion of Iraq (although in 2004, Donal Trump still generally confined his acts of terrorism to episodes of The Apprentice, when he wasn’t giving speeches about not letting walls stop you from getting where you want to go), .

Solnit maintains the importance of recognising progressive victories that might otherwise go unnoticed or uncelebrated, as we continue to struggle against ongoing injustices against people and planet.  She also advocates for the importance of actively choosing to maintain hope in the face of an uncertain future. 

Hers is not a kind of wishy-washy, Pollyanna, raindrops-on-roses-and-whiskers-on-kittens approach to the future. Her book does not diminish the scale of the problems society faced at the time of writing, nor does she see hope as a kind of airy attitude that can be maintained without concrete action.   

Early in the book, she quotes Virginia Woolf, writing in her diary six months after the outbreak of World War I.  

“The future is dark, which is, on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.”

Rather than taking the darkness to be a metaphor for hopelessness, Solnit interprets this rather as a kind of inscrutability – we cannot see far enough to know what the future will be.  In this uncertainty lies possibility, the opportunity for the future to be less terrible than we fear, but only if we act to secure it.

Reading this as an ebook, I’ve been highlighting the bejesus out of it.  Honestly, it’s so chock-a-block with excellent ideas and quotable quotes, that it’s almost not worth me writing about it – I should just shove a copy into your hands, or flick you a link to where you can buy it, and urge you to read the whole damn thing.  While it’s inspiring read, it’s not ‘inspirational’ – there is definitely no ‘sitting on a beach in flattering active wear and an advanced yoga pose thinking positive thoughts to attract shiny stuff’ vibe to be found within its pages.

“…Hope is not like a  lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky…Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.  Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed.  Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

  Solnit presents real life examples of progress made in the world over the last fifty years or more by dedicated groups of people doing things that they hoped would make a positive difference to the world they lived in. There’s also an acknowledgement of the unknowability of your actions’ impacts.  You may never make a difference, or if you do, may never know that you have until many years later, if at all.  

“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 the Women Strike for Peace (WSP), the first great anti-nuclear movement in the United States, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which brought about the end of aboveground testing of nuclear weapons and of much of the radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth….The woman from WSP 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 — who had become one of the most high-profile activists on the issue — say that the turning point for him was spotting 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.”

My climate-related work today is writing work, which I almost feel to be a bit of a cop out. As I write that, it sounds ridiculous – of course, important work is done by writers on a range of climate change and other social and environmental justice issues – it’s just that I suspect that my writing isn’t actually that important.  And it will certainly never be as clear and compelling as Solnit’s.  

But I’m away this weekend at a friend’s shack, on a designated writing retreat with two other writers, and this is what I’ve said I’ll do – work on a writing project which has climate change as its focus.  This project may make it out into the world eventually, or it may sink beneath the waves of words slopping across my laptop screen and onto my hard drive.  It may be useful to someone or no-one, or merely the externalised product of my internalised mulling process of what makes useful climate change activism.  I am writing from a place of darkness, but I take some courage from Solnit’s thesis;

“Our hope is in the dark around the edges, not in the limelight of center stage.  Our hope and often our power.”

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This was the view from my desk at Sarah’s shack on our DIY writing retreat.  There are worse places.

[*Not that I’ve gained an understanding of the book’s physical heft from my current reading.  This is the first book I’ve ever read on a Kindle (when I bought it last year, then forgot I’d done so, all the hard copies I found had to be sourced from the US at great expense), and I was darkly amused to note the author explicitly naming up Amazon as part of the “new elites and monstrous corporations…with its attack on publishing, authors, and working conditions” within the first few pages of this new edition.  Shame on me!]

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Twelve years.

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The view from my front door.

Yesterday, I met up with my brother and his family for a swim at Seven Mile Beach.  Our two dogs zipped about like deflating helium balloons, while in the shallows, my nieces practiced their body surfing moves, squealing in delighted fear at the tiny waves that lapped around their thighs.

My brother and I swam out to the deeper water, enjoying the break from the hot sun.

“I don’t think I’ve ever swum in water this warm in Tassie,” he said, and come to think of it, I didn’t know if I had either.  The water temperature was disturbingly balmy – not the semi-frigid slosh you’d usually expect at this beach that we’ve been visiting since we were small children ourselves.

“It’s not right, is it?” I asked.  

We ate dinner at the family farm with a friend who’d just flown in from interstate.  “Not often it’s warm enough to sit out here of an evening without it being windy,” my brother observed, and again, I felt uneasy. Weather is not climate, but enough unseasonal warmth and I start to feel a mild sense of panic.  But we pop another bottle of champers, and the fear passes, as we get back to the serious business of the family barbecue.

Today, I spent the morning packing to leave my South Hobart house in a hurry.  The family dictionary, carefully wrapped in a scarf, is bundled into a woven basket, along with our passports, a smattering of family jewellery, some carvings from Micronesia wrapped in a possum fur shawl, a delicately worked mosaic box from Maloula in Syria, holding necklaces worn by my mother, grandmothers and other relatives whose names heat and time have wiped from my mind.    

It’s forecast to be 36 degrees today, hot and windy, and over the mountain —  kunanyi/Mount Wellington — an eerie, dark cloud has appeared.  Winds have pushed the smoke across the state from a fire in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area that’s already nudging 9000 hectares and still moving.  The dog is allowed inside, where he spends the morning prostrate on the floorboards, occasionally picking himself up to make an opportunistic tilt at the cat’s food, as I pack supplies for him, the cat, and the chickens.  I’ve installed a sprinkler in the chook run, which the chickens disdain, and have made sure they have a good supply of green pick to get them through the morning.  I repack some of the camping gear I’ve just unpacked from our latest expedition, stuffing the tent into my backpack with a camp mat, sleeping bag, and first aid kit.

It’s like this every summer here, and liable to get worse.  This morning, I read a document — “Hobart Climate Change – Information for decision making” — which summarises what we can expect to see here in Hobart over the next century.   Longer periods of increasingly hot weather will tie into an increase in the frequencies of bushfires within the Hobart municipality.  And bushfire season will start earlier and earlier.

In October last year, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report stating that we only have twelve years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C, if we want to avoid the worst aspects of climate change.  Twelve. Years.  It’s not very long. 

Last night, in a champagne-infused haze, I had an idea.  This afternoon, I still think it’s a good one.  From now on, I’m going to spend one day a week working to mitigate against the impacts of climate change.  I don’t know what that will look like yet, but I do know that knowing what I do, to continue to do effectively nothing would be immoral.  Setting aside a day a week makes it a real commitment, not a vague worrying about the climate, intermittently punctuated by a bit of internet petition signing or the occasional rally or fit of existential angst.  A considerable chunk of my valuable, finite time, for our valuable, finite world.

I’m not someone with a huge amount of spare time – I work part-time, I write when I can, and am just about to start a part-time Masters degree, which will involve training my dog to detect endangered owls.  I have no idea how I’ll meet my pre-existing commitments before I give up a day a week for climate action, or if I can even afford to.  But as someone in a relatively well-off position, I feel that I need to use my privilege more effectively for the greater good.

Today, my day is about research, and thinking and coming up with a plan.  I’m going to detail what I get up to, and how I personally try to tackle climate change issues, not because I think what I am doing is particularly special, but because I feel that if I can show ways that I can work practical climate change related actions into my already busy life, then maybe, other people might consider that they could do this too.  This won’t be my most polished writing – I don’t have time to edit it as tightly as I’d like – but it will hopefully be some of my most thoughtful.

Until next week, 

Yours in climate-related anxiety,

Nicole

Baby swift parrotses!

Yesterday, I went to Bruny Island with Team Swift Parrot, and watched them torturing adorable baby gremlin birds.  Photographic evidence attached.

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Dr Dejan Stojanovic hypnotising a baby swift parrot before taking its blood.

As well as taking these tiny, flooffy, incredibly rowdy fuzz-buckets from their nests, they also measured them, weighed them in ziplock bags, and stole their feathers and blood, allegedly for science, but I have it on good authority that researcher Dr Dejan Stojanovic (pictured above) actually uses the blood from these helpless babies as a key ingredient for his elixir of eternal youth (he’s actually 763).

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Latest horrifying pet trend to emerge from Tasmania – birds in bags.

More details on the terrible things they do to adorable baby dinosaur creatures in the name of conservation can be found at the Difficult Birds website.

Slightly belated gloating…

I won a thing!

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The Hazards – granite-a-rama!

This year, two Tasmanian National Parks are celebrating their centenaries – Mt. Field and Freycinet on the beautiful east coast.

At the end of August, I had the pleasure of spending a lovely weekend up at Coles Bay, in a house looking out to the Hazards,  and participating in the 100th birthday celebrations for Freycinet National Park.

Part of the celebrations involved the announcement of winners of the the 2016 Tasmanian Wildcare Nature Writing Prize.  I’m really pleased to have been announced as one of the runners-up for this prize, for my essay Selling the Farm, much of which was written while I was on retreat on a fabulous Dombrovskis Parks and Wildlife Residency at Lake St Clair National Park.

Overall prize winner Harriet Riley came all the way over from New York to join myself, judge Sarah Day, and members of the Tasmanian Writers Centre – we had a lot of fun over the weekend, and did our very best to support Tasmanian champers and cheese producers 🙂  You can read Harriet’s winning essay Endings – On Love and Extinction in the latest Island mag, which I encourage you all to go out and subscribe to.

My essay will be available for public consumption shortly – stay tuned for more details.

Put a bird on it! 10 reasons you should become a birdwatcher

Bill Oddie is renowned for it. Jonathan Franzen creates controversy around it.

Bill Bailey devotes entire comedy and TV shows to his love of it.

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Tawny frogmouths – birds worth watching, if you can find them in the first place.

Bird watching is undergoing a sort of renaissance, with paid up members of bird-loving organizations on the rise in Australia and beyond. I think these newly-minted birdos are onto something – here’s why you should consider joining them:

  1. You can do it anywhere. From the depths of the concrete jungle to the outermost offshore island, look around you for long enough, and eventually, you’ll see a bird. Urban areas might not provide the most exciting array of birds to ogle, but don’t write them off as possible bird watching locations. I’ve done some of my best birding, martini in one hand, binoculars in the other, propped on the balcony at someone else’s house. Which leads me to…
  1. The refreshments. With hobbit-like enthusiasm, seasoned birdos tend to conduct their bird watching sorties fully kitted out with vintage thermoses and a delightful array of home-baked goods. Take a break from squinting through your binoculars with a nice cuppa and a slice of Aunty Vera’s prize-winning fruitcake, or impress your new friends with your latest chia choc-chip cookie recipe.
  1. Location, location, location! Bird watching provides a great excuse to take impromptu trips to exotic locations, on the premise of spotting some rare vagrant bird rumoured to have once considered landing there. Travelled halfway across the country, yet failed to bag your bird? Who cares? You’re at a scenic sewage treatment plant in Alice Springs!
  1. The fashion is fabulous, dahling. Whether you have a penchant for pockets, or a taste for tweed, there’s a practical yet flattering bird watching look to suit you. Skinny jeans aside, there’s actually quite an overlap between hipster fashion and trad bird watching attire, and many older birdos, both male and female, sport impressive, stroke-worthy facial hair. Leather elbow pads, anyone?
  1. The romance, and all it may lead to. Bird watching offers erotically charged opportunities unrivalled by any hookup app. Romantic moments in secluded bird hides. Skin brushing against skin as binoculars are passed from hand to trembling hand, as you watch sensual dance of the Brolgas, or perhaps admire the slightly earthier courtship rituals of the Musk Duck. You won’t be getting any of that action on Tinder.
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Exceedingly rare or common as the proverbial – both orange-bellied parrots and beautiful firetails are both worth a look.

  1. Cheap thrills for the avid collector. Ever rummaged through a vintage op-shop and unearthed a fantastic collectors’ piece, only to have your heart stop when you saw its price tag? Birds are free, man.
  1. Bird watching lets you say ridiculous things with a straight face. See a great pair of Boobies the other day? Tell all your friends! Desperate for a bit of Hairy Woodpecker action, or perhaps lusting after a Fluffy-backed Tit Babbler? Don’t be ashamed to put that out there. Bonus: many of these entertaining bird monikers double as potential insults. Try calling someone a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, or an Agile Tit Tyrant, and see if they mistake your intentions.
  1. On the topic of outrageousness, birds provide an ongoing source of anecdotes, allowing you to indulge in a spot of scandalous gossip with limited social repercussions. Entertain your friends with titillating stories of the Kardashian-esque sex lives of fairy wrens, the stand-over tactics of the cuckoo mafia, or the brain-munching antics of zombie tits!
  1. Bird watching is a part of human nature. As soon as human children first stumble to their feet, they are possessed of a deep-seated need to chase seagulls, in the apparent hope of stuffing them into their mouths for further analysis. While most of us outgrow the mouth-stuffing bit, our instinctive fascination with birds remains. Who are you to deny biology?
  1. It’s actually quite fun. But don’t tell everyone – they’ll all want a piece of it.

Disclosure statement: The author does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any birds that would benefit from this article.Firetails Melaleuca

Keep your cats inside. For everyone’s sake. Vale Ozzie the cockatiel.

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Vale Ozzie. Fabulous little cockatiel, and occasional shelf ornament.

I just found out that Ozzie the cockatiel, beloved feather-baby of my friend Leah  and honoured guest in my house last year, was killed by a roaming pet cat, who attacked him inside his cage, tearing off one of his wings. He had to be put down.

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Ozzie loved eating Post-It notes, chewing on important pieces of paper, and whistling Jingle Bells off-key.

Caught in the act of destroying my "to do" list, Ozzie takes offence at me documenting the offence.

Caught in the act of destroying my “to do” list, Ozzie takes offence at me documenting the offence.

He was seven years old – young for a cockatiel – these Australian natives can live up to 20 years in captivity, and are intelligent, loving companions.

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This is Ozzie and his beloved Ugg boot. Some might say he loved the boot a little too much…

Feral and other marauding cats kill millions of animals every night across the country, doubtless many wild cockatiels among them. Not all of them have names, personal histories that tie them to humans like Ozzie, but all of them are vital, living parts of the complicated landscape that we call home.

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Native birds in battle for habitat on the kitchen shelf.

Cats do not need to roam outdoors. Sure, most like to, but it’s not strictly necessary for their happiness and well-being. I’d like to spend my whole life frolicking at the beach drinking fancy cocktails and eating green tea ice cream whilst receiving foot massages, but we can’t have it all.Ozzie likes TasCountry

My cat never goes outside, and is rarely seen listening to Morrissey records, moping around in heavy black make-up or looking longingly at razorblades. I make sure she has fun things to play with indoors, feed her a healthy diet, and occasionally sling a tennis ball her way for her to murder like the mesopredator she is.

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Keep your cats inside. Desex them. Microchip them. Love them and keep them safe from cars, disease, dogs and other animals. Keep the local wildlife and other people’s pets safe from your cat. It’s better for everyone.  Ozzie's to do list