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.”
[*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!]