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Rights + Justice

Rebecca Solnit: 'Hope Is Complicated but Necessary'

The brilliant essayist co-edits a new book on why we need each other.

Dorothy Woodend 11 May

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Trust writers to pierce the very heart of human conundrums.

In their collection, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility, Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua take as their impetus how people around the globe are tackling the greatest challenge of our time.

And it strikes a chord.

Amongst the writing and interviews, one of the brightest bits of green hope comes in an essay by Yotam Marom, “What to do when the World is Ending,” quoting American writer James Baldwin: “Wherever human beings are, we at least have a chance, because we’re not only disasters, we’re also miracles.”

On any given day, I ping-pong between wanting to hit humanity with a shovel to being convinced that the only way forward is with everyone linking arms and singing socialist anthems together. And that’s all before lunch. The twinned polarities of people’s infuriating, then heroic aspects is part of who we are as a species. Perhaps ants feel the same way about other ants?

This emotional push-pull never fails when it comes to human nature, and it’s at the centre of many of the works collected in Not Too Late. One moment you’re despairing of the ongoing corruption of oily oil executives. The next, you’re blown away by the stubborn refusal of ordinary people to give up on ideals of fairness, justice and equality. Argh, humans! And aw, humans. They will always surprise you.

Of the more than 20 essays in the book from writers, activists and organizers, it’s the humanity of the approach taken that is most striking. Not Too Late levels a gentler, more measured approach to social change, suggesting that commonality, the communal and community-driven action are the only ways genuine, far-reaching change can take place. That means trying to get as many folks as possible on board.

In acclaimed American author Rebecca Solnit’s opening essay “Difficult Is Not the Same as Impossible,” notice the capitalized “I” on the word “Is.” It’s there for a reason. Imperative, indeed.

As Solnit writes: “We are deep in an emergency, and we need as many people as possible to do what they can to work towards the best-case scenario and ward off the worst.” This collective impulse is clear from the jump. “Join Us” reads the opening faceplate illustration, a black and white drawing of people marching over top of a toppled oil rig.

But there are other “I’s” that are problematic.

If the collection has one common enemy, it is the culture of individualism. Again, Solnit sums it up best when she writes: “Capitalism encourages us to imagine ourselves as consumers rather than citizens; authorities like us to believe we have no power. These perspectives leave us few options but to modulate our consumption — to change nothing but ourselves and merely implore the powerful to heed our wishes.”

And with that ringing invocation, it’s off to the races, as people seek out ways to dismantle things that are actively destructive as well as posit new and better ways of being.

So, how do we get there?

The case for collective action

Climate-justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar breaks it down in her essay “Here’s Where You Come In,” tackling the most immediate question of what people can do. Heglar flips the question to make it about collective action.

Instead of sad little lonelies taking out the recycling, she advocates for joining the biggest projects around, stuff like ending fossil fuels. Writes Heglar: “Make no mistake about it: overthrowing the fossil-fuel industry is nothing short of a revolution, a rebirth. Our whole world was built on fossil fuels. It should never have happened, but it did. That’s why we need a whole new world, and we all, every single one of us, has a powerful role to play as a midwife in this rebirth.”

From the heated struggle to agree about 1.5-degree temperature change through the Paris Agreement to more personal explorations of what it means to bring a child into a highly unpredictable world, some of these stories are extremely familiar.

You’ve probably read different iterations of the arguments towards transitioning away from fossil fuels many times over. The information isn’t new, and because of this, it’s easy to slide through the facts and figures without much impact. But the overall effect of the book is cumulative. It takes a while to situate itself, roots curling into your heart and gut, even as one’s mind is assaying the scope of the information on offer.

Like a great many books on climate change, I tend to race through the gloomier stuff looking for the things that feel more human and hopeful. Something similar happened with George Monbiot’s book Regenesis and with J.B MacKinnon’s The Day the World Stops Shopping. Even a couple of years after reading MacKinnon’s book, the chapters where he visits the Kalahari people remains stuck firmly in my head. Why?

I can only think that it is the foundational sense of community that MacKinnon found there. I wanted it too, time to hang out around a blazing fire, shoot the shit, yak away, and simply just be, companionably, with other people. It’s this idea that I kept coming back to, how to work collectively, how to make an authentic community. At the heart of it all: how to get along with other humans.

Because as James Baldwin notes earlier in the book, sometimes we are indeed disasters.

The difference between survival and annihilation

When the work of finding consensus on even the smallest, most mundane stuff can seem almost unendurable, imagine what it must feel like to contend with potentially world-ending issues. Except that you don’t have to imagine, because climate policy leader Renato Redentor Constantino lays it all out in his essay “How the Ants Moved the Elephants in Paris.”

Constantino sets the stakes at the outset, writing: “In the six years after the unsuccessful Denmark climate conference, the powerful exerted tremendous effort to keep a tiny number, 1.5 out of the United Nations documents. One-and-a-half degrees Celsius represents what science advises as the maximum allowable rise in the average global temperature relative to pre-industrial temperature levels. Beyond that lurk menacing outcomes.”

He goes on to explain that for many nations, this fraction of a degree represented the difference between “survival and annihilation.” In breaking down how the negotiations went on, the stubborn old stumbling blocks of self-interest again became readily apparent. No country wanted to be counted a villain, and in the face of embarrassment and potential collapse of the talks, more powerful nations essentially blinked in the face of smaller, less powerful nations’ demands for justice.

Again, it’s the scale of the issues and the blunt instruments used to address them, by which I mean sticky old human emotions — hurt feelings, ego, pride, greed — that are most curious. It’s confounding that anything ever gets done at all. But deals are made, compromised are agreed upon and the planet plods along.

The moral of the story is just that: stories. As Constantino explains, “We need stories to remind us why hope is complicated but necessary, because the opposite mode is to live neat lives powered by a self-affirming wireless fidelity to all-terrain gloom, where all the signs point to defeat and despair waits at every turn.”

To the other force, pushing back

As much as I appreciate what Solnit and her co-conspirators are trying to do, there is a sense that a book like Not Too Late needs to be more widely read and adopted. Many of the folk who read it will probably already be familiar with the issues and ideas raised. But what of the other audiences out there? There are many people who need to know that another way is not only possible, but close at hand.

In acclaimed climate scientist Joelle Gergis’s contribution “A Climate Scientist’s Take on Hope,” she describes an encounter with an elderly man who just happened to attend her lecture and came up to express his feelings after the talk at a pub in a small Australian town. It’s in this encounter, in the flesh, where one person can offer their grief and remorse and be soothed by another person, that perhaps deeper, more profound shifts can take place.

Most decisions that a person makes have limited ramifications. They pertain only to a few other folks directly, and will probably only last a limited amount of time. A few years down the road, after your ashes are cast to the four winds, and only a few people remember you and your weird ways, what will it matter?

The answer is not all that much. But there are people in the world, making decisions that will impact many future generations, not only future humans but future everything else. Every tree, bug and whale.

Does it simply not matter to folks who think ‘Well, if I’m not around anymore, the Earth can go straight to hell?’ Cheerio, everybody! Pip Pip!

The turning away from individual needs and demands, with wailing red-faced insistence on entitlement and endless satiation might prove intractable. But as the devastation and poison of hatred continue to take their toll, I believe that the greater preponderance of humans will turn away in innate, almost involuntary disgust.

As much as the ongoing attrition of all that is precious and singular in the world sometimes feels unstoppable, there is another force pushing back.

Humble, ordinary stuff. People doing what they can, where they can, joining up with other like-minded folks to rebuild, repair, and stand off the rising dark.

Miraculous.  [Tyee]

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