Act: Inspiration

Climate Change, Hope, and Revolution: Notes for Dark and Gloomy Times

June 8, 2017

The other day I was invited to speak in a colleague’s Environmental Studies class, called, simply, “Hope.”  It happened to be the day after Donald Trump had uttered his calculated, genocidal stupidities about the Paris Agreement (which he kept calling the “Paris Accord”).  By now, a hundred thousand words of outrage, resolve, and analysis have been written and spoken.  Let’s go in the opposite direction, then.

I’m trying to remember when I first associated hope and revolution.  I had been working on a theory of revolutions (long story, longer project).  I was searching for what prompted ordinary people to leave everything behind and engage in what seem to outsiders to be extraordinary acts of courage and determination.  After some time I felt this arose from what I have come to call (sociologist that I am fated to be) strong and vibrant political cultures of opposition and creation. The bedrock of what I mean by a radical political culture is the subjective side of life here on Mother Earth:  memories, experiences, and emotion. Ideologies – generally this meant some form of “socialism” throughout the twentieth century, or today, thinking wishfully, perhaps, “ecosocialism” – may help people make sense of their experiences, but more often, it was simple yet powerful ordinary speech and terms like dignity, justice, equality, or freedom.

Years later, when I was studying the global justice movement, I came across a striking expression by David Solnit, one of the new, more “horizontalist” generation of activists that this movement was attracting.  As I saw it:

The latter half of the 1990s witnessed the rise of a global justice movement, a “movement of movements” that achieved public visibility when a broad gathering of students, union activists, and environmentalists joined in civil disobedience and direct action to shut down the meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in November 1999. If we focus especially on the political cultures of creation that animate the global justice movement, we can see some … novel features, many of them paralleling the Zapatista rebellion. On the subjective side of experience and emotion, it is useful to point out that love – of life, of people, of justice – often nurtures the vital force that impels ordinary people into extraordinary acts. Expressing hope and optimism, it provides a constructive counterpoint to those other powerful animating emotions, hatred and anger. To this, we may add the subjective experience of hope (is hope an emotion?), which offers people a positive vision of the future to counter feelings of hopelessness and despair. In the words of David Solnit, one of the organizers of the spectacular Seattle action of 1999: “Hope is key. If our organizations, analysis, visions and strategies are lanterns, then hope is the fuel that makes them burn bright and attracts people to them.” Hope and love sustain the emotional foundations of the new political cultures of creation, as attested in [Velcro Ripper’s] 2013 film Occupy Love.

David’s older sister, Rebecca Solnit, was also a kind of prophetic voice for me. Her 2005 book, Hope in the Dark, captivated me.  She has since touched me with an unceasing stream of exquisitely heart-felt essays that spoke very directly to me, one of which I quote at length below.

Another strand here is the Zapatistas, whom one of my students at Smith College, Becca Wanner, back around 2001 called “professionals of hope.” I searched to see if she or someone else had first used the term, and recently I came across it on the cover of a book that may have never been published of the collected writings of Zapatista poet and subcomandante, Marcos.  The Zapatistas were anything but “professional,” yet hope was indeed their stock in trade, one of their special ingredients.  It still is…

When – as with climate change – we are dealing with something scary, unprecedented, wicked, and huge – something which causes a lot of anxiety, depression, and despair [a word whose etymology, in French and in Spanish, seems to derive from the lack of hope) – hope seems integral to our future.  The youth of the global climate justice movement are professionals of hope too, in that same slightly ironic sense.

Even for those who seem to have deliberately abandoned hope, such as the brilliant former global justice movement activist Paul Kingsnorth (author of One Yes, Many Nos, one of the very best books that we have on it), we remain on the terrain of hope.  Reading across his Dark Mountain Project and its poetic Manifesto, which concludes “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us,” it seems to me that even if we live without the solace of hope, we can still remember its taste.  Perhaps a better approach under the circumstances might be that of Joana Macy, whose 2012 book with Chris Johnstone, Active Hope, is aptly subtitled How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.

What better way, then, to make the link between hope in this sense and the climate justice revolution I dream of than to take a look at the long opening quote by Rebecca Solnit in an essay I wrote on New Year’s Day 2015?

My title – “Year Zero for Climate Justice” – is not original.  As in many things radical, Rebecca Solnit has already given expression to some of my deepest feeling-thoughts, in words as relevant today as they were when she wrote them several years ago:

Think of 2013 [read 2017 now] as the Year Zero in the battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or lose bigger….  The gifts you’ve already been given in 2012 [or in 2016] include a struggle over the fate of the Earth.  This is probably not exactly what you asked for, and I wish it were otherwise – but to do good work, to be necessary, to have something to give:  these are the true gifts.  And at least there’s a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair….

If you care about children, health, poverty, farmers, food, hunger, or the economy, you really have no choice but to care about climate change.  The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come.  But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens….

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 wellbeing 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.

2014 was the hottest year in recorded history, followed by 2015, then 2016.  Now 2017 is here.  The future is right around the corner.  Think of this year as year zero of that crucial decade where our future will be set in motion, for better or worse.

Especially in the dark hours after the clueless Trump administration took the United States out of the tepid Paris Agreement, we have to rely on our own resources.  Hope will undoubtedly be found in climate justice radicals’ backpacks, alongside its friends and comrades love, the radical imagination, and our dreams of justice.  Together, they offer us a vocabulary of possibilities.

And of the many futures that are possible, which one will we make? The world we want, and the futures we must have, can’t be built without this bag of tricks.


I wake in the morning and I step outside

and I take a deep breath and I get real high and                                            

I scream at the top of my lungs  WHAT’S GOIN ON?

and I try, oh my god do I try                                                           

I try all the time, in this institution

And I pray, oh my god do I pray
I pray every single day
For a revolution.

Twenty Five years and my life is still                                       

Trying to get up that great big hill of hope

For a destination…

What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes

“The World in 2050” – Corrie Ellis.  By permission.  Find it here.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate justice movement