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19 October 2022

Rebecca Solnit: Why climate despair is a luxury

Those facing flood and fire can’t afford to lose hope. Neither should we.

By Rebecca Solnit

When you take on hope, you take on its opposites and opponents: despair, defeatism, cynicism and pessimism. And, I would argue, optimism. What all these enemies of hope have in common is confidence about what is going to happen, a false certainty that excuses inaction. Whether you feel assured that everything is going to hell or will all turn out fine, you are not impelled to act. All these postures undermine participation in political life in ordinary times, and in the climate movement in this extraordinary time. They are generally both wrong in their analysis and damaging in their consequences.

Not acting is a luxury those in immediate danger do not have, and despair something they cannot afford. But despair is all around us, telling us the problems are insoluble, that we are not strong enough, our efforts are in vain, no one really cares, and human nature is fundamentally corrupt. Some push their view like evangelists, not merely surrendering to defeat but campaigning vigorously on its behalf. I’ve encountered a lot of them since I began to talk about hope almost 20 years ago.

In 2003 I wrote an essay called “Hope in the Dark” that became the 2004 book of that title. I was responding to the immediate crisis of the moment – the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, which, like Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, is all about the ways that fossil fuels feed despotism, violence and corruption. What I saw all around me, in friends and allies and the US anti-war movement, was a series of leaps. They began with “We did not stop the war” – which was true, though opposition delayed it and changed its shape – and went from there to a cascade of conclusions that were not true: “we didn’t do anything”; “we have no power”; “we never win”; “we can’t win”.

[See also: “I haven’t met a politician ready to do what it takes”: Greta Thunberg and Björk in conversation]

What motivated me to write the essay wasn’t only the desire to assuage the grief and sense of powerlessness that arose when the war broke out. It was exhilaration from the sense of history and the theory of change I’d gathered, both as a student of the past and as a witness to, and sometimes minor participant in, history-making in the present. If you do not take the long view, you cannot see how campaigns build, how beliefs change, how what was once thought impossible or outlandish comes to be the status quo, and how the last half-century has been an extraordinary period of change for society, beliefs and values. Today may seem the same as yesterday, but this decade is profoundly different from the last. 

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I had, in the dozen years before 2003, seen indigenous peoples of the Americas rise up, seize power, rewrite history, reclaim rights, language, pride, ceremony. I had an inkling that these peoples consigned to the past – told that they were doomed and their ways were archaic – would be crucial leaders in the future we needed. That has come to pass in important ways, both conceptually and practically. Indigenous ideas about our inseparability from and responsibility to the natural world have reshaped the moral imaginations of many of the rest of us. Indigenous people are climate leaders and land protectors around the world. A 2021 study by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International (on whose board I serve) documents that, in North America, indigenous-led efforts have in the past decade stopped or delayed what amounts to at least a quarter of US and Canadian greenhouse gas emissions.

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These were descendants of people who faced, as my friend the climate organiser Yotam Marom recently wrote, the end of their world and in important ways did not give up. As Julian Aguon, a climate activist from Guam, recently put it, indigenous peoples are those who “have a unique capacity to resist despair through connection to collective memory and who just might be our best hope to build a new world rooted in reciprocity and mutual respect – for the Earth and for each other. The world we need. The world of our dreams.”

Aguon’s emphasis on collective memory tells us what the American theologian Walter Brueggemann has put another way: “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” The past equips us to face the future; continuity of memory tells us we are both descendants and ancestors. Perhaps the astonishing changes of the past equip us to imagine that more lie ahead, and not to confuse the inability to imagine a future with the impossibility of having one.

Before I wrote that 2003 essay, other events had started to feed my sense of hope, including the unforeseen collapse first of the Soviet satellite states of eastern Europe in 1989, through non-violent direct action after long years of organising, and then the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, ending the Cold War. No one really saw it coming, which taught me that history is full of ruptures and surprises. Beyond that I saw huge shifts in the status of women, people of colour, people with disabilities and queer people, thanks to movements and to innumerable everyday acts of courage and revolt by individual members of those groups.

I saw how new ideas often travel from the margins and the shadows to the centre, to the limelight where people – judges, presidents, prime ministers, international bodies – make decisions. If you don’t follow the sequence of events over years or decades, you can believe that these are the powerful handing down change, rather than see that change began outside and below, and grew until the powerful were obliged to ratify it.

I saw that those who are supposed to be powerless – writers and scholars, grass-roots organisers and movements, visionaries, the disparaged and overlooked – have changed the world again and again. I learned some of this first hand as an anti-nuclear activist and a member, from 1992 to about 1995, of the Western Shoshone Defense Project, a land-rights campaign led by the matriarchal ranchers and sisters Mary and Carrie Dann, from their ancestral land in eastern Nevada. 

[See also: Climate finance explained: Who pays to solve the inequality gap?]

And so in the Bush era I went on the road to try to, as Jesse Jackson had urged in his 1988 presidential campaign, “keep hope alive”. I met with many kinds of response – relief, joy, good questions, powerful stories, and sometimes rage. The rage, to my surprise, came largely from middle-class white people. They seemed to see despair as a form of solidarity and hope as a betrayal. Underneath this was, so far as I could tell, the assumption that whatever the cause in question, it was doomed and so we could start mourning right away.

But you shouldn’t mourn those who aren’t dead. Doing so stuffs the living into coffins, at the very least in your imagination. Native North Americans, from the 19th century into the 1990s, were regularly told – through artworks and by bureaucrats and signage in museums and national parks and history books – that their cultural or literal demise was inevitable. Non-native people widely believed it. I have met native people who were told to their faces they were extinct. The people who said these things often saw themselves as sympathising with those they regarded as history’s victims, but told this story in ways that reinforced it.

The same harmful story is told of communities on the front lines of climate change, when it is suggested they cannot win and have no future; but, as Aguon points out, they are themselves fiercely hopeful. Prophecies are always partly self-fulfilling; by promoting whatever outcome they describe, they make it more likely. In this we can distinguish them from warnings, which assume the outcome is as yet undecided, and urge us away from the worst version. “You could be annihilated” is a very different statement from “You will be annihilated”. One includes room to act; the other puts nails in the coffin.

[See also: Carbon emissions tracker: How do countries compare?]

For those of us whose lives are already easy, giving up means making life even easier, at least in terms of effort. For the directly impacted, it means surrendering to devastation. Giving up on their behalf is not solidarity. And I doubt that anyone in desperate straits has ever taken comfort from the idea that somewhere far safer, people are bitter and despondent on their behalf.

The desperate themselves are sometimes embittered and exhausted, but often stubbornly hopeful. Even if they would say they don’t hope, their perseverance is itself a kind of hope, a refusal to surrender. Despair can be true as an emotion, but false as an analysis. Even when it is realistic as an analysis, many still stand up and resist on principle. I’ve seen that spirit of defiance in communities on the climate front line. It’s why the Pacific Climate Warriors, who campaign in 15 Pacific island nations threatened by sea-level rise, say: “We are not drowning. We are fighting.”

Back when I wrote “Hope in the Dark”, I was inspired by the Zapatistas, the indigenous visionaries who rose up in 1994 against centuries of genocide continued by the Mexican government and landowners in Chiapas. They were hopeful when in 2019, 25 years into their revolution, the Zapatistas claimed 11 new territories, as is clear in the names they chose for two of them: “Esperanza de la Humanidad” (Hope of Humanity) and “Floreciendo la semilla rebelde” (The rebellious seed blooms).

So was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of immigrant, often undocumented farm workers in Florida who fought battle after battle against major powers and won. They got better wages by winning campaigns against the largest fast-food and supermarket chains in the US; they fought modern-day slavery in the fields and sent the enslaving farm owners to prison, and they never stopped. Most people asked to bet on, say, undocumented farm workers vs McDonald’s would have put their money on the latter – and lost.

In those years after 2003, I talked about hope to a lot of audiences. One of the most memorable was a group of working-class people of many races – night students at a community college in Tacoma, Washington state. I asked them for their perspectives and wrote afterwards: “Some had memories of the civil rights movement, some identified with their fellow Mexicans who’d risen up as the Zapatistas, and a small, elegant woman about my age said, in a voice of bell-like clarity, ‘I think that is right. If I had not hoped, I would not have struggled. And if I had not struggled, I would not have survived Pol Pot.’ It was a stunning statement, by a Cambodian immigrant whose hope must have been small and narrow at the time – just to survive.” But it was hope.

“To hope is to risk”: an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, 2019. Photo by Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Proclaiming someone’s or something’s defeat contributes to it. It’s a form of sabotage. This is as true of the climate movement as anything else – in fact, it is bedevilled with defeatists and doomsayers. I remember that we were never going to stop the Keystone XL pipeline – or so said the armchair experts who, by discouraging participation, essentially campaigned for that outcome. The death blow was delivered to KXL in early 2021, but so many campaigns and the climate movement as a whole would be a lot easier without this disparagement, which serves as a brake when we need accelerators.

I regularly come across people who are not as engaged as climate activists or as informed as climate scientists, who confidently proclaim that no one cares, no one is doing anything, the problems are insoluble, the solutions don’t exist or won’t work, and often even some version of either “Life on Earth will soon terminate” or “We are all going to die”. Sometimes these things are said by anxious and despondent people, and my heart goes out to them, especially if they’re young. (The nottoolateclimate.com project I run with Thelma Young Lutunatabua is for them – a website, forthcoming book and series of talks, all offering good facts and frameworks.)

But sometimes, powerful people seem to say it triumphantly, more eager to convince others than question their own assumptions or listen to scientists. Not a few people (particularly white men, it seems) confident in their own competence, write screeds of defeatism and doom. As the climate journalist Emily Atkin declared in 2019: “I’m tired of having to spend hours consuming and debunking messy-yet-blockbuster climate reporting from dudes who seemingly woke up a few mornings beforehand and decided they were climate journalists.” Such “first-time climate dudes”, as Atkin calls them, often misinterpret the science, the movements and the popular will.

Others seem eager to deliver alarming news and unable to interpret complex data or sift for credibility, as with a Scottish newspaper that in the spring of 2022 ran a front-page story misinterpreting one already dubious source to announce that the Atlantic Ocean was as good as dead. The story prompted despair in people all too willing to defer to the presumed authority of a newspaper. I remain confounded that this is what some people want to contribute to the public conversation; to me it’s like bringing poison to the potluck.

Some poor generalist in California wrote an editorial recently about how to address the fact that “Americans don’t care about climate change”, and thereby incurred my bombardment with links to evidence that, while that might once have been the case, many recent studies show otherwise. Most Americans believe support for climate action is far lower than it really is, another obstacle to be overcome, one that this columnist was reinforcing. In this case, the writer seemed simply uninformed about public opinion; but others see despair as an identity, a style, armour to put on before venturing out into the world.

To prophesy doom is to proclaim your own oracular powers. To take a cynical stance is to strive to seem worldly, to position yourself as someone who can’t be fooled – though cynicism is often foolish about what is possible and how the world works. I have rarely seen people lambasted for being wrong in predicting defeat and destruction, while those who suggest something positive might transpire are often mocked and scorned as soon as they open their mouths. Perhaps their detractors confuse being open to possibility with naïveté; maybe they love certainty more than possibility. Uncertainty brings its own anxiety, but it’s one we must come to terms with, because it is the essential nature of the future.

Despair’s cheerleaders offer the same message that institutions all around us do: that power resides in the few, at the top. Part of resistance must consist in refusing to believe them, and this can be reinforced by better versions of history and theories of change. These can include the terror of the powerful when ordinary people exercise their power. This has been on display from the late-1990s anti-globalisation movement to 2011’s Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring, to the George Floyd protests of 2020, as well as in power’s response to the climate movement itself.

Also instructive is the way large, successful actions usually began small. The New England women selling aprons at anti-slavery fundraisers in the 1840s could not assume their contributions would help build a movement to abolish slavery in the US; a lone Swedish teenager protesting climate inaction could not reasonably expect her impact to be immense.

What motivates us to act is a sense of possibility within uncertainty – that the outcome is not yet fully determined and our actions may matter in shaping it. This is all that hope is, and we are all teeming with it, all the time, in small ways. We plant a seed expecting both that it might grow and we might be around to see it grow, to admire the flower or eat the fruit. We buy 5lb of flour in the expectation we’ll live long enough to do that much baking; we buy a ticket for a trip weeks or months away. We may be run over by a bus on our way out for coffee, but we hope we’ll be around to drink the whole cup and get on with our day. 

I’ve often tasted depression as hopelessness that the bleakness of the present will ever change; as those states of mind when nothing seems worthwhile, and the obstacles to anything better seem insurmountable. Disciplines and routines have been one way of keeping the gloom at bay. But I’ve also learned that the feeling that nothing will change is just mental weather, and that the record is all in favour of change. That’s helped, too, and it’s why I try to distinguish between despair as a feeling and a forecast.

If we can recognise that we don’t know what will happen, that the future does not yet exist but is being made in the present, then we can be moved to participate in making that future. We can be skilful enough to make directed efforts, and sophisticated enough to know that results remain unpredictable. Many acts have had a huge positive impact but not immediately or directly, and so learning to value slow and indirect consequences is crucial to recognising the nature of change. 

Uninformed and misplaced hope leads to fruitless effort and disappointment. One of the complexities of climate change activism is that there is much to hope for, but within the parameters of the possible. For example, we can with swift and heroic effort stabilise global temperature, scientists tell us – but that will not stop the ice sheets melting and the seas rising for centuries to come (though it will help with the pace and extent of that melting). We can campaign for proven solutions and honest innovations, and not be taken in by the distractions, delaying tactics and false solutions now being pushed by the same interests who once brought us climate denial.

To hope is to risk. It’s to take a chance on losing. It’s also to take a chance on winning, and you can’t win if you don’t try (even though the campaign may be won without you). We who have materially safe and comfortable lives, and who are part of societies that contribute the lion’s share of greenhouse gases, do not have the right to surrender on behalf of others. We have the obligation to act in solidarity with them. This begins by recognising that the future has not yet been decided, because we are deciding it now.

[See also: UK cities must adapt to a changing climate]

This article appears in a special issue of the New Statesman guest edited by Greta Thunberg and featuring contributors including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Ai Weiwei and Björk. Read more from the issue here.

This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency