Clare Bryden. Wiggle room in the universe. The Porch Magazine, October 2016. Available on The Porch website (paywall).
Last year, I wrote a review of Rebecca Solnit’s vision of “Hope in the Dark” for Issue #1 of The Porch magazine. Now the magazine is on Issue #3, The Porch has kindly allowed me to cross-post it here.
“Hope in the Dark” was originally published in the Bush years as ‘an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists’. It sold out after Trump’s victory in December. So here also are Rebecca Solnit on Hope, Lies, and Making Change on WNYC in January this year; and from earlier in 2016, Brain Pickings’ reflections on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change.
Activists come in all shapes and sizes.
My particular interest is in sustainability, especially in economics and climate change, and until 2009 I was an insider working in consultancy and government science. But more recently, my tendency has been toward what might be called the outlying practices of contemplative prayer, living the change, conceptual art, and writing.
Rebecca Solnit has been an outlier since the 1980s – a social justice activist who is committed to direct action; and a writer compelled to weave beauty into the conversation about the things that compassion demands we change. She first wrote Hope in the Dark in 2003-04 for activists, to “make the case for hope… against the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq”. This third edition includes a new foreword and afterwords, reflecting on the intervening twelve years. It is a timely publication, during a bizarre US presidential election in which it seems the stakes couldn’t be higher, and at a moment which demands urgent and significant action on climate change.
For Solnit, Hope in the Dark “is one part of a vast, ongoing conversation about who we are, what powers we have, and what we can do with them”. It is now part of the conversation in my head, with other books and ideas that have inspired me; another piece in my mental jigsaw of how I can be what the world needs.
When she locates hope in “the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act”, I am reminded of how much wiggle room there is in the universe. Not just in the uncertainty inherent in quantum physics, but also in our minds: the wisdom available to us through what Jung called our unconscious, which, at its best, dances with our linear Cartesian thinking brain.
Solnit quotes Paul Goodman: “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!” My linear logical mind is uncertain whether my small attempts to live that way now or my contemplative prayer practice are really making a difference. But my unconscious, in its dark unknowing, convinces me that I must continue in that uncertainty.
Donald Rumsfeld recognized the existence of uncertainty in his “unknown unknowns”, but he left out or never saw the unknown knowns, those things we don’t like to admit. Walter Brueggemann wrote in The Prophetic Imagination of the need for prophetic grief in the face of how the Powers that Be deny change and death, and their wrong-headed insistence on perpetual business-as-usual. Solnit agrees that hope “is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine… grief and hope can coexist.”
She invites us to imagine how things could have happened differently and better if 9/11 had not been followed by lies and propaganda that served the Bush government. Such imagination is a powerful tool. She also invites us to imagine (as in It’s a Wonderful Life) how things could have happened differently and worse if we had not acted. It is important to acknowledge those victories that look like nothing has happened: the environmentally destructive road that wasn’t built, or the fracking that was banned.
There are so many stories of victories, and individual and collective histories of change: but we are somehow trained to downplay or even erase them in the face of today’s struggles. For Solnit, hope is the branches that grow out of the roots of recovering such memory. Much of Hope in the Dark is story and memory – “examples of positive change, of popular power, evidence that we can do it and have done it” – and this is primarily what will continue to resonate for me in my own activist ups and downs.
Alongside Solnit’s stories of the Zapatistas, Silent Spring, Nunavut, and many others, we can set still more. I recently re-read Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul, an account of two successful campaigns in Scotland against a proposed super quarry on the Isle of Harris, and for land reform on the Isle of Eigg. Like many, these victories were incomplete. Land ownership is still concentrated in the hands of very few. Quarries will still be opened until we stop building unnecessary roads and use only recycled sources of crushed rock.
This is the essence of what Solnit calls a “seventy-seven cent victory”. Such a victory doesn’t shut activism down either in the mistaken belief that we have won and our work is finished, or because a perfect victory is not immediately possible. Instead, it celebrates winning an increase in women’s pay from sixty-six cents to seventy-seven cents relative to the male dollar, vowing not to stop until parity is attained.
McIntosh’s activism is inspired by Walter Wink’s writing on naming, unmasking and engaging the powers. Solnit doesn’t directly draw on Wink, but often nods to his approach, for example: “Making an injury visible and public is usually the first step in remedying it”. In the case of climate change, we should celebrate the investigative journalism which revealed how Exxon suppressed information about the impact of climate change, and the achievement of the Paris Agreement despite struggles1 – while recognising how much further we still need to go and how rapidly the room to act offered by uncertainty is shrinking.
In one of the new additions to this edition, Solnit issues a challenge: “This is the time to find your place in [the climate movement].” I first found my place there in the early 1990s, and have to agree. The quotation (slightly out of context) that for me sums up Hope in the Dark is: “Here are some stories about other things BUT CLIMATE IS BIGGER THAN THIS”. Thankfully, each story has also inspired me to recall my own; and to reaffirm the knowledge that others have achieved what they also once believed impossible. It can happen again.