Hope Amid Climate Chaos: A Conversation With Rebecca Solnit
From throwing soup against paintings to blocking roads to striking for the climate to stopping private jets from taking off, activists worldwide are pushing harder than ever for action to address global warming. And they are delivering a clear and consistent message: what has long been accepted as the status quo—expanding fossil fuels, investing in polluting industries, oil and gas propaganda, greenwashing, climate change denial, governmental delay in climate action—is simply not acceptable anymore. The climate movement is working incessantly to make this clear to everyone.
When we talk about any movement, including the push for climate action, we’re talking about a “zeitgeist, a change in the air,” writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay turned book Hope in the Dark, which focuses on the intersection of activism, social change, and hope. It’s this last element, hope, that can become “an electrifying force in the present,” Solnit writes, “a sense that there might be a door at some point, some way out of the problems of the present moment even before it is found or followed.”
As activists and others work toward this door, they do so with the belief that there is still time to act and that the climate is worth fighting for. These same convictions are at the core of Solnit and storyteller Thelma Young Lutunatabua’s most recent project, Not Too Late, which offers perspectives, resources, and “good paths forward” for those who care about the climate. The pair are also transforming the project into a book, coming April 2023, with contributions by activists, authors, experts, journalists, and others from around the globe.
I spoke with Solnit about hope and the future of climate action in the face of intensifying impacts from global warming, oil and gas industry propaganda and greenwashing, violence against activists, and inaction by political leaders. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Stella Levantesi: In Hope in the Dark you wrote that hope requires imagination and clarity, and in your latest essay published by the Guardian, you said that every crisis is a storytelling crisis. The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh also said that the climate crisis is a cultural crisis and, thus, a crisis of imagination. If we cannot imagine it, tell it, be culturally immersed in it, how can we face it? How do we reconcile these three dimensions: the climate crisis, imagination, and hope? And if we succeed in reconciling them, what can that lead to?
Rebecca Solnit: I always feel it’s very important to clear up the distinction between hope and optimism. For me, optimism is a form of certainty: everything will be fine; therefore, nothing is required of us, which is really the same as cynicism and pessimism and despair. Hope for me is just recognizing that the future is being decided to some extent in the present, and what we do matters because of that reality.
I think the fundamental role of imagination and hope is just the ability to imagine a world that’s different from what it is now. [Writer] Adrienne Maree Brown once said that all organizing is science fiction because you’re imagining something that doesn’t exist yet. But of course, it’s like, what is it that you’re imagining? I find that so many people around me are very good at imagining everything falling apart, everything getting worse. They’re good at dystopia; they’re bad at utopia.
There’s a lot of reasons why people find dystopia very credible and utopia or improvements hard to comprehend. I think some of that comes from amnesia. If you don’t know how much the world has been changed, to some extent for the better, how much the climate movement has achieved, then you don’t really have a picture of how change works either.
Levantesi: We imagine hope as something that has to do with the future solely, but you’ve underscored it’s not just about the future. What is the role of memory in hope?
Solnit: Various people, including the theologian Walter Brueggemann and the climate activist and lawyer Julian Aguon, talk about memory as crucial to hope. And I share their belief. If you don’t understand the past, you don’t understand that people have faced the end of their world. Things change powerfully and profoundly over and over again—change is the one constant—and then you can narrow in and focus on the fact that grassroots movements, citizens organizations, NGOs, activists—people who are often considered to be powerless, irrelevant, marginal—have changed the world over and over again.
Levantesi: In Hope in the Dark you’ve emphasized how activism can bring about change in a nonlinear way, how sometimes it is subtle and slow but how, within it, we must recognize the importance of victories. What are the most significant victories of today’s climate movement?
Solnit: I think the biggest one of all happened in the last couple of years, but it’s a matter of consciousness rather than legislation or divestment or one of the practical things we aim for: we have captured the public imagination.
Five years ago, 10 years ago, a lot of people weren’t worried about the climate. They didn’t care about it, they didn’t think about it, they didn’t see it as urgent, they weren’t engaged with it, nor were they supportive of the need to pursue the solutions. That’s really different now.
There was surely a point where we were more or less starting from nothing, but we’ve built strong movements; we’ve achieved a lot of victories. The fossil fuel industry is very aware of our power and is fighting it with everything they’ve got. A lot of energy transitions are underway. The Paris [Agreement] is a huge victory. And in our forthcoming book, Not Too Late, [we’re] changing the climate story from despair to possibility. The divestment movement has gotten [nearly] $41 trillion divested.
Each thing I talk about has indirect consequences. The [fight against the Keystone] XL pipeline educated so many of us, including me, about the Alberta tar sands and the role of pipelines in the fossil fuel industry and the volatility of pipelines as a pressure point. The divestment movement helped a lot of people recognize this particular form of complicity; a lot of us have [recognized] what our money is doing, or what our church’s money or university’s money or government’s money is doing. We also portrayed the fossil fuel industry the way we portrayed apartheid regimes and other things as morally reprehensible.
You’re always making indirect change, even with the most direct change you pursue—and sometimes direct change doesn’t yield consequences.
Levantesi: Repression from governments and police today against climate activists in movements such as Just Stop Oil in the U.K. or “Last Generation” in Italy to some extent parallels the fossil fuel industry’s lies and the climate deniers and delayers targeting activists through propaganda and attacks. What does this violence say to you?
Solnit: The first takeaway that I think is really important and often lost is this proves that they’re scared of us. They think we’re powerful; they think we’re going to have an impact, because they’re desperate to stop it. You don’t use violence unless you are really concerned. Propaganda and lies haven’t been good enough.
Violence, I think, is also very clarifying. That is, in a way, almost easier to deal with than the other thing that’s happened—decades of denying, trivializing the climate crisis, all the greenwashing, the pretending that they are doing what the climate requires. When it comes to a lot of fossil fuel–related entities and beneficiaries of the industry, we see delay, distraction, false promises, which are almost harder to fight than violence.
Environmentalists have been attacked [for a long time]. I once read a lot of the book reviews of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, and to see the industry and the mansplainers and the corporate shills attack her credibility, her right to speak, her sanity, the facts of the situation, to see how many environmentalists, particularly in the global south, have been murdered for speaking up since Chico Mendes and Ken Saro-Wiwa in the ’80s and ’90s is to know [that] when there’s huge amounts of money and power at stake, the game can be very dangerous—and it always has been.
Levantesi: A common strategy of political leaders, as well as the fossil fuel industry, is to deny the need for change, sometimes by delaying it and stating that another world is impossible, but sometimes, as you call it, by promoting “false hope.” Can you tell us about how “false hope” works and whether it involves the use of fear?
Solnit: On the one side, I think there’s what I call “naïve hope,” which is really optimism, the idea that things are going to be fine, that it will all work out, etc. But “false hope” is usually cynicism pursuing a corrupt agenda, because these people don’t actually hope the solutions will work. They hope that you’ll believe—the public will believe—these solutions will work. They can’t imagine that the world could just be very, profoundly different in day-to-day life—how we consume, what our values are. False hopes to me are just marketing by people who are cynical. And then you see people believing it.
I was really frustrated when the nuclear fusion came out of Lawrence Livermore [National Laboratory]. To see the mainstream media jump on it, like, “We’re going to have this amazing new energy source” not only gave people the false hope that fusion, which has been “just around the corner” for decades, is now really, truly just around the corner, but it also framed it as though to address the climate we need a solution that doesn’t exist. [This] is stupid and dishonest when we already have the solutions.
Levantesi: Change is often framed through sacrifice. This idea that to stop fossil fuel production and transition to clean energy is to renounce something, to sacrifice something—what’s behind this? Has the fossil fuel industry succeeded in forcing the perception that oil and gas are necessary to the way we live? Are we unable to imagine a different world? What is it? And how can we overcome it?
Solnit: I can’t speak globally, but I know that a lot of comfortable people in the U.S. perceive most changes as loss. It’s been fascinating looking at the recent controversies—of course fueled by the [political] right and the fossil gas industry—over gas stoves. They’re downplaying the real health hazards of having methane inside your home, and they’re also downplaying how well induction cooking works. And so many people are kind of like, “If we change this thing, my life will get worse.” A lot of it is propaganda, but there is also a lot of fear that change is always loss.
I also think the whole climate story, since the Al Gore era, has been told as a kind of renunciation story, and, in fact, I am working on a piece [about this] right now. What if we invert that? What if we see all the ways our lives are poor now—poor in hope, poor in social solidarity, poor in mental and emotional well-being and confidence in the future, poor in social connectedness, poor in relationship to nature. What if we imagine the abundance of doing right the things we’ve done wrong, of a world in which [nearly] nine million people a year don’t die from breathing fossil fuel emissions, in which childhood asthma is not epidemic in the places where fossil fuels are refined, in which the fossil fuel industry doesn’t corrupt global politics. What if renunciation was in fact renouncing poison, corruption, deprivation, uncertainty, a dismal future, miserable health?
Levantesi: One of your chapters in Hope in the Dark is called “Everything’s Coming Together While Everything Falls Apart,” which is something activist and Fossil Free Media’s director Jamie Henn said to you during a conversation in 2014. Do you feel like everything’s coming together while everything falls apart today?
Solnit: I do. It often feels like we’re in a race. Can the things that are coming together—which, of course, for me would be the positive things, the climate movement and the changes we’re trying to make—outrun the negative things, which are both climate change and its catastrophes and destruction?
The forces trying to prevent the measures we need to address the crisis have increased greatly. In 2014, people still talked about climate change largely as something that was going to happen. Now it’s so in the present tense and the climate movement has become so much bigger, more powerful. It’s won a lot when you look at how much progress there has been around legislation, the buildout of renewables, and the technological breakthroughs.
A lot of times you look at something, and it doesn’t look better than last week or sometimes last year. But you look at where we were 10 years or 40 years ago, and you see a lot. The long trajectory is part of what makes me hopeful.
This article was co-published with Alta.
Stella Levantesi is an Italian climate journalist, photographer, and author. She is the author of the Gaslit series on DeSmog. Her main areas of expertise are climate disinformation, climate litigation, and corporate responsibility on the climate crisis. Her book “I bugiardi del clima” (Climate Liars) was published in Italy with Laterza, and her work has featured in The New Republic and Nature Italy. You can follow her on Twitter @StellaLevantesi.
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