14. Active Hope

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Is there any hope for our planet?

Surprisingly enough, after reporting on so much doom and gloom, Naomi Klein begins her book with the hopeful suggestion that if enough people get the connection between capitalism and climate and enough activists rise up to put an end to the capitalist hegemony over our economy and culture, “the urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would weave all these seemingly disparate issues into a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system” (8). 

Or as environmental activist Miya Yoshitani states, the ecological movement is not just a fight against climate catastrophe but a fight “for a new economy, a new energy system, a new democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for Indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people” (155). It would be too much to convince people to sacrifice their present happiness for a better future, far out of sight; but the climate movement, when interwoven with a social movement as Yoshitani envisions it, advocates for a better today.

Could this happen? There is a surprising history of bipartisanship on this issue: Nixon “was willing to impose wage and price controls to rescue the U.S. economy from crisis” (125), and Gingrich and Pelosi agreed to fight climate change together in the 90s (35). On the other hand, there are always our Reagans: “a tree is a tree,” he once weighed in on a dispute over logging rights. “How many more do you need to look at?” (203) Perhaps the best strand of conservative thought that one could tap into is the experience of sacrifice and love of country that enabled us to conserve resources to an astonishing degree during World War II, when “use of public transit went up by 87 percent in the US and by 95 percent in Canada,” and “twenty million U.S. households — representing three fifths of the population — were growing victory gardens in 1943, and their yields accounted for 42 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed that year” (16-17). 

But we cannot wait for bipartisan consensus this time. To run with the wartime analogy, we are in the midst of a worse crisis than the worst wartime scenario, yet the crisis is a silent one, and the earth is rotting quietly while time runs out. The kind of human solidarity that emerges spontaneously after an earthquake or a terrorist attack is necessary now: the danger to the social order is no less profound.

We need bold leaders who inspire us. For instance: Ken Saro-Wiwa is a man whose name many of us, to our shame, do not know. This Ogoni villager in Nigeria organized hundreds of thousands of his people to protest Shell oil production on their land. Following this protest, a number of Ogoni chiefs were murdered under suspicious circumstances, and Saro-Wiwa, who wasn’t even in the country that day, was framed by his country’s military regime for these deaths. He was hanged in 1995, “fulfilling Saro-Wiwa’s prediction that ‘they are going to arrest us all and execute us. All for Shell” (307). 

All for Shell… And Saro-Wiwa’s last words, I am told, were “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.” 

The struggle continues, and there are challenges. To take just one, “about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings (heating, cooling, and lighting them). Building stock in the Asia Pacific region is projected to grow by a dramatic 47 percent by 2021” (412).  

But there have also been victories: moratoria on fracking in Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and South Africa; a ban on new open-pit mining projects in Costa Rica; a repudiation of government plans to open up a coral reef to offshore drilling in Colombia; the scuttling of a coal plant on the Black Sea in Turkey (348-9). Major institutions, like colleges and universities, are divesting from fossil fuels (354). Confidence in the oil and gas companies is extremely low: 4% of respondents in a recent U.S. study believe these companies are “honest and trustworthy” (334).

There are brave activists — ordinary citizens — from Helen Slottje in the U.S. to Marily Papanikolau in Greece who are standing up against eminent domain and the takeover of private land for natural gas pipelines (361). There are Mi’kmaq First Nations leaders who are bringing Canada to court charging that it has stolen land that was ceded to them in unenforced treaties; the threat of Indigenous lawsuits has kept numerous multinational mining corporations out of Canada (372, 376, et passim). There are ordinary citizens in the south of France, land of “olives, figs, sheep, and the famed beaches of Saint-Tropez,” who are rising up in defense of their cultural and planetary heritage against a European fracking company that had the “almost unfathomably stupid idea” of picking a fight with the French (317). 

All of these communities have been low on resources but strong in will, waging a David and Goliath fight to save the planet. The last have truly become the first: as Klein reflects on a First Nations group suing the Canadian government in Alberta, she realizes that suddenly “some of the most marginalized people in my country…are taking on some of the wealthiest and most powerful forces on the planet” (379). As non-Natives have reached out to Native peoples for help in organizing against the fossil fuel industries’ encroachment onto their own land, there is a total “turnaround from the saviorism and pitying charity that have poisoned relationships between Indigenous peoples and well-meaning liberals for far too long” (381). The political movement against fossil fuels has had the unexpected gift of opening up “spaces for historical reconciliation” (380). 

“The environmental crisis — if conceived sufficiently broadly — neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency” (153). It is truly the intersectional issue of our time, an opportunity for the many social justice movements to converge, reordering society and addressing what Klein calls the “unfinished business of liberation” (458). Indeed, Klein notes that many of the great civil rights movements grasped the intersectionality of economic and social interests: “The U.S. civil rights movement, for instance, fought not only against legalized segregation and discrimination but also for massive investments in schools and jobs programs that would close the economic gap between blacks and whites once and for all…And though often forgotten, the more radical wing of the second-wave feminist movement also argued for fundamental challenges to the free market economic order” (453).

If the climate crisis is an opportunity to address the unfinished business of liberation, the social justice movements themselves represent an opportunity for the climate: it is when people sense that their own interests are threatened that they are willing to rise up in protest. At a recent meeting I attended in Philadelphia on the climate crisis, a veteran organizer reminded us that abstract appeals to climate change may fall on deaf ears; in order to build a movement of ordinary people, we have to talk about toxicity, about the things in our environment that could kill our children. Similarly, the importance of intersectionality lies in its making concrete the many urgent and particular concerns people face and which the climate crisis could either exacerbate or call attention to.

History tells us that “when major shifts in the economic balance of power take place, they are invariably the result of extraordinary levels of social mobilization…rent payers associations, women’s auxiliaries, gardening clubs, neighborhood assemblies, trade unions, professional groups…. During extraordinary historical moments…the usual categories dividing activists and ‘regular people’ became meaningless because the project of changing society was so deeply woven into the project of life” (459).

This means that each of us — yes, you! — must become an activist. Joanna Macy talks about hope as “active hope”: there is no hope for our planet if everyone sits by and watches it burn, but there is just enough hope that if all of us take to the streets in our own ways, things can be saved. To do this, we must first of all “play the revolution on repeat” (454), keeping our focus on what matters. (For one thing, this means insisting that whatever we like about certain politicians’ platforms, if they are not engaged in this collective populist movement for justice, they do not deserve our vote.) 

Macy suggests that we think of our era as the setting for the greatest adventure: this is Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, and the question is whether we can draw on the depths of our spirit in order to vanquish the power of evil. Or, for someone like me who has little interest in science fiction and fantasy: we are living in a time of tyranny, not quite Nazi Germany or the slave-era American South, but certainly a time in which our economic dependence on fossil fuels mirrors our prior economic dependence on slavery; for as journalist Chris Hayes proposes, “the climate justice movement is demanding that an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say goodbye to trillions of dollars of wealth…it is impossible to point to any precedent other than [the] abolition [of slavery]” (455). We must turn to the genre of the epic, be it literary or historical, in order to find models for the heroic courage that is possible for, and demanded of, each one of us in the clash between good and evil. We must look for those figures — from Frodo to Tubman — whose response to overwhelming defeat was simply to fight harder.

Tweeting is not enough (158). Voting isn’t even enough, though I would say that the first step is voting for a president who represents real revolution. And then we need to get involved somehow; it is not enough to profess a concern for justice and then allow the free market to do its work. We need to look around us — this is how it goes at Sanders’s rallies — and find someone who is a little different from us. Ask ourselves if we’re willing to fight for them. Join the global movement of what Klein calls “blockadia”: the international upsurge of ordinary people standing up for a sustainable future.

Or, if even that is too hard, too much, then it may be enough, at first, to go to a park or a forest or someplace beautiful and menaced, to contemplate it, to listen for the dwindling voices of birds and frogs (which are rapidly disappearing from our trees), and to ask ourselves the same question: politics is nasty, yes, but would I fight for this? For the earth, and for myself (given that I am connected to the web of all life)? And then, perhaps, we will find the courage to join a picket line, or to stand alongside an Indigenous group whose land is being exploited — to join the great wave of love and justice coursing through history. 

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Bartram’s Garden, a favorite spot of mine in Philadelphia

“In Halkidiki, Greece, in the struggle against the gold mine…a young mother named Melachrini Liakou — one of the movement’s most tireless leaders — told me with unswerving confidence that the difference between the way she saw the land, as a fourth-generation farmer, and the way the mining company saw the same patch of earth, was that, ‘I am a part of the land. I respect it, I love it and I don’t treat it as a useless object, as if I want to take something out of it and then the rest will be waste. Because I want to live here this year, next year, and to hand it down to generations to come” (342).

Again, we ask ourselves: will I fight for this? For a land that belongs to all and not to corporations with the money to take it from us? Or will I — by my passivity, my indifference, or my embrace of a political system based on profit and greed — fight to preserve the very circumstances that allow those corporations to flourish? 

Will I fight for the earth, or for capitalism?

Read on for more.