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that will change the world
January 02, 2008
on war and peace, dissent, the environment and the empowerment of
the poor provide inspiration to transform the world in 2008.
Hope is an orientation,
a way of scanning the wall for cracks -- or building ladders --
rather than staring at its obdurate expanse. It's a world view,
but one informed by experience and the knowledge that people have
power; that the power people possess matters; that change has been
made by populist movements and dedicated individuals in the past;
and that it will be again.
Dissent in this
country has become largely a culture of diagnosis rather than prescription,
of describing what is wrong with them, rather than what is possible
for us. But even in English, a robust minority tradition can be
found. There are a handful of books that I think of as "the
secret library of hope." None of them deny the awful things
going on, but they approach them as if the future is still open
to intervention rather than an inevitability. In describing how
the world actually gets changed, they give us the tools to change
are some of the regulars in my secret political library of hope,
along with some new candidates:
Power from Beneath
the monks of Burma/Myanmar led an insurrection in September simply
by walking through the streets of their cities in their deep-red
robes, accompanied by ever more members of civil society, the military
junta which had run that country for more than four decades responded
with violence. That's one measure of how powerful and threatening
the insurrection was. (That totalitarian regimes tend to ban gatherings
of more than a few people is the best confirmation of the strength
that exists in unarmed numbers of us.)
After the crackdown,
after the visually stunning, deeply inspiring walks came to a bloody
end, quite a lot of mainstream politicians and pundits pronounced
the insurrection dead, violence triumphant -- as though this play
had just one act, as though its protagonists were naive and weak-willed.
I knew they were wrong, but the argument I rested on wasn't my own:
I went back to Jonathan Schell's The
Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People,
by far the most original and ambitious of the many histories of
non-violence to appear in recent years.
When it came
out as the current war began in the spring of 2003, the book was
mocked for its dismissal of the effectiveness of violence, but Schell's
explanation of how superior military power failed abysmally in Vietnam
was a prophesy waiting to be fulfilled in Iraq. Schell himself is
much taken with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, whom he quotes saying,
violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high;
for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the
victor in terms of his own power.'
I hope that
his equally trenchant explanation of the power of non-violence is
fulfilled in Burma. Schell has been a diligent historian and philosopher
of nuclear weapons since his 1982 best-seller The Fate of the Earth,
but this book traces the rise of non-violence as the other half
of the history of the violent twentieth century.
books in a library of hope consist of -- not a denial of the horrors
of recent history, but an exploration of the other tendencies, avenues,
and achievements that are too often overlooked. After all, to return
to Burma, much has already changed there since September: Burma's
greatest supporter, China, has been forced to denounce the crackdown
and may be vulnerable to more pre-Olympics pressure on the subject;
India has declared a moratorium on selling arms to the country;
a number of companies have withdrawn from doing business there;
and the US Congress just unanimously passed a bill, HR 3890, to
increase sanctions, freeze the junta's assets in US institutions,
and close a loophole that allowed Chevron to profit spectacularly
from its business in Burma.
Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as Burma's head of state
in 1990 and has, ever since, been under house arrest or otherwise
restricted. She nonetheless remains the leader of, as well as a
wise, gentle, fearless voice for, that country's opposition. Since
the uprising, her silencing has begun to dissolve amid meetings
with a UN envoy and members of her own political party; some believe
she may be on her way to being freed. The Burmese people were hit
with hideous, pervasive violence, but they have not surrendered:
small acts of resistance and large plans for liberation continue.
The best argument
for hope is how easy it ought to be for the rest of us to raise
its banner, when we look at who has carried it through unimaginably
harsh conditions: Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom recounts
his unflagging dedication to his country's liberation (imperfect
though it may still be); Rigoberta Menchu dodged death squads to
become a champion of indigenous rights, a Nobel laureate, and a
recent presidential candidate in Guatemala; Oscar Oliveira proved
that a bunch of poor people in Bolivia can beat Bechtel Corporation
largely by nonviolent means, as he recounts in !Cochabamba!; and
Aung San Suu Kyi radiates -- even from the page -- an extraordinary
calm and patience, perhaps the result of her decades of Buddhist
practice. She remarks, toward the end of The
Voice of Hope, a collection of conversations with her about
Burma, Buddhism, politics, and her own situation, "Yes I do
have hope because I'm working. I'm doing my bit to try to make the
world a better place, so I naturally have hope for it. But obviously,
those who are doing nothing to improve the world have no hope for
For a book about
those who did their bit beautifully long ago, don't miss Adam Hochschild's
the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's
It begins with
a handful of London Quakers who decided in the 1780s to abolish
the institution of slavery in the British Empire and then, step
by unpredictable step, did just that. It's an exhilarating book
simply as the history of a movement from beginning to end, and so
suggests how many other remarkable movements await their historian;
others, from the women's movement to rights for queers to many environmental
struggles, still await their completion. If only people carried,
as part of their standard equipment, a sense of the often-incremental,
unpredictable ways in which change is wrought and the powers that
civil society actually possesses, they might go forward more confidently
to wrestle with the wrongs of our time, seeing that we have already
won many times before.
Environmentalists, and Utopians
One spectacular book along these lines already exists:
Charles Wilkinson's Blood
Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations.For us non-native
people, Native Americans became far more visible during the huge
public debates around the meaning of the Quincentennial of 1992
-- the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in this hemisphere.
They reframed the history of the Americas as one of invasion and
genocide, rather than discovery and development. But the story was
not a defeatist one; simply in being able to tell their own stories
and reshape their histories, native people of the Americas demonstrated
that they were neither wholly conquered, nor eradicated; and, since
then, the history of the two continents has been radically revised
and indigenous peoples have won back important rights from Bolivia
In the United
States that reclaiming of power, pride, land, rights, and representation
began far earlier, as Wilkinson's book relates. A law professor
and lawyer who has worked on land and treaty-rights issues with
many tribes, he begins his story of ascendancy with the 1953 decision
by the US government to "terminate" the tribal identities,
organizations, and rights of Native Americans and push them to melt
into the general population. This represented an aggressive attempt
at erasure of the many distinct peoples of this continent and their
heritage. Told to disappear, "Indian leaders responded and
by the mid-1960s had set daunting goals... at once achieve economic
progress and preserve ancient traditions in a technological age....
Against all odds, over the course of two generations, Indian leaders
achieved their objectives to a stunning degree."
monumental history of the past half-century concludes:
By the turn
of this century Indian tribes had put in place much of the ambitious
agenda that tribal leaders advanced in the 1950s and 1960s. They
stopped termination and replaced it with self-determination. They
ousted the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] as the reservation government
and installed their own sovereign legislatures, courts, and administrative
agencies. They enforced the treaties of old and, with them, the
fishing, hunting and water rights. Nowhere have these changes been
absolute and pure. In most cases the advances represent works in
progress, but they have been deep and real.
Late this November,
Canada set aside 25 million acres of boreal forest as a preserve
to be managed, in part, by the Native peoples of the region, a huge
environmental victory for the largest remaining forest on Earth
-- and for all of us. How did it happen?
I am still looking
for an environmental history with the strength and focus of Blood
Struggle or Bury the Chains. An exhilarating 2006
article in Orion magazine by Ted Nace describes how a bunch
of North Dakota farmers killed off Monsanto's plans to promote the
growing of genetically altered wheat worldwide. The essay concludes:
10, 2004, Monsanto bowed to the prevailing political sentiment.
It issued a curt press release announcing the withdrawal of all
its pending regulatory applications for [its genetically altered]
Roundup Ready wheat and the shifting of research priorities to other
We need books
on victories like this, books that tell us how this dam was defeated,
this river brought back from being a sewer, that toxin banned, that
species rebounded, that land preserved.
In fact, a broader
history with some of those threads did appear this year, geographer
Richard Walker's The
Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area.It
describes generations of struggle to preserve something of the richness
of this extraordinarily diverse region by defeating some of the
most awful proposals most of us have never heard of -- to, for example,
completely fill in the San Francisco Bay -- back in an era when
water and wetlands were just real estate waiting to happen.
The book does
justice to a whole unexpected category of unsung heroines -- the
often-subversive affluent ladies who have done so much for the environment
and the community -- then moves on to document the emerging environmental
justice movement that took on toxins, polluters, and the overlooked
question of what ecology really means for the inner city. It's a
great, hopeful history of a region that has long created environmental
templates and momentum for the rest of the nation -- and Walker
makes it clear that this trend was not inevitable, but the result
of hard work by stubborn visionaries and organizers.
A decade ago,
Alan Weisman wrote a profile of a town in the inhospitable savannah
of eastern Colombia, a miraculous community in which that unfortunate
nation's turmoil and our age's environmental destruction was replaced
by a green, utopian approach that involved reinventing the roles
of both technology and community. It worked, though Weisman ended
his 1997 book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, on a prophetic
note of caution:
of the Cold War has revealed clearly that a far more incandescent
and protracted battle -- a potentially apocalyptic resource war
-- has been stealthily gathering intensity throughout the latter
part of the twentieth century.... Yet a place like Gaviotas bears
witness to our ability to get it right, even under seemingly insurmountable
successful 2007 bestseller, The
World Without Us, takes an extreme approach to getting
it right, by showing how the planet might -- in part -- regenerate
itself if we were to go away, all of us, for good. The chapters
on nuclear waste and plastic are dauntingly grim, but the descriptions
of New York City reverting to nature go two steps past Mike Davis's
Dead Cities in praise of entropy, weeds, and the power of natural
processes to take back much of the Earth as soon as we let go.
stands out as a rare, realized utopia, our choices among the unrealized
ones -- except as literature -- are legion. In 2007, I finally got
around to reading what has already become my favorite utopian novel:
William Morris' News from Nowhere. Best known during his life as
a poet, Morris is, unfortunately, now mostly remembered for his
wallpaper. He designed it as part of his lifelong endeavor to literally
craft an alternative to the brutality and ugliness of the industrial
revolution through the artisanal production of furniture, textiles,
and books -- all as models of what work and its fruits could be.
had its political and literary faces, which is to say that Morris
was also a prolific writer and an ardent revolutionary. He was more
anarchist than socialist, as well as an antiquarian, a translator
of Icelandic sagas, and so much more. News from Nowhere, published
in 1890, portrays his ideal London in the far-distant future of
2102, a century and a half after "the revolution of 1952."
It's a bioregional
and anarchic paradise: The economy is localized, work is voluntary,
money is nonexistent and so is hunger, deprivation, and prison.
The industrial filth of London has vanished, and the river and city
are beautiful again. (They were far filthier in Morris' time, when
every home burned coal, while sewage and industrial effluents flowed
unfiltered into the Thames.)
of course, aren't places you'd actually want to live. Admittedly,
Morris' is a little bland and mild, as life on earth without evil
and struggle must be. But his utopia is prophetic, not dated, close
to many modern visions of decentralized, localized power, culture,
and everyday life. It is, in short, an old map for a new world being
born in experiments around the globe.
on the Southern Horizon
Morris provided the name for the present-day News from
Nowhere Collective, a group that has edited one of the more rambunctious
handbooks for activists in recent times, We
Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism.
A visually delicious, horizontally formatted little chunk of a book,
it features a lot of photographs, a running timeline of radical
victories in our era, and short, punchy essays from people immersed
in changing the world all over that world (from Quebec and Nigeria
to Bolivia and Poland). Playful, subversive, and far-reaching, the
book -- even four years after its publication -- demonstrates the
scope of constructive change and activism around the planet.
There are other
such handbooks, including my brother David's Globalize Liberation:
How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World, out from City
Lights Books a few years ago. It was in the course of editing some
of the essays in that book that I discovered the beautiful, hopeful
voice of Marina Sitrin, a sociologist, human rights lawyer, and
activist who has spent a great deal of time among the utopian social
movements of Argentina. Her encounters become ours in her new book
Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.
sudden economic collapse and political turmoil in December of 2001
was largely overlooked here, but the crisis begot an extraordinary
grassroots response -- about as far from shock and paralysis as
you can imagine. Neighbourhoods gathered in popular assemblies to
protest the political structure, and then stayed together to feed
each other during the fiscal crisis; factory workers took over shuttered
factories and ran them as co-operatives; the poor organized and
mobilized; but more than these concrete actions, Argentinean society
to talk across old divides and create new words for what mattered
now -- none more valuable than horizontalidad, which Sitrin translates
as "horizontalism," a direct and radically egalitarian
participatory democracy, and politica afectiva, the politics of
affection, or love. The 2001 crisis was soon transformed into an
opportunity to overcome the legacy of the terrifying years of the
Argentinean military dictatorship, to step out of the isolation
and disengagement that fear had produced, to reclaim power and reinvent
social ties. With this, Argentina moved a little further away from
hell and a little closer to utopia.
It's not a coincidence
that Weisman's Gaviotas is in South America (though it is a surprise
that it's in Colombia). After all, the most powerful voice coming
from the Spanish-speaking majority of the Americas is that of the
Zapatistas, and Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcommandante
Insurgente Marcos, edited by Juana Ponce de Leon, is still the best
English-language introduction to that indigenous movement's non-indigenous
spokesman and raconteur Subcommandante Marcos. Via his poetic, playful,
subversive, and ferociously hopeful manifestoes, tirades, allegories,
and pranks, he has reinvented the language of politics, pushing
off the drab shore of bureaucracy and cliche, sailing toward something
rich and strange.
Ponce De Leon's
book, however, only covers the first several years of Marcos's contributions.
City Lights recently brought out his The Speed of Dreams: Selected
Writings 2001-2007. On page 102, he advises an indigenous audience:
"It is the hour of the word. So then, put the machete away,
and continue to hone hope." By page 349, he's quoting a possibly
fictional elderly couple in San Miguel Tzinacapan, who say, "The
world is the size of our effort to change it."
Not that all
resistance, all hope, comes from the south. It can be found everywhere,
or at least on many edges, margins, and in many overlooked zones
-- and one of the most exhilarating histories of it is The Many
Headed-Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History
of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.
Their book traces a plethora of acts of resistance to capitalism,
exploitation, authoritarianism and the generally sorry lot meted
out to the poor in the eighteenth century. That resistance was exuberant,
inventive, and occasionally ferocious, and it found its own utopias.
The book begins with a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda, in which the shipwrecked
sailors and passengers begin to form their own convivial utopia
that the Virginia Company forcibly disbanded. The Many Headed Hydra
covers some of the same ground -- and ocean routes -- as Hochschild's
book, and they make good joint reading.
I wish Linebaugh's
Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All
was out in time for this list, but look for it in February.
(I read it in manuscript for the University of California Press,
loved it, and learned a lot from it.) Beginning with Bush's breach
not just of the Constitution, but of Magna Carta's grant of habeas
corpus, Linebaugh returns to that moment at Runnymede when King
John was forced to concede rights to England's citizens. Linking
that despot to the one in the White House, he ventures back and
forth between the two times to explore the once evolving -- and
now revolving or maybe even regressing -- territory of rights and
Climate of Change
thing becoming increasingly clear in this millennium: Human rights
and the environment are all tangled up with each other -- and not
only in environmental injustice hotspots like Louisiana's Cancer
Alley or oily places like Nigeria. Democracy and an empowered citizenry
are the best tools we have to make progress on climate change in
this country. The issue of climate change may be global, but in
the US a lot of the measures that matter are being enacted on the
local level by cities, towns, regions, and states. Together, they
have pushed far ahead of the recalcitrant federal government in
trying to take concrete measures that could make a difference. Global
measures matter, but so do local ones: The change here is likely
to come as much from the bottom up as the top down.
One common response
to climate change is to try to limit your own impact -- by consuming
less. An issue, for instance, that's front and center in Britain
but hardly on the table in the US, is taking fewer airplane trips.
(The state of California, however, did recently start looking into
ways to regulate and reduce airplane carbon emissions.) So there's
personal virtue, which matters. Then there's agitating and organizing
like crazy, which might matter more. Certainly, Bill McKibben makes
a rousing case for it in his introduction to Ignition:
What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement.
The book, edited by Jonathan Isham and Sissel Waage, covers a lot
of ground when it comes to how policy gets made and how to make
it yourself, as does McKibben's own Fight Global Warming Now: The
Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community.
Maybe the best
news of 2007 is that we're finally doing something about the worst
news ever: that we've royally screwed up the climate of this planet.
After all, the rest of that news is: We still have a chance to mitigate
how haywire everything goes, even though no one is yet talking about
what a world of low to zero carbon emissions would look like.
Maybe one thing
we really need (just to be a little more visionary and less grim
about the subject) is a modern version of News from Nowhere portraying
what a good life involving only a small carbon footprint might mean
-- most likely a more localized, less consuming life with some cool
technological innovations, including many we already have (some
of which are described in Weisman's Gaviotas).
In ceasing the
scramble for things, there would be real gains; we'd gain back time
for sitting around talking at leisure about politics and the neighbors,
for wandering around on foot -- and for reading. But you don't have
to wait for everything to change: change it yourself by seizing
these pleasures now.
* Solnit is
the author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.
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