Climate change, Covid – our hearts ache. But a new era is possible. We can do it | Rebecca Solnit


If you’re heartsore at the quadruple crisis of the mismanaged pandemic, the resultant financial catastrophe grinding down so many people, the climate chaos dramatically evident in unprecedented fires in the west, hurricanes in the southeast, and melting ice in Greenland and the poles, and the corruption, human rights abuses, and creeping authoritarianism of the current regime, you’re not alone.

The last four years have been a long, rough road for people who care about the fate of the earth and the rights of ordinary people, and I understand the temptation to feel that what is wrong now will be wrong forever, to feel that it is too much to face and more than we can change. But anguish and hope – hope as ferocious will to continue, and not to trust the odds but to change them – can coexist. “Don’t mourn, organize!” labor organizer Joe Hill told a friend just before he was hung for dubious charges in 1915, but you can do both at once, and the more you organize the less you may need to mourn.

What we do now matters as it never has before. As a country, we are on the cusp of an epic decision – to end the Trump era in the November election and begin to take a different direction. I think of those who abhor this regime as akin to a battered woman – she is in most danger when she leaves her abuser, and the abuse itself makes her lose confidence in herself and the possibility of a life that could be different. The chaos is ramping up out of fear that we might escape it. I also think of people who have persevered in face of terrible persecution, not of years or decades but centuries, as have the Native and Black communities of this continent, still persevering and in recent months, years, and decades, sometimes winning things that seemed impossible not long before. Because the Trump administration was caused by a backlash against the progress made by non-white and non-male people in this country, and because electoral politics are a sort of hardened crust over the free-moving stream of cultural change.

The country as a whole has grown far more progressive about race, gender, and economics in recent years, and ideas that were once marginal have now gained power, from a real move away from fossil fuels to defunding the police to abolishing student debt. This summer saw the biggest protest movement in US history arise out of the pandemic. “We are living in the midst of an anti-racist revolution,” Ibram X Kendi recently wrote, citing evidence that far more Americans now believe discrimination is a problem than did five years ago. Beliefs shape politics, politics shapes the world, so beliefs matter.

The Trump administration and the far-right white supremacist misogynists galvanized by it are trying to make history go backward, but in many ways and places it continues to go forward. Remember the extraordinary elections of 2017, 2018, and 2019 which swept in new progressives, including many women of color, the first Native American congresswomen, and trans, Muslim and other elected officials at levels never before seen in this country. I believe that in the year to come, as the catastrophic economic impact of the pandemic becomes clearer, the will to make radical changes to economic and social programs will be strong.

In the US we are facing a crucial election. As humanity, we are facing even a larger one: to respond to the climate crisis by choosing the best-case scenario rather than letting the worst unfold. In the USA, the Green New Deal is among the ideas that were only recently regarded as almost outrageously radical – ie a disruption of the status quo – that are now widely accepted by politicians and the public as necessary. “The climate plan is a jobs plan,” Biden’s spokesperson told the Guardian. Julian Noisecat wrote that Biden has accepted the Green New Deal in all but name.

This is the summer that both the horrific impact of climate change and the chance of doing something commensurate with the scale of the problem both became clearer. Oil policy analyst Antonia Juhasz writes: “Today, the global oil industry is in a tailspin. Demand has cratered, prices have collapsed, and profits are shrinking. The oil majors (giant global corporations including BP, Chevron, and Shell) are taking billions of dollars in losses while cutting tens of thousands of jobs. Smaller companies are declaring bankruptcy, and investors are looking elsewhere for returns. Between 2012 and 2017, the oil majors’ profits collapsed.” Coal is doing far worse than oil outside Asia. The industries most responsible for climate change and most committed to perpetuating it are in crisis. They’re vulnerable as never before, and a concerted effort could shove then off the cliff they built.

This summer’s horrific wildfire season has cranked up public awareness of the urgency of climate response. Responding could bring about a more just society, Hawaii senator Brian Schatz recently tweeted: “Too much of the climate movement of the past was about what climate change is doing to us, and not about what climate action will do for us. Taking action does not require austerity and scarcity. Done well, it will result in more wealth, more fairness, and better jobs. We already have many of the technologies needed to avert catastrophe. We just need the American optimism and the political will to deploy them on an unprecedented scale. What we are describing is a future with an improved quality of life, more fairness, and better products. If we do this right, the people and communities that have been treated unfairly, exposed to chronic pollution, and left out of progress in the past stand to gain the most.”

Restorative justice activist Mariame Kaba put it thus: “I always tell people, for me, hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism.” And she has famously said hope is a discipline. It’s a commitment to the future that must manifest as action. That discipline matters most when it is hardest. And when the stakes are highest. This is such a moment, with much to lose, and much to win.


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