The Ethical Activist Book Group: Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

This review is part of the Ethical Activist Book Group reading list. Past books include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight BehaviourNaomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and Unbowed by Wangari Maathai. Read along and join in the conversation with us at any time. 

In these dark times, how do we hold onto hope? As the prospect of irreversible climate change bears down upon us and even many of the most progressive governments dither, continuing to exact fuel from the tar sands in Canada, or try to fund giant new coal mines in Australia that will likely destroy the fragile Great Barrier Reef, how do we find the energy to keep going? When white supremacists in the US brazenly commit acts of terror against anti-racist activists, how do we not give in to violence ourselves? When an incompetent President with no impulse control may lead the whole world in to nuclear war, how do not bury our head in the sand? How do we find the strength to keep fighting for justice, peace and genuine global solutions to environmental crisis? How do we find hope in this darkness?

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These are precisely the questions that Rebecca Solnit was asking when she wrote Hope in the Dark* in 2003. The times may have changed, the challenges for activists are perhaps even darker than in 2003 when she wrote this history of activism, but the lessons are as salient as the day she penned them. Perhaps even more so.

The book opens with the chapter titled Looking Into the Darkness. Rebecca writes

On January 18, 1915, six months into the First World War, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf Wrote in her journal. “The future is dark, which on the whole is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfilment of our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again far stranger things happen than the end of the world.

Who, two decades ago, could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed the the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa?

As we stare into the darkness ahead of us, with our new challenges before us, this opening provides an important reminded to us that what we face now has echoes of challenges that we have triumphed over in the past. Hope in the Dark* traces the history of political activism and social change over half a century, touching upon the challenges and triumphs of feminism, civil rights, Indigenous activism, peace movements and non-violence, environmental protection and anti-capitalist campaigning.

If we are to find the strength to keep fighting, when it seems as though we are getting nowhere or going backwards, then we need this perspective of history so we can hold onto hope. Hope is what will keep us going through the difficult times. Hope is what enables people to survive through the darkest of times. As one Cambodian refugee agreed with the author “I think that is right. If I had not have hoped, I would not have struggled. And if I had not have struggled, I would not have survived.”

Hope is essential for us on a national and global scale, as we tackle the huge issues that are ahead of us. But hope is also necessary on a personal level to find strength and energy to keep going, and to keep fighting for what matters to you. When I reflect back on my own childhood, hope was what saw me through the bullying at school and the challenges of growing up with a parent who suffered from complex mental illness. I can remember thinking of suicide as early as seven years old. But even as I experienced these dark thoughts there was always hope there too. Hope that things would eventually get better. It took years. But things did eventually get better. Hope was what gave me the strength to survive. I always held on to the hope that things would get better. When I read Hope in the Dark* I realised just how important hope is, for both my personal motivations and my political motivations.

Hope is the only thing that can counter the dark politics of division and racism. I can’t think of a more poignant example of hope than the words and activism of Heather Heyer’s mother- Susan Bro- after her daughter was killed by neo-nazi terrorism Charlottesville. Some days after her daughter’s death, Susan Bro said of the man who killed her daughter and injured many others:

I believe that he thought hate was going to be the answer and that hate is going to fix things. But he was wrong, and he will someday come to see that, I hope, and I’m sorry for the pain he will go through when he sees that. I’m sorry for the pain he’s putting his mother through right now.”I’m also extremely sorry that he chose to kill my child and to injure a bunch of other people. He didn’t have the right to do that … This wasn’t a video game, buddy. This was real people. There are real consequences to what you did, and I’m sorry you chose to do that. You have ruined your life. You’ve disturbed mine. You took my child from me, and I’m going to be the voice she can no longer be.

In the final words of the book, Rebecca Solnit muses “I am often amazed at the lack of bitterness on the part of many of those who have most right to it, though I’ve seen exhaustion, physical, emotional, and moral, among front-line activists.”

As activists we must find ways to hold onto hope, and to to treat the darkness as the fuel for our fire. We must hold on to hope. We must continue to believe that our actions will lead to change, if not now, then one day. Things have changed for the better in the past. Things have changed for the worse too. But they can change again. It is up to us to continue to work towards the world we hope for, and to never give up that fight or the hope. Hope in the Dark* is essential reading for any activist who want to gain perspective on the challenges we are confronting, and to find belief in the value of our everyday actions of activism, not matter how futile they seem in the day-to-day.

The final book for 2017 is Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Y. Davis*. Read along with us and join the conversation with our next review.