changing the imagination of change

hope in the dark: untold histories, wild possibilities, by cultural critic / philosopher-poet rebecca solnit, is a potent cultural and political exploration on how to retain hope in a time of pervasive cynicism and despair. by exploring the incremental progress and slow maturation of revolutions throughout history, solnit dispels the illusion of immediacy, widely perpetuated by the !!24-hour!! news cycle that keeps us fixated on the “now” and d.i.v.o.r.c.e.s us from the continuity of life, events, and movements.

to illustrate the causeand→effect relations that provide grounds for political engagement, solnit acknowledges and celebrates grassroot activists and behind-the-scenes actors who have played vital roles in revolutions —including but certainly not limited to — the american civil rights movement, the zapatista uprising in mexico, the fall of the berlin wall, the worldwide marches against war in iraq, and arab spring.

solnit brings the mix of fear and possibility + into a new light as readers are reminded of the importance of sustaining hope AND acting on that hope as movements for climate, racial, and economic justice pervade our today.

all in all, hope in the dark is a much-needed companion to every civically conscious individual.


excerpts from hope in the dark: untold histories, wild possibilities


perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible


the moment passed long ago,

but despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have not dispersed,

even as the most


unimaginably magnificent

things came to pass.

there is a lot of evidence for the defense…

progressive, populist, and grassroots constituencies have had many victories.

popular power has continued to be a profound force for change.

and the changes we’ve undergone,

both wonderful and terrible,

are astonishing.


[ .this is an extraordinary time. ]

full of vital,

transformative movements

that could not be foreseen.

[ .it’s also a nightmarish time. ]

full engagement


the ability

to perceive



hope doesn’t mean denying these realities.

it means facing them and addressing them

by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought,


// the movements,

// heroes,

// and shifts in consciousness

that address these things now.


it’s important to say what hope is not:

it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine.

the evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction.

the hope i’m interested in is about

broad perspectives


specific possibilities,

ones that invite or demand that we act.

it’s also not

a sunny

[ .everything-is-getting-better narrative. ]

though it may be a counter to the

[. everything-is-getting-worse narrative. ]

you could call it an account


complexities and uncertainties,

with openings.


but hope is not about what we expect.

it is an embrace

of the essential unknowability of the world,

of the b/r/e/a/k/s with the present,

the surprises.

or perhaps studying the record more carefully

leads us to expect miracles

not when and where we expect them,

but to expect to be astonished,

to expect that we don’t know.

and this

« is grounds to act »


hope locates itself

in the premises that we don’t know what will happen

and that

in the

⌈                                                                 ⌉

spaciousness of uncertainty

⌊                                                                 ⌋

[ .is room to act. ]

when you recognize uncertainty,

you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes —

you alone

or you in concert

with a few dozen


several million others.

hope is

an embrace

of the unknown and the unknowable,

an alternative to the certainty of both:

optimists and pessimists.

optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement;

pessimists take the opposite position;

[ .both excuse themselves from acting. ]

it’s the belief that what we do matters

even though

how and when

it may matter,

who and what

it may impact,

are not things we can know beforehand.

we may not,

in fact,

know them afterward either,

but they matter all the same

and history is full of people

whose influence

was most powerful

after they were gone.


after a rain

mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth

as if from nowhere.

many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown.

what we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus.

uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous,

but less visible

→→→→→→→→→ long-term

organizing and groundwork

or underground work

[ .often laid the foundation. ]

changes in

ideas and values

also result from

work done by writers,


public intellectuals,

social activists,

and participants in social media.

it seems insignificant or peripheral

until very different outcomes emerge


↔↔ transformed assumptions ↔↔


who and what matters,

who should be heard and believed,

who has rights.


ideas at first considered

[ outrageous ]   or   [ ridiculous ]   or   [ extreme ]

gradually become

what people think they’ve always believed.

how the  ↔↔transformation↔↔  happened is rarely remembered,

in part because it’s compromising:

it recalls

the mainstream when the mainstream was,


rabidly homophobic



in a way it no longer is;

and it recalls

that power

comes from   [ the shadows ]  and   the margins ]

that our hope

is in the dark around the edges,

not the limelight of center stage.

…our hope

and often our power.


change is rarely straightforward…


it’s as  [ o M p l E = x ]  as chaos theory

and as  [ s   l   o   w as evolution.

even things that seem to happen suddenly arise

from deep roots in the past


from long-dormant seeds.


you can tell the genesis story of the arab spring other ways.

the quiet organizing going on in the shadows beforehand matters.

so does the comic book about martin luther king and civil disobedience that was translated into arabic and widely distributed in egypt shortly before the arab spring.

you can tell of king’s civil disobedience tactics being inspired by gandhi’s tactics,

and gandhi’s inspired by tolstoy and the radical acts of noncooperation and sabotage of british women suffragists.

so the threads of ideas

weave around the world

and through the decades and centuries.


the radical geographer iain boal had prophesied,

“the longing for a better world will need to arise

at the imagined meeting place

of many movements of resistance,

as many as there are sites of closure and exclusion.

the resistance will be as transnational capitalism.”


a victory doesn’t mean

that everything is now

going to be nice forever

and we can therefore all go lounge around

until the end of time.

some activists are afraid

that if we acknowledge victory,

people will give up the struggle.

i’ve long been more afraid

that people will give up and go home


never get started in the first place

if they think no victory is possible


fail to recognize the victories already achieved.

marriage equality is not the end of homophobia,

but it’s something to celebrate.

a victory is a milestone on the road,

evidence that sometimes we win,

and encouragement to keep going,

[ .not to stop. ]


americans are good at responding to crisis

and then

going home to let another crisis brew


¹ because we imagine that the finality of death can be achieved in life

[ it’s called “happily ever after” in personal life]

[ “saved” in politics ]

and because

² we tend to think political engagement

is something for emergencies rather than,

as people in many other countries

(and americans at other times)

have imagined it,

as a part

and even

a pleasure

of everyday life.

[ .the problem seldom goes home. ]


people have always been good

at imagining the end of the world,

which is much easier to picture


the strange

sidelong paths of change

in a world without end.


going home

seems to be a way to abandon victories

when they’re still delicate,

still in need of   [ protection]   and   [ encouragement ]

human babies are helpless at birth,

and so perhaps are victories

before they’ve been consolidated into the culture’s sense of how things should be.

i wonder sometimes what would happen

if victory was imagined not just

[ .as the elimination of evil. ]


[ .the establishment of good. ]


after american slavery had been abolished, reconstruction’s promises of economic justice had been enforced by the abolitionists,



if the end of apartheid had been seen as meaning instituting economic justice as well (or, as some south africans put it, ending economic apartheid).


[ .it’s always too soon to go home. ]

most of the great victories continue to unfold,


¹ in the sense that they are not yet fully realized,

but also

² in the sense that they continue to spread influence.

a phenomenon like the civil rights movement

creates a vocabulary and a toolbox for social change

used around the globe,

so that its effects

far outstrip

its goals


specific achievements

and failures.


it’s important to emphasize

that hope is only a beginning

[ .it’s not a substitute for action. ]

only a basis for it.


amnesia  leads to  despair in many ways.

the status quo would like you to believe

it is immutable,


and invulnerable,

and lack of memory

of a dynamically changing world

reinforces this view.

in other words,

when you don’t know how much things have changed,

you don’t see that they are changing


that they can change.


you row forward looking back,

and telling this history

is part of helping people navigate toward the future.

we need

a litany,

a rosary,

a sutra,

a mantra,

a war chant

.for our victories.

the past is set in daylight,

and it can become

a torch we can carry

into the night

… that is the future.


× rebecca solnit ×
hope in the dark: untold histories, wild possibilities

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