Hope in the Dark

Poet Olzhas Suleimenov is supposed to be reading poems live on Kazakh TV. Instead he suddenly departs from the script and calls for the shutdown of a local Soviet nuclear test site. Encouraged by this, 5,000 people gather at the Writers Union and start a movement. They link up with anti-test site activists in Nevada. The movement snowballs and the Kazakh site is eventually closed.

This is part of what lies at the heart of Rebecca Solnit’s philosophy: sometimes the most unlikely-seeming actions can set off positive chain reactions, even in the darkest times. And the tool to bring about change is: hope.

Casting her net across the world, cultural historian Solnit draws a convincing catch of evidence over the past four decades. Some are large and obvious – Latin America’s emergence from military dictatorship; apartheid’s demise; the fall of the Berlin Wall; World Social Forum gatherings; the Zapatistas; anti-GMO victories; the collapse of the rich-world agenda at the WTO meeting in Cancun. Others are drawn from Solnit’s own activist experience in various networks. All are described with analytic clarity and poetic flair.

What gives her philosophy such persuasiveness is that it’s drawn not from faith or ideology but from the simple observation: hope works. Conspiracy theorists and know-it-all pessimists get short shrift in this sparky, immensely readable book, rich in nuggets of vivid wisdom (‘Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible’; ‘To hope is to gamble, to give yourself to the future’.) Read it and connect – or reconnect – with what keeps us alive.

Vanessa Baird

mag cover This article is from the December 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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