Difficult is Not the Same as Impossible
It is late. We are deep in an emergency. But it is not too late, because the emergency is not over. The outcome is not decided. We are deciding it now. The longer we wait to act, the more limited the options, but scientists tell us there are good options and great urgency to embrace them while we can. An emergency is when a stable situation destabilises, when the house catches fire or the dam breaks or institution implodes, when the failure or sudden change or crisis calls for urgent response. It’s when it becomes clear that the way things were is not how they’re going to be.
Some days it can feel like you’re the house that caught fire, but you might also turn out to be the firefighter or the water. You might even be the other interpretation that comes along to say some structures should be burned to the ground because they were prisons or miseries. An emergency can involve terrible loss or it can bring about magnificent transformation, and, while it’s unfolding, the outcome can be impossible to foresee. Or it can depend on what you and we do.
The word itself comes from emerge, to exit, to leave behind, separate yourself from, so an emergency is when you exit from the familiar and the stable. We are now doing that on a planetary scale, exiting the stability and reliability of the delicately tuned systems of seasons, weather, relations between species, even the shape of the world for the past 10,000 years, as oceans draw new coastlines, lakes dry up, glaciers melt and natural and human communities shift and migrate. It is an exodus into the unknown, and our task is to make a home there for ourselves and for the nature from which we were never separate.
We are deep in an emergency, and we need as many people as possible to do what they can to work towards the best-case scenarios and ward off the worst. Involvement depends on having a sense of personal power – the capacity to make an impact. Inseparable from that sense is the hope that it matters that you do it. Many in desperate circumstances have believed that it matters even when they didn’t believe they could win (and sometimes they won anyway, or they inspired someone else to win). A lot of stories in circulation endeavour to strip you of hope and power, to tell you it doesn’t matter or it’s too late or there’s nothing you can do or we never win. Not too Late is a project to try to return hope and power through both facts and perspectives.
Twenty years ago, I began to speak directly about hope and to what impeded it for so many people: “I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.”
“Hope, like love, means taking risks and being vulnerable to the effects of loss.”
I wrote during a surge of neoliberal attacks on Indigenous people, nature, small farmers and labour, during the so-called global war on terror of the oil-fuelled, climate-denying Bush administration that killed more than half a million and demonised billions. People pushed back, there were victories, and they mattered.
There was virtually no climate movement to speak of, though there were campaigns against the coal and oil industry and their environmental destruction and human rights violations, and Indigenous people had never stopped striving to care for land, water and nature.
The world is now both better and worse than we imagined 20 years ago. The parts that are better are better largely because of grassroots campaigns, popular movements and Indigenous uprisings by people who believed it was worth trying to act on their beliefs and commitments.
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These are connected to the way that new ideas about justice, equality, kindness, about interdependence as the first lesson nature teaches us, appeared on distant horizons like clouds and then soaked into the soil of the collective imagination like spring rain. (Many of the new ideas were really old, discarded, discredited ideas that came back because we wanted or needed them or were more able to hear the people who had never forgotten them.) The parts that are worse – in many, perhaps most, cases they’re worse due to good people doing nothing, or rather not enough of them trying.
Hope is not optimism. Optimism assumes the best, and assumes its inevitability, which leads to passivity, as do the pessimism and cynicism that assume the worst. Hope, like love, means taking risks and being vulnerable to the effects of loss. It means recognising the uncertainty of the future and making a commitment to try to participate in shaping it. It means facing difficulties and accepting uncertainty. To hope is to recognise that you can protect some of what you love even while grieving what you cannot – and to know that we must act without knowing the outcome of those actions.
“Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky … hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.”
Over and over again, the world has been changed by people who, at the outset, seemed far too puny to pit themselves against the most powerful institutions of their time. After centuries of genocide, Indigenous people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have reclaimed culture, rights, language and land, and become key leaders for a changing world. Such power from below has overthrown colonial regimes worldwide and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, ended slavery in the British Empire and the United States; Czech artists, dreamers, the Solidarity union in Poland, churches in East Germany, and other resisters ultimately toppled half a dozen regimes in 1989; grassroots organising has begun to change centuries of homophobia and misogyny; and the environmentalists and scientists who began to build new movements in the 1960s had to contend with a lack of even the language and concepts we now have as equipment to protect the natural world.
To hope is to accept despair as an emotion but not as an analysis. To recognise that what is unlikely is possible, just as what is likely is not inevitable. To understand that difficult is not the same as impossible. To plan and to accept that the unexpected often disrupts plans – for the better and for the worse. To know the powerful have their weaknesses, and we who are supposed to be weak have great power together, power to change the world, have done so before and will again. To know that the future will be what we make of it in the present. To know that joy can appear in the midst of crisis, and that a crisis is a crossroads.
Meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus writes: “In a climate emergency, courage is not just a choice. It’s strategic. It’s a survival strategy.” Perhaps hope is the courage to persevere when winning looks hard; perhaps it’s not hope but faith that sustains people when success looks almost inconceivable. It’s in this sense that the playwright Václav Havel, who was a catalyst for revolution and regime change in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s, speaks of it: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”
A few facts: though we are still overshooting the goals to keep global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F), in the past two decades, climate actions and energy transitions have shifted our trajectory downwards dramatically. Had there been no climate action, we might be hurtling towards 4°C or more of warming, far deeper in climate catastrophe than we are now, and far less equipped to limit it.
The movement – a shorthand for thousands of coalitions and groups and alliances, campaigns and uprisings and efforts – has done remarkable things, as my friend Renato Constantino tells in his chapter about how people from the most climate-vulnerable nations shifted the agreed-upon global limit to temperature rise from 2°C to 1.5°C in 2015, through passion, brilliance, tenacity. So the movement has done a lot. Not enough yet, but a lot.
The climate movement has gone from small and polite to huge, fierce and brilliantly strategic over the last 15 years. It is global, and it has many victories behind it, some as tangible as a pipeline defeated, some as intangible as public awareness and wider commitment (we collected a list of them for this book). Often the changes are visible only to those who follow the policy enough to see the shift in energy sources or building codes or cutting finance for fossil-fuel projects. Sometimes victory leaves nothing to see: the trees that weren’t cut down or the drilling permits that weren’t issued. We need more. But we also need to recognise the victories and achievements directly behind us as well as those further in the past, because they tell us we have won, we can win, and thereby equip us to keep trying.
“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”
Climate activists have blockaded roads, pipeline paths and fracking sites, gone on – as climate campaigner Nikayla Jefferson tells us in her chapter – hunger strikes, tree sits, marches, long walks, rallies, FridaysForFuture weekly protests; have orchestrated divestment campaigns, petitions, phone-ins, die-ins, sit-ins, educational campaigns; blockaded harbours with kayaks; hung banners from bridges; doused nude figures in fake oil in London’s Tate Modern museum while it was taking money from BP; painted murals in the street; staged mock trials; shut down thousands of coal plants and prevented others from being built; stopped fossil-fuel leases and pipelines; blockaded oil trains; interrupted board meetings; organised shareholders; raised money; and, more important, raised consciousness.
Speaking of consciousness, the main job is not to convince climate deniers and the indifferent (and there are a lot fewer in either of those categories than there were a decade ago). It’s to engage and inspire those who care but who don’t see that they can and should have an active role in this movement, who don’t see that what we do matters – that it’s not too late, and we are making epic decisions now. Understanding that the consequences of activism are often indirect or slow to appear or require an informed overview – but matter nevertheless – is part of the equipment we need to see our own power and possibility.
Thanks to the divestment movement, often mocked at its inception, more than $40 trillion has been divested from fossil fuels. Public opinion has shifted dramatically, thanks to the global wake-up call of activists – and also to the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters. The majority of people do care. They want to see better policies. They are willing and even anxious to see change. This popular will is also something the climate movement has built.
“We need to remember our own heroic nature, our capacity for courage, compassion and action, to remember those who came before us who took action against the odds and sometimes won.”
We have undergone an astonishing energy revolution rarely described as such, or rather we are in the early stages of such a revolution when it comes to both design and implementation. Over the past two decades, breakthroughs in technology have made renewables a genuine alternative to fossil fuel for electricity generation, one that is rapidly spreading across the world. This means that we can leave the age of fossil fuel behind. The cost of solar dropped 90% between 2010 and 2020, and wind is not far behind. Solar has been dubbed “the cheapest energy in history” by the International Energy Agency, which pivoted a few years ago to recognise the urgency of the energy transition and the rapid decline of fossil-fuel extraction. Every week I read about innovations and experiments in battery materials and design that mean this part of the new system is also changing, rapidly, for the better.
In 2022, investments in renewables outstripped investments in conventional energy for the first time. It is inevitable that the future will be powered largely by renewables, but the ruthlessly destructive fossil-fuel companies and their allies seek to delay the transition as long as possible for the sake of short-term profit. They can be defeated and, as Antonia Juhasz relates in her chapter in this book, have already been weakened and are struggling against their own pending demise.
Frameworks matter, too, and many of them are traps. Capitalism encourages us to imagine ourselves as consumers rather than citizens; authorities like us to believe we have no power. These perspectives leave us few options but to modulate our consumption – to change nothing but ourselves and merely implore the powerful to heed our wishes. They privatise our public spirits. We need to remember our own heroic nature, our capacity for courage, compassion and action, to remember those who came before us who took action against the odds and sometimes won. Even when they didn’t, they inspired others at the time or long after to live by principle rather than by merely what is possible. Often, they changed what is possible, in part by refusing to accept what were supposed to be the limits.
“It is an exodus into the unknown, and our task is to make a home there for ourselves and for the nature from which we were never separate.”
People often talk about the future as if it already exists. There are parameters of what’s possible, likely and all but inevitable, and scientists have done a good job of telling us the probable consequences of what we do in the present, in terms of natural systems. But they hedge their bets because they know the future is what we make it in the present, that we’re still deciding (within those parameters), because it doesn’t exist yet. A lot of it is being decided now. This book is to help you recognise where the possibilities lie and what your role in them can be. We hope it re-energises you if you’re already engaged or brings you onboard if you’re not. There is nothing more important in this time.
Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility, edited by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, Haymarket Books, April 2023.