Feb 26, 2015

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca SolnitHope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power by Rebecca Solnit

Again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.
Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power is a collection of essay that examine our understanding of success and defeat in the context of activism and social change. Solnit’s key argument is that there’s more than one way to look at success, and that our understanding of lasting change as the end-result of heightened periods of crisis doesn’t always serve us well. As she puts it, “revolution doesn’t necessarily look like revolution”; change can be “gradual and subtle” as well as “dramatic and conflict-ridden”. However, we only tend to count the latter, which can make it hard not to lose motivation or feel like you haven’t really accomplished anything.

As the title indicates, Hope in the Dark is also a book about hope. It’s about how to keep despair at bay when the world seems to be changing at a much slower pace than we’d like; about the vulnerability inherent to hope and to opening ourselves up to the possibility of failure; about how not to lose heart when the things you pour your time and energy into don’t seem to amount to anything much. In short, it’s about questions close to my heart, which made it a necessary book for me at this point in time. It gave me hope in the way only books that are frank about how dire things can be ever really manage, because it feels like that hope is coming from an honest place.

I found the way Hope in the Dark reframes success particularly useful: Solnit argues that a lot of the time, victory simply consists of stopping the world from getting worse. This means that your end result is that things stay more or less the same, which a lot of the time renders your work invisible. Yet stopping bad things from happening, or preventing hard-won rights from being taken away, is actually a remarkable accomplishment. It’s the kind of work we tend to take for granted, but whose absence would soon be noticed.

Solnit’s arguments for hope are deeply political: she suggests that despair is all too often exploited to instil a sense of powerlessness and apathy that favours the status quo, and that only by believing that efforts to change the world are not doomed to failure will we ever be in a position to make it happen. It’s hard to write about this without sounding like you’re blaming people who are understandingly dispirited and exhausted for slipping into despair, but the tone of Hope in the Dark is always compassionate and never slips into finger-wagging. Additionally, it recognizes the difficulties in continuing to fight for what you believe in when there’s no “happily ever after”, necessarily — just small victories that need constant protecting and people who are exhausted by then — even as it encourages us to think of political engagement as a constant part of life and not just as something for moments of crisis.

Rebecca Solnit’s experience is largely in environmentalism, which is different from other forms of activism. By “different” I don’t mean “less urgent”, of course — only that context matters and that the specificities of Soltnit’s inevitably shape her perception. She says the following in relation to reframing success:
Most environmental victories look like nothing happened; the land wasn’t annexed by the army, the mine didn’t open, the road didn’t cut through, the factory didn’t spew effluents that didn’t give asthma to the children who didn’t wheeze and panic and stay indoors on beautiful days. They are triumphs invisible except through storytelling.
In sum, deliberate efforts to reclaim the narrative of what happened (or what would have happened) are crucial ways to combat that invisibility and to hold on to hope.

As I noted above, I found Hope in the Dark more than useful: it was honestly kind of essential for where I am right now. However, it’s important for me to acknowledge that hope, power and social change are difficult subjects to approach with a broad brush, because the specificities of each kind of activism really do matter. Some groups and individuals are in a far better position than others to be able to afford to wait or to take the long view. And as much as hopelessness can be politically co-opted, it feels worse than trite to urge people not to despair when their lives are at stake, or when they have to live with the consequences of the lack of swift palpable change day after day in ways that go beyond anything I can imagine.

I’m thinking, for example, about Ferguson and all the activism around police brutality and racial profiling the United States saw in the past few months. Hope in the Dark was published nearly a decade ago and it doesn’t claim to be universal, but it’s still clear to me that the ways in which it helped me are linked to my privilege. I desperately wish the world were different, and as an immigrant woman I struggle with things that are very much rooted in systemic inequality. However, I’m also white, middle class, etc, and my day to day life is far from unbearable. When urged to “recognize that victories may come as subtle, complex, slow changes instead, and count them anyway”, I find it a comforting thought. The ideas expressed in Hope in the Dark are important to me, but so is recognizing that this might not be possible for everyone.

One more bit I liked:
Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes a person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
The despair that keeps coming up is a loss of believe that the struggle is worthwhile. That loss comes from many quarters: from exhaustion, from a sadness born out of empathy, but also from expectations and analyses that are themselves problems.
(Have you written about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)


  1. Oh my, I very much think I need to read this.

  2. I thought this was a new Solnit, but it was published a decade ago? I have to go get myself a copy!

    1. Yeah, it was written around the time of the invasion of Iraq and it's very much rooted in that period, but of course the wider arguments she makes go beyond it.

  3. Oh I definitely want to read this. Have you read Moral Clarity: a Guide for Grown Up Idealists? It has a lot of interesting thoughts about being an idealist in our current, more cynical, time.

    1. I haven't but that sounds amazing - I'll definitely look for it! Also, hi :D

  4. Great review! I still have yet to read anything by Solnit, despite several of her books (now including this one) residing on my to-read list.

    "Solnit argues that a lot of the time, victory simply consists of stopping the world from getting worse." - this statement reminds me of an article I read where a gun control activist here in the US spoke about how much of that activism is fighting against having even more relaxed gun laws than already are on the books.


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