In the face of the enormity of the climate crisis, it can be easy to turn to despair and to believe that there’s nothing that we can do. But writer Rebecca Solnit is determined to change this narrative. She believes that the climate crisis is in part an imagination crisis and that by changing the stories we tell about catastrophe, we can better shape the world we’d like to live in.
Over the course of her career, Solnit has published twenty-five books on feminism, popular power, social change and insurrection, and hope and catastrophe. Her most recent project, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility, explores how we can harness the power of hope in the face of our current climate emergency. Featuring climate scientists and activists from around the world, the book examines the social, political, and spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis—and envisions a path forward.
In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Solnit spoke with Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg to discuss the dangers of hyperindividualism, the spiritual power of renunciation, and why she believes that beauty is an essential piece of activist work.
Sharon Salzberg (SS): These days, it can be so easy to experience a sense of despair, and sometimes we’re told that grief and sadness are almost a kind of failure. But you suggest that sadness is a totally appropriate response to crisis and can serve as a doorway to action. How can sadness and grief mobilize us?
Rebecca Solnit (RS): I’ve come to think of emotions as deep and shallow rather than happy and sad. Sometimes people imagine happiness as what I like to call the wall-to-wall carpeting of the psyche, where nothing ever makes you feel terrible, nothing seems difficult, or nothing feels tragic. We’re mortal beings on earth—death happens; loss happens; change happens. Of course we’re going to face things that will make us feel sad. Much worse than sadness is the fear of sadness: that condition in which when you do feel sad, you feel like you’re not supposed to feel this way and you have to find some way to abolish it or numb out or learn to not care. All of us are sad some of the time, and this is not a failure, just like mortality is not a failure. Sadness is not defeat, and it doesn’t have to break you.
I often hear people talk about a version of human nature in which we’re tremendously fragile and we should not be expected to deal with despair, grief, loss, or difficulty, not least because we’re brittle and we think it will break us. One of the things I love about Roshi Joan Halifax is that her take on human nature is that we’re actually really tough—we’re resilient, and we can survive a lot. Part of what we need to do to address the climate crisis is to look at the deeper stories we’ve been told including the ones that life is supposed to be easy, that we’re very fragile creatures, that we can’t adapt, and that the future was supposed to be predictable, not this storm of uncertainty. Uncertainty, which people so often reject in favor of false certainty, gives us a huge gift: the reality that the future is being decided, at least to some extent, in the present, and so another name for it is possibility.
There’s so much we can do, not through giving things up but by actively laying hands on our own power and possibility—and by connecting with other people.
Another story we’ve been told is that we currently live in an age of abundance and climate requires terrible renunciation of us. But we actually live in an era of austerity when it comes to social connection, to joy, to friendship, to free time, to hope about the future, or to living in a healthy world where the air is breathable, the food is good for you, and the ocean is thriving. For the sake of fossil fuel in particular, we’ve renounced so much: we’ve renounced clean air; we’ve renounced the future; we’ve renounced health and physical and political well-being. What if renouncing fossil fuels could bring us to an era where the air is clean, where the natural world is thriving, where food is good for you, where we have more time for friendship, for joy, for creativity, for meditation, for time in the natural world, for cooking or painting or whatever gives us pleasure? Where we have more confidence in each other and the future?
How we tell these stories is so crucial, and not only the stories about the natural world but also the stories about human nature. What do we really want? What makes us thrive? Who is responsible for climate change? (Hint: the richest 10 percent have more impact than the poorest 50 percent.) This is why the climate crisis is in part an imagination crisis: a lack of an ability to imagine that maybe the world could get better, and maybe this is not as good as it gets. Changing the story is not all you need to change the world. But you can’t change the world without changing the story about who matters, what matters, and who we can be.
James Shaheen (JS): You’ve said that changing the story also requires a spiritual shift. Sometimes there’s a difficulty in writing about spirituality in a culture that is to a significant degree hostile to it—there isn’t a lot of room to affirm spiritual life. Have you found this to be the case?
RS: Yeah, a lot of people imagine spirituality as a kind of religion that depends on theocratic beliefs that are not scientifically verifiable. For dogmatic atheists, for instance, religion isn’t about hanging out with all the people you know at church and being part of that community, singing with the chorus, listening to the music, and smelling the incense—it’s just about believing things that aren’t true. But spirituality—or, as the theologian Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, this “hunger for holiness”—has been blooming anyway.
One of the radical and exciting and beautiful things that’s happened in the last fifty years is that Buddhist ideas and indigenous worldviews have come to play a larger and larger role in the Western world. When Thich Nhat Hanh died, I was so moved to see how many people who didn’t consider themselves Buddhist had, one way or another, been touched by his life, his words, his writing, and his example. It was a reminder that Buddhist values are increasingly prevalent in the culture already. They have real meaning for people. The same is true of indigenous ideas that we’re not separate from nature, that we have deep responsibility to the natural world, and that this relationship is an important part of our spiritual, emotional, psychic, and cultural lives.
People usually think that climate work is just shutting down fossil fuel extraction or putting up wind turbines. But it’s also about changing our imaginations and giving us the equipment to be the people we need to be to live in the world we want. And I think the creative work, which is also the theological work, is not just the practical stuff. It’s a question of what kind of human beings we need to be in order to make choices based on the well-being of the whole rather than based on individual profit. This too is something we can learn from Buddhist and indigenous traditions: you don’t make decisions that benefit yourself alone if you don’t imagine yourself to be an isolated individual—if you imagine yourself as woven into a beautiful tapestry of the whole.
JS: As you’ve mentioned, perhaps one of the more pernicious stories in the climate crisis, and in Western culture more generally, is the notion of the autonomous individual actor. What are some of the dangers of this overvaluation of individualism and how it can prevent us from acting in community?
RS: When you ask people what they’re doing to address climate change, they’ll typically tell you about individual acts of renunciation like “I recycle, I don’t eat meat, I bicycle,” although I definitely count bicycling as a pleasure too. It’s rare that somebody says, “I vote, I work on getting out the vote for climate-positive candidates, I support this legislation, I campaign for my high school to put solar panels over the parking lot.”
We’ve been encouraged to think of what we have to contribute as our individual virtue, which is mostly passive—it’s mostly not doing things. We imagine ourselves as individuals and as consumers who can consume less or consume differently. Instead, we should see ourselves as citizens, not in terms of holding a particular passport or nationality but in terms of being members of civil society. Together, we have so much more power to decide who wins elections, to create pressure to pass important legislation, to educate and encourage each other, and to get out there and protest, ultimately to change the world.
There’s so much we can do, not through giving things up but by actively laying hands on our own power and possibility—and by connecting with other people. When we see ourselves as members of communities, that’s where our strength lies to build a movement. The notion of the isolated individual makes us both sad and weak—sad because it feeds loneliness and a sense that we don’t need to care about anything else and nothing cares about us; weak because our power lies in our connections. Our power is not autonomous because we were never autonomous. Giving up this notion of the individual doesn’t mean that we don’t get to have our own dreams and wild imagination and course through life; instead, it means that we do this in relationship to other people and with respect for all the other beings that we impact and are impacted by.
JS: Right. You quote the American environmentalist Bill McKibben, who says that the most significant thing we can do for the climate is to stop being an individual and join something. It’s almost like a renunciation of the notion of a separate self.
RS: The first time I heard Bill say that, we were sitting on the floor of an activist event in Paris while the Paris climate treaty was being negotiated, and somebody came up and asked him a question he’s heard a thousand times before: “What’s the most effective thing I can do as an individual?” He looked at them and said, “Stop being an individual—find something to join.” Community is where we find our power. And it can also assuage our sense of loneliness and powerlessness. There’s a wonderful anecdote where Ananda asks the Buddha, “Good friendship is half the spiritual life, isn’t it?” And the Buddha replies, “It’s the whole thing.” You could interpret that very narrowly in terms of finding a sangha or Buddhist community. But I think looking for people living a bodhisattva vow or a life of commitment to activism is another way to pursue that.
SS: Another story we tend to encounter is that beauty and joy aren’t necessary or are somehow frivolous, but you suggest that they are in fact vital to our survival. How can beauty and joy guide us in these difficult times?
RS: I did an event last fall with the wonderful writer Julian Aguon, who’s a queer indigenous poet from the island of Guam and a climate lawyer with Blue Ocean Law. Before the event, he murmured in my ear, “Be sure we talk about beauty, joy, and abundance,” and I was just in love. So often, we’re taught to frame climate activism in terms of austerity and to treat beauty and joy as superfluous, self-indulgent, unnecessary, and even bourgeois.
I wrote a book called Orwell’s Roses recently, and I was very amused that a left-wing woman wrote to George Orwell, scolding him, saying that flowers are bourgeois. Flowers have existed for tens of millions of years before human beings did, and they have done much to shape this earth. Most of what we eat is either a flowering plant or something that depends on flowering plants directly, so it’s such a funny thing to say.
I think beauty, joy, and abundance can be imagined in these ways that are quite banal and superficial. Beauty becomes “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Joy becomes a sense of disconnected lightheartedness that’s not paying attention to the state of the world. Abundance becomes greed or materialism. But I think beauty comes from meaning and from moral beauty, which is the opposite of moral injury and moral ugliness. Joy comes from a meaningful life and from deep connection. If you lose sight of beauty and joy, you can lose sight of what we’re fighting for.
We want a world of beauty, joy, and abundance, and there’s no reason why we can’t enjoy as many as possible of these things along the way. I think there’s a real danger of imagining that the goal is some kind of justice without understanding that justice is beautiful and joyful. There’s beauty and joy in the security of feeling the interconnectedness that’s the opposite of violence. This is all connected to love.
Capitalism often teaches us to ask “How do we get love?” like it’s a commodity we want to stockpile. But giving love is also a kind of abundance. How do we feel that we have abundant hearts that can afford to love and that have a lot of love to give? How do we imagine love as a joy to give as well as receive? There’s a reciprocity of love: it shouldn’t only be coming in or going out, but the more it circulates, the more it circulates.
Capitalism has also taught us to imagine our world in terms of material objects. If I take away some of your toys, I have more toys because you have fewer. But if I take away some of your well-being, I don’t have more well-being. If I take away your joy or your sense of your own value, it doesn’t actually give me more—cutting you off at the knees may make you shorter, but it doesn’t make me taller. It’s important to understand the economy of the immaterial, which is a generosity economy, a gift economy, an economy in which the more you give, the more you receive.
JS: You mentioned your recent book, Orwell’s Roses. Could you tell us more about George Orwell’s love of gardening and what it’s taught you about the role of beauty in activist work?
RS: After I first encountered Orwell’s roses still blooming in the cottage he moved to in 1936, I started reading his essays about planting roses and fruit trees, and then his journals and letters. I found in Orwell what nothing had led me to expect. His writing was a lot more joyful, sensual, and engaged with the natural world than the kind of angsty, austere, grim, antifascist Orwell we’re usually given.
I think Orwell understood that in order to spend his life facing the most difficult, scary, and unpleasant things, he needed to be able to come back and renew himself, and he took that type of joy in gardening. In fact, in a 1940 questionnaire, he said, “Outside my work, the thing I care about most is gardening, especially vegetable gardening.”
Orwell understood that we live in a world of swirling and confusing information and that grounding yourself in something tangible, specific, and hands-on with the physical, material world helps you to keep your own capacity to trust your judgment. In his novel 1984, this is what he shows his protagonist Winston Smith doing. There’s a beautiful passage where Winston says, “Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s center,” almost like a mantra, because he lives in a world that’s trying so hard to disorient him and make him distrust his own capacity to perceive, remember, and judge.
So how do you revolt against Big Brother? There’s another line in the book that says, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Trusting your eyes and ears makes you a rebel and makes you a person who thinks for themself—a person who can be independent from Big Brother telling you what to think. Winston revolts very ineffectually when he tries to join a conspiracy against the regime. But he revolts pretty effectively by going to the country, having a love affair, listening to birdsong, cherishing memories and objects, trying to ascertain the truth, and trusting his own judgment. That doesn’t topple the regime, but it does liberate him from it briefly.
As a writer, I try to explore the things we need to do that others might say are frivolous, decadent, self-indulgent, or superfluous. What are the things we need to do that don’t look important or productive but that allow us to then go do the most important and productive things we need to do?
There’s a wonderful essay by Lawrence Weschler called “Vermeer in Bosnia,” where Weschler is sitting in on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He asked the judge afterwards how he can bear to sit and listen day after day to these stories of absolute atrocity. The judge thinks for a moment, and then his face brightens and he says, “Ah, after work, I go to the museum and look at the Vermeers.” Some may say that looking at Vermeers is frivolous or superfluous or unnecessary. But if looking at Vermeers helps a judge prosecute war crimes, then 400-year-old paintings and the enjoyment of them are part of justice work. We can’t discount anything, whether it’s baking cookies or bird-watching or surfing or gardening, if it helps people do the important work they need to do. That’s what I learned from Orwell.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Visit tricycle.org/podcast for the full episode.
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