Review by George Yatchisin
It’s not lost on me that I’m reading Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility as I take a fuel-guzzling flight cross country. As much as the 28 essays that Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua have gathered provide hope, ammunition, community, congratulations for small gains along the way, as much as I don’t need to be in the slightest convinced that our human-caused climate crisis is destroying our planet (I also have recently left Maui a mere four days before Lahaina was consumed), I stand accused, too. And let’s not even get to our beloved vintage gas-burning Wedgewood stove….
Of course, how can’t we all take the boiling/flooding/drought-stricken/on fire end of the world personally? A collection like Not Too Late by its very nature tends to speak more to the converted no matter how hard its authors hope otherwise, and even the converted among us always yearn we might somehow be exceptions. It certainly helps that’s it’s only a few pages into the book when co-editor Lutunatabua asserts, “The question shouldn’t be Will my actions be enough? but Will our actions be enough? This is a communal quest in which everyone can bring their talents, visions, desires, access—and if one person struggles, we can help each other up.”
Almost all the authors make the case for community. That said, in the very first footnote of the book Solnit herself explores the problematic use of “we” in the book. Of course this is a global crisis, a truly universal we, but that doesn’t mean some we’s aren’t better off than others. So the book’s composition helps correct that, providing much focus from and on Indigenous and BIPOC communities and the Global South.
It also tends to be overall keen with its writing. When contributor Mary Annaïse Heglar points out Toni Cade Bambara said, “the role of the artist is to ‘make revolution irresistible,’” she could be describing the impact of this collection. A later essay insists to change we need not just facts but stories, and Not too Late keeps those coming, masterful examples that nudge the reader to motivation. For example in the volume I learned that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was first energized by activism showing up at Standing Rock long before she opted to run for Congress (and eventually help cocreate and sponsor the Green New Deal).
That precision rests on the importance of diction, even. Not surprisingly Solnit often outshines her fellow writers (one slight weakness of the collection, although it’s not their fault it comes off as if they’re trying to play baseball with Willie Mays), nowhere better than in her dissection of optimism:
<block>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 recognizing 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 recognize 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. </block>
How clear-eyed and yet touching is that?
Of course, we aren’t all as brilliant as Solnit, and it’s convenient to plunge into the deep well of despond. Fortunately, Yotam Marom’s essay, What to Do When the World Is Ending,” offers a brilliant takedown of the allure of despair, in which he claims, “By surrendering the fight outward, despair focuses us inward. It encourages what I’ve called the politics of powerlessness, marked by navel-gazing, endless process, posturing, and the internal power struggles and call-outs that weaken our organizations and movements.” One only has to casually glimpse at our political sphere to see how true Marom’s words are: note how the Left loves to holier-than-thou and bicker itself into division, while the Right eagerly unites behind any seemingly powerful idiot despite the damage he has done and will continue to do to the world.
This book calls for and helps elicit “a reset of ambitions” for humanity. Sure, plenty of scare quotes get sprinkled along the way (for instance: “90 percent of seabirds alive today contain plastic in their guts”), but we have made some real positive global change, too. Just the essay on how the Paris accord kept the line at a 1.5° C (instead of 2) as the maximum allowable rise in global temperature inspires.
And repeatedly the book suggests imagination is key, leaving room for art in the biggest sense of the word to help leverage us out of our self-made, petroleum-fueled mess. In an interview chapter, poet-climate envoy Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner suggests “art is a space to be meditative, and to be bigger than the easiest answer,” while Solnit herself presents the notion that “a truly impactful artist is no longer what you see but how you see.”
Assuming that if you can imagine a future it therefore roots in possibility, the book concludes with a pair of pieces that look forward from the past and then look past from the future. Solnit makes clear we had no idea in 1973 what 2023 would bring, both bad and transformative, often at the same time (George Floyd was born in 1973, alas). Then Denali Sai Nalamalapu pens a speculative fiction piece set in 2073, when things are decidedly more positive than many forecasts thanks to collective activism.
We can all hope.