Rebecca Solnit’s recently republished book Hope in the Dark should inspire the organisers of the global March for Science and other protest movements. It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate incremental change, she argues.
When Rebecca Solnit was born in 1961 some Ivy League universities did not admit women, a few Southern US colleges and universities only admitted whites, and some elite institutions still banned Jews. The Berlin Wall was erected that summer and the Cold War was at its height.
But, as she notes in her recently republished book Hope in the Dark, her birth year was also marked by a simultaneous one-day strike on 1 November across the US involving 100,000 women. The Women’s Strike for Peace was a demonstration against nuclear weapons. It was started by lawyer Bella Abzug and children’s book illustrator Dagmar Wilson. President Kennedy reportedly watched the Washington demonstration from a White House window. Two years later the US and Soviet Russia signed a nuclear test ban treaty.
Most protest movements can take decades or even centuries to deliver political change, she says, noting a US tendency to respond to crises and emergencies and “then go home.” This she argues, misses the point. Citizens of many other countries see it as a “part and even a pleasure of everyday life.”
Solnit’s words might resonate with organisers of the global March for Science movement and their plans to stage protests across 360 cities worldwide on April 22 (on International Earth Day). Theirs is a rallying call to support the scientific community, a protest against the mischaracterisation of science as a partisan issue, a time to support scientific research and evidence based policies. Will President Trump be watching from the White House window? Perhaps (assuming the mainstream media follow it) he will follow developments via Fox News and Twitter?
And will the march lead to Trump suddenly taking science more seriously? Almost certainly not, but Solnit urges her readers to acknowledge that victories are temporary and incomplete, and the key is to celebrate minor achievements along the way, and not to lose heart. She cites the ending of apartheid in South Africa as an example. It took decades to achieve and when it came was only a 77% victory, because true economic justice has yet to arrive there. Quoting Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, she concludes that Utopia works on the “two steps forward two steps back” principle.
Solnit says activists could also learn from US labour union Baldemar Velasquez. Instead of blindly demonising those who opposed his farmwork reforms, he saw them instead as either misinformed, miseducated, or wrong-thinking, saying: “I don’t consider anyone opposition…The way you win people over to your side is try to present the information from some perspective they’re familiar with.”
Hope in the Dark was initially published as an online essay in 2004 in response to the start of the Iraq war, which had begun six weeks earlier. Its call to celebrate grassroots activism and incremental change is optimistic (and, arguably idealistic) in tone, but there is a clear shift in mood towards the end when she talks about the urgent need to accept scientific evidence around climate change and act now.
She commends scientists as “heroes for our time” who are in many cases “sad, scared and clear about the urgency of taking action.” In doing so does she perhaps acknowledges that the causes they are championing – climate change, evidence-based policy making, vaccine safety (to name but three) are more urgent?
The book’s “Afterword” warns the despairing not to get too deeply attached to their despair, and castigates the first baby boomers who doggedly clung to the notion that nothing short of regime change matters.
She concludes: “I want to give aid and comfort to people who feel overwhelmed by the defeatist perspective, to encourage people to stand up and participate, to look forward at what we can do and back at what we have done.”
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature.
See also from Naturejobs:
- Development and debate about the March for Science
- Join the March for Science in London (and other UK cities)
- Communication: Post truth predicaments
- Science advocacy: Get involved
- Activism: A call to serve