I’m not sure any writer stimulates me like Rebecca Solnit. Her dead-aim truth telling and her exquisite control of language serves up so many reminders and inspirations.
In “Silence Is Broken,” an early essay in The Mother of All Questions, Solnit writes:
The task of calling things by their true names, of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks. It’s how we make the world.
She concluded the weighty essay about silence and women with this passage, an exquisite sentence containing a plea and plan. In the main, the essay catalogs the ways silencing works to oppress, how it protects patriarchy. Silence is a verb, not a quality of quiet. The essay–and the book flowing out of it–is worth reading and learning from. But I want to consider specifically the ways Solnit’s charge here might guide historians’ work.
- Calling things by their true name. Using “patriarchy” rather than “human nature” or some other formulation makes impacts. As I’m teaching Native American history now, I’m reminded often of choosing true names. Calling out colonialism as cause rather than fingering (mostly) blameless pathogens, for instance, recalibrates truth. As does characterizing processes as settler colonialism rather than settlement, invasions not migrations. Part of calling things truly means grappling with agency. In reading about Californian genocide (truth telling in names again) in Benjamin Madley’s excellent An American Genocide, I’m struck by the ways Californians deflected moral choice by assuming the inevitable disappearance of California Indians. Of course, the deflection made it (nearly) inevitable.
- Tell the truth to the best of our abilities. We must hone our honesty and model integrity. We adjust when we learn more; we correct when we are wrong. Our polestar draws facts, not ideology or even flawless narrative. Our telling rests on truth, but we face hostile recipients. So we practice our words, making them truer and clearer. And more urgent.
- Knowing how we got here. Everything holds its history within its very structure. Another way of saying this is that choices produce the world where we live. And so we must examine those choices, see their results and consequences intended and otherwise. Accepting the world as it appears today as some inevitable outcome misunderstands the heartbeat of history. (A recent novel that plays with inevitability–and its reversals–is the magnificent The Power by Naomi Alderman.) When we understand historical forces as accumulating human agency, we can pry and leverage change. What seemed like historical bedrock yesterday can be eroded tomorrow.
- Listen to those silenced in the past. Finding voices previously silenced and listening to them, privileging them, seems the right work for historians. Some will object, no doubt, claiming distortion. We’ve heard the unsilenced for so long, so loudly. Their case has been made. Their records enshrined in State of the Union addresses, military orders, Pulitzers, Oscar-winning films. When we see in the shadows, we will see lives lived truly.
- How stories fit together or break apart. When we have all the puzzle pieces rather than half or a third, the picture is not only clearer, it is different. Gathering all the stories is not a means for increasing quantity, not more of the same. Instead, we will have stories that change The Story, rendering the old order confused. The story of our nation won’t include women who be also became doctors, African Americans who also became presidents. It becomes more complicated, nuanced; more facets appear bending the past’s light. The story of expanding democracy, a favorite fable, does not work because it has always excluded those for whom the story is a lie. And when you exclude people in a democratic story, you fail to call things by their true name. The outer edge and the inner core can no longer orient because the world has always been multi-centered, dynamic. Old truths die hard in the full face stories.
- Use our privilege to undo privilege. My privilege compounds. White. Male. Heterosexual (and married and a parent). Educated. Jobbed. Able-bodied. Citizen. Etc. Virtually every privilege my society grants, I have. I earned none (although I did homework when education was available). To be privileged, one needs to acknowledge it. Then use it to undo it. This seems to some to undermine self-interest. But self-interest seems always to weaken the greater good, which cycles back on itself to tear the self and its interests apart. Awareness of privilege, and calling it such, is a prelude to the real work of weakening the pillars that hold up the facade of Meritocracy.
It’s how we make the world, says Solnit. The world is constituted by stories, with stories. Our stories are our truth. Truths require information, as much as we can hear and sometimes more than we want to bear, especially those who benefit from privilege. How we make the world begins with our choices, so how we choose should be high in our awareness. Take conscious steps. Take heed. Tell true stories fiercely.
In 1978, in a fit of optimism that civil rights had arrived and would never retreat, the southern writer Walker Percy, told a Georgia audience,
Like most great historical changes, the change happens before our inkling of it and before its consequences begin to dawn on us.
His shortsightedness on race in America notwithstanding, Percy offers a mostly wise assessment. We don’t realize when our historical trajectory jumps the track and starts us down new pathways. When our consciousness catches up, we are halfway to Topeka when we aimed for Tacoma.
Considering climate change confirms Percy’s point. Long ago, industrial economies committed to fossil fuels, a decision that promised (and delivered) much to energize society in novel ways. Pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere launched a global and devastating experiment, the results of which we now reckon with in newly powerful storms and changing weather patterns across the globe. Scientists explain that if we stopped burning coal and driving our cars today, the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would not stabilize for perhaps four decades. This seems the very definition of Percy’s observation: change proceeds without us knowing, until we are long down the trail.
Make no mistake, we must end fossil fuel-based economies, but this shift requires more than an occasional carpool, curbside recycling, farmers’ markets, and other “green lifestyle” shibboleths. Upsetting these economies will necessarily be revolutionary; this is why, as activist and writer Naomi Klein points out in This Changes Everything, some conservatives go to such extreme measures to disbelieve evidence. Climate change is an existential threat to the world–and the wealth–built on fossil fuels. The right knows this instinctively and resists
Farmer-poet-prophet Wendell Berry knows it, too. Long an advocate for slowing down our economies and pegging them to ecological scales and not quarterly profit shares, Berry is familiar with calls for radical change. In a 2013 speech to Kentucky Unitarians, he implored that we must end fossil fuel economies.
But we must do this fully realizing that our success, if it happens, will change our world and our lives more radically than we can now imagine.
For decades, walking his fields and tending to home ground, Berry breathes faith in nature’s power to guide action and decision making. He knows there are no ways to transcend the earth’s capacity to support life. So, climate change is a call to arms.
But perhaps it is Berry’s final comment that merits the most attention. This new civilization–the one not based on extracting non-renewable energy sources–is beyond our imagining. It would be unrecognizable to us today, Berry thinks. We need the frank, slap-in-the-face honesty Berry issues.
I don’t think it is quite as unimaginable as Berry would have us believe. I believe creative people might be our best guides into this unimaginable future. And this, I think, demands we attend to a different set of “workers” to guide us.
Writers have long created unimaginable worlds. Consider classic science fiction like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), where Ursula LeGuin imagines a society without gender. Or, revisit uptopian/dystopian worlds wrecked by environmental disasters, like much in Octavia Butler’s or Margaret Atwood’s oeuvres. Countless more examples might be added.
Conjuring fictional worlds guided by distinct values–a civilization that might meet the demands of the radical future Berry points toward–will require openness and imagination. Yet imagination may be in short supply. The novelist Michael Chabon worries that we are not watering the seeds of the future. We raise our children with insufficient independence and imagination. In a remarkable 2009 essay, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” Chabon concludes,
Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted–not taught–to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?
Although Chabon’s concern centers mainly on the artistic, his point translates easily to the business of creating a culture that fits a post-fossil fuel economy. One risks much with an indoor childhood where parents drive their kids everywhere, where kids play videos with pre-programmed narratives, where the young do not explore or create their own wildernesses–out in the world or even in their unique imaginations. If imaginations atrophy, Chabon recognizes we will lose stories. If we lose stories, the world loses its vital compass, including the cartography of previously unimagined directions.
Besides imagining too little, we’ve forgotten too much. We must hope for and create a better future, to forge a radical different civilization springing from our imaginations. History can guide. In her collection, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit reminds us,
What lies ahead seems unlikely; when it becomes the past, it seems inevitable.
Like Percy, Solnit points to our unconsciousness as we swim in the stream of time. Where Percy said we
cannot see it as it carries us forward, Solnit tells us possibilities are impossibilities until they became inevitabilities. She then shares all sorts of examples of “hope in the dark,” past examples of surprising reversals and resistances: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Zapatista revolution, peace movements, ordinary people doing extraordinary things in unimaginable circumstances. History is not straightforward as the textbook chapters’ decadal march of progress pretend. “Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward,” Solnit cautions,
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.
Progress happens, sometimes quickly, sometimes in an agonizing creep.
So, while Berry warns us that our future is beyond what we can imagine and Percy notes that we remain unaware when history changes, I think students of the past might see guideposts and lighthouses. They might serve as well as novelists and artists to build a new world.
Sometimes, we hear that a climate change-induced world has no historical antecedents; our past can be no guide in the Anthropocene, for something new under the sun is here. That too easily dismisses the accumulated wisdom of human history. The historical record is scattered with paths not taken, reforms not chosen. In an example surely close to Berry’s heart, American agricultural reformers worried about unsustainable farming practices and sought local solutions two centuries ago. What might we learn from revisiting them? What might Buddhism offer, since its 2500-year history focuses on suffering (dukkha) and how to become liberated from it? Close observers of The Leap Manifesto, a Canadian-based movement that Klein favors as a guide toward an equitable society based on caring, will realize it is inspired by historical examples and obligations. In other words, historical cognates shine lights forward, as well as back.
To the extent that leaders in education recognize the fundamental centrality of adapting to a world where humans changed the climate, they are likely to invest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs. This dangerously narrows possibilities for reimagining life on earth. Investing in history, in art, in daily acts of imagination–these are the ways forward. Then, the radical new future will become familiar, even inevitable, and we will recognize the momentous change we are bound to create.
On Creativity and History, or Imagining an Unimaginable Future by Adam M. Sowards is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.