There May Yet Be Hope
Our future is not set in stone
On September 12, 1961, a thirty-four-year-old activist from Connecticut named Stephanie May travelled to New York and began a hunger strike outside the Soviet mission on East Sixty-Seventh Street. Two police officers threatened to arrest her for vagrancy the moment she arrived; they agreed to let her stay only after she promised not to spend the night. For the next six days, May occupied the sidewalk from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., living on water and broth and feeling, as she later wrote, “absolutely invisible, except to little children instructed not to look, and to teenagers in parochial school uniforms who stole furtive glances and then giggled.” The resolute woman wore a body-length sign strapped around her neck: “RUSSIA! STOP Nuclear Testing!! Stop poisoning the air!”
The Soviet Union had just announced it was abandoning the moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing then in place between the world’s two superpowers — a moratorium that Stephanie May had played a prominent role in bringing about in the first place. History has largely overlooked her, but she was a key member of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. SANE, as it was known, was the most influential peace group of its time, with a membership that included the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1957, the same year May was invited to join SANE’s board, she began writing letters to world leaders and public intellectuals from her kitchen table. Quite a few wrote back. Some, like the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, did so in hopes of shutting her up; others, like the Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, became close pen pals whose correspondence shored up her spirits whenever the cause seemed hopeless.
Never was it more so than in that autumn of 1961. Over the previous decade, the great powers had measurably increased the entire atmosphere’s radioactivity by detonating hundreds of nuclear warheads in sea and sky; cancer rates were spiking near test sites all over the world, especially in children. Now the moratorium May and so many others had campaigned tirelessly to achieve was about to be vaporized by a fresh barrage of tests. These were the days before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and acid rain, long before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. With Europe and North America entering the most prosperous period in human history, environmental contamination was a fringe concern and Americans’ faith in their own government was matched only by their loathing for Russia’s. A little nuclear fallout was a price the public seemed willing to pay to win the arms race.
Four days into May’s hunger strike, the press finally bit. “I’m not willing to crawl into a hole in the ground and accept nuclear destruction without a murmur,” she told a reporter for the New York Post. “This is my murmur.” Television crews from ABC, CBS, NBC, Universal Pictures, and others rushed to interview May the next day. Her poise and informed conviction inspired a wave of similar hunger strikes that spread across the country in the following weeks; May ended her own on its seventh day. Oblivious to the woman from Connecticut, the Soviets resumed their tests, and the United States followed suit.
“In a period such as our own we cannot ask for certainties: there are none,” Russell wrote May two months later. Still, the philosopher went on, “I am convinced that the prevalent apathy which is the only condition under which Kruschev and Kennedy, Macmillan and Adenauer, de Gaulle and Mao Tse Tung, are able to carry out their lunatic policies, is based not on a lack of concern but on a sense of impotence. If we can show people a way in which they can genuinely obstruct, and finally prevent, the whole nuclear policy, this sense of powerlessness will go, and with it the apathy.”
In the following months, the Cuban Missile Crisis would bring humanity to the brink of the nuclear abyss and trigger yet another round of atmospheric tests. But one year after that, in October 1963, the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty. They haven’t detonated a nuclear bomb above ground since.
Commanding Hope is not about Stephanie May, but Thomas Homer-Dixon does elevate her story to the level of sacred parable, one the Canadian professor consults throughout his book. Her story matters not because she won some total victory but precisely because she didn’t. After all, the Doomsday Clock now sits at 100 seconds to midnight, closer to Armageddon than it — than we — have ever been. That’s partly thanks to ongoing nuclear proliferation, but also because the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists added climate change to its threat calculus in 2018 (and it added COVID‑19 this past January). Even with that, you have to wonder why the organization stopped there: civilization has brought so many existential crises down upon itself — is there any need to list them? — that the prospect of nuclear annihilation must now compete for our attention.
Our atmosphere’s radioactivity has actually returned to normal over the past half century, as have cancer rates linked to fallout. For anyone paying attention in late 1961, such an achievement would have seemed somewhere between ludicrous and impossible. Sixty years later, as we face other lethal accumulations, it’s good to be reminded that existential despair is neither new nor insurmountable. It’s thanks to people like Stephanie May that we have the luxury of contemplating why our odds keep getting worse.
“Anyone who grasps the severity of humanity’s predicament,” Homer-Dixon writes, “confronts an unforgiving conundrum, which I’ve come to call the enough vs. feasible dilemma. On one hand, changes that would be enough to make a real difference — that would genuinely reduce the danger humanity faces if they were implemented — don’t appear to be feasible, in the sense that our societies aren’t likely to implement them, because of existing political, economic, social, or technological roadblocks. On the other hand, changes that do currently appear feasible won’t be enough by themselves.” (The national carbon tax comes to mind.) When Stephanie May and her colleagues overcame their generation’s version of Homer-Dixon’s dilemma, they did it by stretching feasible and shrinking enough, until the two finally overlapped in a place we all could live. To do so required brilliance and tenacity. But after poring over five hundred pages of May’s personal notes and correspondence, Homer-Dixon concludes that her true “secret trump card” was hope.
Homer-Dixon describes himself as a complexity scientist. He’s been studying the interplay between environmental collapse and society for decades, always with an eye for solutions that brings a rare note of optimism to an undeniably bleak subject. His previous book, The Upside of Down, argued that the decisive cause of the Roman Empire’s collapse was an energy shortage, with clear implications for the modern world; he closed with a chapter on “catagenesis,” his term for the surprising opportunities that can arise in the wake of catastrophe. Commanding Hope essentially picks up the thread from there. Homer-Dixon regards the institutional breakdown we see all around us (exhibit A: U.S. democracy) as a counterintuitive source of hope, exemplified in the “Build back better” slogans now proliferating in the age of the pandemic.
A more superficial treatment might have foundered on tropes like “Never let a good crisis go to waste” or some version of the false aphorism that John F. Kennedy popularized, about the Chinese symbol for “catastrophe” being the same as the one for “opportunity.” This kind of rhetoric — Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine for good guys — is catnip for professional persuaders, and no wonder: Who doesn’t want their suffering to serve a higher purpose? When I listened to Justin Trudeau justify his prorogation of Parliament by saying, “As much as this pandemic has been an unexpected challenge, it is also an unprecedented opportunity,” part of me wanted to forget everything but the possibility that the Liberals would finally do something radical.
Commanding Hope doesn’t let anyone off so easy — not me, not Trudeau, and least of all hope itself, which can be trusted only when it tells the whole truth. By the time I finished this book, I had come to regard its thesis as a planetary version of the Stockdale Paradox, named after a man who survived seven years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. As James Stockdale put it, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
Maybe I do need to list those existential crises. At least a few. Perhaps a parable from my own backyard will do.
The Fraser River that runs through the heart of Vancouver was, until recently, among the world’s great salmon rivers, with up to thirty million sockeye returning to spawn through late summer and early fall. Between 1980 and 2014, those numbers began to decline precipitously, but the run still averaged 9.6 million a year across that quarter century. Now, the decline has become a death spiral: less than half a million made it home last year, and this year, half of that.
In no particular order, there are four main contributors to this collapse: overfishing, climate change, salmon farms (which spread disease and parasites into wild salmon populations), and a rock slide in 2018 that choked a critical section of the river, blocking a huge proportion of sockeye from reaching their spawning grounds.
The world will not end if these fish disappear from the Fraser River, any more than it ended when cod disappeared from the East Coast. But these aren’t isolated tragedies. In the past fifty years, 68 percent of the planet’s wild animals were obliterated by humanity’s expanding footprint, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund released earlier this year. One million species around the world now face imminent extinction. Life as we know it is coming to an end, and the micro-story of the Fraser’s salmon contains many of that macro-tragedy’s main plot points: overconsumption, industrial agriculture, and a climate that is changing too quickly for countless plants and animals to adapt. These all act together to make the biosphere (humans included) more vulnerable than ever to “natural” disasters.
Those other disasters, the human kind, come in so many shapes and sizes that lately I’ve noticed we’re lumping them under the catch‑all umbrella of “climate change.” But, as Homer-Dixon points out, global warming is a symptom that pales in comparison to its cause: our relentless increase in consumption of just about everything on earth. Most liberal politicians, including Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden, can get behind the fight against climate change, at least in principle. But how many of them would dare to campaign against perpetual economic growth?
Homer-Dixon’s been thinking about this stuff all his life, but it wasn’t until he had kids that he began to contemplate the antidote to despair. “I live with one vivid fear for Ben and Kate,” he writes early on. “I fear they’ll lose hope, that their sense of future possibility — made vivid by their imaginations, and so wonderfully alive in their countless ‘How abouts’ during their childhoods — will be crushed. Instead, they’ll be led by the accumulating weight of evidence to tell themselves just one story about their future.” And what’s that singular storyline? “We’re all members of a failed species, and during this century we’re destined to bear witness to the devastation of our planetary home and the violent unraveling of much of what we’ve accomplished.”
My daughter is almost five. She likes to tiptoe into my home office while I work and ask me what I’m writing about. I’ve known for some time that answering her question is going to get harder, not easier, the more she understands. It feels good to read a book about hope, is what I’m saying.
Feeling good is a trap of its own, of course, one of many that have led humanity to the edge of this cliff. That’s why Homer-Dixon is very specific about the quality of hope he’s for and the kind he’s against. That appraisal comes with an entertaining tour of opinions that thinkers through the ages have held about the last emotion to escape Pandora’s box. “Hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism,” declared the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, whereas Baruch Spinoza dismissed hope as indicating “a lack of knowledge and a weakness of mind.” The radical American eco-philosopher Derrick Jensen has accused hope of acting as a sedative, for being “nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line . . . a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.” The U.S. Navy admiral Gene La Rocque (a dedicated promoter of nuclear détente and civilian oversight of the military) echoed that position when he admonished us, “If we want a better world, we as human beings ought to do what we can to bring about the change. Hope is a futile mental exercise.” Dostoevsky, for his part, begged to differ: “No man lives, can live, without having some object in view, and making efforts to attain that object. But when object there is none, and hope is entirely fled, anguish often turns a man into a monster.”
Hope’s brightest moment in my lifetime arrived in 2008, when Barack Obama made it seem both audacious and self-fulfilling. But no sooner had he brought it to the White House than hope’s downfall was foretold by that harbinger of American decline Sarah Palin, who smote it with a taunt: “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?”
“Hope has seen better days,” Homer-Dixon allows. “Our honest intuition that lots of things are going wrong — our legitimate worry that the possibility of a good future for ourselves and our children is slipping away — makes the idea of hope, like our faith in human progress, seem a bit silly, even pathetic.” Even more dangerous than false hope, however, is the possibility “that we’ll lose faith in our ability to create a positive future.” In a world running out of everything but carbon dioxide, he concludes, “scarcity of hope could turn out to be the most crippling scarcity of all.”
As the book’s title implies, the hope Homer-Dixon is promoting has a dual nature. It arises from an internal summons and emerges as a call to action. That kind of hope isn’t naive: it’s transformational. You’ll know it by the three qualities Homer-Dixon discovered in Stephanie May: first, honesty, above all. She never exaggerated or cherry-picked the evidence of nuclear testing’s danger, and she always referred to best-case scenarios to demonstrate how brutal even those were. That honesty conferred “an acute moral clarity,” Homer-Dixon writes, “which translated into an unerring ability to discern the moral idiocy of the positions taken by many testing advocates.” (Again, one thinks of the carbon tax.)
The second quality of May’s hope was astuteness. She kept as informed as a civilian could be and “used, to great effect, her status as a housewife and others’ ready assumption that she was naive.” A brilliant debater, May was constantly “searching out and exploiting the critical assumption, fact, or contradiction on which everything at that moment hinged.” Finally, May’s hope was powerful, “backed by a combination of gumption, dogged perseverance, and exacting attention to political strategy.” Put simply, she never gave up.
These are all qualities that describe history’s most famous activists, from Gandhi and Martin Luther King to Greta Thunberg — all on Homer-Dixon’s list. Surely we should add Stephanie May’s daughter, Elizabeth, who would one day lead Canada’s Green Party.
Commanding Hope isn’t calling on you to become a revolutionary activist in the battle to halt climate change, abolish inequality, and stop the infinite pursuit of economic growth. You don’t have to go on a hunger strike. Homer-Dixon’s appreciation for the human condition, along with his relish for the dramatic sweep of history, delivers him from propaganda. But his story does offer an antidote to the apathy-inducing sense of impotence that Bertrand Russell wrote about in 1961. To take but one example of how that persists to this day, he cites a 2019 study that found 62 percent of Americans who believe in climate change feel helpless to do anything about it. If 2020 has taught us that we could all get a little more involved, then this is a book for our times.
Given that we’re now “confronting some of the most formidable vested interests on Earth,” our odds are no better than the anti-nuke activists’ were, and probably they’re a lot worse. It’s not just fossil fuel companies we’re up against but also the banks and shareholders who finance destructive industries, as well as the political power centres where the status quo resides. The closer you look, the more it appears that the thing we’re really up against is ourselves.
To offer hope as a weapon in this fight runs the terrible risk of sounding earnest, which these days means insincere. Ours is the world of the corporate message and the public persona, a world of airbrushed influencers and pablum politicians whose sunny ways can win elections even as they make our eyes roll. All that PR is reflected in reverse in our private lives, where irony and cynicism have been gaining currency for as long as I can remember. When we’re among friends, without a camera, the savvy and sophisticated approach is to raise an eyebrow at any earnest promise. This attitude helped prevent 42 percent of the U.S. electorate from voting in 2016, and it kept 35 percent of Canadians at home in 2019.
We exalt irony and cynicism above hope, because that feels like the smartest response. But lately I’ve been thinking: maybe it’s just the easiest. The likeliest outcome for civilization over the next century may well be tragedy on a scale too large to contemplate. Homer-Dixon is very clear about that. Yet there’s a “simple to describe, but . . . staggeringly hard to execute” alternative: “Not only must we stop our collective slide towards global calamity — we need to reverse it.” That means “addressing our world’s agonizing social and economic injustices,” and it means “the boundary of our identity — of our ‘we’— must expand to encompass nature too.”
So what’s an average citizen to do? Thankfully, the enormity of the task ahead hasn’t stopped millions from getting into the streets to demand our leaders undertake it. Maybe we aren’t so jaded after all; maybe the 2020s can be a bigger, better version of the 1960s. Commanding Hope is light on prescriptions, which some readers might see as a flaw, but Homer-Dixon does suggest that we can all “begin by multiplying today’s vital youth activism a thousand-fold around the world.” He wrote these words before this summer’s Black Lives Matter marches, which began just after the book went to press, but he could be channelling the rapper Killer Mike just as easily as Greta Thunberg when he says we need to “mobilize this activism into coherent political movements that genuinely challenge dominant power systems.”
Such a challenge is all but guaranteed to provoke a “vicious and quite possibly violent reaction.” That may be news to some, but not to Black Lives Matter, nor to the countless land defenders and pipeline protesters who increasingly find themselves under physical attack, as often as not by legal authorities. Throw in an American election where hope is once again on the ballot, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide field test of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s central thesis: that fundamental change may not always follow fundamental breakdown, but it never happens without it.