Is it too late to change the world?

Finding the motivation to keep fighting for a better future
Photo: Phil Desforges
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On a March morning in 2019, I was preparing to attend the Montreal leg of Greta Thunberg’s first global march for the climate. I had just come from the dentist, and despite my frozen bottom lip — and the drool I suspected was dribbling down my chin — I felt the same electric sense of purpose and community that I have always felt in the lead-up to a demonstration.

Then I heard about the terrorist attack in New Zealand that targeted Muslims at Friday prayer, killing 51 and injuring 49. Two of the bleakest crises collided for me then — a planet careening towards climate catastrophe and an ever-growing sea of hate, Islamophobia, and intolerance.

This year has felt like that crash writ large.

Apocalyptic scenes of wildfires, foreboding red-orange skies. The second wave of a pandemic that has not only killed a million people worldwide but also exposed and exacerbated already weakened social programs, racial injustice, deep inequality, and the cruelty of low-wage and precarious work. Deadly, persistent systemic discrimination despite massive protests against police brutality and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. White supremacists emboldened by a U.S. president who unabashedly eggs them on. Brazenly anti-democratic moves by the president as the American election approaches.

It is hard to look at the world today with much hope. In this disheartening context I, like many, have struggled to find my resolve.

I have been politically engaged my whole adult life. Driving that engagement have been two central feelings: indignation about injustice and a deep conviction that things will get better, if we just fight hard enough. That conviction was sustained by hope and optimism, two elements that progressives know are critical to putting in the work to make things better. And that conviction was unshakeable until the violence in New Zealand, when my hope crumbled. Marching that day alongside 500,000 energized climate activists, I could identify the exhilaration that comes from joining with other people to flex our collective political muscles and demand change, but I couldn’t feel it.

I have wrestled with this loss since. On my darker days, I thought my drive to be politically engaged was gone for good. But I have come to realize something deeper drives my political engagement.

An optimism hardened in disappointment

I used to think that we had time. As a teenager I once convinced a fellow idealist of just that. At one of those well-meaning weekend summits organized by the Toronto school boards to bring together promising students, I told a friend that we “had time.” I confidently said that our best course of action as a species was to first solve the problems that were pitting us against one another — racism, wealth inequality, interstate conflict — then band together and tackle environmental problems. It was only logical to resolve the issues one by one, I explained, so as to better focus our collective attention on the environment later.

I was naive.

Soon my faith morphed into an optimism that was less naive, but nonetheless sustaining. The kind of optimism that knew there would be setbacks on the road to progress, and that the key was to keep fighting. But even that hardened optimism suffered cracks.

We are not just fighting to make things better. We also have to fight to prevent things from slipping back and getting worse.

The first came about a decade ago, when I was living in Baltimore. Barack Obama was still president, but the Tea Party was on the rise, and its sympathizers were aggressively attacking women’s rights, especially the right to choose. In my early 30s, it was the first time I was forced to contemplate a loss of my rights. I had known the fight for rights and progressive victories was difficult, but I had an unshakeable optimism that we were constantly moving the dial forward, even with setbacks.

But with legislation in the U.S. chipping away at hard-won rights, I questioned this conviction. Fear crystallized one morning as I listened to the radio. The newsreader announced that a bill had passed in Arizona severely restricting access to abortion. A feeling of dread spread through my body as I realized how naive my faith in progress had been. I saw how much more elemental politics are today than I had understood them to be. We are not just fighting to make things better. We also have to fight to prevent things from slipping back and getting worse.

Parallels to the past on a trip to Berlin

In the summer of 2016, a couple of American friends came to Canada for a visit. Donald Trump had recently won the Republican primary and become the cartoonish candidate spewing hate who was openly mocked by the media and public figures. He was widely expected to lose the election, yet my friends were anxious. Both are political scientists and one of them had worked in key positions on a number of election campaigns. They warned me that we all needed to take the far-right aides advising Trump much more seriously, and that white supremacist groups in the U.S. had more organizing power and prowess than they were credited for.

I started to see the same naive confidence in the public’s mockery of candidate Trump.

This warning kept coming back to me as I set off on a trip to Berlin a few weeks later. Trump was high in the polls at the time, and slowly the danger of a Trump presidency sank in. As I visited Second World War memorial sites and museums, I couldn’t help but notice obvious parallels between the early Nazi propaganda and policies I was reading about and Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants, racialized people, Muslims, and women. But also bothering me, was the faith of those who opposed the Nazi regime in the 1930s that their democratic and judicial institutions, along with common sense, would prevail. I started to see the same naive confidence in the public’s mockery of candidate Trump.

In the time of coronavirus, in the time of Trump and his far-right peers Bolsonaro, Orbán, Modi, and Duterte, these apprehensions return. I wonder, do we have too much faith in the robustness of our institutions?

Will we know how to recognize when we are just before the fall? Will we know when it’s too late?

Waking up in the end times

“Two seasons in one. Climate change.” That’s how the older British tourist down the bar from me explained the pictures of cherry blossoms and autumn leaves that he had taken during his trip to Japan. He was showing them to an affable ramen shop owner in Himeji, a small city an hour and a half south west of Kyoto, in a tiny shop. The owner, a Tokyo transplant with messy hair tucked up under a bandana, was warm but discreet. The British tourist, a tall thin man in his early 70s travelling with his wife, made the comment as a friendly joke — the kind of relatable thing one says to make conversation across a language divide.

As the trio chatted, I sat quietly in my corner, reading about California’s destruction by wildfires in the fall of 2018. Trump blamed poor forest management instead of acknowledging the climate crisis. Denial in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Are we too late? It is a question many of us ask ourselves on a daily basis about climate change. And it is accompanied by an intense worry about the future, by ecoanxiety.

A resistance movement becomes truly powerful when it becomes ordinary.

While climate change has always been an existential crisis (of our own making), the horizon of catastrophe is now approaching so rapidly that it is easy, even understandable, to become nihilistic. It has finally sunk in to a good number of us that we have only a decade to turn things around.

The first day of 2020 felt to me like waking up in the end times. I groggily reached over for my phone and scrolled through article after article about the fires in Australia. Accounts of families trapped in Mallacoota and forced to flee to the beach, ready to jump in the water, as the fires suddenly threatened their town. Image after image of ominous glowing red skies, like a visual representation of our dread. The fires had been burning for weeks, but waking up on Jan. 1, the first day of the last decade we have to get our act on climate change together, the news took on a different intensity. This is the apocalypse of our making. This is the destruction scientists have been warning us about for decades, that they have been holding summits about since 1979. Now, the catastrophe is here.

Over the last couple of years I have noticed a change in tone among my friends and even strangers with whom I fall into conversation. There is a palpable anxiety about the near future. Friends openly talk about not having children — or not having more children — because of the crisis. Some talk of securing land in a remote area to ensure they have a sustainable refuge in case of climate-induced unrest. A few years ago, this would have sounded preposterous. Today it solicits resigned nods. The tipping point is bearing down on us yet we see leaders elected on climate change denial agendas: Scott Morrison in Australia, just months before his country’s devastating fires; Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who has not only denied climate change but also brushed off the severity of the Amazon fires; and of course, Donald Trump, who has famously called climate change a hoax. And we see the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government declared the crisis to be an emergency, nonetheless buying and building an oil pipeline that will only deepen the crisis. All of this is enough to snuff out hope about the future.

Small but powerful acts of resistance

Every time I’ve returned to Europe since my 2016 trip, I have found myself drawn to the stories about the Second World War resistance movement. The people who participated in that movement were ordinary people — students, artists, doctors, even bankers — who saw the danger of the time and rose to the occasion.

We tend to glorify prominent figures of resistance. We turn them into martyrs, symbols, rallying cries. But I have always found the acts of resistance of those largely — or completely — lost to history to be the most touching. Small but powerful acts, such as tampering with street signs to confuse Nazi occupiers in Paris and Soviet occupiers in Prague, disorienting the occupiers but drawing residents closer together in their intimate knowledge of their home. Those unsigned and unseen acts are an important part of the beauty and power of resistance movements. The countless acts done in the shadows, unseen, uncredited, unacknowledged, are the building blocks of a successful resistance movement. These acts bear witness to personal courage, to bonds of trust in the worst of circumstances, and to a faith in the best of humanity, even when the worst side prevails. A resistance movement becomes truly powerful when it becomes ordinary. The cumulative power of individual acts of courage makes the whole greater than its parts.

In our fraught political moment, it is important to remember that resistance is about more than fighting an unjust and immoral agent of power. It is, at its core, about upholding the principles of justice and ethics that guide you, even in situations that seem futile. Resistance is not just about pushing back, it is also about laying the foundation stones of the world you want to see, even in moments when that world seems impossible. It is knowing that your self-worth is wrapped up in living by and defending those principles. It is about playing the long game, even when you know that you likely won’t make it to the end.

It is love that remains when hope and optimism are extinguished.

I find myself drawing strength from these resistance movements today. If they were able to keep mobilizing when it seemed the darkest of forces would prevail, we should too. I should too.

The future feels bleak. Hell, the present feels bleak. We are besieged by the first pandemic in a century on a stage set by rising intolerance, systemic racism, deep inequality and an unprecedented environmental catastrophe. Yet I still see people forging ahead — public figures, but very unpublic ones too — determined to keep working to build a better world.

We are reminded every day that we are careening into a grim future. Although I have lost my firm grip on the hope and optimism I once had, I know for sure that if we do nothing we will be condemned to a truly terrible world. That is enough to give me my resolve back. And I have come to see that hope and optimism were not in fact what has been underpinning my political engagement. Hope and optimism waver and can even fail. So they are not enough. The upshot of our dark era is I have learned that, at its core, political engagement is about love. That is the third element of the “love, hope and optimism” trio that Jack Layton identified in his final letter to Canadians. But now I realize that love is in fact the foundation. It is love that remains when hope and optimism are extinguished. It is a sentiment far richer than the mushy words on Valentine’s cards. Love — or its less cheesy cousin, empathy — is about other people, but it is also about community, it is about place, it is about the planet. And perhaps most importantly, it is about self. It is the glue that holds our personal integrity together and emboldens us to act to uphold the ethical vision we have of the world.

Choosing empathy and love

Today, I sometimes hear echoes of the argument I made as a teenager — that we should tackle the world’s problems one after another. But now I know that we can’t pick and choose. We can’t separate these crises and solve them one by one. At their core, the crises we are facing are related. They emanate from a view of the world that is individualistic, close-minded and narrowly focused on the needs of a few. We need to counter that with a deep solidarity and empathy that mean stepping outside of our personal experience to think compassionately about others, both human and ecological. In fact, working on one crisis actually helps drive the solution to the other because cultivating empathy in one sphere enriches it in the other. That needs to be our resistance: choosing empathy and love. It must be a creed that we live by. And not just in a passive sense. It means demanding change of our governments — at the ballot box and between elections. It means holding big corporations to account and compelling them to abandon ecologically harmful practices and the exploitation that deepens inequality. Frankly, it means changing our economic order to put well-being before profit. And of course, abiding by this creed means fighting intolerance and hate, wherever we find them. But most of all, it means being bold and unwavering, even when it feels as though we have already lost.

These changes are not just what will allow us to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, they are what will allow us to tackle the preexisting crises of deep inequality, systemic racism, rising intolerance and hate, and climate change.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we have an opportunity to put this creed to work. The pandemic has been devastating in many ways. To the victims and their loved ones. To the medical professionals working brutal hours, forced to make excruciating choices and putting themselves in harm’s way. To essential workers unable to stay home to protect themselves and their families and all too often paid cruelly low wages. To the many workers who have lost their jobs and have no idea whether there will be work for them after this crisis. To women who bear an unequal burden of this crisis, both in the home and in gendered professions. To those experiencing domestic violence, trapped with their abusers and at heightened risk. To the elderly in care facilities living — and dying — through this crisis, sometimes in inhumane conditions, due to underfunding by governments or cost-cutting by private owners. This pandemic has exposed that when social programs are gutted or privatized, we struggle to provide the care necessary to surmount a crisis. It has shown that an economy that rewards greed and tolerates extreme inequality means that great numbers of people do not have the means to weather a crisis. The bottom line calculus adopted by both governments and economic actors has put everyone at risk.

During the COVID-19 crisis, we have all been reminded of the importance of care and have been taught what roles are truly essential in our economy and in our society. We have celebrated stories of sacrifice and solidarity. And we have repeated to one another that we must think of others and act for the greater good. But care isn’t a principle that holds only in times of crisis. It is the value at the heart of a healthy society. And it is how we avoid human-made crises and overcome those foisted upon us. It should be clear by now that we must resist a return to business as usual. This is the time to demand major changes, not just tinkering around the edges. It is the time for the grotesquely wealthy to return a fair share of their fortunes to society and for big corporations to pay a fair tax rate. It is time that all workers are guaranteed a decent wage. It is time to cut the ballooned budget of police forces and invest in communities. We must refuse bailouts to companies that will deepen the climate crisis or those that do not treat their employees justly. We must invest in the social programs that make our societies strong: healthcare and pharmacare, childcare, and education. We must acknowledge and dismantle the systemic racism plaguing our institutions and our societies. And we must build the sustainable communities that we need, through public transit, green infrastructure, efficient buildings and strong local and circular economies. These changes are not just what will allow us to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, they are what will allow us to tackle the preexisting crises of deep inequality, systemic racism, rising intolerance and hate, and climate change.

Of course, the burning question persists: are we too late? I have come to see that this is the wrong question. What we need to be asking is this: do we still have the capacity for empathy and for love? I believe that we do. Empathy and love are why so many of us are still fighting. They are why hundreds of thousands took to the streets this spring to declare that Black and Indigenous lives matter. They are why 500,000 took to the streets of Montreal, and millions more around the world, on Sept. 27, 2019, to demand action for the climate. They are why thousands have gathered in vigils after the shootings at the mosques in New Zealand and in Quebec City in 2017. They are why neighbours have stepped up to help one another during the COVID-19 crisis and why so many are already demanding that we rebuild a more just and ecological economy. Empathy and love are the foundation stones of the world we are trying to build. And they are what will ultimately see us through these dark times.

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