Breaking Cynicism: Thoughts on Rebecca Solnit’s Lecture “Art, Disaster, Utopia” at the 2017 Penn Humanities Conference, “The Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene”

by Amy Trompeter

Utopia is a term coined by Thomas More in his 1516 work of socio-political satire of the same name. Rooted in Greek, Utopia translates to “no place,” which is befitting as the republic of Utopia does not exist, but is described in detail as a quasi-socialistic island where its citizens live in opposition to the greed and class struggle prevalent in Europe. The story of Utopia was told in two parts, and serves as a metaphor for the struggle between worldly pragmatism and philosophical idealism. Many aspects of Utopia strongly contradict our present capitalist society, such as the citizen’s lack of private property and greater sense of living for the good of others. Although far-fetched, looking to Utopia as a model society is useful for having a stronger understanding of what we value in the present climate – one which feels on the brink of total economic and environmental collapse.

The Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene, a conference presented by the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, explored the role of utopian thought in addressing our current climate crisis. The “Anthropocene” (our current geological age, one in which humans have the greatest influence over the environment) is heavily burdened by a rapidly increasing global temperature, and its devastating effects are becoming impossible to ignore. In part inspired by the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, The Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene explored the role of scholarly, experimental, and future-focused utopian thought.

Writer, historian, and environmental and human rights activist Rebecca Solnit was a keynote lecturer at The Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene. Her lecture Art, Disaster, Utopia presented what she considers four essential components of the “toolbox” for approaching the dystopian disasters of our age, all aspects of human nature that we already have access to: hope and its intersections, how we look at disasters, civil society in opposition to militarism, and personal narratives. Solnit is utopian in her activism, modeling potential through storytelling and an optimism backed by deep knowledge of history. Although “hope” was only one of four essential elements of her toolbox, it is at the root of her activist dialogue.

“Hope” is a loaded word, especially in an American culture obsessed with perseverance and rising above difficulty in search of a dream. Hope brings to mind the inspirational wall placard in your aunt’s kitchen, or lofty wishful thinking in place of active doing. Solnit’s concept of hope instead looks beyond grand expectations, and understands that even small victories have long-term effects beyond what we can easily measure. “The most dramatic change is often unforeseen” is an especially powerful statement of Solnit’s brand of hope when considering climate change and environmentalism. While hope might seem like a strictly optimistic standpoint, Solnit rejects blind optimism – a belief that all is well and will continue to be well – but is not pessimistic. (Her article in Harper’s Magazine in May 2016, The Habits of Highly Cynical People, calls out pessimism as a lazy, easy way out.)

Solnit’s speaking voice is rather soft, yet swiftly flowing, much like the pace and tone one uses to silently read. Because much of Art, Disaster, Utopia is a synthesis of Solnit’s career work, her handling of the material was quite casual; while certainly following a written draft at times, Solnit would abruptly alter her tone at moments where she seemed to be improvising, pulling from her extensive knowledge of the subject matter.

The media also greatly alters our perceptions of disaster, as Solnit pointed out. Discussing 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in particular, Solnit’s perspective on disasters is not one of chaos or a loss of humanity. Rather, she claimed, “We really do well in disaster.” Solnit cited real stories of altruism at odds with sensationalized Hollywood scenarios of selfish chaos. In the case of 9/11, Solnit told of a former high school athlete, who slowed his pace in exiting the towers to ensure each of his coworkers were safe. While still maintaining sensitivity to the incredible human loss of these events, Solnit spoke of the joy which can come of disaster: a greater sense of community and an awareness of what is important to us as humans.

The impacts of climate change are the most imminent disaster scenarios at the focus of The Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene. The current political climate has fueled this fear, and Solnit was not afraid to directly address the elephant in the room, identifying the Trump administration as a significant setback for environmentalist movements. Following election night, many Americans personally experienced the initial feelings of panic and terror in the presence of disaster. This was followed by monumental demonstrations of solidarity and community building, such as the Women’s March and record-breaking fundraising efforts for the ACLU. The Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene is one such demonstration of academic institutions creating a platform for dialogue on how to continue the important environmentalist work which is so essential now more than ever.

Solnit is a master of her content, and her background in history and aptitude for storytelling was most apparent when answering questions from the audience. She responded to topics varying from handling failure, building a toolbox for one’s art practice, dealing with climate change deniers and strict conservatives, and even advice for writers interested in criticism. Each question was handled with discernible care, and Solnit’s responses included personal stories, factual statistics, historical application, and above all, displayed her ability for emotional labor. Empathy is woven throughout Solnit’s work – she listens to people’s stories and they become part of her own. As one expression of her activism, Solnit’s writing encourages its readers to hope for a better future by actively seeking it, while assuring them that their perspective and experiences are valid and important.

Although Solnit’s published books and essays are not all concerned with feminism, she is well known for her essay and subsequent book Men Explain Things to Me, which is thematically tied to her most recent publication, The Mother of All Questions. In an essay from The Mother of All Questions entitled Feminism: The Men Arrive, Solnit explains the intersection of environmental and feminist activism in her career:

“I care passionately about the inhabitability of our planet from an environmental perspective, but until its fully inhabitable by women who can walk freely down the street without the constant fear of trouble and danger, we will labor under practical and psychological burdens that impair our full powers. Which is why, as someone who thinks climate change is the most important thing in the world right now, I’m still writing about feminism and women’s rights.”

From the left flank of the room, I observed that Art, Utopia, Disaster was attended equally by men and women. Environmentalism, which was at the core of this conference, is not necessarily a gendered issue, but feminism came to the forefront of my mind following this lecture as I waited in line to purchase a couple of Solnit’s books and then to have her sign them. Each of these lines were almost exclusively populated by women. Looking around in a foolish sense of disbelief, I could see dozens of men in the foyer of the Harrison Auditorium, but only one or two of them eager to purchase Solnit’s work or meet her directly for a book signing. Maybe each of them already owns all of Solnit’s work and have attended numerous lectures by her, but I’m willing to bet that is not the case.

This incident, which I am confident is not an isolated one, brings up a question which has been addressed by Solnit herself: why do men not read books written by women? In Feminism: The Men Arrive, Solnit describes the recent trend of men declaring themselves feminists, and particularly men in the public eye making feminist statements. However, public support of feminism by men is nothing without private support, in this case, in the form of reading and purchasing work by women, people of color, and LGBT people. Solnit writes freely about the hurdles she encounters as a female writer. Men Explain Things to Me opens with a classic example of an affluent, white man downplaying her achievements as a writer and obliviously attempting to explain one of Solnit’s own books to her. In The Mother of All Questions, Solnit describes a heckler from the audience of a lecture she gave on Virginia Woolf, demanding a reason as to why Solnit has no children.

Although prompted by the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, The Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene conference could not be more timely than in this political and social climate. Solnit’s lecture reminds us that despite the Trump administration and the disaster of his rise to power, we have already demonstrated our ability to survive it. Attending Art, Utopia, Disaster and reading Solnit’s work on the power of hope did force me to assess my own naive cynicism and to rethink the meaning of hope. Solnit models utopia by stating, “We’re fighting for a world where everyone has value,” presenting a thesis where pragmatism and idealism can harmonize. Each of the tools in Solnit’s toolbox for the Anthropocene are already present within ourselves and our communities, accessing these tools is a matter of passing on stories which emphasize the strength and interconnectedness of humanity and our environment. 

Amy Trompeter is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia.