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Books That Will Change the World

Twelve authors on war and peace, dissent, the environment and the empowerment of the poor provide inspiration to transform the world in 2008.
 
 
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Hope is an orientation, a way of scanning the wall for cracks -- or building ladders -- rather than staring at its obdurate expanse. It's a world view, but one informed by experience and the knowledge that people have power; that the power people possess matters; that change has been made by populist movements and dedicated individuals in the past; and that it will be again.

Dissent in this country has become largely a culture of diagnosis rather than prescription, of describing what is wrong with them, rather than what is possible for us. But even in English, a robust minority tradition can be found. There are a handful of books that I think of as "the secret library of hope." None of them deny the awful things going on, but they approach them as if the future is still open to intervention rather than an inevitability. In describing how the world actually gets changed, they give us the tools to change it again.

Here, then, are some of the regulars in my secret political library of hope, along with some new candidates:

The Power from Beneath

When the monks of Burma/Myanmar led an insurrection in September simply by walking through the streets of their cities in their deep-red robes, accompanied by ever more members of civil society, the military junta which had run that country for more than four decades responded with violence. That's one measure of how powerful and threatening the insurrection was. (That totalitarian regimes tend to ban gatherings of more than a few people is the best confirmation of the strength that exists in unarmed numbers of us.)

After the crackdown, after the visually stunning, deeply inspiring walks came to a bloody end, quite a lot of mainstream politicians and pundits pronounced the insurrection dead, violence triumphant -- as though this play had just one act, as though its protagonists were naive and weak-willed. I knew they were wrong, but the argument I rested on wasn't my own: I went back to Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, by far the most original and ambitious of the many histories of nonviolence to appear in recent years.

When it came out as the current war began in the spring of 2003, the book was mocked for its dismissal of the effectiveness of violence, but Schell's explanation of how superior military power failed abysmally in Vietnam was a prophesy waiting to be fulfilled in Iraq. Schell himself is much taken with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, whom he quotes saying, in 1969:

To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.

I hope that his equally trenchant explanation of the power of nonviolence is fulfilled in Burma. Schell has been a diligent historian and philosopher of nuclear weapons since his 1982 bestseller The Fate of the Earth , but this book traces the rise of nonviolence as the other half of the history of the violent twentieth century.

That's what books in a library of hope consist of -- not a denial of the horrors of recent history, but an exploration of the other tendencies, avenues, and achievements that are too often overlooked. After all, to return to Burma, much has already changed there since September: Burma's greatest supporter, China, has been forced to denounce the crackdown and may be vulnerable to more pre-Olympics pressure on the subject; India has declared a moratorium on selling arms to the country; a number of companies have withdrawn from doing business there; and the US Congress just unanimously passed a bill, HR 3890, to increase sanctions, freeze the junta's assets in US institutions, and close a loophole that allowed Chevron to profit spectacularly from its business in Burma.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as Burma's head of state in 1990 and has, ever since, been under house arrest or otherwise restricted. She nonetheless remains the leader of, as well as a wise, gentle, fearless voice for, that country's opposition. Since the uprising, her silencing has begun to dissolve amid meetings with a UN envoy and members of her own political party; some believe she may be on her way to being freed. The Burmese people were hit with hideous, pervasive violence, but they have not surrendered: small acts of resistance and large plans for liberation continue.

The best argument for hope is how easy it ought to be for the rest of us to raise its banner, when we look at who has carried it through unimaginably harsh conditions: Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom recounts his unflagging dedication to his country's liberation (imperfect though it may still be); Rigoberta Menchu dodged death squads to become a champion of indigenous rights, a Nobel laureate, and a recent presidential candidate in Guatemala; Oscar Oliveira proved that a bunch of poor people in Bolivia can beat Bechtel Corporation largely by nonviolent means, as he recounts in !Cochabamba!; and Aung San Suu Kyi radiates -- even from the page -- an extraordinary calm and patience, perhaps the result of her decades of Buddhist practice. She remarks, toward the end of The Voice of Hope, a collection of conversations with her about Burma, Buddhism, politics, and her own situation, "Yes I do have hope because I'm working. I'm doing my bit to try to make the world a better place, so I naturally have hope for it. But obviously, those who are doing nothing to improve the world have no hope for it."

For a book about those who did their bit beautifully long ago, don't miss Adam Hochschild's gripping Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves.

It begins with a handful of London Quakers who decided in the 1780s to abolish the institution of slavery in the British Empire and then, step by unpredictable step, did just that. It's an exhilarating book simply as the history of a movement from beginning to end, and so suggests how many other remarkable movements await their historian; others, from the women's movement to rights for queers to many environmental struggles, still await their completion. If only people carried, as part of their standard equipment, a sense of the often-incremental, unpredictable ways in which change is wrought and the powers that civil society actually possesses, they might go forward more confidently to wrestle with the wrongs of our time, seeing that we have already won many times before.

Indians, Environmentalists, and Utopians

One spectacular book along these lines already exists: Charles Wilkinson's Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. For us non-native people, Native Americans became far more visible during the huge public debates around the meaning of the Quincentennial of 1992 -- the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in this hemisphere. They reframed the history of the Americas as one of invasion and genocide, rather than discovery and development. But the story was not a defeatist one; simply in being able to tell their own stories and reshape their histories, native people of the Americas demonstrated that they were neither wholly conquered, nor eradicated; and, since then, the history of the two continents has been radically revised and indigenous peoples have won back important rights from Bolivia to Canada.

In the United States that reclaiming of power, pride, land, rights, and representation began far earlier, as Wilkinson's book relates. A law professor and lawyer who has worked on land and treaty-rights issues with many tribes, he begins his story of ascendancy with the 1953 decision by the US government to "terminate" the tribal identities, organizations, and rights of Native Americans and push them to melt into the general population. This represented an aggressive attempt at erasure of the many distinct peoples of this continent and their heritage. Told to disappear, "Indian leaders responded and by the mid-1960s had set daunting goals... at once achieve economic progress and preserve ancient traditions in a technological age.... Against all odds, over the course of two generations, Indian leaders achieved their objectives to a stunning degree."

Wilkinson's monumental history of the past half-century concludes:

By the turn of this century Indian tribes had put in place much of the ambitious agenda that tribal leaders advanced in the 1950s and 1960s. They stopped termination and replaced it with self-determination. They ousted the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] as the reservation government and installed their own sovereign legislatures, courts, and administrative agencies. They enforced the treaties of old and, with them, the fishing, hunting and water rights. Nowhere have these changes been absolute and pure. In most cases the advances represent works in progress, but they have been deep and real.

Late this November, Canada set aside 25 million acres of boreal forest as a preserve to be managed, in part, by the Native peoples of the region, a huge environmental victory for the largest remaining forest on Earth -- and for all of us. How did it happen?

I am still looking for an environmental history with the strength and focus of Blood Struggle or Bury the Chains . An exhilarating 2006 article in Orion magazine by Ted Nace describes how a bunch of North Dakota farmers killed off Monsanto's plans to promote the growing of genetically altered wheat worldwide. The essay concludes:

"On May 10, 2004, Monsanto bowed to the prevailing political sentiment. It issued a curt press release announcing the withdrawal of all its pending regulatory applications for [its genetically altered] Roundup Ready wheat and the shifting of research priorities to other crops.

We need books on victories like this, books that tell us how this dam was defeated, this river brought back from being a sewer, that toxin banned, that species rebounded, that land preserved.

In fact, a broader history with some of those threads did appear this year, geographer Richard Walker's The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. It describes generations of struggle to preserve something of the richness of this extraordinarily diverse region by defeating some of the most awful proposals most of us have never heard of -- to, for example, completely fill in the San Francisco Bay -- back in an era when water and wetlands were just real estate waiting to happen.

The book does justice to a whole unexpected category of unsung heroines -- the often-subversive affluent ladies who have done so much for the environment and the community -- then moves on to document the emerging environmental justice movement that took on toxins, polluters, and the overlooked question of what ecology really means for the inner city. It's a great, hopeful history of a region that has long created environmental templates and momentum for the rest of the nation -- and Walker makes it clear that this trend was not inevitable, but the result of hard work by stubborn visionaries and organizers.

A decade ago, Alan Weisman wrote a profile of a town in the inhospitable savannah of eastern Colombia, a miraculous community in which that unfortunate nation's turmoil and our age's environmental destruction was replaced by a green, utopian approach that involved reinventing the roles of both technology and community. It worked, though Weisman ended his 1997 book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World , on a prophetic note of caution:

[The] fading of the Cold War has revealed clearly that a far more incandescent and protracted battle -- a potentially apocalyptic resource war -- has been stealthily gathering intensity throughout the latter part of the twentieth century.... Yet a place like Gaviotas bears witness to our ability to get it right, even under seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

Weisman's deservedly successful 2007 bestseller, The World Without Us, takes an extreme approach to getting it right, by showing how the planet might -- in part -- regenerate itself if we were to go away, all of us, for good. The chapters on nuclear waste and plastic are dauntingly grim, but the descriptions of New York City reverting to nature go two steps past Mike Davis's Dead Cities in praise of entropy, weeds, and the power of natural processes to take back much of the Earth as soon as we let go.

While Gaviotas stands out as a rare, realized utopia, our choices among the unrealized ones -- except as literature -- are legion. In 2007, I finally got around to reading what has already become my favorite utopian novel: William Morris' News from Nowhere. Best known during his life as a poet, Morris is, unfortunately, now mostly remembered for his wallpaper. He designed it as part of his lifelong endeavor to literally craft an alternative to the brutality and ugliness of the industrial revolution through the artisanal production of furniture, textiles, and books -- all as models of what work and its fruits could be.

That attempt had its political and literary faces, which is to say that Morris was also a prolific writer and an ardent revolutionary. He was more anarchist than socialist, as well as an antiquarian, a translator of Icelandic sagas, and so much more. News from Nowhere , published in 1890, portrays his ideal London in the far-distant future of 2102, a century and a half after "the revolution of 1952."

It's a bioregional and anarchic paradise: The economy is localized, work is voluntary, money is nonexistent and so is hunger, deprivation, and prison. The industrial filth of London has vanished, and the river and city are beautiful again. (They were far filthier in Morris' time, when every home burned coal, while sewage and industrial effluents flowed unfiltered into the Thames.)

Most utopias, of course, aren't places you'd actually want to live. Admittedly, Morris' is a little bland and mild, as life on earth without evil and struggle must be. But his utopia is prophetic, not dated, close to many modern visions of decentralized, localized power, culture, and everyday life. It is, in short, an old map for a new world being born in experiments around the globe.

Dreams on the Southern Horizon

Morris provided the name for the present-day News from Nowhere Collective, a group that has edited one of the more rambunctious handbooks for activists in recent times, We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. A visually delicious, horizontally formatted little chunk of a book, it features a lot of photographs, a running timeline of radical victories in our era, and short, punchy essays from people immersed in changing the world all over that world (from Quebec and Nigeria to Bolivia and Poland). Playful, subversive, and far-reaching, the book -- even four years after its publication -- demonstrates the scope of constructive change and activism around the planet.

There are other such handbooks, including my brother David's Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World , out from City Lights Books a few years ago. It was in the course of editing some of the essays in that book that I discovered the beautiful, hopeful voice of Marina Sitrin, a sociologist, human rights lawyer, and activist who has spent a great deal of time among the utopian social movements of Argentina. Her encounters become ours in her new book Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.

That country's sudden economic collapse and political turmoil in December of 2001 was largely overlooked here, but the crisis begat an extraordinary grassroots response -- about as far from shock and paralysis as you can imagine. Neighborhoods gathered in popular assemblies to protest the political structure, and then stayed together to feed each other during the fiscal crisis; factory workers took over shuttered factories and ran them as cooperatives; the poor organized and mobilized; but more than these concrete actions, Argentinean society itself changed.

People began to talk across old divides and create new words for what mattered now -- none more valuable than horizontalidad, which Sitrin translates as "horizontalism," a direct and radically egalitarian participatory democracy, and politica afectiva , the politics of affection, or love. The 2001 crisis was soon transformed into an opportunity to overcome the legacy of the terrifying years of the Argentinean military dictatorship, to step out of the isolation and disengagement that fear had produced, to reclaim power and reinvent social ties. With this, Argentina moved a little further away from hell and a little closer to utopia.

It's not a coincidence that Weisman's Gaviotas is in South America (though it is a surprise that it's in Colombia). After all, the most powerful voice coming from the Spanish-speaking majority of the Americas is that of the Zapatistas, and Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos , edited by Juana Ponce de Leon, is still the best English-language introduction to that indigenous movement's non-indigenous spokesman and raconteur Subcommandante Marcos. Via his poetic, playful, subversive, and ferociously hopeful manifestoes, tirades, allegories, and pranks, he has reinvented the language of politics, pushing off the drab shore of bureaucracy and cliche, sailing toward something rich and strange.

Ponce De Leon's book, however, only covers the first several years of Marcos's contributions. City Lights recently brought out his The Speed of Dreams: Selected Writings 2001-2007. On page 102, he advises an indigenous audience: "It is the hour of the word. So then, put the machete away, and continue to hone hope." By page 349, he's quoting a possibly fictional elderly couple in San Miguel Tzinacapan, who say, "The world is the size of our effort to change it."

Not that all resistance, all hope, comes from the south. It can be found everywhere, or at least on many edges, margins, and in many overlooked zones -- and one of the most exhilarating histories of it is The Many Headed-Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. Their book traces a plethora of acts of resistance to capitalism, exploitation, authoritarianism and the generally sorry lot meted out to the poor in the eighteenth century. That resistance was exuberant, inventive, and occasionally ferocious, and it found its own utopias. The book begins with a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda, in which the shipwrecked sailors and passengers begin to form their own convivial utopia that the Virginia Company forcibly disbanded. The Many Headed Hydra covers some of the same ground -- and ocean routes -- as Hochschild's book, and they make good joint reading.

I wish Linebaugh's The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All was out in time for this list, but look for it in February. (I read it in manuscript for the University of California Press, loved it, and learned a lot from it.) Beginning with Bush's breach not just of the Constitution, but of Magna Carta's grant of habeas corpus , Linebaugh returns to that moment at Runnymede when King John was forced to concede rights to England's citizens. Linking that despot to the one in the White House, he ventures back and forth between the two times to explore the once evolving -- and now revolving or maybe even regressing -- territory of rights and liberties.

The Climate of Change

One thing becoming increasingly clear in this millennium: Human rights and the environment are all tangled up with each other -- and not only in environmental injustice hotspots like Louisiana's Cancer Alley or oily places like Nigeria. Democracy and an empowered citizenry are the best tools we have to make progress on climate change in this country. The issue of climate change may be global, but in the US a lot of the measures that matter are being enacted on the local level by cities, towns, regions, and states. Together, they have pushed far ahead of the recalcitrant federal government in trying to take concrete measures that could make a difference. Global measures matter, but so do local ones: The change here is likely to come as much from the bottom up as the top down.

One common response to climate change is to try to limit your own impact -- by consuming less. An issue, for instance, that's front and center in Britain but hardly on the table in the US, is taking fewer airplane trips. (The state of California, however, did recently start looking into ways to regulate and reduce airplane carbon emissions.) So there's personal virtue, which matters. Then there's agitating and organizing like crazy, which might matter more. Certainly, Bill McKibben makes a rousing case for it in his introduction to Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement. The book, edited by Jonathan Isham and Sissel Waage, covers a lot of ground when it comes to how policy gets made and how to make it yourself, as does McKibben's own Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community .

Maybe the best news of 2007 is that we're finally doing something about the worst news ever: that we've royally screwed up the climate of this planet. After all, the rest of that news is: We still have a chance to mitigate how haywire everything goes, even though no one is yet talking about what a world of low to zero carbon emissions would look like.

Maybe one thing we really need (just to be a little more visionary and less grim about the subject) is a modern version of News from Nowhere portraying what a good life involving only a small carbon footprint might mean -- most likely a more localized, less consuming life with some cool technological innovations, including many we already have (some of which are described in Weisman's Gaviotas).

In ceasing the scramble for things, there would be real gains; we'd gain back time for sitting around talking at leisure about politics and the neighbors, for wandering around on foot -- and for reading. But you don't have to wait for everything to change: change it yourself by seizing these pleasures now.

 
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