• Rebecca Solnit: Slow Change Can Be Radical Change

    “Describing the slowness of change is often confused with acceptance of the status quo. It’s really the opposite.”

    “To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
    –Georgia O’Keeffe

    Someone at the dinner table wanted to know what everyone’s turning point on climate was, which is to say she wanted us to tell a story with a pivotal moment. She wanted sudden; all I had was slow, the story of a journey with many steps, gradual shifts, accumulating knowledge, concern, and commitment. A lot had happened but it had happened in many increments over a few decades, not via one transformative anything.

    People love stories of turning points, wake-up calls, sudden conversions, breakthroughs, the stuff about changes that happen in a flash. Movies love them as love at first sight, dramatic speeches that change everything, trouble that can be terminated by shooting one bad guy, and other easy fixes and definitive victories. Old-school radicals love them as the kind of revolution that they imagine will change everything suddenly, even though a change of regime isn’t a change of culture and consciousness.

    Maybe religion loves them too, as conversion, revelation, and sudden awakening.

    Saul falls off his horse with the strength of his revelation and gets up as St. Paul, the Buddha gets enlightened in one intense session under the Bo Tree, Muhammed gets a visit from the Angel Gabriel—but at least with the latter two, the story has to include the long journey of intention and exploration leading to the sudden event. I love dramatic stories too, but I think they tend to mislead us about how change happens.

    I’ve found in my twenty-something years of messing about with Buddhism is that what it has to teach is pretty simple; you could read up on the essentials in a day, probably in an hour, possibly in a quarter of an hour. But the point is to somehow so deeply embed those values, perspectives, and insights in yourself that they become reflexive, your operating equipment, how you assess and react to the world around you. That’s the work of a lifetime—or of many, if you’re inclined to believe in reincarnation.

    Most truths are like that, easy to hear or recite, hard to live in the sense that slowness is hard for most of us, requiring commitment, perseverance, and return after you stray. Because the job is not to know; it’s to become. A sociopath knows what kindness is and how to weaponize it; a saint becomes it.

    We are impatient creatures, impatient for the future to arrive and prone to forgetting the past in our urgency to have it all now.

    We need stories in which getting where you’re going—individually or as a society—mostly happens step by step with maybe some backsliding, muddle, and stalling, not via one great leap. Maybe this is the task at which novels and biographies excel.

    In the scope of a substantial novel is room for someone to grow up, to change, to learn, for Pip to come to understand how his love for Estella was all tied up in other people’s suffering and his own upward-mobility ambitions and class shame, for Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy to see that their own first impressions were mistakes born of hubris and fall in love with each other, for the nun at the beginning of Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse to undergo extraordinary transformations, heal others, find and lose love, and grow old, for the formation of characters, the building and tearing down of relationships, the arrival of those revelations that can only arrive slowly.

    Anyone who’s gotten over a heartbreak or a bereavement knows that there aren’t five stages of grief you pass through like they were five whistlestop towns on the train route. You are more this way one day and more that way the other, looping and regressing, and maybe building reconciliation or acceptance like a log cabin while living in sorrow, rather than sliding into it like you were stealing third base.

    You want tomorrow to be different than today, and it may seem the same, or worse, but next year will be different than this one, because those tiny increments added up. The tree today looks a lot like the tree yesterday, and so does the baby. A lot of change is undramatic growth, transformation, or decay, or rather its timescale means the drama might not be perceptible to the impatient.

    And we are impatient creatures, impatient for the future to arrive and prone to forgetting the past in our urgency to have it all now, and sometimes too impatient to learn the stories of how what is best in our era was made by long, slow campaigns of change. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice,” but whichever way it bends you have to be able to see the arc (and I’m pretty sure by arc he meant a gradual curve, not an acute angle as if history suddenly took a sharp left). Sometimes seeing it is sudden, because change has been going on all along but you finally recognize it.

    The expectation that change will be swift and the failure to perceive it when it’s not impacts politics for the worse.

    Maybe you’ve had those moments when you suddenly see that someone you love has changed in condition or character, and your picture of them is out of date, or those moments when someone absent for months or years reappears and points out a change to a person or place or system unseen by those who adjusted to without perceiving tiny increments of change that added up. But the change itself wasn’t sudden.

    The expectation that change will be swift and the failure to perceive it when it’s not impacts politics for the worse. A common source of uninformed despair is when a too-brief effort doesn’t bring a desired result—one round of campaigning, one protest. Or when one loss becomes the basis for someone to decide winning is impossible and quitting—as if you tossed a coin once and decided it always comes up tails.

    Another immense impact of this impatience and attention-span deficit comes when a political process reaches its end, but too many don’t remember its  beginning. At the end of most positive political changes, a powerful person or group seems to hand down a decision. But at the beginning of most were grassroots campaigns to make it happen. The change got handed up before it got handed down, and only the slow perspective, the long view, lets you see the power that lies in ordinary people, in movements, in campaigns that often are seen as unrealistic, extreme, aiming for the impossible at their inception.

    The best movie I’ve ever seen about this is a 2022 documentary called To the End. It traces the creation of the Sunrise Movement—the US climate organization for people under 30, started in 2018—and their launch of the Green New Deal, showing how it influenced the Biden campaign’s climate platform, deserves credit for Build Back Better, and finally—yes, in reduced and compromised form, but still—crossed the finish line in 2022.

    “People who do nothing, people who have not even canvassed or anything, they start critiquing your strategy to win.”

    That is, by taking a five-year time frame it shows how what ended up as a piece of legislation began as young idealists dreaming of change, and by tracing that trajectory shows that young people, grassroots campaigns, and radical new ideas can have power. The short-term version gives you politicians giving us nice things. The long-term version shows you movements shifting what’s considered possible, reasonable, and necessary, setting the stage and creating the pressure for these events, offering a truer analysis of power.


    There’s a wonderful scene in To the End in which Alex O’Keefe, then creative director of the Sunrise Movement, declares as he unloads a station wagon, “People who do nothing, people who have not even canvassed or anything, they start critiquing your strategy to win. ‘But how are you gonna win, what’s your strategy, is it realistic, can we win?’ Who cares if we can win, man? We’re just unpacking boxes. You do things step by step.”

    His patient commitment reminds me of Greta Thunberg’s famous 2019 declaration “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” It’s an analysis that says, as I understand it, two important things. One is that addressing the climate crisis is a longterm project calling for many kinds of labor. The other is that we must work toward a post-fossil-fuel world knowing that the solutions continue to evolve—for example solar and wind were expensive, wholly inadequate technologies early in the millennium and are now cheap, effective, and being implemented at a dizzying rate while battery storage and materials are evolving at dazzling speed.

    In this lies the secret of why, if you crave suddenness or can’t keep your eye on the slow, destruction seems exciting, construction boring. Of course there’s slow destruction and what the environmental historian Rob Nixon called “slow violence”—the decline of wildlife populations, the destabilization of the seasons, the dismantling of the progressive economies of the mid-twentieth century. These catastrophes are often too gradual for those with no clear baseline or long attention span or strong news summary to perceive—literally they’re not new enough for news.

    For climate this means that the metabolic tendencies of news is often ideally suited to tell you that something sudden and maybe unanticipated happened last night—a flood, a fire—and it was bad. A lot of climate good news is both wonky—a technology breakthrough or a regulation passed that will eventually have positive consequences—or incremental.

    Describing the slowness of change is often confused with acceptance of the status quo. It’s really the opposite: an argument that the status quo must be changed, and it will take steadfast commitment to see the job through. It’s not accepting defeat; it’s accepting the terms of possible victory. Distance runners pace themselves; activists and movements often need to do the same, and to learn from the timelines of earlier campaigns to change the world that have succeeded.

    To be able to see change is to be able to make change. I’m an advocate for slowness, not in the sense of dragging your feet or delaying your reaction but in the sense of scaling your perception to to perceive the events unfolding, because I’m an advocate for making change.

    Featured image: “Deauville, Low Tide,” Eugene Louis Boudin (1860-1865)

    Rebecca Solnit
    Rebecca Solnit
    Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty-five books on feminism, environmental and urban history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and catastrophe. She co-edited the 2023 anthology Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility. Her other books include Orwell’s Roses; Recollections of My Nonexistence; Hope in the Dark; Men Explain Things to Me; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she writes regularly for the Guardian, serves on the board of the climate group Oil Change International, and in 2022 launched the climate project Not Too Late (nottoolateclimate.com).

    More Story
    Lit Hub Daily: January 11, 2024 How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rose up and won an underdog political victory. | Lit Hub Politics Lauren Groff...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.