I took the kids to our local used book store the other day. I didn’t want to buy anything but a snack (Boy said he just wanted to read, not buy anything. Mm-hm.), but a book called WorldChanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, edited by Alex Steffen, was sitting in the el cheapo bin, staring at me. It is a collection of strategies and solutions and possibilities meant to inspire people into facing the ecological difficulties the planet is in. It has chapters on “stuff,” shelter, cities, community, business, politics, and planet. I thought I’d take a look at the section on “movement building” in the politics chapter. I think the following quote, written by Steffen, was worth the $4 I ended up spending:
Optimism is a political act.
Entrenched interests promote despair, confusion, and apathy to prevent change. They encourage us to think that problems can’t be solved, that nothing we do can matter, that the issues are too complex to allow even the possibility of change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust among those you would rule: as Machiavelli taught, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so longs as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but in reality, our cynicism advances the desires of the powerful: cynicism is obedience.
Optimism, by contrast, when it’s neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. When no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice–and people in despair almost never change anything. When no one believes there might be a better solution, those who benefit from the status quo are safe. When no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But when people have some intelligent reasons to believe that a better future can be built, that better solutions are available, and that action is possible, their power to act out of their highest principles is unleashed. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is.
Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism. Facing as we do today so many interlocking challenges, one of our biggest tasks is simply this: to be willing to look so many looming catastrophes in the face and courageously point out that radical changes for the better are possible. History attests that if we can show people a better future, we can build movements that will change the world.