Editor’s note: This is the sixth and final post in a mini-series on hope and environmental history. To read the series’s other posts, click here.
If Martin Luther King were an historian, he might have said that the arc of environmental change is long but it bends toward disaster.
Not all of us are comfortable with that characterization: after all, we’re trained to push back against the predictable and inevitable. To tell more complex and hopeful stories we pay close attention to context and contingency, as Mark McLaughlin points out, or we shift scales of analysis. If we’re really bold, as Tina Adcock enjoins us to be, we try to find hope amidst the ruination of industrial and post-industrial capitalism. The sublime can provide material for “ascensionist narratives,” stories of damage that provoke compassion and connection across species lines and move us to act, not simply to mourn.
Nevertheless, our discomfort remains. As much as we want to inject more complexity and hope, our doubts draw us back into the vortex of declension. Focussing on the local reveals acts of resistance and examples of positive change, but doesn’t it hide the larger structures of power? When you’re close to the ground those structures can loom so large they’re invisible. The longue durée helps us understand ecological transformation, but how do we reckon with the scales at which humans experience change? Aestheticizing the damage that defines the Anthropocene may create the emotional space for us to act, but doing so makes ruination unacceptably acceptable. It’s to concede far too much.
If the politics of declension are problematic because of their denial of agency, so too are the politics of complexity. Arguments emphasizing agency and resilience can obscure or even justify continued exploitation and devastation. And given that we’re on the brink of a sixth extinction and the planet is warming, isn’t a declensionist narrative both historically accurate and politically necessary?
No – at least according to Dorothee Schreiber and Philip Wight. They suggest we need to move beyond the polarities of declension and ascension. Writing stories that are hopeful involves jettisoning the idea that history has a direction and an outcome. As long as we believe that people, through their actions, are either progressing towards perfection or falling farther and farther from it we won’t understand what change and hope are.
These questions were on my mind as I headed out on a field trip and, as it turned out, toward some answers. The destination was Little Village, formally known as South Lawndale, and the goal was to learn about environmental justice. What we got from Kim Wasserman-Nieto, Executive Director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), was a field guide to identifying what meaningful change and hope can look like.
Little Village doesn’t seem like the first place you’d go looking for hope, especially in these Trumpian times. Just over ten square kilometres in size, the area is a mix of industrial, commercial, and residential uses. It’s home to about 79,000 people, most of them Mexican or Mexican-American and poor. The most prominent physical features are the smokestacks of the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants and the Cook County Jail. But rather than dwell on its much-discussed problems of crime and gang violence, Wasserman-Nieto prefers to emphasize the neighbourhood’s “assets”: its people and their strong sense of community, a belief that despite, or perhaps because of, the uncertainty with which they live, their actions could make a difference.
That belief in the possibility of change – that hope – is what underlay successful campaigns by LVEJO. In just over twenty years, it shut down the Crawford plant whose emissions contributed to the high incidence of respiratory ailments among residents; transformed a brownfield into a community garden that helps feed the neighbourhood; brought public transit to the area; and established La Villita Park, which almost doubled the green space in South Lawndale. A former Superfund site, it was remediated after a decades-long battle.
In Little Village, hope is a plastic soccer pitch over a former toxic waste site adjacent to a jail. It might not be the change we want for the neighbourhood, or even the change LVEJO wanted. There’s no fieldhouse. There aren’t enough basketball courts. And even with the park’s creation there are still only forty-five acres of “green space” in the neighbourhood compared to the ninety-six taken up by the jail alone.
But to LVEJO the park represents meaningful change. It exemplifies hope, an effort to “piece … worlds together through gathered scraps,” to quote from Dorothee Schreiber’s piece. It also speaks to an awareness of the connectedness of those worlds; that their actions had consequences for which they had to take responsibility. Rather than have the toxic soil under the park removed during the remediation of the site, Little Villagers asked that it be entombed in concrete because they didn’t want their problems to be visited on other people – who in all likelihood would be just like them.
Might they have hoped for more? Needed more? Of course. But the residents of Little Village have learned that perfection is the enemy of hope. They know how to mourn and organize; celebrate their accomplishments and know there’s still work to be done. As historians, we might learn the same lessons. If we do, the histories we write will be resources to enact change as well as explanations of it.
 For more on Little Village and its strong sense of community, see Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
 This is Rebecca Solnit’s point in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016, first published in 2004).
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Hanging on the wall of my office is a camp coffee pot. Suspended by the blue ribbon that wrapped it, the pot is a symbol of obligation, of connection. I received it from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in this summer. The First Nation was celebrating their treaty with Canada with all, First Nation and Newcomers alike who live in the Yukon. A big three-day potlatch was held at Moosehide village. Hundreds of visitors validated this event by witnessing the signing. We were rewarded with gifts. In this way we accepted an obligation to remember this important event and make it part of our history. And through this shared history we, both First Nation and Newcomer, are connected to each other. This is a reason to celebrate.
I wrote this hopeful note at Christmas 1998, the year the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government signed their treaty with Canada. I’ve worked with TH for almost 30 years, a witness to their determined and persistent belief that they can create a better world. There are conflicts – both internal and external – that continue to be addressed in a positive and patient fashion. As a historian I try to trace the presence of these positive efforts to engage with community and neighbours. I write about the construction of meaningful narratives that move their community closer to a respectful and plural future. As citizens we should take up such hopes for the future. As historians it is important for us to be the witnesses to the successes, and failures, of these hopes. The coffee pot is still on the corner of my desk reminding me of my obligations to the future.