Dependably prickly and comforting at the same time, noted essayist Rebecca Solnit spoke Tuesday at San Francisco’s historic public lecture forum, the Commonwealth Club.

“Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility” is a collection of essays co-edited by Rebecca Solnit, published 2023. (Haymarket Books via BCN)

Solnit drew reflections from a lifetime of climate activism and findings from a new collection of essays that she co-edited called “Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility.

“I think if I have a superpower, it’s slowness,” the 62-year-old author said. “I see long stretches of time, which lets you see change.”

Solnit spoke of the new book as a toolkit to take people from climate crisis to climate hope, an effort to change the public narrative and fight climate despair, starting with the acknowledgement that big changes happen slowly.

“A lot of despair comes from people thinking if we make demands of the government on Tuesday, and if they don’t fall to their knees and say they were wrong and we were right and give us everything we asked for by Thursday, then we failed,” she said. “And that’s just not how change works, although that’s how defeat works.”

The ‘wonky’ arc of change

Solnit confronted the feeling that nobody cares, and that the media is not covering climate change.

“There was this period, I think of it as the Al Gore-‘Inconvenient Truth’-compact-fluorescent-Prius era when renewables were expensive, they were primitive, they were utterly inadequate to the job even a little over 10 years ago,” she said. “So, we’ve had an energy revolution that’s incredibly exciting, but only if you could see the arc of change, which is slow and incremental and very wonky.”

The author spoke about how people helping people after natural disasters illuminates the fact that a lot of power exists at the grassroots. She also emphasized the importance of recognizing climate successes, which are often invisible.

“[A] lot of times if you’re looking for victory, it literally looks like nothing. It’s a thing that didn’t happen, but a lot has happened. It is happening.”

Rebecca Solnit, author

“A lot of victories look like nothing,” Solnit said. “The forest wasn’t cut down. The toxic incinerator wasn’t built in the inner-city neighborhood, so the kids didn’t get asthma at the coal plant. The liquid natural gas export facility wasn’t built, etc. So, a lot of times if you’re looking for victory, it literally looks like nothing. It’s a thing that didn’t happen, but a lot has happened. It is happening.”

“Not Too Late” features a panorama of contributors, including scientists, artists and organizers. It comes with a guidebook for educators, with pages of discussion questions like one that asks:

“Have you seen positive visions of the future in Learning Management Systems, TV shows, games, or music videos — or read about them in books or newspapers? If you haven’t, why do you think that is? What have you learned from the negative visions? Why do we have so many negative/dystopian/scary versions and so few hopeful ones?”

Reframing the narrative

Solnit has published over 20 books and multiple essays that reframe popular public thinking on current events. Her numerous accolades include recognitions from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and the National Book Critics Circle.

Her essays on politics and culture are often intermingled with reflections on personal growth. An early book on the history of walking, for example, is a reverie that encompasses the acts of solitary wandering, touring and protesting. She sometimes pulls stories from archives that fill gaps in the changing public narrative, as in her 2021 book “Orwell’s Roses.

“Nobody who wrote about Orwell was very interested in the fact that he was an absolute passionate gardener who enjoyed the natural world,” she said. “And maybe it didn’t matter to people writing those books in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. But I think for our time that matters.”