A Pep Talk At The Edge of Extinction


The shoreline of a campsite in Standing Rock, just before winter set in. (Photo: Johnny Dangers)

What does it mean to stand at the precipice of human failure — a failure so profound that it threatens to both tear humanity into oblivion, and drag all life on earth down with us? What does hope look like, in the face of such potential disaster, and what does it look like when all available math tells us that the disasters we all fear are already underway? With Trump about to take office, so many shades and shapes of human suffering feel inevitable, and anyone who is keeping up with the math of climate change is likely, and quite understandably, discouraged. So what does hope look like, as we step into a new year?

For me, it looks like my friends, huddled around fires in Standing Rock, surviving the bitterness of a North Dakota winter so that our people may live. It looks like hundreds of nations of our people, travelling thousands of miles, and in some cases, overcoming centuries old blood feuds, to stop a pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners promised those invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline by January 1, and there won’t be. That’s what what hope looks like, to me, as I ready myself to kick nearly everything else about this year to the curb.

In some ways, Native peoples and allies who are still holding it down in Standing Rock are representative of what marginalized people are experiencing around the country. After the election, we all felt a storm setting in, and while most of us aren’t literally laboring against the elements to sustain our bodies and resistance, many of us are huddling together for warmth, contemplating what it’s going to take to survive.

As we look forward, beyond the false fixes of a waning administration, toward the uncertain road ahead, I have no illusions about how ugly things might get, but I also have hope. During the last week, I witnessed on odd sort of backlash against hope on social media. When people would speak optimistically about the new year, they would often be met with the slingshot cynicism of people who are fixed in their own pessimism. People were actually insulting the intelligence and awareness of people for naming one of the most fundamental hopes we all experience with time: That maybe this year will be better than the last.

Is a hard rain gonna fall? Absolutely. Is the planet itself at stake, with climate change hurtling toward a point of no return, and (to put it mildly) a mercurial reality TV star in office? Yes. We are staring down mass deportations, escalating state violence (on all fronts, including the violence of mass incarceration), and the absolute edge of extinction, but here’s the thing: We are still here. We are still strong and creative, and many of us come from peoples who have survived what most can’t imagine. We have each other, and in our unity, in our resistance, there is always hope.

In the not-too-distant future, the hope that real resistance brings may be the only hope that matters. And I’m not talking about the hope that comes with sharing an important article, or the hope that knowing determined people can bring. I’m talking about the hope that comes with truly joining, or continuing to throw down, with the resistance, in whatever way we’re able.

As we stand on this precipice, faced with a climatic battle for all life — and for the very idea of freedom — we shouldn’t downplay what we’re up against. But it’s equally important that we not diminish ourselves. Every moment of our lives as oppressed people, and as organizers, and every moment of struggle since first contact, when the violence of colonialism reached our shores, has led to this one, just as this moment will lead to the next. And what comes next can only be predicted, and as 2016 has shown us, predictions do not define reality.

I do understand cynicism. For years, I draped myself in pessimism and skepticism, because it was easier than having hope. Being skeptical rarely blows up in one’s face. Hope, on the other hand, can fly high, full of promise, and then spiral to the ground in flames (amid the background noise of I-told-you-so’s).

Cynicism is emotionally stagnant, and therefore, emotionally safer, but it is also self fulfilling, and rarely yields anything beautiful.

I understand being deeply pessimistic about the prospect of grassroots resistance clashing with a militarized surveillance state. And I understand being convinced, due to the staggering math of climate change, that nothing we do now matters. I recognize people’s misgivings, but I also believe that humanity’s potential isn’t restricted to its shadow side. So much is possible, and it’s okay to be in love with possibility, and to fight for that love as though the whole world depends on it — because it does.

My work is sustained by love and hope, and I understand that, for some people, hope is a significant challenge. Sometimes, it is for me as well. Giving up and just living out this life of mine, as comfortably as I can manage, is a thought that’s flashed through my mind more than once this year, and honestly, that’s never happened before. From the moment I got involved in movement work, years ago, I have never doubted what I needed to be doing with my life. But this year, pain, longing and frustration have, at times, left me kicking around the notion of some simpler happiness — even on the edge of oblivion.

But that’s not what it’s going to take for all of us to make it through what’s coming, and it’s not who I want to be in this world, in my community, at this moment in history. I want to be who I am — a person living in rebellion against what’s killing and crushing us.

I resisted my aforementioned urges to hurl myself toward some easy out, and I know many others will as well. Because while hope can be difficult, nothing will change for the better without it, and we all know in our hearts that if we are to survive, everything must change. If it doesn’t, there’s nowhere to go but down. And standing on the edge of catastrophe, I want no part of that chasm.

But here’s the good news:  Human potential runs in more than one direction. For all the complex harm we’ve caused, we remain creative. We remain defiant. What has been built by human hands can be dismantled by human hands, and there are beautiful examples, throughout history, of things we’ve built that are worth living and fighting for.

And as for what must be ended: There are failings and weaknesses embedded in the walls of this system, and as history has shown us, walls can fall down.

Hope is renewable, but if you don’t have it now, that’s okay. Just be sure to take the hand of someone who does. We can be here for each other, and together we can figure out what to hold onto, what to let go of, and what we needs to be torn apart. Together, we can figure out what to build, and how.

I won’t say I don’t find the new year daunting. I do. I have been very quick to tears lately and I can’t decide if it’s because I am mourning what I lost in 2016, or if I am somehow preemptively grieving the losses to come. Whatever it is, I know I need to vent it out before it morphs into despair — the best weapon of our enemies. And I know that, in spite of my tears, I will move forward, knowing that my hopes won’t always deliver, and that I will at times resent them for having failed me, but that they are nonetheless worth having. The truth is, hope can be a bitch, but saving ourselves, and each other, will take more determination than we could ever conjure without it.

So in these last words I write to you all, at the end of this wretched year, I want to say this:

We can make it, friends. But we aren’t going to save ourselves or the earth serendipitously. To survive, and to get free, we will have to carve out the will to believe in ourselves and in each other, and we will have to put one foot in front of the other.

If you’re thinking, “I don’t even know where to go,” that’s okay too. Just hang close to someone to who does, and eventually, you’ll find your way.

I have hope that we all will.