Hope is a multi-faceted phenomenon. In some situations, it can be vital in coping with, and improving on, an unhealthy status quo.
On the other hand, it can lead us to be passive in times when decisive actions—individually or socially—are required.
The dilemma regarding “hope” was the key point in the Greek legend of Pandora’s jar. It contained all of the evils of the world and when she opened it, they began to escape. When she quickly closed the lid, one evil remained: (passive) hope.
Maude Barlow’s latest book, Still Hopeful, does a masterful job of addressing this dilemma. She definitely does not buy into mindless optimism that humanity will certainly be able to address the multiple crises that we are facing, nor does she succumb to despair that we are helpless in the face of these existential challenges.
Instead, we are treated to an eloquent and personal account of her experience of more than four decades as an organizer, activist, and writer in her fight against greed, patriarchy, pollution, and inequality, among other evils. She provides no simple answers because there aren’t any (in the wise words of San Francisco detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, in The Maltese Falcon: “It’s not always easy to know what to do”).
Nevertheless, Barlow has had a remarkable career making “good trouble.”
For instance, when I was teaching political science at Langara College in Vancouver, some of the most memorable events were the half dozen teleconferences that Noam Chomsky did with my students.
During one discussion of international trade treaties, Chomsky singled out the work of Barlow, then chairperson of the Council of Canadians, as being instrumental in defeating the proposed “corporate bill of rights” known as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).
That victory was just one of a lifetime of Barlow’s achievements, starting with her work for women’s rights.
Early in her career, she was the vice president of Women Associates Consulting, engaging in projects such as advising the CBC on affirmative action programs. Barlow went on to act as the director of equal opportunity for the City of Ottawa, and in the early 1980s, she was Pierre Trudeau’s advisor on women’s issues.
In 1985, Barlow helped to found the Council of Canadians with progressive thinkers including Mel Hurtig, Margaret Atwood, and Pierre Berton. The CoC, then and now, focuses on issues such as promoting democracy and equality within Canada, as well as Canada’s role in international affairs.
She wrote her first book on the Canada–US trade deal in 1990.
After more than two decades of tireless work, Barlow was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel”) in 2005—but she was just getting started.
From 2008–2009, Barlow served as the United Nations Senior Advisor on Water to Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, President of the UN General Assembly (D’Escoto first came to the world’s attention as foreign minister in the Sandinista government in Nicaragua when the US was conducting its terrorist “contra” war).
Barlow led the campaign to have water recognized as a human right by the UN. She has also fought corporate takeover of Canadian freshwater supplies in order to guarantee that Canadians will never lack access to this vital resource.
It will not come as much of a surprise that this campaign was resisted by both private water utilities and bottled water companies like Nestlé. However, the Canadian government was also opposed to this most basic right. In Still Hopeful, her twentieth book, Barlow explains that Ottawa knew that if the UN were to formally recognize that water and sanitation are fundamental human rights, it would be held to account for the appalling condition of water services in First Nations communities.
In 2010, the UN formally voted to enshrine access to clean water as a human right.
Despite such significant victories, however, Barlow acknowledges that despair is not unreasonable in the face of the multiple existential crises that humanity is facing regarding democracy, our environment, growing inequality and poverty, and military conflict, to name a few.
Not surprisingly, it is younger people who are the most affected by these threats to our collective wellbeing. It is their futures especially that are in danger. Barlow asks what can be done to, “inspire young people to see that the life of an activist is a good life…find joy in the struggle to make a better world…help them not to be overwhelmed with the enormity of the task ahead?”
That was her primary motivation for writing Still Hopeful.
(As an aside, a high school teacher recently told me that, while her students are anxious about their future, she has noticed a sense of activism that reminds her of the youth movements of the 1960s and 70s).
Barlow’s writing is clear and concise, and her narrative is enhanced by personal stories that are included when describing the lessons that she has learned in her decades of fighting for social and environmental justice.
One of her insights is that we cannot depend on our “leaders” to do the work of creating a better world. In Barlow’s view, it is consistent, visible grassroots organizing, at both the local and national levels, has the best chance to lead to the kinds of change that could vastly improve our ecological, political, social, and economic realities.
And here’s one intriguing reason why hopelessness and inaction are not justified:
Research by Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth has shown that it takes only around 3.5 percent of the population actively participating in organizing and non-violent protests to ensure that serious political change will take place. Of course, a democratic movement must have fairly widespread support and work as much as possible within the limits of the electoral system too, but if they do so, people have a surprisingly good chance of success. The US civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war movements are two of the more significant examples (and never forget that it was the power of the global peace movement that convinced President Nixon to abandon plans to drop nuclear bombs on the Vietnamese people).
Barlow explains that such grassroots movements need both, “a vision of what we want” as well as clear and “concrete goals and plans” that have a real chance to make that vision a reality She notes that every achievement that societies have made, such as workers’ rights, medicare, steps toward Indigenous sovereignty, and so on, took years of community effort.
Barlow provides a host of inspiring examples from around the world where such people’s movements have succeeded in winning spectacular—and often unexpected—victories. For example, she cites the incredible ten-year struggle of the people of Bolivia to reverse an agreement that was made between their government and the World Bank to privatize the water system of its third largest city, Cochabamba. The government granted a 40-year concession to run the debt-ridden system to a consortium led by Italian-owned International Water Limited and US-based Bechtel Enterprise Holdings.
Oscar Olivera, the executive secretary of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers, explained that: “From that water war, we not only recovered water for all, we created new forms of social coexistence and human bonding. We recovered trust in one another, and that caused us to lose our fear.”
The problem with hope, as we have seen, is remaining passive in the “hope” that our political and corporate leaders will suddenly, somehow, see the light and change their ways. In fact, it is more likely that benevolent aliens from the planet Tralfalmadore will arrive to bring peace and love than the one percent will suddenly change their selfish ways.
For Barlow, active, compassionate, and inclusive hope is our best path out of our collective crises.
Summing up, in the aftermath of the pandemic, Barlow notes that:
We now truly understand the need to ensure public health at a global level and that means it cannot be profit driven. The fight for human rights and racial, religious and gender equality has entered a new stage and is widely supported. Public appreciation for working people and their unions has never been higher as we commit to class justice as well…Never has there been a greater need for principled and informed activism—and hope.
And it helps to remember that, very often, nothing changes until a tipping point is reached and then everything changes.
More than ever, The Rascals were right when they sang: “If we unite, it will all turn out right!”
Peter G. Prontzos is a writer and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Interdisciplinary Studies at Langara College, Vancouver.