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Book Review: “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

By Visiting Animal — February 24, 2014

Looking for some hope? Look no further. All you need to do is get to know Alessandra Seiter, a college student who gives me hope for the next generation. Alessandra last joined us at Our Hen House when she reviewed Trash Animals. You may also remember her moving OHH essay, From My Eating Disorder to My Life’s Purpose: How Veganism Changed Things Forever. Today, Alessandra is back for another review. This time, she is giving us her take on Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.


Book Review: Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

Review by Alessandra Seiter

A few weeks ago, I invited an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in a long while over to my house for dinner (soba noodles, bok choy, and roasted tempeh and sweet potatoes in dashi broth, for you curious readers). Given that the vast majority of both of our college studies concern the social and environmental states of our world, we found much to discuss. Shortly into our dinner conversation regarding social and political change, we recognized a discrepancy between the manners in which we deliberated such topics. I tended to speak of the world I yearned to see, hopeful that this vision would one day come to fruition, whereas my friend spoke primarily in terms of the world’s current condition, doubtful that we could work ourselves out of the hole we’ve long been digging. A touch of condescension permeated my friend’s tone as he deemed me “idealistic.” Bidding my friend goodbye after we slurped our last noodle, I felt troubled – was my hopefulness pockmarked by naivety?

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (New World Library, 2012), answered my question with a definitive “no.” Indeed, the authors insist that such hopefulness proves necessary to the eventual achievement of large-scale social change, in that it combats “the greatest danger of our times [which] is the deadening of our response.” While the book focuses on how individuals can work toward positive ecological change and maintain a sunny outlook while doing so, I found much of Macy and Johnstone’s writing applicable to veganism and animal rights activism.

Macy (a Buddhist scholar and deep ecologist) and Johnstone (a doctor specializing in the psychology of behavioral change and resilience) introduce the book by differentiating between passive and active hope. The former “is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire,” while the latter “is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for” and “doesn’t require our optimism [so that] we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless.” The authors then introduce three stories that individuals in our world can choose to follow. The first, known as “Business as Usual,” sees little need to change our modern mode of economic growth-driven living, while the second, deemed “The Great Unraveling,” draws attention to (and wallows in despair from) the ecological disasters caused by Business as Usual. The third story of “The Great Turning” refuses to allow either the destructive consumption habits or the what’s-the-use mentality of the first two stories to prevail, and works toward “the epochal transition […] to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world.” Through this story, individuals can “offer [their] gift of Active Hope.” In Macy and Johnstone’s descriptions of what embodying Active Hope and following The Great Turning entail, I couldn’t help but recognize numerous facets of my experiences in veganism and animal rights activism.

Active Hope seems to accurately describe the outlook on lifestyle and activism shared by myself and other animal rights activists with whom I’ve had the pleasure of interacting. Few, if any, of we activists believe that we will see an end to animal exploitation in our lifetimes, but this doesn’t prevent us from paving the road in that general direction with fierce determination. On the contrary, engaging in animal activism imbues our lives with profound meaning, “activat[ing] our sense of purpose” through the “experienc[e] [of] our rootedness in something much larger than ourselves,” in the words of Macy and Johnstone. Active Hope bolsters the importance of such wholehearted activism, encouraging along the way the indefatigable positivity for which Our Hen House so boldly strives.

A major component of The Great Turning involves envisioning a mode of being different from the status quo – a practice embodied and encouraged daily by vegans and animal rights activists. In Macy and Johnstone’s terms, this combatting of the status quo depends upon recognizing our “pain for the world […] [as] a normal, healthy response to a world in trauma” rather than suppressing it, realizing that “our personal well-being depends upon the well-being of the natural world,” and stretching ourselves to our limits “in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” since such actions lead to “[t]he best moments.” I see all of these affirmations in my own veganism – from the fundamental, in that my acknowledgment of my pain for and interdependence with non-human animals compels me not to consume them, to the quotidian, such as how stretching myself to create homemade cashew cheese proves much more satisfying than does buying the oppressively produced dairy cheese at the grocery store.

Macy and Johnstone recognize the sometimes negative social implications of acting out of sync with the ecologically destructive status quo, pointing out that “[h]istory has shown us many examples of people [such as Gandhi] whose allegiance to wider circles of life impelled them to act in ways that brought discomfort to, and even persecution from, their peers.” However, the authors offer gems of encouragement for activists to remember in the face of persecution, frustration, and disheartening news. Most notably, Macy and Johnstone urge readers to become familiar with “deep time” – a.k.a. the geologic time scale – and realize that humans exist as part of a history vastly greater than we can even comprehend. Doing so frees us from the short-term thinking to which we’re accustomed in our fast-paced society, thus allowing us to see how our individual actions can “contribute to a much bigger picture of change,” and “open[ing] up a sense of possibility” that humankind can evolve – as did land-based mammals into dolphins – into a more compassionate species. The former enabling mechanism strikes me as responding to a question I occasionally field, inquiring if I really think I’ll make a difference simply by not consuming animal products. Viewed by itself, no, my veganism will not change the world. However, when viewing it as combined with the greater movement towards animal rights, it proves a necessary and worthwhile action on my part.

Macy and Johnstone also offer examples from history to remind activists of the possibility of success. Of two 18th-century activists who worked for twenty years to end the slave trade, the authors note, “[t]hanks to the people who kept alive the spark of their convictions through periods of ridicule and persecution, changes that were laughed at, actively suppressed, or dismissed as hopeless dreams have now become accepted as normal parts of our reality.” I find these words hugely inspiring, since they confirm – in the face of resistance – the importance of our actions in bringing about change.

A valuable read for any individual familiar with the difficulties of fighting for social change, Active Hope provides a vindication of activist efforts in an indefatigably positive tone of which Jasmin and Mariann would be proud. This book deserves a place on any activist’s bookshelf, as it serves as an indispensable tool for combatting burnout – and, of course, in revalidating our active hope after our friends roll their eyes at our “idealism.”



Alessandra Seiter

A sophomore geography major at Vassar College, Alessandra Seiter is committed to exploring the intersectionalities between veganism and other social justice movements. She serves as co-president of the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) and blogs at Farmers Market Vegan. When not writing, blogging, or organizing campus events, Alessandra enjoys cooking, baking, practicing yoga, and biking. Follow Alessandra on Twitter at @FarmerMarketVeg or on Facebook.

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