Active Hope: Book Inspires Action Against Global Crises

Rising global temperatures. Shrinking fish stocks. Looming mass extinctions. Scientists from around the world warned of all these threats, and more, in an open letter 25 years ago. And in a recent follow-up, they warned that most of them have gotten worse. There’s cause to wonder, though it might seem easier not to, what the next 25 years hold in store. 

Active Hope, the 2012 book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, doesn’t pretend to have the answer to this question — but it does suggest that rather than despair that all is lost or pretend that everything’s fine, there is important work that can be done to create a brighter future.

“Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for,” the authors write. “It is something we do rather than have”.

It’s a philosophy that has inspired many UU congregations to hold workshops centered around the book, which begins with the invitation to come from a place of gratitude. The authors invite readers to begin with this step because gratitude makes it easier to move on to face harsh realities. Showing gratitude isn’t dependent on things going well, however. Instead, it’s about getting better at spotting what’s already there, especially the gifts we receive from the natural world.

Despite, indeed because of the beauty of the earth, recognizing the many threats the planet faces can be painful, and responding to them can seem overwhelming. But rather than ignoring or suppressing these feelings, Active Hope calls on readers to honour their pain for the world, accepting that feeling distress about the state of the planet is a normal response and can, in fact, be a spur for change. Rev. Debra Faulk of the Unitarian Church of Calgary found this aspect of the book particularly meaningful.

“We’re aware of so many issues in our world that need attention, particularly environmentally, and it takes a lot of energy to hold that”, she says. “So her (Macy’s) process really allows for that to be named, for it to be brought forward, and I think for energy to be released from it, so that instead of feeling paralyzed, we have access to more energy, to be able to advocate for and be active in making the change happen”.

While the necessary changes might seem daunting, Active Hope provides examples by which they can be broken down into smaller, more manageable steps that anyone could take, such as carpooling, greater use of public transit, or eating lower on the food chain. The book also encourages readers to see themselves as part of a broader society and take a wider view of time, knowing that while the changes they make in their life may not always be visible, they can be of critical importance to future generations. It’s a perspective that is sometimes overlooked.

“I think she has a pretty comprehensive view of the world”, says Rev. Bill Phipps, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada who has led services based on Joanna Macy’s work. “She sees things in a holistic way, rather than in silos, which most of us do”.

Seeing problems in a holistic way is a crucial step towards solving them. But Active Hope doesn’t suggest that taking further steps is easy or is guaranteed to result in success. Instead, it promotes being comfortable with uncertainty, recognizing that no one would ever accomplish anything if there wasn’t a willingness to accept the possibility of failure, but have hope nonetheless.

More information about Active Hope is available here.