Adrienne Rich and the Language of Hope

By Hannah Bernier, RHS Intern. October 1, 2020

originally posted to Flickr as Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich 1980, from Wikipedia Commons

“What would it mean to stand on the first page of the end of despair?”

This is the question many of us are asking ourselves as we wonder when the U.S. government will take concrete action to address climate change and its many consequences. As each day brings us closer to the critical deadline of global temperatures increasing by 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels, it is easy to focus on the failures that led us to this point. While it may seem disheartening to do so, the chance to redefine our position within the climate crisis can change despair into a call for action and even has the potential to transform endings into beginnings. Channeling climate anxiety into actions like connecting with climate advocacy groups, adopting sustainable practices, and even creating art can generate  hope and connection. 

Adrienne Rich, whose poetry and essays have become crucial texts in second wave feminist discourse, wrote extensively about finding hope in the midst of despair. She made insightful connections between gender, racial, and environmental issues, and blended her art and activism in a manner that was unusual during her lifetime. Never one to shy away from the complexity found in connection, her work shows how art is a critical form of engagement with people and places. In her essay “Woman and Bird” she describes the richness that can be found in interdisciplinary engagement with the keen observation that “poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science. We might hope to find the three activities‒poetry, science, politics‒triangulated, with extraordinary electrical exchanges moving from each to each and through our lives.”

Rich’s life is a testament to how engagement with social and environmental issues happens on a variety of levels: personal and professional, individual and collective. She worked to reconcile these dichotomies through intersectional explorations of her own identity as a Jewish lesbian woman, numerous speeches and lectures about gender and racial inequalities, and participation in organizations such as the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program at the City College of New York that created opportunities for groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Rich saw how varying levels of hierarchy interacted within educational and social systems, and worked with other activists and teachers to break them down through art and education. Extrapolating these ideas to the current climate crisis, the need for not only interdisciplinary but also intersectional approaches to environmental justice will be critical to lasting solutions.

The work to be done is difficult and serious but does not require isolation. Reframing individual responsibility as a dynamic component of a social ecosystem allows for greater hope and understanding in discussions about climate change. While some, like Rich, have the skill of weaving ideas and disciplines together into emergent forms, others may find their methods of contribution tied to other activities such as healing, building, or teaching. The key, however, is in the recognition that social ecosystems, like their biological eponym, have “extraordinary electrical exchanges” between component parts, and we have the opportunity to engage with them. 

In the poem “Dreams Before Waking,” Rich reminds us of the responsibility to act in order to heal despair when she asks:

What would it mean to live

in a city whose people were changing

each other’s despair into hope?‒

You yourself must change it.‒

What would it feel like to know

your country was changing?‒

You yourself must change it.‒

Though your life felt arduous

new and unmapped and strange

what would it mean to stand on the first

page of the end of despair?

The hope required to make serious change is both an individual and collective effort, a continuous cycle of reflection and action. So how can you turn despair into hope? Read a book, have a difficult conversation, join a movement. Learn, connect, and act. 

Resources for further reading 

Iyer, Deepa. “Mapping Our Roles in Social Change Ecosystems.” Building Movement Project, 



Miller, K. R. “Personal Weather: Rereading Adrienne Rich for the Anthropocene.” Michigan 

Quarterly Review. The University of Michigan, September 20, 2016.


Moynihan, Colin. “A New York Clock That Told Time Now Tells the Time Remaining.” The 

New York Times. The New York Times, September 20, 2020. 


Rich, Adrienne, Albert Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, and Brett C. Millier. Selected Poems, 

1950-2012. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. 

Rich, Adrienne, and Sandra M. Gilbert. Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of 

Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. 

Savonick, Danica. “Changing the Subject: Adrienne Rich and the Poetics of Activist Pedagogy.” 

American Literature, vol. 89, no. 2, Duke University Press, June 2017, pp. 305–29, 


Small is Beautiful: Idea in Context

By Hannah Bernier, Sept. 20, 2020

Photo: Brocken Inaglory, “A small flower,” Wikimedia Commons

Much of the last six months have consisted of turning inward: taking stock of what we have, sitting in the reality of our lives and the environment within which we live. What kinds of systems sustain us? Do we live in a compassionate society, one that values people and the environment? In what ways can we sustain our communities in a time of increased isolation? As the pandemic continues, it becomes apparent that empathy may be our strongest asset and it is one that should be applied in various sectors of our society. It is becoming increasingly clear, for instance, that empathetic economic practices are crucial to supporting health and well-being.

Published in 1973, Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher is a foundational collection of essays about environmentalism, economies of scale, and Buddhist economics. Schumacher argued that Western economics was too focused on maximizing expansion and consumption, and had lost sight of how to create meaning from life and work. Instead, he advocated for a system built on the Buddhist ethic of “right livelihood,” where human well-being would become the foremost economic concern and the consumption of goods should only reach the level necessary to uphold human dignity. 

Others were influenced by his work. Kate Raworth developed the economic model called the doughnut framework in 2017. This model also acknowledged the modern economy’s focus on profit over people, and sets out to find a “safe and just space for humanity,” where social and environmental wellness reach a dynamic balance.  Her “equilibrium goal” provides us with another vision of the future that focuses attention on an economic narrative that can better serve both humans and nature. 

Still others decided to “live their values,” expressing social solidarity and environmental consciousness by deciding to forgo participation in the modern capitalist system. Take the Possibility Alliance in rural Missouri. In 2007 they built a simple living community based on principles like the gift economy, permaculture practices, electricity and petroleum-free living, and social justice. Founders Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox constructed their community around the following mantra: “I don’t want my freedom, comfort, and mobility to require killing, polluting, and exploiting.” Taking the “small is beautiful” idea to the extreme, their lifestyle continues to be an experiment in ultra-local living based on solidarity and reciprocity. 

At the end of his books, Schumacher poses the question many of us find ourselves asking today: “Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ We can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.” A crucial part of instilling radical hope into the framework of our communities is remembering that we have all the tools necessary to do so. Our diverse backgrounds and relationship to land mean we can rise to meet current social and environmental challenges in creative and nourishing ways if we commit to doing so. These concepts are not just an ethos to aspire to, they’re an invitation to begin action within ourselves and our communities. Small is beautiful, so look closely. 


Osmond, Jordan and Antoinette Wilson, directors. Living a Radically Simple Permaculture Life

Happen Films, 26 June 2018, 

Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st-Century Economist

Random House Business Books, 2017. 

Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered. Harper Perennial, 2014. 

Sundeen, Mark. The Unsettlers: in Search of the Good Life in Today’s America. Riverhead 

Books, 2018.

The Work of Restoration

In the book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Potawatomi author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer reflects on the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and science. In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, she told the reporter: “At a time of climate change…I can’t help but cling to the notion that it’s not the land that’s broken, it is our relationship to land that’s broken.” She understands the “deep ecological grief” many feel. ‘Grief is a measure of how much we love. And so I honor that grief,’ Kimmerer added. “But then you roll up your sleeves. Out of the love that you have for the world — that’s expressed in that grief — then you get to work, the work of restoration.” This idea could be a core value of Radical Hope. There’s no need to reject the grief — instead, we can use despair to motivate us in the work of restoration.

What words get used?

Dan Zak has a new article in the Washington Post which is, as much as anything,  brief history of the messaging surrounding climate change. It nicely illustrates the difficulty we face when discussing a topic like climate crisis or climate breakdown in the classroom or in public.  In the article, Zak provides numerous examples of how different words have been appropriated and re-appropriated, how meaning has been amplified or stripped from different concepts depending on who, when, and how a given term is invoked. In one hopeful example, he states, for instance, that “women are rewording climate conversations to honor the collective, connective nature of the problem.” During this important  moment more scrutiny to words will serve us well. Check out Zak’s piece.

Beyond Despair

If the RHS has been a helpful resource, you may want to attend the following conference — run at the National Humanities Center.


Beyond Hope and Looking at the Ordinary

Tania Katzschner

Perhaps it is more important to be in community, vulnerable and real and whole, than to be right, or to be winning  — adrienne maree brown

These times of upheaval call on us to explore new ways of coming into touch and to recognise that there are other possibilities. Many attempts to ‘save the world’ only end up reinstating the status quo. The world is bigger and more curious than solutions.

I’d like to ad the above article “Beyond Hope” by Derrick Jensen to the section of the course on ‘Looking at the ordinary – a tender practice of forging relationships’. In it

Jensen speaks of the impulse to “save” the world coming from a place of love and allowing oneself to be touched. By drawing on the idea of ‘love’, it is hoped that we can learn to see in such a way that things come alive again.

We live in incoherent times, each day the unraveling of the biosphere becomes more and more apparent with plastic landscapes, catastrophic droughts, rising carbon emissions, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and the proliferation of the dreadful and horrific. How to respond to the crisis of nature that defines our time is an urgent question. The creation of a more sustainable world depends on a fundamental shift of our dominant relationship with nature.  Assumptions that culture and nature occupy different dimensions are beginning to shatter and being disrupted.  This moment invites us to create the means for posing problems differently.

The ‘Looking at the Ordinary’ section of the course attempts to do this by reflecting on the practices and sensibilities of a transformative urban nature project in Cape Town.  The Cape Flats Nature (CFN) project aimed to “build good practice in sustainable management of City nature conservation sites in a way that benefits surrounding communites, particularly those where incomes are low and living condition poor” (Soal and van Blerk, 2005). The project risked slowing down to nurture profound levels of observation and conversation in order to protect capabilities for flourishing. The project created spaces for competing ideas, discussion and debate and helped create conditions where anything could happen, especially that which is beyond our limited knowledge of cause and effect.

I want to suggest that such work, attention and ‘love’ is helpful in imagining socio-environmentalism differently, without destroying relationships and awakening us to the possibility of a world where genuine care and concern can flourish. Such work and practice helps us to develop greater attention, awareness, openness and love. By turning the lens on feeling, learning and empathising, it disrupts the colonial stewardship and mastery idea. Could we instead be lovers of other than human beings?  I believe we would do well to ‘normalise’ some of their radical, unorthodox ideas and practices around urban conservation that contribute to the birthing of a new story and narrative and to spread the vibration of love and life.





Hope, Action, and Questions for Students

“Hope and its doleful twin, Hopelessness, might be thought of as the co-muses of the modern eco-narrative. Such is the world we’ve created—a world of wounds—that loss is, almost invariably, the nature writer’s subject. The question is how we relate to that loss. Is the glass ninety-five per cent empty or is it five per cent full?” This is the question Rebecca Solnit asks in her recent New Yorker article.  And, it’s an important one. What role will hope play in our future? Admittedly, a limited one if it’s not accompanied by ACTION. What actions will we take in the future? Perhaps looking a which approaches to the environmental issues have been most successful in the past can serve as a useful guide. Take a look at some of the sections on the syllabus and see what an assessment of them yields.