A Road Map to Survival, And a Bit About My Mum

By Elizabeth May


Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril.

Knopf Canada/Penguin Random House, Sept. 2020

By Thomas Homer-Dixon


It is a rare thing to hold a book in your hands and think, “This could be a game changer.”

I had that experience at several “Aha!” moments while reading Thomas Homer-Dixon’s latest, Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril (Knopf Canada 2020.)

Homer-Dixon has never shied away from the big questions. His previous books — The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down were both bestsellers, hailed for iconoclastic analysis of sweeping and complex issues. Even so, Commanding Hope is more ambitious. And it makes a sharp departure from his earlier reputation as a “doom meister.”

Set against the crises of our times — the climate emergency, the COVID pandemic, and the socio-political perils of populism and inequity – the book sets out to prove that we have the power to save ourselves.

First, he musters the abundant evidence that we face an existential crisis. That is not difficult. Everyday life now approaches a scene from science fiction — navigating sidewalks, avoiding people as we pass in our masks, as smoke from unprecedented wildfires in the United States turns our Vancouver Island skies a sickly orange.

Despite the shuttering of our economy due to COVID19, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise. The ice shelves collapse and villages are washed away in floods around the world. To avoid triggering runaway global warming, massive reductions in carbon emissions are required. We must stop using fossil fuels to the greatest extent possible, as quickly as possible.

Homer-Dixon walks us through the science with personal reflection and anecdote. Taking his children to the spot where his father once took him on the coast of Vancouver Island where starfish were once abundant, he finds they are now lost due to a mysterious wasting disease. The observations are close and personal as he lies awake realizing the sound of rain on the roof has changed; noticing the absence of deep snow in winter where he teaches at University of Waterloo. And he marshals the science, quoting German climatologist, Stefan Rahmstorf, “We are catapulting ourselves out of the Holocene.” If humanity stays on its current climate trajectory, “We will not recognize our earth by the end of the century.”

Finding reasons to hope is essential as a parent, and grandparent.

Homer-Dixon’s search is not for hope per se, but for a kind of operational hope that can actually make a difference. As David Orr, academic and climate activist, once wrote “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”

Homer-Dixon sums up the difference between naïve, passive hope and robust hope.  It is the difference between saying “I hope that…” such and such lovely thing will happen and “I hope to….” make it happen.

His central thesis “commanding hope” is described as having three components:

“Honest, astute and powerful hope — that combine to create this virtuous circle (of agency).  Each has a fundamentally distinctive character and highlights a facet of the hope we need. Honest hope is a moral attitude, because it starts from a presumption about the moral importance of a commitment to truth. Astute hope is an epistemological attitude, because it’s grounded in deep knowledge of people’s worldviews and motivations. And powerful hope is a psychological attitude, because it emphasizes how a vision of a positive future and a clear roadmap of strategies to get there can motivate agency.”

His exploration is deeply empirical. Working with a research team at Waterloo focused on how ideologies develop and evolve, he sets out an approach to mental landscapes, based on how differing worldviews shift perceptions. This is a rich vein of possibility to bridge the divides between those who doubt — or reject — climate science and those (like me) who believe it must define every move we make. For those crafting political strategies, it is dynamite.

One of the things that makes this book a particular treat for me is a piece of nearly unbelievable serendipity. Homer-Dixon relates that over several attempts to write this book his publisher pressed him to find real-life examples to demonstrate how “commanding hope” can work.  He recalled one of his professors, a mentor of his on international issues, Bill Epstein, had once said, “You know, it was mothers who stopped the testing (of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere); they organized huge protests around the world, and in the end the leaders of the nuclear powers couldn’t ignore them.” (p 64)

This memory from the 1970s sent Homer-Dixon in pursuit of the story of mothers as activists over half a century later. He found one small article online, unattributed, titled, “My mother stopped nuclear weapons testing.” With more digging he found to his surprise that I had written that article about my mother, Stephanie Middleton May.

Elizabeth May and her mother, Stephanie Middleton May, at the Aldermaston anti-nuclear march in Trafalgar Square, 1960

And so, troves of original research, my mother’s journals, unpublished manuscripts and scrapbooks full of personal letters from prominent names from history — from Bertrand Russell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Norman Cousins and Dr. Spock fell into his hands.

At one point, as he was working on the manuscript, Tad (now that I am relating a personal chat, the last name protocol feels false) said to me, “You know, if your mother had been a man, she would be famous as a central figure in a global citizens movement that changed history.”

So it is that my mother’s unerring sense for strategy, for reaching even the most intransigent pro-arms race Conservative by reaching right into their hearts, is now shared. Following the arc of the formula for commanding hope, her hope was honest, astute and powerful. She had an uncompromising commitment to the truth and a willingness to be massively creative and take huge risks. When I was a very little girl, I thought my role in life would be to write a book about my mother. It may be one reason why I have such a good memory.  I committed to memory many of the details of her campaigns.

In Homer-Dixon’s hands, examples like Stephanie May and Greta Thunberg make the case that human agency in the face of apocalyptic threat is not only possible, but essential.

Homer-Dixon is not prepared to tell his children we are a failed species. Read this book and take on your part — wielding hope like a weapon in the fight for survival.

Policy magazine Contributing Writer Elizabeth May, MP for Gulf Saanich-Islands, is the former leader of the Green Party of Canada.