The cover of “Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility” (2023). (Courtesy Haymarket Books)
The cover of “Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility” (2023). (Courtesy Haymarket Books)

In “Not Too Late,” a Vital, Kaleidoscopic View on the Climate Crisis

Co-edited by writer Rebecca Solnit and climate activist Thelma Young Lutunatabua, the compendium presents 20 contributions from a diverse range of key voices.
By Spencer Bailey
June 1, 2023
6 minute read

If there’s one book I’m going to be shoving into peoples’ hands for years to come, it’s the recently released collection of essays and interviews Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility (Haymarket Books)—which is why it’s our pick for The Slowdown’s debut Book of the Month column.

Expertly edited and curated by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit and climate activist Thelma Young Lutunatabua, the co-founders of a new project from which the book takes its title, Not Too Late brings together 20 contributions from a diverse range of key voices in today’s climate conversation, many of them unsung, including the writer and activist adrienne maree brown, the climate scientist Dr. Jacquelyn Gill, and the organizer Yotam Marom. Presenting what may be the most zeitgeisty, potent, and on-point package—a kaleidoscope, really—of writing and thought related to the climate crisis to date, this is a vital and enlivening book that, as it makes glaringly, bracingly clear, arrives at a pivotal moment in the history of humankind and the planet.

Left: Rebecca Solnit. (Photo: Trent Davis Bailey). Right: Thelma Young Lutunatabua. (Courtesy Haymarket Books)
Left: Rebecca Solnit. (Photo: Trent Davis Bailey). Right: Thelma Young Lutunatabua. (Courtesy Haymarket Books)

Not Too Late’s urgent crux is captured in one sentence in particular, from the climate scientist Dr. Joëlle Gergis: “When you realize that the 2020s will be remembered as the decade that determined the fate of humanity, you will tap into an eternal evolutionary force that has transformed the world time and time again.”

Though its pages burst with a profound sense of hope—a subject underlying much of Solnit’s writing, especially the books A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) and Hope in the Dark (2004)—it is not of the rah-rah, “Yes we can!” Obama-era variety. Not Too Late firmly embraces the unignorable, all-too-real grief, loss, pain, and suffering inherent in our present climate reality. As Solnit puts it, “To hope is to recognize that you can protect some of what you love even while grieving what you cannot—and to know that we must act without knowing the outcome of those actions.” In many respects the opposite of David Wallace-Wells’s extremely bleak but also essential climate book The Uninhabitable Earth, from 2019, Not Too Late offers a more optimistic way forward, one full of viable alternatives and, to use a phrase of the climate scholar Farhana Sultana, “revolutionary potentiality.” And it does so without getting too wishy-washy or skirting around the brutal facts of our precarious present—what Lutunatabua, at various turns in the book, describes as a “ticking clock of terror,” a “horrid perpetuating whirlwind,” and a “deep uphill confrontation with entrenched powers that have had the luxury of domination for too long.” In another essay, the climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar pinpoints the emotional and psychological torment of the climate crisis, quite simply, as “the experience of watching the world fall apart in front of our eyes.”

At a time when conversations seem to be (and in most cases are) more fractured than ever, even amongst those within the climate movement, and with misinformation running rampant online and off, this book is a balm. Rather than thinking about our present situation as one of “resource scarcity,” a fear-mongering phrase, its contributors emphasize the incredible abundance all around us—an abundance of “intersectional solutions” and “values of community, care, and collaboration” (Gloria Walton, the president and CEO of Los Angeles–based Solutions Project); an abundance of kinship, love, and solidarity (Sultana); an abundance of ingenuity and storytelling (the Guam-based lawyer and writer Julian Aguon). In a conversation with Lutunatabua, brown captures this sentiment entirely: “I think if we were to unshackle our imaginations, we would be able to see this is an abundant place that has everything we need.”

If there were a word to sum up this book, it would be abundance. Upon finishing it, I felt fortified and open-hearted, and, despite our stark climate predicament, with a strong sense of empowerment and aliveness and worth. In many respects, Not Too Late could be viewed as a compass, a North Star, a wayfinding device. I will carry it with me and return to it again and again as I navigate the various climate absurdities and calamities that are sure to come in the future.

In perhaps the most moving, impactful piece of writing in the book, Marom unpacks the subject of despair, then ingeniously flips it on its head. Despair, he writes, is at once “a reasonable reaction to the world we live in”; “the kind of thing that comes in waves, creeps under your skin, finds its way into your belly when you’re not paying attention”; “the easy way out”; “bad politics”; and “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Marom emphasizes, instead, the momentum- and community-building upsides of despair—upsides that have added fuel to the climate conversation, allowing it, in dynamic, roundabout ways, to move from the margins to the mainstream over the past 15 years. At the book’s halfway point, a 28-year timeline titled “An Extremely Incomplete List of Climate Victories” highlights the once seemingly small milestones, from 1978 to 2022, that have resulted in a giant, cataclysmic shift.

Avoiding the kind of off-putting insidery lingo and dry U.N. climate-speak that often wedges its way into books in the climate category, Not Too Late is refreshingly to-the-point and, for the most part, avoids getting too wonky or academic. It is smartly written, with a literary but unstuffy quality to it, made for both the converted and those yet to be.

“Some stories are life rafts or desert springs,” Solnit writes. The beautiful, cutting clarity of Not Too Late proves that some books are, too.