A lot of activists seem to have a mechanistic view of change, or perhaps they expect what quack diet pills offer, “Quick and easy results guaranteed.” They expect finality, definitiveness, straightforward cause-and-effect relationships, instant returns, and as a result they specialize in disappointment, which sinks in as bitterness, cynicism, defeatism, knowingness. They operate on the premise that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction and regard the lack of one as failure. After all, we are often a reaction: Bush decides to invade Iraq; we create a global peace movement. Sometimes success looks instant: we go to Seattle and shut down the WTO [World Trade Organization], but getting to Seattle can be told as a story of months of organizing or decades of developing a movement smart enough and broad enough to understand the complex issues at hand and bring in the ten thousand who would blockade. History is made out of common dreams, groundswells, turning points, watersheds — it’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect, and that peace movement came out of causes with roots reaching far beyond and long before Bush.

Effects are not proportionate to causes — not only because huge causes sometimes seem to have little effect, but because tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences. Gandhi said, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” But those stages unfold slowly. And as the law of unexpected activist consequences might lead you to expect, the abolition movement also sparked the first widespread women’s-rights movement, which took about the same amount of time to secure the right to vote for American women, [and which] has achieved far more in the subsequent eighty-four years, and is by no means done. Activism is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.

Some years ago, scientists attempted to create a long-range weather-forecasting program. It turned out that the most minute variations, even the undetectable things, the things they could perhaps not even yet imagine as data, could cause entirely different weather to emerge from almost identical initial conditions. This was famously summed up as the saying about the flap of a butterfly’s wings on one continent that can change the weather on another. History is like weather, not like checkers. (And you, if you’re lucky and seize the day, are like that butterfly.) [It’s] like weather in its complexity, in its shifts, in the way something triggers its opposite, just as a heat wave sucks the fog off the ocean and makes my town gray and clammy after a few days of baking; weather in its moods, in its slowness, in its suddenness.

A game of checkers ends. The weather never does. That’s why you can’t save anything. Saving is the wrong word, one invoked over and over and over again, for almost every cause. Jesus saves and so do banks: they set things aside from the flux of earthly change. We never did save the whales, though we might have prevented them from becoming extinct. We will have to continue to prevent that as long as they continue not to be extinct, unless we become extinct first. That might indeed save the whales, until the sun supernovas or the species evolves into something other than whales. Saving suggests a laying up where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt; it imagines an extraction from the dangerous, unstable, ever-changing process called life on earth. But life is never so tidy and final. Only death is. Environmentalists like to say that defeats are permanent, victories temporary. Extinction, like death, is forever, but protection needs to be maintained. But now, in a world where restoration ecology is becoming increasingly important, it turns out that even defeats aren’t always permanent. Across the United States and Europe, dams have been removed, wetlands and rivers restored, once-vanished native species reintroduced, endangered species regenerated.

Americans are good at responding to a crisis and then going home to let another crisis brew both because we imagine that the finality of death can be achieved in life — it’s called happily ever after in personal life, saved in politics and religion — and because we tend to think of political engagement as something for emergencies rather than, as people in many countries (and Americans at other times) have imagined it, as a part and even a pleasure of everyday life. The problem seldom goes home. Most nations agree to a ban on hunting endangered species of whale, but their ocean habitat is compromised in other ways, such as fisheries’ depletion and contamination. DDT is banned in the United States but exported to the developing world. . . .

Going home seems to be a way to abandon victories when they’re still delicate, still in need of protection and encouragement. Human babies are helpless at birth, and so perhaps are victories before they’ve been consolidated into the culture’s sense of how things should be. I wonder sometimes what would happen if victory was imagined not just as the elimination of evil but the establishment of good — if, after American slavery had been abolished, Reconstruction’s promises of economic justice had been enforced by the abolitionists, or if the end of apartheid had, similarly, been seen as meaning instituting economic justice as well (or, as some South Africans put it, ending economic apartheid).

It’s always too soon to go home. Most of the great victories continue to unfold, unfinished in the sense that they are not yet fully realized, but also in the sense that they continue to spread influence. A phenomenon like the civil-rights movement creates a vocabulary and a toolbox for social change used around the globe, so that its effects far outstrip its goals and specific achievements — and failures. Domestically, conservatives are still fighting and co-opting it, further evidence it’s still potent. . . .

How do you map the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling that struck down the last of the laws criminalizing gay and lesbian sex? The conventional narrative would have it that the power rests in the hands of the nine robed ones; a more radical model would mention the gay Texas couple who chose to turn their lives inside out over many years to press the lawsuit; but a sort of cultural ecology would measure what made the nation rethink its homophobia, creating the societal change that the Supreme Court only assented to: they all count. It now looks likely that the Los Angeles River — that long concrete ditch through the city — will be restored over the next few dozen years, thanks to the stubborn visionaries who believe that even there a river could come back to life, and to the changing understanding of nature that has reached even administrators and engineers. We are not who we were not very long ago.

From Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, by Rebecca Solnit. Copyright © 2004, 2006 by Rebecca Solnit. Used by permission of Hill Nadell Literary Agency.