Rebecca Solnit's new essay at The Nation about the arc of justice and the long run is illuminating. She writes,
Henry David Thoreau wrote books that not many people read when they were published. He famously said of his unsold copies, "I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself." But a South African lawyer of Indian descent named Mohandas Gandhi read Thoreau on civil disobedience and found ideas that helped him fight discrimination in Africa and then liberate his own country from British rule. Martin Luther King studied Thoreau and Gandhi and put their ideas to work in the United States, while in 1952 the African National Congress and the young Nelson Mandela were collaborating with the South African Indian Congress on civil disobedience campaigns. You wish you could write Thoreau a letter about all this. He had no way of knowing that what he planted would still be bearing fruit 151 years after his death. But the past doesn’t need us. The past guides us; the future needs us. . . .
Whenever I look around me, I wonder what old things are about to bear fruit, what seemingly solid institutions might soon rupture, and what seeds we might now be planting whose harvest will come at some unpredictable moment in the future. The most magnificent person I met in 2013 quoted a line from Michel Foucault to me: "People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does." Someone saves a life or educates a person or tells her a story that upends everything she assumed. The transformation may be subtle or crucial or world changing, next year or in 100 years, or maybe in a millennium. You can’t always trace it but everything, everyone has a genealogy.
No powerful insight, no provocative proposal for refashioning the world to make things more equitable and just for everyone, is ever utterly lost. Even when we appear to spend our lives working futilely for progressive changes that never seem to occur, we're planting seeds that will, somewhere in the future and often quite unexpectedly, begin to flourish.