I once read a story about the leader of a revolution whose lieutenants asked him on their day of victory, “What would you like us to do first?” Without hesitation he replied, “Round up the poets.” That’s because any tyrant knows, before there can be opposing armies or mass uprisings there must be ideas that inspire and unite the people. The basic building blocks of our world are ideas. Only later do we pour the concrete, or design software or form parliaments. Control the ideas and you control the world.
True change – social, political, spiritual – falls like rain when the time is right, but only if it has some nucleus to form around. Poets and artists of all kinds are the rainmakers of the world. We seed the clouds with stories that offer new ways of seeing things. We look into the shadows and behind forbidden doors and then scatter what we see in poems, songs, novels, paintings, plays, dances, films, symphonies or sculptures. We pull back the veil of collective denial and hypnosis to examine ourselves as we really are. Often, true art reminds us how beautiful we are and that the ancient story of love is alive and well, transforming everything it touches. Sometimes the story is not so pleasant, and it forces us to face cultural luggage we’d rather leave in the basement.
The story of peak oil and climate change is now turning the heady drama of the onward march of civilization into a farce which is spinning quickly toward tragedy.
Make no mistake. We tell ourselves stories all the time and live by them. The great story of our time is the myth of perpetual growth, followed by the myth of empires that last a thousand years. Everything we have built in our culture rests upon these stories, from McMansion filled suburbs to the rubble and craters of Lebanon and Iraq. But that plot line is very clearly falling apart. Every day we confront new evidence that the happy ending we wrote for ourselves is highly implausible – and improbable.
The biggest myth of all is that we could live this way and never – ever – have to pay for it. Boy, has that turned out to be a whopper. We are finding out the bartender was running a tab on us after all, and it has been gathering interest. The real kick in the butt comes when we realize that we are paying for a party most of us never really participated in. Almost all of us stood outside and watched the “elite” on TV, just close enough to the action to be fooled into thinking we were invited. The end of the era of Hydrocarbon man has arrived. Honestly, you have to be willfully ignorant or just plain crazy not to see the signs everywhere you look.
What we desperately need now are new stories.
Which leads me to ask, “Where are the poets? Where are the truly daring filmmakers and writers? Where are the poetry readings and film screenings and art exhibits that attract undercover FBI informants because the ideas expressed make the tyrants lose sleep?”
Artists, we need you. We need your vision and your courage to tell the truth. We’ve got plenty of “analysis,” and enough punditry to last us forever. What we lack are the gut-wrenching stories that put a human face on the collapse that is upon us. We lack imagination to see through the present smoke and dust to what comes next. We lack the icons of this revolution that can sum up the future in a single phrase or image – and suggest what must be done to face it.
Robert McKee writes in his book Story that stories – in particular, movies – are so powerful because of their unique ability to make us think and feel at the same time. Raw feeling can be quite illogical, while raw logic lacks passion. Stories break down these barriers. This is the power that tyrants fear and societies need in moments of great change and challenge.
I offer this small step forward: at So Long, Hydrocarbon Man, we will now take submissions of poems, short films, short stories and images that speak to the realities of peak oil, climate change and life at the end of the era of Hydrocarbon Man. Visit the site and read our submission guidelines. Spread the word to artists: a challenge has been issued to create stories that tell the truth about where we are and ones that imagine the possibilities of where we can go from here.
The peak oil revolution we now face is far more than a changing of the guard at the same old palace of power, privilege and prestige. It is a full-spectrum upheaval of everything we depend on. Like shamans who visit the dark side on behalf of the people, our artists must cross over to the other side and come back again with stories of what they have seen.