Is it too weird to say that, as bad as the first half of 2020 has been, it’s been a relief? A tiny virus has achieved what decades of activism could not: stop us in our self-destructive tracks. She essentially sent us to our rooms to think about our behavior.
Watching the implacable logic of economic growth – species extinction be damned – falter and start to crack has been a big out breath for me. My social creativity is back. Just as climate doctors were concluding we had only a slim chance of survival past 2030, our lifestyle assault on the earth slacks off. In its place, birds return. Air clears. We wonder again if another world is possible.
Perhaps, especially with the economic and health stress the virus has brought, this seems ghoulish. I think these disruptions have been long overdue, however. And in the cracks, I see light.
In this spirit, I invited people I consider cultural scouts – people who see far and go deep – to join me in brief recorded conversations about what new shoots they see growing in the cracks in the civilizational concrete, what new possibilities are emerging. In partnership with Post Carbon Institute, we’ve now built a library of over a dozen 20-minute YouTube and Podcast interviews that shine a light on what I’m calling the “near now.”
Normal is over, I said. Next is not at all clear. So now what?
I asked each cultural scout the same question: What could possibly go right?
The question brilliantly bores through platitudes about what’s wrong and ten-point plans of how to fix it. Since none of us knows where this disruption is taking us, we get to see with fresh eyes.
It invites the gaze on a space between all is lost and all will be well. Through this pinhole we glimpse reality. The pandemic, the racial justice uprising, the economic disruptions show us that we live in bubbles of assumptions and destructive patterns. This disturbance offers us a chance to widen the frame, unmodified by preconceptions. I live for these moments, for seeing something utterly new to me, for a chance to wriggle out of an old, dry, cramped skin.
At the same time, skin shedding is a lot of work. Disturbance is disturbing. When life is too unstable, when too many shells are cracking all at once, individuals and groups can go crazy. And crazy is growing here in the USA.
The two basic versions of reality now – let’s call one Trump and the other Biden – are fully at odds. Blame is spreading faster than weeds in my garden. The virus comes from bats, from a lab where it was getting weaponized, from 5 G towers. The virus is on its way out and the CDC, Fauci and the MSM lie. Bill Gates wants to microchip us. It’s the apocalypse. It’s the end of civilization. It’s the necessary winnowing of those not fit to live. It’s the breakdown that ushers in breakthroughs – we always come out better. I am in a sea – inside and around me – of people trying to make sense of this moment so we know where to step next. How to survive this. Come out on top or better or at least not dead.
What could possibly go right? asks our scouts to help us form an image of what is emerging so we can turn towards at least an honorable next step. It’s not visionary – the best of all possible worlds. It’s not all dark and doomy – batten down the hatches, kids, or run for cover. It affirms that life goes on and on, that every day we are alive we keep moving in that river.
Our scouts are also experts and leaders in a wide range of fields. They are thoughtful and caring. They get us in the curiosity zone.
Their answers were stunning.
You can watch/ listen to my guests’ interviews here – and they each offer a possibility to build on.
Here are some quick nuggets I’ve selected from a wealth of observations …
Bill McKibben put it succinctly: chemistry and biology are real, speed matters, solidarity is a verb, courage is required, the outcome is uncertain and we might fail to reverse our suicidal course in time. He’s betting on social movement.
From Saru Jayaraman, an organizer for restaurant workers justice, I saw with a shock how very low wage (servers get $2.13 an hour + tips) how I and we tend to dehumanize everyone who works at a restaurant, except celebrity chefs. I wrote a book about local food which I called relational eating; what would be relational dining?
Suzi Moser has an exquisite take on hope. “If you’re completely convinced that we’re doomed, or if you’re completely convinced all is going to be fine, you don’t need hope… Only if the future isn’t written can we possibly wish for hope.” In our conversation she talks about foundational safety as necessary for any “right” action. In this moment, a sense of safety is foundation to hope.
Severn Suzuki, daughter of famed ecologist, David Suzuki, was the Greta Thunberg of 30 years ago. She now lives on Haida Gwaii, married into a Haida family, where she learned the story about a fish, crucial to their diet, that deserted the people because they didn’t respect it. Indigenous people, she pointed out, also screw up their environment, but they carry those stories through the generation because they need to live in balance with the nature that feeds them.
Ocean Robbins beautifully reminded me and us that the body is a miracle, a mystery and intelligent beyond our wisest imagination. A healthy body deals with many assaults, with us going about our business. He points to the surge in home food production as evidence that something is going right.
Victoria Santos, a diversity educator, seemed to say, “What could go right is an explosion of awareness – in our minds and especially hearts – of what has gone terribly wrong from treating the earth as industrial fodder and the people at the bottom like disposable workers.” To look at the suffering of all we use and abuse and ask, “what have we wrought?”
Nina Simons, a friend who moves in the world much as I do, reflected on humility. Becoming aware of the pain that racism confers on black and brown people is leading her to shed layer upon layer of unrecognized self-concept as a big thinker, big doer. Identity, as Tim DeChristopher also said, gets rattled as awareness of the harms of racism expands. Big thinkers right size to listen and learn. And what a gift to do so.
Tim DeChristopher‘s history includes bidding at an auction on tracts of public land – with no intention of paying for them – to keep them out of development. For this he was sentenced to two years in prison after which he studied at Harvard Divinity School, organized the Climate Disobedience Center and now lives on a farm in rural Rhode Island, milking cows daily. He talked about the spiritual gifts of Covid, the stopping of frenetic capitalist culture and the rediscovery of one another. Enough to tip the balance? A beginning.
Reverend Lennox Yearwood is a climate activist of a different stripe. He heads the Hip Hop caucus that brings young Hip-Hoppers into the politics of climate change. His final reflections jolted me awake to my own blindness. The climate movement missed its chance for real impact back when Trayvon Martin was murdered. Earth justice and future generations justice have always been wedded to climate justice, but we missed the moment, didn’t form common cause. Had we, our children would be fighting for equity now, not just existence. The hope part is that white children are in the streets with dark-skinned children.
Carolyn Raffesnperger has a particular passion for good governance. I first heard about the precautionary principle from her, which means taking positive action in the face of scientific uncertainty and the likelihood of harm. Not much in evidence in the USA at the moment. The virus gives us a chance to rethink government as working to avoid preventable suffering by promoting the well-being of its people instead of over-emphasizing economic growth.
Heather Cox Richardson, an immensely popular historian with a following in the tens of thousands, is upbeat because people now understand that politics is not a spectator sport. No telling what an engaged, informed populace will do.
LylaJune Johnston, of the Dine and Cherokee tribes, developed the Seven Genearations New Deal when she was running for office and went through the 7 elements.
Peter Buffet, musician and philanthropist, riffed on the word Corona, or crown, saying our very young species is in the birth canal and in this moment our heads are crowning, we are entering a new way of living that to him will be particular, relational, and with who and what is right next door.
Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Towns and author of “What if?”, a paean to imagination as a driver of positive change, ran through how people absolutely love to create together in a spirit of play. With all the services of bottom up, community based groups, he says, governments should resource the local as the obvious and forever provider of social cohesion, public health and culture.
How would I answer my own question?
As I said to Reverend Yearwood, “This is a moral moment. It’s an awakening of conscience.” As Victoria Santos said, facing the shadow is necessary before the light can break through. Van Jones – public intellectual and media commentator – cried when he spoke of the uprising for racial justice. “A black man died and white people cared” he said over and over.
The possibilities now are intimate and internal – a change of heart.
The pandemic, the failing social safety nets, the inability of our leaders to protect us, and the underclass rising up will hopefully be the kind of shock that gets global society to tilt towards caring. When the doctor says, “Change your habits or die” you do have a choice. You can buck the diagnosis, extend a toxic way of life with pills and surgery, and be buried with your habits and beliefs fully intact.
Denial, violence, entitlement, selfishness and callous disregard are never a winning formula in the long term but for a while, they suppress the truth.
We say, “Have a heart” to call for compassion. Caring is wired in. We are shocked at the heartlessness of sociopaths. We’ve all but lost our collective heart embodied in a fair and good society, but I think we desperately want it back.
“What could possibly go right?” puts our attention at the edge of the surgical knife in this heart transplant. We will tip towards life with wise choices, or bleed out.
4 lights in the dark
My guests have helped me organize my own answers into 4 lights in the dark.
- An eruption of social solidarity
- An awareness of systems. We are getting viscerally how everything is connected. We live in entangled systems, not individual fortresses. Our destinies are linked. Your out-breath could be my last in-breath. Ready or not, here WE come.
- A time of moral reckoning. We’ve been worshiping the golden calf. Covid is laying down the commandments of mutual aid, the Golden Rule, No Man is an Island, the law of Love.
- A personal transformation as we fall still and silent and shed old identities.
Covid sent us to our rooms. Black Lives Matter got us into the streets in greater numbers and solidarity than I have ever seen. Early in the shutdown people sang from balconies. They banged on pots and cheered nightly for health care workers. I have never seen such political fervor in my life. We are roused from our private lives into politics which is the arena of shaping our common future. Until people who give a damn are in power and put budget behind good ideas, good ideas evaporate in the harsh light of expediency. Masses are now working to put people in power who care.
A crisis is now defining our lives, just as crises did in the Depression and the Second World War. We have a common reference – the pandemic. How are you? isn’t just some pleasantry, inquiring after the grand-kids and your last vacation. How are you – in the pandemic? How is your family – in the pandemic? In crises, people pull together. We may drift back into our private lives, but this time will always be defined by what we have gone through together. In my view, more severe crises are in the wings. Our 100-year assault on our air, water and land has cued up droughts, floods, fires and storms that are ready to take center stage. May the solidarity of Covid carry over to an uprising of mutual aid that eclipses individual self-interest. Not guaranteed, but the virus is showing us what we must do to survive.
The disrepair of the systems which allow the smooth functioning of our lives has been laid bare. Our supply chains are apparently more fragile than we knew. Outsourcing manufacturing to China has rendered us beholden to a less than compassionate competitor.
I’m reminded of an old, slightly off-color joke. The organs of the body were debating which one was the most important. The heart said, “I bring blood to the rest of you. I’m the most important.” The brain said, “I coordinate every electrical impulse that activate every one of you. I’m the most important.” The lungs claimed supremacy because none of the others can live without oxygen The asshole, in disgust, just shut up.
Essential workers literally clean up after us – the nannies, the housekeepers, the janitors, the bus drivers, the mechanics, the nurse’s aids, the home health workers, the wait-staff and dishwashers, the stockers, the field workers, the meat packers, the seamstresses, the street sweepers, the teachers. We at least see this now. Will we find the courage to reward their work with more than cheering from balconies? Will we have the courage to reallocate budgets, raise taxes on some to assure higher wages for all essential workers.
I’m not convinced justice will follow this crisis, but movement intersectionality has also popped into awareness. The climate movement must form common cause with the racial justice and women’s and economic justice movements. All are confronting the same soul-less story of separation. We need to be a massive team, like a football team – with the quarterback, the linebacker, full-back, center, guard, etc. all taking the ball to the goal. We can now see that. The growing acceptance of policies like Universal Basic Income and Health Care for All may be evidence that we will sustain systems thinking and legislate fairness as a gift not to the poor but to the entire body politic.
I am surprised that religious language flows so easily in my speaking and writing. I use words like repentance and redemption and reparations. The enormity of what we are facing requires enormous words, religious words. This is why I think it is a moral moment, and what could go right would be a social sobriety like a drunk or an addict realizing the pain his or her habit has caused. The racial injustice now symbolized by George Floyd’s police murder may translate to the kind of intergenerational climate justice Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement call for and the economic justice that animates the Poor People’s Campaign.
I see the possibility of reconciliation, repair and restitution, but it will take decades if not centuries to make right. This moment may give us flashes of insight about what’s wrong and what’s possible, but that doesn’t mean we can all play Kumbaya and go to bed. The solidarity and humility I see arising – not everywhere but enough – says our species may grow up. In people I know, the tendency towards self-focus and indulgence is going, going and perhaps soon gone.
Since accepting the possibility of civilizational collapse over a year ago, I’ve written about this moral dimension of our crisis. Without a moral revival (gag if you like), nothing will put us over the top. You can read some of the posts here, and here and here.
Like Nina, I’m shedding the persona of the one who scurried around, stirring up change. I’m letting go of getting any extra-credit for my work to “save the world.” That’s a lot of exceptionalism right there that’s falling away. Antiracism work has me stopped and listening. Clever doesn’t cut it anymore. Quick solutions won’t work. Grief is having her way with me and whether “we” make it is less important that waking up every day to join with others to do what is needed. Who I thought I was is not who I am becoming.
With all that’s hanging in the balance, I have been aroused from a despondency that we “aren’t going to make it”, whatever that means. The cracks in the dominant story mean to me that another story of our species is possible. I think we have PTSD from living a competitive, “never enough” story. I think it confuses and pains even the winners.
Like addicts hitting bottom, we might understand finally the cost of returning to the old normal. Covid has made us into a congregation. Black Lives Matter is our minister. Economic justice is our call. Without redefining ourselves by what we love enough to give up our lives, our response to these challenges will be too small. I see evidence that we may be bowing down to a greater power.
It’s like a tributary of a mighty river becoming slowly the main channel. Not because I or “a small group of dedicated people” make it happen, but because the shared pain of powerlessness and overwhelm of these last months impels us to find another way.
It goes right if we go right?
From all this I conclude: a crack has opened in the dominant story. Trumpster no-maskers aside, I think the story of solidarity, systems, sobriety and selflessness may stick.
I heard one of the 13 Grandmothers, Agnes Baker, speak last year, soon before she died. “We’re all in a leaky canoe,” she said, “and we all have to paddle.”
I could hope we do this going forward, but if not, I trust life. Life is always growing something new in the cracks.