The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis
Edited by Philip Clayton, Kelli M. Archie, Jonah Sachs and Evan Steiner; foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson
298 pp. Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers – Jan. 2021.
Hardcover: $35.00; paperback: $27.00
The New Possible is an eclectic assortment of essays by activists, experts and other prominent figures from around the world. The thread that ties them together is a recognition that, for all the harm it has caused, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up exciting new possibilities for societal change. In the course of passionately advocating for their various causes—which include climate change, human rights, social justice and humane technology, among others—the 27 essayists explore some of the ways in which the experience of COVID has helped prepare us for the legion of other threats we face. Taken together, their writings represent a trove of inspiring success stories, fascinating research and insights from frontline change makers.
Often these pieces begin with an anecdote that attempts to bring into focus some particular aspect of the wake-up call that is COVID. The pandemic has, in the authors’ collective estimation, opened people’s eyes to the gravity of our planetary situation, the gaping vulnerabilities in our industrial supply chains, rampant economic inequalities and political corruption. It has also, the essayists contend, spurred us to broaden our use of technology, brought us together as a human race, elicited a healthy reevaluation of our resource-intensive modern-day industrial lifestyles and served as a proving ground for our ability to change course drastically in response to existential threats.
After an editors’ introduction and a foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson—in which the famed science fiction author and futurist crisply summarizes why we now find ourselves in an “emergency century”—the book is divided into 10 sections, each consisting of between one and three essays. The method of each essay is to offer a sort of guided tour of a particular line of activism or area of study related to the maelstrom of converging crises now bearing down on industrial humanity.
In the first section, titled “Earth,” an author, a climate activist and an environmental and human rights campaigner offer their insights as to how to go about bringing humanity back into harmony with nature. We learn, in particular, about the impressive work of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which aims to halt climate change while creating jobs; the challenge of replacing our society’s current predominant worldview, premised as it is on the exploitation and despoilation of the natural world, with one rooted in a recognition of our true place in nature; and the ways in which the pandemic may have presented us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to advance our shift toward “a more just and harmonious human presence on Earth.”
The next section, “Us” (that word presumably signifying humankind), is unfortunately the book’s one misfire. The three pieces that comprise it are quite good in isolation but feel out of place together. Focusing respectively on the themes of economic democracy, planetary community and activism, they would appear to have been more at home in the subsequent “Wealth,” “Community” and “Change” sections. Thus, “Us” could have been done away with entirely, a move that would have considerably improved the book’s overall flow and cohesiveness.
The “Wealth” and “Change” sections present no shortage of thought-provoking explorations of those two themes. In the former, we learn about the benefits of public banking in local communities; the potential role of community-supported agriculture, local currencies and community land trusts in helping us preserve our natural commons; and the wisdom of striving to incorporate indigenous philosophies into our dominant modes of economic thought. The latter ardently entreats us to put people and nature first as we work toward social change, realign technology with humanity and internalize the crucial lesson that prioritizing efficiency over resilience can lead to catastrophic fragility.
Of the three pieces that address the topic of food, Vandana Shiva’s “Planting the Seeds of the Future” is easily the standout. Shiva is a prodigiously accomplished Indian scholar, environmental activist and advocate of traditional organic farming. As such, she’s a zealous proponent of what John Michael Greer calls “retrovation” (even though she never uses that term), which Greer defines as the process of abandoning the cutting edge in favor of technologies from the past that work better. Drawing on her deep firsthand knowledge and experience in the agricultural practices of indigenous Indian peoples, Shiva does a fine job of describing the ways in which these are a much-needed antidote to the unsustainable, toxic, inhumane scourge that is modern-day industrial agriculture.
The notion that a livelihood is something that must be earned through “work” for an employer is opened to trenchant criticism in “Work.” Natalie Foster, co-founder of an anti-poverty nonprofit called the Economic Security Project, gives inspiring accounts of two groundbreaking experiments in universal basic income. This section’s remaining two essays make equally compelling cases for the vital roles of microeconomics and social co-operatives in improving the lives of disadvantaged workers.
The section on education is among the book’s strongest, consisting of a pair of brilliant, tightly focused essays. In “Education at the Edge of History,” Ronin Institute scholar Zak Stein calls on educators to reclaim control over the “educational means of production” from the giant digital media corporations that he contends now wield them. Meanwhile, Oren Slozberg, an expert in the use of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), fascinatingly asks us to try looking at the world as a painting, since doing so can help us listen to one another better, find meaning together and have productive conversations across cultural and ideological differences.
The essays in “Love” and “Community” are all variations on the theme of restoring harmony, whether in our treatment of the natural world or in our interpersonal dealings. Their perspectives are terrifically varied, from Pope Francis’ vision of integral ecology, to the spiritual path of the Bodhisattva, to the Māori principle of whakawhanaungatanga, to the conciliatory conflict resolution methods practiced by South Sudan’s Dinka people, to the efforts of Colombia’s Nasa indigenous community to liberate its ancestral lands.
In its final piece, “Tomorrow,” the book turns to what may be the most important task ahead for our civilization: giving a sorely needed overhaul to the stories we use to make sense of our world. Author and activist David Korten argues that the prevailing myths of our time—chief among them that the continued pursuit of infinite growth will ensure a future of comfort and material affluence for all—have propelled our species into a state of terminal crisis. Taking inspiration from traditional philosophies of Africa, Latin America and Asia, Korten suggests an alternative set of myths that he believes could help guide us toward a sustainable society. His is a truly inspired vision that deserves a book of its own.