Changing the storyline: from limitless growth to sustainable planetary happiness

Today in my Writing for Social and Environmental Justice class we began to talk about the power of storytelling.

The challenge for the students in my class is to figure out the best narrative strategy, the best rhetorical approach, the best genre and format to inspire others to work with them for positive social change.

To get people’s attention, especially in the media-saturated social landscapes many of us inhabit, the story has to be well-narrated, fast-paced and compelling.  It has to deliver information succinctly and have a memorable “take-away” line.  It has to give us interesting, admirable protagonists and a complex plot, complete with tragedy, catharsis and antagonists we can love to hate.

It’s a pretty tall order!

The first step, of course, is being clear on your own values—what you think is important, what issue is the one that most grabs your own heart and mind.  Great change writing speaks out of a place of passionate commitment.

Great change writing says: “I believe this so deeply I am going to open my heart and let you see how this great injustice or destructive practice is tearing me apart.  I am going to let you see me in all the vulnerability of my rage, grief and passion…and I am going to convince you to care about this issue too—enough to be willing to stand up and take action.”

That’s the second part of great change writing—you have to give people a clear call to action, and at least show them the starting point of a path towards change.

It’s not enough to wail and point blaming fingers at all the injustices of the world.  You have to point the way towards remedies, solutions, action.

I ended both my classes today declaring my feeling of optimism in the future. I feel more optimistic today than I have in a long time that we will be able to solve all the many problems human civilization has created in its childhood—the past 500 years or so.

The tremendous challenges that beset us, particularly the environmental challenges which have the potential to completely wipe us out, can be solved.

We already know what we have to do.  Reduce emissions, yes, but also restore the ability of the planet to absorb the emissions we do produce.

Judith D. Schwartz

Judith D. Schwartz

We are reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet this week, which is all about the potential of soil to become an incredibly effective carbon sink, if we just stop our bad agricultural practices and let the billions of microbes that inhabit each teaspoon of healthy soil do their work.

If we were to stop killing our soil, plants and forests with herbicides, fungicides, fertilizer-dependent agriculture and clear-cutting, it is possible that we could radically shift the whole disaster-scenario of climate change—fast enough to make a difference.

What we need is to start telling a new story, to which the broadest possible base of people can hear and respond.

It will be a story about how a beleaguered, tired, hungry, thirsty, oppressed people—that is, the majority of people on this Earth—realized that with just a few adjustments, they could live a much richer, happier life in harmony with the natural world.

It will be a story about how the economics of endlessly growing national product gave way to the economics of sustainable planetary happiness. How competition gave way to collaboration, with the recognition that we have the capacity to give everyone on this planet a good life if we shift our focus from rising profits for the few to steady well-being for the many.

If we were to start telling this story loud and clear, in beautiful, compelling, persuasive and well-researched ways, broadcast over the billion megaphones of the World Wide Web, how could people fail to listen?

Especially if we backed up the vision with concrete strategies for making it happen down on the ground.

345570804_640I am heartened by initiatives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a working group of mayors from the major cities of the world who have decided not to wait around for the United Nations to get its act together, but to start working together independently towards a sustainable future.

C40 is changing the dominant narrative of gridlock and impossibility with its muscular can-do insurgency.

We can’t wait around for others to do it for us.  Each one of us has the power to be the starting point for ripples of change that can reach further than ever before in our brave new interconnected world.

What story will you tell?  What life will you lead?  What are you waiting for?

Thank you, Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy did the planet a favor by hitting hard right at some of our most elite enclaves.

This time it’s not the poor residents of the Ninth Ward facing the horror of flooding, it’s the wealthy owners of some of the most valuable coastal property in the country.

When I heard Mayor Bloomberg of New York, one of the richest men on the planet, finally come and out say the words “climate change” with urgency, I had to smile despite the seriousness of the context, because it meant that at last the rich and powerful are getting the message that the status quo cannot go on—at least, not if we expect to survive as a civilization into the 22nd century.

The truth is that Americans in the ruling class—the business owners, the politicians, the finance and computer wizards, the media producers, the educators, even the artists–have been living in a luxurious gated community our whole lives.

We have been watching the travails of those outside, including the accelerating extinction of other species and the poisoning of the environment, from what has seemed like a safe, secure vantage point, behind several layers of bullet-proof glass.

Americans have watched impassively as people in other parts of the world have been forced to deal with terrible storms, flooding, and droughts with increasing regularity over the past decade.

As long as the electricity stays on and the supermarkets and gas stations are full and open for business, we just don’t pay much attention to what’s going on with the weather.  As long as our homes are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, what’s the problem?

People like James Hansen, Bill McKibben, and Elizabeth Kolbert have been knocking futilely on the windows for years, trying to get the ruling class to wake up and pay attention to the looming threat of climate change before it’s too late.

They’ve made little progress up to now.

But Hurricane Sandy is a game changer.  Blowing into town the week before the Presidential elections, she put climate change on to the front page of the New York Times at last.  She forced her way into the bland discourse of Presidential politics.

She tossed her windy head and in just a few hours paralyzed the “greatest city on Earth,” creating $50 billion of damage that will take weeks if not months to clean up.

All of a sudden, city planners are talking seriously about flood gates, and some are saying it might be foolish to rebuild in the same way, right down along the coast.

I don’t hear many in our ruling class yet saying what needs to be said, which is that our entire lifestyle has been built up in an unsustainable way, and must be changed if we are to leave a livable legacy to our children and grandchildren.

We must wean ourselves from the addiction to fossil fuels.  We must shift from highways and cars to mass transit.  We must immediately start reducing emissions in every way possible, with special attention to the agriculture sector, which has to be completely redesigned with sustainability and health—our own, and that of the animals and plants we cultivate—in mind.

We must build a much more resilient, collaborative culture.  Competition and aggression may have been the watchwords of the capitalist and imperialist 19th and 20th century, but following their star has landed us in our current grave circumstances. We can’t go any further down that path.

For thousands of years prior to the Christian era, human beings lived tribally and cooperatively in harmony with the land.  Our population has now grown so large that we are reduced to fighting each other for increasingly scarce resources.

Going forward, if we are to survive, we must transcend the pettiness of national boundaries and ethnic differences, recognize our common goals as humans, and start to work together to provide strategically for the good of all.

This may seem like an impossibly idealistic goal, but if there is one thing that I believe can unite human beings, it is the awareness now dawning about how interconnected we are through our dependence on the life support of our planet.

It is sad that the Earth has had to sink to such an unbalanced, depleted state before we began to pay attention.  I would not wish a Hurricane Sandy on anyone.  But it seems that we need wake-up calls of her magnitude to get us up and out of the stupor of denial and inaction.

As I step over the threshold into my sixth decade today, I can feel a new resoluteness building in me; a new determination to use my time in a more focused way.

I vow to give the best of myself to the struggle for a sustainable future, and to encourage others to join me in this effort.  There is nothing more important any of us can be doing now.

Bloomberg the Grinch vs. Occupy: This movement is not going away

The question in the air this morning is obvious: what comes next for the Occupy movement now that the tents and tarps in Liberty Park have been trashed by the NYPD?

The New York Times is giving way more coverage to the eviction than it ever did to the occupation, proving once again whose side those folks are on.

This protest movement is not going to go away.  It’s not going to go into hibernation for the winter.

City officials who see the movement as an expensive civil nuisance will learn the hard way that their heavy-fisted efforts at intimidation are going to backfire.

If anything, such tactics only strengthen the resistance of the core groups on the street, and draw the attention of the virtual spectators in cyberspace, who may now become more engaged.

Whither the Occupation now?  Occupy Wall Street said last night that the protesters have “the feeling of a movement that is rising, building, and making headway.”

Their statement is worth “reblogging” in full:

“They showed us their power. And we’re showing them ours.

“We are here because we believe a better world is possible. We are willing to endure mistreatment, if by doing so we can help re-enfranchise the 99% and reclaim our democracy from the stranglehold of Wall Street and the top one percent.

“We will push back against billionaire Michael Bloomberg and any politician who wantonly tramples on proud American freedoms: freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the freedom of Americans to peaceably assemble and petition for change.

“We will overcome the obstacles placed before us. We will not be deterred. We will persevere. Our message is resonating across America, and our cause is shared by millions around the world. We are the 99%, and we want to live in a world that is for all of us — not just for those who have amassed great wealth and power.

“You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.”

Hmm, that does not sound like the voice of a group ready to pack it up and go home.  Those are stirring words and sentiments, in the tradition of our most heroic American freedom fighters, from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King.

If you can’t beat them, Bloomberg and Co., you might just have to figure out how to join them.  And I don’t mean infiltrate or co-opt.  I mean open your hearts and hear the justice in their ideals and goals.

Like the Grinch who Stole Christmas, the hearts of the 1% are several sizes too small.  They would find the world to be a much warmer, happier place, if they would allow themselves to feel again.

Don’t Pepper-Spray Our Dreams

New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante has totally missed the mark in her coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Where I see a vibrant grassroots movement unfolding organically, she sees a disorganized group, marred by a “lack of cohesion” and an “intellectual vaccuum.”

Where I see a clever use of street theater to get across messages that might be too threatening to convey in a more direct, hard-driving tone, she sees an “apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably.”

Where she sees the cause of the protesters as “impossible to decipher” because of the “diffuse and leaderless” nature of this movement, I see the cause as rather starkly clear, if expressed in a multitude of colorful ways by the individual protesters.

It’s summed up in the movement’s use of the concept of 99% to identify themselves. Last week there were protesters who wore placards saying “I am Troy Davis.”  This week, almost all Americans could don similar placards proclaiming: “I am one of the 99%”–that is, the majority of citizens who are receiving almost nothing in the way of benefits from the vast wealth generated by Wall Street.

Even the disdainful Ginia Bellafante noted the growing economic inequality of America in her article on the protest:

Last week, she said, “The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, which included more than 50 New Yorkers whose combined net worth totaled $211 billion, arrived at the same moment as census data showing that the percentage of the city’s population living in poverty had risen to 20.1 percent. And yet the revolution did not appear to be brewing.”

Well look again, Ms. Bellafante and you Wall Street billionaires. The revolution is at your doorstep.  It may be young, motley and impulsive, but have’t revolutions always been started by the young, idealistic and passionate of any society?

They may not be arguing from any one intellectual vantage point, but they don’t need to be quoting Marx or Dewey or John Maynard Keynes to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem in our society: that the rich own our political system, and they are more interested in personal gain than in a healthy society where young people who work hard will know that they can look forward to a secure future.

We’ve seen the same kinds of protests from young people living under dictatorships in the Middle East; and in London; and now in New York and other American cities.  They all want the same thing: a social system that prioritizes the well-being of ordinary people over the need of the wealthy elite to accumulate ever more billions in personal property.

Is this too much to ask?

I don’t think so.  And it’s not “communism,” either. It’s what used to be called the American Dream, a dream that has faded for too many of us as cost of living has soared, wages have stagnated, housing values have fallen, and jobs have disappeared.

In today’s harsh world, idealist visions are often met with pepper spray.

That’s no way to treat the dreams and aspirations of our young people.

Mayor Bloomberg, you should be ashamed.

Occupy Wall Street: Time to Tell Bloomberg to Call Off the Goon Squad

Finally, the alternative media is coming alive!  Alternet is leaping on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon, and urging its readers to do the same.

Arun Gupta issues “a clarion call to join the protests,” and a longer story by Sarah Jaffe shows how the heavy-handed police techniques and lack of attention from the press have not dampened the protesters’ determination, and if anything have drawn more people to the cause. doesn’t have the protest on the front page, but they did reproduce a very disturbing video from msnbc, with anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, certainly no radical, standing up for the protesters in the strongest terms.

It’s the people wearing the badges that are the troublemakers, O’Donnell says, accusing the police of “unprovoked police brutality.”  The provocation, he observes, was having a video camera running.

There is NOTHING illegal in recording a peaceful protest.

Americans, we have to stand up for our freedom of speech.

It’s time to tell Mayor Bloomberg, a Wall Street type if there ever was one, that this is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE.

If you want to send the Mayor a letter, this is how.  And protesters, maybe it’s time to send a contingent over to the new Tammany Hall.

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