September 17, 2011: a small group got together in New York City to “occupy Wall Street.”
October 9, 2011: three weeks later, protests had taken place or were ongoing in over 951 cities across 82 countries, and in over 600 communities in the United States.
The future is not the same as now, only with rocket packs. Popular visions of the future tend to add new technology to present social structures.
The 1962 cartoon “The Jetsons” was set in 2062. Mrs. Jetson was basically a 1960s housewife with a robot maid. Mr. Jetson still commuted from the suburbs to his job in the city, but in a flying car. The imagination applied to technology did not extend to the role of feminism in changing the place of women in society; or the effects of urbanization, the climate crisis, or social movements to live more simply and with less.
The same year that “The Jetsons” showed us one image of the future, Rachel Carson showed us another when she ushered in the modern environmental movement with her book Silent Spring. Instead of recycled images of jetpacks and flying cars, Carson gave us new language: “downwind”, “downstream,” “bioaccumulation.”
Did the “occupy” movement ultimately fail? The camps are gone, but the new language that began there remains. The term “the one percent” continues to shape thinking about economic justice.
New language makes possible new ways of thinking and being.
The future is more than today with better technology. What the “more” is, is up to us – and a future we often can’t even imagine.
1958: The Montgomery Story was a comic book that dealt with Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience. It included a how-to section called “How the Montgomery Method Works.”
1968: King was assassinated.
2008: the 50-year-old comic was translated into Arabic and Farsi and 2,000 copies were distributed throughout the Middle East. The comic became a force in the Arab spring a few years later.
Life is unpredictable. We don’t know what forces are at work, who or what is going to appear – what things we may not have even noticed or discounted that will become a tremendous force in our lives.
The American anthropologist David Graber maintained that the Russian revolution succeeded – just not in Russia. It motivated leaders in Europe and North America to make enormous concessions to the rights of the poor and workers, and furthered economic justice. If a revolution can be successful, but not where the revolutionaries hoped it would be, what else that we cannot imagine is possible?
“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.”
― Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason
We don’t know consequences. Whatever we do, there are always consequences that we don’t control, can’t see, can’t calculate, but that matter. A lot of what matters is indirect and non-linear.
Products used to advertise in comic books, “instant results guaranteed or your money back.” If disappointment is your goal, expecting instant results is a sure-fire recipe for it.
Rebecca Solnit says that history is more like the weather than it is like bowling or checkers. Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart. Sometimes Martin Luther King’s “arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice” is so long that few see its curve. Sometimes hope lies not in looking forward, but backward – to study the line of that arc.
Our brains have evolved to begin with fear rather than hope. Hunter-gatherers who were afraid of a lion stalking them were more likely to survive than the ones who hopedthe lion would not attack.
What our biology developed to allow us to survive for tens of thousands of years is, in our time, as often as not, a liability. Yes, we must understand worst-case scenarios in order to plan for them. I want the pilots who fly planes full of people and the architects who design buildings and bridges to be pessimists when it comes to their work. And we need the prophets to show us what the destination of our present course looks like.
But hope is reasonable in this sense: life is uncertain, and hope depends on uncertainty. Unexpected things will happen. Life is surprising in good ways and bad.
Each one of us, if we stop to take it apart, has a story of a million stories or actions or people, without which we would not be. … Says Rebecca Solnit: “Trace it far enough and this very moment in your life becomes a rare species, the result of a strange evolution. A butterfly that should already be extinct and survives by the inexplicabilities we call coincidence.”
What are the stories we tell and what are their consequences? Are there other ways of telling those stories? What about the stories that don’t get told? What if we insisted on better metaphors, better stories, better questions?
What if collectively we insisted on tools that open things up and shed light instead of foreclose on possibility and push us toward the darkness of the tomb rather than the womb? What if we put our energy toward stories, metaphors and questions that let us know how powerful we can be, how we can become the storyteller rather than the person who is told what to do.
When we think of the great social, spiritual and technological advances our species has made, history teaches us that sometimes the important event is not the opening itself, the event is what becomes possible because of the opening.
An opening is just an opening; but when we walk through it, things can happen.
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