Scheherazades of the 21st Century
by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
I have been following the progress of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development from a distance, feeling jaded about the process and the possibility of positive outcomes resulting from this gathering of diplomats and social engineers. It’s good to see the lively and vibrant displays of people passion outside the gates of the conference, but the real question is, when will those gates come down?
At the Strategies for a New Economy conference earlier this month, veteran progressive economist Gar Alperovitz pointed to our time as the moment when enough people wake up and notice that something is wrong.
“This is a critical moment in history,” he said; “the moment when people realize something is gravely wrong and are willing to think outside the box to find solutions.”
Alperovitz suggested that we are currently in “the prehistory of a major shift,” and that now is the time for those of us who are aware of what’s happening to “lay the foundations for new institutions and new systems” that are tailored to meet the coming challenges.
Who would have thought, a decade ago, that the cell phone would take Africa by storm, Alperovitz reminded us. In the same way, it could be that distributed solar-generated power — each home and business hosting its own power generator on the roof — will become the standard in the decade to come, particularly if the real costs of fossil fuels are brought home to industries and consumers.
Yesterday in the course of a desultory lunchtime conversation about changing weather patterns, one of the people around the table, a bigtime financial executive, mentioned that he’d heard the Arctic ice was melting at an unprecedented rate.
I took his comment to be about the negative impact of climate change on the environment, and began talking about the methane bubbles that have been rising up out of the deepwater beneath the ice pack, suddenly and disastrously finding access to the open air.
But no — his point was quite different. To him, what was interesting about the melting of the ice was that it put previously inaccessible oil beds suddenly within range of development.
What difference will all the UN treaties in the world make to the health of our planet if the power brokers sitting in their comfortable climate-controlled glass towers in New York don’t understand the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels? My financier friend was actually planning to fly down to Rio this week on business, but it was news to him that the Rio+20 conference was going on at all.
Gar Alperovitz described our current economic system as “stalemated, stagnating and in decay — neither reforming nor collapsing,” and this sounds like an accurate description to me of our tightly intertwined political, financial and industrial sectors.
All of us ordinary people are held like flies in the sticky web of corporate capitalism, which is squeezing us ever more tightly in the bonds of rising prices, scarce jobs and inescapable debt.
Where will it end? Alperovitz called on the conference attendees to become the historical change agents within our communities — to go home and seize every opportunity to develop the frameworks for the transition to a different kind of future.
To me, as a writer and teacher of literature, it was interesting to hear him calling in particular for an emphasis on new kinds of narrative. In order to imagine new solutions to what seem like insurmountable problems, he said, “we need to tell new stories.”
Maybe 350.org’s recent Twitterstorm, in which hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world besieged Twitter with messages in support of ending the fossil fuel subsidies, is the start of a new story — a global story, authored collectively by kindred spirits worldwide.
It remains to be seen whether we will be able to figure out a way to preserve and extend our current technological sophistication while moving into a sustainable, harmonious relation with our planetary home. Many who are currently trying to read the future predict a violent collapse of our human civilization, with a dramatic loss of human population and a return to a much simpler, low-tech kind of life for those who survive.
The only way the latter scenario will be avoided is if the technocrats and the bureaucrats and the financiers start listening to the ordinary people outside the gates, and understanding the full implications of their dependence on a capitalist economic system of endless growth fueled by destructive fossil fuels and the despoiling of the environment.
So yes, let’s start telling those new stories by every means possible — by Twitter, by blog, by radio, TV, and film — around the lunch table and across the backyard fence.
Tell new stories as though your life depended on it. As in fact, it does.
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Ph.D., teaches comparative literature, media studies, and human rights with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and directs the annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and the new Citizen Journalism Project at WBCR-LP. She is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, and blogs at Transition Times.