Taking the Leap into a Better World
by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
Lately I’ve been feeling like I am straddling two banks that are rapidly moving away from each other, leaving me performing ever more of a balancing act in the middle of a rushing stream.
One foot is still hanging on to the familiar dry land on which I was born and bred: the safe, predictable world of a privileged existence within the capitalist empire, where every problem has a technological solution, all needs are met, and there is nothing really to worry about, beyond what to have for dinner, or where to go on the next vacation.
This is the world in which I am a true-blue Democrat, I pay my taxes without question, and I work hard in expectation of an eventual pleasant retirement.
But I also have a foot in quite another realm, one that is still quite foreign to most of my peers.
In this other, parallel universe, security and predictability are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, as the weather turns ever more erratic, leading to food shortages and a survivalist mentality. Clashes between unarmed protesters and heavily armed police are common, with the protests mainly concerning lack of basic food and supplies.
No one knows where this is all heading, but it does not appear to be anywhere positive. The elites have hidden themselves away in their own privately funded strongholds, and other than the military folks it does not seem that anyone is really in charge.
Most people I know are clinging to the first bank, even though it’s beginning to seem ever more unstable, as if beset by internal tremors that are slowly but surely breaking it up. They are positioned like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, looking resolutely backward, away from the chaos of the future.
I don’t know why I am unable to join them in their denialist party. It sure looks like a good time.
But having become aware of the crisis through which we’re living, I can’t just turn a switch and pretend I don’t know what’s going on. The second bank is like a mirage that is slowly coming into focus, no matter how much I try to turn away and not look.
I’ve spent long enough studying narratives of social upheaval and moments of violent crisis to know one when I see it coming.
A recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review provided an unusual window into the curious calm before the storm of all-out societal dissolution — in this case, the unfolding Syrian civil war.
The author, Janine di Giovanni, begins with a series of questions: “What does it feel like when a war begins? When does life as you know it implode? How do you know when it is time to pack up your home and your family and leave your country? Or if you decide not to, why?”
When does life as you know it implode?
When is it time to pack up and leave?
Where can we go to find safety?
These are questions that my ancestors asked, back in the 19th century Europe of ever-narrowing restrictions and ever-more-violent pogroms. I am here because they had the courage and the foresight to get away to safety before it was too late.
But now the safely cushioned existence that so many of us have enjoyed here in the U.S. and other privileged enclaves on the planet is threatened by a crisis of our own making.
We didn’t realize that everything about our lifestyle, politics and ideology would contribute to the downfall not just of American empire, but of human civilization itself.
We didn’t realize what a deadly game we were playing.
But we can no longer plead ignorance.
Unlike our predecessors, we 21st century folk are going to have a very hard time finding any place to go that is safe, where we can ride out the climate shocks unscathed.
We can’t run, we can’t hide from the environmental shocks that are only just beginning to hit.
We have to stay and see this through.
What that will mean I am not sure. In part it depends on how many of us wake up now and begin to take some proactive steps towards reorganizing our society, before we’re reduced to reactive crisis control.
Our political system is locked in a kind of stasis from which there does not seem to be any forward movement possible — just endless round and round and round.
We must move forward — grow, evolve, adapt — if we are to survive.
Today I caught a glimmer of something new that may be the early stages of the kind of change we need to successfully weather the coming storms.
The International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS) is an emergent (or is it insurgent?) movement to create a decentralized, highly participatory catalyst for urgent social change.
It’s not clear yet whether it will be a flash in the pan or an idea whose time has come.
So far it has just over 2,000 members worldwide.
Maybe it’s time to stop straddling both banks. Time to take the leap and jump fully into new territory, both feet on the ground.
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.