Spirals of Powerlessness and Empowerment
Last weekend, I went down to D.C. for the Green Festival. Before I went down there, I was very excited about everything I have been working with in Ithaca and elsewhere, both in helping grow the youth climate movement and working on projects, campaigns, and ideas that promote just sustainability. Yet on the back of my head, I was fully aware, as I still am, about what’s actually happening in terms of the climate (and the broader crises: water, poverty, agriculture, power, etc.).
Not everybody knows how serious this is getting. I’ve written before about very scary observations (here and here) that have surprised scientists and made IPCC projections look unrealistic. Just this summer, the Arctic melted to an incredible record. Nobody was expecting to see what happened this summer in the Arctic. Temperatures, for parts of July, reached 15C above average. Of course, that’s extremely scary if you understand what that means. It was distracting to hear reporters still say that scientists believe the Arctic would be ice-free by “mid-century” when in fact that may happen in the next decade. It was also disappointing to see governments focusing more on the oil that lies beneath there than on the fact that this is a very scary sign of the increasingly fast pace of warming.
Together with other observations and statements from recognized people that the ”consensus” may be wrong and that we may actually be close to dangerous levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (not just CO2), I had lost complete hope that we could do something that would at least account for the millions to billions of people who, by justice and our moral rationality, should not feel the serious effects we’re expecting to see from runaway climate change (many to which I feel personally responsible). I thought that I’d keep working as hard or even harder just because “you never know.”
Yet GreenFest changed that. It wasn’t simply the fact that there were a lot of people working hard on lots of issues. It was something else. I truly felt like all the things we need NOW were happening, and they were doing so at a growing scale. And, best of all, that things were happening without large government support or a large, vociferous movement that was jolting into the masses. In other words, the ideas that will get us there were not far into the future. They were there, being used, and being promoted, despite powerful opponents. So, people want change, there’s no doubt. We just need to use that somehow.
Frances Lappe was also at GreenFest, and she spoke about her new book, “Getting A Grip“. I think her energetic speech is what turned me around. That was the thing that clicked me. I immediately realized that, despite what is happening and what can actually happen, we as “beings of the mind” have the brain capital to deal with not just the climate crisis, but the broader, global crises. The issue isn’t “cost” or “feasible technologies” or “scale”; the issue is empowerment. Lappe talks about one fundamental thing that we need: Living Democracy.
In her book, she calls what we have today Thin Democracy (I call it Dead Democracy). Thin Democracy is the sum of Elections plus a Market. So, in this weak form of democracy, we have reached an end where money has concentrated in the hands of a few people, who now have control of government (did you know that less than 500 companies are responsible for 3/4 of our GDP?). So, democracy has reached “an end.” Now, all we need to do is, unfortunately, vote and shop.
In a Living Democracy, there is no end. We continue evolving, taking power away from clusters of concentration and spreading it to the people, who have marvelous ideas on how to do just about anything. People, if you give them the chance, can solve just about any problem. We are “beings of the mind.” Living Democracy empowers people to get engaged and to own the power. Government is NOT a “big regulator;” instead, it facilitates people’s work in creating a just, sustainable society. It is clean of any influence and serves to help us achieve the goals that we, as doers, want to achieve.
If you read her book, you’ll learn about many examples where this is happening, all over the world. People, especially leaders (both in goverment and in movements), just don’t know about it. Frances Lappe herself just realized that our problem is simply powerlessness. Nobody has bad intentions. We just have designed something that ends up like Monopoly, with one player owning everything. So, by the rules of the game, people think that what they’re doing is fine. The average person doesn’t know that when he or she, for example, buys a product that was made in an environmentally and/or socially irresponsible way, they may be harming others. And clearly nobody has that intention.
So, Frances Lappe sums up our current condition through a Spiral of Powerlessness. That is shown below:
Instead, Lappe says that we need to strip power from where it is concentrated and empower people to do what needs to be done. In other words, the rules of the game must be changed so that money and power don’t just concentrate, but continuously flow through society as citizens drive Living Democracy. That creates a Spiral of Empowerment:
Now, if anybody believes this is what we need, it has to be understood that this doesn’t come about without doing anything. Like Einstein said, “the same thinking that created the problem cannot bring about the solution.” So we need a movement, but one that is visionary and strong. People tend to be more attached to a vision. Currently, in the climate movement, many are talking about goals. You hear about 20% by 2020, 25% renewables by 2025, and 80% by 2050 (all of which I support; they at least do something, right?). Perhaps what we need is a vision that deals with what created the problem in the first place.
We need a vision where the people retake power in the true sense of the idea, where money is out of decision-making and not accumulating in clusters, and where we have a future where, instead of changing the climate, we keep it in balance; where, instead of clearing forests, we increase them; where, instead of creating poverty through globalization, poverty doesn’t exist; and where we can say with assurance that we’ve achieved just sustainability. In the large movements of the past, visions, not goals, have been the key to empowering lots of people. As someone descended from and responsible to a region that has not contributed as much to the global crises (Caribbean, if you wanted to know), my vision is just sustainability by 2030 worldwide (i.e. that we do everything we need to do to be producing lots of good and little bad, including climate neutrality or climate positivity, no poverty, growing forests, increasing water resources, sustainable agriculture, etc.). Is it possible? Do we have what it takes? That doesn’t matter. We are creatures of the mind. Our vision is what matters. Don’t let anybody (politicians, scientists, adults, activists, etc.) tell you otherwise.