Scheherezades of the 21st Century

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?

Gar Alperovitz

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’s Twitterstorm yesterday, 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.

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  1. Martin Lack

     /  June 19, 2012

    If you're feeling jaded, probably best to avoid reading George Monbiot's take on Rio+20, as posted by him on The Guardian website (I wish I hadn't read it - and the comments section that follows it even more so)...

    Gar Alperovitz is new to me; but thank you for bringing him to my attention. I am amazed people of his generation (almost the same as James Hansen) can remain so calm about what they have spent their entire lives watching not happen! Herman E Daly being another case in point...

    I think we are nearing a tipping point - similar to that I reach whenever I have finished preparing the vegetables for dinner and walk towards the refuse bin (I really must get a compost bin even though I don't have a garden).

    Your "bigtime financial executive" sounds really clueless (had he even heard of the first Rio Earth Summit, I wonder?). I find it really scary to think that so many people can think it is a good idea to go and get the oil from beneath the Arctic (so much so I created a Facebook page and blogged about it back in October). It's a bit like being told that playing Russian Roulette is dangerous and then deciding to add a few more bullets to the revolver's magazine to make things more fun...! Or is it? Are these people really that ignorant; or are they all just gambling everything they have on the "get-out-of-jail-free card" that is carbon capture and storage (CCS) ?

    When it comes to oil company executives and/or politicians, I think it is very much the latter. I have a good working relationship with my MP. Like me, she is an old-style conservative; very much into conservation but very loyal to our Conservative-led Coalition government. She assures me the government is doing all it can to get firm progress made at Rio+20 but, until the government wake up to the fact that CCS is a product of the fossil fuel propaganda machine, I am not expecting much to change.

    However, I am hopeful that this Twitterstorm will not be forgotten.

    • Following your link I also read Georg Monbiot’s take on Rio+20 and some of the comments. I was not astonished that this opinion piece was allowed to be published in The Guardian (guardian of the status quo), because the establishment doesn’t regard such articles as even the most minuscule threat and perceives them just as what they indeed are: Inconsequential cassandra calls by frustrated, helpless, hapless nobodies.

      I also tried to read the comments but didn’t come very far. There were some enlightened and well formulated statements but the majority of the comments proved Albert Einstein right (not only confirming his Theory of Relativity but also his quote: “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits”).

      Please save me from becoming radicalized and tell me fast the main reasons why this economic and political system should not be brought to end by noncompliance, disobedience, disruption, subversion, obstruction, sabotage and replaced by something we build new together with our dear friends in our local communities.

      • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

         /  June 20, 2012

        I can’t save you, Mato! I am just afraid of the violence that would erupt if too many of us tried outright noncompliance/disruption. So building something new and different off the radar seems the path that I myself would be most drawn to. Until I’m ready to take that step, I am trying to do what I can from the sidelines to open up more people’s eyes, minds and hearts to what’s going on.

      • Martin Lack

         /  June 20, 2012

        One thing The Guardian newspaper is not is a guardian of the status quo. Unless you are an anarchist; in which case anyone who is not with you is against you (of course). If so, good luck with the revolution… In the meantime, the rest of us will continue with promoting grassroots empowerment and participatory democracy…

      • leavergirl

         /  June 20, 2012

        I think what Mato meant was that any newspaper or article that publishes views like that is allowed because it’s such a marginal thing, and no threat to the status quo.

        There will eventually be disruption enough, not because anarchists want it but because in any declining civ where the elites have gone completely power-mad, the dispossessed begin to cannibalize the infrastructure. It’s already begun.

  2. leavergirl

     /  June 19, 2012

    “She assures me the government is doing all it can to get firm progress made at Rio+20”

    Bwahaha… priceless.

    Martin, whatever gave you the idea they are ignorant? They are relentless dedicated bullies, psychopaths, all-out narcissists, and other abusers. Abusers never stop because you ask nicely.

    They do stop sometimes if you grow a spine and draw effective boundaries. Jaysus feck, we are all like abuse victims gone completely belly up and merely twitching.

    • Martin Lack

       /  June 19, 2012

      Hiya. I was extrapolating from the specific to the general, so always going to be wrong: However, for the avoidance of any doubt, although many people are very clearly ignorant about what we are doing to the planet, I do not count oil company executives among their number (I think they know; but really do believe their own propaganda). Our politicians understand the risks; but have been duped into believing that the oil executives must know what they are talking about (i.e. CCS will save us all from the consequences of our own myopia and greed).


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