Taking the Leap into a Better World

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?

Eastern European immigrants entering New York

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.

Including me.

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.

Leave a comment


  1. Funny Jen – I used to feel like that – straddling two banks, or living in two opposed worlds. In my case it was family and career, and this tension is much more widely known and recognised than the one you discuss. I jumped into the unknown, in my case family. My career had been advocacy amongst institutional investors to pay attention to climate change and other “environmental, social and governance risks”. My mantra was that its not about morals, or rights of unborn generations, its about a rational interpretation of long term risks in the context of your fiduciary duty.

    It didn’t work. This is a moral challenge, even if our immediately past Prime Minister (Kevin Rudd) said so and then backed away. I was in the Treasury budget lock-up when they announced a “Resources Super Profits Tax” on Australian miners – among them some of the worlds biggest companies. Mining lobbyists were running around like they had meat ants in their undies. The treasurer comes on the big screen at announcement time – I see a dead man walking. I had this feeling that I evaporated.

    There’s a place in North West Queensland that the indigenous people call Boodjamulla. Most whitefellas still call it “Lawn Hill”. Its one of Angie and my favourites. About 200 miles (your measures) of dirt track from the last stop on the rail line to get there, and it’s endless blue/green water in red stone gorges. You can climb the Selwyn ranges nearby and look across the desert plains. It’s one of the few places you can see the curvature of the horizon – on land. You may be standing on a billion tons of iron ore, but the real wealth is the feeling of a world still big.

    I’m out of the lock up, in the taxi to Canberra airport trying to get a media release back to Melbourne through my iPhone. The Sikh driver is squealing around roundabouts at 120 (our measures). I have to catch the last flight to Sydney to write some notes to present at the podium in the Sheraton in the morning. The plane arcs up into the chilly blackness above Canberra and the city lights fade. I close my eyes.

    And my eyes are filled with light, and bubbles, and my mouth senses the zing of million-year old subterranean water on my tongue. I burst through the surface at Boodjamulla, and there is Angie, laughing in a canoe.

    The PM got the sack, and I quit. He couldn’t quite see how the greatest moral challenge of our time was going to cut it with the corporates. I couldn’t see how risk management and fiduciary duty was going to cut it with the rest of us. Now I teach young people how to grow food, and do basic carpentry, and I feel like I’m more useful than I’ve ever been.

    I’m whole now. I don’t know what changed. There was the fires, but that was more catalyst than reactants. Angie gets worked up sometimes. She needs to go back to Boodjamulla.

  2. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  July 24, 2012

    Drew, what a marvelously evocative piece of writing! You make me want to come with you and Angie to see this miraculous place, Boodjamulla–before the miners dig it all up!

    I have also been thinking a lot about how to tell the story of climate change so that people will be able to hear it, from the Prime Minister types down to the ordinary folks. Moral responsibility, fiduciary trust, scientific equation, science fiction come true….I am rolling them all around in my head and trying them out a little bit here in my blog.

    And then there’s the question of what to do once your eyes are opened. I am still in the stage of being attached enough to the first bank, the one I grew up on, to want to warn the people there that it’s time to act–to change things or at least to get to higher ground. At some point I may give up and just start moving myself. I am certainly already trying to scope out where to go–literally and figuratively. So I keep my eyes open to groups of people who are working in what seems like productive, positively evolved ways to get into a safer relationship with our planet and with each other. The Transition Town movement for sure, which Angie has been talking about, and which sounds like it has been a very positive path for your family. These new IOPS people, if they get some traction–I like their mission statement very much. The Uncivilization folks in the UK–I would like to go to their annual gathering some year! And the DGR folks too….

    Thanks for sharing your story here–you write so well, maybe you should think of sending this further out into the world! Your comment reminds me a little of the John Perkins book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, except that you have gone farther–and you write better…..

  3. I think many of us experience this feeling of straddling two worlds because the familiar world, the one we grew up expecting and in which we want to feel comfortable, is coming apart at the moral seams. It used to appear so right: not devoid of conflicts or problems, of course, but essentially accessible to anyone willing to do their part, based on concepts of justice. Democratic and fair. Even when we came to understand that many are purged from its benefits through no fault of their own, we could console ourselves in our basic belief that while our country or community or social class or system wasn’t perfect, it was “better than most.” We rarely stopped to think that we didn’t know a thing about “most.”
    Recent decades have revealed the hideous underbelly of this world in which we settled so comfortably. We can no longer pretend away the greed or deceit, the gross inequalities, the carefully crafted lies, the pain. In the water rushing up between feet that struggle to remain on solid ground, float unending questions nipping at our ankles. The seas are rising. Solid ground may soon be at a premium.
    Speaking only for myself, I confess that each time I hear about a new movement or organization that proposes fixes for this state of affairs we ourselves have courted, I am immediately suspicious. Who is behind it? Whose interests are really being defended? And, perhaps most important, what methodology of change is being proposed? Anything smacking of the old top-down, male-dominated, quasi-representational, correct-line experience leaves me looking elsewhere.
    My vision, increasingly, is of a beautiful island nestled between the two banks. Bridges stretch to the world that nurtured our early years and to the one we still hope to create. But these are magic bridges. They only carry foot-travelers, and these foot-travelers–of every age, race, gender, capability and talent–are only admitted to the island if it is clear they bring no ulterior motive or opportunistic plan. Those who understand there is much that is valuable in history (memory, art, invention) and much that is necessary in risk are welcome travelers.

  4. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  July 24, 2012

    Margaret, it’s so interesting that you use this metaphor of bridges between the magic years of early childhood, when many of us were most directly, intuitively connected to the natural world, and the future we hope still to create, because that is exactly the trajectory of the memoir project I’m working on now, and I’m finding it magical indeed–almost like building, in narrative, that special little island you’re imagining.

    I too am suspicious of groups, movements and organizations. IOPS intrigued me because of its mission statement, which does seem truly radical. The thing is that unless we aim for a transnational movement on a large scale, we will not be able to prevent wholesale climate change, the kind that will make earth inhospitable for most of her current inhabitants. On the other hand, maybe the kind of small-scale, “foot-traveler” path you’re thinking of is really the best way forward. We won’t be able to bring everyone along with us. But maybe that is, in the end, what will be the best solution of all for the Earth and her non-human creatures. Many, many less of us.

    • leavergirl

       /  July 24, 2012

      Time for mission statements is over. Go with Margaret, Jennifer. 🙂 You’ll be glad you did. I’ll see ya there….


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