DECADES AGO, I WAS A reasonable person and I thought reasonable thoughts. One of them was that deep change—change that I could even then see was necessary—would grow from actions responding to the desperate problems that were accumulating all around us, now often called the polycrisis. The beginnings of real change would surface as demands for action responsive to these insults to human and natural communities. We would see demands for new policies, for example, to curb corporate abuses and grab their wrists as they reached for ever more control over our politics. We would see strident demands to address the vast social and economic inequalities. We would see demands to build on the hard-hitting clean air and water acts to attack the climate-ruining gases spewing from our runaway energy system. The push for all these and other focused efforts would entrain and carry along what we saw as “non-reformist reforms.” They would look like reforms, but they would contain the seeds of deeper, transformative change —like ditching GDP in favor new measures of societal well-being and progress, or curbing corporate spending on elections.
That would be the beginning. Responses to deprivations, discriminations, grave risks and threats would undergird a politics of steady change. The victims of the polycrisis and their allies would find their voices, as would champions for the environment. Meanwhile, I and others would focus on the needed policy analysis, working to define priority reformist policies as well as the far-reaching prescriptions for the deeper changes that would address underlying causes. I for one have written books full of policy prescriptions aimed at transformative change.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution.
The efforts I have just described remain ongoing and are essential. But you will have noticed that their progress has been slow. Meanwhile, the ominous deepening of the polycrisis has led many people to flee the fetters of the practical world, at least in their dreams, and find comfort and hope in imagining a world that could be. Some of this is pure escapism, but often enough, these fetching worlds are rigorously grounded in biological and historical understandings. For example, one theme is that economic systems must mimic nature’s systems. Ecological economics, industrial ecology, the regenerative economy, and the circular economy all give concrete definition to this new thinking. Some believe that that grounding will lead eventually, inevitably to the emergence of a new and better world. Still others are dreaming of flourishing worlds of democratic eco-socialism.
Check out Gus’s Progressive’s Bookshelf book recommendations for further reading.
The expression, “I will see it when I believe it,” can be used with derision, as a feature of the mythic world of “truthiness.” But there are some who now use the expression to mean that “if we first envision a future that works for people and planet, we can begin to make it happen.” Or as Victor Hugo wrote, “There is nothing like a dream to create the future.” In one of his excellent novels Richard Flannagan asks, “What reality was ever created by realists?…What we cannot dream we can never do.”
Human consciousness is changing. New perceptions and realizations are taking hold. The current order increasingly lacks legitimacy, and new systems that can gain our allegiance are being dreamed up. Yes, the new, dreamed of worlds will not compete yet in today’s practical politics. But they should not be dismissed as woolly, wild-eyed, or impractical. They are the emerging blueprints of the future, the playing fields of radical hope, the dreams that stuff is made of.
One brilliant but often dismissed dreamer is Charles Reich. I was his research assistant when he was writing The Greening of America—he was writing while I was mostly grading papers. It is an important book for its analysis and for describing a new consciousness. Here is one thing he said there: “The revolution must be cultural. For culture controls the economic and political machine, not vice versa.”
More and more people are searching for something beautiful, even if it is untethered from the past and present. If current trends continue and blossom, could we enter a world of consciousness-driven change—not piecemeal, practical, and incremental, but fresh, bold, and sweeping? What if enough people joined in John Lennon’s “you better free your mind instead” and the major force bringing the future into the present is a sea change in the public mind? The phrase “consciousness change” would have a whole new meaning.
“Dream on,” the skeptic says. “Yes, we will,” they reply.
Decades of discourse
led by lawyers,
and we are stuck.
They can’t do what must be done:
reach the human heart.
The deep problems are
avarice, arrogance and apathy,
our dominant values gone astray.
We need not more analysis
but a spiritual awakening,
a new consciousness.
So bring on the preachers and prophets!
the poets and philosophers!
the psychologists and psychiatrists!
Bring on the writers, musicians, actors, artists!
Bring on the dreamers!
Call them to strike the chords
of our shared humanity,
of our close kin to wild things!
Call them to help find a new world!