Realizing a better future requires us to imagine one
The first step might be believing in what's possible
A few weeks ago I was a guest on an international roundtable webinar-type thing for walkability advocates. It was a delightful hour and a half—I don’t get to spend much time talking about the policy-wonky and urban planning aspects of walking and walkability, at least outside of serving on my city’s bike and pedestrian advisory committee. It can be a relief sometimes to have conversation with people who already understand the structural and psychological barriers that make walking so inaccessible for so many, who don’t need concepts like “legacy infrastructure,” “Shoup Test,” or “universal design” explained.
One of the participants was in a country that is currently facing enormous upheaval and resistance against an authoritarian regime. I desperately wanted to ask him about it, what he sees, what he thinks, but had no idea if he needed to take the same kinds of precautions in talking openly as my father does when he talks to me from Russia. So I didn’t ask. But toward the end of our time, he said something along the lines of, “When our revolution succeeds.”
Brief, unrelated conversation followed on that line’s heels, and a few minutes later our time was over, leaving me wishing we could spend another ninety minutes just listening to what he had to say about where his country is going. I want to know what’s out there, or at least someone else’s experience of it.
A lot of the podcast listening and essay-reading I do is for the same reason: I want to know what’s out there. To find the stories of people trying something different. A new (or old) way of using space, or presenting history, or shaping an economic system, or relating to land and water. It’s partly curiosity on my part, but we also need to find these stories, to give them attention, to see if the way we live in this world could be different. If the way we live with one another could be different. We need examples that help us imagine a better world, and especially ones that show us viable ways of getting there.
People get asked all the time: What gives you hope? It’s not a question that interests me very much, even in the rare times when I’m feeling hopeful. I want to know what people are hoping for, what they’re ready to build, what visions of futures they’re working toward. I’m interested now more than ever, in part because I live in a liberal-leaning small town in an overwhelmingly conservative-to-right-wing county in a conservative U.S. state; the futures that many people I live near are dedicated to building—and they’re extremely dedicated and know exactly what they want to achieve and how—horrify me on several levels.
I want to know, as specifically as possible, what kind of better world people are ready to fight for.
When considering whether or not to include a podcast or essay in the Walking compositions’ “Stuff to read or listen to” lists, I’m usually looking for something extra. Not stories that are more unique or more heartwarming. More robust might be a way to put it. It’s about finding the people doing good in the world—even if that “good” is simply an in-depth explanation of why things are so awful (Crusades researcher Thomas Lecaque on the Conspirituality podcast is an example of this)—but also seeing what they’re doing to dismantle or create alternatives to destructive systems in the first place. Feeding hungry kids, while also articulating the systems that keep those kids from getting food. I want to see models for how we might recreate our communities, and our world, and what’s stopping us, all of which I’m more likely to find in Strong Towns or Frontiers of Commoning than in the New York Times.
I also look for more complex histories than I heard growing up, like the This Land podcast detailing land theft, genocide, and the forced allotment system and what they have to do with the 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma U.S. Supreme Court decision; or Farmerama’s four-part series on Scottish land ownership’s entanglement with profits from slavery in America. We can’t build a better future if we don’t stop long enough to look the past—and the present—in the face, and with more depth than is allowed by consuming the daily news cycle.
That same daily news cycle can also blinker us, I think, to possibilities of a different kind of life. I’ve had several conversations over the last few months in which the person I was talking with at one point said some version of the line, “But I don’t see anybody doing that.” Each time, I found myself overwhelmed with frustration because what they meant was that, in whatever news sources they rely on, they hadn’t seen stories of anybody working hard enough to build a better world—or a better whatever-aspect-of-the-world’s-problems we were discussing—to believe that it’s realistic. Or there aren’t enough people working on it, or it’s not scalable, or the weight of everything striving to destroy any chance of a better world is just too crushing to overcome. And yet people are doing this work. It’s everywhere, even if it doesn’t make it into news headlines or my state legislature.
After I watched Adam Curtis’s recent six-part BBC series on the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of democracy in Russia, TraumaZone, I wanted to see if he had any kind of overarching summation about what happened over those decades. The series tracked closely with my experiences of life in the Soviet Union and 1990s Russia; and what to do about it all, or where Russia might possibly go from where it is now, is a question that eats at me every day.
In one conversation, he related the psychological state of the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse to Britain both currently and leading up to the 2016 Brexit vote, and the dangers in not having viable alternatives to a failing system:
“The overwhelming thing you get from talking to Russians during that time is that no one really believed in that system any longer. And they knew that no one in charge believed in it any longer. But what people also knew was that those in charge had no idea of any alternative. So everyone just accepted it as a system that no one believed in, but because there was nothing else, you just went along with it. So when it collapsed, it came as a terrible shock. . . .
We have a very different society from Russia thirty years ago, but I would argue that what the most defining characteristic of our present society in Britain is that everyone knows that somehow this system isn’t working, but no one, whether they be in the opposition or in the government or amongst the journalists or amongst many millions of people, have any idea of what other system would work. So we just sort of accept it, lurching from one position to another, all trying to rework that system but underneath we know that they know that we know it isn’t working. And it becomes this horrible feedback loop of knowing it isn’t working but not having any alternative. We are at the end of something.”
The end of what? Profit-rewarding, wealth-hoarding capitalism, maybe, or worship of pure individualism? As much as I want answers, I respect Curtis for not wrapping it all up in a neat bow for me, much as I think his insistence on not seeing alternatives must be at least partly willful—if I can see them, so can he. I suspect he just doesn’t think they’re realistic, which is something he could spend more time examining.
Here’s what happened, he said, and here’s partly why, and here’s where we’re seeing those same dynamics replaying themselves.
“I wanted to tell the story but I also wanted to show what it was like. . . . I started it before the invasion of Ukraine. . . . Then the invasion happened and it became clear to me that what I should be trying to do is say, ‘Look, this is the strange collapse of belief in everything that gave you Vladimir Putin. . . . He was born out of the implosion of an empire, and then the implosion of a democratic system, and you need to learn from that.’”
A strange collapse of belief in everything. That’s quite a statement, but I can’t say it’s wrong.
When belief in “everything” collapses, many turn to conspiracy theories to make sense of the world, and others for some kind of apocalyptic Millenarianism, while others reach for familiar paradigms of social and cultural structures. To hierarchies of gender, race, class, and human over nature. “Sensemaking” is a whole modern realm explored by people who are often, it seems to me when I spend enough time listening to their podcasts, frightened by lack of collective beliefs in the cultural stories that are losing their power, and convinced there are no viable alternatives. We need the order of hierarchies, they say, even if billions of people suffer. Without them, everything unravels. (For how many hasn’t it been unraveling, I wonder?)
In crises, Americans are often reminded of TV show host Fred Rogers’s lovely advice to “look for the helpers.” Wherever we are now, whatever is crumbling or unraveling or just increasingly miserable, we still need to find the helpers but we also need to find the people articulating how the problems were created, how they’re being perpetuated, and what needs to be changed or undone to address them. This is hard, because most things shaping the dominant cultural imagination are still stuck in a paradigm that no longer serves anyone. Even those who benefit most from it seem pretty unhappy a lot of the time.
In an interview about a new book cowritten with Rebecca Giblin, Chokepoint Capitalism, novelist and cultural/technology critic Cory Doctorow said that one of the editors they pitched really liked the book but wouldn’t buy it because all the fixes offered in the second half of the book “are structural solutions. There’s nothing that an individual can do to resolve this. It’s going to bum people out.” Well, yeah, said Doctorow:
“Oh, dude, you’re so close to getting it. Because of course there’s no solutions for individuals to unwind structural problems. But instead we can embrace the idea that there are structural ways that we can intervene that will take the bullies away from the gate. . . .
They all require that you think of yourself as part of a polity, not as an individual. None of these are things that we’re going to solve individually.”
On the surface, this idea seems hackneyed, almost threadbare. Solidarity! Work together! Collective action! But to commit to it requires a fundamental shift in how we view the rhythm of our days as much as the arc of our lives. It requires us to not just say we need community and interconnection, but to begin thinking about what that might look like. To take a clear-eyed look at how deep the problems go, and how massively things need to change to turn them around.
“Indigenous resistance is not a one-time event. It continually asks: What proliferates in the absence of empire?” wrote Nick Estes in Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Estes didn’t leave the question hanging. He had an answer, defining freedom as not “the absence of settler colonialism, but as the amplified presence of Indigenous life and just relations with human and nonhuman relatives, and with the earth.”
The question “What proliferates in the absence of empire?” is one that we can all be asking. It’s overwhelming for people who haven’t considered it before but it’s a place to start, maybe the place to start. It’s that question, or some form of it, that I’m holding as I delve into materials online and in print and in my community. What is already being built? What is possible?
The commons in many forms are a huge part of the answer, but they might not look like what we expect. They’re varied and ecological, unique to communities and cultures and ecosystems alike. The shape of solutions might be scalable, but the specifics aren’t. Maybe it’s this individuation that tricks so many of us into thinking that there is no collective will for change, or enough people making that change happen.
Even Adam Curtis lamented at not seeing where alternatives are to be found. Things are crumbling, and people want something different, but nobody in charge is filling that need, he worried.
“All those things that used to be in a way a block against trying to say, ‘Oh, no, we could try it a different way.’ . . . In a way, the way is now open. And what I’m waiting for is for someone to realize that. Because I suspect that all people want is to be able to say, ‘None of this seems to work. What could work? What could inspire us?’ And all you need is for someone to actually take that and run with it.”
I think he might be looking in the wrong direction. Who exactly is meant to be taking things and running with them? Political parties? Faith leaders? He didn’t say, though the surrounding context included critiques of the British Labour Party.
The one option that didn’t seem to occur to him are the people who are already building alternative structures. Who are already running with it. I can’t remember where I read this recently, but I thought it was a great perspective-shift: Don’t look for critical mass; look for critical connection.
I do hope, despite my general aversion to hope, that people are learning to give more attention to work being done all around them, whether it’s on watersheds, anti-monopoly law, food sovereignty, seed banking, sidewalk repair, housing, . . . there are endless problems in endless iterations, and so many people and organizations already doing the work to change them. Will it save the world? Who knows. Will it save us? Who knows. Does the work have to be done anyway? Yes. So we might as well pitch in, even if it’s just by giving more of our regular attention to people building alternatives to a collapsing system that is determined to break people and ecosystems alike.
Could that walkability advocate on the webinar a few weeks ago have imagined his country would revolt against an oppressive regime? I don’t know. But someone had to imagine it before it could happen.
“While many will agree that colonialism is wrong, they cannot imagine a future without it,” wrote Estes toward the end of Our History Is the Future.
He’s right. But let’s try. Because once we get started, there are all kinds of things possible that we never imagined could happen.
I can never get enough of aspen trees, and their interconnected root system is always inspiring to me. This grove is in the Badger-Two Medicine area near the east side of Glacier National Park. A couple of trees had bear claw marks all the way to the top.
Yes to all of this! Just what I needed to read today. Literally for YEARS I’ve been studying this same line of inquiry - and doing my part to spread the word to anyone who will listen. There ARE alternatives - EVERYWHERE. Because they go against dominant paradigms, they are ignored and underreported. Doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of attention, study, amplification. They aren’t perfect - nothing that humans get involved in is. In 2014, I started a blog, “Thriving on the Threshold,” where I wrestled with this idea of cultivating a new/old human story. Though I’m on to other projects now, I still stand by that premise - our systems and structures will continue to cause great damage as long as we live by the story that we are separate from the living world. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes well about the indigenous understanding of our kinship, of course. As for hope, Solnit is a great go-to. Also, Joanna Macy, e.g., in “Coming Back to Life,” has an excellent framework. THANK YOU for this! Subscribing now.
"Hope is a tease designed to keep the reality from sinking in." Paraphrase from Violet on Downton Abbey. That's pretty much sums up my personal view on the hope issue.
But, if you want to go down a few rabbit holes about hope, there's no better place than the Marginalian. This excerpt about a Rebecca Solnit essay on hope touches on few of your thoughts on hope and society.