I woke up in the middle of a dream this morning. Side-by-side with a young woman (I can see her earnest face so clearly, the tumble of dark curls that nearly covered it), I strolled through an encampment occuping a city square. We stepped over bodies, threading our way through a maze of conversations. “Before I came here,” she told me, “there were answers everywhere, so many answers, I couldn’t begin to sort them out. But what were the questions? I had no idea.”
If you have listened at all to my talks or read my essays, you know what they are for me:
Who are we?
What do we stand for?
What matters most to us?
How do we want to be remembered?
Occupy Wall Street is asking these questions. The natural world is asking these questions.
Wherever I go these days, the ambient buzz of the Occupy Wall Street movement hums under the surface of conversation, periodically popcorning its way past the putative topic. What do you think of…? someone asks, and we’re off. In my world, everyone thinks that what’s happening is pretty great.
There’s a lot of speculation among activists. I spent this weekend at the annual Bioneers conference. When a session started very late because some of the presenters were delayed, the conversation was drawn into that irresistible orbit: Why is it happening right now? Where does it come from? What does it all mean?
There are a million answers, of course. Most of those volunteered by the audience had to do with domestic events: this or that government or corporate action was the last straw, they said, driving young people to the streets. Maybe so.
But to me, what has seemed most significant is the evolving global character of the last year’s protests, which seems to mark a turning point in U.S. activism.
In the nature of my work, an international outlook looms large. Over the years, I’ve written and spoken many times about cultural issues beyond U.S. borders, highlighting international cultural interventions that suggested approaches worth trying here. Very often, the response has been indifferent or hostile. People have tended to see the United States as one-of-a-kind, often questioning whether Asian, European, African, or Latin American experience could ever be germane.
But I have no doubt that Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the activism of Arab Spring, as the main Website says (and as the group Adbusters explicitly said back in July calling for the 17 September occupation: “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?”). Clearly, that inspiration is now reverberating across continents, as demonstrations break out around the world.
The clash of paradigms pits the linear and manufactured against the organic, networked character of these demonstrations. From the first perspective, the demonstrations fail to cohere somehow because they lack a 10-point program, a list of answerable demands, as I wrote in my last post about this. But regarded in another light, the message seems perfectly clear: refusal to submit to a corrupt order, coupled with the call for simple justice, the desire for democracy made real.
This weekend, it came to me that to call the uprising transnational is insufficient. I think the organic, networked, evolving character of these actions is a form of biomimicry (a topic much discussed at Bioneers, and one I wrote about in just these terms a couple of years ago). Whether the intention is clear and conscious or not, the activists who have taken to the streets are enacting patterns of energy and organization that mirror the natural world.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is so far the best-documented in history. Many of the videos gives a glimpse of elements of process unique to the constrained conditions under which the demonstrations are unfolding. As you’ve undoubtedly read, through the “mic check” process, developed in response to a ban on amplification, successive circles in the crowd repeat a speaker’s words, facilitating communication at a distance. There is a consensus process to make decisions. A strong value is given to equality of voices, with careful facilitation and a list kept to ensure that all who wish to speak have their time. There are general assemblies and break-out groups. There are hand signals for agreement and comment, and for blocking impending consensus on a strongly objectionable point where the implications may not have been fully understood by others.
In most particulars, this closely resembles the protocols of the Sixties activism I came up in, and it is just as diametrically opposed to the dominant decision-making process as our way of working was back then. Why does the same process emerge 40 years later from advocates of true democracy who are the children and grandchildren of my cohort? I think it is encoded in the structure of reality, rhyming with the cooperation and interdependence—the deep ecology—of all living beings.
Back in the day, though, people tended to get tangled up in process. Sometimes the process wagged the movement. People got caught up in power games. For instance, I can’t tell you how many Sixties activists I’ve since met were turned off by “crit/self-crit,” a technique of intimate public confession and denunciation I would now call a cruel form of discipline, but then thought of as an expression of openness and involvement. I can’t tell you how many Sixties activists I’ve since met were turned off by the ocean of debate that ultimately preceded (and sometimes followed) any action, no matter how small: the dishwashing roster in a communal household could occupy many hours. At a certain point, such elements of process ate up so much space and time, it impeded our work in the world, derailing us.
At Bioneers, the mushroom was a ubiquitous metaphor: one organism with the capacity to spread and generate through vast underground networks prefiguring the internet. At times, it was asserted that these networks have the capacity to learn from experience, not by overt lessons, of course, but through subtle means of silent communication. So far, in this new movement in the streets, I see a healthy interest in having the process serve an overarching aim, which is the extension of the deep questioning that animates this activism to every community, every part of the world. This sounds like learning to me. May it be so!
I want to share three inspiring stories I learned about at Bioneers. The conference videos and audios haven’t been posted yet, so these are taken from other sources. But check the Bioneers site in coming days for these speakers—and for audio on the two sessions I led, featuring wonderful artists, “Participatory Public Art” (with Lily Yeh; Judy Baca was unable to attend in person, but sent beautiful words and images) and “Culture: The Crucible of Change” (with Ellen Sebastian Chang, Jeff Chang, Joe Lambert, and Rene Yung).
Paul Stamets has lived an amazing life among the mushrooms, discovering what we can learn from these ancient organisms. In this TED talk, he makes powerful arguments for their self-organizing properties, their sentience, their uses in healing environmental damage inflicted by humans, and their medicinal powers. If that’s not enough, check out this little story he shared on how slime mold generated an improved design for the Tokyo subway system.
John D. Liu is an American filmmaker who has been living in China for decades. His film
Lessons of the Loess Plateau describes the remarkable transformation of this dry, degraded region along the Yellow River into a self-sustaining ecosystem, a transformation grounded in understanding and valuing the working of natural systems. When he showed before and after images of the Plateau at its most environmentally degraded—”the most eroded place on earth”—and then in its rehabilitated state, the audience gasped, and tears sprang to our eyes. See for yourself: look at the sequence that begins at 34:25, and learn what ten years of environmental restoration can do.
Filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg has been taking time-lapse images of nature for more than three decades. His TED talk features a clip from The Hidden Beauty of Pollination, which contains some of the most beautiful sequences—and arguably the most erotic—I have ever seen on film. I consider myself good at making associations, but honestly, friends, I can’t think of a direct connection with Occupy Wall Street. Just watch it as a gift to yourself.
The singer-songwriter Imogen Heap performed at the conference. In “Earth”, she assumes the voice of an irritated Mother Earth, fed up with her children’s misbehavior. To me, it sounds a lot like Occupy Wall Street’s one demand:
Put that down and clean this mess up
End of conversation
Put your back in it and
Make it up to me now
The cold shoulder
Folded arms and looking up
You’ve never listened
And carry on careless, regardless
This is not a fire drill and
If we hold any hope
It’s harmonic connection
And stereo symbiosis