When I helped close the 2011 Twin Cities Summer of Solutions three weeks ago, I knew something amazing was happening, but in the flurry of it all I wasn’t really able to identify it. I started to get a sense of it when I first sat down at the Grand Aspirations August Gathering two weeks ago, when forty people from all over the country streamed in with wondrous stories of their work creating the green economy. By the end of the Gathering, last week, the full depth of the change was starting to dawn on me and was brought to the front of my attention when Ethan Buckner, a friend and Oakland Summer of Solutions Program Leader, said smiling at the end of a big group hug, ‘you know, we’ve created something really remarkable in the past few years’. Now, after a week of catching up and taking the next steps forward back in Minnesota, I’m finally seeing the view from four years out.
Four years ago was about 6 months after the events that got Cooperative Energy Futures and the Alliance to Reindustrialize for a Sustainable Economy off the ground – the seeds of my green economy work in the Twin Cities. It was about 6 months before the vision for the Summer of Solutions and Grand Aspirations emerged. Four years ago, there had been no national gatherings of thousands of youth activists, candidate Barack Obama was barely a competitor, and the economy had not yet tanked. The dream of a green economy was barely starting to be voiced, and the idea that we could sustain ourselves, our communities, and the future of our world by creating new ways to feed, house, power, and transport our society was an exciting but utopian ideal.
So what has changed?
It wasn’t until I took the view from four years out that I really absorbed how much has changed. Here in the Twin Cities, and in so many of the other places where the leaders I’ve worked with are based, the idea of a green economy has rapidly become concrete and hundreds and thousands of people are all trying to figure out how to do it. It’s still an epic struggle with truly gargantuan economic competition, political obstacles, and cultural inertia, but suddenly, thousands – maybe millions nationally and tens of millions globally – of people are chugging away at the solutions. That indicates that a critical mass believe that it is a realistic possibility and they’re going for it. This wasn’t true four years ago.
The power structures that have managed our world for living memory are coming apart at the seams. The past fours years have seen a cascading collapse of many of the largest financial institutions on the planet, taking trust in the American economy and the jobs and homes of millions of people with them. Though we as a society may not have made the full connection between energy costs and their resulting effect on housing, food, and transportation and the connections of all those things with the housing and financial markets and the current recession, it is by now increasingly clear to the general public that the American Dream is not what it used to be. In the midst of this, the politics we have relied upon is failing. The promised wave of hope and change elected a president who has not been able to deliver in a national climate of hampered public participation and partisan deadlock. As climate organizers by the thousands, including many of my friends, go to protests at the White House and leave in handcuffs over the tar sands pipeline and repeated attacks on pollution controls, the inability of our political system to serve the needs of people in the face of economic chaos is becoming brilliantly clear.
The fallout from this chaos is tragic, but from a systems change perspective, it is a deeply promising sign. Public faith in the institutions that have propped up an unsustainable and unjust economy for living memory is breaking. As faith that the polluting economy that advances injustice and weakened communities erodes, it creates space for people to believe in emergent ways of supporting our communities that will actually sustain and uplift us. It is time to let go of the lie that was the old prosperity, recognize that it was founded on the abuse and destruction of people and places cross the planet as well as our own future, and move on. As long as this economy and politics continues to fail us, there is the opportunity for something better to win us.
En masse, distrust of the political process and disfunction in politics coupled with stark clarity of the challenges we face is driving people to innovate new ways to influence the world around them. Some of this is taking the not-very constructive form of building personal safety nets (buying gold, fighting taxation, etc.). Some of it is taking the positive form of collective support (finding community-based ways to provide the health, food, energy, finance etc. services that are evaporating in the current economy. And some of it is truly transformational – developing new models that outcompete business as usual, drawing money, people and resources out of the unsustainable economy and into the new one. We can work on doing more of the latter, but the point is, people are shifting from assuming that someone will take care of their problems for them to taking action (often because they are forced to by economic threats or other situational issues). Four years ago, efforts of this nature often had the feel of hobby projects or radical experiments. More and more, they are taking on the quality of emergent institutions.
Here in the Twin Cities, I’ve seen the transition from promising ideas to new realities happen before my eyes so smoothly that I almost didn’t notice it:
- Four years ago, our vision for green manufacturing at the 140 acre Ford Plant site was an intriguing research project. Now it has the City of St. Paul as a partner and Perkins and Will, a prominent green design firm, pulling together a development team for this multi-billion dollar project.
- Four years ago, our urban agriculture work was developing backyard gardens and learning how to grow things. Now there are new businesses employing people and feeding communities through urban farming.
- Four years ago, our energy efficiency models were cute ideas on paper and a lot of knowledge – now neighborhood associations are contracting for our services, a coalition of over a dozen organizations is working together to save energy and create green jobs in South Minneapolis, and I’ve created a job for myself while also supporting local youth helping the community save energy.
In the past four years, these nascent seeds of solutions have grown into the saplings of the new economy not just here in the Twin Cities, and not just in the 15+ places where Grand Aspirations has operated. They are growing in countless communities across the globe powered by communities and local businesses and forward-thinking public officials. These communities are starting to look towards each other and recognize in the solidarity and collaboration that will turns many small local things into transformation.
The view from four years out continues to remind me of this article by Sara Robinson that urges activists to remember history and act with patience and grounding. It describes the long and troubled process from business as usual to transformation that our society is now acting out on the grandest of scales.
The view from four years out makes this process visible – it even makes it look fast. It shows me how quickly the dreams that started the Summer of Solutions and Grand Aspirations are becoming realities. It shows me how quickly the people I met at the August Gathering – over half of whom I did not even know 12 months ago, let alone 4 years ago – have become my fellow world-makers. And it whispers thrillingly all the things that this implies for the endless fountain of ideas that are only now emerging and the millions of people preparing to join in.
Which REALLY makes me look forward to the next four years … and the next … and the next.