There's a question I've been puzzling over and writing about for pretty much all of my adult life. Why do some large-scale crises jolt us awake and inspire us to change and evolve while others might jolt us a bit, but then it's back to sleep? Now, the kind of shocks I'm talking about are big—a cataclysmic market crash, rising fascism, an industrial accident that poisons on a massive scale. Now, events like this can act like a collective alarm bell. Suddenly, we see a threat, we get organized. We discover strength and resolve that was previously unimaginable. It's as if we're no longer walking, but leaping. Except, our collective alarm seems to be busted. Faced with a crisis, we often fall apart, regress and that becomes a window for antidemocratic forces to push societies backwards, to become more unequal and more unstable.
Ten years ago, I wrote about this backwards process and I called it the "Shock Doctrine." So what determines which road we navigate through crisis? Whether we grow up fast and find those strengths or whether we get knocked back. And I'd say this is a pressing question these days. Because things are pretty shocking out there. Record-breaking storms, drowning cities, record-breaking fires threatening to devour them, thousands of migrants disappearing beneath the waves. And openly supremacist movements rising, in many of our countries there are torches in the streets. And now there's no shortage of people who are sounding the alarm. But as a society, I don't think we can honestly say that we're responding with anything like the urgency that these overlapping crises demand from us. And yet, we know from history that it is possible for crisis to catalyze a kind of evolutionary leap.
And one of the most striking examples of this progressive power of crisis is the Great Crash of 1929. There was the shock of the sudden market collapse followed by all of the aftershocks, the millions who lost everything thrown onto breadlines. And this was taken by many as a message that the system itself was broken. And many people listened and they leapt into action. In the United States and elsewhere, governments began to weave a safety net so that the next time there was a crash, there would be programs like social security to catch people. There were huge job-creating public investments in housing, electrification and transit. And there was a wave of aggressive regulation to reign in the banks.
Now, these reforms were far from perfect. In the US, African American workers, immigrants and women were largely excluded. But the Depression period, along with the transformation of allied nations and economies during the World War II effort, show us that it is possible for complex societies to rapidly transform themselves in the face of a collective threat. Now, when we tell this story of the 1929 Crash, that's usually the formula that it follows—that there was a shock and it induced a wake-up call and that produced a leap to a safer place.
Now, if that's really what it took, then why isn't it working anymore? Why do today's non-stop shocks—why don't they spur us into action? Why don't they produce leaps? Especially when it comes to climate change.
So I want to talk to you today about what I think is a much more complete recipe for deep transformation catalyzed by shocking events. And I'm going to focus on two key ingredients that usually get left out of the history books.
One has to do with imagination, the other with organization. Because it's in the interplay between the two where revolutionary power lies. So let's start with imagination. The victories of the New Deal didn't happen just because suddenly everybody understood the brutalities of laissez-faire. This was a time, let's remember, of tremendous ideological ferment, when many different ideas about how to organize societies did battle with one another in the public square. A time when humanity dared to dream big about different kinds of futures, many of them organized along radically egalitarian lines. Now, not all of these ideas were good but this was an era of explosive imagining. This meant that the movements demanding change knew what they were against—crushing poverty, widening inequality—but just as important, they knew what they were for. They had their "no" and they had their "yes," too. They also had very different models of political organization than we do today.
For decades, social and labor movements had been building up their membership bases, linking their causes together and increasing their strength, which meant that by the time the Crash happened, there was already a movement that was large and broad enough to, for instance, stage strikes that didn't just shut down factories, but shut down entire cities. The big policy wins of the New Deal were actually offered as compromises. Because the alternative seemed to be revolution.
So, let's adjust that equation from earlier. A shocking event plus utopian imagination plus movement muscle, that's how we get a real leap.
So how does our present moment measure up? We are living, once again, at a time of extraordinary political engagements. Politics is a mass obsession. Progressive movements are growing and resisting with tremendous courage. And yet, we know from history that "no" is not enough. Now, there are some "yeses" out there that are emerging. And they're actually getting a lot bolder quickly. Where climate activists used to talk about changing light bulbs, now we're pushing for 100 percent of our energy to come from the sun, wind and waves, and to do it fast. Movements catalyzed by police violence against black bodies are calling for an end to militarized police, mass incarceration and even for reparations for slavery. Students are not just opposing tuition increases, but from Chile to Canada to the UK, they are calling for free tuition and debt cancellation. And yet, this still doesn't add up to the kind of holistic and universalist vision of a different world than our predecessors had. So why is that?
Well, very often we think about political change in defined compartments these days. Environment in one box, inequality in another, racial and gender justice in a couple of other boxes, education over here, health over there. And within each compartment, there are thousands upon thousands of different groups and NGOs, each competing with one another for credit, name recognition and of course, resources. In other words, we act a lot like corporate brands. Now, this is often referred to as the problem of silos. Now, silos are understandable. They carve up our complex world into manageable chunks. They help us feel less overwhelmed. But in the process, they also train our brains to tune out when somebody else's issue comes up and when somebody else's issue needs our help and support. And they also keep us from seeing glaring connections between our issues.
So for instance, the people fighting poverty and inequality rarely talk about climate change. Even though we see time and again that it's the poorest of people who are the most vulnerable to extreme weather. The climate change people rarely talk about war and occupation. Even though we know that the thirst for fossil fuels has been a major driver of conflict. The environmental movement has gotten better at pointing out that the nations that are getting hit hardest by climate change are populated overwhelmingly by black and brown people. But when black lives are treated as disposable in prisons, in schools and on the streets, these connections are too rarely made.
The walls between our silos also means that our solutions, when they emerge, are also disconnected from each other. So progressives now have this long list of demands that I was mentioning earlier, those "yeses." But what we're still missing is that coherent picture of the world we're fighting for. What it looks like, what it feels like, and most of all, what its core values are. And that really matters. Because when large-scale crises hit us and we are confronted with the need to leap somewhere safer, there isn't any agreement on what that place is. And leaping without a destination looks a lot like jumping up and down.
Fortunately, there are all kinds of conversations and experiments going on to try to overcome these divisions that are holding us back. And I want to finish by talking about one of them.
A couple of years ago, a group of us in Canada decided that we were hitting the limits of what we could accomplish in our various silos. So we locked ourselves in a room for two days, and we tried to figure out what bound us together. In that room were people who rarely get face to face. There were indigenous elders with hipsters working on transit. There was the head of Greenpeace with a union leader representing oil workers and loggers. There were faith leaders and feminist icons and many more. And we gave ourselves a pretty ambitious assignment: agreeing on a short statement describing the world after we win. The world after we've already made the transition to a clean economy and a much fairer society. In other words, instead of trying to scare people about what will happen if we don't act, we decided to try to inspire them with what could happen if we did act.
Sensible people are always telling us that change needs to come in small increments. That politics is the art of the possible and that we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Well, we rejected all of that. We wrote a manifesto, and we called it "The Leap." I have to tell you that agreeing on our common "yes" across such diversity of experiences and against a backdrop of a lot of painful history was not easy work. But it was also pretty thrilling. Because as soon as we gave ourselves permission to dream, those threads connecting much of our work became self-evident.
We realized, for instance, that the bottomless quest for profits that is forcing so many people to work more than 50 hours a week, without security, and that is fueling this epidemic of despair is the same quest for bottomless profits and endless growth that is at the heart of our ecological crisis and is destabilizing our planet. It also became clear what we need to do. We need to create a culture of care-taking. In which no one and nowhere is thrown away. In which the inherent value of all people and every ecosystem is foundational. So we came up with this people's platform, and don't worry, I'm not going to read the whole thing to you out loud—if you're interested, you can read it at theleap.org. But I will give you a taste of what we came up with.
So we call for that 100 percent renewable economy in a hurry, but we went further. Calls for new kinds of trade deals, a robust debate on a guaranteed annual income, full rights for immigrant workers, getting corporate money out of politics, free universal day care, electoral reform and more. What we discovered is that a great many of us are looking for permission to act less like brands and more like movements. Because movements don't care about credit. They want good ideas to spread far and wide. What I love about The Leap is that it rejects the idea that there is this hierarchy of crisis, and it doesn't ask anyone to prioritize one struggle over another or wait their turn. And though it was birthed in Canada, we've discovered that it travels well. Since we launched, The Leap has been picked up around the world with similar platforms, being written from Nunavut to Australia, to Norway to the UK and the U.S., where it's gaining a lot of traction in cities like Los Angeles, where it's being localized. And also in rural communities that are traditionally very conservative, but where politics is failing the vast majority of people.
Here's what I've learned from studying shocks and disasters for two decades. Crises test us. We either fall apart or we grow up fast. Finding new reserves of strength and capacity that we never knew we had. The shocking events that fill us with dread today can transform us, and they can transform the world for the better. But first we need to picture the world that we're fighting for. And we have to dream it up together. Right now, every alarm in our house is going off simultaneously. It's time to listen. It's time to leap.