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  • 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.

  • (Laughter)

  • 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 US,

  • 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.