Today is my 40th birthday. Four decades I have spent navigating my body and mind through and across this Earth. Four decades of moving from childhood through adolescence into adulthood, and then slowly (and not without some regrettable moments), into a slightly wiser and more insightful version of my adult self. I say “slightly” because the more I learn about being a human in this liminal moment in time, the more I realise just how much I have to learn.
Today also marks another anniversary. Today it is ten years to the day that a few dozen protestors set up camp in Zuccotti Park in New York’s Wall Street financial district to protest rising income inequality and wealth inequality .
The action sparked the Occupy movement which ignited dissent and protest around the world with similar occupations occurring in cities around the world. I visited the occupation of Civic Square in Wellington, New Zealand on a few occasions taking part in general assemblies, and chatting with many members of the movement.
I was asked recently during a podcast recording whether I thought the much-needed shift from our current economic paradigm to a future system that better focused on the needs of people and the planet would come about through evolution or revolution? It was a good question, and gave me a lot of pause for thought.
My 26-year old self would not have hesitated in screaming “Revolution!” in answer to that question. As an environmental activist living in Saskatchewan, Canada and working professionally as an advocate for better freshwater policy, I got enthusiastically involved in every protest that came along. From rallying against tar-sands expansion from Alberta across the provincial border into Saskatchewan to bicycle-powered sustainable transport parades and queer rights marches. I even once attended an outdoor candlelight vigil for climate change refugees and victims of climate-change induced extreme weather events when it was minus 30 degrees. It was so cold our candles kept going out. Even the flames were dissenting to this madness.
But with the passing of the years came a softening and a gradual understanding that alongside protest, we need to evolve our thinking. There is certainly time for direct action and angrily yelling at a building housing the people who are partially to blame for inaction on climate change, and any number of other injustices. But simultaneously there is a great deal of work to be done to adjust our thinking and mindsets when it comes to solving complex, global, social and environmental challenges. And those changes in thinking are seldom achieved through confrontational direct action. They are rather achieved through much more subtle and constructive means.
Our world-views and understanding of reality are heavily influenced by the stories that we tell, the ones that are told to us, and the often-subconscious narratives that underpin our understanding of “the way things are”. Cultural narratives surrounding society, education, food, poverty, business, money, and other people subtly inform our views on these things, and our understanding of what is normal. The narrative of trickle-down economics is a particularly pervasive story. Despite abundant evidence pointing to the fact that it is an untrue and harmful narrative which has failed us, our governments still base many economic policies upon it to this day.
It is in this work of shifting narratives and storytelling for change that I have buried myself in the latter half of my 30’s. I have strived to understand why it is that people behave the ways in which they do; ways which at times have completely baffled me. I have sought to understand the systemic nature of our biggest problems, and learn as much as I can about how to develop systemic solutions that bring together diverse actors to cover all the angles that we ourselves might not have considered. I have engaged in a more subtle and nuanced kind of activism; the kind that doesn’t require my extremities to go numb. This pursuit of knowledge and understanding has culminated in me sharing my learnings in a new book called A Future Untold: The power of story to transform the world and ourselves.
If we want to change the world, we need to start by returning to the most basic driver of human behaviour and culture — story.
So was Occupy a revolution or an evolution? I think the answer is that it was both. The idea of placing bodies in places that have come to represent unbalanced power, the exacerbation of inequality, and corporate interests is not a new thing. Protestors have been chaining themselves to banks and government buildings for centuries. But this wasn’t a protest — it was an occupation.
The idea of actually setting up camp and occupying an area that has come to be a cultural symbol of unchecked greed, irresponsible investing, and the birthplace of several wide-reaching financial crashes that have impacted on millions of lives represented an evolution of thought that was powerful, poignant, and available to anyone.
It was a revolutionary evolution in the way that activists organised around collective action. Not just there to shout and wave placards with clever slogans, the members of the movement created social operating procedures to overcome barriers in communication that come with scale. Given that New York city regulations ban any amplified sound without a permit, the movement made use of the “people’s microphone” technique. Large groups made decisions about day to day actions together by using hand signals. People talked not only about the problems, but about possible solutions and a makeshift library of over 5,000 books was set up to share knowledge.
The use of the brilliant catchphrase “we are the 99 percent” was both revolutionary and evolutionary. In a powerful and succinct way, it communicated that our current global economic system is set against the great majority of people who live on this planet. It told those watching the evening news that this movement was not about the protestors or even the bankers, it was about them.
Last weekend New York and America marked the 20 year anniversary of the city’s darkest day. Not discounting the tragic loss of life that day, it’s worth remembering that the side effects of income and wealth inequality in the form of crime, domestic violence, poor health outcomes, and drug abuse (both prescription and illegal) kill orders of magnitude more people each year than the number who died in the attacks of 9/11.
On this ten year anniversary of the beginning of Occupy, I think it is wise to reflect on possibly the most important lesson of the movement— when we work together and evolve our thinking, we are capable of truly revolutionary actions. Occupy marked the beginning of a new era of collectivism, which has influenced many other movements around the world. It was the beginning of many people realising that they were not alone. To solve our economic woes, amongst the myriad social, cultural, environmental and existential challenges that we face, we need to move from a mindset of individual pursuit to collective action.
As for myself, as I embark into my fifth decade living on this Earth I’m convinced that the future requires both revolution and evolution — the first to keep the pressure on vested interests and heavily-lobbied governments, and the second to ensure that we are continually improving our thinking about how we might embrace the massive transformations that are going to be necessary to address climate change, economic inequality, and the collapse of the biosphere.
I’m dedicated to using the remaining 58,000 or so hours I have left in my productive working life to finding the most effective ways to combine the two.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the story, feel free to clap — remember you can clap up to 50 times if you like it a lot! If you’d like to support my efforts in writing about storytelling for impact, narrative change, and systems change, you can do so through Patreon.
Book book “A Future Untold: The power of story to transform the world and ourselves” launches on 28th October 2021. For more information or to access preorders, you can sign up here. Thank you!