Words by Bill McKibben
If the future asks one thing of us, it’s reconnection—to ourselves, each other, and the wider realm of nature. While the U.S. wrestles with its own division, photographers from around the world reflect on moments of concord they have captured on camera.
We really should do things differently.
That’s been true for a long time, of course: the sense that our governmental system had seen its best days, that it was turning into a partisan food fight, that it was ruled by vested interests, that it couldn’t adapt to new technologies—these had all become commonplace. We’ve known this to be true, we’ve repeated it to each other, but for most of us, it never rose to the level of an emergency that required we do the hard work of change.
But then, at least three things happened.
One, somehow the system spit out Donald Trump. It’s as if we held a contest for the worst person in America, and the prize was the presidency. McDonalds isn’t good for you, but if you walked in expecting your usual hamburger and were served a severed limb, you might finally rebel.
Two, the system started to run up against people whose demands for change could not be put off. Watching George Floyd die beneath a policeman’s knee—the video was simply too much reality for our reality-management system to contain.
And three, the physical world began to mock the pretensions of the system. After three decades of ignoring ever-louder warnings from scientists, or pretending to make the most minor of fixes, our leaders had little to offer as the climate crisis exploded into summers full of wildfires and floods. The Jet Stream has been knocked akimbo (that’s why it hit 122 Fahrenheit in Canada this past summer), the Gulf Stream likewise. Past a certain point, senators wandering around with snowballs to prove that climate change is a hoax are instead proving that what we’ve got isn’t up to the task.
I wish I could say with confidence that the problem is mechanical, some bad cylinder in the engine of our red-white-and-blue Ford Focus that we could switch out with relative ease. Clearly, there are repairs that would help make it run more smoothly and not constantly steer toward the right. Everyone should be automatically registered to vote, and your ballot should arrive in the mail. Gerrymandering should be ended, and redistricting carried out by independent commissions. The two-party duopoly is failing, and so innovations like ranked-choice voting should be adopted to open the field. Citizens United should be overturned, and election spending severely limited. We should think hard about the advantages of a parliamentary system.
But even with these changes, the car that drives out of that shop is still going to basically resemble the one that drove in—it’s hard to imagine the series of repairs that would make it fit for the obstacles we must now clear. In fact, it’s hard to look around the world and see anywhere (with the usual exception-that-proves-the-rule of Scandinavia) that comes anywhere close to getting it right. Politburos and congresses and autocrats and military dictatorships and monarchies all seem to be struggling to make progress: Trumps are popping up in any number of places. It’s hard not to feel that the world is turning ungovernable.
Plenty of explanations are possible. Social media turns out to be the perfect method for driving us apart, onto our own isolated islands of outrage and identity. Obscene levels of economic inequality leave us inhabiting essentially different planets. Traditional mediating institutions—churches, say—are in decline. I think, hovering above it all, is the fact that sometime around the election of Ronald Reagan, we took an impossible turn toward hyper-individualism. We began disdaining the public and worshipping the private. Soon, Bill Clinton was declaring that “the era of big government” was over. We decided that everything would work best if we watched out for ourselves. Now, when we face enormous crises that we can only solve together, we lack the muscle memory for collective action. Markets are not going to solve the fact that every ventilator in the ICU is already in use; only the willingness to put on a mask could have dealt with that. Individual action is not going to lower the planet’s temperature at anything like the pace we need. We’re past the point where you can make the climate math work one Tesla or one vegan dinner at a time.
And so, we need to start thinking about changes that allow us to exercise once more that innate human gift for solidarity, a gift we’ve systematically smothered.
Individual action is not going to lower the planet’s temperature at anything like the pace we need.
One way to do this is to pay more attention to the local: to intervene closer to home, where we have more agency, where we can do more than flail. Since I live in Vermont, I’ve had many people ask me in the last year why Vermont came through the pandemic in better shape than any other state, despite demographics (rural, old) that should have caused it trouble. There are plenty of small answers, but the big one is: relatively high levels of social trust. It’s a collection of villages—the most rural state in the union—which means that we tend to know our neighbors and know how to work together. Each of those villages governs itself through a “town meeting” one day each spring, a form of government that is exactly as simple as it sounds. Everyone gets together in a church sanctuary or school gym and discusses and votes on the important questions: do we need a new snowplow? Can the roof on the school last another year? It’s training for engagement (and for civility—if Donald Trump stood up at town meeting and started in on his name-calling, people would roll their eyes and pretty soon the moderator would tell him he was out of order). Since we’re used to working together in productive ways, it was no huge problem to get people to wear masks. Why wouldn’t you?
But, sadly, we face problems on a scale that can’t be solved one town at a time either. The scientists have informed us that we have until 2030 to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half or else all those targets we set so proudly at Paris just six years ago will go by the board. So, we need some ways to get the non-vested-interests of actual people to weigh in on the political process. One of the most interesting ideas in recent years has been the citizens’ assembly. It’s a fairly remarkable idea: you assemble at random say 100 people from across the nation. (We have tools for picking things at random—that’s why the lottery works.) Then, you sit them down for a few weekends with experts who can inform them in some depth about the problems we face and the possible solutions. They make a series of recommendations that, depending on the jurisdiction, actual elected politicians then have to vote up or down. By most accounts, the people selected for these assemblies take the work seriously and hammer out sensible ideas. None of the dilemmas we face, after all, are without solutions; it’s just that the solutions are easier to see if you’re not enmeshed so deeply in the system.
Citizens’ assemblies aren’t magic. French president Emmanuel Macron assembled one to consider climate proposals after the yellow vest protests broke out when he tried to raise gas taxes. One hundred and fifty people from across the country were gathered, and they produced a whole suite of plans. But Macron backed down on his pledge to take all of them to parliament for a vote: his final package included only about 40% of the plans the citizens’ assembly had concocted. A tax on heavily polluting vehicles disappeared, for instance, quashed by industry. And yet, some innovative ideas did make it through. For instance, France is banning air travel between nearby cities that are already connected by good rail service. And in fact, the government assembled a second citizens’ assembly to work out pandemic protocols.
More to the point, some of the people who had been selected ended up running for office themselves, having sensed what was possible if cynicism and inertia could be overcome. (It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen in this country: Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president launched thousands of other candidacies.) And people found themselves more engaged in other ways, too. In the end, engagement is what matters. When people engage themselves in politics, they can shift the zeitgeist, the sense of what’s normal and natural and obvious. Take the climate crisis: we’re finally moving from the idea that fossil fuels are normal to the idea that they are dangerous. A lot of that shift came because people sat down in front of pipelines or went to jail to force their college to divest its oil stocks—in other words, they engaged in politics that didn’t look exactly like politics. And when the zeitgeist shifts, then it becomes easier to move any political system, no matter how hidebound and tired its mechanics are.
In the summer of 2021, when the federal government failed to extend eviction protection for people caught up in the covid mess, an elected official (Missouri Rep. Cori Bush) simply sat down on the front steps of the Capitol and refused to leave. She slept there for a few nights, people got behind her, and all of a sudden, the Biden administration figured out that there were some ways to prevent this injustice. We need to magnify engagement—sometimes by changing the process and sometimes by standing up to the process. In a cynical and distant world, actual engagement is the most radical stance imaginable.
Photographers: Camila Falquez, Tom Johnson, Jeano Edwards, Alexandra Leese, Malick Bodi, Markn, Sol Bela Mele, Isabel Okoro, Yumna Al-Arashi, Kwabena Appiah-Nti