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The Future Is Already Here
Great leaps begin with small steps
Last week I interviewed Jon Alexander about the power of stories. Jon Alexander is the co-founder of the New Citizens Project and author of Citizens: Why The Key To Fixing Everything Is All Of Us. A former award-winner in the advertising world, Jon advises companies and communities on the power of narrative, helping them reclaim and restructure the stories they tell to in order to empower the shift from consumer to citizen.
His book, Citizens, lays out the different paradigms that we've experienced throughout human history, from Subject, when we were all subjects of Kings, to our current paradigm of consumer, which focuses on individuality. Jon says that we need to move towards the paradigm of citizens—collectivism, community, people coming to one another’s aid, and taking part in the creation of the world they wish to see. He was inspire to write the book after seeing how the UK responded to the COVID pandemic—the government may have done a terrible job, but communities all around the nations turned to one another for help
A crucial point that Jon raises towards the end of the episode is the importance of just beginning as an antidote to the fear of change. When confronting the colossal task of restructuring systems, as the climate crisis now demands of us, the main impediment to doing so is the false belief most share that we need to figure out the entire system before creating the first component.
Jon insists the most important thing to do is simply to begin, understanding that we will figure the future out as it arrives. He gives the wonderful example of how Taiwan has transformed in the past decade from a classic consumer society to a participatory democracy. Amazingly, the catalyst for this change was a group of activist hackers—even more amazingly, the government followed their lead.
Ordinarily, however, change is blocked by the conservative desire to keep things as they are for fear of the unknown (and the desire to reap the benefits of the status quo). It’s understandable people want to have an idea of the proposed “new world” before they commit to building it; is not one of the most frequent critiques of Extinction Rebellion that they don’t have a concrete plan of action?
Yet this anxiety is borne from our relationship to the current paradigm rather than our relationship to what the world could look like; it is a belief that the new world will not be so different from the current. What I mean by this is, currently, in democratic societies, we roll the dice on change by voting for a politician and hope they will stick to their mandate and not break the law. If they don’t, it turns out there’s not very much we can do. Hence this idea of rolling the dice with our future; our agency culminates in voting every few years, unless we choose to protest. In many countries, protest is increasingly difficult and dangerous.
What is vital to remember when thinking about building a new future together, whilst it may seem more unknown than a future borne from continued participation in what we do know, it could actually be less frightening because our agency will have increased. Things may be less likely to go wrong because us citizens will exercise our power more regularly to make it right.
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It’s critical to remember this about systems; you don't start with a fully formed system; you start at the beginning and a system emerges over time. And under a new system, citizens will be different. People will be different. Communities will be different. It's not that there will be a new system and the exact same rules will apply. The world will look fundamentally different.
So rather than thinking about new systems, we need to start thinking about the components with which we wish to begin, and how to build them. What is a component? It could be anything, from a community garden project to a citizens assembly. If we highlight enough of these components and create networks between them, the system will begin to form itself.
Jon mentions a variety of projects happening all over the UK throughout the episode, and it is vital we shout these stories from the rooftops: change is happening here, now. The future has already arrived.
To be clear, even the idea of creating a whole new system falls into the hero complex capitalist, consumer culture depends on to alienate people from their communities—that we are individuals and work best as individuals. The idea of a perfect future being born in the head of one person who can communicate this fully expressed system, which would then trickle down to everybody else is ludicrous, and falls into the exact same paradigm as everything that has come before from royal sovereignty to authoritarian governments.
The diversity of a system creates its resilience. We know this to be true in ecology. Therefore, the more people imagining a new society, attempting different ways of organising, and the more nodes in this network of a system—the more localized the system is as part of a bigger infrastructure—the more resilient it will be to the challenges we face now and in the future.
And here it’s important to remember a fascinating piece of research Jon mentions about cynicism: that cynical people appear more intelligent to their peers. It is socially more attractive for us to deconstruct new ideas than express enthusiasm. It’s culturally sexier to be destructive than creative.
Imagine if we rewrote that story, and told ourselves and each other creativity is the more impressive form of critical thinking? That our fundamental human nature is brave and hopeful, not conservative and cynical? The stories we tell reveal the people we wish to be; eventually, we become those people.
The etymology of the word “become” is to move towards. If one wishes to become a better person, or if we wish for a system to become something else, the key is taking those initial steps, to cast off and move towards, and if we do not have an exact vision of that which we want to become, we can at the very least take great care in moving away from that which we are. Only by moving will we eventually arrive.
To become, one simply needs to begin.
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