You Say You Want a Revolution

Naomi Klein’s recent article posted at New Statesman has been generating a bit of a buzz. The title is “Why Science is Telling All of Us to Revolt and Change Our Lives.” She begins with a story discussing a presentation by complex systems researcher Brad Werner, who  “is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability.”

Klein writes further:

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

I’m no expert, but as someone interested in systems theory, I find it a bit odd that there is only one dynamic mentioned that appears to offer hope.  Renowned systems thinker Donella Meadows identified at least 12 leverage points, or places to intervene in systems, and PatternDynamics™ founder Tim Winton has identified 56 patterns in systems that all need to be balanced and integrated if we want to achieve a sustainable system.

Transition U.S. blogger Joanne Poyourow, in her response to the Klein article (Revolt and Change Our Lives), points out that systems thinker Joanna Macy has outlined 3 Dimensions of The Great Turning.

Macy’s first is Stopping action, stopping further destruction, which is all that Klein talks about or labels as “appropriate.” Stopping action is noisy campaigning, it is Julia Butterfly Hill sitting in old-growth trees, it is Tim DeChristopher bidding on land parcels, it is the activists who lie down in front of the pipeline trucks.

…Macy’s second type of action is Creating New Structures, creating that which will be in place to replace the old. Sound familiar? To those of us working with different facets of the international Transition movement it sure does. This is the “change our lives” part of the equation. It’s a much quieter type of action, in that it doesn’t necessarily mean noisy crowds with plackards out on the streets, and it doesn’t necessarily grab the notice of the news cameras. But it’s no less of a revolution. And it’s happening all around you right now.

Which brings me to Macy’s third type of action to help further The Great Turning: Change in Consciousness. Joanna Macy describes this as changing the stories we tell each other, our cultural stories, our inner stories. Redefining who we are, and how humanity fits into the cycles of this small planet. Within the international Transition movement, this is addressed as “inner transition.” Changing our inner selves, our inner paradigm, our ways of relating to each other is another huge part of creating the world we want to live in.


Rob Hopkins also mentions the Klein article, in his own excellent post on Austerity (Imagination: Antidote to the Plague of Austerity).

I don’t agree with Klein and Werner’s analysis that “resistance” should be only taken to refer to the same tools that oppositional politics has always used. For me, Werner’s “certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture” needs to be viewed more broadly…And that’s where Transition comes in, with its core focus on imagination and the telling of different stories.

……In order to be able to create something, first we have to imagine it.  That applies as much to the supper you’ll cook when you get home tonight as to social change.  While there is much that Transition initiatives can, and are, doing to respond to austerity, it is the holding of spaces where people, their political representatives and others, can come together to imagine the kind of future they want to see, and modelling this in practical ways, which may be one of the most powerful things we can do in these difficult times.  It could prove to be, as the world seemingly steps from arguing that climate change isn’t a problem to arguing that it’s too late to do anything about it, missing out that vital piece in the middle, you know, the doing something about it bit, that the “poverty of life without dreams” may turn out in the long run to be the wickedest form of poverty.

Hopkins’ thinking is reminiscent of thoughts expressed by David Holmgren (also a systems thinker) in late 2011 (David Holmgren Talks Strategy):

I think that, while the big political movement stuff is always going to be in some ways more exciting – and there’s certainly some exciting aspects of that emerging in the world now around the notion of demanding that someone do something, I don’t think those things really help change the structure much, unless people are also making the changes themselves.  Because the changes people make themselves are double insurance – they are insurance against dysfunctional or anti-social behavior by elites (and there’s certainly plenty of evidence for that), but they’re also the way we model the world that we’re actually wanting to be, because in a lot of ways it’s a matter of being able to crawl before you walk. The sort of world we’re trying to construct, I think it’s actually impossible to construct that top-down. It has to actually be rebuilt bottom up, in parallel with the crumbling system. And then as those models become more real, it’s possible to get some degree of top-down reform/support for those things. But if they don’t actually exist, if we don’t have the working, living solutions, then it’s very hard for policymakers to say “Yes, we’ll have more of that, and less of that.” They can’t actually create the things we need. The things we need are all very small, localized, particular, and large scale systems just can’t do that.


I’m saving the best for last. If we say we want a revolution, who better to check in with than someone who’s been at the forefront, and working on revolution for over 7 decades? Her name is Grace Lee Boggs, and she published a book last year called The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century (read the review by WWU’s Molly Lawrence).

As an activist for over seventy years, and involved in movements including the civil rights movement, labor movement, women’s movement, Black Power movement, Asian American movement, anti-war movement, and environmental justice movement, Boggs has some wisdom to share.

Over these many years, her keen mind has continued to think about “how to bring about radical social change,” which has become all the more urgent, because, as she says, “I cannot recall any previous period when the issues were so basic, so interconnected, and so demanding of everyone.”  “What is going to motivate us,” she asks, “to start caring for our biosphere instead of using our mastery of technology to increase the volume and speed at which we are making our planet uninhabitable…?”

Interestingly, she believes that, though they were effective in the late 1960s, “it becomes clearer every day that organizing or joining massive protests and demanding new policies fail to sufficiently  address the crisis we face.”  She tells us that we need to “come out of our culturally defined identities,” and she claims that mass protests “do not change the cultural images or the symbols that play such a pivotal role in molding us into who we are.”

Boggs also makes a crucial distinction between rebellion and revolution.  Rebels see themselves as victims and do not go beyond protesting injustices.  Revolutionaries go beyond anger, protest, and opposition, and instead concentrate on involving people on a grassroots level with assuming responsibility for creating the values and infrastructures needed for a new society.

What does Boggs recommend on a practical level?  Working from the ground up to transform individuals and to rebuild community. This revolutionary sounds very much like Hopkins, Holmgren, and Poyourow:  Living radically differently by rejecting consumerism and the ideas around unending economic growth.  It can begin with simple actions such as “planting community gardens, recycling waste, rehabbing houses ,… and organizing neighborhood festivals.”  It can then develop into “a solidarity economy whose foundation is the production and exchange of goods and services that our communities  really need.  It’s about “remaking this nation block by block, brick by brick,” pledging to look after not only ourselves but also each other.

Fortunately, there are many working on various pieces of this puzzle we call “sustainability.” Are we doing enough, fast enough to avert crisis? No. That’s why we need all hands on deck. Stopping Actions, Creating New Structures, and Changing Consciousness are all significant.

In terms of changing consciousness, the theme Boggs returns to over and over in her book is that “these are the times to grow our souls.” It’s easy to neglect this important element.

My hope is that as more and different layers of the American people are subjected to economic and political strains and as recurrent disasters force us to recognize our role in begetting these disasters, a growing number of Americans will begin to recognize that we are at one of those great turning points in history. Both for our livelihood and for our humanity, we need to see progress not in terms of “having more” but in terms of growing our souls by creating community, mutual self-sufficiency, and cooperative relations with one another.
…Should we strain to squeeze the last drops of life out of a failing, deteriorating, and unjust system? Or should we instead devote our creative and collective energies toward envisioning and building a radically different form of living?

That is what revolutions are about. They are about creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old; about evolving to a higher Humanity, not higher buildings; about Love of one another and of the Earth, not Hate; about Hope, not Despair; about saying YES to life and NO to War; about becoming the change we want to see in the world.

— Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century

Related Article:
JoAnna Macy On the Three Pillars of the Great Turning

3 comments on “You Say You Want a Revolution

  1. Kath says:

    Thank you for this article, it was a very good read!

    I very much believe that change has to begin at the level of the people, because politics won’t do the job as they have been enslaved by the international financial system and big industries. The profit-oriented economy has become so strong that it blocks every serious governmental initiative to change things for the better.

    I do have hope that if some people start to make changes in their every day lives and connect with other like-minded people, this spirit may spread and cause others to join in. Regarding the different dynamics you laid out as a starting point for change, I agree that considering just resistance to the current system is too narrow-minded, but overall I have a feeling that most dynamics start with the people. Higher-level change (at communal and regional levels, e.g.) will follow if there is a sufficient basis to build on, and to establish this basis it’s necessary to take on action and tell others about it to help them become more conscious themselves. Peter and I are trying to do this, and I’m happy to find that there are others who think similarly, but sometimes it’s also frustrating how settled some people are with their beliefs, routines, and convenient habits that they just close up.

    • davidm58 says:

      Hi Kath,
      Thanks for stopping by and contributing your comments! I agree with the bottom-up model you describe, where, as Holmgren said, we need to model what we want to see in the world. Telling others to do likewise is often not very helpful, but if what they see you doing looks attractive, healthy, and fun, it’s more likely to catch on. That’s where groups of people, as in Transition Initiatives can have more impact, as people interested in these ways of living can connect and reinforce each others behavior.

      The unofficial Transition motto is:
      If we wait for government, it will be too late;
      If we try to do it alone, it will be too little, too late.
      If we do it together, it just might be just enough, just in time.

  2. […] McKibben campaigning against private oil companies (see my post here) to Klein calling for revolt (see my post here) to Jensen who claims that “the task of an activist is to confront and take down systems of […]

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