The ambitious proposal echoes the legendary 1930s-era New Deal project that employed such greats as Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Any collective plan to avert planetary disaster will first need to harness the full powers of storytelling and mythology if it’s going to stand half a chance. That’s the main lesson of the wildly popular recent video, “A Message From the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” a seven-minute film published by The Intercept (and based on an article by Kate Aronoff). Set a couple of decades in the future, it stands as a “flat-out rejection of the idea that a dystopian future is a forgone conclusion,” as the accompanying article by Naomi Klein puts it. Narrated by Ocasio-Cortez and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, the film offers a peek at a future in which the Green New Deal has come to pass and Americans are benefiting from its life-affirming roster of policies, from Medicare and jobs to regenerative practices and a climate policy that has helped to stop the planet from burning down.
The film’s creators offer it as the first art project of the Green New Deal, a powerful attempt to bring the plan’s still-vague, shimmering vision on the horizon into focus through an imaginative, futuristic story. It’s also a way for Ocasio-Cortez and the plan’s supporters to start to take control of the Green New Deal’s narrative and to pull us toward its magnetic, aspirational future, after what the congresswoman described as “intensely frustrating” controversies surrounding the legislation’s rollout. “It was done in a way that it was easy to hijack the narrative around it,” she said in an interview with a Yahoo News podcast that aired three days before her “Message From the Future” was released.
It’s this battle of stories, the fight to shape the narrative around the ongoing planetary collapse and our response to it, that will be the defining struggle of the war for a livable planet. It’s humanity’s singular storytelling ability that, unlike any other animal, has allowed us to behave like a super-organism, shaping and guiding our lives over the millennia, binding us through the creation of shared, vitalizing tales and mythologies. Storytelling is our superpower, as everyone from evolutionary biologists to Hollywood and advertising execs can tell us, and as a society we can only change as fast as our collective stories do. This is a topic well-explored in recent books like The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall, and in Silicon Valley-favorite Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Everyone from Obama to Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates has recommended Sapiens, which deals at length with how stories invent the basic “facts” that shape human societies, from nations to money itself (“money is probably the most successful story ever told,” as Harari has put it). “Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or tables, and the simpler the story, the better,” as Harari wrote for the New Yorker in 2016. It is stories that serve as the scaffolding of our material world and “myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers,” writes Harari.
Any Green New Deal effort that attempts to change the hearts, minds, and behaviors of hundreds of millions of people will likewise need to harness the full power of this storytelling capacity. As Ocasio-Cortez puts it in the video, “we found our shared purpose,” a shared purpose that will have to be collectively forged through storytelling. It will need to make use of every narrative device at our disposal to keep the story of a living future alive and possible. It’s now clear that it’s going to take far more than numbers and logical exhortations and measurements of per capita and parts per million of CO2 to tell this story in a way that moves us enough to act in time. As is well known by now, the technology to utterly transform and start to heal our physical landscape is already at hand—what’s needed now is the storytelling technology to transform mass consciousness and push it past the tipping point to the point that we’re still able to correct the course of our current apocalyptic trajectory. MORE