A Message From The Future: What would it be like, forty years after a Green New Deal?
We have always been interested in how futures thinking and practice can be used to empower the imagination of communities - and here’s a great example from The Intercept. The person of the moment in American politics, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, writes and narratives this animated movie (embedded above) where she looks back on her political career about 40 years hence, and sees the impact of a Green New Deal and a post-Trump administration.
Just like the original New Deal, there seems to be an outpouring of cultural production to go along with the Green one. From the Intercept, here’s an account from the film’s co-producer, Naomi Klein:
We realized that the biggest obstacle to the kind of transformative change the Green New Deal envisions is overcoming the skepticism that humanity could ever pull off something at this scale and speed. That’s the message we’ve been hearing from the “serious” center for four months straight: that it’s too big, too ambitious, that our Twitter-addled brains are incapable of it, and that we are destined to just watch walruses fall to their deaths on Netflix until it’s too late.
This skepticism is understandable. The idea that societies could collectively decide to embrace rapid foundational changes to transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, forestry, and more — precisely what is needed to avert climate breakdown — is not something for which most of us have any living reference. We have grown up bombarded with the message that there is no alternative to the crappy system that is destabilizing the planet and hoarding vast wealth at the top. From most economists, we hear that we are fundamentally selfish, gratification-seeking units. From historians, we learn that social change has always been the work of singular great men.
Science fiction hasn’t been much help either. Almost every vision of the future that we get from best-selling novels and big-budget Hollywood films takes some kind of ecological and social apocalypse for granted. It’s almost as if we have collectively stopped believing that the future is going to happen, let alone that it could be better, in many ways, than the present.
The media debates that paint the Green New Deal as either impossibly impractical or a recipe for tyranny just reinforce the sense of futility. But here’s the good news: The old New Deal faced almost precisely the same kinds of opposition — and it didn’t stop it for a minute.
Klein goes on to show how, when business elites attacked Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the thirties, they didn’t make headway - against a torrent of activist art in support:
One reason that elite attacks never succeeded in turning the public against the New Deal had to do with the incalculable power of art, which was embedded in virtually every aspect of the era’s transformations. The New Dealers saw artists as workers like any other: people who, in the depths of the Depression, deserved direct government assistance to practice their trade. As Works Progress Administration administrator Harry Hopkins famously put it, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”
Through programs including the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and Federal Writers Project (all part of the WPA), as well as the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and several others, tens of thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, authors, and a huge array of craftspeople found meaningful work, with unprecedented support going to African-American and Indigenous artists.
The result was a renaissance of creativity and a staggering body of work that transformed the visual landscape of the country. The Federal Art Project alone produced nearly 475,000 works of art, including over 2,000 posters, 2,500 murals, and 100,000 canvasses for public spaces. Its stable of artists included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Authors who participated in the Federal Writers Program included Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Steinbeck.
Much of the art produced by New Deal programs was simply about bringing joy and beauty to Depression-ravaged people, and challenging the prevalent idea that art belonged to the elites. As FDR put it in a 1938 letter to author Hendrik Willem van Loon: “I, too, have a dream — to show people in the out of the way places, some of whom are not only in small villages but in corners of New York City … some real paintings and prints and etchings and some real music.”
There was more overtly political art too, like the highly controversial theatrical productions of Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here,” which opened in 18 cities. Some New Deal art set out to mirror a shattered country back to itself and in the process, make an unassailable case for why New Deal relief programs were so desperately needed. The result was iconic work, from Dorothea Lange’s photography of Dust Bowl families enveloped in clouds of filth and forced to migrate, to Walker Evans’s harrowing images of tenant farmers that filled the pages of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” to Gordon Parks’s pathbreaking photography of daily life in Harlem.
Other artists produced more optimistic, even utopian creations, using graphic art, short films, and vast murals to document the transformation underway under New Deal programs — the strong bodies building new infrastructure, planting trees, and otherwise picking up the pieces of their nation.