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The Green New Deal’s supporters hope to harness power of narrative with Federal Writers’ Project

The ambitious proposal echoes the legendary 1930s-era New Deal project that employed such greats as Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Green New Deal’s supporters hope to harness power of narrative with Federal Writers’ Project
[Photos: Hannah Olinger/Unsplash; Daniel Chen/Unsplash; Francisco Gomes/Unsplash]

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.

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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.

Inspired by a powerful legacy

Fortunately, the original New Deal of the 1930s itself provides a model for just such a full-spectrum collective storytelling effort through its Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration. The Federal Writers’ Project employed almost 7,000 writers, editors, researchers, historians, folklorists, poets, and novelists to produce a vast array of articles, books, guides, local histories and folklores, health pamphlets, and reading material for kids. It also pioneered the collection of oral histories through its life history and folklore projects, and most notably through its Slave Narrative Collection, from thousands of former slaves. The project sought to create a “self-portrait of America” pixelated by thousands of different stories and local guidebooks. Writers employed by the project included Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, and Studs Terkel, who would go on to become one of the U.S.’s most renowned oral historians, producing classics like 1970’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s broader goal with the New Deal’s arts and writing programs was, as the History Channel put it, “to put artists back to work while entertaining and inspiring the larger population by creating a hopeful view of life amidst the economic turmoil.” As Klein writes in her Intercept story, “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.” But the Federal Writers’ Project, beyond just entertaining and inspiring, also proved instrumental in transforming America’s culture and self-image through its unprecedented diversity of stories and narratives collected from every (often previously invisible and ignored) walk of life—from former slaves and elderly Native Americans to pioneers and immigrants from around the world. The project, in allowing the country to see itself in a new, full-spectrum light that revealed the true depth of its diversity, helped to reassemble and re-unify the splintered self-image of a country into a living mosaic.

As the New York Times noted in 2003, “editors of the project believed that they could build a national culture on diversity.” A director at the Library of Congress told the Times  that “the Federal Writers’ Project helped us rediscover our heritage in a more detailed and colorful way than it had ever been described,” adding that “the collection offers the best examples of local history and oddball anecdotal stories ever amassed.” It’s important to note that the project came on the heels of the 1920s, a decade that saw the revival of white supremacy, via the K.K.K. and stricter anti-immigration laws.

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A 2009 Library of Congress article on the project noted that “these unvarnished stories of people living on the edge were so revolutionary for the time that they were considered controversial,” adding that “the egalitarian ethos of the FWP moved African-American writers such as Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright from the ‘fringes’ to the heart of American literature.” As one librarian who produced a digital exhibit of Federal Writers’ Project work in Nebraska put it in 2007, the project “made a remarkable departure from popular opinion and intellectual orthodoxy, which at that time regarded true American folk culture as almost exclusively English in origin.” The public “discovered that the country was more diverse and interesting than they had believed,” he wrote. One of the project’s writers, Alfred Kazin, described it as a “drive toward national inventory which began by reporting the ravages of the Depression,” but ended with celebratory “reporting on the national inheritance.”

A Federal Writers’ Project 2.0 for the Green New Deal could weave together a group story of the U.S. in a time of imminent planetary collapse and, beyond that, help to write the future of a living planet into being—serving as the eyes, ears, and voice of the Earth it hopes to save. It could, like the original New Deal project did, extend its tendrils into thousands of different projects, all with the common purpose of telling stories that help to unlock our collective will and survival instincts for a habitable planet.

In addition to journalists, authors, researchers, screenwriters, and editors, it could employ a new corps of futurists to map out scenarios from the global level down to local biomes, providing lush visions of a country teeming again with life through ecological restoration. It could create a new genre of oral history projects by collecting narratives from climate refugees, superstorm survivors, and victims of industrial poisoning, a counterforce to their increasing dehumanization as their numbers are projected to skyrocket (there are expected to be hundreds of millions of climate refugees in the decades to come). It could put environmental writers and natural historians to work, reconnecting us to and re-enchanting our last wild places through story, in order to spur our preservation of them. They could also memorialize what natural living abundance we still have, in case it too is lost and forgotten. (In what’s known as the “changing baseline syndrome,” humans are able to fairly quickly forget and update their sense of what’s “normal” in the natural world, as noted in the book Paradise Found by Steve Nicholls, which documented the astounding, almost unbelievable forgotten abundance of life in North America before we killed and destroyed most of it).

It could fund children’s authors and educators to reconnect a new generation to the Earth through ecological literacy, to create opportunities for young people to tell their own stories, and to write material that helps them to process what must now seem like a collective suicide being forced upon them. It could also take a cue from the field of eco-linguistics and writers like Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who have studied how language creates a mental topography of the living world and deeply affects how we relate to it. Monbiot, who has pushed to drop the term “climate change” entirely for “climate breakdown,” has started a campaign around reinvigorating the language we use to describe the living planet, noting that the abstract, alienating technocratic words and phrases we use to describe it are a large part of the reason we’ve become so disconnected from the rest of life.

Linking us together through stories

As a former Facebook product manager who bought an off-grid escape compound put it in a 2017 New Yorker article, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” “when society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos.” On a deeper level, to fully grapple with the unfathomable natural forces we’ve unleashed, a new Federal Writers’ Project would also need to tap this power of myth, those archetypal stories that glue societies together. It could help to rebuild those healthy founding myths, inspired by the example of famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, who described myth as “the transcendent in relationship to the present.” Campbell wrote that a “mythologically grounded culture presents you with symbols that immediately evoke your participation; they are all vital, living connections, and so they link you both to the underlying mystery and to the culture itself.”

As Martin Shaw, PhD, a renowned mythologist who devised and led an Oral Tradition course at Stanford and founded the School of Myth program in the U.K., wrote in a recent book: “We could say that Earth is relaying a lot of information right now, and not all of it is accessible with statistics and logic.” His School of Myth website notes that “everywhere people are talking about the desperate need for a new story. We suggest that the stories worth attending to arise from the Earth itself. We don’t need commentary about the Earth, we need disclosures FROM the Earth.”

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Sharing and bonding over these deeper stories and mythologies may be one of the few ways to stop society from unraveling in the face of the stacked, interrelated catastrophes currently unfolding and on the verge of reaching some still unimaginable, non-linear tipping points. Already, we’re in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, the planet has lost more than half of its wildlife in the past few decades, the oceans are dying, insect populations are crashing, millions of people die from pollution every year, the slew of chemicals and pharmaceuticals concentrating in the world’s waters continues to rise, we’re entombing ourselves in billions of tons of plastic that’s now turning up even in our blood and as microplastics “absolutely everywhere” (as scientists recently put it), and global food supply lines are at risk of collapse with climate breakdown.

The flower of billions of years of evolution is being destroyed by us, and we’re learning that it could take millions of years for life to recover from the extinctions already under way. Beyond biblical, these kinds of self-inflicted plagues–in which we’re pitting ourselves and our story of “money” against the nearly 4 billion-year-old force of life on Earth, against life itself–seem to demand a mythic imagination telling stories for us to even begin to put it all in perspective. (As the Dark Mountain environmental writing project put it, “We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories that underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.”)

Naomi Klein may be the ideal person to advise Ocasio-Cortez on how to reignite public storytelling and rebuild new foundational public mythologies, not to mention how to fight the asymmetric war of the story about human nature and who we really are. In her 1999 book No Logo, Klein tracked the rise of what she described as “corporate mythology,” the private branding and advertising of co-opted public dreams. “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,” Klein writes in her Intercept story about the Ocasio-Cortez video. As she put it during a recent appearance, “There are some very powerful opinion makers who have spent the past half century telling us that all we are are selfish, self-interested automatons, that we cannot be trusted. That when we try to do things together, terrible things happen. It is this idea that when we try to do things together, the gulags happen. And it’s just not true. We are able to do amazing things together.”

The only way to transcend the labyrinth of these dead and expiring stories from the past half-century—that now have us trapped seemingly without exit in a doomsday machine—is to write the new stories that will realign and reintegrate us symbiotically with the rest of life on Earth. Ocasio-Cortez’s “Message From the Future” could be the first note in a symphony of such stories, played in as many keys as we know how. With a new Federal Writers’ Project, the Green New Deal could fuel just such a necessary renaissance of storytelling about the living planet that still remains to us, as we gather together to tell each other tales around the burning fire that may or may not overtake the Earth.


Anna Lenzer is a researcher and journalist whose work has appeared in Fast Company, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, The Independent (UK), The Age (Australia), and City Limits (NYC). She has worked as a research assistant on books including Wayne Barrett’s Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11, and Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston’s book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense

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