Don’t get us wrong: we believe in the cautionary power of dystopian stories. As actors, we have both brought to life worlds ravaged by uncontrollable disease, lethal weather, and mad kings. This form of art has a long and rich tradition: it acts as a warning of what is to come if society does not change course. But in times like ours, we’ve been feeling the urge to experiment in something a little more challenging: utopian art. After all, you don’t need much imagination for dystopia these days.
Right now, things are bleak, and likely to get bleaker. The first debate of the U.S. presidential election felt like it was scripted to induce existential nausea — which fits with the historical moment we’re in. We’ve seen raging fires and storms collide with a deadly pandemic and disintegrating democracies. The global economy is still holding its breath, the coyote is suspended in midair over the canyon. It’s not hard to imagine what happens next — and what things could look like in 10 or 20 or 50 years if we fail to act swiftly to, first, cushion the fall, and next, get on a safer course.
But what if we could emerge from our current crises into a reality that is genuinely better than it was before? When an opportunity came recently to collaborate on a short film with Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, author and activist Naomi Klein, and artist Molly Crabapple on a project that would explore this question, we said yes immediately.
There have been glimpses of such a future already: strange as it is to say, we’ve all seen small but important silver livings in the pandemic. In this way, the pandemic has been a teacher. A tough one, but a teacher nonetheless. The pandemic has taught us that for better or worse, we’re all interconnected. It has taught us that we need to slow down. It has shown us what’s essential in our lives — and whose work is essential in the economy.
And we’ve learned that especially in rich countries, governments have tremendous capacity to spend money to solve problems — and remake our societies for the better.
That one is worth repeating: there’s nothing stopping us from marshaling the necessary resources to change the system. And that means there’s nothing inevitable about apocalyptic futures. What better way to bring that home for people — to help them imagine a different future, and an economy and society that has internalized the lessons of the pandemic — than by harnessing the power of art?
The best utopian storytelling is not just indulging in wild-eyed futurism, divorced from the hard reality of people’s lives. In fact, what we need right now is a picture of our future grounded in the best of our present. For us, much of that is to be found in the crucible of the streets — in the articulate political demands, creativity and courage of social movements, organizing in the midst of pandemic, climate chaos, and authoritarianism.
It is possible to translate the chants rising up from the pavements into a coherent and hopeful futurism. For example: imagine our governments investing in schools instead of police and prisons — with smaller class sizes, and a whole lot more nurses and counselors. Think shorter supply chains, so that all communities could ensure access to the food, supplies, and PPE they need in times of crisis. Or beautiful, zero-carbon social housing, based on the pandemic pods so many have been building on the fly rather than the single nuclear family. In this future, the workers who take care of the youngest, oldest, and most vulnerable — or who pick food in the fields and stock it on shelves — would get the pay, benefits, and respect they deserve.
In the same way we took care of each other, we would take care of the Earth. If we’ve learned the central importance of care work, we’re also learning anew that we have to protect and sustain our shared home, and all the living beings we share with it. When we treat the planet as something to be ruthlessly exploited (to feed the ever-expanding needs of a small segment of humanity), it blows back on us. Pandemics, with their links to rampant habitat destruction and cruel factory farming, are certainly one example.
The climate crisis — which didn’t take a holiday when COVID hit — is also telling us we have to take better care of the natural environment.
When everyday life is dystopian, hope for a better future becomes a radical act — and a profoundly creative one. We can afford to build a fairer, safer world, and it’s ours for the making.
A world where no one is sacrificed, and everyone is essential.
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