Activism & Storytelling: Level 3

Mister Fox is a passionate believer in the power of story. And he will yammer on about it at any opportunity. This is the third and final part of his discourse on Activism & Storytelling, which he delivered from atop a small hill, silhouetted by a full moon, to a wily band of radical animals who believed a better forest was possible, and that brave individual and collective action could make it a reality.

Level 3: Change the story, change the world.  Beyond strong motivational narrative, beyond consistent organisational stories, the real gold, and the real challenge, lies at the invisible layer of story as the operating system of society. There are stories that behave like mythologies: they explain the world, our role in it, and define the borders of what’s possible and what’s not.  “The Earth is the center of the universe, and the sun and moon and planets revolve around it because God created it for humanity.” That was once a story most of the world believed. It explained the world, and the place of everyone in it. It drove rituals by which people measured their time and honored the story.  Then along came Copernicus, with a different story, and things got a little messy, until the story of the scientific method grew strong enough to challenge it. The belief that order and prosperity in South Africa depended on empowering whites and keeping non-whites subjugate and separate was a perfectly functional mythology until Biko, Mandela, and a generation of activists broke the spell of the consensual hallucination. They proved true Vaclav Havel’s famous paean to whistleblowers, civil disobedients, and freedom fighters: “Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal.”

I was born into an era in which, in the US, we lived under an economic mythology that was just about to crumble as I entered high school (dressed as I was in psychedelic polyester shirts and bell-bottom jeans). The Earth was believed to be limitless and growth could go on forever. Malthus had talked about the limits to population growth in the 1800s, and been met at the border by Major Disagreement and General Scoff:

If the principle of population were so active and the multiplication of mankind so rapid as Mr Malthus asserts it seems very strange that the world which is so many thousand years old should not yet be half peopled … That period therefore when countless millions are to languish in all the extremity of want which Mr Malthus represents as such an approximating woe and an object of such immediate alarm is either never likely to arrive or else is placed at such an immeasurable distance as to be no object of apprehension or dismay.” (Dissertations on Man, J.Jarrold, 1806)

By the 60s and 70s, other stories were chipping away at that happy delusion: books like The Limits to Growth, Silent Spring, the Population Bomb, Future Shock. But nothing illustrated the story of Earth’s limits better than the single image of Earthrise over the moon’s surface: a vision so profoundly startling that the Apollo 8 astronauts who first witnessed it dropped everything they were doing — no small feat for military-trained precisionists — to gasp in awe and fumble for every camera in the capsule. The story that we lived on a pale blue marble in the vastness of space changed the way we viewed ourselves and our planet, and changed the course of civilisation. There was the stage upon which every single human story had been acted out, and where the human story might begin and end.

If stories are the operating system of the world, where are the data ports through which they can be hacked? The advertising industry has known that for decades: in the emotions and values with which a good story attaches like a trojan horse virus to a longing in the human heart, unleashing an action that purports to cure that longing: be beautiful, buy this; be stronger, buy this; make more money, buy this. In the activist world, I fear we too often think that we win hearts with facts.  That rationality will win the day.  James Hansen, the NASA scientist who raised the alarm about climate change in the US, tried for a decade to calmly lay out the facts in the voice of science, expecting them to wake humanity up, such was the horror any literate person could see in his stats. But our world isn’t shaped by rational behaviour. It’s shaped by emotional alignments, by consistency heuristics, by irrational leaps of faith, by stories that attach like cocoons to a longing in our hearts and release a delicate winged creature of such beauty we must follow it, chase it toward a better world, trade in our day to day satisfaction with what is for the creative pursuit of what might be.

All of us love to listen to the stories around the campfire: this was how, for millennia, we learned what berries to eat, how to avoid bears, how to look for the magical wood that burned all night. Stories taught us how to be human beings, taught us how to coöperate and live together, and helped us become the dominant lifeform on the planet by helping us share information in way we’d remember it, in ways that would help us survive. Storytelling made us collectively smarter.

Today our greatest storytelling has been harnessed for commerce. The Koch brothers, coal magnate brothers who have reaped the benefits of the industrial age to become billionaires, are loath to see the milk cow die. They dump truckloads of money on US presidential candidates to put question marks around climate change and to decry as “unamerican” anyone who would think of taxing carbon.  In a time that demands change,  the stories the Koch brothers tell — that change is impossible, it’s too expensive, that it’s being proposed by people who are not like us —  hold back a better world in favour of the one where Corporate giants roam the Earth feeding quite happily on what’s left of the landscape without much concern in their tiny brains for any of those asteroids up there in the night sky, heading our way.

Those of us who do look up and see those asteroids urgently need to become better story-tellers, story-crafters, story-masters. When Occupy Wall Street broke into the public consciousness, it was an alternative story to one of the most powerful mythologies about the United States: The American Dream. Instead of the land of golden opportunity, in which anyone had an equal chance to achieve wealth, Occupy introduced the concept of the 1% and the 99% as characters in a very different story of wealth disparity. Instead of the vision of a class-blind, gender-blind, color-blind system in which anyone could excel with hard work, Occupy charted the increasing gulf between ambitions and possibilities for the middle class and the billionaire class. What Occupy failed to do was prescribe a solution. Enter Bernie Sanders with a plan, not only to redistribute that wealth, but to put it to work fighting climate change, providing health care and education for all Americans, and reducing military spending. And millions of people respond to the story of an unlikely Don Quixote who actually may have a point about those windmills, and become listeners to his story, re-tellers of his story, champions of his story, characters in his story. Occupy painted the picture of a broken land, creating space for someone to say “I have an idea” — to venture out of the village to slay the dragon, to wrest the treasure from its lair, and return it to bring peace to the kingdom. The stage is set for a hero, but it won’t be a lone one. Bernie’s story, or the story of whoever eventually seizes this story’s flag and successfully carries it up the mountain, will only triumph if millions of people believe it to be a flag they believe in.

If a story gets told in an empty forest,” says Mister Fox. “It isn’t a story.” But a story that gets told on a mountain, to a forest full of beating hearts desperate for hope, can be the next great story in the epic of the human journey. The one that reminds us that humans are artists of the impossible, better than our lesser natures, and capable of overcoming any obstacle fate or our own hands might choose to lay before us. 

Activism & Storytelling: Level 2

Mister Fox drops in regularly to visit with forest friends who run organisations dedicated to this and that. Mister Owl’s Wilderness Health Organisation, the Association of Unassociated Hedgehogs for Fewer Roads and More Hedges, and his favorite, the Henhouse Liberation Army. He likes to help them tell better stories so the entire forest understands who they are and what they do. Last week, he talked about how stories can help make for better communications. Today he’s talking about how story works at the level of their organisations.

 

Level 2: Consistent organisational storytelling solidifies your identity and makes social movements more efficient.

An organisation with a strong story can use that story to design and select its programme, to test its communications, and to be crystal clear to its audiences about who it is and what it stands for. Charity: Water’s founder Scott Harrison tells a beautiful story,  of how he set out with the twin mission to bring safe clean drinking water to everyone on the planet and to reinvent charity for a new generation.  That he managed to get that twin mission right into the organisation’s name is even more impressive.

Story can illuminate or mask, of course. Coca Cola doesn’t tell you or its staff “We’re a faceless, amoral corporation looking to maximize profit from selling sugared water.” That’s not a good story. So instead, they’re the people who sell happiness. What makes Coca Cola a behemoth brand is the consistency with which they apply their story: every ad they make, every design decision about their product is made with that story in mind.

When we were running the “Green my Apple” campaign at Greenpeace, our story was that we were Mac Fans, and disappointed that Apple included toxic chemicals in its product line that were poisoning kids in China who were processing e-waste. We expected better of such an outrageously great company. Our tag line was “I love my Mac, I just wish it came in green.” Maintaining the story consistency on that campaign was hell, because Greenpeace had a long communications history of vocally bashing evil corporations. But we were aiming for the then-niche Mac fan base and wanted to play chorus master in a song that Apple would hear. It had to be sung by Mac fans, not by environmentalist outsiders, and it had to drive a specific policy change, not drive Apple into a defensive corner. It worked, but we played a constant game of whack-a-mole with actions and communications that didn’t sound like they came from a place of love for the brand.

If the Greenpeace story is “A billion acts of courage can spark a brighter tomorrow,” that implies a level of hope and optimism which should be obvious in every piece of communications Greenpeace puts out there. It implies a spotlight on people power that needs to be relentless. And a focus on courage that isn’t optional.  I recently was asked my opinion about the video below.

It’s beautifully shot and evocatively scored. It’s moving and does what it set out to do: link the forest fires in Tasmania to climate change. But if you covered up the logo at the end, would you know this is a Greenpeace video? Not likely. It’s got nothing unique to Greenpeace’s organisational story. There’s no courage, just an appeal. It could be any one of dozens of organisations concerned with climate change. It’s not a bad video at all: but the secret of a strong story is to tell it again and again and again. And to tell your unique story with everything you put your brand on. A video that tells the story of billion acts of courage looks more like this:

 

The story of a Billion Acts of Courage is retold in the the story of activist Eva Resnick-Day, who thanked Hillary Clinton for her vow to tackle climate change, but asked her if she was willing to take the courageous stance that Greenpeace has asked all US presidential candidates to take, and forswear funding from the fossil fuel industry. The defensive response of HIllary, “I’m so sick of the Sanders campaign telling lies about me,” presuming this was a politically motivated attack,  spoke volumes about a guilty conscious — or a recognised weakness in the consistency of her words and actions.

toblerone (1)

A good organisational story is like Toblerone: its shape is recognisable at any scale. See it whole in the package? You know it’s Toblerone. Break off a piece? You know it’s Toblerone. A good organisational story helps shape your communications AND your programme by helping you focus on what your organisation is uniquely good at, and leaving other stuff to those who are good at that. A good organisational story has enough points where it can flex that you can tell it in a billion different ways, through a billion different media, and still see the spine of the original story.

There’s a tremendous temptation in dealing with complex issues like climate change to want to be prescriptive about the entirety of the problem. The deeper you dig into any issue, the further the roots reveal themselves. It’s sometimes hard to remember that there are allies and abundance in the world that you can tap into, and that no one organisation is ever going to crack it alone. In any movement where you need a wide diversity of strength, skills, and perspectives to move forward, you need a division of labour. All of us working for a better world need to be clearer about what our unique piece of the solution is, what our chapter looks like in the big narrative of change, and then fiercely live that story.


This is the third installment of a series on Activism and Storytelling featuring Mister Fox, the alter ego of Tommy Crawford and Brian Fitzgerald and the trickster spirit at work in their creative agency, Dancing Fox, Ltd. 
If you’d like to follow along, you can subscribe here to get new entries via email.
I’ll also be running a day-long workshop in Story as Theory of Change in Oxford on April 12th. If you’re going to be in the UK for the E-Campaigning Forum, sign up! If you know an activist, artist, or entrepreneur who you think would benefit from some story mojo, nudge them toward that link or share this blog. The story that we can change the world gets stronger every time it’s retold.

Activism and Storytelling: Level 1

When Mister Fox talks about storytelling to activist organisations, he finds he needs to talk about stories at several different levels.

I like stories with the number 3” says Rabbit. (This may have to do with the fact that rabbits can only count to 4)

Very well,” says Mister Fox,  “There are three levels of storytelling for change. Today we’ll talk about level 1”

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Level 1: Good stories grab you by the coat-collar and insist you pay attention. This is just plain good communications sense. Plenty of very smart people dismiss this as the only thing story has to offer. “You know,” say’s Mole to Mister Fox, “it’s a communications thing. Like frosting. I bake a cake and bring it to a communications specialist, they add story, and boom, you’ve got a birthday party.” Well, we’ll get to why that doesn’t always work, and how other levels of story can be baked into that cake to make it not only inviting but nutritious and delicious, but today let’s just talk first about that frosting. This is the part of the story that your audience sees. The cake inside may be made of sawdust or double fudge (Mister Fox’s fave): all you know as someone looking at a piece of communication is whether you like the look of the frosting; whether it makes you want to eat the cake.

Epic storytelling is supposed to have a great hook; a beginning, middle, and an end; and (for most audiences) some form of a happy, life and humanity-affirming ending.  But great activist stories that drive action are incomplete by design: they describe only a part of the narrative arc.

Hook they must. But end they shouldn’t.

A good activist story has to invite the listener to join the story in progress, to become the hero, or to help the hero, or in some way deliver or bring closer the happy ending which the story convinces them is possible.

Here’s a fine example, from a story a 13 year old girl, McKenna Pope, told about her 4 year old brother.

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Activism and Storytelling

mister fox & little prince
The other day Mister Fox and I dropped in on the Little Prince’s planet to have a talk with Fox. You remember, the one that wanted to be tamed, became the Little Prince’s friend, but then became sad when the Little Prince went away. Fox reminded the Little Prince of his responsibility to all that he’d tamed, and memorably said:

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Mister Fox and I are interested in  that, because it sometimes seems that a lot of people’s hearts are blind. I’m always surprised by how some people can see stories all around us and some can’t. How some see the opportunity in hacking at society’s stories and some don’t.

Because there are some very strange stories that lots of people confuse with absolute, rock-solid truth. Stories like “You can tell if the world is getting better or worse by looking at whether the stock market went up or down.” Or more basic stories like “Monday.” Or “Money.” Now I know this gets deep, but really, those are all things that don’t actually exist in nature.  Monkies aren’t happier on Friday, Giraffes don’t get the Monday blues.  We’ve not only forgotten that those stories are not real, we’ve forgotten that we made them up. That we shape our daily lives with stories about what’s possible and what’s not, what’s right and what’s not. That we have the power to change them.  Think of the story of money — our consensual agreement about what represents tradeable value, and how fundamentally that millennia-old story is being challenged by BitCoin and an entirely different story of how value can be determined by a crowd rather than a bank.

Stories are invisible and powerful, like ghost puppeteers that waggle their fingers, pulling spider silk threads that make people march, or dance, or sing, or vote, or buy. They shape people’s expectations of how the world works, of what’s true, and how they themselves should behave.

Example?” asks Mister Fox, leaning against a tree and brushing a butterfly from his nose.

Filtered cigarettes were once considered lady-like, and a brand called Marlboro was struggling to survive dismal sales. Along came a storyteller, Leon Burnett, who created a character called the Marlboro man, a rugged, non-conformist cowboy. It was soon the best-selling cigarette in the world, and filters became completely acceptable for men. Millions of people would die of lung cancer because of that story. In the days when I smoked, my inner smoker and inner non-smoker were at war, daily. My inner smoker would saddle up and just look with disdain at my inner non-smoker, who wore a lab coat and heavy black-rimmed glasses patched at the nose with a band-aid. He carried around a clipboard, charts, and graphs about lung cancer.  No matter how good the lab guy’s facts, the Marlboro man would just lean down from his saddle, give me a light with his Zippo and say “pay no attention to that pencil-necked geek: we’re outlaws, outside the mainstream of society, making our hobo coffee by a brook as the moon rises over the rockies and the coyotes sing. Tipping our hats to the ladies in the streets of Deadwood, where, sure, people die fast.”

It was no contest. Burnett told a romantic story about that cigarette that I desperately wanted to not just believe, but inhabit, and breaking free of that story’s grip took years of effort.

But that was  story designed to sell cigarettes. What if we put that kind of creativity into stories designed to save the world?

For the last two years, I and a pirate band of colleagues have been teaching storytelling as an activist tool.  Today I’m beginning a series of articles about what we learned, what we got right, what we got wrong, and why I’m convinced this is seriously strong magic for world-changers, and why story has more potential today than at any time in history to change the course of the future.

If you’d like to follow along, you can subscribe here to get new entries via email.

I’ll also be running a day-long workshop in Story as Theory of Change in Oxford on April 12th. If you’re going to be in the UK for the E-Campaigning Forum, sign up! If you know an activist, artist, or entrepreneur who you think would benefit from some story mojo, nudge them toward that link or share this blog. The story that we can change the world gets stronger every time it’s retold.

This entire journey began with one book: Jonah Sach’s Winning the Story Wars. If you want to get to the heart of story as theory of change, that’s a great place to start.

The Wall. The Mug. The Door.

A long time ago, when the web was young, a mysterious box arrived at the secret mountain headquarters of Greenpeace International. I was working then as the director of what we called “New Media.” New Media was anything that involved a computer, and I and a team of freshly minted digital ninjas were ruboxnning around with our hair on fire telling anyone who would listen that this “World Wide Web thing” was going to be HUGE if we could all collectively get over the idea that it was just a new way to deliver press releases.

The box was addressed to Karen & Ludmilla, the inseparable duo who made up our Supporter Services team. Karen recognised the name on the return address: it was from “Grateful Child,” a frequent correspondent, contributor to our online bulletin board and commenter on our website. Wes, as we eventually came to know him, was one of those voices that was consistently positive and upbeat and helpful. He’d field questions about the organisation from other posters knowledgeably, bring context to a discussion with a nugget of activist history or eastern philosophy, provide a deep link into our website when someone wanted to know more, and post wonderful, hippy-themed promotions of our content and online actions at his own website. In short, he was one of those supporters who crossed over that weird imaginary barrier all of us who work for organisations draw up between “us” — the folks within the bricks and mortar of an organisation — and “them,” the audience and supporters that we speak to when we blog, create web content, send press releases, talk at from the other side of a lens.

Let’s call it The Wall.
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2015: The Year the Carbon Beast Blinked.

For all of us working to stop global warming, 2015 will be looked back upon as the year we  pushed Big Oil and King Coal hard enough that they at  last took their first, inevitably fatal steps backwards. They have loomed large — mythologically large — as teflon-shielded, weaponised giants. Petroleum vampires towering over our capital cities, their teeth deep in the neck of our governments, feasting on blood and money.  Mighty coal gorillas beating their chests atop mountains they’d decapitated, throwing boulders down upon the villages below. Governments bowed down before them and did their bidding.  They smirked and threw fistfuls of gold at the feet of our cultural and scientific institutes and ordered them to sing their praises. And for three decades, they seemed unassailable; impervious to the forces of democracy and the liliputian non-violent armies that dared oppose them.
Personally, I see four major events in 2015 challenged that story.
The Fall of the Arctic Shelliath: The question of whether we as a species would allow oil companies to exploit the melting of Arctic sea-ice to extract more of the oil that was causing the melting of Arctic sea-ice has been called humanity’s stupid test. In 2012 I wrote:
The defining battle of our time is whether we can draw a line in the ice, and keep the oil industry out of the Arctic. Why? Because it’s winnable. Because it’s a stage where the lines are stark and black and white. Because Polar Bear cubs clinging for dear life to shrinking ice floes provide an easy fable with mass appeal that speaks to the threat of human children clinging to a shrinking rock as the waters rise around them. And because the forces that are battling climate change need a high-visibility battleground where we can take this giant down.
Well, this was the year we won. Shell has abandoned the Arctic for the “foreseeable future” and the future, as a result, is foreseeably less dystopian. Thanks, Obama. No, seriously: Thanks, Obama. Millions of Greenpeace members may have formed the chorus of battlecry on this one, but Obama was the one who drew back his slingshot and felled the giant.  The next battle is with Russia, but the beast has been back-footed, and we won a piece of high ground, visible to all.
The Tarring and Feathering of the Tar Sands: The world’s most carbon-expensive oil, squeezed from the earth like an oily sponge by machines with tires the size of houses choking the air with fumes and poisoning the lands and waters Canada. Activists who have been there call it Mordor. And Sauron’s plan was to tear the forests down, squeeze the black gold from the earth and build a pipeline to send it to Texas. Bill McKibben and 350.org led a charge against the Keystone XL pipeline that so inspired the Fellowship of the eco-wise that even Sierra Club decided to cast off its policy of stopping short of civil disobedience. Derailing the Keystone XL pipeline was a victory for the planet, for democracy, and another sign of the dark lord’s weakening. Orcs could be seen fleeing in panic down M street in Washington.
The Court that roared: A tiny activist group (I’m serious, TINY — the entire staff wouldn’t fill an executive washroom at Shell’s headquarters) called Urgenda gathered 900 plaintiffs and took the Dutch government to court over the gap between its ambitions to reduce CO2 and its actions. Arguing the fundamental principle that the State has a legal obligation to protect its citizens, the plaintiffs persuaded the court that it was insufficient to acknowledge the profound danger of climate change and then take half-measures to address it. It was a landmark case, and while it’s under appeal (what, the government DOESN’T exist to protect its people?) it was a shot heard by governments around the world. Because a government with a legal obligation to address climate change is a government with a legal liability — potentially a cripplingly expensive one — if they fail. The entire case exposes a deep truth:  the influence of corporate champions of economic growth at all costs in driving compromise on issues of survival. A tiny NGO in a tiny country brought the thundering voice of the law to this question: and that voice said the first obligation of governments is to protect people, not profits.
We didn’t always have Paris: Finally, a unanimous agreement to take action on climate change. We can rightly say it’s very little and very late — that it’s not binding in it commitments, that entrepreneurs and businesses have done far more to dig us out of the climate hole than governments have yet even promised to do. But here’s truth: the importance of the agreement signed in Paris wasn’t what was agreed, it was the fact that they agreed to something. The task that’s been set is the end of the fossil fuel economy by 2050. It’s an agreement to forge a new era of human history built on the energy sources that have powered the Earth for millennia. The last hold outs have joined the resistance, a once unassailable wall has been breached, and the credit goes to every voice of every voter, scientist, policy maker, and activist on the planet who has added drop upon drop since Copenhagen to what may have been the slowest tsunami of political pressure ever.
Between the retreat of funding for the Carmichael coal mine in Australia, divestment victories around the world, the late-2014 US EPA ruling on mountaintop removal, and energy policy decisions in China, there is arguably more evidence to add to this list.  But the sum result is what matters: the dinosaurs of the age of coal and oil have seen the asteroid. Their days are finally, officially, numbered.
A time will come when we’ll need to remind ourselves of what it felt like to be a climate activist or concerned citizen or a voice of reason when Petroleosaurus Rex ruled the Earth: how abundant the reasons for despair, how gossamer thin the threads of hope, how weak and wan the light at the end of the tunnel. Those days are now behind us: it’s a new year and a new era. The standoff is done. The task now is to hasten the beast’s retreat, and take heart in breaking from the long deadlocked standoff to experience the joy of beginning to run.  Happy New Year, Planet Earth.

COP21: Celebrate, dammit, you worked hard for this

It’s not perfect. It doesn’t yet mean the end of the dig, burn, and dump consumer culture. And it will require difficult decisions by risk-averse politicians. But it spells the end of the era of fossil fuels, and let’s face it, people, we worked hard for decades to get this. So I’m disappointed when I search #Celebrate #Cop21 that I don’t see spontaneous celebrations in the streets of every city in the world. But it looks like there was a damn fine party in Paris, well deserved, and we can all virtually do low-carbon high fives. And while you’re at it, why not tip your favorite climate activist with BitCoin via ChangeTip, and let’s get the bankless future started. I’m sending tips called “Cop21 Toasts” to folks in Paris and around the world who propelled this day forward in so many ways. Pass it forward. So many people in so many places around the world were a part of the great slow tidal wave that brought this agreement forward. So many people have suffered and sacrificed and stood up. Let’s not let this escape notice: we’re changing the story of the future. This day was another scrap of evidence that the great ship, forest-masted and sun-soaked in its voyage through space, has a chance. 

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Aboard the Rainbow Warrior: Life loves to walk us in circles

Rainbow Warrior

Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. –Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I’ve just walked up the gangway onto the Rainbow Warrior here in Keelung, Taiwan. Four years ago nearly to the day, I sailed upon this ship’s maiden voyage. It was an immeasurably magical experience, marked by extraordinary companions.

I recently noted the coincidence of dates on Facebook, and a friend responded with something beautiful: “Life loves to walk us in circles.”

Well, I’m grateful for this circle returning to its start, and for other circles that are just beginning. Most of the folks walking up the gangway today have done so for the first time. This trip is a training voyage, a short sail out to an anchorage where we’ll role play a couple of at-sea actions, pushing people way out of their comfort zones. It’s an amazing programme and an invaluable introduction to a world that has no set playbook. Over the next week, the trainees will be hit with every curve ball, every rogue wave, every freak occurrence we can muster to simulate the reality of life at sea. They’ll be physically exhausted from climbing the ship in mock boarding exercises, slamming over the waves in a rigged-hulled inflatable boat, and being hit by water cannons. They’ll be mentally exhausted from lack of sleep and the stress of planning and executing actions that involve huge risks. They may be seasick. They may be homesick. There’s a safe word that will make it all go away if it gets to be too much. But there’s no safe word on a real action.

Many of the trainees from the last training I was part of ended up as members of the “Arctic 30,” the crew of the Arctic Sunrise who ended up being illegally seized by the Russian government and held for months in jail. One of those activists, Faiza Oulahsen, was seasick throughout an action that she was running.  She pushed through it. No safe word for her. She briefed the crew on how the action was going to go down with a bucket by her side. I’ve seen tough — but that was tough.

As it turned out, the simulation we ran ended, by sheer coincidence, with the Arctic Sunrise being boarded by commandos and seized — and the images of that training are scarily like the actual events.

One of the rules of the training is that everything we throw is real — it’s happened before. But what we can’t predict is what among the events that unfold here in training might actually come true for any one of these participants. Life loves to walk us in circles.

I cast the I Ching to ask what awaits us this trip, and the response is wind. Wind doubled. Wind over Wind, the Gentle. The Image reads “A moment’s breeze is of no consequence. Yet the ceaseless wind moves mountains.” It speaks to me of constancy. Of the constant pressure of all the forces that propel this ship forward, from the donors who bought every bolt on the hull to the millions of people and organisations and volunteers who share a vision of a better world, to every act of courage that champions change. It’s an unceasing, gentle sirocco that flattens mountains, moves rivers, and is changing the face of the Earth.

That’s a fine hexagram to mark any voyage’s beginning. Or, when life walks us in a circle, its end.

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 22.18.54

Meta Fiction, Story, and Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle

SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve not read The Man in the High Castle, the following contains plot element spoilers.

The Man in the High Castle manages to jam three of my favorite things into a single novel. First, it’s by Philip K. Dick, who may not have been the greatest crafter of prose in the world, but imagined some of the most enduring science fiction tales in English literature. Second, it not only features the I-Ching, Dick claims that it was actually in part written by the I-Ching. He says he used the book of changes as a creative guide, ceding decision making about many aspects of the narrative to the text of the hexagrams. And third, he may have made that whole thing up in order to create a mind-bending metafiction. Or not.

Now, to break down the central meta-fiction we’re dealing with here:

The Man in the High Castle is a book written by Phillip K. Dick with the help of the I-Ching about an alternative history in which Japan and Germany won World War II. Central to the book is another book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is a novel written with the help of the I-Ching about an alternative to THAT alternative history in which Japan and Germany lost World War II.

In a nice twist, the television series coming out on Amazon Prime in November 2015 renders The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as a film instead of a book, neatly transporting the parallel mirror effect to the medium in which the story is told.

If that’s not meta enough, there are points in the plot where the I-Ching features as a doorway between worlds — two characters cast paired hexagrams, in different places at the same time, linked by a single changing line. Another character finds himself eerily transported into a surreal vision of San Francisco which may be the one in which Dick was actually writing the book — or at least one in which Japan had lost WWII — through a piece of jewelry crafted by the character who throws the identical hexagram.  The hexagrams that are cast in the book all predict the future or shape the behaviour of characters, and (if he’s to be believed) were actually cast by Dick in order to determine plot movement and character behaviour.

In the final scene of the book, in the presence of the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Juliana Frink asks the oracle itself why it wrote the book. Continue Reading…

#ADE15 Green Innovation Battle: The winner is the planet

I was so grateful to present the keynote at the Amsterdam Dance Event Innovation Battle at ADE Green yesterday, and to learn more about the amazing strides forward that are being made in reducing the footprint of big festivals. Eight major Dutch festivals signed up to a landmark agreement with the Dutch environment ministry to go waste-free.  I caught a panel where Rob Scully talking about the  100% renewable energy solutions for Greenfields at Glastonbury, Govert Reeskamp talked about creating miniature festival-sized smart grids. There were lightning talks about everything from a generator that creates electricity from urine to Julie’s Bicycle talking about how big data can help big festivals be kinder to the Earth.  Open House put innovation challenges out that asked entrepreneurs to come up with ways to distribute tap water to avoid plastic bottle waste, and there was an innovation dedicated to solving a problem I didn’t know existed: tent waste. Apparently a vast number of people buy tents new for use at festivals, use them for a couple days, and leave them behind where they end up as landfill.

Open House’s Innovation Battle was a kind of Dragon’s Den — ideas got pitched and then interrogated by a panel of judges made up of Jim Stoltz, founder of Tedx Amsterdam, Sander Bijlstra of Q-dance, Patrick van der Pijl of Business Models Inc, and Jan Willem van der Meer, founder of Paylogic.

I was particularly pleased to see who won the battle, and why.

Continue Reading…

My keynote at the Amsterdam Dance Event Innovation Battle

This was the original text of my keynote at the ADE Green Innovation Battle. Had to cut some, forgot some, and mangled some in what I actually said.

Hello. I’m from Greenpeace. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to chain myself to anything or hang a banner on your stage. I’m here to do what we activists don’t do often enough: applaud. Applaud in particular your Innovation Battles: Energy to Enjoy, Waste No More, Water for Everyone. In fact, those would make fine Greenpeace banners, better than we often do ourselves: short, sharp, positive.

When I was first asked to do this Keynote I really wasn’t sure what the common ground between environmentalism and dance events and festivals was. But I talked to Carlijn Lindemulder of ID&T and Barbara Vos of Open House and heard about all of the sustainability efforts going on in this industry, and all the people you reach with those efforts, and I realised you’re all running tiny experiments in different ways of living and being. Every festival is a small synthetic utopia — we all know when we have that experience of not wanting to leave, of asking why can’t every day be like this? How can I make this vibe and this tribe a part of my daily being? Those of us who have been to an event that we didn’t want to leave know that feeling — the idea of Woodstock nation, of Fusion forever, Glastonbury 365, of a world that looks more like Burning Man — magical worlds where we celebrate more, dance more, and experience the primal bonds of being one tribe revelling in creativity, kindness, love, and the courage to be joyful. Continue Reading…

Mystic Hippies and the I-Ching: App of Changes

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The Director of How To Change the World, Jerry Rothwell, kindly let the Greenpeace International staff in Amsterdam have a sneak peek at his Sundance-award winning documentary of the early days of Greenpeace. It’s a brilliant, funny, and moving story. It’s also the only documentary I’ve seen that’s done justice to the organisation’s mystic hippy roots. Aside from the standard cosmic adventures of the early 70s, the film documents the ritual casting of three Chinese coins that was once an accepted form of decision-making in those pre-organogram days: the I-Ching.

If you don’t know it, The I-Ching or “Book of Changes” is an ancient Chinese oracle and book of wisdom. It was used to describe the present, understand the past, and predict the future in something close to its present form as early as 600 BC. But elements of it appear in China as early as the Hsia Dynasty (2205 — 1766 BC). Like The Bible, the book is the result of a layering of many texts by many authors (Confucius and Lao Tzu among them) and there is no widespread agreement on its authorship or birthdate. It was a standard text you might find in any North American hippy’s concrete-block bookshelves alongside the works of Alan Ginsberg Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder, Carlos Castaneda, and Tolkien. The reason it might have been there might vary from hippy to hippy though: for some, it was a beautiful exposition of Eastern philosophy. For others, it was a doorway to the subconscious through archetypal imagery and elemental poetry. For still others, it was believed to have powers of divination.

Bob Hunter, the Vancouver journalist/activist who led the early organisation and is at the centre of the documentary, chronicled many consultations of The Book in his Warriors of the Rainbow, the text of which provides’ much of the film’s narration. Decisions about who would join the crew, what the outcome of a journey might be, and even where a ship should go were often made by tossing three coins six times to generate a hexagram of broken and solid lines.

My own decision to join Greenpeace full time was helped along by a reading I did in 1982. I’d cut down on my hours at a good paying job to make room for volunteering at a crazy place called Greenpeace New England in Boston. I was canvassing Saturdays and a night or two a week, which brought in a little money in commissions, but spending most of my time helping out around the cavernous warehouse of an office. There were only two paid staff, and the rest of us did everything else: maintained boats, designed actions, fixed the photo copy machine, answered the phone. We were building something powerful, and I wanted to be a bigger part of that creative pressure cooker of a place, but it would mean trading in the day job, a secure income, and warm, dry, book-lined environment for the uncertainty of the street, the weather, and the very real possibility I was getting into something that was going to get me arrested. But I knew it was time to either commit or quit. I did what any mystic hippy would do: I cast the I-Ching. Continue Reading…

A way of being, a way of meeting

The most difficult challenge facing humanity is not devising solutions to the energy crisis or climate crisis or population crisis; rather, it is bringing images and stories of the human journey into our collective awareness that empower us to look beyond a future of great adversity and to see a future of great opportunity. -Duane Elgin

That was the note on which we started, the pitch pipe to which 30 people in the room adjusted their frequencies as we began a four day adventure into the unknown. Our band of adventurers included the usual suspects: the marine biologists, ex-fisherman, political judoists, an activist climber,  a volunteer coördinator, sailors and salty dogs, the people you would expect Greenpeace to gather to plan some creative mischief in the name of Mother Ocean.  But on this trip, we brought other adventurer-guides: a poet, a visual artist, some storytellers, and a beekeeper. Continue Reading…

Hashtag-detecting toy protests Shell Arctic oil rig

Greenpeace’s campaign to get LEGO to sever its relationship with Shell  prompted me to  reach out to the maker community on one of my favorite sites, Instructables.com, with this little project. It’s a Shell oil rig being boarded peacefully by a little LEGO minifig who celebrates every time someone tweets the campaign hashtag, #BLOCKSHELL, by making some noise, flashing a light, and sending the little activist dude up his climbing rope. The instructable for how to make it is here.

But seriously, LEGO, building this reminded me of just what an amazing toy you have, and what a huge responsibility you have to be inspiring human ingenuity among old and young alike to do something about the crisis our planet faces, rather than let the halo effect of your wonderful brand get used by an oil company to make more money on its destruction. LEGO, do the awesome thing. Stand up for the future of the kids you inspire.

UPDATE: Thank you Lego, for doing the right thing and parting ways with Shell. If more companies follow your example, we can #SaveTheArctic.