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.
And I remembered that one of my first experiences of activism was a concert: the No Nukes tour of 1978: I went to what I thought was a concert to see Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. But it was actually a rally. And I walked out with an opinion and a cause, and new radical friends, because I liked the music, I liked the vibe, I trusted the tribe. I wanted to make some part of it a part of my daily reality. That’s an incredible power that you all have in creating experiences that people want to hold on to, to replicate.
There’s another place where our tribes have common ground, but to get there I need to tell you a story of how I fell in with a bunch of crazy people who thought they could change the world.
It’s the story of two questions.
It’s 1980 and I’m in a cabin, in the woods, on a mountain in New England. It’s a simple place, one room, no electricity, no running water. Beautiful location looking down from a mountain on to a lake, but very remote. I’ve brought a backpack full of books and my intention is to write the great American Novel. (Sadly, you won’t find it on Amazon). But I found I was doing less writing than intended, and a lot of chopping wood and hauling water. The stove that keeps me warm needs to be fed every three hours. Autumn turns to winter, and it gets cold. New England cold. The beat-up four wheel drive that I used to go into town freezes solid into the mud. And it starts to snow. For days. Then a week. Pretty soon, that one hour walk to town can’t be completed there and back without running out of daylight. I started running low on food, which was inconvenient. But then disaster struck: I ran out of books. Now this is 1980 – there’s no internet, no wifi. My only way out of that cabin was to read. So after I’d read everything that I’d brought with me, I started to cannibalize the slim shelf of books that was already there.
And among those books was one which literally changed my life. It was called “The Warriors of the Rainbow” by Bob Hunter. It was the story of the founding of a group I had never heard of, called “Greenpeace,” by a group of draft dodgers, peaceniks, and hippies who met in a church basement in Vancouver trying to figure out how to stop a nuclear weapons test that was going to be detonated in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. What they decided to do was take a boat, sail it up there, park it in the blast zone, and say I dare you to the biggest military force on the planet.
Chutzpah. I was enchanted. And I realised that what they were doing was creating tiny stories of confrontation packaged up for the medium of the day, television, and sent them rippling around the world in what they called “mind-bombs”: simple simple stark black and white situations: here’s Richard Nixon’s Cold War Nuclear machine, and here’s a bunch of people who say there’s a better way to run a planet. Here’s a whale, here’s a harpoon, and here’s a tiny boat with a couple folks who are saying on my life, I dare you.
And the question every one of those stories asked, implicitly, is the first important question: which side are you on?
I knew which side I was on. I was with the whale. And the hippies in the boat.
In answering that question I stepped over an invisible line — not yet to activism, but from ignorant bystander to someone with an opinion, someone who had made a choice. I disagreed with that thing over there. I thought it should stop. And that answer planted a tiny seed of moral obligation to do something about changing what needed changing, though in my case that seed slept for quite a while. It slept while the snow melted and winter turned to spring. I didn’t run out of food, but I eventually ran out of money, and hitchhiked down to Boston and started working in a bookstore. It was a cushy, comfortable job where there was heat and electricity, I didn’t have to chop wood or fetch water and I was not going to run out of books. Then one day a friend who I grew up with walks in. Now to give you some idea what a coincidence this is, you need to appreciate how small a town I came from. How small you ask? I’ll tell you: the guy who drove my school bus was also the Mayor. And the milkman. I asked Cathy what she was doing and she said she was volunteering for Greenpeace. I said really, I just read the history – I loved it, and I really agree with what you’re doing. And then she asked me the second important question: Yeah? And what are you doing about it?
What Cathy wanted me to do about it was way outside my comfort zone. She suggested I join her knocking on doors, raising awareness, asking for donations, gathering petition signatures. Like an encyclopedia salesman. Or Amway. Or a Jehovah’s Witness. I declined. But Cathy was persistent, and one day I finally walked into that Greenpeace office, and I liked the vibe, I liked the tribe, I wanted to make it part of my daily life. So I started canvassing one day a week, then two, then three… and when I wasn’t canvassing I was volunteering, and pretty soon my volunteering habit was getting in the way of my full time job. So I did the rational thing, and quit my job.
And that was the beginning of a journey that took me to sea to save whales, to walk across the Nevada desert to stop a nuclear weapons test detonation, to fly a hot air balloon over a military installation for peace. But despite the fact that in many of those actions I literally risked my life, none of them required the courage it took to knock on that first suburban door and say “Hello, I’m from Greenpeace.” Because I wasn’t actually sure if that was brave, or crazy.
Now, about the difference between brave and crazy. I had fallen in with a bunch of people who were crazy enough to believe they could change the world. And to this day, I feel like that’s good company. I want to share with you a piece of poetry that Steve Jobs voiced on his return to Apple in 1985. It’s an ad for a scrappy underdog of a company called Apple Computers.
I look at that ad and I see Activists, Entrepreneurs, and Artists. I look into this audience, and I see activists, entrepreneurs, and artists. This ad to me charts the territory where our tribes meet, activists, entrepreneurs, and artists: we don’t like rules, we think about what’s possible rather than what is, and we aren’t afraid to break from the pack.
The guy I’d put in that ad if it was being shot today is Elon Musk – who invented the Tesla electric car, and instead of holding onto a patent worth millions released it open source, in order to accelerate the transformation away from fossil fuels that we need to make as a species if we’re going to beat climate change. The guy who created the PowerWall battery which will allow an entire building to be powered reliably by intermittent sources like wind and solar – and instead of holding onto a patent worth millions again gave it away, in the hopes that more of these will mean a better chance of the human race surviving.
That kind of selflessness is what makes a hero. And here’s something about crazy ones, about heroes: our brains are hardwired to admire them, champion them, to want to be like them, because they’re part of our survival strategy as a species. Stories of people who helped our families, tribes and nations survive, like all stories, taught us how to overcome an obstacle or an enemy. We pay attention to learn how we too can overcome an obstacle or an enemy. Stories throughout history have taught us what plants to eat and how to keep the fire going all winter and championed the bravery of people who sacrificed for the common good. Who dared the impossible. We want to be like them, we want to harvest the love and admiration their stories convey. To be the hero, to be the one contributing to the survival of the family, the tribe, the nation.
But Elon Musk is telling a slightly different story. A new one — not about the survival of the family or the tribe or the nations, but about the survival of the species. The planet. The future. He’s practicing a kind of Entrepreneurial Activism, which may be a new thing.
And, good people, we need some new stories like that that are going to help us survive as a species,
Because the old stories are failing us. The story of infinite economic growth of a finite planet. The story that a society’s worth is only measurable in its economic output. The story that we can consume our way to happiness. The story that if we make the top 1% wealthy it will trickle down and make everyone wealthy. I don’t need to hang a banner or produce a report or show you charts and statistics to tell you the world is burning. We all know it, we all feel it, from whatever angle you look at it, we’ve not figured out how to live full time in those temporary utopias we all create: how to live in harmony with each other, with our planet, with a future we can be proud of handing down to our children. But the story we need to start telling again and again with everything we do is that it’s possible. A better world is possible, and brave individual and collective action is not only going to make it happen: it’s making it happen now. William Gibson said the Future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.
Well the kind of future I want to live in is literally here, tonight – in those of you submitting projects which are striving to make our utopias more sustainable. In all of you who are creating experiences that suggest a better world is possible. To all of you making art or creating things that millions of young people experience, to the people who created the sustainable dance floor that generates energy when you dance on it, to the solar protest raves and beats against coal events that are spreading across the Netherlands.
We need to find the stories that are out there inventing the future today – of vertical urban gardens, of societies without violence, of makers and menders, the joy of things made to last a lifetime, and accelerate those things, tell those stories, distribute them, mash them up into a future that makes us want to dance.
The enemy we’re up against are the voices that say that’s impossible. It’s too expensive. It’s naïve. It’s never been done before. St. Francis of Assisi said “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
And I’ve always taken heart something Bob Hunter, who wrote that book I read in that cabin all those years ago, said. When you look at the epic achievements of humanity, one fact stands out whether you’re talking about the overthrow of apartheid, or Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence, or the struggle for women’s rights or in my own country the struggle for gay marriage: “Truly big change looks impossible when you start, and inevitable when you’re finished.”
Because impossible is simply whatever we believe is impossible. When people in sufficient numbers come to believe change is possible, change becomes possible. And that’s part of what makes all of us capable of being activists every day — the stories we choose to tell of what’s possible, of what human ingenuity is capable of. What we choose to amplify in our own lives, the stories we choose to tell to others, all these things contract or expand the human definition of what we can do and what we’re capable of.
My challenge to you, is take your creativity, your ingenuity, your energy, your business brains and your marketing muscle, and do a crazy thing: change the world. Invent a better future.
Because over here you have business as usual – it’s made of apathy, lethargy, cynicism, and despair. And it’s heading in a direction where millions of people are going to suffer.
And over here, you have the more beautiful world we know in our hearts is possible. It’s made of hope, creativity, and courage. And it looks a lot more like a dance festival.
The two questions we all have to ask ourselves, and which you have to ask everyone who your work touches, are these:
Which side are we on? And what are we going to do about it?