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.

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 naive. 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?

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