Making New Habits

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by Guy Zimmerman

We’re all familiar with bad habits, the kind that can tip into addiction. Habits, by definition, are tough to break, residing as they do in the pre-conscious formations out of which we are constructed. Vision LA seeks to illuminate the scaled-up, collective bad habits of overconsumption that now threaten our survival as a species. As many scientists and activists combating climate denialism no doubt understand, the resistance to wise action often comes from cultural formations that must be dragged out of the dark and deconstructed. A second function of Vision LA is to provide the emotional juice for this challenging task by sketching out an inspiring vision of what life might be like were we able to liberate ourselves from these cultural shackles. A sustainable future—one in which human beings are fully engaged in the creative work of managing the living systems of this planet—can offer the kind of inspiration that brought pilgrims across a wide and dangerous ocean, and sent men to the moon in rocket ships.

One of the strengths of the Jung-based 12 Step programs is the way they view habitual patterns as formidable opponents. These affective formations are adaptive, resourceful, wily, drawing on the energies of the organism to avoid the kind of deconstruction we are talking about. All this applies to the kinds of collective, cultural patterns and formations that need to be dismantled before progress can be made on the environmental front. The challenges are sobering, and it is good to know that ahead of time.

The critical, deconstructive project outlined above is only half of the picture. The other half is creative, positive, visionary—we need to collectively imagine a sustainable way of life—what it might look and feel like—before we can inspire people to help us create it. This cannot be simply an impoverished version of our current social world. We should not tell people they’ll “have to learn to live without” and expect them to get in line. On their own, fear inducing messages simply advertise the climate deniers Kool-aid—when we are terrified we cling to what we know. Engaging instead with the full plasticity of human potential combats the reductive message of the right wing—they idea that there is no alternative to our unsatisfying, dehumanizing status quo. We cannot concede this crucial point and expect to prevail. Instead we must celebrate the astonishing capacities human beings have to actualize new capacities, new modes of relation, new social and political institutions that liberate rather than enslave.

Like any creative act, to imagine a sustainable future we must first engage with the equivalent of an empty canvas or a blank sheet of paper. This work promises to address also the persistent social imbalances that give rise to poverty, alienation and other social maladies. This positive feedback effect will be familiar also to those who have struggled with addiction—often addictions are signposts of buried traumas, and we are better off dragging those into the light where they can heal. Viewed this way, habits are invitations to a greater freedom. The current climate crises invites a new vision in which women and men work cooperatively with living systems to maintain and enhance the webs of life in which we are embedded.

The logic laid out above explains our decision to follow up our December 2015 Climate Action Arts Festival with a series of initiatives and collaborations oriented toward the kind of pragmatic, imaginative work regarding new and sustainable ways of being on this planet. By engaging with narrative story tellers at work in the popular media, and with documentarians, advertisers and other communicators, Vision LA seeks to seed the collective imaginary with the transformative energies of hope and inspiration.

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Carbon Cowboys on TV! The VisionLA Sustainable Narratives in Entertainment Lobby

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carbon-cowboy2VisionLA was founded on an interest to broaden the climate justice movement beyond traditional environmental activism and information-based journalism.  While the environmental movement has made great strides with these tools over the last 40 years, they do not seem to be enough to respond to global warming in a timely way.  What’s required, now, to save ourselves is a rapid transition to a 100% carbon-free economy.  Obviously, this a huge undertaking that needs all hands on deck, and to me what the recent election showed (among other distressing viewpoints), was that climate change is not registering on the majority of citizens’ radar as an existential issue.

Obviously this view needs to change- but how?  No matter how odd it seems to those of us who develop our views based on evidence, the presentation of facts and information is doing little to change the hearts and minds of “the people” who chose to promote a xenophobic, climate-denying reality tv star to become leader of the free world.

At VisionLA, we think climate action communication and narratives need to shift away from doom and gloom global warming, that is, presenting it as a problem that can only be solved by taking away your current way of life and replacing it with the unfamiliar. Such a narrative has got to be scary to those whose believe their livelihoods depend on maintaining the status quo.

So let’s change the story! Climate action, AKA sustainable change or the sustainability movement, is not about taking away something you have, but giving you something BETTER.  We need to make sustainability feel to everyone what it actually is— an exciting opportunity for innovation, economic growth, and long term stability for your kids, grandkids and beyond.  This involves education, but education done with emotional engagement, not through mere information dispersal.  We need to get people’s hearts, imaginations, and sex organs on board with the sustainable change program, like they got on board with the space program. We need to show sustainability as patriotic, a challenge to ingenuity, a driver of innovation, and let’s not forget, an economic opportunity.  Luckily, sustainable change is all of that and more– an exciting, positive expression of values of cooperation, inclusivity, harmony and creativity that feel good because they ARE good.

opportunity_ahead

Since we don’t have a leader at the moment who can fire us up like JFK (and our leader-elect is a climate denier)—where can we turn for this sort of game-changing climate action vision? Let’s see, we’re in Los Angeles…. Well, we DO have a good portion of the tv and film entertainment industry here, plus a big chunk of the branding, advertising and gaming industry.  Taken together, these industries are a powerful, and mostly untapped, engine of culture and values.  The fiction and non-fiction stories we watch on TV have the power to shift cultural views and priorities by changing what people trust and don’t trust, value and don’t value.  It’s a gut thing, an emotional thing, what stories do to us.  Storytelling is all about getting people to relate emotionally to fictional characters, to identify with their plights, to see themselves in the characters; and when they do, the coded information that comes through the rest of story- the situation, events, relationships and actions- can subtly educate, inspire, even alter values and views. What that character believes in and cares about, I start to believe in and care about too; and I might let that character and her fictional situation change my mind about previously hardened positions, just like I would a friend or relative whom I trust and identify with. The creative minds who generate our wildly imaginative filmed entertainment—our modern culture-makers—could no doubt devise innumerable ways to invite environmental, climate, and sustainability themes into their episodic shows and movies, if given the encouragement and support to do so.

soil carbon cowboys

Soil Carbon Cowboys, a film by Peter Byck

At the VisionLA ’15 Climate Action Arts Fest last December, we screened the short documentary Soil Carbon Cowboys.  It’s a wonderful film about some good-old-boy, “red state” ranchers who come to see that a few simple, pre-industrial farming methods have the power to revive their soils, their failing farms and their way of life.  We watch these guys discover they can solve looming existential problems through their own innovation and willingness to learn, and their courage to go up against the received wisdom that’s been letting them down, encouraging them to farm in ways that deplete the soil and ultimately destroy their business and way of life.  Seeing their authentic delight in the outcomes of their experiments, we’re delighted along with them. These almost archetypal representatives of middle America report feeling better working with nature as a partner rather than fighting against her.  This approach makes good sense to them, and to us, their surrogates, the viewers; and our views about sustainable farming may just be changed as a result.

The “soil carbon cowboys” show us that bringing our actions into harmony with nature is non-partisan; it’s a deep human desire, a desire of every living thing—and it feels good. Stress comes from being in resistance to the design of things, ease comes from being in harmony with it, and those ranchers’ smiles at discovering the benefit of harmony went straight to my heart.

By showing these guys relating their doubts and learning in first-person narrative storytelling, Soil Carbon Cowboys models the promise and possibility of sustainable change for that hard-to-reach population who’d rather choose a Trump for president than be “talked down to” by the “fake media.” But, the problem with a documentary film is—scale and access.  Most people are not going to watch a doc, and most programmers won’t program it.  But a popular sitcom or drama series inspired by the ranchers of Soil Carbon Cowboys, with the soil stuff as a backdrop to their family drama (or comedy)– might just be the stuff of culture change in the same way that Ellen, Will & Grace, Modern Family and other shows primed America for a large-scale, rapidly accelerating cultural view shift on same sex marriage.

terrafugia-flying-autonomous-car

Prototype of the Terrafugia TF-X flying electric car.

And here’s another one– I hear that a remake of the 60’s family movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang may be in the works.  So what if the Dick VanDyke inventor character was revised to work in the field of biomimicry, creating whimsical nature-inspired designs for zero-impact technologies—sun ovens, garbage-eaters, electric cars that sprout wings and fly! Followed of course by a spin-off video game for the appropriate age group. Entertainment offers so many ways to model sustainable values, choices and designs, and just a couple of hit shows or films could make them an integral part of the mainstream culture.

These reflections have inspired VisionLA to develop a new program intended to support climate-friendly entertainment “insiders”—producers, creatives, executives, showrunners—in their efforts to bring more sustainability-themed programming into our living rooms and movie theaters.  We’d like to help creatives develop stories, connect them with relevant source materials and research, as well as to each other, to grow networks of affinity-action groups in the industry. We’d like to create symposia and workshops for industry pros to come together to reflect on new communication strategies for positive climate action messaging as well as how to build effective pathways and incentives for programming these kinds of stories—to get them not only developed, but programmed, as quickly as possible!  There are as many creative ways to model sustainable living, values and views as there are ideas for characters and stories; we’d like to help the entertainment industry jumpstart these efforts right here in our home town of L.A., the crucible of international cultural influence.  Click here for more information on this exciting new program from VisionLA.

 

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What Now?? VisionLA Responds to the Election

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statue-of-libertyThe American people just elected a climate denier for President, and he’s promised to undo all of the recent gains of the Obama administration on the climate and environmental front. Climate experts are saying that if these reversals of power plant regulations, pipeline halts and Paris climate agreements go through, it will likely tip us into the danger zone for greenhouse gas PPM, past the tipping point where there’s no chance of avoiding the worst of the projected destructive outcomes, midcentury and beyond. That’s incredibly scary, that 4 -8 (let’s hope not!) years of Trumpism could have such a detrimental effect… but at this late hour in the progress of global warming, it’s a very real possibility.

Of course we must mount a resistance to Trump’s wacko decisions with every available resource, but when I think about strategy, I’m reminded of the helplessness I felt when marching in anti-war protests in the post-9/11 lead-up to the Iraq War. Though millions of people around the country and the world were standing up and shouting NO, I knew in my heart these actions would have no effect; the Bush administration would not listen to the people; they would ram through their bogus war, ushering in hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, and escalating unrest in the Middle East.

The question then arises, instead of asking ourselves how we can pressure a blinkered, unreasonable majority government to see reason when it comes to climate response, we might better be asking how can we get to zero carbon without them?  Without the federal government?  Until such time as we can shift the power balance?

Climate concerned folks everywhere are having similar strategic reflections, and I’m sure we’ll see a flow of new ideas for how to continue significant progress on the climate by making an end-around of this unfriendly President & Congress.  Here are some of my top-of-the-head ideas.

1- Focus on carbon reduction in the states.  Keep building momentum to the rapid shift to a carbon-free economy taking place at the state and international level – California, New York, Germany, Finland, etc.

  • Use these states as models to show more “backward” U.S. states the myriad benefits of growing a green economy.
  • Mobilize climate-friendly groups and communities in “backward” states to put pressure on their local and state governments to move on carbon reduction.
  • Lobby for a carbon tax in friendly states and use the success of such measures to pressure both backward states AND the federal government to institute a carbon tax; which has received bipartisan support in the past.

2. Education & PR – Change hearts and mind on a grand scale to grow the number of concerned citizens around the country – primed and ready for the next election.

  • Continue to educate kids with climate and sustainability programs; the kids in turn influence their parents. “Don’t you care about my future, mom and dad?”
  • Continue promoting climate action as a non-partisan, non-political existential issue that affects all of us—eg. via the kids.
  • Lobby for climate action and sustainability narratives in popular entertainment and the arts, including shows and messaging that can reach conservative Americans.  (Link to: Carbon Cowboys on TV!   The VisionLA Climate Action in Entertainment Lobby)
  • Get positive Climate Action stories into the political discourse through non-stop agitation.  If climate action is always in the news because of a constant stream of actions expressing public concern, it may just break through to the more reasonable Republicans in congress, who can resist the more egregious plans of Trump and cronies
  • Media/news reform.  It’s unconscionable that climate change barely registered as a topic in the last election cycle, with the media covering the more scandalous stories.  Pressure the 4th Estate to stop entertaining and start informing!

3. Economics and sustainable business. Step up education of business interests about the cost of future climate impacts vs the untapped economic potential of a green economy.

  • The profit-making potential of a new paradigm rivaling the tech boom can be shown to outweigh the costs of leaving the old infrastructures behind, especially when the cost of global warming impacts are repeatedly emphasized.  (Best case scenario- taking those costs into account with a carbon tax!)
  • Even if I don’t believe pure capitalism is a sustainable economic system, I have faith in it as a driver of rapid change. Our economy changes radically as business interests embrace opportunity and innovation, so let’s make abundantly clear that all the opportunity in the next 10 years points away from fossil fuels and toward sustainability and green innovation.  The recent downturn of coal prices for market reasons unrelated to regulation is a promising turn of events that can be highlighted as the future of all fossil fuel.

The best response to this election is to stay positive and get creative, to channel the horror and fear of the majority electorate toward momentum for climate justice, and use that momentum to swell the ranks of engaged change-makers.  This is what VisionLA, and many other climate action organizations are re-committing to in the next four years.  Out of compassion for our kids, and for all the people, animals and living beings of the future, there is no other choice but to do whatever it takes to turn the tide back toward sanity.

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See Clearly, Respond Wisely – the Vision of VisionLA Fest

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Brian Ibsen and Sarah Harlett in Cheryl Slean's "Sanctuary". Photo by Alexis Wolfe.

Brian Ibsen and Sarah Harlett in Cheryl Slean’s “Sanctuary”. Photo by Alexis Wolfe.

My personal journey toward climate activism, like many others’, went something like this: see Al Gore’s movie (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006), get scared, look for more information, find little (at the time) in mainstream media, get more from alternative media sources, scientific journals and books, be overcome with terror and grief with no outlet, because no one I know is talking about this climate crisis! No one’s doing anything about it! Politicians are still arguing about whether global warming exists! And in the ensuing cognitive dissonance between scientific fact and widespread cultural denial, I become caught in a stasis of dread and helplessness, like a fossilized insect in amber, burying my face in my hands, not wanting to look. I think, for many people, not much has changed in the last ten years, except that the news has become more dire and more widely reported, but still our politicians argue over whether global warming exists and/or what to do about it, including those who’ll be representing our interests at the next U.N. climate summit, scheduled for Paris in December.

As a writer I often processed my feelings through my work, and so at this stage I wrote a number of dystopian stories and plays (photos from one of them here), and even an unsold TV pilot about the dire future that awaits us if we continue with “business-as-usual,” blithely combusting fossils until the resulting runaway greenhouse effect makes this planet unlivable, destroying millions of innocent species on the way. Doing the creative work served to loosen the sense of helplessness and inner “freeze,”– what our nervous systems often do when faced with a threat that we can neither fight nor flee from– and this melting allowed me to open my eyes again.

The emotional shift I describe is one of our intentions behind organizing a Climate Action Arts Festival: to offer an outlet to artists like me, who are caught in a deep freeze of dread because this slow-motion crisis won’t go away by ignoring it, or by complaining how hard it is to fix and how expensive it is to fix. This festival, in part, is an invitation to artists to simply take it on, this situation we’re in as a culture and individuals, to face the feelings and process them through the great transformative engine of our creativity. And to invite our communities to join us, to come and witness and participate in this opportunity to see clearly, so that we can all respond wisely.

Photo Rob Sullivan

Photo Rob Sullivan

When my work allowed me to open my eyes again, what I saw was example after example of innovation coming out of the growing sustainability movement. Not just renewable energy projects, but antidotes to carbon and other pollution in every sector of society, from zero-waste manufacturing, to zero-emissions vehicles and building designs, to organic food production (on roofs and in empty lots!), to sustainability as a core economic philosophy taught at business schools. So I began to see in a very practical and life-affirming way that the horrific future I feared is actually avoidable, if we were to marshal our will and ingenuity and verve to transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy to a more sustainable way, and of course this has to happen NOW, as quickly as possible. It’s in the interest of “business-as-usual” to slow it down, so it’s up to us, those who care about life, to gather and express our collective will for sustainable change powerfully enough to sweep aside those who would stand in its way.

This is the second intention of our Festival: to expand the base of the climate action and sustainability movements, to help raise the many voices needed to energize our reinvention, despite significant momentum in the other (backwards) direction. In my own mind and heart, there is no choice but to take to wise action to support a livable future, no matter how daunting, because it’s certain if we do nothing, that future may be lost. I feel that each of us needs to come to this challenging work through the communities and activities we love the most, and for me, that’s the Los Angeles arts scene. VisionLA ’15 invites Angelenos to rev up the joyful, inclusive engine of art to release ourselves from the stasis of helplessness and collectively construct the cultural narratives that both envision and propel us toward a thriving future for all. To art-makers and art-lovers alike: we invite you to join with us in this celebration of the power of art to make change.

-Cheryl Slean

Co-Executive Producer, VisionLA ‘15

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Recruiting the Art

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The arts community of Los Angeles has an important role to play in the great challenge of the day—turning the threat of environmental collapse and climate change into an opportunity for actualizing a better and truly sustainable way of life. Los Angeles, first of all, is ground zero of the fossil fuel driven automotive economy, the suburban mode of consumerism that flourished over the past eighty years on the cheap and easily transportable energy contained within the long hydro-carbon molecules of the various fossil fuels, especially crude oil and its derivatives such as gasoline. Burning this fuel continuously, and at ever greater rates, over the past decades we have now transferred a significant amount of carbon previously sequestered in these fuels into the atmosphere in the form of CO2, where it traps the radiant energy of the sun, heating the planet. Interestingly enough, fossil fuels are actually a form of solar energy, those long hydrocarbon molecules having formed through the metabolic processes of plants and other organic life forms over the course of millions of years. Crunched and compressed by tectonic forces, those billions of tons of algae and plankton and other carbon-based life forms pooled in pockets of the earth’s mantle we now tap by drilling down to the earth’s core. In Los Angeles hot black deposits of this kind percolate up near the surface forming open pools of the La Brea tar pits, and early photographs of the LA basin show oil rigs and derricks proliferating in immense fields like prehistoric beasts. The early city planners of the city were quick to see the potential to combine the vast freeway system with inexpensive automobiles to achieve a new hybrid of urbanism and the low population density of the suburbs. Today despite its many contradictions and challenges, the city is the most ethnically diverse on the planet…and as the center of the creative economy (i.e. Hollywood) it is also one of the best places to be an artist.

So what is the role of the arts in terms of the many interlocking environmental crises that darken our collective horizons? Many would say the answer lies in consciousness-raising, and no doubt effective agit-prop communications is a crucial part of an environmental solution. But at Vision LA Fest we also believe the arts have an even more important role in articulating alternate modes of living, defeating the “there is no alternative” mindset that fuels much of the climate change denialism impeding our capacities for adaptive change. This point of view sheds light on the frustration many in the environmental and scientific community feel regarding the ineffectiveness of most environmental advocacy. For the past 40 years scientists and activists have been issuing the same dire warnings about the course we are traveling, but with some important exceptions, the response has been wholly inadequate. Part of the paradox is that when we are afraid we tend to cling to the familiar – to what we know. Artists, for whatever reason, tend to be oriented to the new and the unlooked for perspective on everyday experience. Artists tend to reject the overly simplistic platitudes of the ideology of common sense that limits our ability to change. Artists embrace difference and engage with material resources with innovative intensity and pragmatism. For these and a host of other reasons we are seeking to activate the arts community to celebrate the hidden opportunities of a global situation in which change is required for our collective survival.

– Guy Zimmerman

Co-Executive Producer, VisionLA ‘15

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