A Message From the Future
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (photo: Hollywood Reporter)
Is it hard to be positive? Please take a ride with Alexandria and and find out.
By Naomi Klein, The Intercept 19 April 19
“The future isn’t cast into one inevitable course. On the contrary, we could cause the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, or we could create a prosperous civilization, sustainable over the long haul. Either is possible starting from now.”
Today, The Intercept launches “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” a seven-minute film narrated by the congresswoman and illustrated by Molly Crabapple. Set a couple of decades from now, it’s a flat-out rejection of the idea that a dystopian future is a forgone conclusion. Instead, it offers a thought experiment: What if we decided not to drive off the climate cliff? What if we chose to radically change course and save both our habitat and ourselves?
What if we actually pulled off a Green New Deal? What would the future look like then?
This is a project unlike any we have done before, crossing boundaries between fact, fiction, and visual art, co-directed by Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt and co-written by Ocasio-Cortez and Avi Lewis. To reclaim a phrase from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it’s our “green dream,” inspired by the explosion of utopian art produced during the original New Deal.
And it’s a collaboration with a context and a history that seems worth sharing.
Back in December, I started talking to Crabapple — the brilliant illustrator, writer, and filmmaker — about how we could involve more artists in the Green New Deal vision. Most art forms are pretty low carbon, after all, and cultural production played an absolutely central role during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.
We thought it was time to galvanize artists into that kind of social mission again — but not in a couple of years, if politicians and activists manage to translate what is still only a rough plan into law. No, we wanted to see Green New Deal art right away — to help win the battle for hearts and minds that will determined whether it has a fighting chance in the first place.
Crabapple, along with Boekbinder and Batt, have been honing a filmmaking style that has proved enormously successful at spreading bold ideas fast, most virally in their video with Jay Z on the “epic fail” of the war on drugs. “I would love to make a video on the Green New Deal with AOC,” Crabapple said, which seemed to me like a dream team.
The question was: How do we tell the story of something that hasn’t happened yet?
We realized that the biggest obstacle to the kind of transformative change the Green New Deal envisions is overcoming the skepticism that humanity could ever pull off something at this scale and speed. That’s the message we’ve been hearing from the “serious” center for four months straight: that it’s too big, too ambitious, that our Twitter-addled brains are incapable of it, and that we are destined to just watch walruses fall to their deaths on Netflix until it’s too late.
This skepticism is understandable. The idea that societies could collectively decide to embrace rapid foundational changes to transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, forestry, and more — precisely what is needed to avert climate breakdown — is not something for which most of us have any living reference. We have grown up bombarded with the message that there is no alternative to the crappy system that is destabilizing the planet and hoarding vast wealth at the top. From most economists, we hear that we are fundamentally selfish, gratification-seeking units. From historians, we learn that social change has always been the work of singular great men.
Science fiction hasn’t been much help either. Almost every vision of the future that we get from best-selling novels and big-budget Hollywood films takes some kind of ecological and social apocalypse for granted. It’s almost as if we have collectively stopped believing that the future is going to happen, let alone that it could be better, in many ways, than the present.
The media debates that paint the Green New Deal as either impossibly impractical or a recipe for tyranny just reinforce the sense of futility. But here’s the good news: The old New Deal faced almost precisely the same kinds of opposition — and it didn’t stop it for a minute.
From the start, elite critics derided FDR’s plans as everything from creeping fascism to closet communism. In the 1933 equivalent of “They’re coming for your hamburgers!” Republican Sen. Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia wrote to a colleague, “This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot.” A former DuPont executive complained that with the government offering decent-paying jobs, “five negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this spring … and a cook on my houseboat in Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter.”
Far-right militias formed; there was even a sloppy plot by a group of bankers to overthrow FDR.
Self-styled centrists took a more subtle tack: In newspaper editorials and op-eds, they cautioned FDR to slow down and scale back. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein, author of “Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal,” told me that the parallels with today’s attacks on the Green New Deal in outlets like the New York Times are obvious. “They didn’t outright oppose it, but in many cases, they would argue that you don’t want to make so many changes at once, that it was too big, too quick. That the administration should wait and study more.”
And yet for all its many contradictions and exclusions, the New Deal’s popularity continued to soar, winning Democrats a bigger majority in Congress in the midterms and FDR a landslide re-election in 1936.
One reason that elite attacks never succeeded in turning the public against the New Deal had to do with the incalculable power of art, which was embedded in virtually every aspect of the era’s transformations. The New Dealers saw artists as workers like any other: people who, in the depths of the Depression, deserved direct government assistance to practice their trade. As Works Progress Administration administrator Harry Hopkins famously put it, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”
Through programs including the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and Federal Writers Project (all part of the WPA), as well as the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and several others, tens of thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, authors, and a huge array of craftspeople found meaningful work, with unprecedented support going to African-American and Indigenous artists.
The result was a renaissance of creativity and a staggering body of work that transformed the visual landscape of the country. The Federal Art Project alone produced nearly 475,000 works of art, including over 2,000 posters, 2,500 murals, and 100,000 canvasses for public spaces. Its stable of artists included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Authors who participated in the Federal Writers Program included Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Steinbeck.
Much of the art produced by New Deal programs was simply about bringing joy and beauty to Depression-ravaged people, and challenging the prevalent idea that art belonged to the elites. As FDR put it in a 1938 letter to author Hendrik Willem van Loon: “I, too, have a dream — to show people in the out of the way places, some of whom are not only in small villages but in corners of New York City … some real paintings and prints and etchings and some real music.”
There was more overtly political art too, like the highly controversial theatrical productions of Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here,” which opened in 18 cities. Some New Deal art set out to mirror a shattered country back to itself and in the process, make an unassailable case for why New Deal relief programs were so desperately needed. The result was iconic work, from Dorothea Lange’s photography of Dust Bowl families enveloped in clouds of filth and forced to migrate, to Walker Evans’s harrowing images of tenant farmers that filled the pages of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” to Gordon Parks’s pathbreaking photography of daily life in Harlem.
Other artists produced more optimistic, even utopian creations, using graphic art, short films, and vast murals to document the transformation underway under New Deal programs — the strong bodies building new infrastructure, planting trees, and otherwise picking up the pieces of their nation.
FDR’s critics attacked the arts programs as propaganda, but participants responded that they were true believers. “We were all very ardent New Dealers,” recalled Edward Biderman, one of the celebrated painters in this period. “And when we found [New Deal policies] reflected in the art programs, we were even more enthusiastic.”
Just as Crabapple and I started mulling over the idea of a Green New Deal short film, The Intercept published a piece by Kate Aronoff that was set in the year 2043, after the Green New Deal had come to pass. It told the story of what life was like for a fictionalized “Gina,” who grew up in the world that Green New Deal policies created: “She had a relatively stable childhood. Her parents availed themselves of some of the year of paid family leave they were entitled to, and after that she was dropped off at a free child care program.” After free college, “she spent six months restoring wetlands and another six volunteering at a day care much like the one she had gone to.”
The piece struck a nerve with readers, in large part because it imagined a future tense that wasn’t some version of “Mad Max” warriors battling prowling bands of cannibal warlords. Crabapple and I decided that the film could do something similar to Aronoff’s piece, but this time from Ocasio-Cortez’s vantage point. It would show the world after the Green New Deal she was championing had become a reality.
Soon we had the script, co-written by Ocasio-Cortez and Lewis, who, as the director of our climate documentary “This Changes Everything” and strategic director of the climate justice group The Leap, thinks about the world after we win pretty much full-time. Next came the magic of Crabapple’s art and Boekbinder and Batt’s video design and direction.
Today, we launch the final result: a seven-minute postcard from the future. It’s about how, in the nick of time, a critical mass of humanity in the largest economy on earth came to believe that we were actually worth saving. Because, as Ocasio-Cortez says in the film, our future has not been written yet and “we can be whatever we have the courage to see.”
Please watch and share it. Our hope is that this piece will inspire more Green New Deal art. More than that, we hope it plays some small part in inspiring an actual Green New Deal. Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson recently offered up this clarifying reminder about the stakes before us:
The future isn’t cast into one inevitable course. On the contrary, we could cause the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, or we could create a prosperous civilization, sustainable over the long haul. Either is possible starting from now.