Remember Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Powerful cadences and words pulling us forward into the future.
We desperately need a twenty-first century “I Have a Dream”, this time about changing our society’s way of living.
But — just as with King in his day — the ground must be prepared.
Do “I Have a Dream” in the 1940s, and it falls on deaf ears, never to be mentioned again. It would be just so far out of step with the average person that it literally “couldn’t be heard”.
Do “I Have a Dream” in the 1950s, and it’s heard, but not listened to. Reactions galore would set in, but the content would be ignored and buried.
Do it in 1963, after Little Rock (school integration), after freedom rides and bus trips, after marches? Now, at last, the message can be heard, listened to, acted upon. For every voice raised against, there are many raising voices for — and so, change finally comes. Not all at once, and not without struggle still, but the moment is ripe.
What we need, in 2012, before we can have a new “I Have a Dream” for our time that sticks, is to first acknowledge “I Had a Dream”.
What would an “I Had a Dream” have to say?
It would have to talk about the dream of endless growth. We all have an expectation that “ever onward and upward” is the natural order of things. We dream that next year we’ll make more than we do today, that our pensions will be worth more, that our investments will have gone up, that our countries are more important, that our companies are bigger, that our children will have more than we have had.
We’ve dreamed that there’s never a shortage of anything, that there’s always going to be more of the resources we need, that if supplies are getting tight then, no worries, technology will jump to the rescue, and higher prices will cause more to come to market (without hurting us in any way).
We’ve dreamed that our planet can absorb an infinite amount of rubbish, of smoke and exhaust, of dumping in our waters, of throwing our waste products out there, without effect and with an endless ability to clean it all up.
We’ve dreamed that “more” in our cities is all we need. Wider roads and the traffic will finally flow. Can’t see over the chap in front of you, get an SUV and “get elevated”. When we finally realise we’ve overgrown, subways can be instantly produced by magic and without costing us a penny.
We’ve dreamed all this, and more.
We’ve dreamed that the next new thing will always be there. We’ve dreamed that magic technologies can always be invented, that everything always does the job better than its predecessor. (That our railways operate at half the speed of the 1930s, and that it took until a few years ago to build a diesel engine as powerful as the steam engines diesels replaced, is ignored — as is the fact that nothing replaces light sweet crude oil for its properties.)
We’ve dreamed that a finite planet can support an infinitely expanding population. We’ve dreamed that nothing and no one could ever remove us from the pinnacles of our prior success. (We’ve dreamed we could bomb them into submission if they tried, and that they would submit.)
We’ve dreamed that all this was so true that we could build a whole fantasyland out of finances. Debts piled upon debts, but assets always secure and prices rising, with the elixir of growth covering the ever growing interest pile.
We’ve dreamed we could consume in advance of ever having produced, and even in place of it.
We’ve dreamed that our own little house would be worth millions, and that there’ll be a line of buyers with cheques in hand waiting to buy it when we want to sell, and that, at the same time, our children can live as we do in the neighbourhood and easily buy into it at an affordable price for someone starting out.
We’ve dreamed that we could snap our fingers and threaten to shift our “X” from this person to that, and that our politicians can wave magic wands and provide anything we want, while all the time having falling taxes.
Most of all, we’ve dreamed that none of this will ever change, that it will just get better and better.
All of this, and more, we have to give up. We have to walk away from all our ideas about prosperity, and growth, and endless wanting being fulfilled on the never-never plan of personal and political debt.
We have to start recognising limits, recognising the value of preservation, conservation, reducing, reusing, building for the long run and not a short fashion cycle.
We have, in other words, to know what our forebears knew. Growing knowledge, growing spirit, growing community ad infinitum is possible; exceeding your limits when it comes to things is not.
It is hard to say “I had a dream” and mean it. But it is what we must do, over and over again, until we believe it.
Only then can we say “I have a new dream” and have it be taken up.