In 2000 Marianne Williamson asked many of us to Imagine our work “working out” by 2050 and write a chapter for the book Imagine. I’m posting my story here because I think we are IN the hard times predicted and it’s good to imagine what might be beyond this incomprehensible cultural cleansing we’re going through. Mind you, the story was written before smart phones, before everyone and her sister had a blog, before Facebook, before Amazon sold more than books, before Ebay ballooned as did internet shopping for everything, when global population was about a billion or so fewer people. At that time, I was part of a network of authors and activists promoting simple living and financial sanity…
Tiffa & Peri, 2040
By Vicki Robin
Tiffa watched her daughter Peri laughing and talking with several friends over by the old boat house at Green Lake. She recognized Peri’s arched neck, tilted head and cocked hip. Yes, Peri’s in heat, Tiffa thought, recognizing body moves a woman never forgets. Do all mothers hold their breath in these years, unable to protect, direct and… well, mother?
At Peri’s age (17) Tiffa was still Tiffany (she’d disabused herself of that Barbie-name when she turned 50 and gray). It was 2000. She had just graduated from Seattle’s Garfield High. Forty years ago. Tiffa’s had been the environmental disaster generation. The one brought up on horror, on the thought that there might not be a world to grow up or grow old in. The one that named their children after dying species like the Peregrine Falcon (Peri), the Gorilla, the Frogs. How odd to think of all that had changed — and in ways they’d never imagined.
Green Lake. In most ways, it looked the same as it had in 2000. People bicycling and roller-blading and power walking the three-mile course around the lake. Pairs of friends engrossed in deep conversation. There were clearly differences, though… but what?
Facile with multiple ways of knowing (as most people were these days), Tiffa allowed herself to sink into a reverie that drew on her meditation practice, her scientific training and her keen web-columnist’s eye for the current and the quirky.
Her mind swam upstream like a spawning salmon, attracted to the headwaters where true explanations arise. The change, as always, happened first in the invisible and mysterious, in the tiny shifts in thinking and feeling that swell to alter the whole watercourse of history. At some point, the lonely majority of closet meditators and weary activists reached critical mass and came out in force, wearing their love for life on their sleeves. Before the tipping point we were all answering “What do you do?” with our jobs. After the shift, we’d reply to the same question with what we do to serve one another. Spirit was out of the box called church. It was everywhere and everywhen.
Whoever or whatever is running this show is a great ‘just in time’ manager, Tiffa thought with the wryness of her columnist persona. We needed that base of shared communion to deal with the shared time of Sorrow. Who could avoid being a mystic, thinking about the many arks that were sent to us to ride those rough waters? What a time…
People seemed different, too — and not just because of Afro-Asian fashion or the features of the young people who now carried more and more races in their blood. Strangers talked openly with one another. People hugged a lot. And they were forever whipping out their pocket communicators to exchange useful information or arrange “S-n-S” (service and swap) barters, enriching their lives without spending a dime. The self-proclaimed Nosy Neighbors were out in force, using their pc’s to match people in need with offers for beds and meals in private homes. Great outdoor volunteerism for folks over 80!
There was also the Green Lake community café; that was different. As with so many of the changes, it had come out of recognizing the obvious – in this case that all the boating and walking and fishing was really an excuse for conversation. So now there was an open-air conversation pavilion with tables and fresh food stands. Anyone could announce a topic and a table number on the web or the ubiquitous electronic kiosks and get a conversation group together. Several clumps were congregated now, probably talking philosophy or poetry or astronomy or politics (with six parties and election debates free on the net there was no shortage of things to talk about) or who knows what.
Neighborhood conflicts also got aired in the open air in the “con-res” circle. Now that everyone under 30 was trained from kindergarten in the whole range of awareness and conflict resolution tools, grievances had gone from private hell to public pageants. People loved the basically good-natured verbal “brawls” where you proclaimed your bitch as eloquently as possible, listened fully and accurately to your “opponent’s” version of the same predicament and together found a creative solution. “Mention the tension and resolve the dissension” was the motto for these public “con-res” sessions. Crowds gathered, cheered for elegant innovations and often reenacted the conflict with hilarious skits. At best there would be some musicians who’d get everyone dancing and people would go home in a happy mood to some juicy private celebrations of good feeling. Strange, Tiffa thought, in the old days we watched music and sports — now we play music and sports. We stuffed our feelings and our faces and went to the movies. Now we are the movies. It’s so different.
The other difference (and it was hard to remember how it had been) was silence; there wasn’t even the whisper of an internal combustion engine. Small electric cars and buses glided along the street behind her, all filled to the brim. It was so easy, with a communicator, to pick up hitchers — just punch in your destination and route and the names of everyone needing a lift popped up. A quick series of emails and barters and you’d have a full car and parking credits. Thank Gaia the Chinese got smart and decided to leap-frog over the fossil fuel economy. They sure cornered the market on alt-erg technology, Tiffa mused, Talk about a survivor civilization…
Peri had pulled out her communicator to make a date with one of her friends, talked to another on the celly and then punched in “off-line till 3 PM” and put it back in its holster. She came over to Tiffa and went from standing to bench-sprawling in one gangly plop. “So I have to write something about modern history for my web-zine group and I thought you could help.”
“Help… or do it for you?”
Tiffa got the look that said she was perilously close to damaging the delicate trust a mother needs to rebuild with her child as she becomes an adult. Backing off, she inquired, “And that topic is.…”
“Money and stuff. Like I know when you were growing up there were so many people starving and that the rich didn’t seem to care. Some people had it all and wanted more. Some had barely anything. That’s like totally gonzo. Like wasting Gaia is so stupid. I need to interview three old-timers (Watch your language, lady! Tiffa thought) about why and how they think things turned around.”
“Funny, I was just thinking about the changes. But why did they happened? That’s a great question. Tomorrow I might give a different answer, but today what occurs to me are three big trends — the Great Sorrow (Peri rolled her eyes… why does everything start with Great Sorrow stories?), the Simplicity Pioneers, and the strange way e-commerce actually transformed the economy from a market for things to a market for needs.
“I saw your eyes, honey. I know you’ve heard about the Great Sorrow years. But if there’s anything we learned it’s that wisdom comes from keeping our stories alive. That and the Journey of the 18th Year.”
“Do you think I’m not up to it?” Peri suddenly looked like a young colt, nostrils flared, a bit of wildness in her eyes. Tiffa knew bravado when she saw it. The Journey of the 18th Year was devastating for so many young people brought up since the Sorrow. As they visited the global sites of past eco-cide and war their mentors helped them ponder our blindness as a species and the darkness that could filter again into our midst.
“No, Pumpkin, I mean Peri, I think you will come through it a wise woman. You will understand the Sorrow from inside. You know, anyone could have predicted it (and many did) even in the 20th century, but we didn’t really know it was upon us until we were years into it. Everyone knows the Great Sorrow came from the synergy of the crash of the global financial markets, the terrible die-off from AIDS and other antibiotic-resistant diseases, the flooding of coastal regions around the earth and the end of the fossil fuel era.
“My generation — into whose childhood was woven mourning for the loss of nature and culture — was so much more able to handle this era than our parents were. They’d grown up in the 50s and 60s and believed in the economic boom like earlier generations had believed in the flat earth. They kept thinking there was going to be a rally. We understood ecology and cycles and limits to growth. We knew the economy existed within the natural world, they thought they’d transcended the laws of nature. They were like children, really. They just couldn’t cope with it. It was so sad. They’d developed so many medicines for life extension but they just didn’t want to live in a world that looked so diminished.
“So while the old-timers were partying themselves to death in Hawaii and OD-ing on everything they could find, my generation was prepared to hospice the death of the old mindset and midwife the new world being born. Within a decade, human population was decimated and a third of the species destroyed.
Against the will of the savvy adult persona she was inventing for herself, Peri had sunk into that quiet space of story telling.
“Yet we survived, and for good reason. Your grandparents’ generation also had some shining lights. Like the Simplicity Pioneers. These were ‘my people.’ We started having congresses in 1999, I think. Give or take a few years. The whole movement was a loose-jointed, grassroots-y affair. People everywhere were hitting the same cultural lie — more is better and it’s never enough. They were bone tired — from overwork, overstimulation, overspending and overconsumption of stuff they didn’t need. It’s like 50 million lonely, spent consumption junkies hit bottom in one decade and started seeking solutions. With some kind of ancient homing instinct for health, we turned from competitive consumption to the shelter of community. Study circles, conferences, chat rooms, church groups, books, journals, barter nets — you name it, we flocked to it. At first we only wanted to heal ourselves, but soon we saw that we couldn’t heal inside a sick system and a dying world. We organized and got active – developing trade associations and activist pods and policy and research institutes and, of course, the PopEcon Pranksters with our wicked street theater. There were some great leaders at that time – a whole group of them that seemed to instinctively know they would all be stronger if they worked (and played) together. They were like a moral compass, pastors of the whole culture. I think that was the beginning of the end of the old days of the lone charismatic leader.”
“Why would any one person WANT to be a lone leader? That’s like so not natural.”
“Surely they’ve taught you Western history, Peri! The whole saga is the story of just that struggle for dominance.”
“Get fluid, Mom. The guys who played that game wrote your books. My books tell the story of the Universe, not that penis dueling junk. Maybe you think humans have changed since you were born. I just think the rule makers, the process guides and story tellers have changed — and (Peri’s eyes sparkled) they now tend to have vaginas.”
Peri was right again. Tiffa felt old and rejuvenated both at once. Will the young people celebrate the die off of her generation as holders of the old way of thinking, just as her cohorts secretly prayed for the Boomers to be gone? Yet sitting with Peri (and her many friends) always gave Tiffa the tingle of youth, the desire to live forever and keep participating in the great unfolding mystery.
“To continue with my oh so antiquated interpretation of history” Tiffa said, feigning indignation. “With all that talk, action was bound to happen. Buy Nothing Day got bigger than Earth Day. A ‘million meek’ march on Washington was planned for the 2005 BND. The theme was ‘THE TIDE IS TURNING’ and the motto was ‘WE WANT LESS’ — but none of the organizers anticipated how big it would ultimately be. It was like Woodstock meets Seattle WTO. (Do they still teach about those events? Tiffa wondered.) The message was risky, sophisticated. There were signs that read, ‘In The Land Of More, Less Is Radical.’ People with bullhorns led chants. ‘What do we want less of?’ they’d bellow ‘Pollution!” or ‘Greed!’ or ‘Overwork!’ we’d reply. ‘What do we want more of?’ ‘Species! or ‘Time!’ or ‘Justice!’ we’d shout. And then, even louder, ‘What do we want enough of?’ and we’d say ‘Enough for all!’ (Tiffa didn’t realized that her hand had gone to her throat, a gesture the scientist in her often used to smooth out emotion when Tiffa the teacher was weaving the tale of a great historical moment.)
“Why doesn’t anything trans like that happen anymore?” Peri moaned.
“I thought the same thing about the 1960s when I was growing up in the 90s. Like I’d missed all the action. Your generation has big challenges ahead, Peri. I can see them coming. Despite the Journey of the 18th Year, people will forget the Sorrow. They will decide the World Wisdom Council is a bunch of reactionaries. Every generation has its revolution. Just watch the horizon. And maybe watch those young guys a little less… (Gaia, I sound like my mother, she thought. Age. Who knew it would creep into my radical life.)
“Keep telling, Tiffa,” Peri demanded, mesmerized by the story and willing to overlook Tiffa’s slide into mothering.
“Two million people… 30 cities simultaneously… never before… never since. So many people and concerns that had been pushed to the margins in the quest for the material ‘more’ were pushing back together for a new set of values. We were speaking with one voice about the world we wanted and were creating — not just protesting the world that was being forced on us by large institutions. The labor movement joined, realizing that they could fight for shorter work time rather than higher wages. The tax shift folks joined, promoting their consumption tax/guaranteed minimum income /no subsidies for extractive industries package. Youth was there, with their message of ‘We want a world to grow up in.’ Kids. Toddlers. Heartbreaking… and very media-genic. And, best of all, the poor were there in droves. They were marching for more libraries, computer centers, swimming pools and free public transport in their neighborhoods. And right along side the poor and homeless the ‘Millionaires for Justice’ marched. They were mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, people who’d made out like bandits on Wall Street — and knew how true that term really was. Call it guilt, call it giving back, they were advocating an end to corporate welfare and a voluntary lowering of CEO compensation. Representatives of NGOs from the two-thirds world came too, protesting the domination of commercial interests abroad. From that Buy Nothing Day on, money as the sole measure of value had lost its stranglehold on the public psyche.
The third fascinating occurrence was the surprising social renewal that evolved from e-commerce. It’s all so obvious to you, I’m sure, but it really was a revolution equal to, well, alt-fuel. It took hold just after women discovered that email was a cheap, easy way to keep the family connected. Everyone and her grandma were on-line then, and e-commerce was an obvious next step. Cutting out several middle men between producer and consumer lowered transportation costs and perhaps had something to do with the decrease in carbon emissions and global warming
“I cannot believe those old stories about doing errands in a car,” Peri chimed in, rolling her eyes with what she thought was a sophisticated flourish indicating disgust.
“Nor I, frankly! I think the next step was when somebody coined the term ‘Be’ commerce, that whole service industry of coaches/salespeople. I love the way they not only help you figure out what product to buy and how to use the damn thing once you have it, but ask you whether there might be non-material ways to fill your needs better than getting more stuff. Once ‘be’ commerce caught on (it wasn’t cheap back then, but the triple savings of buying less, buying cheaper and liberating shopping time offset the cost), other specialized types of transactions surfaced.
“‘We’ commerce became the new name for public spending. People thought afresh about what they wanted to own personally and what they wanted to borrow from a community source.”
“Like transportation,” Peri offered. “I can’t imagine everyone wanting a private car in the old days when a little intelligence and a few taxes so easily created the mobility system we have today. I mean, how could people be so solid, so, like 2020?”
Tiffa silently voiced the mother’s prayer of hope – ‘May she have a daughter just like her’. But what she said was, “It is strange what a name will do. The ideas had been around for years, but calling it ‘we’ commerce captured the entrepreneurial spirit of the times. Libraries became we-commerce in books. The vidi-wall became we-commerce in entertainment and fees for cable television disappeared. Suddenly we were thinking about the kind of world we wanted for everyone and looking for we-commerce solutions rather than government regulation or private consumption. It was easy – once we could see it. And cheaper – so American.
“Then there were the Simplicity Pioneers who started pushing non-monetary ‘you-and-me’ commerce — the barter nets that became the ‘S-n-S’ system today. It was such a no-brainer to realize that none of us use all our possessions all the time. Sharing brought our cost of living down dramatically – and brought back good old fashioned neighborliness. The you-and-me commerce folks eventually grew beyond barter to all sorts of consumer-owned buying clubs. Neighborhoods organized and partnered with organic farms. A group of my girlfriends designed a kind of tunic we thought would be cool to wear and partnered with an immigrant women’s sewing club to produce them.
“What I love, though,” Peri said, “is the ‘see’ commerce. I’m glad someone figured out that getting out is fun. For me, ‘see’ commerce in mall showrooms is more about seeing my friends than seeing stuff I might want to buy on the web. I mean once I’ve played with the latest techno toys at the mall, I just don’t want to spend my e-script on it.”
“I guess mall showrooms are like the old window shopping down on Small Town Main Street. I like being able to visit my purchases with no pressure to buy. Well, except for the ‘Flea’ commerce areas. I remember when we ran ‘Flea’ commerce like squatters in the parking lots of the old malls. Once shopping centers became showrooms where no money changed hands, though, I think us rag-tag tag-salers were no threat so they just let us move inside.
“I just realized that e-commerce used to only mean electronic. My oh my, times really have changed. You take enviro-commerce for granted, but back in the beginning there were no ecological screens for products. People had no way to know the cost to the earth of what they were buying. So much has changed!
“Gaia, we were so worried in the early days that the Internet was going to be one more tool of the commercial devil, but look how inventive and playful we became. For all our activism, for all our protest, I don’t think we ever thought that commerce itself could be a force for healing. You know, ultimately the logic of the web led us right to love. To reciprocity and sufficiency. To natural giving and generosity as stronger forces than greed. I guess you could call it ‘free-commerce’.” Tiffa smiled to herself. She loved to coin a term, and ‘free-commerce’ seemed new to her.
“Peri, I think it all comes down to good people living in elegant human systems that enhance the big system — the living system that includes us all. Frankly I’m damn proud of this little species we have here. We’ve gone through such a terrible time, but look what we’ve learned and invented. Look how we’ve grown. (Peri started going solid, braced for a lecture about the bad old days, but it didn’t come). In a way, honey, you are a celebration for me of all that is good about being human and being alive in the Universe. During the Great Sorrow, no one wanted children. After the Sorrow those of us who made it through knew we had to reproduce very carefully to survive in a world where 10 million other very precious species share the world’s natural wealth. Having you was my way of saying, the tide has turned.”
Peri had gotten more than a web-zine story. She’d gotten to bask in the attention and intelligence of the women who, truth be told, she most admired. Tiffa, normally not very demonstrative, hugged Peri and cried. Peri, normally not very tolerant of mushy emotions, cried too. Then her communicator beeped. It was 3 o’clock and time for her on-line chat with her three best fillies. Not that Tiffa wasn’t like a filly too, but after all, she was kind of prehistoric.
“Tiffa & Peri, 2040” was written for Imagine: What America Could Be In The 21st Century (Rodale Books, 2000), a collection of original essays from leading authors, academics, and activists on their visions of a better America, and what can be done to turn these visions into reality. Imagine, which was edited by Marianne Williamson, will be available this November wherever books are sold. All author proceeds go to the Global Renaissance Alliance, a nonprofit network of citizen groups interested in spiritual-based activism.