S4 E13 Futures with Alex Kelly and John Wiseman

I was lucky enough to have a wonderful conversation about possible climate futures, not through a lens of disaster and doom but gritty possibility, radical hope and extraordinary courage.

Castlemaine local Alex Kelly and Melbourne academic John Wiseman joined me recently to talk about their futuring practices. John has just published a book called Hope and Courage in the Climate Crisis and Alex is a co-creator of The Things We Did Next.

You can watch this interview on YouTube

John is a Senior Research Fellow, Melbourne Climate Futures, University of Melbourne and is on the board of The Next Economy. He also takes beautiful, serene photos that you can see here. You can find links to his published work at his website which of course links to his most recent publication Hope and Courage in a Climate Crisis.

Alex is also very prolific and some of her projects and endeavours include the current audio experience called The Planting, which is part of The Things We Did Next. Locally she is involved in West End Resilience Group, The Orchard Keepers and the local women’s footy team The Falcons. She was a collaborating director and impact producer for the film In My Blood It Runs.

Links to references made in this episode:


This episode was created in 2022 as part of a series called Saltgrass: Turning the Goldfields Green, which was created with support from MAINfm and the Community Broadcasting Foundation.


Transcript

[BIRD CALLS AND GUITAR]

Allie Hanly: Hi, and welcome to another episode of Saltgrass. Our topic today is hope and courage and what it might take to be able to hold onto those two states, given the increasing seriousness of the climate problem. How do we imagine a future that seems possible and hopeful, and that we might all want to fight for? Many people have a deep cynicism about the political process and the power and money that seems to control our world.

Especially here in Australia, we have been watching our federal government wilfully deny climate change for a long time, even in the face of unprecedented fires a couple of years ago, and very recently unprecedented floods in our north-eastern states. It can leave people feeling helpless and like the kind of change we need to see is simply not going to happen and certainly not happen fast enough.

And then on top of that, we have polarising media and social media algorithms that don’t help people get a clearer picture and much of the popular imagination leaps willingly, and even excitedly, to dystopias and disaster and apocalypse kind of scenarios. So, let’s talk about it. How can we hold on to what one of our guests today calls radical hope, and how does that impact our capacity to have courage in the face of impossible looking odds? How do the ways we talk and imagine our future impact how we act and the decisions we make? 

To explore all of these ideas, I have two guests: Alex Kelly and John Wiseman. You might remember Alex from the Saltgrass episode last year (which is 2021) where she interviewed Scott Ludlam about his book Full Circle. She is someone I’ve wanted to interview for a long time. And I’m very happy to finally have you on the show. Hi Alex. 

Alex Kelly: Hi, it’s great to be here. 

Allie Hanly: And we also have John Wiseman, who’s an academic in Melbourne and has just recently released a book called Hope and Courage in the Climate Crisis. Hi, John.

John Wiseman: Hi Alison. Great to be here.

Allie Hanly: Great. And as ever before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge that Saltgrass is produced on Jaara Country in central Victoria. Jaara Country is the traditional home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, who have been the custodians and caretakers of this land for tens of thousands of years. John is joining us from Naarm or Melbourne where he lives on Wurundjeri Country.

And no matter where you are in Australia, it’s all stolen land. It always was, and always will be Aboriginal land.

[SALTGRASS THEME PLAYS: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app or at saltgrasspodcast.com]

Allie Hanly: So both Alex and John have been working in the world of speculative futures, which is different from fiction, as fiction gets to have kind of a free reign on reality and invent all kinds of crazy things that could or could not happen. Whereas the type of work you guys have been working on has been really trying to in a realistic kind of way, help people think about what really could be the next steps and what we might see in 10 years or 30 years in our world, if certain things happen. And although we know as the past couple of years have shown that anything could happen, like curve balls, like a pandemic might come and just throw all of our lovely imaginings out the window…

But, nonetheless, whether you call it visioning or goal setting or manifesting or creating speculative futures, it’s important to look not just at the problems at hand, but also at the world you want to see at the other side of the problem: where we want to be at the other end once we’ve solved these things. So to do that is to give ourselves the motivation and energy to actually keep going and keep fighting for these futures that we want to see. 

And one other thing that I was thinking just this morning was that I was thinking of that movie Days of Thunder. Do you remember that? It’s a Tom Cruise movie and he’s like a race car driver. And one of the bits of advice he gets as a race car driver – I believe, if my memory is correct – is that if there’s a massive crash in front of you and there’s vehicles spinning out and flames and all sorts of stuff: don’t look at the crash, look at the gap that you will need to drive through in order to survive. And that’s the only way that you’ll actually be able to drive through that kind of chaos. And I kind of feel like that’s what we need to do. And then what we’ll be talking about today is how do we find that gap so that we can actually drive through into a safe future for us all.

So John, let’s start with you. You are an academic in Melbourne who has recently published a book called Hope and Courage in the Climate Crisis. And the title of your book is kind of what I think underpins all of this speculative futuring exercise. It’s kind of why we do it, which is to give us hope and to give us the courage to try and see a way through. And even I think in creating these speculative futures we are engaging in acts of hope and courage, just in the act of imagining. So let’s talk about the brand of hope that you’re talking about in your book: a radical hope. And how does that relate to courage? 

John Wiseman: Yeah, sure. So, hi Alison and Alex. I think it’s important to start by saying that, you know, this book is called Hope AND Courage, and I think both those words are really important.

I imagine we will agree that hope as wishful thinking or naive optimism: that’s not helpful. Nor is the kind of hope that Scott Morrison talks about when he says, you know ‘I hope we’ll find some magical technological solution,’ you know, none of that’s useful. What we do need, I think, however is what I like to call defiant radical hope. The hope that says we’re going to find the strength to keep working on these issues with our eyes wide open. Yeah, we understand that it’s a difficult future. We understand… I like your suggestion about the crash and the gap, makes me think of Leonard Cohen’s line about there’s a gap in everything and ‘that’s how the light gets in’. Perhaps that’s another way of looking at that. 

I think there are now many climate scientists, many climate activists who talk about defiant, courageous hope, and they do mean the strength to keep going in the face of what are going to be tough times. Perhaps one other kind of phrase that I quite like is the science fiction writer China Mieville talks about ‘hope with teeth’. I think that’s also quite an interesting phrase. So, yeah, that’s the kind of hope and courage that I think we need.

Allie Hanly: I love that. Because when I first saw your book, I was like ‘oh, hope. Oh no, it could be really like wishy-washy’ but actually as soon as you said radical hope, I was like ‘cool, I’m on board.’ Yeah, and your book is an amazing collection. You’ve sort of attacked the idea of how people can think about climate change from so many different angles to try and give people as many tools as possible to latch on to. 

John Wiseman: I mean, what I was struck by over the last, I guess ten, fifteen years of working on climate action is the range of ideas that people draw on. So, that’s why in this book, I’ve tried to explore well, what does hope and courage look like from the point of climate scientists or activists, but also people who are focused on learning from indigenous traditions and perspectives, or faith-based and spiritual traditions, or from art and literature. I think we need all of those sources and traditions, and I think there are important ideas to learn from many perspectives. 

Allie Hanly: Yeah, absolutely. And so then John, in the final chapter of your book, which is kind of why I’ve invited you to come and speak with Alex at the same time, is you create a sort of a speech or a presentation from the year 2050, where you draw together so many of the ideas that you’d thought about in your book, and looking at all the different sorts of positions people might need to take, or might have on climate and how they interweave through human interaction, and you’ve done something similar to what Alex has been doing as a creative process for a while now, which is yeah: write from some future point and look back as if we’ve done the things that we need to do. So what inspired you to do that and use that as the conclusion for your book? 

John Wiseman: Yeah, I think like Alex and like lots of people working in this area for quite a few years, I’ve found that that technique, that approach of looking back from the future really helpful. Because it’s about storytelling. There’s also a quote, I think from George Monbiot, where he talks about the way in which, you know, the people who can tell the best stories can change the world.

So it’s about storytelling. But it’s about I think being able to tell a story that says: Okay. So, you know, here we are in 2050 or 2030, and this is, it’s not a fantasy. This is a plausible pathway, a plausible bridge, or set of bridges that we found to the future. So, yeah I have found that that’s a really valuable way of starting a conversation with lots of people and inviting them to talk in that way. It makes it pretty grounded and pretty practical. So the story I tell at the end of this book is, yeah it’s a speech, it’s an oration. In this case in 2050, from a woman who has played a major role in the transformation that we’ve seen. And I guess there are two big stories in what she says.

She says, ‘It’s fantastic!’ You know, it’s extraordinary the way we accelerated the transition to a zero carbon future, the way in which we accelerated the development and the expansion of renewable energy, the phasing out of fossil fuels, the development of regenerative agriculture, the improvement of our food systems, the achievement of climate justice. That’s all fantastic. And there are great lessons we can learn from that, but tough call, is that it still wasn’t fast enough. It still hasn’t been fast enough. And I guess when we think about what we know right now from climate science, from what’s happening in northern New South Wales and around the world, is that it’s increasingly clear that we need to accelerate action, but we also know it’s going to be a tough journey, a long emergency if you like.

So her other story is the importance of you know looking back: ‘If only we’d acted faster.’ If only we’d thought more carefully about the skills we would need to pass on to our children/young people about how to live in what’s going to be a challenging world, no matter what we do. So those are some of the themes in that story.

Allie Hanly: And have you had much response to that final chapter in particular, from people who’ve read it? 

John Wiseman: Yes. And many discussions like this, about that. I mean, one obvious response has been – and it’s only a few years ago that I wrote this – but 2050 is probably too far ahead. It probably should have been, you know 2030, because we, you know, we certainly don’t have that amount of time. So I think some people have said ‘oh gee, you know, should it be faster.’ And I get that, it’s absolutely right. But I think what the main response has been: ‘Hmm, yeah, I think I’ll go and start that kind of discussion with my family, my friends, over my dinner table and see where that leads us.’

Allie Hanly: That’s a really great response. I’m gonna quickly chat to Alex and then we’ll come back and I’ll have a discussion together. But Alex, I’ll give a little bit of background about you and the diversity of things that you have done in your life. And then we’ll talk specifically about your speculative future kind of activities.

So you’re currently a local to Castlemaine, and you certainly have done a lot of things. You have a very impressive resume. You have worked as an impact producer on the book and film This Changes Everything with Naomi Klein. 

You are also just currently involved in the local community. You’ve helped establish and taken part in the local neighbourhood resilience group. And you have also taken on an organic orchard in Harcourt, which is a really hands-on, on the ground, kind of food security kind of work. 

You’ve worked extensively in Indigenous communities across Australia. And you’re an award-winning filmmaker. You have a young family, it’s like how much more could you possibly do? But in the last few years…

Alex Kelly: Footy!

Allie Hanly: …Yeah footy, that’s what else you could do! You’ve recently become part of Castlemaine’s what, inaugural, women’s AFL team?

Alex Kelly: Yeah. It’s a new women and gender diverse footy team in town. Very exciting. That’s what keeps me able to do the other things, to be honest. 

Allie Hanly: Yeah, yep. But in the last few years you’ve curated and directed multiple interactive arts projects, calling for people to imagine things in our near future, which as John said, you’ve been aiming at the year 2029. And it’s been called The Things We Did Next, and you’ve done The Things We Made Next, which was more of an art piece, and then Assemblies for the Future. And you’re currently working on a project called The Planting. 

So what got you started, Alex, on this speculative futures kind of work?

Alex Kelly: The seed was really planted when I was working with Naomi Klein. So wherever I toured with Naomi through the period of releasing her book This Changes Everything, and then the release of the accompanying documentary, it didn’t matter whether we were in a grungy warehouse in San Francisco or a gala theatre hall in Copenhagen, someone would inevitably ask ‘is it too late?’

And it was always the pin drop moment. It was always the moment that everyone in the audience was holding their breath. And I always felt really sorry for Naomi, because this was the moment that she had to reassure, provide hope et cetera. And she never tried to do… she never tried to say ‘yes, yes, it’s all going to be fine.’ She always tried to hold the truth of what it is that is coming down the line with also an encouragement to pay attention to social movements, to look at victories around the world, to look at examples. But it really came to be really clear to me that… but at the same time I was watching, you know Mad Max: Fury Road, reading lots of cli-fi fiction, reading you know, Margaret Atwood’s trilogy, and Station Eleven and texts like this, and thinking how out of practice we were at imagining other possible futures. It’s not just about the kind of narratives it’s also about the world around us. You know, as we do slide into ever more fragmented, totalitarian and violent times, it’s easy to just see that we might continue down that road.

And so I sort of presented a challenge to myself to generate a project that tried to imagine other possibilities. So I approached a really incredible theatre maker and dramaturg called David Pledger, and together we’ve developed this practice that we call The Things We Did Next. And we see it as a very humble practice. We’re really encouraging the practice of the imagination. We’re not necessarily trying to come up with a cohesive, singular, collectively agreed upon a future. In fact, we always use the word futures, plural, because we see part of the problem of the world that we live in is this kind of dominant corporations/governments ideology is trying to create sort of single ideas of what the status quo is: This is the way it has to be. This is the way it’s always been. This is the way it’s always going to be

And so we really want to explode that. We’re also, I mean we’re artists, right? So we’re also really rejecting the linearity of time. We wanted to talk about pasts, presents, and futures. And we’re really creating a participatory project. So we’re trying to create as many different futures as possible, that are contested, that show up all kinds of different possibilities from different perspectives, because we think that’s, you know, one of the things that’s missing in our society and in our democracy, is space for many different perspectives.

We have some other key ideas in that we are not necessarily just trying to flip into a utopia. We actually want to break down the binary between utopia and dystopia and look at the grey and the messy and the contested. So we’ve had lots and lots of different artists and thinkers come and present different possible futures.

Scott Ludlam presented a provocation from a future where we turned the fossil fuel dominance around. Claire G Coleman presented a future where we were in a race war in Australia. Alice Wong presents a future where the last Disabled Oracle Society are meeting and taking on gene treatments. And, you know, so we’ve brought in lots of really different thinkers and together, we’re really trying to think about all kinds of different possibilities. 

And we work in 2029 because it’s hard. It’s actually very hard to be tethered to a near future because it makes you think about what might be possible in the present. And it’s interesting because most people, when they start jump very neatly to 2029, but when you try and say, well, what happened in 2023 and 2025 and 2027, that’s much harder. So that’s where we’re really enjoying the tension of imagining other possibilities in the near future. 

And I suppose I might just say one other thing. Which is that we see the work in a really long continuum of other speculative future and science fiction and solar punk and cli-fi. And in particular, just want to recognise that there’s a really long history of Afrofuturism and indigenous futuring that’s really incredible. And particularly people like Claire G Coleman, and Ambelin Kwaymullina, Cherie Minniecon: Indigenous futurists on this continent.

And I think they bring a really interesting perspective, which is ‘this is not the first apocalypse. This is not the first collapse’ and put their survival and resistance to colonisation, and also from Afrofuturism – slavery and global colonisation – into the context of how we look at this one. And so I think when we look at… we take that really long view of resistance to other forms of collapse and apocalypse, I think that gives us quite a different discipline around what we talk about when we talk about hope. A quite a clear-eyed, open-eyed one about the violence and reality of where we are and not necessarily trying to sugar-coat things, but still finding the capacity to continue. 

Allie Hanly: Yeah. That’s such a great point, Alex.

And I will say that I’m going to put a list of links in the episode description of the podcast, links to a lot of those people that you referenced Alex. And also to the both of you and your various projects, so people can follow up on these things.

Yeah. So, I mean, as an impact producer, can you tell us a little bit about what that job is, but also if that’s impacted how you then choose to engage with people on this sort of terrain? 

Alex Kelly: Yes, I can. And it might get a bit philosophical for a second, but…

Allie Hanly: That’s good!

Alex Kelly: …Impact producing is really quite a practical way of developing a strategy for the way that you release something. You release a book or a film or a song or a podcast, and it’s a way of thinking really specifically about both your audience, but also your partners, so that the release of that cultural material can be put to the service of movements. And you can think about the kinds of events that it’s launched alongside, the people that speak with it, the audiences that you want to reach, but then also what you’re asking people to do once they’ve engaged with that material, and being quite directive sometimes about that. 

So I worked on a project, a beautiful film called In My Blood It Runs and that film we partnered quite closely with people that were working around raising the age of criminal responsibility for young people in Australia. So we worked with lots of legal groups, Amnesty International, Raise The Age Coalition, et cetera.

So it’s a really incredible way of, you know… like making books, writing books, making films, making work as, you know, making this podcast: it’s such a slog, it’s really hard work. And if you’re making it because you’re interested in social justice, you want it to do more than just be consumed, and then people go to the next thing. You want people to be activated. You want it to be in an active dialogue with movements. 

So that, the impact producing is the link really between ‘you’ve made a thing’ and then ‘you want it to be useful in the world.’ How do you plan that? But, interestingly, and this is maybe the philosophical piece, I’m resisting doing that with the futuring practice in some ways, because I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about the ways in which neo-liberalism demands that everything that we do have a purpose and an outcome and be measurable and productive.

So with this particular practice of futuring, I’m being quite protective of it because I think having some spaces that allow us to play and collaborate and create that are outside the utilitarian are quite important. And I’ve been in many conversations over the last decade or more about the purpose of art and socially engaged art, and how can art change the world, and art and climate, and how can art help us, you know, fix climate change.

And I think it’s the wrong impulse to demand that art fix climate change or save the world. In fact, it starts to put art into this utilitarian neoliberal frame of, you know ‘art must move an audience from A to B, do all these things and therefore it’s valuable and it’s measurable and it’s worth money.’

So, with this particular practice, you know, I do have work that I do that is very specifically politically orientated and want to have clear outcomes, but with this creative practice I’m really trying not to do that because I actually think that practices that enable us to sit in spaces of discomfort, spaces of uncertainty, spaces that are unresolved, that are contested and messy, are actually very important spaces to sit in, because that is the reality of the world and always has been, but it is going to be increasingly so. And so how we relate to each other in uncertainty is actually quite important. So we do very simple things and we’re very humble about the experiment, but we think very deeply about what we’re doing, if that makes sense.

Allie Hanly: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s really interesting to hear. John, I’m conscious, we haven’t heard from you for a little while. Do you have any reflections on what Alex has been saying so far?

John Wiseman: Yes. It leads me to think about one novel, or set of novels that I find really helpful in this space, which is by the American cli-fi speculative author NK Jemisin, and it’s a series called Broken Earth. And she tells this story – it’s set sometime in the future – but it’s an earth on which climate change, a range of environmental impacts have led us to a world in which there’s a whole series of cascading disasters, sure, extreme weather events, and so on, but actually earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and so on. So it’s a world in which she sets up a picture of a really challenging kind of world in which to live in, far more challenging than we currently do. And she I think uses that to help us. I mean, I really like Alex, your point about how do we deal with the messiness of this all with, the complexity of it all?

And, you know, the, I think the questions she’s posing to us are not what’s the magic answer to this, or what’s the single solution, but rather how do we help ourselves? How do we help future generations learn to live with, well firstly, a good deal more humility about the fragility and the complexity of the world we’re in, but also what does that mean in terms of the way we think about cooperation, mutual support, power? I think also perhaps the one other thought Alex is, you know, I can think only not so long ago people saying ‘gee, why aren’t there more, films, novels works of art that explore these issues?’

And now there’s a wonderful array, a wonderful explosion really of many, many ideas and approaches, and that’s fantastic. And I think it most of all highlights your point about ‘there sure ain’t one bridge’. We need multiple bridges and multiple imaginations and multiple pathways. So I really liked that, the way you talk about that.

Alex Kelly: And that’s one of the things I really appreciated about your book, John, as well, that sense of all the conversations that you’ve been in over many years from people from very different disciplines. And I think that’s sort of one of the traps that we struggle with, because we’ve just been fed a simplistic three-word slogan, simple solution, linear kind of world with everything – with the pandemic, with any kind of crisis that we’re up against. So this idea of, you know it’s interesting when you’re talking about the car crash, Allie. I don’t… I think actually it’s more complex. It’s like, ‘find the gap, but as you’re going through, don’t forget to pay attention to what happened. Why did those cars spin off the road? Why did they crash? What happened?’

And we’re being asked to do many things at once. You know, we’ve been asked to pay attention, analyse, understand the old, understand deep longstanding ideologies. Look at what’s happening around us in the present. Look after each other as we’re going through. And then imagine these other places that we want to get to. You know, create the conditions to get there by fighting off the fossil fuels and other corporates and rebuild our democracy. So, when you list it like that, it’s like, ‘how could we all do that?’ And we’re so trained to think in the singular that we all get overwhelmed because we go ‘well, I couldn’t possibly do all of that.’ But if maybe instead of a car in your metaphor, we’re in a bus and someone on the bus is driving. Someone’s thinking, look, you know, there are 10 people are looking at different maps, talking about where we’re going. Ten people are looking out the window and ten people looking out the rear window and looking where we’ve come from. And together we’re doing all of that. It suddenly becomes less challenging to think about sharing the roles.

Everything is so siloed. And we think as individuals, our organisations think in isolation. So anything that brings in many voices I think is super useful to undoing that way of thinking.

John Wiseman: Yeah. And just to extend your bus idea for a second, I mean, I’m really struck by the number of conversations I have with people, who’ve… you know, climate activists and scientists too, who make two additional points. One is, ‘how do I get up each morning and do this?’ Well, the inspiration of being alongside shoulder to shoulder, working with other people. So I guess that’s a point about the other people on the bus. But also the second point is taking a bit of time to look out the window and see that alongside all the chaos and disaster, there is still great beauty in the forests and the oceans and the deserts, and to hold onto that as well, which is clearly part of our motivation for action, but also helps sustain us I think.

Allie Hanly: Absolutely. When we think about future thinking, as you said earlier Alex, that messy space in between dystopia and utopia is kind of where the action is, and where we can feel really, the gritty… Like, I feel like culturally it’s really easy to go to the dystopian future because there you have a lone hero who saves the whole planet and isn’t that great?

And that, but that is what we’re talking about here, is it’s a really fundamentally different narrative of… it’s not you surviving a zombie apocalypse on your own with like a kitchen knife. But also, you know, the utopias are just as unrealistic. It’s not like we’re going to have some tech genius who’s just going to save us all by coming up with that one idea that’s going to be the solution. So I think this emerging idea, which is really counter to… yeah, that neoliberal individualist kind of mindset, is we are in communities. We’ve been in communities this whole time. How do we work together?

And I think Alex, your work with neighbourhood groups locally has been a really beautiful example of that. And I know at the start of the pandemic, the neighbourhood group you’re a part of, West End Resilience, was already in existence and you’d already developed trust and relationship with the people who wanted to participate in that. And that group was then able to be really effective through the pandemic. 

And my neighbourhood in Castlemaine didn’t have one of those in existence, and we saw yours and we were like, ‘let’s all do that.’ And there was a mad scurry of people trying to get a neighbourhood resilience group started in my neighbourhood of Castlemaine.

And it just didn’t work because when you’re in the middle of the pandemic or whatever the crisis is, it’s too late. You can’t then knock on people’s doors because it’s a pandemic and say, ‘hi, let’s have a town meeting and develop trust and relationship.’ It was too late. Do you know what I mean? And it could have been done if someone had put a massive amount of effort in, and there were people reaching out to their direct neighbours and things, but it wasn’t the same as what you guys were able to achieve because you’d already started.

Alex Kelly: Yeah. So we actually initially started in response to the Black Summer bushfires. And also partly because I had a young baby and I was like, ‘okay, well I’m not flying around the world anymore. I live in this street with this child and I have a pram.’ So I was talking about it as pram-scale organising. So I was like ‘how far can I walk to drop flyers off?’ And I’d moved somewhere new so I had an ulterior motive to want to meet people. So I think you’re right in terms of the response to the pandemic, especially because the conditions of the pandemic meant it was hard to actually gather once the restrictions were in place.

But interestingly when we look at Lismore and Mullumbimby and what’s been happening in the response to the floods, and also what happened in Mallacoota and Bermagui in the fires, and this happens in many communities, is that the first responders are always the people who live in the place that’s impacted. And then with varying degrees of time lag, we see the emergency services and maybe the army sent out. 

But the initial coordination and the initial responders are the communities, and often what happens in a disaster of that scale is that those initial days are full of quite extreme highs, and strangely a lot of joy and adrenaline, because people drop their normal day-to-day lives, their busy-ness, their jobs, their rushing around, and they meet their neighbours and they meet people in their streets, and they are bonded through extreme events and looking after each other.

What happens after that and how well those bonds are sustained is really challenged by the kind of resources that are available to communities afterwards. There’s a lot of research around how class and resources can then actually undermine some of those initial rushes of joy and connection. And so actually looking at these kinds of ways of mutual aid and community organising and thinking about a continent-wide strategy that funds and supports these kind of organisations… I wrote about this a little bit actually, and I won’t go off on too much of a tangent, but you know watching in the floods, people were making these real time Excel, Google spreadsheets and calling their friends in boats and scouring social media looking for names. It’s ingenious.

But why don’t we have tools that we all already know how to use that we can jump to when these things emerge. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of gaps. Clearly. But this thing of, ‘who’s going to save us?’ Yeah, it’s not going to be a billionaire, whether they’re wearing a baseball cap or whether they’re Gina or whether they’re Tesla, it’s going to be us.

We’re going to be the first ones there. We’re going to be the ones that are there long afterwards. And so mapping the skills that we have in our communities and really starting to figure out those you know, sticky boring things of like, ‘how do we do meetings? How do we make decisions? How do we look after each other? How do we manage that really talkative, annoying person?’ You know, all those things are actually critical skills. But we already have a lot of them, you know, we had them through our footy clubs and all sorts of things already. 

John Wiseman: Oh, I was just going to say it makes me think of Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell, which tells many of those stories drawing on the past, I guess like from Hurricane Katrina and the San Francisco earthquake, and all the times in which… yeah, I always take two stories away from that. One is exploding the myth that in tough times people turn against each other. On the whole, local communities turn to each other and support each other. But secondly, as you say, the tendency from history and we’ve seen it more recently, when governments and authorities come in, well, sometimes that works well and sometimes it actually undermines the relationships in the local communities. So I think that’s all an argument for, as you say, being ahead of the game and really building relationships now, that’ll sustain us into the future. 

Alex Kelly: There’s some great examples actually in… on Turtle Island in the U.S. after Hurricane Sandy, where the first responders were actually people who’d been involved in Occupy.

So, and this has actually been paralleled in the Northern Rivers where people who were involved in the Bentley Blockade and other protests camps were very involved. They know how to do a pop-up kitchen, pop-up medical tent, pop-up media centre. And similarly, after Hurricane Sandy there was a group called Occupy Sandy, and they were the first ones digging out people’s homes, cleaning up, getting medical supplies in. But interestingly, they then stayed in those communities and sought funding to set up cooperatives as part of the restoration and repair.

So, you know, Naomi Klein talks about the ‘shock doctrine’ and the opportunity of crisis, and that who’s got the plan on the table sort of can take it in different directions. So, you know, we’re going to be in a world of constant rolling crisis, which also means we’re going to be in a world of constant rolling repair so that the mechanisms of repair and the ways in which we work together when we fix things and build them back differently, is… there’s a lot of potential there. But again, it’s very tiring because we also have to process grief and loss at the same time as we’re supposed to be energised and optimistic about the other things we’re rebuilding. So it’s a very complex set of emotional terrain, I think. 

John Wiseman: Allie, can I throw in another example, slightly different context, which is an organisation I’ve been working with for some time called The Next Economy, which is I think a great organisation, originally developed in Queensland and led by a wonderful woman called Amanda Cahill.

So that organisation works with local communities, particularly local communities which have been dependent on coal and gas, like Latrobe Valley, like the Hunter, like Central Queensland… works with those communities to help design and create economies, communities, which sure have jobs, good jobs, high quality jobs, strong and resilient, and also move as fast as possible to a post fossil fuel kind of future.

And that experience, I think, has been interesting and connects to what Alex is saying in a couple of important ways. I mean, one of the things not surprisingly, in all communities is: we want things… most of us want things to kind of stay the same. That’s what we would like. You know, the way that they have been, but it’s when communities like Latrobe Valley, people see ‘gee, for better, or for worse, you know, this power station is going to close. We’re going to have to do something about it.’

There are two responses to that. One can be paralysis and despair, and the other can be ‘gee, you know, there are other pathways’ and the more that people have the opportunity to work together and explore those and build those, you develop the sense of ‘gee, we could do two things. We could wait for the whole thing to fall off a cliff, or we could try and explore better pathways in advance.’ And I think alongside the ‘how do we deal with disasters?’ it’s also just as relevant to ‘how do we transition to a different kind of economy, a different kind of future post fossil fuels?’ 

Allie Hanly: Alex, in your futuring exercises with all the different people that you’ve done it with, what were some of the most interesting or surprising ones that you were like ‘oh, I feel like that’s a really new kind of thing to think. That’s exciting.’ You know, were there ones that really struck a chord with you?

Alex Kelly: I mean, the breadth of material is quite broad. So, the Assemblies for the Future that I mentioned before, the provocations from the key speaker – first speaker – is then responded to by two others. Then people go into breakout rooms with artists and generate other futures, which then become these things called Dispatches for the Futures.

So there’s so many, and they’re very different. One of the things I found quite interesting was that when Scott Ludlam presented a future in which it was quite optimistic and we had got off fossil fuels, a lot of the groups actually came back with futures that were more dire and darker because in some ways they couldn’t quite believe that we’d get to that future in 2029.

And when Claire Coleman talked about the tanks rolling over the Murray River and the people who were shot in Melbourne by snipers during a race war, people generated much more positive futures because they were so struck by that, and so didn’t want to end up in that future. But, yeah, I mean most…

Allie Hanly: So is there something contrary about our human nature, do you think? 

Alex Kelly: Ah well, yeah. And even with what John was just saying, I think there’s this incredible paradox where we hang onto the present for dear life. And then as soon as something like disrupts it, we’re actually remarkably adaptive and resilient and creative, and we can move to other ways of being super quickly, like you know ‘the pandemic pivot.’

I mean, not that that fundamentally changed all our systems, you know. Interesting as well, having done this work with lots of different people, some people move very quickly into multiple other futures. Some people it’s quite hard. And so that oppositional thinking, I think helps for them to go ‘well, no, I don’t want that. I want that.’ So the binary kind of thinking. 

Other people who might be really engaged in analysis of the present, find it very hard to imagine things changing, particularly people that have really deep understandings of certain things, whether it’s carceral system and prison complex or the way the fossil fuel companies work, or the ways in which borders and militarisation and refugee politics work in Australia. People who are really deeply embedded in trying to change things in the present sometimes find it very difficult. Again, they can imagine what a fully emancipated or liberatory place would look like, but the bit in between, the filling in the blanks between now and then, like ‘what does the transition look like? What are the tipping points? What are the social licenses? The cultural imagination? The political power, the pressure points.’ 

Those things are much harder I think sometimes to map out. And again, I think it’s because we’re so practiced in linear thinking. And even a lot of our social movement theorising, and even this practice of imagining within the corporate world it’s called foresight, or in design it’s called backcasting. Even, those are quite linear because they’re seeking to predict things. So we’ve got to really open up our ways of thinking to be far more messy, I think.

John Wiseman: Alex, can I just build on that a little bit, on this point about people being open to or not open to change. I was looking at an opinion poll just recently, which asked people post pandemic: ‘So do you want to go back to the past? Do you want to keep things as they are? Or do you think there are real possibilities of change?’ And it was about a 30:30:30 split. So in other words, about two thirds of people surveyed in this poll at least said ‘well, we’d like to either go back to the past or we’d like to at least keep things as they are.’

And so I guess my question is, I think having conversations with people who kind of say ‘yeah, we’ve got to change somehow, what are the pathways?’ is one thing, but how do we work with people who often for quite good reasons, just want to keep, you know, the world stable and as comfortable as they possibly can in tough times. Are there ways of working in those conversations do you think?

Alex Kelly: I do. And I think some of it is actually also perhaps a little bit counter to, you know there’s a lot of messaging research about climate change and people are telling us we need to give positive visions of the future so people can get there and be hopeful, and the trite end perhaps of this conversation.

But I think actually, I think there’s a bit more inquiry and curiosity about ‘okay, well, what do you like about the present really? And are you really comfortable and secure and do you really feel safe?’ And I mean, if people do that’s wonderful, but I actually think we know from many other polls and research that there’s a lot of fear and discomfort at the moment and actually think that the solution is not to jump to hope and go ‘it’s okay, it’s going to be fine in the future. Because there’ll be electric cars and great organic vegetables grown on rooftops’ but to actually do a further inquiry into why people feel so uncomfortable now.

And again, we know from research about resilience and trauma, that some people are capable of experiencing great trauma and still being quite healthy and many others are very damaged by that. And one key part of that is acknowledging and making an inquiry into the trauma and having supported mechanisms, whether with therapists or with communities, to acknowledge the truth of what’s happened.

And you know, that exists on an individual level, that exists on a national level. If we talk about truth telling on this continent et cetera. So I think in the same way to inquire into actually ‘how comfortable is the status quo? Who is it serving? What is really happening here?’ is probably the way to go.

And I think actually the humbleness of inquiry and curiosity is actually missing in a lot of our politics. And even those of us that are engaged in activism don’t necessarily do that much of it. I mean, that again is one of the great things about The Next Economy. They do do a lot of community level listening projects of actually surfacing the thoughts of communities, rather than coming in and going ‘listen, we’ve got you, this is the transition plan. This is how it should be.’

Yeah, I mean, when we’re worried about the urgency of the idea of just saying to people, we need to talk more, seems a bit strange, but actually we do. Does that answer your question, John?

John Wiseman: Yeah, yeah, no, I think that’s… and I mean the point about urgency is interesting. I mean, so many times over the last, you know, 10 or 15 years, there’s been this kind of, you know, ‘it’s the critical month, year, six months,’ you know, ‘we’ve got to act now,’ that kind of urgency message.

And of course, we get that. I mean, that’s true. But I think taking the time to talk, to listen, to realize that this is going to be a long emergency, it’s going to unfold. We need to hold together this… the need to move things along, but also to take care of each other and listen carefully as we do so.

Allie Hanly: All right. So I guess this is one of the things you guys have both just talked about to a degree, but I feel like what the climate and environmental movement hasn’t really done very well until just recently, as you mentioned John before in the interview, there used to feel like there wasn’t much imaginative work going into what our future could be in terms of climate and environment. And it’s only recently that we’re seeing lots and lots of people creating around possible futures, but then again, a lot of them are very dark. But the climate movement historically has focused on facts and figures and data a lot, trying to go in and say ‘this is a fact, this is what’s happening.’

And we know, especially recently in our post-truth kind of world, that facts and data don’t actually touch people or reach people. It’s very necessary to support your position, but to actually reach people, we need to tell stories that they can relate to. Do you guys have any examples of people who’ve – aside from the work that you’ve actually been in… you’ve already given quite a few examples in our conversation – but do you have examples of where you really feel like ‘that feels like that could be’ you know, but not in a dystopian or utopian way where you just go… 

John Wiseman: I’ll throw one more in which many people, many of your listeners and viewers will probably be aware of, but the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, the American speculative fiction writer, and particularly his recent novel Ministry for the Future, I think does something that Alex talked about well, which is what he tries to do in a kind of engaging way with lots of engaging characters and a bit of a thriller kind of plot, is to say ‘well, here are lots and lots and lots of ideas and ways of imagining what a just, post carbon future might look like.’ 

So he paints lots of pictures of, you know, cities and transport and houses powered by solar and wind and lots of examples of more, resilient and just communities. But he also says ‘gee, the really tough question is how did we build the bridges to get there?’ And so he throws in all sorts of possibilities, activism and civil disobedience, and changes in investment strategies and stronger roles for… positive roles for government in investing in infrastructure, he throws all sorts of things into the mix.

And I think you kind of come away from it, not with a sense of a silver bullet, but with… It’s a provocation. And I’ve been in discussions with people saying ‘oh, I like that bit,’ ‘I didn’t like that bit.’ But I think that’s part of the discussion. So that’s one other suggestion I would throw into the mix.

Alex Kelly: I’ve got two I’d like to share. One is in the Northern Territory there’s a really incredible campaign against fracking there. And there’s some really amazing artists and organisers in the community of Borroloola, Garawa people, and Nancy McDinney does a lot of really amazing painting and organising. And then, and this is a bit more direct action, but she and some others took a Bobcat onto the lawns of parliament house in Darwin and dug some big holes in the lawn and parliament house. Just… I thought that was a pretty good way of bringing the picture of what was happening out on their country to the capital city.

And in rural France, after 47 years a community coalition of farmers and activists and artists stopped a new airport that was proposed outside the city of Nantes, at a place called La ZAD which was a sort of temporary autonomous zone and a zone to defend. And I lived there for six months with some really incredible artists that have an organisation called the Laboratory of the Insurrectionary Imagination.

And they built a surrealist lighthouse out of an old metal pylon that was in the exact spot that the proposed control tower for the airport would have been. You have to climb through a library, which has been built in the theme of a ship to get up into the lighthouse, and this kind of connection between the library and ideas and books and this surrealist lighthouse… Yeah, it’s an incredible piece of art and activism, and I really recommend looking at their work. They write quite a lot about this intersection of art and activism and do quite a lot of speculative and fictional work themselves. They’re very inspiring. 

John Wiseman: I mean, maybe just one other much more local example too is the Refuge project in North Melbourne, which has been run over the last four or five or six years. And that’s been involving all sorts of local community people and artists and activists and what they did each year, they posed a particular kind of problem.

Like what would happen if there was a flood or a fire, or indeed a pandemic a few years ago, which was kind of interesting. And over three or four or five days, they brought people together in the old North Melbourne Town Hall and trialled, imagined, explored all kinds of ways in which the local community might come together to deal with these challenges.

And that’s been a great way of imagining, but it’s also been a great way of bringing people together. And I think there’s all sorts of fascinating learnings from that project. And I think even just recently there was a three or four day review/reflection on it all which has thrown up lots of powerful lessons as well. 

Alex Kelly: Yeah. And Dr. Jen Ray and Claire G Coleman who were involved in Refuge have started a new project called the Centre for Reworlding, which also partially came out of the Assembly for the Future. So there’s also a bit of cross-pollination between these different modalities, which is really exciting.

One final one I will throw in as well is Jennifer Mills, who’s a really great writer. She wrote an incredible book called Dyschronia, which imagines a sea that disappears, which is also an interesting kind of flip on the sea rising kind of narrative. But Jen writes really interesting shorts and novels and yeah, I think she’s certainly someone to watch in this space as well.

Allie Hanly: Great. And so the conclusion of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything is titled ‘Just enough time for impossible’, which I’m sure you’re very familiar with Alex. Do you guys feel that there’s still just enough time for what seems impossible, or has that changed a bit now? Because actually we’re not looking at a future anymore, realistically where we could keep the climate anywhere near where it is. We’re actually tipped beyond that and we need to imagine ourselves… how are we going to survive and support each other in a future that is challenging?

John Wiseman: My quick response is we need to do both. I mean, we need to keep opening every door, and opening every window, and doing that with as many friends and colleagues as we can. And at the same time, recognising that yeah, it’s going to be a long cascading emergency: we are going to live in a different world. That’s all the more reason for learning to live in different ways and to do that in ways which are, well on the one hand, compassionate but also keep our eyes wide open to power and how that needs to be challenged as well.

So I think we need to… we need to learn to do many things, in what’s going to be a constantly evolving emergency that we live in. That’s all of those things. I mean, it comes back to that. Lastly, right back to the metaphor about the car crash or the bus and the many, many things that Alex said we need to learn to be able to do all at once.

Alex Kelly: Yeah. I think that’s it, it’s complex. We’ve got to do all these things at the same time, but certainly from my vantage point on this continent, we have to look at the past and reckon with past violence and understand and think about reparations and repair of that, but that could be very instructive for our future.

So we can’t just face in one direction. We can’t just look forward. We have to pay attention to the pasts, presents and futures all at the same time; it’s a complex task. But actually I think that these things are interwoven. They’re not, they’re not silos. We don’t go and fix the past and then talk about what we’re doing now, and then go and deal with the future.

These are interwoven processes, and I think the healing and repair that we can do about our past can inform the way that we move into the futures. So it’s all really important work. 

Tim Hollo, who’s writing quite a lot about democracy has a great essay called ‘There’s no time left, not to do everything.’ And he makes a really good argument for why we need to re-engage with our processes and governance and democracy, rather than be struck just by the urgency of the moment, but saying we can’t respond to the urgency if we don’t sort out our democracy. And I know he’s got a book coming out later this year as well. So Tim Hollo is another great thinker to follow.

Allie Hanly: Great, thanks Alex. All right. Well, democracy is a whole another topic and I know I could get you to talk about that Alex with a few other locals one day. But we’ll go there another time anyway. 

Alex Kelly: In futures!

Allie Hanly: Yes, in the futures. Yes. Thanks so much for joining us today.

John Wiseman: Thank you for the opportunity for the conversation and great to meet you, Alex. And thank you. That’s really, really valuable. 

[SALTGRASS THEME PLAYS: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app or at saltgrasspodcast.com]

This program was made possible with support from MAINfm and the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more at cbf.org.au

Transcription by Allie Hughes

Note: Saltgrass is produced to be heard. Some elements of the podcast may not translate easily to the written word. Transcripts are created using both speech recognition software and human transcribers, and though we do our best to avoid errors they may occur. Please check the audio before quoting in print.

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