The Economist NOVEMBER 18, 2022 - by Brian Eno


It's all about relationships

It's in the nature of emergent systems that they don't always announce themselves. They cannot, because they do not know what they are going to become.

Right now we are living through the emergence of a movement of unprecedented scale and scope - the biggest movement in human history, facing up to the biggest challenge in human history. Let's call it the "climate-change movement", but then let's acknowledge that it is not just about climate change but impinges on every hot topic of the moment: the rethinking of democracy, electoral systems, economics, migration, inequality, agriculture, women's rights, resource extraction, common ownership and personal lifestyle choices, to name a few.

In September 2022 I attended a gathering in Barcelona called "Fixing The Future". All those topics were discussed by an assembly of people from over a hundred organisations with names like Rewilding Europe, Observadores del Mar, the New Citizenship Project, YouthNet for Climate Justice Bangladesh and Plastic Punch Ghana.

What were we all talking about? Relationships, of people to each other, and of humans to the planet. We were talking about how to make a planet that actually works.

The products of such a conference are new ideas and new relationships. I made at least twenty new connections, and if the same was true for all the other attendees that means something like ten thousand new relationships were formed during that one conference. These are relationships held together by ideas: the scaffolding of a social movement.

In the same week, there were probably a hundred other conferences worldwide discussing the same topics. That suggests a million new relationships centred around climate-change issues were formed in a week. And that's just in formal settings. We are all talking about the same things. Few of us have any idea how many people are involved (though I think we should wear little green badges saying "We're on the same side", so we can recognise each other).

You may wonder why this planet-wide conversation about the future is not bigger news. The problem is that it is good news, which, as everybody knows, does not sell newspapers or drive clicks. Only the spectacular parts of the climate news (floods and fires) are dramatic enough to make it onto television, so we get to see only the bad news. Underneath the news, though, slow and deep, is a movement of long horizons and structural rethinking, not attracting much attention until it gets angry. But a rich and robust root system is growing, and its first green shoots are starting to break the surface.

Quite a number of participants in this conversation are artists. Why? Art is where we go to experience things safely. In art we can allow ourselves to experience strong feelings. We can always shut the book. We can immerse ourselves in other worlds and the feelings they arouse without risking our lives or our health. Children do this when they learn through play to see how things work. Adults play through art. Reading George Orwell's 1984 gives you the chance to live in a totalitarian society and see what you feel about it, without actually going to one.

Art allows us to imagine what is possible and to monitor our feelings about it. The hit song Jerusalema inspired a global dance craze in which millions of people filmed their own versions of the dance and posted them on YouTube. Watch a hundred monks and nuns dancing. Or twenty-five Polish construction workers. Or two hundred Nigerian schoolchildren. It may be the biggest performance-art spectacle of all time. The message? We can do something together all over the whole world, and make it fun.

That's the kind of message that art carries well: "Here's a world that could exist. Now, how does that feel?" Feelings are thinking that doesn't yet have words.

I expect those first green shoots to multiply. New forms of democratic decision-making in the form of citizens' assemblies, new approaches to energy production, new understandings of who we are and what our planet needs, and new forms of global co-operation - sometimes for fun and sometimes for real. The fun prepares us for the real.

The next stage is for the movement to start to grasp its ubiquity and gather new strength. These are people who love life - not just their own lives, but life itself. Change will not happen overnight (and it will face a lot of opposition), but there are more of us than we realise. That's why we need those badges.

Brian Eno, musician, artist and activist