The (frighteningly) fierce urgency of now.

Three years ago today, on October 10 2008, I wrote a blog for Britain’s Forum for the Future whose strapline is ‘action for a sustainable world’. They asked me as a British person, living in the U.S.A. (or Unsure State of America, as I then called it) to comment on the later stages of the 2008 Presidential Campaign and my response was this piece, The Fierce Urgency of Now:

Thankfully, the 2008 presidential campaign just got a whole lot more serious. In fact the stakes really couldn’t be higher for the U.S. and for the whole planet. In the past month or so, we’ve moved smoothly and thankfully from lipstick on pigs, via Tina Fey (Saturday Night Live) on Governor Palin’s foreign policy experience, namely “I can see Russia from my house”, to debate the nitty-gritty policy positions of each respective campaign. Not a moment too soon in my book.

In my blog of July 7th, I wrote: “basically the American dream is fast becoming the American nightmare and the problem is that neither presidential candidate is prepared to redefine and dematerialize the dream”. I wrote that before the Wall Street and consequent global financial meltdown. That redefinition is even more crucial now.

The materialist, greed-driven meltdown is widely accepted as an indicator that our whole human enterprise on this planet is badly out of control. As Al Gore said in San Jose recently “I actually do think that the green revolution is the solution to the financial crisis, the national security crisis, the debt crisis and the climate crisis—they’re all connected.”

But is either presidential candidate really ready to go before the American people and talk down, dematerialize the dream? Is either prepared to emphasize the need for quality of life increases that would confer a sense of individual and community wellbeing, rather than tax giveaways that are somehow supposed to increase our standard of living? Are they really ready to say, in effect, less is more?

In his historic “Our moment is now” speech in Des Moines, Iowa on December 27 2007 in which he invoked Dr Martin Luther King’s notion of “the fierce urgency of now”, Obama said “we are at a defining moment in our history. Our nation is at war. Our planet is in peril. Our health care system is broken, our economy is out of balance, our education system fails too many of our children, and our retirement system is in tatters.” This was a wonderful set up to what I thought might be a joined-up discussion of the need for a more sustainable America. I waited, and waited………..

Yet a quick and dirty search of both candidate websites revealed that neither candidate is talking about sustainable development as a strategic overarching policy agenda recognizing as Gore does the interrelatedness of the crises we face and spanning a concern for both people and the planet. To be fair, Obama’s website does mention sustainable communities but only as a subset of his environmental policies. Even the Pope gets it. As he said on his recent tour of Australia there needs to be “agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the wellbeing of all while respecting environmental balances”.

The U.S. is clearly at a tipping point. We are in a paradigm shift. As ‘Earth Scholar’ Thomas Berry wrote: “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story-the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it-is not functioning properly and we have not learned the new story”. The old dominant social paradigm, the neo-liberal story of how things are and came to be so, simply isn’t working. We need to write the new story, and quickly. Here, out of these cascading crises, I think we have a golden opportunity.

Obama has in many ways lifted us, filled us with hope and with a constellation of phrases that hint, but only hint, at an understanding of the real need for a new story. In one of those phrases he says: “together we will begin the next great chapter in the American story”. My question to you Barack is this: are we going to simply read a prewritten chapter, or are we going to start afresh, writing the chapter ourselves along more sustainable lines? That, Mr President-in-waiting, is the really fierce urgency of now.”

Yesterday, walking around the Occupy Boston site in Dewey Square in the October heatwave, with around 300 residents and many more sympathetic visitors, the message is no less vociferous than that of Occupy Wall Street. It’s a message that’s getting louder and clearer by the day: too many people are hurting, change is needed quickly and we need to write that new chapter along more just and sustainable lines. The question is, now President Obama, who will write that new chapter?


  1. Lenny on October 11, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Paradigm shifts! Fantastic!

    Dr. J, you’ve trained me to be an academic. Thank you. I thrive off of the quality, content and passion of your writing.

    I myself am waiting for the day when a Presidential candidate or President can drive the message forward with force. I have been happier with the ferocity of President Obama, and I feel like he’s at a point where he is evoking Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded” (specifically the chapter where Friedman envisions a Presidential speech around the need to out-innovate, out-educate….).

    I’m heading to Occupy Wall Street on Sunday. Adding my voice to the story.

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