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Do we even have a right to be hopeful? With political and ecological fires raging all around, is it irresponsible to imagine a future world radically better than our own? A world without prisons? Of beautiful, green public housing? Of buried border walls? Of healed ecosystems? A world where governments fear the people instead of the other way around?
These are questions we wrestled with as we conceived of a sequel to last year’s Emmy-nominated short, “A Message From the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” The first film, co-written by the congresswoman and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, was set in a can-do, cli-fi future: one in which bold, progressive politicians joined with grassroots movements to launch the “Decade of the Green New Deal,” battling poverty, injustice, and climate disruption all at the same time. The film touched a nerve and ended up being viewed more than 12 million times, convincing our little team of the need for more art that departs from well-worn apocalyptic scripts.
Then Covid-19 hit.
About a month into the pandemic lockdown, I started talking with my partner Avi Lewis, who co-wrote and produced the last film, about whether the utopian imagination could possibly have a role to play in this markedly less optimistic political moment.
We honestly weren’t sure. Last time, we could see a clear if narrow political path to the hopeful future Molly Crabapple illustrated. The piece was conceived shortly after the Sunrise Movement stormed the halls of power in Washington, demanding a Green New Deal. That challenge was immediately picked up by Ocasio-Cortez and then quickly echoed by several of the top contenders to lead the Democratic Party — most notably, Bernie Sanders. “A Message From the Future” was an attempt to help viewers envision what the world could look like if the Green New Deal was actually the governing framework in the largest economy on the planet. Because, as Ocasio-Cortez said in the voiceover, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
As we all know, U.S. politics is in a very different place today. Sanders lost the primaries, as did every other candidate who seemed to grasp the urgency of transformational policy. The only viable hope of unseating Donald Trump is a presidential ticket crafted to tightly hug the political center, while fending off the demands animating progressive movements, whether to defund the police, or provide free universal health care, or introduce a sweeping Green New Deal.
Beating Trump is urgent, about that I have no doubt. But while doing so is necessary to fend off naked authoritarianism in the White House, it is decidedly not enough to escape the many other intersecting crises bearing down on the country and the world: whether climate collapse, surging white supremacy, or widespread famine. These unyielding political facts makes our path to a nonapocalyptic future distinctly less clear than it was one year ago. And so the question: Is it ethical to expend energy dreaming of a another world when so many fires need extinguishing right now? On the other hand, if we stop talking about what winning actually looks like, isn’t that the same as giving up? Besides, are we so sure big wins are impossible? The coronavirus has already ushered in changes few imagined or foretold just a few months ago. Entire high-carbon, high-consumption industries are on their knees: cruise ships, airlines, fashion. The Movement for Black Lives has redrawn the political map, and nurses are local heroes. If this isn’t the time to advance a vision of the world governed by radically more humane and inclusive values, when is?
We called Molly, who had been painting portraits of essential workers and projecting them on the sides of Manhattan buildings, and started a conversation about the role of futurism in moments when so much seems lost. Tentatively, we began to brainstorm about crafting a second “Message From the Future,” one shaped by burning cities and burning forests and, of course, a highly contagious and deadly virus.
Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and longtime migrant rights advocate, joined us as co-author and co-narrator. And over the months of lockdown and deadly reopenings, a picture of a possible, beautiful future slowly came into focus, along with a steep and perilous path to getting there.
We knew a few things from the start. First, that in the midst of such a transnational set of crises, the film needed to feel and sound distinctly more global than the last one, where all of the action took place in the U.S. We also knew that we needed to show more fight this time — the street battles and the general strikes that must be escalated and won before any kind of safe, humane future is even a prospect.
Covid-19 acts as a kind of character in the drama, almost like a tough teacher instructing humanity in a series of lessons that should have been obvious long ago.
Finally, and relatedly, no politician, no matter how progressive, could be the protagonist of the sequel. This time, rank-and-file organizers and activists would be the stars. Given the array of corporate powers resisting change, and the bleak electoral options on offer, social movements are now the only force left with the power to grab the wheel of history and veer us off our current deadly trajectory. And not one or two movements, but an unprecedented convergence and collaboration of disparate and often divided political strains: organized labor, Black liberation, climate, Indigenous, feminist, disabled, migrant, queer, unhoused, worker cooperatives, and more. Everyone locked out of the elite Great Gorging (it’s not a Great Depression) will be needed, along with a common vision that weaves together each of these movements’ boldest and most transformational demands.
A short piece of art is not a political platform, and so it was never our goal to be comprehensive. Rather, we looked for threads of connection in the hopes that they would inspire more. In the film, Covid-19 acts as a kind of character in the drama, almost like a tough teacher instructing humanity in a series of lessons that should have been obvious long ago. Lessons about the essential labor that makes life possible and enjoyable — and yet has been so persistently discounted. Lessons about systemic racism as an assault on the human body, one that makes it more vulnerable on every front. Lessons about how community is our best technology, especially during times of crisis. Lessons about how damage done to the natural world will invariably blow back on us, whether in the form of disease or climate disruption or both.
Lessons, too, about the risks and deadly cruelty of warehousing human beings: in prisons, immigrant detention camps, and for-profit old-age homes, as well as in cavernous meatpacking plants and sprawling “fulfillment centers.” Hidden from prying eyes, so many people are packed together in these inhuman institutions — treated as if they have no inherent value whatsoever, in the case of prisons, or as if they are distinctly less valuable than the products, plants, or animal carcasses they prepare for consumption. It was in these places, already so sick, that the virus spread like wildfire.
Another Covid-19 lesson we wanted to highlight had to do with why the abuses that long predated the pandemic suddenly received so much more attention during it. It’s a lesson, perhaps, about the relationship between speed and solidarity. Because for those of us privileged enough to self-isolate, the virus forced a radical and sudden slowdown, a paring and editing down of life to its essentials that was undertaken in a bid to stop the virus’s spread. But that slowness had other, unintended effects as well. It turns out that when the deafening roar of capitalism-as-usual quiets, even a little, our capacity to notice things that were hidden in plain view may grow and expand.
The coronavirus instantly exploded the cherished, market-manufactured myth of the individual as self-made island.
For some, that awareness has expanded to encompass the cruelty of those long-ignored human warehouses. For others, it has stretched to include the previously drowned out sounds and sights of the natural world. And during this time of “terror and tenderness,” as Opal and Avi put it in the script, a great many people found new capacity to stand up for Black lives in the face of unremitting state violence.
There is no one answer or simple explanation for why we find ourselves in the throes of the deepest and most sustained public reckoning in a half-century with the evil that is white supremacy. But we cannot discount the “solidarity in vulnerability that the pandemic has generated,” as Eddie Glaude Jr. put it, while discussing his brilliant and highly relevant biography of James Baldwin, “Begin Again.” In forcing all of us to confront the porousness of our own bodies in relationship to the vast web of other bodies that sustain us and the people we love — caregivers, farmers, supermarket clerks, street cleaners, and more — the coronavirus instantly exploded the cherished, market-manufactured myth of the individual as self-made island.
Consciousness of our own vulnerability, as Glaude says, can sow solidarity. Especially when that consciousness is combined with more time. Because when we are moving at the velocity of pre-pandemic life, endlessly striving and climbing, frantically making sure that we do not fall behind, busyness can act as a deadening agent. There is no time to think about who makes our stuff or where our trash goes or what wars — domestic and international — are waged in our name. And certainly, there is no time, or so we have so often been told, to look back at the past and present terror committed against Black and Indigenous peoples — crimes so profitable that they produced the vast wealth on which contemporary capitalism rests. A system that must always move faster, and grow bigger, or else face collapse.
For all of these reasons and more, as we searched for a unifying principle that could animate a future worth fighting for, we settled on “The Years of Repair.” The call to repair a deep brokenness has roots in many radical and religious traditions. And it provides a framework expansive enough to connect the interlocking crises in our social, economic, political, informational, and ecological spheres.
Repair work speaks to the need to repair our broken infrastructures of care: the schools, hospitals, and elder care facilities serving the poor and working classes, infrastructures that failed the test of this virus again and again. It also calls on us to repair the vast damage done to the natural world, to clean up toxic sites, rehabilitate wild landscapes, invest in nonpolluting energy sources. It is also a call to begin to repair our stuff rather than endlessly replace it in an ever-accelerating cycle of planned obsolescence — what the film refers to as “the right to repair.”
As we imagine it, the work of repair is intensely concrete and civic — it is armies of Community Care Corp workers and battalions of tree planters, rehabilitating scarred and charred landscapes. But in heeding the seismic lessons of Covid-19, repair work is also intensely inward and slightly ephemeral. It is the practice of connecting, or re-pairing, those many crucial connections that our culture so systematically severs — between individuals and the communities that support them, between humans and the more-than-human world that sustains all of life. Even the broken connections between heart and mind that stand in the way of imagining these possible futures.
And running through it all, repair work is also the work of reparation. A call to keep the long-denied and delayed rendezvous with history’s most brutal crimes and to reject, once and for all, the web of flattering and dangerous lies that passes for official history in so many parts of the world. Drawing on the long-standing demands of Black and Indigenous movements, the film imagines a Truth and Reparations Commission, as well as an Indigenous Land Back program, with both of them helping to shape the priorities of how and where we repair broken ecosystems, schools, transit systems, hospitals, and more.
At its most profound level, the Years of Repair are a call to repair the broken stories — of supremacy and dominance — that brought us to this harrowing precipice. It is this work that is most vital as we confront the reality of ecological unraveling. The truth is that the amount of land fit for human habitation is going to contract, even if we do everything right. And as more and more of us are forced to migrate, inside countries and between them, committing ourselves, as never before, to the inherent value of life will be our only defense against eco-fascism.
These are revolutionary demands, but unlike some revolutionary movements, an ethos of repair reminds us that the cumulative impacts of centuries of violence and decades of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment” will not be fixed overnight. Capitalism may always be steering us toward the promise of a fresh start, clean break, or reboot. But a posture of repair, or what Rev. William Barber has termed the “Third Reconstruction,” reminds us that before we advance — in order to advance — we first need to fix what is broken. The communities left in ruins. The spirits deliberately broken. The broken stories of domination and dominion that provided the cover stories for this cruelty. This is urgent work that nonetheless cannot be rushed.
Fortunately, we are not starting from anything near scratch. Radical anti-colonial, racial justice, and Black feminist movements have been advancing these deeper meanings of repair for nearly two centuries, teasing out what reparation and true reconstruction can and should mean. Climate justice activists, more recently, have been developing models that meet multiple reparative needs simultaneously (which is the underlying philosophy of any transformative Green New Deal).
It is this work that animates the future world we portrayed on film. A world with shuttered prisons, with far more land under Indigenous jurisdiction, with families fed by local farmers and housed in beautiful, green public housing, built to enhance community and break the barriers of isolation. A world where the resources currently spent on the sprawling infrastructures of coercion, containment, and violence are shifted to a vast infrastructure of care and repair.
But it’s not all rosy. Part of the story we tell in “Message From the Future II” involves things getting worse — more novel viruses, more ecological unraveling, more racist state violence. This preview of worse times to come is not based on any accelerationist longings on our part but rather on clear-eyed readings of climate models, market bubbles, and who has the guns. Many future shocks are already locked in.
We didn’t, however, expect our forecasts to come true quite so soon. In fact, we were already far enough along that storyboards were complete when huge swaths of the Western United States were devoured by September’s historic wildfires. When photographs began circulating of an eerie Mars-like sky over Oregon, I had to Signal Molly Crabapple to make sure she had seen that it precisely matched the color palette she had chosen for the opening of our film.
In truth, predicting a future that looks like our present, only worse, is dead easy. Some version of that future has been the plotline of countless cli-fi books, films, and television series — many of them very good. Gael García Bernal, one of our film’s narrators, has been cast in an upcoming miniseries adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s prophetic, pandemic-themed novel, “Station Eleven.” And Emma Thompson, another of our narrators, co-stars in my favorite recent dystopian offering, HBO’s “Years and Years.” She is terrifying as a distinctly Trumpian U.K. Prime Minister, promising to bring back British glory even as she constructs an archipelago of refugee black sites.
The authors of these bleak narratives are trying to warn us. The catch may be this: If the only portrayals of the future we ever see are of some mix-and-match of fascism and ecological collapse, the forecasts can start to feel inevitable — less like warnings and more like prophecy.
Moreover, given the powerful positions occupied by Christian nationalists in the Trump administration (and perhaps soon, the Supreme Court), it is always worth remembering that the most hardwired apocalyptic storyline in our culture is that of the Rapture, when a small group of believers are lifted up to a kingdom in the sky while nonbelievers are swallowed up in the hell they (we) deserve. Seen through this lens, the conflagration of crises we are currently living through — the diseases, the droughts, the floods, the extinctions, the hunger, the political mayhem — are not warning signs at all. On the contrary, they are salutory items on a preordained Rapture checklist — proof positive that the exciting end is nigh, so pray harder to make sure you are among the saved.
Apocalyptic fantasies, in other words, are part of what landed us here. So as difficult as it may be right now to imagine a future that is genuinely better than our present, we have to keep trying. However, for futurism to be more than wild-eyed fantasy, there has to be a credible path to get there from here.
Which is why, once we had the script and the storyboards, Avi, Opal, and I started reaching out to groups whose organizing and theorizing shape the future portrayed in the film. So today, as we send the film into the world, we are also able to announce a powerful launch coalition of groups and networks that have united to push it out and use it in their organizing. This growing alliance includes: the Movement for Black Lives, Greenpeace International, Public Services International (with its more than 700 member unions representing 30 million workers worldwide), La Vía Campesina (representing some 200 million small farmers), NDN Collective (organizing around a comprehensive vision of decolonization and Indigenous self-determination), Global Nurses United (representing so many front-line health workers), Amazon Watch, One Billion Rising (a global movement to end violence against women and girls), the Sunrise Movement, Dream Defenders, as well as the Institute for Policy Studies (which has long been advancing many of these ideas), and the organization Avi and I co-founded, The Leap.
For us, the beauty of “Message From the Future II: The Years of Repair” flows from the magic of Molly Crabapple’s paint brushes, as well as from directors Jim Batt and Kim Boekbinder’s expert editing and sound design. But the true power and possibility of this project is not onscreen. That resides in the movement of movements that is fighting for this vision of radical repair every day.
If any of us still have the right to be hopeful, it is because of them.
This video was produced in partnership with The Leap.