UR Here: Challenging Change

UR Here: June/July 2010 ~ In the raging underage/binge drinking debate in Iowa City, a couple of familiar refrains keep singing: “You can’t change the drinking culture,” and “Downtown Iowa City’s economy will collapse,” the latter with various subpoints (the downtown economy is heavily bar-dependent, so there will be mass vacant storefronts, many jobs will be lost, tax revenue will plummet, etc., etc.). These talking points are repeated ad infinitum by many, but especially the student population. Underlying both of these arguments is a fundamental belief that things cannot change from their current state. The universe always tells us that nothing is further from the truth.

I teach a couple of undergraduate courses at the UI that emphasize fundamental societal change. Issues of environmental sustainability, corporate globalization, local economies, civic engagement, the fate of place, and so forth are our bread and butter. The message that often comes through our readings and discussion is “we have really messed up this world badly.” The prevailing message I get from my students is “we can’t do anything about it.”

This is disheartening and alarming. I’m often surprised at the fatalism, even cynicism, that my 18- to 22-year-old charges express. Aren’t the young supposed to be the idealists, the revolutionaries, the harbingers and arbiters of change?

I am trying to avoid being parental, and I am especially trying to avoid being a codger. I am also trying to avoid painting with too broad a brush. So let me say first that, in my years of teaching, including today, I have come across many young people who are imaginative, eager and busting to make change happen in the world. But in the past few years, I will also say that the vast majority of my undergraduate charges are firmly in the “change won’t happen” camp.

Given the immense problems we face, I can’t blame anyone for being pessimistic. When the power structures of our world so overwhelmingly support the status quo, especially in the interest of the powerful and wealthy, it’s hard to see how a fundamental shift in human behavior, let alone consciousness, can happen. But whereas the freshness of youth has the theoretical ability to see things unjaded and ideal, I think that vision also can be compromised by a lack of historical experience.

This past semester, as we were discussing Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, one of my students said he could not imagine the changes McKibben recommends (in essence re-localizing our economy) without a mass national agreement to do so and some huge master plan. My initial response to him–without trying to be glib–was that neither the Russian nor American Revolutions were started or accomplished in this way. Likewise, the shift from a Ptolemaic to Copernican understanding of the solar system hardly happened via the Roman Catholic Church’s five-year strategic plan of 1540.

Such abstract and remote knowledge, no matter how compelling, is still hard to apply convincingly to the here and now. Every semester, I try to personalize it a bit by trotting out what I call my “believe in change” homily. I tell my students how I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and what the world “was” then seemed like it would never change. The Soviet Union was a superpower, locked in perpetual Cold War with the United States. Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly my entire life, and apartheid had been the law of the land in South African since more than a decade before I was born. Given the power dynamics that had frozen these political situations in place, and since this had always been the way things were as far as I could see, I could not imagine them ever changing.

But within the five years of 1989 and 1994, the Iron Curtain melted, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, Nelson Mandela walked free, and apartheid was dismantled. I literally sat awestruck and dumbfounded seeing these incredible, unbelievable events transpiring on my TV screen two decades ago. So don’t tell me change can’t happen.

Now, of course, I’m an old fart to my students, and these historic events are just as remote as Lenin, Paul Revere and Copernicus. A revolution needs to happen before their very eyes so they can stand slack-jawed and say, “I don’t believe it.”

So how does change happen, my students ask? I say usually by reaching the tipping point or by reaching catastrophe. Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In more recent times, Malcolm Gladwell has written a book about The Tipping Point, in which he posits that small numbers of people can start behaving differently, which can spread virus-like until a “tipping point” is reached and change happens. The tipping point is never comes through universal acclimation, or even majority agreement. My students, however, seem to have greater faith in catastrophe necessitating change.

Ironically, the revolution we’re talking about in my classes is happening even as my students deny it. The local food movement is perhaps the greatest harbinger of things to come in a sustainable, localized world. Just a month or so ago, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey reported that farmers market sales in Iowa have doubled in the past five years to the tune of nearly $60 million, and the number of Iowa farmers markets themselves has doubled since 1995, ranking Iowa second-highest in the U.S. per capita. In raw numbers, that’s still not huge, but the trend is what’s important. Similarly, a recent NPR report stated that the National Restaurant Association says local foods will be the most popular items on menus this year. And, tellingly, Stacy Mitchell on the Yes! Magazine website recently reported that a number of globalized corporations are ginning up “local” campaigns, including Frito-Lay using “local” potatoes, Hellman’s Mayonnaise’s “Eat Real, Eat Local” promotion, and Starbucks “unbranding” some of their stores, such as Seattle’s “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.” If the giantest of corporate giants want in on the action, you know something’s happening. Of course, such encouraging reports also are simultaneous with the report that 62 percent of 2009 federal farm subsidy payments still went to just 10 percent of farmers.

But the revolution is happening enough for even that visionary yet stubborn skeptic Wendell Berry to notice. In a 2009 interview he did with Curt Meine on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Berry said, in response to Meine’s query about his reaction to the robust growth of the kinds of local agriculture that the author has been touting for decades, “Not too many years ago, I didn’t imagine that I would ever see this happen. In fact, [about] 10 or 15 years ago, I was saying to myself, well, you know, there’s not going to be any good result. You’re just going to have to go on with the support of your few friends and finish it out this way.”

But within the last year or two, Berry admits, “I realized that things were going on all over the country…people who are serving the farmers markets, community supported agriculture farms, and most significantly, I think, this growth of a kind of an agrarian awareness in the cities of some kind of duty to those proxies they’ve given to other people to raise food for them. And so I’m just immensely grateful to have lasted long enough to see this.”

Well, my students are even more stubborn than Wendell Berry, believe it or not. When confronted with such facts, realities, statistics and testimonials, they still won’t believe it until they see it, apparently. That brings me back to the drinking argument, which, honestly, is not really my main point here (I don’t want to walk into that snake pit). I simply want to emphasize that of course change is possible, and change will happen. The downtown drinking and retail situation itself is a huge change from the past, which proves in and of itself that change happens. While youthful imbibing is and no doubt always will be perennial, the binge culture did not exist before and itself is a huge sea change in the last 20 years. Downtown Iowa City has undergone myriad changes over the decades and will do so again–that’s a given. There may certainly be difficult adjustment periods, as was the case when the Coral Ridge Mall opened and much of the retail infrastructure fled to Coralville, but downtown will adapt and survive in some way, just as it has for well over 150 years.

Change can happen. Change will happen. Change is always happening, even right now. Young people, please join old farts like Tom Dean and Wendell Berry on the change train before it passes you by.