This US election year, an unprecedented number of voters will likely head to the polls to cast their ballots in an exercise that should take just a few minutes to complete. But what about the rest of the minutes left in the year? Author and activist Chris Carlsson has some suggestions for social change beyond voting in Nowtopia, a new book about modern day rebels who, in his words, “aren’t waiting for an institutional change from on-high but are getting on with building the new world in the shell of the old.”
Chris Carlsson is a long-time community organizer, writer, and radical historian based in San Fransisco. He helped launch the Critical Mass monthly bike-ins, which now take place in five continents and over 300 cities, and was a founder of the dissident magazine, Processed World, a publication reporting on the “underside of the Information Age.” These experiences enrich his enjoyable and fascinating new book, Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today (AK Press, 2008).
A driving argument throughout the book is that nowtopians are more than their jobs or class and are working outside of the capitalist economy to create “A social revolt against being reduced to ‘mere workers,’ to being trapped in the objectified and commodified status of labor power.” It is this movement that the dynamic book focuses on, telling stories from across the garden plots, bicycle parties, and kitchen tables that play essential roles in creating utopia now. Though there are many more examples of community organizing and activist work that could ever fit into the pages of one book, Nowtopia presents compelling stories of activism that anyone can learn from.
In a chapter on vacant-lot gardeners Carlsson digs into the roots and legacies of community gardening. Readers are informed that during World War I, a campaign was launched to “plant for freedom” and “hoe for liberty” in which five million gardeners produced $520 million in food in just two growing seasons. By 1944, in World War II, 18-20 million families had “Victory Gardens” which produced 40% of the nation’s vegetables. More recently, in 2004, 37 gardens in NYC produced more than 30,000 pounds of food. Globally, there are approximately 200 million urban gardeners producing food and income for around 700 million people.
Yet as this book illustrates, these gardens grow more than food, they grow community. Neighbors come together around gardens, experiences and knowledge are shared across generations, and empty city lots once full of fear and street violence are replaced by gardeners with flowers, vegetables, and families. New York City gardener Sarah Ferguson describes the community gardens she’s been involved with: “Like the antic shrines and alters they construct in their flower beds, these eclectic havens are in a very real sense churches, where people find faith — both in themselves and in their neighbors.” But NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani waged a war on gardens, working to sell the lots off to real estate developers. In 2000, he told the New York Times: “If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say everything should be a community garden.” Yet many NYC neighbors banded together and resisted, preserving their garden lots and strengthening their community in the process.
Community gardening also offers a down-to-earth alternative to buying into the corporate food world. Environmental justice activist Jessica Hayes, for example, who worked at The Food Project in Boston, said, “I can fight that [industrial agricultural system] until I die, but at the same time build an alternative so that at some point we can just cut the global system off.”
Another nowtopian activity understandably outlined in this book is bicycling. This mode of transport has long been applauded by activists against oil wars, oil dependency, and cars. Like gardening, working together to fix and ride bikes can also build community. In Nowtopia, Ted White talks of his experience at the Center for Appropriate Transport in Eugene, Oregon, where he worked with young kids to fix and put bikes together. White says the work was empowering and confidence-building: “They took metal and rubber and plastic parts, put them together, fine tuned them, and then — voila! — they had literally made themselves a vehicle for both external exploration and self-discovery.” Similarly, Eric Welp, who teaches people how to fix their own bikes at “Chain Reaction” in Washington, DC, said that “we’re not going to solve the world with bikes, but we can change it by changing a kid’s outlook” and mode of transportation.
Carlsson also guides readers through the rich history of bicycle zines, providing the example of the early 1990s zine called Mudflap by Greta Snider, where the author wrote a cartoon called Equipment Fetish, which goes, “you know how it feels . . . there’s something so good about MACHINE PARTS . . . knurled wheels, dials, level meters; the KA-CHUNK of a shutter, the clicks of indexed things falling into place. . . .” In her zine, Snider also tells stories of “haunts for bike-punks in Toronto,” “rants against buying stolen bikes,” and develops different city-specific games for bicyclists.
Other zines and publications cited by Carlsson critique the car culture of the US. An issue of Resist proclaims, “. . . all you habitual motorists are suckers. You’ve been hoodwinked. Your automobile is expensive, annoying, and anti-social. My bicycle is cheap, fun and at times, a traveling party.” Critical Mass bike rides — when bicyclists converge to take back the streets from cars — are another inspirational example of renegade bike culture redefining streets and protest. Carlsson says of these gatherings, “The bike ride is the premise, but the deeper transformation of imaginations and social connections is hard to measure.”
Nowtopia also moves off the streets and into cyberspace in another chapter called “The Virtual Spine of the Commons” which includes a brief people’s history of the internet and a celebration of the rise of open and free software. This software movement, Carlsson writes, has “helped to radically reduce the price of software, providing access to thousands of new programmers and technically skilled people.” However, he laments the fact that with programs like Blogger, MySpace, and YouTube, “A profitable business model arose by placing things people have been making privately for a long time (personal diaries, novels, photos, ramblings, poetry, school gazettes, etc.) in a public context of advertising and ecommerce, and then working to make those public, commercial platforms as monopolistic as possible.”
The author also shows many examples of how the internet has been an incredible organizing, media, and fundraising tool for social movements and activists all over the world. From the Zapatistas getting their messages out via the internet, to non-profits and social organizations networking in ways that were unimaginable in pre-internet days, Carlsson analyzes the highs and lows of this powerful tool. He writes, “Typically, online communities are criticized for promoting disembodied and immaterial connections. Too often political campaigns that may once have mobilized a street action or something directly physical have instead turned into a cascade of emails and online petitions. But as the remarkable participation in the February 2003 global anti-war demonstrations revealed, the same electronic communities can network themselves to produce an unprecedented public demonstration.”
At the end of election day, many of the nowtopians we encounter in this book will likely still be teaching kids how to fix bikes instead of take standardized tests, crunching their shovels into new soil, and democratizing cyberspace. Carlsson’s Nowtopia reminds us that there is much work to do beyond simply voting, and the examples he outlines in his book can be a good place to start, or expand, your own local revolutions. They are not necessarily end-all solutions, but could be catalysts toward broader social change and movements. As Carlsson writes, a nowtopia might be right around the corner: “An unfolding potential can and does erupt in the most surprising places, seemingly simple and limited but also embodying deeper aspirations for a more profound transformation.”
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of Vermont-based TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). He is teaching a class on globalization and pirates at Burlington College this fall.