Founder and editor of Adbusters magazine, Kalle Lasn is largely credited for conceptualizing and starting the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, New York, which eventually spread around the world. His new book, Meme Wars, aims to reinvent the study of economics. Here, he talks to Solutions about his vision for the future.
You have been trying to change consumer culture for years. How did the idea for Occupy Wall Street begin?
It began in early 2011. It was percolating in 2010. We were excited by the anarchist action in Greece and discontent among young people in Spain, and the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, and we saw how young people in Egypt were using social media to get tons of people out to the streets and pull off regime change. Our brainstorming sessions at Adbusters began and we said, “We need a regime change in America as well.” Not hard regime change like Egypt where dictators were torturing people. We are after a soft regime change. We felt the heart of American democracy and found that, in Washington, DC, things were rotten and corporations were getting their own way with lobbyists and money power. Wall Street people have created a global casino, and meanwhile young people are having a hard time finding jobs and are losing their houses. So let’s try to create a Tahrir Square moment in America.
How do you feel about how the protests ended? Did they flame out, or was it a success? What lessons were learned?
It was a huge success. A lot of people say, “They never came up with demands.” But here is a movement of young people who felt their future didn’t compute, and they fought it in a horizontal, leaderless way, and they launched a national conversation in America and in Canada, and last October the conversation went international. So a few hundred people in Zuccotti Park launched a huge international debate about the future and that’s as good as it comes.
Now, we know it’s winding down, and there’s a big question mark: can we keep this going, and morph into new strategies, and still command attention with the world? And I believe we can. This movement has long legs and a core impulse—this feeling among hundreds of millions of young people that their lives will be full of ecological and political and financial crises, and they can’t aspire to the lives their parents had, unless they stand up and fight for a different future. I don’t think anything can stop these young people and I predict we’re going to move away from large occupations of parks and we’ll have surprise, one-day occupations of banks and corporations and the economics departments of universities, with more and more people talking about the Robin Hood tax and high frequency trading and bank reform and campaign finance reform. These surprise, one-day occupations will start popping up in cities everywhere. This movement will fragment into a million projects.
What are members of the movement talking about now?
[...] Back in 2008, when the financial meltdown happened and caught all the classical economists by surprise, there were a lot of bioeconomists and ecological economists waiting in the wings, hungry to shift that paradigm. And there will be a revolt of students against their professors. And we may find ourselves next year with hundreds of students occupying the economics departments of their universities. It wouldn’t just be a policy shift like taxing the rich. It would be a shift in the fundamental axioms of economic science and a tinkering with the bedrock of our economic system. The next generation of economists would have a totally different worldview.
What should the new economic outlook be?
Ecological economists and the movement started by Herman Daly and others. There are already ecological associations and a journal. The natural world is the main part of this ecological paradigm and the money economists are just a subset. It would be a reversal of roles. It could give birth to a generation of barefoot economists with their feet firmly in the real world.
Herman Daly and Robert Costanza, both founders of ecological economics, are on the Solutions editorial board. Robert Costanza is our editor in chief.
I hope you tell them that from my perspective their ideas are reaching fruition, and I wish they would encourage their followers to be more aggressive. Suddenly, old and young people are pushing against the system and it’s time for ecological economists to stand up and be counted and not just play academic games in the background. Joseph Stiglitz actually went to Zuccotti Park and gave a talk. We need more of that. We need them to champion their paradigm.
We also don’t have full cost accounting. There is a dream among Occupiers to have a global market where products show their ecological cost, which would reflect their true cost. They will find that the price of cars goes up and bikes goes down. Maybe that McDonald’s napkin could suddenly have a certain price to it. And apples from New Zealand would have a different price. How much does all that stuff from China going to Walmart truly cost in environmental damage?
Given that populist anger had brewed for years among America’s middle and lower classes, why didn’t this sort of activism start earlier?
The moment wasn’t right. Something heaved back in 2008, when the meltdown happened. Something heaved again when the young people of Tunisia and Egypt stood up. This feeling that the young people have in the pit of their stomachs doesn’t compute. This is really sinking in with a vengeance now. If the global economy keeps tanking, we may be in for some version of the 1929 scenario, and a lot of these projects and paradigm shifts, and the dismantling of the global casinos, and Robin Hood taxes, and the radical transformation of businesses—they may well need that kind of crisis to be implemented.
Imagine that the Occupy movement achieves everything you think it can. What does the world look like after this ultimate success? How long will it take to get there?
It’s all about producing a different type of human being. Like the Occupiers who slept in the park. Their cynicism dissolved and they were engaged and they merged into this different kind of human being. They were alive and alert and energized and this is what it’s about. This movement will be a success if it can produce a new generation of young people who are fighting a good fight and can do what needs to be done. It’s going to take an eternity because the human project never ends. We are at a tipping point right now. This feels like one of the biggest tipping points. We have never faced the possibility of ecological and physical and political crises all swirling around each other and ready to swoop down on us and create a nightfall. Not just a 1929 scenario, but a 50- to 100- or 1,000-year blockade. It’s totally in the cards. I hope this Occupy movement will give impetus to young people and make them fight harder to avoid the pitfalls of humanity.