The Burden of the New Story
The 'new story' - that longed for milieu when all is right with the world and things are set straight - seems to be taking its sweet time coming. Why?
The Burden of the New Story
By Adebayo Akomolafe / bayoakomolafe.net

The ocean never reaches the shore. There is no simple arrival here; that’s an inadequate portrayal of what is happening. Instead, the ocean enacts the shore. It happens the other way around too – in one single move. The shore performs the ocean. By acting as cleaning agent, the shore characterizes the ocean; and by the mereness of its complexity, the ocean creates shorelines. The heavens we seek are secreted by our own longings and performative quests for a final, static home. We want to get ‘there’ – whether ‘there’ is a beautiful techno-utopic world, or a more just arrangement that works for the many and not just the few. But there is no ‘there’; there is only a yearning, an aching, a struggle for ‘there’ – and in the struggle, we change.

This summer, I met a man who told me about his permaculture work. He was particularly proud that he was living outside what he termed ‘the old story’ where he didn’t need to depend on ‘old tools’. He told me, with an air of authority, that he didn’t use phones, had no use for money or Twitter, and was doing his best to live off the grid. He felt he was ahead of the curve, and that eventually the rest of the world would catch up with him.

A few years ago, I might have stood in his exact same spot; “the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house”, I would have said, nodding my head, and blinking slowly, with the self-righteous assuredness that closed me up to other perspectives. In writing, in speech, I was on a quest to discover the ‘new’ – shining in the lofty distance, removed from its morbid entanglements with the familiar. I imagined a world where formal education (and its project of colonial subjectivization), colonialism, racism, sexism, religious exclusivism, corporate fascism, ageism, phallic techno-utopianism, and the anxious notion of a world in progress…gliding through innocent space – like Latour’s arrow of time – would no longer exist. As such, I was quite taken by apocalyptic prophecies and end-of-the-line stories, promising a Golden Age after the fiery wrath of the old had been extinguished by its own toxicity. A new story.

When I read the accounts of people walking out of ‘old systems’, I felt deeply inspired to take leaps of my own. But leaps into what? What did the new look like? How could I know for sure that what I occupied was in fact an unadulterated space, unapologetically new, not just a regurgitated iteration of an old friend? In short, at what point does the old stop and the new begin?

***

These questions weren’t strange to me: I had been here before. As a young African Christian being brought up in one of the most vivaciously charismatic hotbeds of Pentecostal Christianity – what with its virulent insistence on exclusive practice, keeping oneself holy, fighting off the devil, and keeping oneself ‘rapturable’ – I was unduly concerned about the ontological status of my faith. Apart from answering the pastor’s ‘salvation call’ every Sunday (you know, just to be sure that I had received enough of a supernatural dose of forgiveness for the effect to be real), I distinctly remember praying to God one day, asking to be gifted with an apparatus – which I imagined as a sphygmomanometer-like tool, similar to the ones my sisters and I played ‘doctor’ with when our parents were out. We were always fascinated with the silvery fluid bobbing up and down the glassy column of the box, seeking…straining…yearning for accuracy. Watching its mercuric dance, stimulated by the squeezing of the bulb, along with the tightening grip of the cuff on my arm, lent itself to an ideal of (and pilgrimage for) certitude that would define most of my life. So I prayed for a faith-sphygmomanometer: I wanted to be relieved of the angst of not knowing whether I measured up.   

As much as we would like to laugh at the idea of a faith-measuring device, measurement is no small matter. In fact, measurements are how things come to matter – or how things stop mattering. By measurement, I do not refer merely to the set of practices some scientists are known for: pouring bubbly purpled things into other glass jars with strangely coloured liquids, creating perverse admixtures. I am not even honing in on something distinctly or solely ‘human’ (but this is an issue for another essay, not this one). Karen Barad writes that measurements “are agential practices, which are not simply revelatory but performative: they help constitute and are a constitutive part of what is being measured”[1] By that she means that the world is fundamentally entangled – in an utterly orgasmic self-enacting perversity of touch. The commonplace idea that the world entails already made things, with discrete boundaries and a priori values, bouncing off each other in a soup of interactivity, is summarily deconstructed by quantum theory. By popularizing the concept of intra-action, Barad compels us to notice that phenomena, not ‘things’, are the units of the physical world, where a ‘phenomenon’ is a mangled knot of multiple threads with no distinct shape or determinate measure. Things gain definition (and therefore boundaries and properties) only within the context of ephemeral relationships or intra-actions.

What then is a ‘human’? A ‘plant’? The ‘environment’? Some religious and quasi-scientific interpretations of the world would invite us to look with-in to find an answer: the soul makes us ‘human’, and therefore places us across an unbridgeable chasm from the rest of the world. Empirical science reacts to this and insists we look with-out, in the distant (and yet pressingly close) and unimpeachable principles of motion and the deterministic laws of the world. In very recent times, what with cross-cultural trends, haptic involutions in technological ‘innovation’, and other shifts that are difficult to characterize, the impulse has emerged to look with – in the spaces between.[2] With. Quantum theory at least disturbs the idea that there can be a decidable answer to any of those questions, since the identity of a thing is not an essence or property of the thing, but a co-emergent phenomenon.        

Light is a particle in a delayed-choice double slit experiment, and a diffractive wave in a different iteration of the double slit test. Asking what light 'really is' is beside the point. It depends on the measuring apparatus with which we produce the phenomenon. There is no 'really is'. A specific book is only 14 centimetres long within a measurement intra-action ‘with’ a ruler, and not prior to that sensuous encounter. Its 14-centimetredness is not ‘out there’, waiting for the right tool to find it out, seeking a home among the many numbers that line a column of numbers, like teenage mercury. Accuracy is therefore not a matter of aligning the finite with the infinite, or insisting that the temporal correspond with the fixed, as it is about awkward encounters and inaudible gasps – about form arising and collapsing into a soup of things, and not even in a way that leaves the duration between these seemingly double events intact or untroubled. Accuracy does not mean we cannot speak about objectivity. Conditioned by Cartesian ideas, we are used to thinking about objectivity in terms of ‘something outside’ or ‘what is – no matter who looks’, but objectivity is not synonymous with exteriority or stability. To point out that the world is entangled is not the same as saying there are no things, but that things derive their discreteness and difference within the context of intra-acting relationships, not prior to that encounter.

In short, this strange affair of entanglement haunts ontology as the study of ‘what is’. Little wonder, Derrida, concerned with spectres and ghostly figures and things ‘out of joint’, suggests that we speak of ‘hauntologies’ instead – where identity is always in the making, always ‘to-come’, always partial, neither here nor there, neither dead nor alive, and never “completely constituted prior to experience”[3].

How ‘we’ measure the world enacts the world, and excludes other complementary worlds from mattering. The world is a constant deconstruction and reiteration of itself. Every moment, every morsel, every critter, every gesture, every unseemly movement in the dark, is ‘part’ of a palimpsest of bodies and stories, or body-stories (or material-discursivity) that enacts the real. If I were to pay homage to my formative Christian years, I would now say that the project of creation described in Genesis is still unfinished, in part because it is still ongoing, but – more profoundly – because the very notion of an endpoint, of a finish line, of a tape to cross, is also up for reconfiguration. Still to come.

***

And so by way of quantum deconstructions, queer light, ghosts and Christian quests for certitude (with the colonial undertones of wanting to be approved by a foreign standard!), we return to (or re/turn!) the concept of the new or, to be specific, how the new is co-enacted and performed.

Our times are shot through with unwieldy, but nevertheless consequential, desires and hopes for justice – and these yearnings mark our bodies in very material ways. My wife and I, parents to a three year old magical creature – our daughter Alethea-Aanya, still struggle with what education ‘means’, or rather how to comport ourselves in a nurturing way with a little girl who mostly prefers the pale face of a phone to the lyrical greenness of the plants in our balcony. When we left our teaching positions at the university, we did it – like so many other younger people today – wanting to live a life in keeping with our authentic quests for presence in a very complicated world. We no longer had much faith in the educational system and its colonial heritages of story-eliding, language-banishing, method-homogenizing and knowledge-sterilizing practices. Rising in stature as young PhDs and widely published authors on an infrastructure of legitimized snobbery no longer excited us.

Our disenchantments with institutionalized public education soon metastasized, flowing with tentacular promiscuity, touching everything else, and infecting our visions of economics, of politics and even science. Soon, we came to believe there was something wrong with the world – maybe not an evil lurking in its veins, but something just as fundamental. We had lost our way, and we now inhabited a story that didn’t serve. A story of economics in which meaningful things no longer counted, and only the things that could be counted were meaningful. Where work suffocated our deepest interests and affinities. A story of politics that was established on the patriarchal dominance of the few above the many.

We wanted justice. We went to the Himalayan Mountains to join our voices with an unschooling community of alternative education practitioners that insisted on many streams, instead of a mainstream. We co-founded an initiative to spark the proliferation of radical political imaginaries, economic alternatives and new educational pathways. All the while, the vagaries of being immersed in many streams of thick thought opened us up to different conceptions of the sacred, many of which were jarring to us at first, but eventually became part of our rapid experiential furniture. And, even though the academic world in the so called Global South felt like a Fanonian ordeal – black people doing their utmost to polish their white masks – we kept having conversations in the intellectual spaces we once called home, debating systems change theories, localization, and strategies for scaling up (or, as we later revised, scaling down).

In many of the conversational circles that I was personally privileged to enter, there was a palpable feeling of betrayal – something akin to what old apartheid-era South Africans feel today when they look back on the early histories of the ANC, Mandela’s party, and then contrast that with its present metamorphosis into the party of power-hungry elites. People are asking: when will we inhabit a world where people matter, and not just giant corporations? What would it take to live in a world that truly respects the environment, not as resource or mute other or dead background to the drama of human becoming, but as ally? Will our crazy dreams of a greener world where technology blends seamlessly with the temporalities of soil and sky ever see the light of day? A world where diversity thrives so abundantly that contemporaneous binary racial tensions between whites and blacks are eviscerated by the impressive multiplicity of colours between? Where officials are held accountable for their actions, and where work isn’t about ascending a ladder of escalating consumption but about chasing your affinities? Where women can thrive with just as much levity as men, without that levity rendered as reprehensible lasciviousness?

Godot hasn’t come. The Gordian knot is still as knotty as ever. Excalibur remains lodged in Apollonian stone.

The new story seems to be taking its sweet time coming.

While I take issue with the ubiquity of the phrase ‘a new story’ – especially when it is used in singular form (in the same way that I hesitate to speak of the ‘Anthropocene’, because it seems to treat ‘mankind’ as a homogeneous group, making everyone everywhere equally responsible for the alteration of biophysical landscapes), it does have its utility. For all its New Age obscurantist suppositions (including the universalism at work in its framing), it serves as a rallying point for increasingly globalized concerns about the world and our place in it; it also serves as a holding place for the belief that our troubles are somehow all connected and not as incongruent as we think. In my experience of its popular use, the ‘new story’ contains the uncontested anthropocentric idea that humans are solely burdened with the responsibility for change, and that we are to blame for where we are as a species. At the very least, speaking about ‘a new story’ challenges our ways of seeing the world – inviting us to ‘connect the dots’, ‘lean in’, and ‘recognize our collective agency’ to contest exploitative powers…which is ironic, since ‘the new story’ itself (or rather, the ways we have come to speak about ‘it’) seems to be produced by very particular ways of seeing the world.

What is at stake here is an accounting for what is brought to the foreground and what is, as a result, excluded (or made invisible) in our enactments (measurements) of ‘the new story’. Without attempting a historical analysis of some sort, I think it is noteworthy to point out that the usage of the term ‘the new story’ is co-emergent and produced by certain ‘regimes of visuality’. Consider our circumstances: because we are immersed in digital media and daily traffic in the commerce of images – whether on the internet, taking a selfie, or recording one’s tourist experiences with a phone’s camera app – the conditions of seeing are radically different from what they used to be a mere 30 years ago. The very ontology (or identity) of seeing has changed. To borrow that American cliché, with regard to visuality, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

The same is true about how we process information. The agential influences of technologies like Google have so shaped our cognitive activity that Emmelhainz, borrowing from the work of Franco Berardi, writes that “at the core of the Google Empire is the capture of user attention in order to translate cognitive acts into automatic sequences. The consequence of this translation is the replacement of cognition with a chain of automated connections, effectively automatizing the subjectivities of users.” In today’s app-saturated society, if you want something done or seek something, you enter the appropriate search criteria and an automated response offers feedback. And we repeat this process to find directions, make purchases, conduct research, organize our to-do lists, and even make friends. This dependence on computerized systems to navigate everyday tasks disrupts the idea that the mind is some kind of pure quality ensconced in the human brain, behind human skin. The ‘parity principle’ of the extended mind (by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers) states that “if, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is … part of the cognitive process.”[4]

Further still, Emmelhainz argues that it is not just that images are now an indispensable part of our lives, it is that we now see the world in the reductionistic terms of images. “Aside from the fact that images and data are taking the place of or giving form to experience, they are also transforming things into signs; welding together image and discourse, images have inaugurated a tautological form of vision. With the widespread use of photography and digital imaging, all signs begin to lead to other signs, prompted by the desire to see and to know, to document, and to archive information.”  

This optical shift has real consequences. Susan Sontag writes that “taking photographs […] is a way of certifying experience,[but] also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.”[5] It means we approve as ‘real’ only the picturesque and – given our attendance to cognitive linearity – only those ‘things’ that are amenable to plot conventions or orthographic/narratological imperatives.

Since seeing is just as much a matter of taking into consideration as it is about taking out of consideration – an exclusionary dynamic, if you will – accounting for the ways we speak about and yearn for ‘the new story’ necessarily raises new questions about what we are leaving out of our frames. I would argue that this sequentialization of thought and reiteration of visuality as photogenia, inaugurated by the ongoing digital alteration of our landscapes, are at work in the co-production of the more popular ideas about ‘the new story’. As a manifestation of these constraining conditions, the ‘new story’ discourse

  1. coincides with the logic of developmental linearity and its implicit promise of gratification down the evolutionary-historical line
  2. makes invisible the agential contributions of the more-than-human world in how the world materializes
  3. leaves intact classical assumptions about the nature of nature (and time and space) – especially the idea that we inhabit a single Euclidean temporality where the past flows into the future, or that we can speak with any sense of finality about the ‘old’ and the ‘new’
  4. feeds an imagination and yearning for a pure, totalizing (or complete) response to current challenges – while eliding the mutuality between supposed binaries

I feel these are important to note. Encoded in the performance of ‘new story’ discourse is a postponement of the sacred and a stabilization of justice. In place of living in the incommensurability of the present, we live forward…denying the old, the contemporary, the now, its work with us. But rather than speak about a ‘forward’ – as we are wont to doing if we take ‘new story’ talk at face value – we might as well speak about an awkward.

“Not upward or downward, backward or forward, but awkward. Awk-wards: a vector. The (now obsolete) word awk means out of the way, strange, even sinister in nature and disposition. As an adverb, awkward suggests an action in the wrong, or at least a tangential direction. It evokes disjuncture, discord and incompatibility. Things have gone awry. As an adjective, awkward describes the unfamiliar, the clumsy and the unskilled. It conveys embarrassment, inconvenience and risk. To be awkward is to be ill at ease, uncomfortable or untoward.”[6]

More specifically, awkward suggests “a recalcitrance or obstinacy to human aspiration and endeavour”. The world we live in is fragile, negotiated between multiple agencies, non-linear, thick and perverse. Like a teenager at the frothing edge of her awkwardness of flailing limbs and coming-to-age features, she is always unexpected…visibly unnerving…never fitting the models and maps we seek to discipline her into. This is as much a vibrantly ‘accurate’ redescription of the world according to quantum theory – shot through with ‘visiting’ philosophies from indigenous non-western worlds. The world is awkward, out of joint, showing up partially (since identity is always exclusionary or complementary), and never not broken. Therein lies its magic.

We cannot brand the next. Which is to say that the identity of a new story isn’t pre-set, merely awaiting its approximation or the right assemblage of words to activate it. The ‘new story’ is indeterminate. It’s not even a matter of not knowing what it is; it is not that we are uncertain about it and that with more information we can trace out the contours of a new world that works for many rather than a few. Uncertainty is not the issue here. Indeterminacy is. In this context, the ontological status of ‘the new story’ is still being made and always to be deferred.

The ‘old’ is not an ‘other’ of the ‘new’, any more than light is ontologically separate from darkness; the ‘old’ haunts the ‘new’, innervates the ‘new’, conspires with the ‘new’ – so that to add darkness to darkness is to produce light. The old is the generativity of the new, and the new is the generativity of the old. The old is how the new grounds itself in the ‘previous’ and how it experiments with the possible. We need the old – even the villainous old. As quantum field theory suggests, nothing is not new, even the old. Drawing tenuous connections from scientific experiments that queer the nature of matter to socio-econo-political conditions like neoliberalism might seem farfetched. But that is exactly what quantum theory disrupts – the idea of scalar distinction where ‘small things’ have their own logic that has nothing to do with the goings and comings of ‘big things’.     

The implication of all this is that we cannot ‘walk out’ of systems as such, since boundaries aren’t fixed in the classical sense. There is neither a prelapsarian return to the garden of Eden nor a label that can subsume meaning in a final sense. As such, the notion that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house is, ironically, an enactment of the master’s invisible narrative. What’s hard at work here is a story of difference that equates it with separation, or a matter of an ontology that starts off with things having pre-given boundaries and already determinate properties. The master’s claim to ownership is as unfounded and as hasty as the slave’s testimony of freedom at last.

***

After all is said and done (well, not quite all – but you get the point), the ‘new story’ offers a fragile, haunted, valuable discursive site for the assembly of common aspirations and common projects committed to reconfiguring social systems for ‘justice’. For a ‘better’ ‘future’.

Yes, those commitments are ordained and threaded through by particular ways of seeing that often exclude the awkwardness of a more-than-human world where linear expectations are risky ventures; they are silent about the indifference of the world to the tenets of anthropocentrism; they do not engage the sensuous entanglements between old and new – thus, leaving the ‘old’ behind in a puritan attempt to ‘start from scratch’; and, they make invisible the agency and intelligence of matter due to ideas about the predominance of language (and story). And yet, there is a lot more room for play here…right here in this site of yearning and justice-seeking. There is room for a different ecology of questions exploring fragile emergence.

Instead of merely asking how we can unilaterally bring about a new story, we can listen to the invitation of the wilds to open up to the fragility of map-making projects. We can gather round a set of inquiries that bring us to investigate the contours of our seeing and the textures of our knowings – and, as such, the world we are co-performing with many, many others. We can wonder about the contributions of stones to world-making, and embark upon quests to eavesdrop on the gossip of trees.

If this feels like navel-gazing work, especially in these times when critical action is called for – if this feels politically stultifying – I would suggest that it feels so because our visions have created an anorexic self, and then set it against the uncharted muteness of a world outside it. Perhaps new topographies of responsiveness and radical political imaginaries might emerge when we co-enact the self as dispersed, distributed and strange – layering and infusing soil, cloud, rivers and stranger.

A new story? Why set the bar so low? Why deny ourselves the spontaneity of the unexpected?   


[1] Karen Barad, ‘What is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice’, [100 Notes, dOCUMENTA]

[2] Astrid Schraeder explores the fascinating case of Pfiesteria piscicida, the ‘fish killers’, which defy known taxonomical arrangements that have persisted for similar micro-critters. Their life cycles are confusing and complex, queering the distinctions between the organism and its surroundings. In ‘Responding to Pfiesteria piscicida (the Fish Killer): Phantomatic Ontologies, Indeterminacy, and Responsibility in Toxic Microbiology’ [Social Studies of Science 40, no. 2 (April 2010), pp. 275-306].

[3] Irmgard Emmelhainz, ‘Images do not show: The desire to see in the Anthropocene’ (p.133). Chapter in the book ‘Art in the Anthropocene’: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies’ (Edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, 2015)

[4] ‘The Extended Mind’, an essay by Andy Clark and David Chalmers

[5] Irmgard Emmelhainz, ‘Images do not show: The desire to see in the Anthropocene’ (p.135). Chapter in the book ‘Art in the Anthropocene’: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies’ (Edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, 2015)

[6] Jamie Lorimer, ‘On Auks and Awkwardness’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 4, 2014, pp. 195-205

www.environmentalhumanities.org

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The Burden of the New Story