Using Roleplaying To Imagine Life Under a Green New Deal—Dungeons & Dragons Style

Instead of wizards and clerics, Iowans are envisioning roles like community planners and memory stewards, in an environmentally and economically just society.

Gavin Aronsen December 19, 2019

Organizers discuss their potential futures under a Green New Deal at the Central Library in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Cat Rocketship)

DES MOINES, IOWA — Who in this room has played Dun­geons & Drag­ons?” asks Cat Rock­et­ship, an orga­niz­er with the pro­gres­sive advo­ca­cy group Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment (CCI), of a room of more than three dozen activists. They were envi­sion­ing the future under a Green New Deal dur­ing an exper­i­men­tal work­shop Nov. 16, 2019, at the Cen­tral Library in down­town Des Moines.

Iowans imagined new social roles in a 2030 society that has taken significant steps toward environmental and economic justice.

Rock­et­ship was intro­duc­ing a small-group activ­i­ty, imag­in­ing new social roles in a 2030 soci­ety that has tak­en sig­nif­i­cant steps toward envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. Instead of wiz­ards and cler­ics (per Dun­geons & Drag­ons), pro­posed roles ranged from the famil­iar, like com­mu­ni­ty plan­ners, to the more cre­ative, such as mem­o­ry stew­ards to record and pre­serve sto­ries about their communities.

The work­shop was led by Alex O’Keefe, cre­ative direc­tor of the youth-led cli­mate orga­ni­za­tion Sun­rise Move­ment, and mem­bers of CCI. Rough­ly a quar­ter of atten­dees trav­eled from oth­er states to dis­cuss a Green New Deal for Iowa and rur­al America.”

In Michi­gan, there is a very big divide between urban and sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties,” said Maria Ibar­ra-Frayre, 29, deputy direc­tor of work­ing-class orga­niz­ing group We the Peo­ple Michi­gan, who trav­eled from Detroit. There is very lit­tle over­lay or rela­tion­ship-build­ing between those communities.”

Par­tic­i­pants were giv­en note­books (with cov­ers fash­ioned from recy­cled posters pro­mot­ing a past CCI event) to record their thoughts through­out a series of col­lab­o­ra­tive brain­storm­ing ses­sions. They wrote let­ters to their 2009 selves amid the Great Reces­sion, then let­ters to their 2030 selves imag­in­ing equi­table rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. Ideas for the future includ­ed afford­able loans for begin­ning farm­ers, more robust local food dis­tri­b­u­tion mar­kets, and guar­an­teed union jobs to plant prairie land, build elec­tric rail and enhance rur­al inter­net access.

At day’s end, orga­niz­ers col­lect­ed the note­books for deliv­ery to a group of ani­ma­tors who will cre­ate a short video to gal­va­nize sup­port for a Green New Deal. It will be released in mid-Jan­u­ary ahead of the Iowa cau­cus­es Feb­ru­ary 3.

As a mod­el, the work­shop opened with an ani­mat­ed short, A Mes­sage From the Future with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, illus­trat­ed by Mol­ly Crabap­ple, pro­duced by The Inter­cept and nar­rat­ed by the con­gress­woman. In the video, Oca­sio-Cortez imag­ines the Unit­ed States after Medicare for All (described as the most pop­u­lar social pro­gram in Amer­i­can his­to­ry”), a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee and nation­wide high-speed rail, to help envi­sion an inclu­sive, envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly, pro­gres­sive future.

The idea appealed to Lar­ry Gin­ter, a 79-year-old retired fam­i­ly farmer from Rhodes, a rur­al com­mu­ni­ty of about 300 peo­ple in cen­tral Iowa where he grew up. He recount­ed how the New Deal revi­tal­ized his hometown.

You couldn’t explain how great every­thing was,” Gin­ter recalled. The com­mu­ni­ty thrived until the ear­ly 1950s, when com­mod­i­ty price floors declined as part of the dis­man­tling of the New Deal. Where Rhodes once sup­port­ed two gas sta­tions, five church­es and a pub­lic school, he said, today it has no gas sta­tions or schools and one active church.

Gin­ter said he was enthused about the younger generation’s ambi­tious cli­mate efforts, but appre­hen­sive about the dystopi­an future they might inherit.

My fear is that our gov­ern­ment and a lot of peo­ple won’t buy into the idea that we need … real struc­tur­al change to get things going on here” to fend off cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe, he tells In These Times. If we don’t get a han­dle on this, we’re going to see things that we nev­er dreamed of.”

Already, Iowa farm­ers have felt the effects of a chang­ing cli­mate, with record rain­fall threat­en­ing crop yields and delay­ing the har­vest sea­son. Mean­while, the cor­po­rate agri­cul­tur­al lob­by, led by groups like the Iowa Farm Bureau, con­tin­ues to dom­i­nate pol­i­cy­mak­ing in a state where hogs out­num­ber humans more than sev­en­fold. This fac­to­ry farm­ing con­tin­ues to pol­lute the water with can­cer-caus­ing nitrates, which ulti­mate­ly flow into the Gulf of Mex­i­co, deplet­ing oxy­gen for marine life.

And with the com­ple­tion in 2017 of the Dako­ta Access Pipeline, which cuts 343 miles across the state under exten­sive spans of farm­land and the Mis­souri and Mis­sis­sip­pi rivers, Iowans face the increased poten­tial of crude oil leaks. That’s what inspired Daw­son Dav­en­port, 39, a mem­ber of the Meskwa­ki Set­tle­ment about 60 miles north­east of Des Moines, to attend the work­shop. He wants to encour­age oth­ers to spread cli­mate activism across Native communities.

Work­shop orga­niz­ers struck a hope­ful tone despite grim envi­ron­men­tal and polit­i­cal real­i­ties. The con­trast between a utopi­an and dystopi­an future was a recur­ring motif: We face both scarci­ty and plen­ty, iso­la­tion and con­nec­tion, divi­sion and solidarity.

Before the workshop’s con­clu­sion, facil­i­ta­tors dis­cussed what their next steps might be, includ­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in a nation­al cli­mate strike in Decem­ber and com­mit­ting to cau­cus in Iowa for a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who sup­ports the Green New Deal.

The New Deal is a source of inspi­ra­tion, but we’re going to do it a lot bet­ter this time,” says Shawn Sebas­t­ian, a CCI orga­niz­er who helped facil­i­tate the day’s events. Our Green New Deal is going to include black peo­ple, include Lat­inx peo­ple, include domes­tic work­ers, include farm labor­ers. We’re going to [put] cli­mate and racial jus­tice at the center.”

Gavin Aron­sen is an edi­tor of the Iowa Informer, and pre­vi­ous­ly worked at the Ames Tri­bune and Moth­er Jones magazine.
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