The spectacle of it

Recently, I found myself in Washington, D.C. ordering my not-so-guilty pleasure, tiramisu. I believe that my body composition should be 1% tiramisu at all times, so I have become a connoisseur of sorts. While my menu choice is predictable, this city feels less so. Every moment is like walking through a movie set but each meeting I take reminds me of the all-too-real concentration of power around me. Few other places in the world can lay claim to the power per square mile of D.C.

I slide over to make room for the giant chocolate mound being set down before me, when I notice the waiter pull out a lighter. He proceeds to light a bronze measuring cup full of liquid on fire and pour it over the chocolate globe. People around me turn to stare as the blue flames reach well over my head.

It is a spectacle.

In a town where sustained attention is scarce, the burning tiramisu holds us all captive for a collective pause. It becomes a strange shared moment among strangers, some primal human instinct to quietly watch the flames.

Writing my meeting notes later that night, I keep coming back to that moment. I am here to convince decision-makers that people matter, that the good life is meant to be shared by all and that enough resources exist in the world to make that a reality. We have enough food, goods, land, water and know-how on this planet to provide for all her inhabitants. We could all be living full and expansive lives. 

I am stateside to make the point that out there drowning in the misery of poverty is the child who could grow up to cure your cancer, stop the planet from self-destructing or produce a piece of art that would move you to tears. But at this moment, instead of doing these things, she will spend her days seeking food, shelter and water and suffer in ways that you will find incomprehensible.

The man I met with today — whose finger rests on the power to shift history — nods his head with false empathy and tells me maybe next year. I am angry at him for his shortsighted narrow mindedness and maybe even more angry that he is pretending. The world needs him to engage and instead he is quiet-quitting. While his predecessors were proud to disengage, this feels somehow more sinister. He is taking the meeting, taking the stage and reaping all the benefits of saying the right things while phoning it in when it comes to execution.

As I make the short walk back to the hotel to get ready for dinner (the obligatory gateway to dessert) my righteous indignation burns off under the weight of hypocrisy. I am back on the movie set, feeling neither the protagonist nor the antagonist. Much worse — I am an extra trying to insert myself in a scene that is above my pay grade. It is easy to blame that guy, the one with the power to rewrite the script and clean up the mess we are in. But the reality is we are all playing our parts, and shifting the narrative is going to require collective imagination, creativity and effort.

I wonder what the next best step is. How can I drum up a spectacle, create a moment where we lose ourselves in our humanity? Where we stop for just a second to imagine a world unlocked, where safety, peace and curiosity replace raging wildfires, expanding authoritarianism and the unmovable chains of extreme poverty.

I don’t have all the answers, and to be fair to he-who-will-not-be-named, neither does he. But I do know it is time to look up, see that preventable suffering is flourishing, and then take a hard look around at the abundance of tools at our disposal. We have everything we need to reshape the world and make it work — really work — for everyone. The trick is not to look away after the flame goes out.


October 19, 2023


Julia Anderson, CanWaCH CEO