Living on the trigger’s edge

I am always worrying about our vulnerability as individuals living in a contaminated environment, or about the instability of our planetary ecosystem now that global heating is underway.

But one thing I don’t usually worry about is whether my son will be shot and killed on his way to buy candy at the corner store.

This is a mark of my privilege as a white person living in a predominantly white neighborhood in a small, relatively wealthy town in New England.

My sons are in fact half Hispanic—their father is of Mexican heritage—but they “look white.”

It would never have occurred to me, before learning of Trayvon Martin’s recent murder at the hands of a neighborhood vigilante, that one of my kids, coming home from the local convenience store wearing his hoodie up because of the rain, could be accused of robbery and fatally shot by one of my neighbors.

There is so much that is wrong about this scenario that I hardly know where to start.

I deplore the racial profiling that turned an innocent kid into a moving target.  I abhor the despicable behavior of the local police department, which chose to let the killer go free—with his gun!—without even holding an investigation.

But there is a more fundamental issue here that we as a society need to confront.

Why are there so many civilians with guns in our country?

This is at the heart of all the school shootings that have been occurring with alarming regularity in recent years.

It is of deep concern to the millions of victims of domestic violence in our country, who must live in fear of the gun in the drawer.

It is certainly at issue in the Trayvon Martin case, where a young man lost his life because of a trigger-happy “neighborhood watch” patrolman gone bonkers.

It is high time we as a nation stood up to the NRA “right to bear arms” folks and began a serious national conversation about gun violence in our country, and around the world.

***

I spend quite a bit of my professional life teaching and writing about violence that happens in other countries.

When you teach college classes in literature and human rights, you are often reading accounts of genocide, civil war and ethnic cleansing in places like Africa, in Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East.

My students and I regularly read horrifying stories of how civilians are caught in the crossfire between heavily armed warring groups.

One side is usually the state-funded military and police, the other side an oppositional force, labeled “terrorists,” “subversives,” “rebels,” or “freedom fighters” depending on your ideological viewpoint.

In between are the ordinary civilians who are generally just trying to keep their heads down and survive.  Women are especially at risk in these situations: vulnerable to rape themselves, they are often forced to watch their children raped and tortured, their husbands executed.

It’s easy for us to think about this kind of violence as something that only happens far away, and to feel that we here in the U.S. are morally superior and righteous.

Easy, that is, until we stop to consider two important aspects of these faraway conflicts that are almost never discussed in the news media or in college classrooms.

One, in virtually all cases of civil conflict worldwide in the past 50 years, the guns and other weapons have been supplied by U.S. arms manufacturers and dealers, or their European counterparts.

Two, in many cases, the folks on the ground in hot spots like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Congo are fighting proxy wars for First World corporate control of resources. In other words, they’re fighting Wall Street’s wars.

So we here in the U.S., despite our self-righteous sense of moral purity, are in fact deeply implicated in every violent confrontation taking place over there in other parts of the world.

***

What does this have to do with Trayvon Martin?

Let me spell it out.

The same gun manufacturers and dealers who are arming, say, the Syrian Army and the “opposition forces,” or the Ugandan Army and the Kony “rebels,” are also supplying guns to American servicemen like Sergeant Bales, who flipped out and massacred innocent Afghan civilians in their beds last week; to American police officers who regularly appear in the headlines for unwarranted use of lethal force; and to American civilians like George Zimmerman, who shot an unarmed teenager walking home through his own neighborhood—a supposedly safe gated community in Florida.

And this doesn’t even begin to touch on gang violence worldwide, or narco-violence, all of which is carried out at gunpoint.

With so many guns floating around in our society, it is inevitable that innocent people are going to get shot, all the time, every day.

Here in the U.S., and around the world, we need to rethink the heedless way we have given gun manufacturers and dealers such freedom to operate.

Giving anyone and everyone access to a semiautomatic weapon is just asking for violent confrontations among civilians, and between civilians and police.

As a global civilization, we have put too much emphasis for too long on unbridled freedom to create, even when what we are creating leads to destruction and mayhem.

Chemical companies are given a free hand to churn out thousands of new chemicals and put them into the market without sufficient testing for longterm effects on humans and the environment.

Car manufacturers are given a free hand to drive national transportation policy, prioritizing highways over mass transit at great cost to the environment.

Oil and gas companies are allowed to drill ever deeper, their profits pushing our entire political system into a status-quo paralysis just at the time when we need to be vigorously mounting a huge R&D effort in renewable energy sources.

Shooting a kid, bulldozing a rainforest, poisoning an aquifer…these are just differences in degree.

Next time it could be my kid, or yours—at the hands of a crazy civilian, or an enraged policeman.  It could be your tap water catching fire from gas fumes, or a tornado spawned by global heating running amok in your neighborhood.

I’m tired of living under the constant threat of violence.  I say it’s time to hold the gun manufacturers and dealers, the oil and chemical companies, the car manufacturers and all the other agents of destructive technologies accountable, and tell them in no uncertain terms that enough is enough.

Let’s use our prodigious technological capabilities to make our lives better, not to create ever more sophisticated means to take lives away.

On Human Rights Day, Calling the Next ‘Greatest Generation’

Today, Human Rights Day, I call upon the peoples of the world to understand that if we don’t focus on reducing human impact on the global environment in this new century, all the other more isolated issues will be moot.

Issues from the militarization of the police, to the use of rape as a weapon of war, to the stifling of free speech and democracy, are important—but they’re just minor skirmishes.

The real battle for human rights is taking place in the realm of energy politics.

It’s taking place on the thousands of oil rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s taking place in the hundreds of new hydro-fracking wells being dug in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.

It’s taking place in the coal mines of China and the tar sands of Canada.

All of us are players in this deadly game.  Every time we turn the key in the ignition of our car, or buy food produced by a factory farm, or pay our electric bill.  We participate as consumers, and as consumers, we have more power than we realize.

On Human Rights Day, we need to remember three things:

•   The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the human right to health

•   A healthy environment, including healthy food, water and air, is essential to human health

•   Corporations, not being people, must not be allowed to trample on human rights.

Indeed, corporations, being human creations, should be serving human rights.

If a healthy environment is essential to human rights, then corporations should be working on making our environment as healthy as possible.  Corporations work for us.  They need to meet our needs, and uphold our rights.

There is a new movement afoot to define and uphold the Rights of Nature, which is a totally laudable goal. But in my view, the rights of the natural world and the rights of human beings are inextricably intertwined.

To truly uphold human rights would be to truly uphold the rights of Nature.

We are animals.  We are part of the natural environment of this planet.  If we foul and destroy our environment, we will die, along with countless other living beings: animals, insects, marine life, birds and plants.

This is a big battle; these are momentous times. We need to step up and be the new “greatest generation.”  We need to hold corporations accountable for their destructive, life-threatening actions.  We need to insist on change.

If we don’t, will anyone be left to lament our failure?

Carbon Colonialism: Just Say No!

Do ordinary people need to commit suicide to gain the attention of the global elites?

You may remember, back in 2003, a Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae committed suicide outside the grounds of the World Trade Organization meetings in Cancun, Mexico, as a protest against the impact of first world subsidies of grain production, which effectively pushed small farmers in developing countries out of business.

He set himself on fire right in front of the police barricades keeping him and others like him outside of the WTO talks.

Afterwards, there was a movement by the representatives of developing countries to form a bloc of resistance to the demands of the global elites.  It worked, for a while.

But now, 8 years later, the global elites are at it again, worse than ever.

At this year’s climate talks in Durban, South Africa, representatives of indigenous communities worldwide are protesting at the barricades again, locked out of the talks on complex trade negotiations over carbon offsets, sequestration and deforestation.

It’s not easy to understand the documents produced by the U.N. and government agencies, laying out what’s called the REDD accords: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

It all sounds very nice when you read the summary on the U.N. website.

“Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. “REDD+” goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

“It is predicted that financial flows for greenhouse gas emission reductions from REDD+ could reach up to US$30 billion a year. This significant North-South flow of funds could reward a meaningful reduction of carbon emissions and could also support new, pro-poor development, help conserve biodiversity and secure vital ecosystem services.”

Yes, well, it does sound nice.  But in fact, when that much money is at stake, corruption is not far behind.

As detailed in an important new report called the No REDD Papers, what’s been happening in the name of REDD is a gigantic forest grab, with major multinational energy corporations ruthlessly buying up and bullying their way into land rights to forests in the global south, so that they can not only make money by going on their merry way of fostering carbon emissions in the North, but also make money by collecting the rewards for forest conservation in the south.

And there’s more.  Under REDD+, reforestation is also potentially a growth industry.  But there are insufficient regulations on what constitutes reforestation.  A complex rainforest environment could be harvested, destroyed, and “reforested” with a monocultural non-native cash crop, like bamboo or eucalyptus or palm, which will be “sustainably harvested,” yes, but will actually store a fraction of the carbon of the original rainforest, and will support a tiny fraction of the original biodiversity.

It also results in Native people being pushed off their ancestral lands, by swindle or by force.

The indigenous people, from Niger to Alberta to the Amazon, are not stupid.  They’re wise to what they’re calling “carbon colonialism.”

“REDD/ REDD+ is bad for people, bad for politics and bad for the climate,” says Tom B.K. Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “It will inevitably give more control over Indigenous Peoples’ forests to state forest departments, loggers, miners, plantation companies, traders, lawyers, speculators, brokers, Washington conservation organisations and Wall Street, resulting in violations of rights, loss of livelihoods—and, ultimately, more forest loss.”

I don’t want to be part of this scheme.  To me, as to the indigenous forest defenders, it’s all quite simple.  We must reduce carbon emissions.  We must not only reduce deforestation, but encourage forest regeneration–and not of plantations, but of natural biodiverse forest habitats.

It’s not about making money any more.  It’s about sustaining life–our lives, our children’s lives, the entire web of life upon which we depend.

This time the neocolonial cowboys are not going to be able to get away with murder.  The glare of the internet is upon them.  We will not stand by passively and let a new era of displacement and exploitation take place under the euphemism of “conservation.”

Not this time.  Never again.

And we shouldn’t have to be committing suicide to get attention, either.  There has been enough death and destruction in our world these first years of the 21st century.  Let’s go forward under the banner of Eros, not Thanatos.

Let’s work together for Life.

Paradigm Shift: From Competition and Destruction to Nurturance & Collaboration

I am almost 50 years old, and in my current lifetime I have lived through one of the most intense, rapidly changing periods of human civilization on this planet.  The technological discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries were steadily gaining steam when I was born in the early 1960s; “progress” seemed infinite, and infinitely exciting.  Advances in medical understanding and treatment, the speed of computing, the mechanization of every aspect of our economic systems, and the explosion in information technologies, all made our civilization seem powerful—even invincible.  The blip of failure that registered when we “lost” the Vietnam War was quickly swallowed up in a huge wave of optimism as the economy surged in the 1980s, and the collapse of Soviet Communism, as well as the softening of Chinese Communism, made Euramerican Capitalism seem like a global Manifest Destiny.

And yet there was always the dark underbelly of the beast, clear to anyone who had the will to see it.  Rachel Carson sounded the first alarm on the dangers of synthetic chemicals, released haphazardly into the environment.  Chernobyl was the first major indicator of the serious dangers of “clean” nuclear power.  The slow epidemic of cancers (in the wealthy countries) and AIDS (in the poorer countries), and a myriad of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, have begun to make clear how we have poisoned our environment even for ourselves.  And now, in the first decade of the 21st century, it has finally become apparent even to the most resolute deniers that climate change is a dangerous reality to which we must adapt or perish.

So these are the transition times we live in.  I don’t think it’s too dramatic to compare our times to the last years of other great human civilizations in the past: the Romans, the Mayans, the Inca, the Ming.  All of these civilizations were based on the possibility of exploiting resources—human and natural—to such a great extent that tremendous wealth could be amassed for the rulers.  This was the same model followed by the English, French and Spanish during their colonial periods (16th-19th centuries, roughly), and the U.S. is playing by the same rules with the rise of corporate capitalism backed by the biggest, most deadly military the world has ever known.  The U.S. has become the political center of a global Empire that any feudal European would recognize, the only difference being the advantages that the contemporary wizards of technology afford our leaders.  King Arthur would have been lost without Merlin, and our leaders today would be lost without the magic of electricity.  Truly, our civilization would entirely grind to a halt were we to lose power for even a short period of time.

This is why the frantic quest for energy sources has turned so ugly in recent years.  To the average household, losing power is an inconvenience—but we know the power company will come out and fix it sooner or later, we don’t get too bent out of shape about it.  As worldwide demand for electric power grows, along with demand for easy, cheap means of moving people and goods through space, the question becomes one of supply.  Our scientists are telling us that the Earth is finite, that she has reached her carrying capacity in terms of sustainable growth.  And yet the human population keeps growing exponentially, and the global reach of corporate capitalism keeps creating more and more demand for modern conveniences: cars, refrigerators, air conditioning, computers.

Clever leaders manipulate the demand of the populace for the luxuries on display through every TV set.  We have become familiar, in the late 20th, early 21st century, with the term “debt bondage,” now not just applying to serfs in feudal Asia, but common in any American suburb, where it takes two adults working more than fulltime to support the average mortgage, car loans and consumer loans, not to mention the school loans and home equity loans.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, when I was a kid, people who opted out of all this, who chose a simpler life, perhaps even living “off the grid,” without running water, were derogatively termed “hippies,” weird fringe folks who spent their time smoking too much dope and having too much sex.  Some joined cults, and some of these cults were headed up by dangerous psychotics who led entire communities into suicide.  The media effectively demonized anyone who tried to resist the prevailing forces of modernity.  The most powerful dissenters were silenced by the oldest method in the book: assassination.  Since the 1960s, there has been an ever-growing list of charismatic leaders, educators and journalists who have been assassinated by the political elites, all over the world.  In the old days, the colonists would come into an indigenous community and immediately pick out the smartest ones, the ones who looked like the leaders.  Those who proved incorruptible would be enslaved or simply killed.

This is still going on, but now, in addition to the old-fashioned methods of violence, there are subtler ways to neutralize dissent and channel resistance.  Antidepressants, anyone?  Addictive media games?  Above all, educational systems that teach obedience to authority from earliest childhood, backed by drug therapy (think Ritalin or Adderall) and indoctrination into an acceptance of inequality and environmental destruction.

There are still pockets of clear thinking and resistance to be found, even in the heart of Empire where I live.  I don’t claim to have answers or to know the “right” way forward.  But I do have a fierce desire to explore our present reality in all its dimensions, even some of those that many people would find too “out there” for comfort—the spiritual realms, the astrological and the psychic.  Nothing should be off limits to inquiry; in many ways I still feel as curious as a young child, open to every nuance the world has to show me.

Just before a baby is born, the laboring mother is said to be “in transition.”  This is what happens when the birth canal is dilating enough to allow the child’s big head to drop down into the free air.  Our world is in transition now.  Something new and different is about to be born.  Whether we humans will still have a role to play remains to be seen.  But it certainly is an interesting time to observe, and I believe there is still time to try to intervene and create a more positive outcome, not just for us but for all the species we will take with us if there is a major environmental cataclysm.

We must be both the midwife and the laboring mother, in this case.  And the baby about to be born.  Our job above all is to nurture, to love, to stroke, to build a deep resilience so that we can survive whatever may be thrown at us.  This is the work of my second half of life.  And this is what I’ll be exploring and documenting in this blog.

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