Our planet, ourselves: we must wake up to the destruction, before it’s too late

First the honey bee population crashed.  Then it was the bats, dying by the millions in their caves during the winter hibernation, of a strange white fungal infection.

Now marine mammals, including walruses and ringed seals, are turning up dying on the beaches of Alaska and the far north.  Unidentified skin lesions and sores are the visible evidence of an unknown disease that is ravaging them.

Meanwhile, climate change is causing unprecedented surges in the populations of destructive insects like pine borers, which are killing off millions of acres of forests around the world.

I could go on, and on, and on.

Truly, Derrick Jensen is not exaggerating when he says that human civilization is killing our planet.

Last weekend I watched the new film “End:Civ,” by Franklin Lopez, based on Jensen’s book Endgame.  I had put off watching it for several weeks, because I knew it how upsetting it would be, and sure enough, it was disturbing, to say the least.

For me the hardest-hitting part of the film was about human beings’ casual tolerance of cruelty; our willingness to stand by, indifferent, as our fellow travelers on this planet are systematically hunted or poisoned or displaced to extinction.

Part of this detachment of ours may be rooted in the way we tell the stories of how these deaths occur.  We talk about “colony collapse disorder,” for example, rather than narrating the way that entire hives of bees–which are highly evolved, communicative insects–fail to return to the hive one day.

They get lost out there–maybe due to cell phone waves or other forms of chemical interference, we don’t really know–and never come home.  Imagine this happening on a global scale, a whole species of productive, social insects lost, one by one, by the million.

In the same way, it’s far easier to talk about “cancer victims” en masse than to live through the suffering death of your own loved one.  How many vibrant, creative, hardworking people have we lost to cancer the last ten years?  In the last year?  In the last month?  Wangari Maathai and Steve Jobs, to name two famous, very recent cancer victims.  The list goes on and on and on.

But still we remain passive.  We may mourn the disappearance of the honeybees or the songbirds, but we don’t make the effort to connect the dots and come to a true understanding of the extent to which our way of life has been poisoning our planet since the advent of industrialization, and especially since the beginning of the 20th century, which is when synthetic chemical production really took off.

Before she died of cancer, Rachel Carson managed to break through the wall of indifference and make the case against DDT.  Thanks to her efforts, the bald eagle and many other birds have rallied and come back from the brink of extinction.

It’s amazing how resilient life is.  If human civilization would just back off and give our natural systems on the planet a chance, they would heal themselves, and go back to providing the healthy ecological web that made our success as a species possible.

Our planet, ourselves.  We need to understand, in the deepest and most urgent possible terms, that we cannot dissociate ourselves from the poisoning and destruction that is being visited on the forests, oceans, swamps and grasslands of this planet.

The “Wall Street Awakening” cannot be only about jobs, about fixing a broken economy and continuing on our merry path of global domination and “resource extraction.”  The analysis has to go deeper than that, and the change has to be much more dramatic.

All the jobs in the world won’t bring back the walruses or the ringed seals or the polar bears.  What use will jobs be when the ocean is a giant dead zone, and industrial agriculture collapses?  Will we be worrying about jobs when the forests that provide our oxygen are all gone?

We need to focus on what’s important and go all the way this time.  As I keep saying, our future depends on it.  And I am not exaggerating.

Occupy Wall Street: Finally, the New York Times Gets It!! Now, how about Obama?

Protesters Against Wall Street – NYTimes.com.

This is a big victory for the Occupy Wall Street movement.  To move the staid NY Times from complete indifference to disdainful incomprehension to vigorous approval in the space of just three weeks is truly remarkable!

Haven’t I been saying that the young people today are the sleeping giant that needs to awaken, stretch and roar?  Any subordinate class (and make no mistake, the young ARE a subordinate class) is only kept down through ignorance of the true extent of their power.

In the past, it’s usually been a charismatic leader who has seized the microphone and shaken the masses out of their beaten-down stupor.  Think Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King Jr., for example.

With Occupy Wall Street, we’re onto something new: a “leaderless movement,” without microphones, but with the extraordinary amplifying power of the World Wide Web.

Social media couldn’t have done it alone–we need the resolute presence of those flesh and blood people down at Liberty Square and in parks and street corners all across America.  But their resistance is exponentially strengthened by the social network around them, spreading like wildfire throughout the country and the world.

President Obama responded at least obliquely in last week’s press conference, showing at least a glimmer of understanding of what the movement is about.

If he had a shred of political sense, he’d be looking for ways to harness the intelligence, social commitment and determination of these young people to stand up to the Tea Party crowd and the drill-and-kill Republicans who have shown themselves again and again to be against social equality in any way, shape or form.

This could turn into the political juggernaut needed to push the Republicans back into their holes, and give the Democrats some much-needed backbone.

One thing is certain: these kids are not backing down, and they’re not going to be fobbed off with half-hearted gestures of appeasement.  They are after real social change, from the ground up.

What was it Arundhati Roy used to say?   “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Yes.

SlutWalk, Occupy Wall Street and other sparks of resistance: let’s fan the flames!

Finally this morning The NYTimes.com is paying some attention to the Occupy Wall Street protests.  But the tone is still highbrow and dismissive–Charles Blow, who really should know better, labels the protesters “hippies and hipsters” and the movement overall as “a spark set down on wet grass,” with “no where to go.”

He also finds space to inform us that “a New York Times/CBS News poll released two weeks ago found that a third of those who make $30,000 a year or less don’t believe that the government should raise taxes on the wealthy to lower the budget deficit.”

Could that be because those who are living on the edge are so beaten down by a variety of forces, including lousy education and the constant scorn this country shows the poor, that they could care less about “lowering the budget deficit”?

I bet that the pollsters would get quite a different response if the question were worded more directly, as in: Should the government raise taxes on the wealthy to help the poor get a better education, promote job growth and tighten the social safety net?  Hell yes! they’d say.

Meanwhile, up in Union Square, another protest is brewing today: SlutWalk, a new, international protest movement against “rape culture.”  In a rape culture like ours, the SlutWalkNYC site informs us, “sexual violence is made to be both invisible and inevitable; and these two practices are what normalizes rape, harassment and assault….The forces that normalize rape culture are not examined; rape is not seen as a culture or “practice” and if it is ever discussed, sexual violence is seen as an isolated act that occurs between individuals.”

SlutWalk began in Toronto last year, in response to an incident where a police officer told a rape victim that she had been “asking for it” because of the way she was dressed.  That the movement has caught on so quickly, especially among young women, is testament to the validity of its argument that no woman, no matter how she is dressed, is ever “asking” to be raped.

Both Occupy Wall Street and SlutWalk are driven by young people who are frustrated with the status quo and know that a better world is possible.  Their elders should know better than to dismiss these young folks as idealistic dreamers.  Hasn’t all change in human society, both positive and negative, been driven by those who dare to dream differently?

Lately I’ve been reading Derrick Jensen‘s latest book, a huge tome called simply, Dreams.  In it he argues that one of Western civilization’s crucial fallacies is our collective tendency to ignore and dismiss our dreams, as well as the possibility that through our dreams we may connect with “supernatural” forces that we don’t understand and cannot control.

Derrick sides with indigenous cultures who believe that the natural world is alive (“animism”) and can communicate with us.  His big question in Dreams is a weighty one: why hasn’t the natural world fought back harder in the face of the sustained murderous onslaught of humanity?

I would not presume to speak for the natural world.  But this question can be applied to a lot of other contexts today.

Why has it taken so long for Americans to get out and protest the takeover of our country by the corporate elite?  Why has it taken two weeks for the New York Times to deign to notice this gadfly protest on the flanks of the giant Wall Street bull?  The New York unions are finally stirring and considering joining the protesters–why has it taken so long for the American working class to awaken?

I think it might have something to do with the way we in the U.S. are caught up in a media-induced waking dream/nightmare, with a storyline that repeats over and over the following all-pervasive mantra: c’est la vie, there’s nothing to be done about it.  No fundamental change is possible.  The contamination of our environment is inevitable, and necessary if we want to maintain our comfortable fossil-fuel-driven lifestyle. The ever-growing gap between rich and poor is inevitable, as natural and normal as rape culture–boys will be boys, and you can’t expect rich boys to care about the poor.

Etc.

Someday analysts may look back on this period as one of remarkably successful mass indoctrination.  That is, if there are any shreds and shards left of our culture to examine after climate change is done with us.

To answer Derrick’s question, climate change is Nature fighting back.  Has anyone noticed that it’s been raining practically non-stop in New England for weeks now?  Here we are almost in leaf season, and our once-glorious maple trees are barely able to muster some mustardy brown color.  If this rain were snow, we’d be buried.  It may be an interesting winter season, to say the least.

However, resistance movements, both human and natural, are stirring all over the planet.  Like Occupy Wall Street, they may seem small, fragmented and disorganized to people who are accustomed to watching the huge, well-funded, tightly organized spectacles of mainstream political parties, or even mainstream-funded resistance movements like the Tea Party.

But it’s possible that dispersed, small-scale resistance may just what is called for under the present circumstances, when anything more obvious would simply be crushed by the iron fist of the corporate capitalist ruling class.

Resistance is happening when people take the time to relearn ancient human practices like small-scale biodynamic agriculture, bee-keeping, and storing food for the winter.  Resistance is happening when people refuse to let the dominant narratives ride rough-shod over their dreams of positive change.

Resistance is happening!  Let’s prove Charles Blow and the other naysayers wrong. It may be a rainy season, but let’s be the dry tinder for the spark of protest to fall on. It just takes one spark to start a wildfire, after all.

Don’t Pepper-Spray Our Dreams

New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante has totally missed the mark in her coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Where I see a vibrant grassroots movement unfolding organically, she sees a disorganized group, marred by a “lack of cohesion” and an “intellectual vaccuum.”

Where I see a clever use of street theater to get across messages that might be too threatening to convey in a more direct, hard-driving tone, she sees an “apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably.”

Where she sees the cause of the protesters as “impossible to decipher” because of the “diffuse and leaderless” nature of this movement, I see the cause as rather starkly clear, if expressed in a multitude of colorful ways by the individual protesters.

It’s summed up in the movement’s use of the concept of 99% to identify themselves. Last week there were protesters who wore placards saying “I am Troy Davis.”  This week, almost all Americans could don similar placards proclaiming: “I am one of the 99%”–that is, the majority of citizens who are receiving almost nothing in the way of benefits from the vast wealth generated by Wall Street.

Even the disdainful Ginia Bellafante noted the growing economic inequality of America in her article on the protest:

Last week, she said, “The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, which included more than 50 New Yorkers whose combined net worth totaled $211 billion, arrived at the same moment as census data showing that the percentage of the city’s population living in poverty had risen to 20.1 percent. And yet the revolution did not appear to be brewing.”


Well look again, Ms. Bellafante and you Wall Street billionaires. The revolution is at your doorstep.  It may be young, motley and impulsive, but have’t revolutions always been started by the young, idealistic and passionate of any society?

They may not be arguing from any one intellectual vantage point, but they don’t need to be quoting Marx or Dewey or John Maynard Keynes to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem in our society: that the rich own our political system, and they are more interested in personal gain than in a healthy society where young people who work hard will know that they can look forward to a secure future.

We’ve seen the same kinds of protests from young people living under dictatorships in the Middle East; and in London; and now in New York and other American cities.  They all want the same thing: a social system that prioritizes the well-being of ordinary people over the need of the wealthy elite to accumulate ever more billions in personal property.

Is this too much to ask?

I don’t think so.  And it’s not “communism,” either. It’s what used to be called the American Dream, a dream that has faded for too many of us as cost of living has soared, wages have stagnated, housing values have fallen, and jobs have disappeared.

In today’s harsh world, idealist visions are often met with pepper spray.

That’s no way to treat the dreams and aspirations of our young people.

Mayor Bloomberg, you should be ashamed.

Occupy Wall Street, Day 10: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world

One of Wangari Maathai’s most powerful political actions was when she and a group of women occupied Uhuru (Freedom) Park in downtown Nairobi, to protest government plans to turn the tree-lined public park into a giant private office complex.

At first it was just twenty women with hand-painted signs, sitting down together in the center of the park in protest.  But as word spread, the protest grew, until soon hundreds of people, men and women, were sitting down in the park with Wangari, demanding the right to hold on to one of the last remaining green spaces in their city.

And you know what?  They won!

I’m thinking of that story tonight as I watch the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in Liberty Plaza Park, NYC.  Protesters have been sitting down there for the past ten days, and despite nasty police pressure and arrests, they are not moving–and the crowd is growing.

Their demands are simple: they want the Masters of the Universe who run Wall Street, and through Wall Street, the world, to pay attention to the ordinary folks at the bottom of the heap.

There are all kinds of people down in Liberty Park–students, housewives, journalists, activists, the unemployed.  What they have in common is a deep and abiding belief that the corporate capitalist system symbolized by Wall Street is not serving Americans well–other than the narrow top layer of financiers and their creatures, the politicians and corporate business types.

I am disappointed to see that my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, has treated the protest like a minor disturbance, not worthy of front-page attention.  Of course, the Times can’t risk angering its corporate advertisers and sponsors…so they have to tread carefully.

But it’s surprising to see that even more progressive publications like The Nation, the Huffington Post and Moveon.org are also largely ignoring the significance of this protest.

Maybe it’s because there’s no one famous in charge–although some celebs have started dropping by and addressing the crowd now, including Michael Moore, Cornel West and Susan Sarandon.

The truth is that this is a REAL grassroots protest movement.  There is no charismatic leader calling the shots and getting the glory. There is no fancy media kit or PR person fielding questions.

There’s just “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens,” seeking by their persistent accusatory presence to change the world.  As Margaret Mead said, we shouldn’t doubt their ability to do just that.

More than that–we should get out there and join them!

Songs of Freedom in New York

I can hardly bear to watch this video, but I feel compelled to share it.  You need to know what is being done in your name.

The right to peaceful protest?  The right to dissent?  Right.

Meanwhile, up in another part of New York, I was at a conference this weekend celebrating “40 Years of Feminist Activism and Scholarship” at the Barnard Center for Research on Women.  Here all was decorous and polite–no protesters, no cops, no tight handcuffs or people being pulled down the sidewalk by their feet.

Instead we discussed “issues of translocation” in the Latino diaspora, and how there is a need for social theorists to serve as translators, transcultural workers, and border-crossers of all kinds.  Unfortunately, this information was presented in a kind of high-level theoretical drone that sucked the lifeblood out of the topic. When the presenter began to read us the annotated table of contents of her new anthology, I had to get up and leave.

Fortunately, the panel I had organized, on “Living and Working in the Borderlands,” was up next, and it kicked us in to a whole different register.  Margaret Randall read poetry that wrenched us into the heart of the dangerous, shifting borders between past and present, safety and terror, life and death.

“They say you are not at home/until you have lived in a house/through all four seasons./What they don’t say is/you are never at home/when a part of that home/has been taken.” –As If the Empty Chair: Poems for the Disappeared, p. 20

Ruth Irupe Sanabria followed, reading her powerful poems about growing up in the long, sick shadow of the terror that marred her childhood in Argentina during the Dirty War.  Reading a poem about how the violence visited on her parents, political prisoners during the war, was reenacted in her own childhood, Ruth choked up, and I could not help but think of the first-trimester fetus curled in her womb, choking as well in this legacy of pain.

Finally the youngest of us spoke, my current B.A. student Michelle Gonzalez, who described her struggles to come to turns with all the jagged fault lines that mark her own identity.  Her honest self-exploration led us into a thoughtful, engaged discussion with the audience on how one’s location in the borderlands, whether chosen or imposed, can be both a spur and a hindrance to creative freedom.

There is a temptation to see a continuum in this, a continuum of creative protest going from the poet who writes in the blood of her own passion to the passionate young protester who is not afraid to put her body on the line and submit to the manhandling of the police.

One thing for sure is that the kind of jargon-laden social theory expressed in the keynote speech seems more and more clearly to be completely beside the point.  What is the good of talking about people’s struggles for freedom, self-determination and dignity in words they would not understand, on a platform to which they will never have access?

There is a reason that song lyrics continue to resonate with the young.  We may not all read poetry, but most of us do listen to music.  Simple, direct, powerful words are the ones that will stay with us, and perhaps even move us to action.

What songs do you hum to give yourself the courage to go on?  What songs might break through the spell of the men in blue and remind them who they are supposed to be working for?

I’ll end with the voice of a martyr for political freedom, Victor Jara, savagely murdered by the Chilean goon squad while still valiantly trying to sing his songs of peace:

It’s up to us now to keep his song alive.

Activist strategies for the times we live in: Flying under the radar

Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Some good old-fashioned protesting went on in lower Manhattan today, with folks coming out to tell the Wall Street tycoons and corporate elite that they do not rule unopposed.

Protests like these are a good thing, like online petitions and letters to Congressmen or to the editor.  But they’d have to get a lot bigger and fiercer to really create change–as they did in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East in the past year.  Things have to get ugly.  People have to get hurt.  It’s so much easier to just stay home and try to make the best of it.

I am really doing a lot of puzzling lately over what kind of protest movement would be most effective for the times we live in.  On a spectrum from the riots in London to the dignified sitdowns in front of the White House this fall, it seems like something inbetween is likely to get the most attention.

But it has to be a BIG movement.  The powers that be will not listen to a few hundred protesters, or even a few thousand.  It has to be big and national and coordinated, like the Civil Rights protests were.  Although there are a few movements going on now that are national, or even international–for example, Moving Planet, scheduled for next Saturday–there’s still nothing on the horizon that has anywhere near the draw power of, say, Monday night football.

So maybe protests are not the way to go, at least not until people are really hungry and desperate, at which point it might be much too late for any kind of harmonious transition to a new planetary paradigm.

Margaret Wheatley, whose work with the Berkana Institute I admire greatly, thinks that we need to think about leadership in a different way than we’re used to.  Instead of waiting for a charismatic leader–say, the next Martin Luther King Jr.–to step up and lead us all to sweeping changes, we need to think smaller and more locally, focusing on what we ourselves can accomplish within our own spheres.

“The process that creates change in the world is quite straightforward,” she says. “We notice something that needs to be changed. We keep noticing it. The problem keeps getting our attention, even though most people don’t notice that there’s even a problem. We start to act, we try something. If that doesn’t work, we try a different approach. We learn as we go. We become very engaged with the issue, spending more and more time on it. We become exhausted by our efforts, but still we keep going. The issue keeps calling to us. Any time we succeed, no matter how small the success, we gain new energy and resolve. We become smarter as we learn more about the issue and understand it better. We become more skillful at tactics and strategies. As we persevere, and if we are successful, more people join us. Sometimes we remain as just a small group, sometimes we give birth to a movement that involves tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

“This is how the world always changes. Even great and famous change initiatives begin this way, with the actions of just a few people, when “some friends and I started talking.” Including those efforts that win the Nobel Peace Prize.”

So maybe each of the few hundred protesters gathered in New York City should go home to their own communities and continue to agitate locally against corporate monopolies and the stranglehold of Wall Street on Main Street.

Maybe someone decides to find out more about local currencies like BerkShares, and starts a movement to create a local currency or a time bank in her town.

Someone else decides to work with young people in his town to create a community garden that will bring fresh produce into the elementary school cafeteria.  Another group goes home and decides to file for a license for a low-power radio station, like WBCR-LP here in the Berkshires.

What we need now are a million local actions, all animated by the desire for community resilience, collaboration and service to the common good.  Put together, they’d make up a mighty movement for change.  But for now, I think they’ll be more effective staying small, local and under the radar.

Who needs those riot police coming around anyway?

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