Occupying Leadership: What will it take to accomplish real change?

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi, the young Tibetan monk who set himself on fire last week, are more alike than might first meet the eye.

Tim DeChristopher outside a Salt Lake City, UT Federal Court

DeChristopher, one of the founders of the group Peaceful Uprising, took direct action to disrupt the sale of wilderness to mining companies in a closed Federal auction.  He ended up in prison, but he also did a tremendous amount to raise public awareness about the issue of land sales to corporate industry, and inspired the PeaceUp folks to greater activism.

Jamphel Yeshi also took a dramatic personal action at huge cost to himself—he lost not just his liberty, but his life. He and the 30 other monks who have taken this drastic step in the past have succeeded in letting the world know how deeply the Tibetan people are suffering under Chinese repression, and how passionately they yearn for autonomy to practice their religion and preserve their culture.

A monk looks at posters of Jamphel Yeshi in Dharamsala, India

Dramatic personal action is definitely a good tool to use in raising public awareness about an issue.

The problem with it is that one leader standing alone is an easy target—and if the action is a suicide, that heroic action is always going to be a one-time event.

That the Occupy movement has so far eschewed the single, high-profile leader model is a sign of the solidity of this nascent social movement.

Despite demands from the media and others for a leader to step out of the shadows and announce himself (the leader is always presumed to be male), Occupy has held firm to its founding principle of being a “leaderless movement.”

Occupy Oakland GA

This is true in the way the different “chapters” of Occupy, springing up at will anywhere in the world, are completely autonomous from the Occupy Wall Street folks who initially launched the movement last August; and it is true in the way that any passerby can join a General Assembly and have a chance to speak and influence or inspire the group. It’s true in the various Occupy online platforms that give anyone with an internet connection the ability to communicate with the world, and it’s true with the Occupy media, which are collective and often anonymous publications of strategies, theories and praxes of resistance.

I feel a tremendous sense of loss and rage that obvious, powerful leaders like Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi are driven by frustration with the system and anger at injustice to commit acts of activist resistance that are either outright suicidal, or land them swiftly behind bars.

We in the West howl about human rights violations every time the Chinese throw another idealistic young activist in jail.

But we do the same thing here.

We reward the best and brightest of our young people as long as they play by the rules of the game and never question the wisdom of their elders in setting up those rules.

The Ivy league grads who will go on to become Goldman Sachs executives or corporate CEOs or weapons systems engineers—they are our golden children who can do no wrong.

But those young people who look out at what is and see the waste, the greed, the desecration of the planet, the horrendous danger in which the old game has placed us, as we cross the threshold of the 21st century into the new era of global heating, overpopulation, extreme inequality, toxic chemical poisoning, militarization…those young people are considered by the power elites to be annoying, pie-in-the-sky, unreasonable idealists who need to grow up and get a job.

In other words, they need to shut up and join the system.

The reason the Occupy movement is gaining steam is because the system no longer has enough places for all the smart, talented young people we are producing.

We can’t all join Goldman Sachs, now can we?

We can’t all join Greenpeace either.

When young people can’t pay off their student loans and can’t find jobs, and their parents can’t help them because they themselves can barely keep up with the mortgage payments…these young people are naturally going to be much more open to the possibility that something is quite wrong with the established system.

That’s where we are now.  That’s why suddenly we have not one or two extraordinary young leaders like Tim DeChristopher or Jamphel Yeshi stepping up, but a whole tide of young people who have the time, the talent and the energy to tackle the problems of our American society, and our global human civilization, head on.

One General Assembly at a time, they are creating a new vision of society and a new model of leadership.

It couldn’t be more different from the corrupt talking heads they grew up watching on TV.

It is, as Tom Hayden shared with us eloquently this week in The Nation, a return to the SDS and SNCC vision of true participatory democracy in action.

This spring and summer, it’s the numbers that will make all the difference.  They can’t lock up a million idealistic Americans whose only crime was to want to change our country for the better.

Did I say a million?  Let’s make it 10 million, all across the country, coming out and taking a stand for new rules to the game of life that are based above all on respect for the planet and her creatures.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, says the Scripture.

No wiser words have ever been spoken.  Let’s stop the hypocrisy and start practicing what we preach.  Let’s do it soon, before any more brave young leaders have to martyr themselves on our account, trying so desperately to wake us up.

Burning for change

Sometimes an image just leaves me speechless.  Here’s one like that:

Tibetan monk self-immolates

Here’s another view of the same scene:

Jamphel Yeshi, a Tibetan exile, set himself afire in New Delhi, India, this week to protest China's repression of Tibet

The smile on the face of the burning man continues to haunt me.  It is like the beatific smile of an angel–or of a martyr who goes happily to his death hoping to advance a worthy cause.

Jamphel, who died of his burns, is one of 30 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest China’s brutal treatment of Tibet, and to call for the return of the Dalai Lama to his homeland. Twenty of those incidents occurred in the past year, and of those 18 of the victims have died of their wounds.

As Melinda Liu reports in The Daily Beast, “Committing suicide is a last-resort measure in any society, but it’s seen as especially extreme for Tibetan Buddhists. Because their religion reveres all living beings, many Tibetans believe those who take their own lives will not be reincarnated. That’s a grim fate for religious devotees who aspire to be reborn, again and again, in more enlightened forms. “But what else can people do? We don’t have guns. We don’t want to harm other human beings. Yet we can’t stand to see our religion and culture being crushed,” lamented one Tibetan man from Lhasa, who requested anonymity because he feared China’s massive security crackdown.”

Hana Shalabi

There are other examples around the world of people taking drastic stands to protest brutality and stand up for civil liberties and human rights.  In Israel, several Palestinian prisoners who are being held without trial have begun hunger strikes, the most extreme of which has been carried out by Hana Shalabi, who just today agreed to end her 44-day hunger strike in exchange for being released to the Gaza Strip.

In the U.S., such extreme tactics are very rare, probably because we are led to believe that we have other avenues of protest open to us.

It’s true, we do have other avenues of protest open to us.  We can rally in the streets, we can sign online petitions, we can call our elected representatives, we can pressure the media into reporting on issues we deem important.

We can write blogs like this one, without fear of being summarily arrested and imprisoned for criticizing the powers that be, as happens routinely in many other countries.

But when it comes right down to it, I wonder whether all these various forms of protest really get us anywhere, or whether they are so many steam valves, designed to allow us to vent our frustrations without really rocking the boat.

What do we have to do to accomplish the big changes we want to see in the world? How far do we have to go?  To what degree to we have to put our own security and well-being on the line?

Tim DeChristopher

Tim DeChristopher, the environmentalist activist who disrupted a federal mining auction to protest the sale of public lands to corporate interests, made his point, but landed swiftly behind bars.  He emerged into the news again this week when prison authorities, for some unknown reason, transferred him from minimum security to a lockdown cell.  His friends and allies went ballistic, beseiged Congress with calls and online petitions, and got him transferred back to more comfortable quarters.

But he’s still behind bars.

And the mining companies are still out there digging up the wilderness as we speak.

Obviously his action, however noble, was not enough to truly change the rules of the game.

If we want to see deep, systemic change in the way governments and corporations do business, especially in regards to human rights and environmental justice, we may need to take a giant leap forward in our radicalism.

I am not saying we should set ourselves afire.  Heaven forbid!  But it’s going to take more than weekend protests or online petitions to drive a wedge into the status quo power structures and open up new pathways that will lead us to real transformation.

What will it take? I wish I had the answers; I don’t.  All I know is that enough of us have to get deeply dissatisfied and fed up with the way things are, and be willing to run the serious risk of undertaking revolutionary action for change.

It happened back in 1776; it happened in 1865; it happened in 1968; and it may very well happen again in this magical year of 2012, the prophesied beginning of the Age of Aquarius.

We know we are at a transition time; every indicator points to it, whether social, financial, political, scientific, astrological, astronomical…you name it.

We know where we’re coming from.  The question of the moment remains: where are we going?

Homage to Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich has just died at 82 years of age.  That is a good long life, and it is truly inspiring how active she remained until the end, publishing and mentoring so many of us who follow in her path.

Although she was primarily a poet, there is an essay of hers that has remained very powerful for me, being the autobiography junkie that I am.  It’s “Notes Towards a Politics of Location,” the one where she talks about growing up as a Jew in the American South, and how she always felt like such an outsider.  It connects very much with her general recommendation for women, that we consider our outsider status a blessing, rather than a curse.  That we continue to see things with outsider’s eyes, rather than assimilating to the dominant mode of seeing and being.

This message has resonated strongly with me because I have always felt myself to be an outsider.  It doesn’t seem to matter which group I am with, or how long I have been affiliated with them, or even if I am, in name at least, the principal of that group.

I am the perennial outsider.

And thanks to Adrienne Rich, I no longer feel that as a handicap or a slur.  Rather, I wear it as a badge of pride.

Rich was someone who could have chosen to take her privileged status as a white American Jew and spend her life comfortably at the country club.

Instead, she chose to ally herself with Black Americans (notably Audre Lorde), gay Americans, and anyone who needed a powerful and articulate ally.

Alliance is a tricky business. A would-be ally from a more powerful social class needs to be very careful to offer help without coming on too strong; to use one’s power to open up spaces for one’s allies to speak and act independently. It’s not about us—it’s about them. Adrienne Rich made it look easy, but it’s not.

Three of my most important mentors have now passed on: Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua and now Adrienne Rich.

Such a huge legacy to try to continue and move forward.

Sisters, I promise each of you that I will do my best to keep your spirits alive.

Opening to the energy that can change the world

In the course of any given day, I swing from hope to despair and back again at least three or four times.

On the one hand, it’s such an amazingly hopeful and alive time in terms of communication and discovery.  We are constantly learning so much more about our relationship with the natural world and with each other.  Every day brings fresh evidence of the myriad ways in which we are deeply interconnected with all Earth systems and with other Earth-based creatures.

On the other hand, that knowledge does not seem to be adding up to practical change in the real world.  Every day thousands of acres of virgin forests are cut and bulldozed.  Every day drills open up new spigots for deeply buried oil and gas deposits, which can only be extracted at great risk to the surrounding environment. Every day more chemicals are wantonly spread over the landscape and taken up in the bodies of mammals like us, as well as birds, fish and all the other creatures of the land and sea.  Every day hundreds of species, including us humans, move inexorably closer to extinction.

Why is it that despite all we know about the crucial importance of protecting our planetary home, we continue to desecrate and destroy it at ever-increasing speed?

Maybe the answer has something to do with that “we.”  Maybe the “we” who know that our survival as a species depends entirely on our responsible stewardship of the environment just isn’t the same “we” that is out there with the chain saws and the bulldozers.

Maybe the great challenge of our time is getting through to those other people, the destructive ones, the violent ones, the ones who do not seem to be able to perceive the bigger picture and how urgent it is now that we—as a global human civilization, united in our desire to survive and thrive on our finite planet—begin to practice radical sustainability at an accelerated pace.

The stakes are huge.  At this week’s international “Planet Under Pressure” conference in London, the stark statistics were rehearsed yet again.  They’ve gotten so familiar to me that I probably mumble them in my sleep every night.  The new video “Welcome to the Anthropocene” does an excellent 3-minute job at summarizing what we’re up against.

Still image from "Welcome to the Anthropocene"

But knowing the statistics and seeing what’s wrong is not at all the same as knowing what to do to make things right.

It’s so hard to know where to put one’s energies.

Do I go full-bore at the sustainable energy issue, following Bill McKibben?  Maybe a hunger strike in front of the White House would be an effective protest against the Keystone XL pipeline?

Do I go chain myself to a tree in the Amazon or in the rainforest of Indonesia, to protest the deforestation that is depriving us of the vital lungs of our planet?

Should I use my skills as a teacher to try to rouse the young people from their media stupor, using whatever scare tactics are necessary to get their attention and galvanize them to action?

Should I just be out there practicing “re-skilling,” in the Transition Town vernacular: relearning the old skills of surviving off the grid, living leaner and closer to the land that sustains us? Is it time to learn to keep chickens and pigs in my backyard, and finally set up the bee hives I’ve always wanted?

Or maybe I should be up on a mountaintop meditating and communing with the natural world, seeking the vision that will eventually show me the light?

What is it that I should be doing with this one wild and precious life I’ve been granted, in this fast-moving, tumultuous, unpredictable time in our planetary history?

Asking these questions is all I can do right now, just keep asking them and pondering and feeling my way towards my role in what lies ahead of us all.

I want to make an offering of my life.  I want to be a channel through which the positive, loving energy of the universe can flow out and make things right again with our world.

Occupy Health–Our Planet’s, Our Own–this May Day

It doesn’t take a genius to understand the premise of the new health care law, which is that all Americans should buy health insurance so that the healthy can help subsidize the sick.

I don’t hear anyone whining about the fact that we are all required to buy car insurance, even though many of us, like me, hardly ever have cause to use it.

Health insurance could and should operate under the same principle. If everyone pays their share, the costs will also be shared.

And the so-called individual health insurance mandate will most likely be much less expensive for society in the long run, since it will result in increased preventive care and far fewer expensive emergency room visits.

Of course a universal single-payer system—Medicare for all—would be much better than the “free-market” insurance system that is under discussion today.  But at least having everyone insured, with subsidies to help those who can’t afford to pay, is a good step in the right direction.

The new law also prevents insurance companies from denying people health care because they’re sick, a truly barbaric Americanism, and allows families to continue to cover their children’s insurance up to age 26.  Who could argue with that?

The truth is that our nation could easily afford to cover all its citizens’ health care, and then some, if we took several crucial steps:

  • Properly tax the rich: close tax loopholes, tax financial transactions, make a genuine commitment to closing the abyss between the 10% at the top and everyone else.
  • Shut down the war machine; spend money on butter, not guns—or better yet, on organic vegetables that will keep people healthy.  It’s insane to put so many trillions into weapons aimed at blowing people up, and then throw a hissy fit about government spending on keeping people healthy.
  • Raise the minimum wage substantially, so that people can afford to eat healthy food, live a healthy lifestyle, and buy own their health insurance policies.

We live in a nation besieged with ill health.  From cancer to diabetes to heart disease and asthma, not to mention depression, ADHD and autism, we are a country of chronically ill people.  I blame much of this on the toxic food that has been sold to us over the past 60 years, since the end of World War II, by the industrial agriculture and food packaging giants, which have irresponsibly poisoned our waters, air, soil—and our bodies.

The powers that be want us to believe that the solutions are very, very complicated. So much so that we should just leave it to the experts—go back home and eat some more antibiotic-laced hamburgers, why don’t you, and watch some more mind-numbing reality TV.

Actually, it’s just the opposite. It is not complicated at all, it’s very simple.

We the people pay our taxes so that our government will work for us.  We have a right to healthy food, water and air.  We have a right to health care.  We have a right to expect that our elected representatives, as well as our Supreme Court Justices, will act in our best interests.

Since the Citizens United decision, it has become starkly apparent that corporations, not people, get preference when it comes to rights.  Money talks: they have the billions to buy the politicians and the media, and the rest of us be damned.

Well, enough is enough.  This is exactly where the Occupy movement has to step in and show that Americans have not become the catatonic stooges that the media giants aimed to produce.

We know what’s going on.

We have been so, so patient. So law-abiding.  So earnestly hopeful, with each election, that things would get better.

Things have only gotten worse, and there is no end in sight.

President Obama has done far better than a President McCain would have done, but he is no knight in shining armor.

No one politician can do this on his or her own.

It’s going to take the collective will of a great coalition of ordinary folks to get this nation to focus on what’s really important in this new century.

And let me tell you, it does not have to do with health insurance.

It has to do with climate.

Tonight in New England a bitter wind is blowing, and the temperature is expected to drop to the single digits, with a wind chill below zero Farenheit.  After a week of balmy summery temperatures in the 80s, the blooming trees and flowers are going to get a harsh night of frost.

This is apparently the new normal as regards our climate.  Even if we were to immediately do everything possible to slow down carbon emissions, a ship the size of our planet would take several of our little lifetimes to rectify itself.

So we need to get used to it.  And if we don’t want it to get worse—that is, absolutely uninhabitable for most current life forms—we need to roll up our sleeves and put all our intelligence to work at creating new, sustainable forms of agriculture, industry and lifestyle.

It can be done.

But not while we fritter away our precious time in begging the entrenched powers to give us some crumbs.

No, we need to unseat those powers and dramatically reorganize our social priorities.

It can be done.

May Day is coming.  It must be a day of reckoning, the gateway to a hot summer of the hard work needed to provoke serious, transformative change.

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.

Silent Spring Dawns Hot, Dry and Merciless

This week, turning the corner into the astronomical Spring, we have gone abruptly from warm winter to hot summer.  And I mean hot: it was 84 degrees Farenheit in western Massachusetts today, brightly sunny, with puffy white cumulus clouds against a brilliant blue sky, unobstructed by any leaves.  No shade.

Today reminded me of a wax model: beautiful but blank.  The façade of beauty, with the crucial vital spark missing.

When I went for a walk up the mountain early this morning, the woods were eerily silent.  I remembered mournfully the spring mornings of my childhood, where I would be awakened by the joyful singing of the dawn chorus of thousands of birds each happily greeting each other and the new day.  Reaching the top of the mountain having heard only the distant cry of a single phoebe, I stopped to sit on a rock and listen for a few minutes.  All I heard was the dim rushing of the traffic on the road far below me, and the drone of an airplane churning its way across the sky.

Coming down again, a few chipmunks hurried out of sight along the path, and I was keenly aware that there were no acorns underfoot, despite the oak trees towering overhead. Last fall was a terrible year for acorns, so all the animals that depend on them for overwintering must be very hungry now.  I know the bears are on the move, as one came and pulled down my bird feeder yesterday. I am thinking of bringing some sunflower seeds along on my walk tomorrow, to spread by the path as an offering of atonement.

While no one of us can shoulder personal responsibility for this tragedy of the commons, all of us who have benefited from the heedless extraction of oil and relentless destruction of the forests and the oceans must be aware of the extent to which we have brought this on ourselves, and taken the rest of the natural world along with us.

Will there come a day when the sun rises in the brilliant blue sky and looks down on a hot, dry planet, silent except for the hardiest of species, like the cockroaches and the ants, who survived previous major extinction events, and will once again continue about their business single-mindedly, able to wait out the eons while life reboots and resurges again anew?


Rigoberta Menchu Tum, who bore witness to genocide in Guatemala, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992

This weekend filmmaker Pamela Yates came to Bard College at Simon’s Rock to screen her film GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR, as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

This powerful film makes quite clear how the genocide in Guatemala was about land rights, with U.S.-backed military juntas working for the landowners and the corporations to clear the land of indigenous people and peasants so that big internationally funded projects like dams and mines could proceed unobstructed.

Two hundred thousand people, mostly indigenous Mayans, were massacred in the 1970s and 1980s in the service of American-fueled greed, in Guatemala alone.

It strikes me that this story is repeating now—if indeed it ever stopped—as we continue to fight over resources and land on our finite planet.

It is happening now in the forests of Indonesia, where on the island of Sumatra plantations the size of the United Kingdom, the size of Belgium—unimaginably huge tracts of magnificent rain forest with some of the richest stores of biodiversity on the planet—are being bulldozed and replanted with palms to feed international demand for palm oil.

The indigenous people who made the forest their home for millennia are being mercilessly deprived of their natural habitat just as surely as the rest of the flora and fauna there.

Endangered Sumatran Orangutan

The loss of biodiversity, including the loss of ancient indigenous human cultures, is a tragedy that cannot be quantified.  What is being lost is priceless.

It may seem like it’s all very sad, but all very far away, too.

But our summer temperatures in March have everything to do with the destruction of the last remaining old-growth forests in Indonesia, in Africa, in South America, in Canada.

Once the forest is gone, the topsoil will begin to erode.

Desert will prowl the borders of what used to be forest.

When, as in the Indonesian palm oil plantations, diverse ecosystems are replaced with monocultures, those monocultures more vulnerable to pest and climate disruption.

And then?


Lately I have been having recurring waking nightmares about food shortages.  Already I am concerned, as a backyard gardener, that these hot, dry spring days will not provide the proper growing conditions for spring crops like peas and lettuce.

Imagine conditions like these being replicated across the globe.

Imagine a growing season where all over the planet we lurched from heat and drought to torrential rains and tornadoes.

In the US we have become accustomed to thinking of food insecurity as something that happens in other parts of the world.

Famine stalks Asia and Africa.  It doesn’t come near us.

Or it hasn’t come near us for a very long time.

This year, as I see how the natural world around me is struggling to provide for the chipmunks, the bear and the turkeys; as I greet the arrival of the few straggling migrant birds who have managed to run the gauntlet of a landscape devastated by chemical warfare and industrial agriculture; as I gaze out at the bare trees shimmering in the unnatural midday heat, I know in my heart that it is only a matter of time before our turn comes.

Today it is the indigenous people of Indonesia who are going down with their forests.

It is the desert people of North Africa who are starving, and the teeming masses of Asia who are fleeing the floods of torrential rains.

We in the huge, pampered gated communities of North America and Europe will be insulated from these shocks for much longer than those on the outside.

But our time will come.

And when it comes, it will be with the full force of every violent futuristic film we’ve ever dreamed up.

Waterworld, anyone?  Mad Max?


Usually I try to stay positive and keep the flame of hope burning brightly, a beacon for myself and for others.

But today this stark, in-your-face, first-day-of-spring evidence of the coming train wreck of climate change has guttered my hope.

Time is running short for us, just as it is for the bears and the birds and the native peoples of the forest.

We are coming inexorably into Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Leadership revisited: from ruthless and reckless to thoughtful and wise

This week I finally had a chance to see the new documentary film that has a lot of people buzzing, MISSREPRESENTATION, written and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom.  The film clearly and graphically makes the argument that women are systematically objectified and dumbed down in the media, and that this is connected to the on-going gender disparity between men and women professionals.

Having taught women’s and gender studies classes for more than a decade, the film didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. But it presented the information in a slick, well-argued way that had the audience gasping, nodding and cringing by turns.

I was somewhat disappointed with the conclusion of the film, however, which mostly urged the audience to take personal action to challenge the misrepresentation of women in the media and in business and politics, and to personally resist social pressure on women to focus on how they look rather than how smart they are and what they do.

Yes, raising personal awareness and mounting personal resistance is important.  But what’s really needed is systemic change.

A great illustration of what I mean by systemic change came my way this morning through a New York Times reprint of a Reuters piece by Chrystia Freeland, “Cultural Constraints on Women Leaders.”

Freeland discusses a new study by University of Toronto business professors Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli, who asked a simple question: Why aren’t there more female leaders?

You can read the article yourself to find out more about how they answered the question.  What interested me most was the author’s conclusion: that even in societies that have been relatively open to women’s advancement, “the one thing women around the world have failed to do is create paradigm-shifting companies.

“None of the great technology start-ups — for example, Google, Apple and Facebook — were founded by a woman. Nor were any of the leading hedge funds, the innovators in the world of money, established by a women. Women are not just underrepresented in this space of transformative entrepreneurs — they are entirely absent.”

Freeland concludes that “the final frontier for women, even in societies that allow them to lead established institutions, is to be ruthless and to take big risks, essential qualities in world-changing entrepreneurs. Instead, as the authors found of female entrepreneurs in Malaysia, women often have to “lead as if they were mothers or teachers.”

This conclusion just demonstrates the extent to which even a very intelligent woman like Chrystia Freeland is still a prisoner of her social indoctrination.

Because the point is that it’s those risk-taking, world-changing entrepreneurs–all men–whose reckless leadership has so endangered our planet that we live in constant fear of the “sixth great extinction event.

It would be a profoundly GOOD THING for our planet and human civilization if our leaders guided us “as if they were mothers or teachers.”

Yes, I am writing this on an Apple laptop which I love, with my iphone on the desk beside me. Yes, I use Google and visit Facebook daily.

But is my attachment to these gadgets and conveniences more important to me, or the world, than our very survival as a species?

What good will my iphone do me when global heating goes out of control, leading to food shortages, storms of biblical proportion, and general lawlessness and fear?

The mother and teacher in me knows that those who look to me for guidance depend on me to choose a safe, wise path.  I will not lead them over a cliff.  I will weigh the risks and benefits and make the decision that benefits the group as a whole.

That is not true of the risk-taking cowboys who have led us to the brink of environmental, financial and social collapse as the 21st century dawns.

We need more men and women to come forward as responsible leaders and tell old-school folks like Freeland, in no uncertain terms, that her ideas of leadership are profoundly flawed.

It will do us no good if women achieve leadership success in the same old masculine terms.  If we are to survive the challenges that await us in the coming years, we need to change the paradigm of successful leadership.

Lead as if you were a mother or a teacher.  Let’s try that on for size.

Women Must Stand Up For Peace & Security

A deranged soldier, armed with gun and knife, walks off the base into the nearby small town, and massacres 16 people, including 9 children.

No, it’s not the plot of the latest Schwarzenegger movie.

It’s real life in Afghanistan.

Or Oslo, Norway.

Or Homs, Syria.

Or the local high school or university in Anytown, USA.

What happened in Afghanistan this week is part of an ever-escalating pattern of violence visited on innocent civilians by armed men.


Whether the men are sponsored by a state (ie, they’re soldiers), are part of armed militias (think Taliban or Janjaweed or Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army) or individual “rogue” psychopaths is immaterial to the victims of the violence.

The larger point that must be reckoned with is that we cannot expect to live in a global society dripping with arms and saturated with constant virtual and real instances of violence, and come away unscathed.

Americans are always so shocked when the violence happens in our backyard, as in school shootings or Timothy McVeigh-style bombings or police brutality against unarmed Occupy protesters.

We’re shocked when our soldiers, “our boys,” commit atrocities while serving in the armed forces abroad.

But how can we expect our boys to be immune to the general atmosphere of violence that we all live and breathe—young boys and men in particular?

People like to argue about whether playing countless hours of shoot-em-up video games results in more violent youth.

All I can tell you is that the military now uses video game technology to teach warfare to young soldiers, and one of the goals is precisely to overcome the natural human aversion to killing, especially killing those who haven’t done you any harm.

Lt. Col. David Grossman

In the class I teach periodically on gendered violence in military culture and war, we read excerpts from the work of Lt. Col. David Grossman, who maintains a website called “Killology.com.

Grossman, a psychologist who has become one of the most sought-after military and police trainers in the U.S., if not the world, defines “killology” as “the study of the reactions of healthy people in killing circumstances (such as police and military in combat) and the factors that enable and restrain killing in these situations.”

Grossman began his career teaching soldiers and police officers “the psychological techniques needed to develop Mental Toughness, a Survival Mindset, and a Hardened Focus,” integrating “psychological skills with physical and tactical training… to achieve maximal performance excellence as a modern warrior.”

Interestingly, now he not only offers training in the psychological “hardening” necessary to become a socially sanctioned killer—ie, a soldier–but also has begun to write and speak out against media violence, which, he says, teaches children to kill.

I think he would agree that what happened at Abu Ghraib a few years back, or in Afghanistan this week, when ordinary American soldiers go haywire and start torturing and killing civilians, is not just a case of a few bad apples.

If we allow our kids to grow up playing “harmless” violent games that are ever more realistic, gripping their imaginations and giving them access to the bloodthirsty, adrenalin high of killing, we can’t expect them to be agents of peace, especially when, as soldiers, they are further trained for war and given real weapons and the authority to use them.

My heart bleeds for the victims of this latest massacre in Afghanistan.  I can hardly imagine the pain of the survivors of the family of nine children and their mother annihilated all in one foul blow.

They aren’t the first, and they won’t be the last innocent bystanders to be caught in the crossfire of a senseless war.

I think of the many other places in the world where civilians have been caught in the crossfire of baleful enemies: Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s, when the US and USSR funded proxy wars that wreaked havoc with innocent local communities; current conflicts in Africa and the Middle East that are really about the control—by outsiders, the same old Great Powers–of ever-shrinking resources; the list goes on.

Like the Russians before them, the American military is preparing to throw up its hands and give Afghanistan back to the warlords.

It will be a disaster for the women and girls there, who had begun to hope that a more liberal mindset might prevail and help them shake off the bonds of radical Islamic gender-based oppression.

Perhaps it is up to the women of the world to rise up together to insist that our men and boys stop pouring so much time, energy and money into creating and using lethal weapons, and representations of violence.

We have seen what happens when we let boys be boys and play with their guns, real or virtual.

Can we afford to stand by and watch the endless replay of rapes, homicides, massacres, the endless parade of crippled bombing victims, the burned, the sightless, the psychologically damaged for life?

I am losing faith in the ability of the men in charge to solve this problem.

Back to Lysistrata!

If we want life, we women have to walk boldly forward and manifest our visions of peace, security and cooperation.

We need to create a procession of the world’s women, those who will stand up for peace and nonviolence—a procession so long, so wide and so loud that it cannot be ignored.

Women of the world, the future is in your hands.  What will you do with it?


May Day Mutiny: Radical Transformation Rises

Today is our “spring forward” day in the U.S., when we move the clocks forward an hour thus “losing an hour” in the morning, but gaining an additional hour of light at the end of the day.

It’s a beautiful sunny day here in Massachusetts, with birds singing their love songs in the trees, and the sap rising steadily in the thick sugar maple forests.

It’s hard to feel gloomy or pessimistic on a day like today, with our great source energy, the Sun, shining so brilliantly and steadily down on us.

Even contemplating the social landscape, it seems that there are reasons to be hopeful.

Last night I attended a brilliant one-act play by a Bard College at Simon’s Rock senior, sensitively and with almost painful honesty focusing on the relationship between a pair of best friends, 15-year-old girls, as one of them goes through a secretive, excruciating home abortion.

At the talk-back after the play, the author, who also played the lead, said she wrote the play because it was so clear to her that young women’s voices need to be heard more broadly in the theatrical world—not just as love objects written by men.

To me this is a hopeful sign, because as more women’s voices find their way into the great collective unconscious of the human public sphere, they will have an impact on the way we think and act as a social body.

The shame, secrecy and psychic anguish felt by the lead character of the play is so unnecessary, as is the fact that although it took two to implant that fetus, the other teen parent, the guy, was entirely absent from the drama that followed.

If young men were more aware of what an abortion entails, I dare say that many of them would be more responsible in doing their part to avoid pregnancy until they were ready to assume the mantle of fatherhood.

If high school sex ed included sessions on abortion the way drivers’ ed includes sessions on the consequences of driving drunk, complete with graphic images and re-enactments, abortion might become a rarity, and having teen sex without contraception as stigmatized as driving a bunch of friends home from a party dead drunk.


I am feeling hopeful today too because yesterday I read Tidal 2, the second journal put out by a group calling itself Occupy Theory.

The journal, entirely web-based, includes articles by Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak, written in as accessible a voice as I have ever heard those two formidable theorists muster.

It also includes articles by unnamed CUNY Graduate Center students on a variety of issues, as well as a wealth of other interesting short pieces and vivid photos and artwork of the Occupy movement.

Judith Butler

Butler makes the excellent point, in reference to the call by the political/media establishment for “a list of demands,” that “the appeal or demand that sought to be satisfied by the existing state, global monetary institutions, or corporations, national or transnational, would be giving more power to the very sources of inequality, and in that way aiding and abetting the reproduction of inequality itself.”

Instead, Butler calls for a movement for “radical equality,” the achievement of which would require “the making of new institutions,” rather than trying to push existing institutions to change radically while still maintaining their social dominance.

She also envisions an Occupy strategy that would be strategically “episodic and targeted,” rather than the sitting-duck encampment strategy of last fall.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Such a strategy might build on the historical model of the General Strike, as Gayatri Spivak discusses in her contribution to Tidal 2.

The General Strike, as undertaken by Gandhi against the British, “has always been special because it is undertaken by those who suffer, not by morally outraged ideologues,” Spivak says.  “It is by definition non-violent…though the repressive apparatus of the state has used great violence against the strikers. Although the results are transformative, the demands are usually focused on laws….If one sees the connection between the General Strike and the Law, one realizes that this is not legal reformism, but a will to social justice….Unlike a party, a general strike refuses to cooperate until things change.”

Tidal 2 ends with a bold call for a General Strike on the symbolically important day of May 1, 2012, May Day.

I have no doubt that it will happen, and that it will be big.

I am sure police forces across the world are already planning their own strategies.

The truth is that if the 99%, “those who suffer” from the structural inequality of globalized capitalism, were to come out in large enough numbers on May Day, and refuse to go home until those in power began a serious dialogue on transformative, institutional change that included the retooling of our political, social and environmental systems for 21st century realities—the truth is that we might actually get somewhere.

Somewhere new, somewhere joyful, somewhere beyond the bruising, gridlocked, decrepit and corrupt politics that currently has our entire planet in a stranglehold.

The social and political elites who have inherited the 20th century reins of power and do not want to let go need to be made aware that they are driving us all over a cliff with their refusal to summon the political will and the technological know-how to adapt to anthropogenic global heating.

They must be made to understand that they and their children will go down with the rest of us!

That is the one blind spot in this issue of Tidal 2: there is very little mention of the impact of climate change and human overpopulation on the carrying capacity of the planet.

This awareness shows up more in metaphor than head-on, but metaphor is powerful too.

At one point, the anonymous authors of Tidal 2 describe the 1% as the captain of a ship “who steers while we shovel coal and  swab decks.  He seems to have us headed towards a typhoon.

“The captain stares at the impending doom on the horizon and grins ecstatically.  He’s clearly thrilled to be captain.  He faces down a storm that we can only wincingly glance at with one squinting eye, and he jabbers incessantly about hope and destiny.  We realize that he does not see as a normal person, by passively receiving light through his pupils.  Rather he uses his eyes offensively to project what he wants to see on the world.  He has become so practiced at his fantasia that he can no longer recognize what we, cringing on deck, see as certain catastrophe.”

Well, my friends, it is time to stop cringing on deck.

Mutiny is justified if the captain is a raving maniac and the alternative to mutiny is catastrophe.

On this sunny day, let’s pledge to take a great leap forward this spring, take charge and steer ourselves into safer waters.

See you on May Day.

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