Work-life balance is not just a women’s issue

Anne Marie Slaughter

I decided to bite my tongue and wait to see the reaction to the recent Atlantic Monthly cover story by Anne Marie Slaughter on women and the work-life balance—I knew as soon as I started reading it that it would set off a firestorm of commentary, and I have not been disappointed.

Slaughter, in case you have not been following this story, is a Princeton University professor and dean, who was drafted into the State Department by Hillary Clinton and worked there for two stressful years.  She wrote the article after returning to the snug harbor of Princeton, where, thanks to the flex time allowed by the higher ranks of academia, she is far better able to manage her professional and family commitments.

Slaughter’s main point in writing seems to be that our society needs to adapt itself better to the needs of working women. She calls for more women to get into leadership positions in business and government, and make workplace and policy changes that will make parenting and working outside the home more manageable.

Lori Gottleib, in a blog post on the Atlantic site, has little patience for Slaughter’s hand-wringing over the travails of long hours outside the home.

“The real problem here isn’t about women and their options,” she says. “The real problem is that technology has made it possible to work 24/7, so that the boundary between work and our personal lives has disappeared. Our cubicles are in our pockets, at the dinner table, next to our beds and even next to our children’s beds as we’re tucking them in. In many households, one income isn’t enough, and both men and women have to work long hours — longer hours than ever before — to make ends meet…. The problem here is that many people work too much — not just women, and not just parents.”

Hallelujah and amen to that, Lori!

For myself, I know the only way I can give myself some true down time is to get myself to a place where there is no wireless and no way to plug in my computer—ie, camping, hiking or at the beach—although even there I’ve caught myself using my iPhone to check messages or text people on the fly.  It’s been years—YEARS—since I’ve been unplugged for more than a day.

I can imagine a scenario where our society benevolently decides to use technology to allow more people to work from home, which will make things easier for parents in some ways, but will result in all of us becoming wired-in cogs in the capitalist machine, never really getting any time to ourselves unless we are able to set our own firm boundaries, something that most of us have trouble doing.

I agree with Professor Slaughter that family-friendly workplace policies are needed. I especially appreciated her anecdote about how when she was Dean at Princeton she always made a point of announcing at faculty meetings that she had to go home to have dinner with her family, to give other women permission to do the same without guilt or embarrassment.

But I share Lori Gottlieb’s sense that for most of us parents, the pressures of making a living are simply getting to be inhuman.

At the Strategies for a New Economy conference I attended a few weeks ago, several sessions dealt with the possibility of transitioning to a shorter work week.  This was the focus of a 2010 report by the New Economics Foundation, which argues for a 21-hour work week.  “There is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’” working hours today,” the authors write. “Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism. Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.”

The report’s authors suggest that “to meet the challenge, we must change the way we value paid and unpaid work. For example, if the average time devoted to unpaid housework and childcare in Britain in 2005 were valued in terms of the minimum wage, it would be worth the equivalent of 21 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product.”

Imagine if we could invent a society where housework and childcare actually “counted” for something in real economic terms?

Imagine if parents were actually rewarded for spending quality time with their children, for doing all the time-intensive work it takes to raise healthy, productive, happy kids who will become healthy, productive, happy adults?

What if we spent less money on anti-depressants, stimulants and treadmills, and instead gave ourselves room to breathe, and time to relax?

No society can hope to survive without the good work being done by mothers and fathers, unpaid and unsung, day and after day and year after year.

This should not be just a women’s issue.  If more fathers got involved in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of parenting—unglamorous and tedious as it sometimes can be—there would be twice as much impetus to make the changes Slaughter is calling for.

How about it, Dads?

Let them eat crude!

The wildfires burning through densely populated neighborhoods in Colorado this week are on my mind.

Fire burning in Colorado Springs June 26, 2012

I clicked a link about “how to help,” and found the familiar call for financial contributions to aid the dispossessed, as well as the firefighters.

No mention of the underlying cause of these fires—drought brought on by climate disruption.

No mention of how the real way to help would be to insist that our country start converting to renewable energy, immediately, to slow the relentless buildup of greenhouse gases and show international leadership that could be emulated by other nations.

Just send donations, so we can get back to business as usual ASAP.



Yesterday I was thinking about going cherry-picking at the local farm where I’ve been picking cherries every summer since I was a little girl.

Going on the website to check the orchard hours, I was aghast to discover that the entire crop had been ruined by a hailstorm last Friday—part of the cold front that broke the excessive heat we were sweltering under last week.

This week it’s been delightfully chilly here in Massachusetts. I love the cool weather, but my tomato plants sure don’t.


Is it so far-fetched to imagine a time when it’s impossible to rely on the steady, rhythmic progression of the seasons to bring us just the right sun and rain to grow our crops?

What will we do when the food shortages begin?

Let them eat crude!  ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and the rest will cry, as the climate guillotine puts our entire human civilization on the block.

We’ll be frackin’ whacked then, won’t we.

Help Wanted: Change Agents in Academe

The stars seem to be aligning behind a strong push towards online learning in the world of American higher education.  Today’s lead op-ed piece in The New York Times, by Jeff Selingo, editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Education, echoes the Chronicle’s recent interview with educational philanthropist Bill Gates, who has been funding innovative approaches to maximizing the potential of technology in higher ed, without sacrificing educational quality.

Bill Gates

Both Gates and Selingo are focused on interventions that can improve outcomes for students, and thus for American employers down the line.  Even the best universities, Gates says, “often only have a 60-percent completion rate. And the average university will have something like a 30-percent completion rate. So you have an immense amount of wasted resource, and students who end up with a big loan and sort of a negative experience in terms of their own self-confidence.”

Gates wants to see how technology can be used to improve completion rates for students, as well as to improve their academic experience while going through the educational process, and his foundation is searching for “change agents” to accomplish this mission.

Innovators are sorely needed, because it certainly is true, as Selingo points out, that “higher education is a conservative, risk-averse industry,” which has been putting far more attention into capital campaigns for physical improvements than into serious efforts to develop and integrate new technologies.  Even my own graduate alma mater, New York University, known in many ways as an innovator, is persisting in its focus on bricks and mortar expansion with its hotly debated NYU2031 plan.

“We bet on the change agents within the universities,” Gates says. “And so, various universities come to us and say, We have some ideas about completion rates, here are some things we want to try out, it’s actually budget that holds us back from being able to do that. People come to us and say, We want to try a hybrid course where some piece is online, some piece is not, and we’re aiming this at the students that are in the most need, not just the most elite. So that’s who we’re giving grants to, people who are trying out new things in universities.”

I hope the Gates Foundation is also interested in supporting smaller liberal arts colleges like my current employer, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which was founded as an innovative early college for high school students ready to accelerate past the last two years of high school, right into the college experience.

As someone who did just that myself, leaving the prestigious Hunter College High School in Manhattan after 10th grade to earn my B.A. in four years at Simon’s Rock, I know this is a model that works. It also worked for my son, who also earned his B.A. in four years at Simon’s Rock after completing 10th grade at our local high school.

It was good to hear Gates affirm the continuing importance of small-group discussions as a method of learning, because that is the pedagogical style we value highly and do so well at Simon’s Rock.

“Having a lot of kids sit in the lecture class will be viewed at some point as an antiquated thing,” he said. “On the other hand, having a bunch of kids come into a small study group where peers help each other, where you can explain why you’re learning these various topics, that will be even more important.”

With the advent of giant open-source lectures made widely available by the most prominent universities, Gates predicts that higher education will have to form consortia to consolidate lecture offerings, rather than having the same courses taught hundreds of times across the country (and the world) by different professors, some of whom may not be the greatest of lecturers.

But I don’t believe we will ever find a substitute for the excitement of small group learning, sitting in a circle and sharing ideas with a skilled, knowledgeable and enthusiastic facilitator.

It’s possible that some of that small-group learning may be able to transition to online video chat rooms, and this is something I’d love the Gates Foundation to fund me and other collaborators to explore!

I can imagine a hybrid learning environment, in the not-too-distant future, in which a student living at home can take a lecture from a Harvard professor in the morning, meet in an online chat room with another instructor in the afternoon to discuss the lecture topic (as I used to do in person with undergraduates when I worked as a graduate teaching assistant at NYU), and perhaps come to campus twice a semester for intensive face-to-face classes culminating in final projects that would be shared and evaluated, leading to the awarding of course credit.

Already there are consortia forming to discuss how to begin to allow students to earn degrees by patching together courses from various institutions, something most colleges and universities currently permit in a limited way.

Gates is right that this kind of innovation is threatening to the status quo of higher ed, where each college and university sees itself in competition with the others for the best students, and administrators tend to be more focused on admissions and tuition than on completion rates and outcomes.

Collaboration and sharing of resources may mean that some of the weaker institutions will fall by the wayside—but this is already happening as it becomes increasingly apparent that the old residential, four-year, very expensive approach is unsustainable for any but the most heavily endowed institutions, who continue to attract students from the wealthiest families in the world.

I agree with Bill Gates that if we faculty and administrators dig in our heels and refuse to roll with the oncoming waves of technological innovation, we’ll be bowled over and blown away.

But the techies can’t make this educational revolution work without the expertise of seasoned faculty and administrators, so it’s our responsibility to insist on pedagogical quality while encouraging innovation, in order to accomplish our mission of giving the most possible students the best possible education at the lowest possible cost, in a sustainable model that will allow our students—and our institutions—to thrive and grow into the 21st century.

Time to Meet Your Maker

OK, I admit it.  I love my air conditioners.  I have two window units, one upstairs and one downstairs, and they cool my whole house to a comfortable 70 degrees, no problem.

On a day like today, 95 degrees Farenheit and humid, you’ll find me huddled around the AC, whether it’s in my home, car or office, or out to the movies or a restaurant.

Even though I know full well that my AC addiction is part of the problem of global warming, am I going to go without?

Hell no!

Why should I swelter while everyone else who can afford it, and especially the fat cats who got us into this global warming mess, are sitting cool as cucumbers and pretty as you please?!

Thus you have the tragedy of the commons playing out all over again, all the time.

It will take a crash—a blackout, a total system collapse—to make us give up our creature comforts here in the heart of Empire.

Some people say that crash can’t come soon enough, and I guess I agree with them.

Certainly for the rest of the life forms on the planet, the sooner human beings get lost, and take our asphalt and our AC and our combustion engines with us, the more chance there will be for the planet to recover without turning back the clocks to zero and starting all over again with bacteria and plankton and the other very basic building blocks of life.

But am I going to commit hari-kari right now to speed this process along, playing martyr for the benefit of the songbirds and the orangutans?

No, I am not.

I am going to keep living, keep cranking up my AC and bopping around in my car, until there’s no juice in the wires and no gas in the tank.


Trying to keep cool, I just went to see PROMETHEUS, a bizarre movie if there ever was one.

In it, human beings go to meet their Maker, and discover that their alien progenitor is an impatient, violent, sadistic psychopath—at least by human standards—who, immediately upon being revived from an eons-long sleep, greets his human rescuers  with murderous fury and sets course for Earth with a full payload of biological weapons.

As I complained to my son afterwards, why is the human imagination always so dark and destructive?

Why couldn’t the screenwriters have imagined a happier scene, where the Maker showers the Earthlings with stardust and thanks them for waking him up?


We are, it seems, an irredeemably violent species.

We deserve whatever violent end awaits us.

When it comes, we should bow our heads and acknowledge that we totally brought it upon ourselves.

In the meantime, it’s getting hot in here.  Time to crank up the AC.

Scheherezades of the 21st Century

I have been following the progress of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development from a distance, feeling jaded about the process and the possibility of positive outcomes resulting from this gathering of diplomats and social engineers.  It’s good to see the lively and vibrant displays of people passion outside the gates of the conference, but the real question is, when will those gates come down?

Gar Alperovitz

At the Strategies for a New Economy conference earlier this month, veteran progressive economist Gar Alperovitz pointed to our time as the moment when enough people wake up and notice that something is wrong.

“This is a critical moment in history,” he said; “the moment when people realize something is gravely wrong and are willing to think outside the box to find solutions.”

Alperovitz suggested that we are currently in “the prehistory of a major shift,” and that now is the time for those of us who are aware of what’s happening to “lay the foundations for new institutions and new systems” that are tailored to meet the coming challenges.

Who would have thought, a decade ago, that the cell phone would take Africa by storm, Alperovitz reminded us.  In the same way, it could be that distributed solar-generated power—each home and business hosting its own power generator on the roof–will become the standard in the decade to come, particularly if the real costs of fossil fuels are brought home to industries and consumers.

Yesterday in the course of a desultory lunchtime conversation about changing weather patterns, one of the people around the table, a bigtime financial executive, mentioned that he’d heard the Arctic ice was melting at an unprecedented rate.

I took his comment to be about the negative impact of climate change on the environment, and began talking about the methane bubbles that have been rising up out of the deepwater beneath the ice pack, suddenly and disastrously finding access to the open air.

But no—his point was quite different. To him, what was interesting about the melting of the ice was that it put previously inaccessible oil beds suddenly within range of development.


What difference will all the UN treaties in the world make to the health of our planet if the power brokers sitting in their comfortable climate-controlled glass towers in New York don’t understand the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels?  My financier friend was actually planning to fly down to Rio this week on business, but it was news to him that the Rio+20 conference was going on at all.

Gar Alperovitz described our current economic system as “stalemated, stagnating and in decay—neither reforming nor collapsing,” and this sounds like an accurate description to me of our tightly intertwined political, financial and industrial sectors.

All of us ordinary people are held like flies in the sticky web of corporate capitalism, which is squeezing us ever more tightly in the bonds of rising prices, scarce jobs and inescapable debt.

Where will it end?  Alperovitz called on the conference attendees to become the historical change agents within our communities—to go home and seize every opportunity to develop the frameworks for the transition to a different kind of future.

To me, as a writer and teacher of literature, it was interesting to hear him calling in particular for an emphasis on new kinds of narrative.  In order to imagine new solutions to what seem like insurmountable problems, he said, “we need to tell new stories.”

Maybe’s Twitterstorm yesterday, in which hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world besieged Twitter with messages in support of ending the fossil fuel subsidies, is the start of a new story—a global story, authored collectively by kindred spirits worldwide.

It remains to be seen whether we will be able to figure out a way to preserve and extend our current technological sophistication while moving into a sustainable, harmonious relation with our planetary home.  Many who are currently trying to read the future predict a violent collapse of our human civilization, with a dramatic loss of human population and a return to a much simpler, low-tech kind of life for those who survive.

The only way the latter scenario will be avoided is if the technocrats and the bureaucrats and the financiers start listening to the ordinary people outside the gates, and understanding the full implications of their dependence on a capitalist economic system of endless growth fueled by destructive fossil fuels and the despoiling of the environment.

So yes, let’s start telling those new stories by every means possible—by Twitter, by blog, by radio, TV and film—around the lunch table and across the backyard fence.

Tell new stories as though your life depended on it. As in fact, it does.

Hocus, Pocus, Focus

I don’t know if it’s that I’m moving ever nearer to that psychologically significant boundary line between my forties and my fifties (I’ll turn 50 in November), or that summer is upon us here in the Northeast, or that I am on circuit overload, but this week I just haven’t been able to get up a good head of steam for a substantial blog post, and thus have stayed silent.

It’s been quite a while since a whole five days have gone by without my posting a single word.

It’s not that I’m not thinking.  And I am certainly keeping abreast of events out in the wide world.

But instead of the steady churning of thoughts and the relentless input of news raising my hackles and prompting me to send another blog-post-bottle out into the high internet seas, I just feel like pulling the covers over my head and rolling over for another hour of sleep.

I find myself longing for a silent weekend retreat, in which I had no access to the internet or phone, and no one around who expected me to speak or respond.

If I could have some good quiet time, maybe I could focus my thoughts, ideas and projects, and figure out which of them are worth carrying with me, and which can be jettisoned.

Perhaps that goes with the time of life I’m in, where every moment seems precious and limited, and you know that you really don’t have that much time to accomplish everything you came here to do in this lifetime.

If I could just figure out where to pour my energies and talents, I have no doubt that I could be very successful—with my success measured not necessarily in money or goods, but in positive impact on the planet.

That is what I am most trying to figure out right now.  Where should I be funneling my limited time and energy?

Generally speaking, there seem to be four spheres in which I am operating at all times, simultaneously:

  • the very up-close-and-personal realm, where my thoughts revolve around such mundane but important matters as my responsibilities to my two sons and the rest of my family, endless house and garden maintenance issues, and how I’d like to reconnect with such-and-such friend next week;
  •  the professional realm, where I am wondering what the outcome will be of my current contract review, feeling guilty because I am months behind in the essay I promised an anthology editor a year ago, pondering how to teach my classes scheduled for the fall, and wishing that I had the drive to get up at 5 a.m. and work on my book project;
  • the broader community, regional and national realm, where I am thinking about how to encourage the adoption of solar panels in my town, wondering about the impact of the new immigration legislation on friends and students, and concerned about the prospect of rabid Republicans gaining control of all three centers of power in Washington, and wondering how I can support both the Democrats and their more radical critics, whose platform is much closer to my heart;
  •  and then there’s the planetary realm, where I see with such pain the big picture of how destructive human beings are to every other life form on Earth, and ask myself how long it will be before the planet gives a big methane burp and sends us all to over-heated hell.

Is it any wonder, with all this (and much more!) churning through my mind day after day, that I end up just wanting to tune out and sit on my porch with a glass of wine on a summer evening and CHILL OUT?

I envy people who can focus all their energy in any one of these spheres.

I seem to be an incorrigible multitasker, and I know it’s not particularly healthy for me, or productive for my goals.

If there is one thing I really want to work on in the coming decade of my fifties, it’s learning how to prioritize tasks, concentrate my energy and GO!

Bill McKibben: Stand up to the fossil fuel industry, or start growing some gills!

Last summer Bill McKibben and, the organization he and a group of Middlebury College seniors founded in 2006 to fight global heating, brought thousands of protesters to Washington DC to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline. As you’ll recall, they circled the White House in a ring five people deep; thousands were arrested over the course of two weeks; and the construction of the Keystone was at least delayed, if not entirely crushed.

This summer Bill will be at it again, taking on the fossil fuel companies even more directly. As he told us last night during his keynote address to the Strategies for a New Economy conference, put on by the New Economics Foundation and hosted by Bard College, the focus of this summer’s activism will be joining Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) in pressing for the removal of some $113 billion in annual federal subsidies for American fossil fuel companies.

Bill reminded us that Exxon Mobil and the other big oil, coal and gas companies are by far the richest in the world.  Why should they be getting subsidies for doing business when those funds are sorely needed by citizens for basic services like education, health care and retirement?

And why should we be rewarding companies that not only pollute the environment, but also are responsible for spewing the greenhouse emissions that are rapidly making our planet uninhabitable for many current species, including humans?

“No other industry is allowed to dump its garbage in the streets,” Bill declared.  “Why should it not only be allowed, but subsidized, for the industry that is responsible for the most dangerous product of all, the CO2 that could totally destabilize our planet?”

Bill began his speech by noting apologetically that he has become known as a “professional bummer-outer,” and it was true: it was impossible to come away from his hour-long talk without feeling shaken by the severity of the future he laid out for us.

He gave several hard-hitting statistics and anecdotes of the gathering steamroller of global heating: the melting of the Arctic ice pack, the acidification of the ocean, the increase of floods, droughts, storms and disease.

Bill laid the blame squarely in the laps of the fossil fuel industry, which, he said, has been using its vast wealth to forestall political action on moving to renewable energy.

“Their business model is the problem,” he said.  “It’s either wreck their business model or wreck the planet.”

He’s not talking about destroying Exxon-Mobil and the other oil giants; just about forcing them to re-invent themselves as clean energy companies, and start putting their great resources behind the swift transition to renewable energy technologies.

How to accomplish this sea change?

“We’ll never match their money, so we need to deal in a different currency,” he said, “the currency of movements: passion, spirit, and creativity.”

Bill showed pictures from around the world of climate activists, most of whom, as he observed drily, “do not look like Sierra Club environmentalists, but they care just as passionately about saving our planet.” The movement he envisions must be international, but since Americans and Europeans bear most of the blame for the dramatic rise in greenhouse gases we have a special responsibility to work hard to make things right.

“I’m a writer,” Bill said.  “I’d rather be sitting home in Vermont typing.” Instead, he’s on the road much of the time now, addressing groups and working behind the scenes to build a climate movement powerful enough to take on the fossil fuel lobbies and head off disaster.

At this conference of economists, there were many gray heads in the hall, and many people wearing conservative professional clothing.  Bill called on the older folks, in particular, to join the movement to head off global heating, because “once you’re past a certain age, it doesn’t matter so much if you have an arrest record.”

“We have to get more confrontational,” he said, recalling the civil disobedience campaigns of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Among the confrontational tactics we can look forward to this summer are “Nascar-style” blue blazers for members of Congress, with the logos of all the corporations from which they’ve accepted cash blazoned on their backs. will also be hosting an online Congressional scoreboard, so that citizens can easily see how each  senator or congressional representative has voted with regard to climate stabilization and environmental health.

“We’re not radicals or militants,” Bill insisted. “We’re actually quite conservative.  We want the planet to stay the way it is, or go back to the way it was when we were born.  The radicals work at the oil companies,” he declared to applause.

Bill ended by reminding the audience that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently issued a statement saying that there was no cause for alarm about climate change, because human beings will be able to adapt our behavior and physiology as the planet warms.

“What are they imagining?” Bill asked indignantly. “Are we going to start growing gills?”

It’s not gills we need, but guts—to follow Bill McKibben’s lead and force the politicians to represent the will of the people, rather than the will of the industries that are destroying our planet in the name of the next quarter’s profits.

Something tells me it’s going to be a hot summer.

Rio+20: Fiddling While Earth Burns

I am having trouble summoning any enthusiasm over the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference, which will begin on June 20.

When you go to the conference website, everything sounds so benign, forward-looking and responsible.  For example, talking about food security, the conference framers call for the promulgation of sustainable agriculture, meaning “the capacity of agriculture over time to contribute to overall welfare by providing sufficient food and other goods and services in ways that are economically efficient and profitable, socially responsible, and environmentally sound.”

It sounds marvelous.  But we all know that during the last 20 years, since the first Earth Summit in 1992, industrial agriculture has only gotten bigger and badder, more focused on profit at the expense of social responsibility or environmental stewardship.

Food security for the majority of people on the planet has become a pipe dream, and even the most privileged of us are growing increasingly vulnerable to disruptions in food supplies caused by climate change, monoculture and the superweeds and superbugs that have developed resistance to our chemicals.

I was not surprised to find in my inbox this morning an eloquent position paper from La Via Campesina, seeing right through the rosy language of the “sustainable development” engineers to recognize that “beneath the deceptive and badly intentioned term “green economy”, new forms of environmental contamination and destruction are now rolled out along with new waves of privatization, monopolization, and expulsion from our lands and territories.”

Here is how La Via Campesina, which represents indigenous and peasant farmers worldwide, but particularly in South America, sees the “green economy”:

“The green economy does not seek to reduce climate change or environmental deterioration, but to generalize the principle that those who have money can continue polluting. Up to now, they have used the farce of purchasing carbon bonds to continue emitting greenhouse gases. They are now inventing biodiversity bonds. This is to say, businesses can continue destroying forests and ecosystems, as long as they pay someone to supposedly conserve biodiversity somewhere else. Tomorrow they may invent bonds for water, natural “views”, or clean air.”

I am afraid that this analysis is right on target.  The whole premise of the REDD agreements, under which communities were to be paid for conserving their forests, has only resulted in a land rush to purchase the forests so as to collect the international funding.  And to add insult to injury, REDD has allowed the destruction of virgin forests and replanting of, say, palm oil plantations, to “count” as forest conservation.

So the international capitalists make out like bandits, and the local people who have lived peacefully and harmoniously in the forests for thousands of years suddenly find themselves given the boot.

In the first anthology I edited, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean (South End Press, 2004), I included an essay by Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala, who has become a major voice for global indigenous rights and environmental stewardship.  The essay describes Menchu’s unofficial visit to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum

“I had gone to find out what their idea of the earth, plants and nature might be, and what I found was a commercial version of ecology,” she said.  “There were T-shirts with tigers, lions and parrots painted on them, and plastic bags with animals’ faces.  It was a case of businessmen making money out of the environment.”

Although Menchu ended on a more hopeful note back in the ‘90s when this essay was first published, I have no doubt that today she is less optimistic, given the way events have played out over the past 20 years.  It is no exaggeration to say that the capitalist assault on the natural world combined with the human population overload of the planet has brought us to the brink of civilization collapse.

The calm, rationalist language of the Rio+20 architects reveals no sign of awareness of the dire state of the planet.  They seem to have constructed their conference materials in an air-conditioned bubble, through which the voices of the billions of ordinary people on the ground cannot penetrate.

La Via Campesina is calling for a return to small-scale agriculture as the solution to the Earth’s problems. They argue that a relocalization of agriculture is necessary, with indigenous and peasant farmers given cooperative control over their lands, as it was for the thousands of years preceding our own unfortunate era.

We will never get the diplomats, technocrats and financial oligarchs in the air-conditioned conference halls to agree to such a simple, unprofitable solution to food security.

But the feedback loops that have made our planet stable since the last Ice Age are now becoming severely disrupted, and so Earth may take matters into her own hands, forcing a relocalization in which only those who still remember how to subsist in small groups close to the land will be able to survive.

Is this the great transition prophesied by the Mayans long ago?  The end of the age of technocratic capitalism, and the return to a simpler way of life?

Global meetings such as Rio+20 should be occasions for making plans, together with the small-scale farmers on the ground all over the world, for intelligent transitions to truly sustainable communities. There is still time to prepare for the coming ecological shocks so as to prevent mass misery.

Instead, governments are using this precious time to build up armies and police forces to ensure the control of ever-shrinking resources by the wealthy, and selling small-scale arms to local gangs to encourage violence and terror outside of the gated communities of the rich nations.

This is a strategy that keeps us all in line—we in the wealthy nations are terrified of the violence we see outside our borders, and so we docilely do as we are told, which is to say, continue to participate in the aggressive policies that are bringing us all to ruin.

I see the twin monsters of the weapons and the chemical industries as the most destructive forces on our planet today.  If these two industries could be stopped, and their destructive products destroyed, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.

We may not be able to put those evil genies back into the bottle ourselves.  But the planet will take care of it, sooner or later.

Right now, it’s looking like it’s going to be soon.

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