Utne Reader Visionaries share their latest projects, ideas, and visions for the future.
Tuesday, April 02, 2013 3:23 PM
Months after Hurricane Sandy, many low-income New York neighborhoods are still struggling
for an economic foothold. But with the help of Occupy Sandy, many residents are organizing worker
cooperatives to take back control of their communities.
This article originally
appeared at Waging
Three and a half months ago, the walls
upstairs at the Church of the Prophecy in Far Rockaway, a low-income coastal
neighborhood of New York City,
were covered with maps of where help was most needed. The church was a hub for
the Occupy Sandy relief effort after Hurricane Sandy. Now, nearly five months
after the hurricane struck, the maps have been replaced by posters extolling
the virtues of collective struggle and art made by neighborhood children
enrolled in Occupy Sandy’s twice-weekly after-school program.
“The kids missed a month and a half of
school,” explained Luis Casco, a member of the church’s congregation who pulled
strings to help move Occupy into Far Rockaway. The after-school program was, in
part, his brainchild. “We figured we’d start helping the kids and we could win
over their parents. Then we could actually start bigger projects,” he said.
One of those bigger projects is a
worker-run cooperative initiative, organized by Occupy Sandy and supported by
the Working World, an organization that specializes in incubating collectively
The initiative is well suited to Far
Rockaway because worker-run enterprises have a history of flourishing in
environments of economic distress or political upheaval. In 2001, when Argentina
defaulted on its international loans and the country’s ownership class fled,
Argentines took over abandoned factories and established networks of producers
and distributors. In Venezuela,
worker-run cooperatives were at the heart of the vision for 21st-century
socialism, and Hugo Chavez’s administration helped create tens of thousands of
collectively owned businesses over the last 14 years. Most notably, Spanish
workers in the Basque region created the Mondragon Corporation, the world’s
largest federation of cooperatives, during the Franco dictatorship in the
1950s. Today more than 250 enterprises operate under the Mondragon banner, and
the federation, which spans 77 countries and employs 83,000 workers, has been
“Collective approach pays big dividends,”
read a headline
about Mondragon in The Financial Times last year, while the New York
Times noted the “use of workers’ share capital and loans” has enabled the
federation to remain stable through vacillations in global markets, including
the ongoing financial crisis.
While Mondragon shows what is possible
down the line, Far Rockaway residents are at the very beginning of the process.
At one of the crowded early meetings of the cooperative initiative, children
and adults buzzed about, fraternizing with disposable plates of food in their
hands as extra folding chairs were arranged. Several parents whose children
attended the after-school program arrived, bringing their friends and neighbors
along. Most were Spanish-speaking immigrants who, having spent their lives
working for someone else, were eager to learn more about cooperatives.
Many in Far Rockaway lost their jobs when
Hurricane Sandy rendered commutes impossible for flooded local businesses. For
those without U.S.
work papers, finding new employment has been difficult.
“It’s really hard to find a new job when
you don’t have papers,” Casco explained. “Their homes were destroyed, they
don’t have the resources to go to welfare and FEMA ain’t helping them.”
Others, such as Olga Lezama, managed to
keep their jobs after the storm, but the prospect of holding on to the profits
of their labor has piqued their interest. Lezama currently works as an
upholsterer for a high-end furniture company. By Lezama’s calculations, her
boss makes approximately $500 every hour off the furniture that she and her
co-workersupholster, while she earns roughly $100 a day.
“It hurts my feelings and my pockets,”
she said. “My job and my efforts and my everything goes to them.”
By her side was her husband, Carlos
Lezama, a carpenter who specialized in cabinets. The pair hope to work with
others in the community to form a home-design cooperative, a service in high
demand after the storm, which ruined the ground floors of most of the region’s
“We go to stores and buy cheap furniture,
cabinets and stuff, and we’re wasting our money,” Lezama said. “In two months,
the cabinet is no good. So we have go buy it again. Our people deserve good
Workers controlling capital
Occupy Sandy has allocated $60,000 of the
$900,000 it raised in the initial flood of generosity following the storm
toward forming cooperatives, an initiative they hope to spread across
storm-affected areas if it proves successful in Far Rockaway. The Working
World, an organization that provides zero-debt micro-finance loans to new
cooperatives, has offered to provide monetary support, but for now the
organization is mostly lending advice and training. At one of the early
meetings, Brandon Martin, The Working World’s founder, showed the crowd a
slideshow of other projects the organization has helped launch. Images of a
beekeepers’ cooperative in the countryside of Nicaragua
and a shoe factory in Buenos Aires
glowed on the wall behind Martin as he outlined the benefits of workers sharing
resources and making decisions democratically.
“A cooperative is workers controlling
capital, instead of capital controlling workers,” said Martin. “It’s about
reorganizing the economy around who’s really in control.”
The Working World finances itself by
collecting a small percentage of the profits that member collectives generate,
money that the organization reinvests in establishing new enterprises. Martin
explained that the idea originated in ancient Sumeria where the word for interest
was the same as the word for calf.
“If the cow I lent you has babies,”
explained Martin, “I loaned you my cow, so I can have some the babies. That would
be the interest.”
But if the cow was sterile, the Sumerians
didn’t collect interest. The same works for Working World’s loans today. The
organization only collects once a cooperative generates a steady profit, a
model that avoids forcing people into debt if their business fails.
The Sumerians, for their part, eventually
altered their lending practices such that they collected interest regardless of
the outcome. The legacy of that shift is still with us today; few in Far
Rockaway can call their surroundings their own. Walk through the neighborhood
in the middle of a business day and you’ll see iron grating pulled down over
storefronts and plywood covering the windows of large shopping complexes. Those
stores that are open often bear the insignias of chain outlets that carry money
out of the neighborhood and into the coffers of large corporations. Worker-run
cooperatives, in contrast, could offer a way for community members to sell the
products of their labor without selling their labor itself — a shift that would
keep capital within the community and cash in the pockets of workers.
At the following cooperative meeting a
week later, the crowd had grown. People discussed plans for a scrap metal
business and a cleaning-workers’ collective. One man pulled a citizens’ band
radio out of his winter coat, explaining that drivers in the taxi cooperative
he hoped to form could use it to communicate. He’d been doing research; nine
other drivers were needed to secure an operating license from the city.
There is obvious enthusiasm in the
neighborhood for worker-run enterprises. But are there limits to what these
businesses can achieve while embedded in a broader economic framework of
competition and exploitation? And does the focus on cooperatives represent a
shift in direction for Occupy, one that veers away from a direct fight for
“We can’t fight the city,” one Occupy
Sandy organizer confided. “But we can build co-ops.”
Building an alternative
Richard Wolff, professor of economics at
the New School and author of Democracy at
Work, a study of cooperative businesses, argues that forming cooperatives
can be the first step in enacting a sweeping social and economic shift. Wolff
envisions a transformation, similar to the social shift from feudalism to
capitalism, in which cooperatives replace corporations and goods are
distributed through a democratically planned economy.
The cooperatives that Wolff talks about,
and the ones that Occupy Sandy is aiming to establish, are more accurately known
as worker self-directed enterprises: businesses that organize democratically
collective ownership at the point of production.
“When the workers get together and decide
how to distribute the income in such an enterprise, would they give the CEO $25
million in stock bonuses while everybody else can barely get by?” Wolff asks
He stresses the difference between the
productive and distributive side of economies, explaining that worker-run
cooperatives are the often-overlooked prerequisite for achieving an egalitarian
distribution of wealth and resources. “There is the question of what exactly an
alternative to capitalism is,” he explains. “I’ve stressed worker-self-directed
enterprises as a different way of organizing production.” On the other hand are
markets, which distribute the fruits of production. Wolff believes that the
mistake of many 20th-century socialists was to imagine that the elimination of
markets would create social egalitarianism, even though production had not yet
been reorganized into a democratic model.
Given the pull between the productive and
distributive side of economies, cooperatives must form networks to survive.
Collaboration between networked enterprises allows these businesses to curb
market pressures and, if the network manages to spread, to gain political
As Brandon Martin emphasizes, also,
workers in new cooperatives must labor long hours to meet production quotas,
just like with any other business, since their enterprise still has to compete
for a market share. “Can one cooperative change that?” asks Martin. “No. But a
cooperative economy might.”
Olga Lazema, however, isn’t thinking
about the theoretical potential for cooperatives to challenge capitalism. She’s
imagining the positive possibilities for her own neighborhood.
“A lot of people, their houses went like
nothing,” she said, referring to Sandy’s
destruction. “They have nothing. We could go there, build a small kitchen or
whatever they need. Why not?”
Image of Far Rockaway
cooperative meeting by Peter Rugh.
Friday, March 08, 2013 10:01 AM
Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, an OWS offshoot called Occupy Sandy quickly made headlines through its rapid response relief efforts, often beating out official relief agencies, like FEMA. Organizers Leah Feder and Devin Balkind discuss how open-source technology can help organize communities, solve problems collectively, and build democratic movements.
This post originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
have been a lot of exhausting debates in recent years about the role of online
social media in resistance movements, about whether these technologies really
help or hurt, and how. Some commentators have even gone so far as to hand
credit for home-grown uprisings around the world to the wonder-kids of Silicon Valley, and it can be tempting to believe them.
Once there was Gandhi and King; now there is Facebook and Twitter.
just-so stories, of course, leave out the in-person, on-the-ground organizing
that is still at the heart and center of movements everywhere. But they also
cause us to miss what may be the most important questions to ask about
movements and new technology: Who made the technology, who controls it, and
and Twitter are only the most visible ways that technology is transforming how
ordinary people build power — a visibility aided by a media culture eager to
promote all things corporate. But perhaps even more important in the long run
is how free and open-source software can help create transformative
institutions. Such software — which much of the back-end of the Internet
already relies on, including Waging
Nonviolence — is produced through self-organized communities of
developers working in collaboration, rather than competition. These communities
rely on values like transparency, consensus-seeking, decentralization and broad
participation. Yet they’re hardly utopian; they do this because it works.
Occupy Sandy, Occupy Wall Street’s relief and recovery
effort after Hurricane Sandy last fall,
open-source software tools like WordPress, Sahana and CiviCRM
helped to mobilize thousands of volunteers in affected areas throughout New York City, and to do
so faster and more efficiently than official agencies could. Leah Feder and
Devin Balkind were among the organizers of this effort, and they have been
working to make open-source tools available to the Occupy movement ever since
the initial occupation of Zuccotti
Park. They are also
directors of Sarapis, a non-profit that promotes
free and open technologies for the public good.
Feder and Balkind, these tools are proof that a more collaborative and
sustainable world is possible; I spoke with them recently about why.
How did you become interested in
LF: When Occupy Wall Street first
started, I was going down to the park but not finding a way to get involved or
seeing the revolutionary potential in what was happening. I thought it was
exciting, and fun, but beyond that I didn’t see where it could go. It was
through being exposed to open source there that I was finally moved to engage
on a much deeper level in Occupy, because I saw that there was a theory of
change. I saw how continuing on a specific path could take us into a
fundamentally different paradigm. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? I was
in grad school in media, culture and communication at New York University
at the time, but thinking through ideas is fun only insofar as you can’t do
anything. Once I saw that there was a possibility of doing something, I dropped
DB: I started on that path in college.
Some friends and I put together a proposal to create a crowdfunding platform
called Beex for charity walks and things like that.
Did you have a software background
DB: I was a history and film major; we
definitely botched the development of the thing. But it brought me into contact
with large nonprofits, and I realized that the non-profit sector was a
disaster, primarily because organizations weren’t collaborating with each
other. They basically mirrored the corporate model. That made me curious about
good models for collaborative problem-solving. At the same time, I was dealing
with a software project that was proprietary, and I was finding that it was a
terrible, terrible way to go. So I was learning about the open-source software
movement while I was recognizing the need for it in the non-profit sector. That
led me down the path of developing a generalized understanding of open-source
software for community organizing.
LF: I’m not a techie, either, and as a
non-techie one can only get so deep into open-source software. I can’t really
contribute to open source projects, for instance. I can use open source tools,
though, and that increases my capacity as an individual tremendously. I can
spin up a WordPress site and make it look pretty nice, really, really quickly.
But then, once I learned more about the open-source model and realized that
it’s also an organizing model for doing a lot of other things that can increase
our capacity collectively, I saw more of an entry-point for myself in the
broader peer-to-peer revolution. What it’s really about is changing the way
that we organize ourselves, as individuals and as a society. Occupy could be
the overtly political manifestation of this phenomenon, whereas open-source
software is how the tech world takes on these same principles.
Devin, how did you first make the
connection between open source and Occupy?
DB: By the fall of 2011 I had
incorporated Sarapis and was writing a plan to bring open source to community
organizations in Brooklyn. I had already done
research on constituent-relationship
management systems, or CRMs, and on mailing lists. I had written guides for
the organizations about how to use open-source technology most effectively.
Then I thought I was going to have to raise tens of thousands of dollars to get
people excited about the program — until Occupy Wall Street happened. It was
basically free enthusiasm for deploying the ideas. Those of us in the Occupy
tech group have spent 18 months building infrastructure. And then moments like
the Hurricane Sandy relief effort give us the opportunity to see it work.
What in particular has worked especially
DB: The biggest victories are the ones
that no one sees. Occupy Wall Street was this huge movement, but no one was
collecting email addresses at first — which is insane. But for Occupy
Sandy, there was one email-collection system with one form for volunteers. It
all went into our CiviCRM system, which had already been configured, and which
a lot of people knew how to use. That became the basis for systematized
volunteer outreach, where people have been receiving mailings consistently to
see when they can come out to do volunteer work. Right now we’re looking at a
sustainable volunteer infrastructure that we never had for OWS.
Why does it matter that these tools are
free and open source?
DB: This is part of a revolution in what
I call, maybe wrongly, the means of production. That’s what open-source
software is. And not just open-source software, but also hardware, and data,
and knowledge, and how we collaborate. There are so many differences between
open-source and proprietary systems; it’s like how you used to be able to take
apart a car engine, and anyone who had basic mechanical skills could replace an
air filter. Now, though, there’s plastic sheeting over the whole thing. It has
been designed so that people can’t fix their own cars. In open-source systems,
the flow of data is of paramount importance. In a proprietary system, the flow
of data is something that you lose money on. Go to Facebook, for instance, and
try to export your friend network — not easy, because that means you could
LF: When we solve problems with
open-source tools, we deliver the solutions back to the global information
commons, and we build capacity for anybody who wants to do this in the future.
Any such group that wants to arise and start collecting contacts can do the
same, and it’s free. We have a whole bunch of tools to use, and we can grow
ever more quickly on tools that we own ourselves.
So it’s a matter of self-reliance and
DB: For the people in the open-source
movement who realize where this is going, the next step is to replicate what
the government does, but better. How do we out-compete the government using
open-source tools? I can tell you that with Occupy Sandy we already did it. We
had a better system up within a month — for managing work orders, inventory,
requests, workflows. What if we had had that during the occupation? How much
easier would life have been for managing the Zuccotti Park
experience if there had been people trained in such a system? We’d have had
vehicles, warehouses and kitchens all coordinated in a way that was sustainable
and easy to plug into. If we can do that, it’ll become competition between us
and other systems. Then we’re on the path to the type of changes that people in
the open-source world realize is coming.
We’re using the term “open source” now,
by the way, but usually I use the term “FLO,” which means “free/libre/open
source.” There’s a whole political dimension to these words.
What do you think it will take for more
people to recognize this potential?
DB: Open-source projects, as an
organizing endeavor, pose an integration challenge. The question is always how
to get one plugin to work with another. When we’ve conditioned ourselves to
think more in terms of plugin architecture, our projects will inevitably plug
into other projects, and when that happens we’re going to have a whole new set
of functionality that’s possible. Once we’re at a certain level of advancement,
we get to merge. I think that what’s going to happen is a wave. For instance,
when open-source technology merges with open-source ecology in order to produce
hardware locally, you’re going to see a tremendous sea-change. You’ll see, say,
a new type of open-source tractor that starts selling like hotcakes. That
convergence isn’t so far away, and when that happens it’s going to feel
different. It is going to feel like a flick of a switch for a lot of folks.
How important is it for people in the
Occupy movement to know about this broader process?
DB: Open-source software itself exists
because other models for software production didn’t meet the need. Similarly, I
think the Occupy movement’s effectiveness depends on how quickly it recognizes
that the best community-organizing practices are rooted in free/libre/open
source. In the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, the leaders tended to be people
in the Direct Action Working Group, which was organizing the actions and
marches. But it was never very effective. Protest loses to production any day
of the week. That’s why the Black Panthers had a breakfast program. Give people
what they want if you want to be an effective movement. With Occupy Sandy,
because there was such a strong demand for relief from the community, we saw
the effectiveness of open-source tools. Documentation became more important. A
shared Google Docs folder was the center of productivity within Occupy Sandy,
and lots of people were realizing, “If I don’t share my docs as widely as
possible, and if I don’t orient people to these docs, this falls apart.” That
But Google Docs isn’t open source. Where
are the lines to be drawn?
DB: I like to say “practically possible.”
Use freely-available, open-source solutions whenever practically possible.
Google Docs isn’t open source, but sharing data on spreadsheets is about as
open-source as you can get. Any absolutes about this stuff aren’t particularly
useful. What’s useful is recognizing the purpose of the activity as being new
forms of productivity, not merely creating a spectacle. But this takes a lot of
practice to do right. It’s hard. By the time of Occupy Sandy, there were a lot
more people who understood how to do this kind of thing than during the
original occupation, and they started out-performing the people who don’t work
Was your experience with free-software
communities in some ways preparatory for knowing how to participate in Occupy Wall Street’s
DB: Yes. Philosophically, for sure. The
media would say, “They communicate over Facebook and Twitter,” but if you’re
involved in organizing, you’re emailing all day. It’s emails, and it’s
listservs. I came in knowing how to have intense decision-making conversations
on email lists, while the vast majority of people did not. By now, the growth
of people’s aptitude for that type of communication has been stunning.
LF: Although we’re still not there!
DB: No. But we’re so much further along.
LF: Whatever the political intentions of
the open-source community, it models a different way of working together. Last
fall, a lot of people were down with the idea that “shit is fucked up and
bullshit.” But people will only go so far if you don’t show them something
better. There’s a portion of the population that will really be galvanized by
marches and occupations, but if you want many more people to get excited about
your political project, you need to provide an alternative — alternatives.
That’s what drives the politics forward, because there’s a limit to the horizon
of possibility when it’s a politics of protest. But once it’s a politics of
solutions and alternatives, you’re playing in a different field, and a lot more
Does that help you when you’re opposing a
system backed up by state violence?
DB: During the early months of Occupy, I
would have experiences where I’d be talking to a cop who didn’t look like he
was enjoying being a pawn to suppress protest, and I said to him, “Hey dude,
have you ever talked about getting some land and going to a farm? If you ever
need some help acquiring land, we’ve got a bunch of acres upstate, we have
training, and Occupy Farms can get you up there, and you don’t have to do this
anymore.” I’ve had cops say to me, “You show me that, and we can have a
conversation.” The existing system is just not that competitive. It’s more
competitive than chaos, or anarchy or protest, sure. But how good, really, is
our suburban lifestyle, or our urban-ish suburban existence? At some point, the
other option is going to look better, and then the air starts coming out of the
How close are we to that point, do you
DB: A lot of the software, for instance,
is still a disaster in terms of usability and other capacities. That’s just
where we are as a society. We’re using it at just about 5 percent capacity. But
what’s fun about this stuff — and I think this is really how good software gets
made — is that you cobble together solutions, and everything kind of sucks, and
you evaluate how each piece works, and then you roll it all into one. If our
movement worked like a big open-source software project, there would be an
extensive wiki and forums and trainings to on-board people. There would be an
issue-tracker and requests for help, for what you can do at various different
engagement levels. An assembly could be happening in some place like Trenton,
N.J., and someone there might say, “I work in case-tracking for a homeless
shelter, and it would be better if x happened,” and then bam, it
would be tagged in the minutes of the meeting, and the developers somewhere
else would have a filter for whatever code was used to keep the minutes, and
they’d implement the suggestion in the next update. That’s the type of
performance we’re going to be able to achieve.
We’re not that far away from being able
to allow people to unplug from the proprietary information ecosystem. And once
we get there, we’re talking about real political change. The best part of the
whole open-source thing is recognizing that we can see into the future and
recognizing that it’s not all crazy. It’s just going to require a lot of people
to work. And that makes it a lot easier to be an activist.
Image of Occupy Sandy volunteers by Erin O'Brien (Occupy Sandy Facebook page).
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 4:10 PM
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
As this wild year comes to an end, we return to the
season of gifts. Here’s the gift you’re not going to get soon: any conventional
version of Paradise. You know, the place where
nothing much happens and nothing is demanded of you. The gifts you’ve already
been given in 2012 include a struggle over the fate of the Earth. This is probably not exactly what you
asked for, and I wish it were otherwise -- but to do good work, to be
necessary, to have something to give: these are the true gifts. And at least
there’s still a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair.
Think of 2013 as the Year Zero in the
battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or
lose bigger. This is a terrible thing to say, but not as terrible as the
reality that you can see in footage of glaciers vanishing, images of the entire surface of the Greenland Ice Shield melting this summer, maps of Europe’s future in which just being in southern
Europe when the heat hits will be catastrophic, let alone in more equatorial
For millions of years, this world has been a great gift
to nearly everything living on it, a planet whose atmosphere, temperature, air,
water, seasons, and weather were precisely calibrated to allow us -- the big
us, including forests and oceans, species large and small -- to flourish. (Or
rather, it was we who were calibrated to its generous, even bounteous, terms.)
And that gift is now being destroyed for the benefit
of a few members of a single species.
The Earth we evolved to inhabit is turning into something
more turbulent and unreliable at a pace too fast for most living things to
adapt to. This means we are losing crucial aspects of our most irreplaceable,
sublime gift, and some of us are suffering the loss now -- from sea snails
whose shells are dissolving in acidified oceans to Hurricane Sandy survivors
facing black mold and bad bureaucracy to horses starving nationwide because a devastating drought has
pushed the cost of hay so high to Bolivian farmers failing because the glaciers that watered their valleys
have largely melted.
This is not just an issue for environmentalists who love
rare species and remote places: if you care about children, health, poverty,
the economy, you really have no choice but to care about
The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a
gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope,
your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of
victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole
new scale as the news worsens.
Unwrapping the Victories
“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo famously
says in Bertold Brecht’s play about that renegade scientist, but at least, the
hero has the possibility of doing something about that unhappiness, as, for
instance, the Sierra Club has. It’s led the fight against big coal,
helping prevent 168 coal-powered plants from opening and retiring 125 dirty
coal plants. The aim of its Beyond Coal campaign is to retire all 522 such
plants in the United States,
which would be a colossal triumph.
Its victories also capture what a lot of our greenest
gifts look like: nothing. The regions that weren’t fracked, the coal plants that didn’t open, the mountaintops that weren’t
blasted by mining corporations, the children who didn’t get asthma
or mercury poisoning from coal emissions, the carbon that stayed
in the Earth and never made it into the atmosphere. The Keystone XL tar sands
pipeline bringing the dirtiest of dirty energy from Canada to the Gulf Coast might have
already opened without the activists who ringed the White House and committed themselves across the continent.
In eastern Texas,
for instance, extraordinary acts of civil disobedience have been going on
continuously since August, including three blockaders who this month crawled inside
a length of the three-foot-in-diameter pipeline and refused to leave. People
have been using their bodies, getting in the way of heavy equipment, and going
to jail in an effort to prevent the pipeline from being built. A lot of them
are the same kind of robust young people who kept the Occupy encampments going
earlier in 2012, but great-grandmothers, old men, and middle-aged
people like me have been crucial players, too.
Meanwhile in British
Columbia, where pipeline profiteers were looking into
alternate routes to transport their climate-destroying products abroad, members of the Wet’suwet’en nation evicted surveyors and politely declared war on them. In Ohio and New
York, the fight against fracking is going strong.
Across the Atlantic, France
has banned fracking, while Germany has made astounding progress toward using carbon-neutral energy
sources. If solar works there, we have no excuse. And as Ellen Cantarow wrote at TomDispatch of the anti-fracking movement in New
York State, “Caroline, a small hamlet in Tompkins County (population 3,282), is
the second town in the state to get 100% of its electricity through wind power
and one of the most recent to pass a fracking ban.”
Everywhere people are at work to build a better world in
which we -- and some of the beauty of this world -- will be guaranteed to
survive. Everywhere they are at war with the forces threatening us and the
planet. I usually avoid war metaphors, but this time it’s barely a metaphor.
Our side isn’t violent, but it is engaged in a battle, and people are putting
their bodies on the line and their lives behind the cause. The other side is
intent on maximizing its profit at the cost of nearly everything.
My father, a high-school student during the Second World
War, followed the campaigns closely with pins on a wall map to represent troops
and battles. You could map North America that way now and see, when you added
up the struggles against drilling in the Arctic, fracking, mountaintop removal, and
the various other depredations of big coal and big oil, that remarkable things
are already being done. In this war, resistance has been going on for a long
time, so overlooked by the mainstream media it might as well be as underground
as the French Resistance back then.
A lot of it is on a small scale, but if you connect the
pieces you get a big picture of the possible, the hopeful, and the powerful.
Think of each of those small acts of defending the Earth as a gift to you. And
think of your own power, a gift always latent within you that demands you give
If you’re reading this, you’re already in the
conversation. No matter who you are, or where, there is something for you to
do: educate yourself and others, write letters, organize or join local groups,
participate in blockades and demonstrations, work on divestment from oil
corporations (if you’re connected to a university), and make this issue central
to the conversations and politics of our time.
I’ve started working directly on various projects with 350.org, whose global impact and
reinvention of activist tactics I’ve long admired. Its creator Bill McKibben has evolved from a merely great writer to a
pivotal climate organizer and a gift to all of us.
The world you live in is not a given; much of what is
best in it has been built through the struggles of passionate activists over
the last centuries. They won us many freedoms and protected many beauties.
Count those gifts among your growing heap.
Drawing the Line
Here’s another gift you’ve already received: the lines in
the battle to come are being ever more clearly drawn. Clarity is a huge asset.
It helps when you know where you stand, who stands with you -- and who against
We have returned to class war in conflicts around the
world -- including the Chicago Teacher’s Strike of 2012 and the Walmart protests in this country (which led to 1,197
actions nationwide in support of that company’s underpaid workers on Black Friday), as well as the great student uprisings in Quebec and Mexico City.
There has, of course, been a war against working people
and the poor for decades, only we didn’t call it “class war” when just the rich
were fighting hard. We called it corporate globalization, the race to the
bottom, tax cuts and social-service cuts, privatization, neoliberalism, and a
hundred other things. Now that the poor are fighting back, we can call it by
its old name. Perhaps what the conservatives have forgotten is that if you
return us to the grim divides and dire poverty of the nineteenth century, you
might also be returning us to the revolutionary spirit of that century.
This time, though, it’s not only about work and money.
The twenty-first century class war is engulfing the natural world on which
everything rests. We can see how clearly the great environmental battle of our
time is about money, about who benefits from climate destruction (the very few)
and who loses (everyone else for all time to come and nearly every living
thing). This year, Hurricane Sandy and a crop-destroying, Mississippi-River-withering drought that had more than 60% of the nation in its grip made it clear that
climate change is here and it’s now and it hurts.
In 2012, many have come to see that climate change is an
economic issue, and that economics is a moral and ecological issue. Why so
little has been done about the state of the climate in the past three decades
has everything to do with who profits. Not long ago, too many Americans were on
the fence, swayed by the oil companypropaganda war about whether climate change even exists.
However, this month, according to the Associated Press, “Four out of every five
Americans said climate change will be a serious problem for the United States
if nothing is done about it.” That widespread belief suggests that potentially
broad support now exists and may be growing for a movement that makes climate
change -- the broiling of the Earth -- central, urgent, and everybody’s
Ten years ago too, many people thought the issue could be
addressed, if at all, through renunciatory personal virtue in private life:
buying Priuses, compact fluorescents, and the like. Now most people who care at
all know that the necessary changes won’t happen through consumer choice alone.
What’s required are pitched battles against the most powerful (and profitable)
entities on Earth, the oil and energy companies and the politicians who serve
them instead of us.
That clarity matters and those conflicts are already
underway but need to grow. That’s our world right now, clear as a cold winter
day, sharp as broken glass.
Putting Aside Paradise
When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts
of it that were Paradise -- and I also see all
the little hells. I was a kid in California
when it had the best public education system in the world and universities
were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a
lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren’t thinking about it
changing any time before the next ice age.
That was, however, the same California where domestic
violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians
were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were
white men, where people hadn’t even learned to ask questions about exclusion
Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when
you look backward, it’s worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights
gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was
neglected -- including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation,
corporate power, and working hours -- slid into hell.
When you fight, you sometimes win; when you don’t, you
Here’s another gift we have right now: the young. There
are quite a lot of heroes among them, including the Dreamers or Dream Act
activists standing up for immigrants; the occupiers who challenged Wall Street in its home and
elsewhere around the country, became the unofficial first responders who aided the
victims of Hurricane Sandy, and have camped out on the doorstep
of Goldman Sachs’s CEO these last few months; the young who blockaded that
tar-sands pipeline, supplied the tremendous vitality of 350.org globally, and
have just begun to organize to pressure universities to divest from fossil fuel companies on 192 campuses across
In 2012, they rose up from Egypt
and Russia to Canada and Chile. They are fighting for
themselves and their future, but for us, too. They have remarkably few
delusions about how little our world is prepared to offer most of them. They
know that the only gifts they’ll get are the ones they can wrestle free from
the powers that be.
overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world
without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the
minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And
we are made to travel, not to sit still.
Take pleasure in the route. There is terrible suffering
of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about
it, not being miserable. In this heroic age, survival is also going to require
seeing what fragments of paradise are still around us, what still blooms,
what’s still unimaginably beautiful about rivers, oceans, and evening skies,
what exhilaration there is in witnessing the stubbornness of small children and
their discovery of a world we think we know. All these are gifts as well.
Ice Breaking Up
As you gear up for 2013, don’t forget that 2012 has been
an extraordinary year. Who ever thought we’d see Aung San Suu Kyi elected to
office in her native Burma
and free to travel after so many years of house arrest? Who expected that the
United Nations would suddenly vote to give Palestine observer state status? Who foresaw
that the silly misinterpretations of Mayan prophesy would be overtaken by the
Mayan Zapatistas, who rose once again last Friday? (Meanwhile, Canada's Native people started a dynamic movement
around indigenous rights and the environment that has led to everything from flash-mob dances in an Edmonton Mall to demonstrations in Ottawa.)
Who thought that Occupy Wall Street, roundly dismissed by
the mainstream on its one-year anniversary, would spawn two superhero projects,
Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt? (Who among the police officers clubbing and
tear-gassing the young Occupiers in 2011 thought that a year later these would
be the people with the power and the generosity to come to their aid when a
climate-fed storm wrecked their homes?) Keep it in mind: the future is not
predictable. Sometimes, the world changes suddenly and in profound ways.
Sometimes we make it do so.
Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a reminder about what it
means to fight for what matters most. Permanently freeing five million slaves
and abolishing slavery forever meant renouncing a cheap power source in use for
more than 200 years. Doing so was initially inconceivable and then a matter of
indifference except to the slaves themselves and small groups of abolitionists.
Next, it was daringly radical, then partisan, with the whole nation taking
sides, the fuel for a terrible war. Finally, it was the law of the land. Today,
we need to give up on, or at least radically reduce our reliance on, another
set of power sources: oil, coal, and natural gas.
This is, among other things, a war of the imagination:
the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the
dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or
grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to
our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice,
or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to
They are already at war against the wellbeing of our
Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight
back. You have the power. It’s one of your gifts.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on
Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by Nattu,
licensed under Creative
Thursday, December 20, 2012 10:51 AM
This post originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
year ago around this time, Occupy Wall Street was celebrating Advent — the
season when Christians anticipate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In front of
Trinity Church, right at the top of Wall Street along Broadway, Occupiers set
up a little model tent with the statuettes of a nativity scene inside: Mary,
Joseph and the Christ child in a manger, surrounded by animals. In the back, an
angel held a tiny cardboard sign with a verse from Luke’s Gospel: “There was no
room for them in the inn.” The reason for these activists’ interest in the
liturgical calendar, of course, was the movement’s ongoing effort to convince
Trinity to start acting less like a real estate corporation and more like a
church, and to let the movement use a vacant property that Trinity owns.
year later, even as a resilient few continue their 24-hour vigil on the
sidewalk outside Trinity, churches and Occupiers are having a very different
kind of Advent season together. Finding room in churches is no longer a problem
for the movement.
The day after Hurricane Sandy struck New York in late
October, Occupiers hustled to organize a massive popular relief effort, and
Occupy Sandy came into being. By circumstance and necessity, it has mostly
taken place in churches; they are the large public spaces available in affected
areas, and they were the people willing to open their doors. Two churches on
high ground in Brooklyn became organizing hubs, and others in the Rockaways,
Coney Island, Staten Island and Red Hook
became depots for getting supplies and support to devastated neighborhoods. To
make this possible, Occupiers have had to win the locals’ trust — by helping
clean up the damaged churches and by showing their determination to help those
whom the state-sponsored relief effort was leaving behind. When the time for
worship services came around, they’d cleared the supplies off the pews.
Sandy has been miraculous for us, really,” said Bob
Dennis, parish manager at St. Margaret Mary, a Catholic church in Staten Island. “They are doing exactly what Christ
preached.” Before this, the police and firemen living in his neighborhood
hadn’t had much good to say about Occupy Wall Street, but that has changed
leaders are organizing tours to show off the Occupy Sandy relief efforts of
which they’ve been a part, and they’re speaking out against the failures of
city, state and federal government. Congregations are getting to know Occupiers
one on one by working together in a relief effort that every day — as the
profiteering developers draw nearer — is growing into an act of resistance.
that’s only one part of it. Months before Sandy, organizers with the Occupy
Wall Street group Strike Debt made a concerted effort to reach out to religious
allies for help on a new project they were calling the Rolling Jubilee; by
buying up defaulted loans for pennies on the dollar, and then abolishing them,
organizers hoped to spread the spirit of jubilee — an ancient biblical practice
of debt forgiveness.
religious groups jumped at the chance to help. Occupy Faith organized an event
in New York
to celebrate the Rolling Jubilee’s launch. Occupy Catholics (of which I am a
part) took the opportunity to reclaim the Catholic concepts of jubilee and
usury for the present economic crisis and released a statement in support of
the Rolling Jubilee that has been signed by Catholics across the country.
Rolling Jubilee idea has been hugely successful, raising more money more
quickly than anyone anticipated — around $10 million in debt is poised to be
abolished. But now Strike Debt, too, has turned its attention to working with
those affected by the hurricane. On Dec. 2, the group published “Shouldering
the Costs,” a report on the proliferation of debt in the aftermath of Sandy. The document was
released with an event at — where else? — a church in Staten
newfound access to religious real estate is not merely a convenience for this
movement; it has implications that a lot of people probably aren’t even
thinking about yet. Occupy Wall Street has learned from the Egyptian Revolution
before, and now, even if by accident, it is doing so again.
Tahrir Square was still full of tents and tanks, and Hosni Mubarak was still in
power, the editors of Adbusters magazine were already imagining a “Million Man
March on Wall Street,” the idea that led to what would become their July 13,
2011, call to #occupywallstreet. More than a year after the occupation at Zuccotti Park began, though, and nearly two years
after crowds first filled Tahrir, neither revolt very much resembles its
origins. The Egyptian Revolution, first provoked by tech-savvy young activists,
has now been hijacked as a coup for the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative
religious party; its only viable challenger is none other than Mubarak’s ancien
regime, minus only Mubarak himself. Occupy, meanwhile, has lost its encampments
and, despite whatever evidence there is to the contrary, most of its enemies in
power deem it no longer a threat.
many U.S. activists even today, the dream of creating a Tahrir-sized rupture in
this country persists — of finally drawing enough people into the streets and
causing enough trouble to make Wall Street cower. But what if something on the
scale of Tahrir really were to happen in the United States? What would be the
was thinking of this question recently while on an unrelated reporting mission
at a massive evangelical Christian megachurch near the Rocky
Mountains. Several thousand (mostly white, upper-middle-class)
people were there that day, of all ages. They had come back after Sunday
morning services for an afternoon series of talks on philosophy — far more
people than attend your average Occupy action.
time I step foot in one of these places, it strikes me how they put radicals in
the United States
to shame. These churches organize real, life-giving mutual aid as the basis of
an independent political discourse and power base. Church membership is far
larger, for instance, than that of unions in this country.
there were a sudden, Tahrir-like popular uprising right now, with riots in all
the cities and so forth, I can’t help but think that it would be organizations
like the church I went to that would come out taking power in the end, even
more so than they already do — just as the Islamists have in Egypt.
the idea of occupying symbolic public space was the Egyptians’ first lesson for
Occupy Wall Street, this is the second: Win religion over before it beats you
religion, again and again, people in the United States have organized for
power. Religion is also the means by which many imagine and work for a world
more just than this one. Just about every successful popular movement in U.S. history
has had to recognize this, from the American Revolution to labor, and from
civil rights to today’s campaigners for marriage equality — and now Occupy.
I stop by the Occupy Sandy hub near my house — the Episcopal church of St. Luke
and St. Matthew — and join the mayhem of volunteers carrying boxes this way and
that, and poke my head into the upper room full of laptops and organizers
around a long table, and see Occupiers in line for communion at Sunday
services, I keep thinking of how Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program ends.
The 12th step is where you cap off all the self-involved inner work you’ve been
doing, and get over yourself for a bit, and heal yourself by helping someone
who has been around Occupy Wall
Street during the year since its eviction from Zuccotti Park knows it has been in need of
healing. Whether through flood-soaked churches, or on the debt market, this is
how the Occupy movement has always been at its best, and its most exciting, and
its most necessary: When it shows people how to build their own power, and to
strengthen their own communities, this movement finds itself.
Image by Poster Boy NYC,
licensed under Creative
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