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after the hurricane struck, the maps have been replaced by posters extolling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).
Monday, January 07, 2013 12:46 PM
Bill McKibben is the author of a
dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989,
which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change.
He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which
has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Bill is a frequent
contributor to various magazines including The New York Times
The Atlantic Monthly
The New York Review of Books
. He is also a board
member and contributor to
Grist Magazine. He is also a Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He was named an Utne Visionary in 2010.
Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the
serious people have decided there’s a problem. That’s because, in a country as
big as the United States,
public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires
going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those
currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.
Take, for instance, “the problem of our schools.” Don’t
worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every
student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve
it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat
clearing, the Carnegie Commission published “A Nation at Risk,” insisting that
a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened our schools. The nation’s biggest
foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for
three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We’ve had
Race to the Top, and Teach for America,
and charters, and vouchers, and… we’re still in the midst of “fixing”
education, many generations of students later.
Even facing undeniably real problems -- say,
discrimination against gay people -- one can make the case that gradual change
has actually been the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court
declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash
might have been swift and severe. There’s certainly an argument to be made that
moving state by state (starting in nimbler, smaller states like Vermont) ultimately made
the happy outcome more solid as the culture changed and new generations came of
Which is not to say that there weren’t
millions of people who suffered as a result. There were. But our societies are
built to move slowly. Human institutions tend to work better when they have
years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out
the conflicts between people.
And that’s always been the difficulty with climate change
-- the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. It’s not a fight, like education
reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting
opinions. It couldn’t be more different at a fundamental level.
We’re talking about a fight between human beings and
physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics
couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal
industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon
slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less
Physics doesn’t understand that rapid action on climate
change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry.
It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into
heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And
unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you
soon have a nightmare on your hands.
We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the
cost would be terrible -- all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years.
But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With
climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by
physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.
Unless you understand these distinctions you don’t
understand climate change -- and it’s not at all clear that President Obama
That’s why his administration is sometimes peeved when they
don’t get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue in his
first term in office. The measure they point to most often is the increase in average mileage for automobiles, which will
slowly go into effect over the next decade.
It’s precisely the kind of gradual transformation that
people -- and politicians -- like. We should have adopted it long ago (and
would have, except that it challenged the power of Detroit and its unions, and so both
Republicans and Democrats kept it at bay). But here’s the terrible thing: it’s
no longer a measure that impresses physics. After all, physics isn’t kidding
around or negotiating. While we were discussing whether climate change was even
a permissible subject to bring up in the last presidential campaign, it was melting the Arctic. If
we’re to slow it down, we need to be cutting emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5% a year to make a
It’s not Obama’s fault that that’s not happening. He
can’t force it to happen. Consider the moment when the great president of the
last century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was confronted with an implacable
enemy, Adolf Hitler (the closest analog to physics we’re going to get, in that
he was insanely solipsistic, though in his case also evil). Even as the German
armies started to roll through Europe, however, FDR couldn’t muster America to get
off the couch and fight.
There were even the equivalent of climate deniers at that
time, happy to make the case that Hitler presented no threat to America.
Indeed, some of them were the same institutions. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, vociferously opposed Lend-Lease.
So Roosevelt did all he could on his own authority, and
then when Pearl Harbor offered him his moment,
he pushed as hard as he possibly could. Hard, in this case, meant, for
instance, telling the car companies that they were out of the car
business for a while and instead in the tank and fighter-plane business.
For Obama, faced with a Congress bought off by the fossil fuel industry, a realistic
approach would be to do absolutely everything he could on his own authority --
new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, for example; and of
course, he should refuse to grant the permit for the building of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, something that requires no
permission from John Boehner or the rest of Congress.
So far, however, he’s been half-hearted at best when it
comes to such measures. The White House, for instance, overruled the EPA on its proposed stronger ozone and smog
regulations in 2011, and last year opened up the Arctic for oil drilling, while selling off vast swaths of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin at
bargain-basement prices to coal miners. His State Department flubbed the global
climate-change negotiations. (It’s hard to remember a higher profile diplomatic
failure than the Copenhagen
summit.) And now Washington
rings with rumors that he’ll approve the Keystone
pipeline, which would deliver 900,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest crude
oil on Earth. Almost to the drop, that’s the amount his new auto mileage
regulations would save.
If he were serious, Obama would be doing more than just
the obvious and easy. He’d also be looking for that Pearl
Harbor moment. God knows he had his chances in 2012: the hottest year in the history of the continental United
States, the deepest drought of his lifetime, and a melt of the Arctic so severe that the
federal government’s premier climate scientist declared it a “planetary emergency.”
In fact, he didn’t even appear to notice those phenomena,
campaigning for a second term as if from an air-conditioned bubble, even as
people in the crowds greeting him were fainting en masse from the heat. Throughout campaign 2012,
he kept declaring his love for an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, where
apparently oil and natural gas were exactly as virtuous as sun and wind.
Only at the very end of the campaign, when Hurricane
Sandy seemed to present a political opening, did he even hint at seizing it --
his people letting reporters know on background that climate change would now
be one of his top three priorities (or maybe, post-Newtown, top four) for a second
term. That’s a start, I suppose, but it’s a long way from telling the car
companies they better retool to start churning out wind turbines.
And anyway, he took it back at the first opportunity. At his post-election
press conference, he announced that climate change was “real,” thus marking his
agreement with, say, President George H.W. Bush in 1988. In deference to
“future generations,” he also agreed that we should “do more.” But addressing
climate change, he added, would involve “tough political choices.” Indeed, too
tough, it seems, for here were his key lines:
“I think the American people right now have been so
focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth,
that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to
address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t
go for that.”
It’s as if World War II British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill had declared, “I have nothing to offer except blood, toil, tears, and
sweat. And God knows that polls badly, so just forget about it.”
The president must be pressed to do all he can -- and
more. That’s why thousands of us will descend on Washington
D.C. on President’s Day weekend,
in what will be the largest environmental demonstration in years. But there’s
another possibility we need to consider: that perhaps he’s simply not up to
this task, and that we’re going to have to do it for him, as best we can.
If he won’t take on the fossil fuel industry, we will.
That’s why on 192 campuses nationwide active divestment movements are now doing their best to
highlight the fact that the fossil fuel industry threatens their futures.
If he won’t use our position as a superpower to drive
international climate-change negotiations out of their rut, we’ll try. That’s
why young people from 190 nations are gathering
in Istanbul in
June in an effort to shame the U.N. into action. If he won’t listen to
scientists -- like the 20 top climatologists who told him that the Keystone pipeline was a mistake -- then
top scientists are increasingly clear that they’ll need to get arrested to make their point.
Those of us in the growing grassroots climate movement
are going as fast and hard as we know how (though not, I fear, as fast as
physics demands). Maybe if we go fast enough even this all-too-patient
president will get caught up in the draft. But we’re not waiting for him. We
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Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
Image of Arctic melting by
NASA Goddard Photo and
Video, licensed under Creative Commons.
Image of Bill McKibben by the University
of Michigan’s School of Natural
Resources and Environment, also under a Creative Commons
Tuesday, November 06, 2012 2:56 PM
This post originally appeared at Shareable.net.
The Public Banking Institute
blog cites a powerful example of how a public bank can help a
city bounce back from a devastating natural disaster. As Hurricane Sandy
recovery efforts unfold, there's a lesson from history about the role of strong
local financial institutions in increasing urban resilience.
In April of 1997, Grand Forks, North Dakota, was hit by record flooding and
major fires that put the city's future in jeopardy. One of the first economic
responders was the Bank of North Dakota (BND), currently the only public bank
in the U.S.
What's a public bank, you ask? Public banks are owned by citizens through their government.
They have a public interest mission, are dedicated to funding local
development, and plow profits back into the state treasury to fund social
programs and cover deficits. Rather compete with private banks, BND partners
with private banks to meet the needs of North Dakotans.
BND is one reason North Dakota
has low unemployment and runs budget surpluses while most
states are deeply in the red.
As a public bank, BND was able
to respond to the '97 flood in ways that a privately owned bank could not or,
perhaps, would not. While Sandy's wrath cost dozens of lives and an estimated $60
billion, Grand Forks'
suffered $3.5 billion in losses -- a lot of damage for a town of 50,000, which
saw flood waters inundate a staggering 75% of area homes. Fortunately, no one
Right after the flood, the Bank
of North Dakota got to work, established a disaster relief loan fund, set aside
$5 million to assist flood victims, and set up additional credit lines of
around $70 million:
- $15 million for the ND Division of
- $10 million for the ND National Guard
- $25 million for the City of Grand Forks
- $12 million for the University of North Dakota,
located in Grand Forks
- $7 million allocated to raise the
height of a dike at Devil's Lake, about 90 miles west of Grand Forks
Other financial institutions
hurried to catch up and match the offer, as BND worked with the Department of
Education, the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and
other federal and state agencies to provide student and home loan relief to
flood victims. Due to quick recovery efforts, Grand Forks
lost only 3% of its population during recovery while similarly devastated East
Grand Forks, across the river in Minnesota,
a state without a public bank, lost 17%.
That's what is possible with a
public bank: people come first. But it's not all altruism. As a local financial
institution, The Bank of North Dakota's future was partly tied to a healthy
I wish New
York and New Jersey
speedy recoveries. If you live there, I encourage you to start or get behind a
public bank initiative to shore up local resilience. Twenty states, including New York, have
initiatives underway to create public banks. The Public Banking Institute has a
guide to local initiatives here.
In the mean time, here's ten ways you can help the recovery effort.
Image by DVIDSHUB of a much smaller flood in Minot in June 2011, licensed under Creative Commons. The Bank of North Dakota was similarly involved in relief efforts in Minot, including providing low-interest loans for residents and businesses affected by the flood.
Tuesday, November 06, 2012 1:57 PM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
horseman was named al-Qaeda in Manhattan, and it
came as a message on September 11, 2001: that our meddling in the Middle East had sown rage and funded madness. We had
meddled because of imperial ambition and because of oil, the black gold that
fueled most of our machines and our largest corporations and too many of our
politicians. The second horseman came not quite four years later. It was named
Katrina, and this one too delivered a warning.
message was that we needed to face the dangers we had turned our back on when
the country became obsessed with terrorism: failing infrastructure,
institutional rot, racial divides, and poverty. And larger than any of these
was the climate -- the heating oceans breeding stronger storms, melting the ice
and raising the sea level, breaking the patterns of the weather we had always had
into sharp shards: burning and dying forests, floods, droughts, heat waves in
January, freak blizzards, sudden oscillations, acidifying oceans.
The third horseman came in October of 2008: it was named Wall Street, and
when that horseman stumbled and collapsed, we were reminded that it had always
been a predator, and all that had changed was the scale -- of deregulation, of
greed, of recklessness, of amorality about homes and lives being casually
trashed to profit the already wealthy. And the fourth horseman has arrived on
We called it Sandy, and it came to
tell us we should have listened harder when the first, second, and third
disasters showed up. This storm’s name shouldn’t be Sandy -- though that means
we’ve run through the alphabet all the way up to S this hurricane season, way
past brutal Isaac in August -- it should be Climate Change. If each catastrophe
came with a message, then this one’s was that global warming’s here, that the
old rules don’t apply, and that not doing anything about it for the past 30
years is going to prove far, far more expensive than doing something would have
That is, expensive for us, for human beings, for life on Earth, if not for
the carbon profiteers, the ones who are, in a way, tied to all four of these
apocalyptic visitors. A reasonable estimate I heard of the cost of this
disaster was $30 billion, just a tiny bit more than Chevron’s profits last year (though it might go as high as $50 billion). Except that it’s coming out of the empty
wallets of single mothers in Hoboken,
New Jersey, and the pensions of
the elderly, and the taxes of the rest of us. Disasters cost most of us
terribly, in our hearts, in our hopes for the future, and in our ability to
lead a decent life. They cost some corporations as well, while leading to
ever-greater profits for others.
Are Born Political
It was in no
small part for the benefit of the weapons-makers and oil producers that we
propped up dictators and built military bases and earned the resentment of the
Muslim world. It was for the benefit of oil and other carbon producers that we
did nothing about climate change, and they actively toiled to prevent any such
If you wanted,
you could even add a fifth horseman, a fifth disaster to our list, the blowout
of the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010; cost-cutting on
equipment ended 11 lives and contaminated a region dense with wildlife and
fishing families and hundreds of thousands of others. It was as horrendous as
the other four, but it took fewer lives directly and it should have but didn't
produce political change.
Each of the
other catastrophes has redirected American politics and policy in profound
ways. 9/11 brought us close to dictatorship, until Katrina corrected course by
discrediting the Bush administration and putting poverty and racism, if not
climate change, back on the agenda. Wall Street's implosion was the 2008
October Surprise that made Americans leave Republican presidential candidate
John McCain's no-change campaign in the dust -- and that, three years later,
prompted the birth of Occupy Wall Street.
The Wall Street
collapse did a lot for Barack Obama, too, and just in time another October
surprise has made Romney look venal, clueless, and irrelevant. Disaster has been good to Obama
-- Katrina’s reminder about race may have laid the groundwork for his
presidential bid, and the financial implosion in the middle of the presidential
campaign, as well as John McCain’s disastrous response to it, may have won him
the last election.
The storm that
broke the media narrative of an ascending Romney gave Obama the nonpartisan
moment of solidarity he always longed for -- including the loving arms of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But it’s
not about the president; it’s about the other seven billion of us and the rest
of the Earth’s creatures, from plankton to pikas.
Sandy did what no activist could
have done adequately: put climate change back on the agenda, made the argument
for reasonably large government, and reminded us of the
colossal failures of the Bush administration seven years ago. (Michael “heckuva
job” Brown, FEMA's astonishingly incompetent director under George W. Bush,
even popped up to underscore just how far we've come.)
Maybe Sandy will also remind us
that terrorism was among the least common, if most dramatic, of the dangers we
faced then and face now. Though rollercoasters in the surf and cities under
water have their own drama -- and so does seawater rushing into the pit at Ground Zero.
game has changed. New York City’s
billionaire mayor, when not endorsing police brutality against Wall Street’s
Occupiers, has been a huge supporter of work on climate change. He gave the
Sierra Club $50 million to fight coal last year and late last week in Sandy’s wake came out
with a tepid endorsement of Obama as the candidate who might do
something on the climate. Last week as well, his magazine, Bloomberg
Businessweek, ran a cover that could’ve run anytime in the past few
decades (but didn’t) with the headline: “It’s global warming, stupid.”
There are two
things you can hope for after Sandy.
The first is that every person stranded without power, running water, open
grocery stores, access to transportation, an intact home, and maybe income (if
work isn’t reachable or a job has been suspended) is able to return to normal
as soon as possible. Or more than that in some cases, because the storm has
also brought to light how many people were barely getting by before. (After
all, we also use the word “underwater” for people drowning in debt and houses
worth less than what’s owed on their mortgages.) The second is that the fires
and the water and the wind this time put climate change where it belongs, in
the center of our most pressing issues.
Power! How Disasters Unfold
A stranger sent
me a widely circulated photograph of a front gate in Hoboken with a power
strip and extension cord and a little note that reads, “We have power! Please
feel free to charge your phone.” We have power, and volunteers are putting it
to work in ways that count. In many disasters, government and big bureaucratic
relief organizations take time to get it together or they allocate aid in less
than ideal ways. The most crucial early work is often done by those on the ground, by the neighbors, by
civil society -- and word, as last week ended, was that the government wasn’t
always doing it adequately.
Hurricane Sandy seems to be typical
in this regard. Occupy Wall Street and 350.org got together to create Occupy Sandy and
are already doing splendid relief work, including for those in the flooded
housing projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn. My friend Marina Sitrin, a scholar and
Occupy organizer, wrote late last week:
inspiring work by community and Occupy folks! Hot nutritious meals for many
hundreds. Supplies that people need, like diapers, baby wipes, flashlights
etc., all organized. Also saw the first (meaning first set up in NYC -- only
tonight) scary FEMA site a few blocks away. Militarized and policed entrance,
to an area fenced in with 15-foot fences, where one gets a sort of
military/astronaut ration with explanations of how to use in English that I did
not understand. Plus Skittles?”
declared dead by the mainstream media six weeks ago, is shining in this mess. Kindness, solidarity, mutual aid of
this kind can ameliorate a catastrophe, but it can’t prevent one, and this
isn’t the kind of power it takes to pump out drowned subway stations or rebuild
railroad lines or get the lights back on. There is a role for government in
disaster, and for mobilizing all available forces in forestalling our march
toward a planet that could look like the New
Jersey shore all the time.
first began, all those tents, medical clinics, and community kitchens in the
encampments reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake. The occupiers looked
like disaster survivors -- and in a sense they were, though the disaster they
had survived was called the economy and its impacts are usually remarkably
is also an economic disaster: unlimited release of carbon into the atmosphere
is very expensive and will get more so.
increasingly turbulent, disaster-prone planet we’re on is our beautiful old
Earth with the temperature raised almost one degree celsius. It’s going to get
hotter than that, though we can still make a difference in how hot it gets.
Right now, locally, in the soaked places, we need people to aid the stranded,
the homeless, and the hungry. Globally we need to uncouple government from the
Big Energy corporations, and ensure that most of the carbon
energy left on the planet stays where it belongs: underground.
the Status Quo
unfold a little like revolutions. They create a tremendous rupture with the
past. Today has nothing much in common with yesterday -- in how the system
works or doesn’t, in what people have in common, in how they see their
priorities and possibilities. The people in power are often most interested in
returning to yesterday, because the status quo was working for them -- though
Mayor Bloomberg is to be commended for taking the storm as a wake-up call to do
more about climate change. For the rest of us, after such a disaster, sometimes
the status quo doesn’t look so good.
produce real political change, not always for the better (and not always for
the worse). I called four of the last five big calamities in this country the
four horsemen of the apocalypse because directly or otherwise they caused so
much suffering, because they brought us closer to the brink, and because they
changed our national direction. Disaster has now become our national policy: we
invite it in and it directs us, for better and worse.
As the horsemen
trample over all the things we love most, it becomes impossible to distinguish
natural disaster from man-made calamity: maybe the point is that there is no
difference anymore. But there’s another point: that we can prevent the worst of
the impact in all sorts of ways, from evacuation plans to carbon emissions
reductions to economic justice, and that it’s all tied up together.
I wish Sandy hadn’t happened.
But it did, and there have been and will be more disasters like this. I hope
that radical change arises from it. The climate has already changed. May we
change to meet the challenges.
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
Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, licensed under Creative Commons.
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