Utne Reader Visionaries share their latest projects, ideas, and visions for the future.
8/28/2012 3:22:55 PM
Radical feminist, artist, and media activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs
calls herself, "the cybernetic dream of a one room black reconstruction
schoolteacher." She spreads knowledge, healing, and empowerment through
web-based projects like MobileHomeComing,
a traveling "intergenerational community documentation and education
project" that challenges our culture's heteronormativity, and BrokenBeautifulPress,
which "lifts up black feminist practices throughout history and
transformative community models in the present." Gumbs was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2009. Keep up with her at Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind.
"wishful thinking" or "what i'm waiting to find in our email boxes"
(with Mendi and Keith Obadike in mind)
dedicated to the black women at Duke and North Carolina Central Universities and you
1. you wake up each day
as new as anyone
there is no reason to assume
you would be supernaturally strong.
there is no reason to test your strength
through daily disrespect and neglect.
you don't need to be strong.
everyone supports you.
2. if you say ouch
we believe that you are hurt.
we wait to hear how we can help
to mend your pain.
3. you have chosen to be at a school,
at a workplace, in a community
that knows that you are priceless
that would never sacrifice your spirit
that knows it needs your brilliance to be whole
4. your very skin
and everything beyond it
is a miracle that we revere
5. we mourn any violence that
has ever been enacted against you.
we will do what it takes
to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
6. when you speak
we are so glad that you
are here, of all places.
7. other women
reach out to you
when you seem afraid
and they stay
until peace comes
8. the sun
how much they love you.
9. people are interested
in what you are wearing
because it tells them
what paintings to make.
10. everyone has always told you
you can stay a child
until you are ready to move on
11. if you run across the street
naked at midnight
no one will think
you are asking
12. you do so many things
because it feels good to move.
you have nothing to prove
13. white people cannot harm you.
they do not want to.
they do not do it by accident.
14. your smile makes people
glad to be alive
15. your body is not
a symbol of anything
16. everyone respects your work
and makes sure you are safe
while doing it
17. at any moment
you might relive
the joy of being embraced
18. no one will lie to you,
scream at you
or demand anything.
19. when you change your mind,
people will remember to change theirs.
20. your children are safe
no one will use them against you.
21. the university is a place where you
are reflected and embraced.
anyone who forgets how miraculous you are
need only open their eyes.
22. the universe conspires
to lift you
23. on the news everynight
people who look like you and
the people you love
for their contribution to society.
24. the place where knowledge is
has no walls.
25. you are rewarded for the work you do
to keep it all together.
26. every song i've
ever heard on the radio
is in praise
27. the way you speak
is exactly right
for wherever you happen
28. there is no continent anywhere
where life counts as nothing.
29. there is no innocence that needs your guilt
to prove it.
30. there is no house
in your neighborhood
where you still hear screams
every time you go
31. no news camera waits
to amplify your pain.
32. nobody wonders
whether you will make it.
everybody believes in you
33. when you have a child
no one finds it tragic.
no map records it as an instance of blight.
34. no one hopes you will give up
on your neighborhood
so they can buy it up cheap.
35. everyone asks you your name.
no one calls you out of it.
36. someone is thinking highly of you
37. being around you
makes people want to be
their kindest, most generous selves.
38. there is no law anywhere
that depends on your silence.
39. nobody bases their privilege
on their ability to desecrate you.
40. everyone will believe anything you say
because they have been telling you the truth
41. school is a place, like every other place.
no one here is out to get you.
42. worldwide, girls who look like you
are known for having great ideas.
43. 3 in 3 women will fall in love with themselves
during their lifetime.
44. every minute in North Carolina
a woman embraces
45. you know 8 people
who will help you move
to a new place
if you need to.
46. when you speak loudly
everyone is happy
because they wondered
what you were thinking about.
47. people give you gifts
and truly expect nothing
48. no one thinks you are
49. everyone believes
that you should have all
the resources that you need,
because by being yourself
you make the world so much
50. any creases on your face
are from laughter.
51. no one, anywhere, is locked in a cage.
52. you are completely used to knowing what you want.
following your dream is as easy as walking.
53. you are more than enough.
54. everyone is waiting
to see what great thing
you'll do next.
55. every institution wants to know
what you think, so they can find out
what they should really be doing,
or shut down.
56. strangers send you love letters
for speaking your mind.
57. you wake up
Alexis Pauline Gumbs penned these words of affirmation in April, 2007, but they are helping her achieve her dreams in the present. Gumbs has committed to training as a doula in an effort to support mothers as they bring life to earth, and as part of her own healing journey. In parallel to this poem's 57 wishes, Gumbs is asking that 57 people contribute toward the cost of her doula training. Each donor will receive a collage based on one wish expressed in the poem.
Becoming a community supported doula is a dream coming true and a wish about to be fulfilled," writes Gumbs. To read more of Gumbs' story or contribute to her tuition, visit Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind.
Image by Diganta Talukdar licensed under Creative Commons.
8/20/2012 10:59:36 AM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
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 book
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.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on TomDispatch in 2008.
I still don't know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at forty-ish, passed as the occasion's young ladies. The house was great—if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets—a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave, when our host said, "No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you." He was an imposing man who'd made a lot of money.
He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his authentically grainy wood table and said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."
I replied, "Several, actually."
He said, in the way you encourage your friend's seven-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"
They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.
He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"
So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book—with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said—like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen's class on Chaucer—"gladly would he learn and gladly teach." Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, "That's her book." Or tried to interrupt him anyway.
But he just continued on his way. She had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless—for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we've never really stopped.
I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that's eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.
When River of Shadows came out, some pedant wrote a snarky letter to the New York Times explaining that, though Muybridge had made improvements in camera technology, he had not made any breakthroughs in photographic chemistry. The guy had no idea what he was talking about. Both Philip Prodger, in his wonderful book on Muybridge, and I had actually researched the subject and made it clear that Muybridge had done something obscure but powerful to the wet-plate technology of the time to speed it up amazingly, but letters to the editor don't get fact-checked. And perhaps because the book was about the virile subjects of cinema and technology, the Men Who Knew came out of the woodwork.
A British academic wrote in to the London Review of Books with all kinds of nitpicking corrections and complaints, all of them from outer space. He carped, for example, that to aggrandize Muybridge's standing I left out technological predecessors like Henry R. Heyl. He'd apparently not read the book all the way to page 202 or checked the index, since Heyl was there (though his contribution was just not very significant). Surely one of these men has died of embarrassment, but not nearly publicly enough.
The Slippery Slope of Silencings
Yes, guys like this pick on other men's books too, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men.
Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.
I wouldn't be surprised if part of the trajectory of American politics since 2001 was shaped by, say, the inability to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda, and it was certainly shaped by a Bush administration to which you couldn't tell anything, including that Iraq had no links to al-Qaeda and no WMDs, or that the war was not going to be a "cakewalk." (Even male experts couldn't penetrate the fortress of their smugness.)
Arrogance might have had something to do with the war, but this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to let Mr. Important and his overweening confidence bowl over my more shaky certainty.
Don't forget that I've had a lot more confirmation of my right to think and speak than most women, and I've learned that a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing—though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots, like the ones who have governed us since 2001. There's a happy medium between these poles to which the genders have been pushed, a warm equatorial belt of give and take where we should all meet.
More extreme versions of our situation exist in, for example, those Middle Eastern countries where women's testimony has no legal standing; so that a woman can't testify that she was raped without a male witness to counter the male rapist. Which there rarely is.
Credibility is a basic survival tool. When I was very young and just beginning to get what feminism was about and why it was necessary, I had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One Christmas, he was telling—as though it were a light and amusing subject—how a neighbor's wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her. How, I asked, did you know that he wasn't trying to kill her? He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand....
Even getting a restraining order—a fairly new legal tool—requires acquiring the credibility to convince the courts that some guy is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Restraining orders often don't work anyway. Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist. About three women a day are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country. It's one of the main causes of death in pregnant women in the U.S. At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.
I tend to believe that women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, when the big things that stop us and kill us were addressed legally from the mid-1970s on; well after, that is, my birth. And for anyone about to argue that workplace sexual intimidation isn't a life or death issue, remember that Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, age 20, was apparently killed by her higher-ranking colleague last winter while she was waiting to testify that he raped her. The burned remains of her pregnant body were found in the fire pit in his backyard in December.
Being told that, categorically, he knows what he's talking about and she doesn't, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light. After my book Wanderlust came out in 2000, I found myself better able to resist being bullied out of my own perceptions and interpretations. On two occasions around that time, I objected to the behavior of a man, only to be told that the incidents hadn't happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest -- in a nutshell, female.
Most of my life, I would have doubted myself and backed down. Having public standing as a writer of history helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women must be out there on this six-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever. This goes way beyond Men Explaining Things, but it's part of the same archipelago of arrogance.
Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I'm not holding my breath.
Women Fighting on Two Fronts
A few years after the idiot in Aspen, I was in Berlin giving a talk when the Marxist writer Tariq Ali invited me out to a dinner that included a male writer and translator and three women a little younger than me who would remain deferential and mostly silent throughout the dinner. Tariq was great. Perhaps the translator was peeved that I insisted on playing a modest role in the conversation, but when I said something about how Women Strike for Peace, the extraordinary, little-known antinuclear and antiwar group founded in 1961, helped bring down the communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC, Mr. Very Important II sneered at me. HUAC, he insisted, didn't exist by the early 1960s and, anyway, no women's group played such a role in HUAC's downfall. His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.
I think I was at nine books at that point, including one that drew from primary documents and interviews about Women Strike for Peace. But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch—even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf's long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie. Back in my hotel room, I Googled a bit and found that Eric Bentley in his definitive history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities credits Women Strike for Peace with "striking the crucial blow in the fall of HUAC's Bastille." In the early 1960s.
So I opened an essay for the Nation with this interchange, in part as a shout-out to one of the more unpleasant men who have explained things to me: Dude, if you're reading this, you're a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.
The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled down many women—of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to speak of the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.
After all, Women Strike for Peace was founded by women who were tired of making the coffee and doing the typing and not having any voice or decision-making role in the antinuclear movement of the 1950s. Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won't end in my lifetime. I'm still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by Renato Ganoza, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/16/2012 4:08:34 PM
Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe) is an internationally acclaimed author,
orator & activist. A graduate of Harvard & Antioch with advanced
degrees in rural economic development, LaDuke has devoted her life to
protecting the lands & lifeways of Native communities. Her most recent book is Recovering the Sacred: the Power of Naming and Claiming (South End Press).LaDuke was recognized as an Utne Reader Visionary in 2001.Keep up with her at Honor the Earth.
Editor's note: This post was originally published by
Last Real Indians.
As the wind breathes out of Wind Cave in my face, I am reminded of
the creation of humans and my own small place in this magnificent world.
Wind Cave National Park is named for the Cave itself, called Washun Niya, or the Breathing Hole of Mother Earth, by the Lakota People. In this creation story, it is from here that they emerged to this world.
It is a complex cave system, according to scientists, we may only
have a sense of 5% of the cave’s volume and breadth, and likely even
less of its power. In the vernacular of some, this might be known as
the “ known unknown.” To most Indigenous peoples, there is an understanding of the Great Mystery.
So it is that in 2012, the time of change and transformation in an
American election year, and also according to the Mayan Calendar, we
find that the smallness and the greatness of humans in a world around
us, comes face to face with us in the Black Hills. A most sacred place-
Pe’Sla, in the center of the Lakota Universe is up for sale, and values and questions clash.
As Lakota scholar Chase Iron Eyes explains, “… Pe’Sla, to the Lakota,
is the place where Morning Star, manifested as a meteor, fell to earth
to help the Lakota by killing a great bird which had taken the lives of
seven women; Morning Star’s descent having created the wide open
uncharacteristic bald-spot in the middle of the forested Black Hills.
(On American maps, this is called, Old Baldy) …The Morning Star placed
the spirits of those seven women in the sky as the constellation
“Pleiades” or “The Seven Sisters.”
This is, the “Center of the Heart of Everything that is… one of a
small number of highly revered and geographically-cosmologically
integral places on the entire planet….” Sacred places, recognized under
federal judicial review, Presidential Executive Order ( l996) and
international law are to be protected.
On August 25, the Center of the Heart of Everything that is, will
come up on the auction block at Rapid City’s Ramkota Inn, destined to
be diced into a set of 300 acre tracts, proposed for ranchettes, and a
possible road through the heart, (and more divisions) of what has been,
until now, a relatively un-desecrated sacred site. “We didn’t even
know it was going to be sold,” Debra White Plume from Manderson tells
me. “We heard nothing about it until we saw the auction announcement.”
In mid-July, the Brock Auction Company of Iowa and South
Dakota announced, offering the Reynolds Ranch, “this story begins in
1876 just 2 short years after General George Armstrong Custer led his
historic expedition through the then almost unknown Black Hills in the
Dakota Territory….In 1876 Joseph Reynolds filed his first claim &
homesteaded …”Reynolds Prairie!” He was followed by 3 more generations
…” Brock promotes the property noting, in some solace for potential
buyers, “… As you sit in quiet solitude, with only the whispering of the
wind gently easing through the pines, let your mind wander back in
time and imagine the Native Americans, the Homesteaders and Pioneers,
who passed across this land that is now a part of yours and your
families legacy forever!…” Some Lakota find this it ironic, perhaps.
Is it possible that not everything should be owned privately? While
other religions have sacred sites, which are revered and protected, the
Lakota continue to struggle to protect their most sacred of places. The
Lakota sacred sites include Mahto Paha, Bear Butte, where numerous
challenges to the annual Sturgis Motor Cycle rally have met with some
success, and protections of vision quests at Grey Horned Butte (Devils
Tower) from recreational rock climbers.
In the time of the sacred sites and the crashing of ecosystems and
worlds, it may be worth not making a commodity out of all that is
revered. A 2005 editorial in the Rapid City Journal points out that
protecting Lakota sacred sites is of interest to all. “…Non-Indians have
little to fear if familiar sites are designated as sacred; visitors are
still allowed at Bear Butte, Devil’s Tower and Rainbow Bridge, even
though they are being managed as Indian sacred sites. And in fact,
expanding non-Indians’ knowledge and appreciation of the Indian lore
surrounding such sites could lead to greater cultural understanding….”
Meetings are being held in most of the Lakota nation this week, with
organizers hoping to secure both a stop to the auction, and a plan to
protect Pe’Sla from the auction block and encroachment.
It is 2012, and it is a good time, in any calendar- election year,
Mayan, or upon this earth, to recognize and protect what is sacred.
Today I return to Wind Cave, and have the wind blow on my face, hoping
to greet the Great Mystery and, perhaps, hoping to see something sacred
For more information or to help visit www.lastrealindians.com
Image: A road sign for Lakota, North Dakota, by
afiler. Licensed under Creative Commons.
8/13/2012 10:17:40 AM
Dr. David Korten (livingeconomiesforum.org)
is the author of Agenda
for a New Economy, The
Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international
best seller When
Corporations Rule the World.
He was recognized as an Utne Reader
Visionary in 2011.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published by
YES! Magazine, and is licensed under Creative Commons.To repost, follow these steps.
The political debate in the United
States and Europe has
focused attention on public financial deficits and how best to resolve them. Tragically,
the debate largely ignores the deficits that most endanger our future.
In the United States,
as Republican deficit hawks tell the story, “America is broke. We must cut
government spending on social programs we cannot afford. And we must lower
taxes on Wall Street job creators so they can invest to get the economy
growing, create new jobs, increase total tax revenues, and eliminate the
Democrats respond, “Yes, we’re pretty broke, but the answer
is to raise taxes on Wall Street looters to pay for government spending that
primes the economic pump by putting people to work building critical
infrastructure and performing essential public services. This puts money in people’s
pockets to spend on private sector goods and services and is our best hope to grow
Democrats have the better side of the argument, but both
sides have it wrong on two key points.
- First, both focus on growing GDP, ignoring
the reality that under the regime of Wall Street rule, the benefits of GDP growth
over the past several decades have gone almost exclusively to the 1 percent—with dire
consequences for democracy and the health of the social and natural capital on
which true prosperity depends.
- Second, both focus on financial deficits, which can
be resolved with relative ease if we are truly serious about it; and ignore far
more dangerous and difficult-to-resolve social and environmental deficits. I
call it a case of deficit attention disorder.
To achieve the ideal of a world that secures health and
prosperity for all people for generations to come, we must reframe the public
debate about the choices we face as a nation and as a species. We must measure
economic performance against the outcomes we really want, give life priority
over money, and recognize that money is a means, not an end.
What We Borrow
from Each Other
To realistically address the nature of the public financial
deficits at the center of the current political debate, it is crucial to understand
the nature of money and debt. Money is just a number, a system of accounting
useful in facilitating economic exchange. A deficit occurs when expenditures
exceed income. If, as a result, financial liabilities come to exceed financial
assets, we go into debt. It is all basic accounting.
The key point, which the deficit debates rarely address, is
that one person or entity’s financial debt is another person or entity’s
financial asset. We can only borrow money from each other. The idea that we
borrow money from the future is an illusion.
From a societal perspective, total debts and assets are
always in balance. Consequently, if we say that one person or entity has
excessive financial debt, we in effect say that another has excessive financial
assets. Reducing the aggregate financial debt of debtors necessarily requires
reducing the aggregate financial assets of the creditors.
In theory, we could instantly wipe away all financial debts
through a universal forgiveness, a modern equivalent of the ancient institution of the
Jubilee. The ancients recognized the significance of such action to restore
the balance essential to the healthy function of the human community.
The deficit-hawks recoil in horror and assure us that we can
reduce government debt while leaving the financial assets of the rich
untouched. It makes perfect sense in the fantasy world of pure finance in which
profits and the financial assets of the rich grow perpetually even as growing
inequality and wasteful material consumption deplete the social capital of
community and the natural capital of Earth’s biosphere.
A viable human future, however, must be based on living
world realities rather than financial world fantasies.
What We Steal
from Future Generations
Any normally intelligent 12-year-old is fully capable of
understanding the distinction between a living forest or fishery and a system
of financial accounts that exists only as electronic traces on a computer hard
drive. Unfortunately, this simple distinction seems to be beyond the
comprehension of the economists, pundits, and politicians who frame the public
debate on economic policy. By referring to financial assets as “capital” and
treating them as if they had some intrinsic worth beyond their value as a token
of exchange, they sustain the deception that Wall Street is creating wealth
rather than manipulating the financial system to accumulate accounting claims
against wealth it had no part in creating.
Real capital assets have productive value in their own right and cannot be created with a computer key stroke. The
most essential forms of real capital are social capital (the bonds of trust and
caring essential to healthy community function) and biosystem capital (the
living systems essential to Earth’s capacity to support life). We are depleting
both with reckless abandon.
Social capital is the foundation of our human capacity to innovate,
produce, engage in cooperative problem solving, manage Earth’s available
natural wealth to meet the needs of all, and live together in peace and shared
prosperity. Social capital is depleted as individualistic greed becomes the
prevailing moral standard and the governing institutions of society deprive all
but a privileged minority of access to a secure and dignified means of living.
Once it is depleted, social capital can take generations to restore.
Biosystem capital provides a continuing supply of breathable
air, drinkable water, soils to grow our food, forests to produce our timber,
oceans teeming with fish, grassland that feed our livestock, sun, wind, and
geothermal to provide our energy, climate stability, and much else essential to
human survival, health, and happiness. It is depleted when soils are degraded,
oceans are overfished, rivers and lakes are polluted, forests cut down,
aquifers contaminated and depleted, and climate stabilization systems disrupted.
These natural systems can take thousands, even millions of years to restore.
Species extinction is forever.
According to the World
Wildlife Federation’s 2012 Living Planet Report, at the current rate of
consumption, “it is taking 1.5 years for the Earth to fully regenerate the
renewable resources that people are using in a single year. Instead of living
off the interest, we are eating into our natural capital.” This is a path to
never-never land. Unlike with financial deficits, simple debt forgiveness is
not an option.
When we deplete Earth’s bio-capacity—its capacity to support
life in its many varied forms—we are not borrowing from the future; we are
stealing from the future. Even though it is the most serious of all
human-caused deficits, it rarely receives mention in current political debates.
When we assess economic performance by growth in GDP and
stock price indices, we in effect manage the economy to make the most money for
people who have the most money. This leads us to the fanciful belief that as a
society we are getting richer. In fact, we are impoverishing both current and
future generations by creating an unconscionable concentration of economic
power, depriving billions of people of a secure and dignified means of living, and
destroying the social and biosystem capital on which our real well-being
With proper care and respect, biosystem capital can provide
essential services in perpetuity. The reckless devastation of productive lands
and waters for a quick profit, a few temporary jobs, and a one-time energy fix
from Earth’s non-renewable fossil energy resources represent truly stupid and
morally reprehensible deficit spending. Evident current examples include tar
sand oil extraction, deep
sea oil drilling, hydraulic
fracturing to extract natural gas, and mountaintop
removal coal mining The fact that we thereby deepen human dependence on
finite nonrenewable fossil energy reserves and accelerate climate disruption
make such actions all the more stupid and immoral.
Financial system logic, which rests on the illusion that
money is wealth, tells us we are making intelligent choices. Living systems
logic tells us our current choices are insane and a crime against future human
generations and creation itself.
Built-to-Loot to Built-to-Serve
The economy of a just and sustainable society needs a proper
system of money creation and allocation that:
- Supports the health and productive function of social
and biosystem capital and allocates the sustainable generative output of both
to optimize the long-term health and well-being of all; and
- Rewards individuals with financial credits in
proportion to their actual productive contribution to living system health and
The current U.S.
money system does exactly the opposite. It celebrates and rewards the
destruction of living capital to grow the financial assets of Wall Street
looters at the expense of Main
Street producers—thus concentrating economic and
political power in the hands of those most likely to abuse it for a purely
individualist short-term gain.
Wall Street operates as a criminal
syndicate devoted to the theft of that to which it has no rightful claim. It
then bribes politicians to shield the looters from taxes on their ill-gotten
gains and to eliminate social programs that cushion the blow to those they have
deprived of a secure and meaningful means of livelihood. This brings us back to
the real source and consequence of excess financial debt.
Masters and Debt Slaves
In the big picture, the Wall Street 1 percent has divided society
into a looter class that controls access to money and a producer class forced
into perpetual debt slavery—an ancient institution that for millennia has
allowed the few to rule the many.The immense burden imposed on the 99 percent by public debt, consumer debt,
mortgage debt, and student debt is an outcome of a Wall Street assault on
justice and democracy.
The resulting desperation and loss of social trust account
for the many current symptoms of social disintegration and decline in ethical
standards. These include growth in family breakdown, suicide, forced migration,
physical violence, crime, drug use, and prison populations.
Equality as a Crucial Variable
I grew up in America
during a time when we took pride in being a middle-class society without extremes
of wealth and poverty. In part, we were living an illusion. Large
concentrations of private wealth were intact and systemic discrimination
excluded large segments of the population—particularly people of color—from
participation in the general prosperity. The underlying concept that the good
society is an equitable society, however, was and still is valid. And from the
1950s to the 1970s the middle class expanded.
Complete equality is neither possible nor desirable. Modest
inequality creates essential incentives for productive contribution to the
well-being of the community. Extreme inequality, as exemplified by current U.S.
society, is both a source and an indicator of serious institutional failure and
British epidemiologist Richard
Wilkinson has compiled an impressive body of research that demonstrates
beyond any reasonable doubt that economic and social inequality is detrimental
to human physical and mental health and happiness—even for the very rich.
Relatively equal societies are healthier on virtually every indicator of
individual and social health and well-being.
In highly unequal societies, the very rich are prone to seek
affirmation of their personal worth through extravagant displays of excess. They
easily lose sight of the true sources of human happiness, sacrifice authentic
relationships, and deny their responsibility to the larger society—at the
expense of their essential humanity. At the other extreme, the desperate are
prone to manipulation by political demagogues who offer simplistic analyses and
self-serving solutions that in the end further deepen their misery. Governing
institutions lose legitimacy. Democracy becomes a charade. Moral standards
decline. Civic responsibility gives way to extreme individualism and disregard
for the rights and well-being of others.
To achieve true prosperity, we must create economies
grounded in a living systems logic that recognizes three fundamental truths:
- The economy’s only valid purpose is to serve
- Equality is foundational to healthy human
communities and a healthy human relationship to Earth’s biosphere.
- Money is a means, not an end.
A New Political Narrative and Agenda
Runaway public deficits are but one symptom of a profound
system failure. They can easily be resolved by taxing the unearned spoils of
the Wall Street looters, eliminating corporate subsidies and tax havens, and
cutting military expenditures on pointless wars that undermine our security.
can easily be eliminated by putting the unemployed and underemployed to
work meeting a vast range of unmet human needs from rebuilding and greening our
physical infrastructure to providing essential human services, eliminating
dependence on fossil fuels, and converting to systems of local organic food
production. If the primary constraint is money, the
Federal Reserve can be directed to create it and channel it to priority
projects through a national infrastructure bank—a move that avoids
enriching the bankers and does not create more debt.
In addition, we must:
- Break up concentrations of unaccountable power.
- Shift the economic priority from making money to serving
life by replacing financial indicators with living
wealth indicators as the basis for evaluating economic performance.
- Eliminate extremes of wealth and poverty to create a true
- Build a culture of mutual trust and caring.
- Create a system of economic incentives that reward
those who do productive work and penalize predatory financial speculation.
- Restructure the global economy into a planetary system
of networked bioregional
economies that share information and technology and organize to live within
their respective environmental means.
Within a political debate defined by the logic of living
systems, such measures are simple common sense. Within a political debate
defined by conventional financial logic, however, they are easily dismissed as dangerous
and illogical threats to progress and prosperity.
So long as money frames the debate, money is the winner and
life is the loser. To score a political victory for life, the debate must be
reframed around a narrative based on an understanding of the true sources of
human well-being and happiness and a shift from money to life as the defining value.
A promising new frame is emerging from controversies
surrounding the recent United Nation’s Rio+20
environmental conference. Wall Street interests argued that the best way to
save Earth’s biosystems is to put a price
on them and sell them to wealthy global investors to manage for a
private return. Rather than concede the underlying frame to Wall Street
and debate the price and terms of the sale, indigenous leaders and
environmental groups drew on the ancient
wisdom of indigenous peoples to challenge the underlying frame. They
declared that as the source of life, Earth’s living systems are sacred and
beyond price. They issued a
global call to recognize the rights of nature.
Thus framed, the Rio+20 debate
highlights a foundational and inherent conflict between the rights of nature,
human rights, property rights, and corporate rights.
In current practice, based on the same financial logic that
leads us to treat financial deficits as more important than social and
environmental deficits, we give corporate rights precedence over the property
rights of individuals. We give property rights precedence over the human rights
of those without property. And we give human rights precedence over the rights of
We will continue to pay a terrible price for so long as we
allow the deeply flawed logic of pure finance to define our values and frame the
There is no magic bullet quick fix. We must reframe the
debate by bringing life values and living
systems logic to the fore and turning the prevailing rights hierarchy on its
head. The rights of nature must come first, because without nature, humans
do not exist. As living beings, our rights are derivative of and ultimately
subordinate to the rights of Earth’s living systems.
Human rights come, in turn, before property rights, because
property rights are a human creation. They have no existence without humans and
no purpose other than to serve the human and natural interest. Corporations are
a form of property and any rights we may choose to grant to them are derivative
of individual property rights and therefore properly subordinate to them.
The step to a prosperous human future requires that we acknowledge life, not
money, as our defining value, accept our responsibilities to and for one
another and nature, and bring to the fore of the debate the social and
bio-system deficits that are the true threat to the human future.
Replacing cultures and institutions that value money more
than life with cultures and institutions that value life more than money is a
daunting challenge. Fortunately, it is also an invigorating
and hopeful challenge because it reconnects us with our true nature as living
beings and offers a win-win alternative to the no-win status quo.
Image: A demonstration at Rio+20, by Aliencow. Licensed under Creative Commons.
8/8/2012 2:51:38 PM
Williams is the Founding Director of ARCHIVE Global—an international non-profit
that uses housing/environmental design to improve health among the most
vulnerable. As an architect he has worked on 5 continents and taught at
universities around the world. Peter holds Masters Degrees in African Studies
and Architecture from the University of Oxford and Columbia University,
respectively. His work has been featured on BBC, ABC, in the Wall Street
Journal and leading design and health
journals. He was named among the 40 leaders under 40 in International
Development, is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and lectures
widely on architecture, public health and sustainability. Peter was recognized as an Utne
Reader Visionary in 2009.
In 2004, few people were talking about
the connection between poorly ventilated, overcrowded houses and diseases like
HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis. But architect Peter Williams was in South Africa, looking for links
between housing conditions and epidemics. He also noticed the fear and stigmatization that circulated alongside disease in areas with inadequate housing. When Williams started blogging about his
observations in 2005, he found that many were interested in what he had to say, and his ambitions grew into an organization. Since the 2006 founding of Architecture for Health In
Vulnerable Environments (ARCHIVE), Williams has encouraged doctors,
social scientists, architects, and communities to solve these problems together.
In June, ARCHIVE began construction on a “Breathe House” in Haiti. The thoughtfully
designed structure encourages community interaction, air circulation, water
catchment, and the use of solar electricity. The designers, Aja Bulla-Richards
and Sara Harper, aimed to create a modular structure that could be built with
local materials. ARCHIVE worked with Initiative reCOVER
and the Building Goodness
Foundation to design and construct the house.
Most importantly, ARCHIVE encourages local participation in building the
structures. According to a recent
blog post on the site, “The most successful development projects are those
which integrate the local community, and that has been ARCHIVE Global’s aim in Haiti.
The Breathe House is designed to improve health and is specifically made to be
easily assembled without high levels of technical expertise. This means that
the community can replicate the health benefits by creating more houses with the
same design. This level of community participation is intended to mean that the
effects of our work in Haiti
will be long-lasting and sustainable.”
8/3/2012 2:23:56 PM
Scott Harrison is the
founder and CEO of charity: water.
Scott spent 10 years as a nightclub promoter in New York
City before leaving to volunteer on a hospital ship off the coast
of Liberia, Africa as a volunteer photojournalist. Returning home to New York City two years
later, he founded the non-profit organization charity: water in 2006. Turning
his full attention to the global water crisis and the one billion people
without clean water to drink, he created public installations and innovative
online fundraising platforms to spread international awareness of the issue. In
five years, with the help of more than 250,000 donors worldwide, charity: water
has raised over $60 million and funded 6,185 water projects in 19 developing
nations. Those projects will provide over 2.5 million people with clean, safe
drinking water. Scott was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2009.
This post was written by Viktoria Harrison, Creative Director of charity: water.
A little over a year ago, Rachel was your average nine-year-old. She
loved Taylor Swift and had a secret crush on Justin Bieber, although
she’d never admit it. She had a loving family and a heart that wanted to
solve every problem she saw in this world. Once, she cut off all her
hair and donated it to make wigs for kids who had cancer. So when she
sat in church one day and heard Scott Harrison from charity: water give a
talk about how kids her age in Africa didn’t have clean water to drink,
she immediately decided to help.
With her mom’s encouragement, she created a fundraising page
on mycharitywater.org, telling her family and friends that she didn’t
want presents for her ninth birthday. Instead, she asked them to donate
$9, as she was turning 9. Rachel wanted kids like her to have clean
water to drink.
She had a big goal: to raise $300 and give 15 people clean drinking
water. She fell a little short, raising $220, and told her mom that
she’d try harder next year.
A month later, Rachel died from injuries sustained in a tragic car
accident on highway I-90 near Seattle, Washington. A trailer had
jack-knifed into a logging truck, sending logs tumbling down the
freeway. More than a dozen cars were caught in the pile-up, and the
trailer smashed into the back of Rachel’s car. She was the only person
in her family critically injured, and on July 23rd, 2011, she was taken
off life support.
When the news spread about Rachel’s story and her birthday wish,
people all around the world began to donate on her page. Some gave $9,
some $19, leaving comments like “This is the rest of my month’s
salary…..” A month later, 30,000 people had given more than $1.2
All of us at charity: water were blown away by the generosity. The
comments and notes that were left on Rachel’s page caused many tears in
the coming months, and Rachel’s story continues to inspire us today.
Last year, we sent 100% of the money from Rachel’s campaign to our
partners in Tigray, Ethiopia, and they began to construct water projects
for people in need. We made a promise to Rachel’s mom that one day
she’d come with us to Ethiopia to meet some of the people Rachel’s wish
Yesterday, we fulfilled that promise.
On the one-year anniversary of Rachel’s death, we woke up early, at
5:30 A.M. We piled into Land Rovers and began the two-hour drive to Kal
Habel village in the north of Ethiopia. We heard the community had
planned both a memorial service in Rachel’s honor and a celebration of
We didn’t know it then, but honor would become the theme of our entire day.
First, we visited a church. The priests there knew all about our
arrival, and they knew Rachel’s story. They told us they had been up
since midnight, praying that God would keep Rachel’s soul in peace. A
photo of Rachel stood on the ledge, surrounded by candles. We paused,
listening to the priests recite their prayers, singing ancient Ethiopian
hymns over Samantha and her parents.
From the church, we walked to a new well nearby that was funded by
Rachel’s donations. We cut the ribbon and watched water splash into
bright yellow jerry cans. This water didn’t have dirt or leeches in it,
and it didn’t carry deadly disease. It wasn’t far away from people’s
homes, and they didn’t have to walk for hours to find it. It was right
there, in their village, and it was crystal clear. To prove it, Samantha
took a long drink.
The children wrote notes about Rachel, and handed them one by one to
Samantha. A famous priest read a poem he wrote especially for the
occasion, and then the village gave gifts to Rachel’s family. A mother
from the village made a speech and said Rachel’s story would be a lesson
to their children. She said that all the mothers in her village were
praying for Samantha. Another community sectioned off a plot of land and
called it Rachel’s Park. They invited Samantha and her grandparents
each to plant a tree in Rachel’s memory.
Near the well, our local partners, Relief Society of Tigray (REST),
commissioned a marble sign. It read “Rachel’s great dream, kindness and
vision of a better world will live with and among us forever.” Her photo
was nested in the marble, a permanent fixture in Kal Habel village. It
will serve as a reminder to all the mothers who draw water from this
well that a mother’s tragic loss and a child’s dream brought clean water
to their village.
60,000 people in more than 100 villages will drink clean water because of Rachel’s wish.
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