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Realizing the Vision
Utne Reader Visionaries share their latest projects, ideas, and visions for the future.

Don't Feed the Hungry

 Tossing Rice, Photo by Pritya Books 


Raj Patel headshotRaj Patel is a writer, academic, and activist. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, and the New York Times and international bestseller, The Value of Nothing. He has also published widely in the academic press, with articles in peer-reviewed philosophy, politics, sociology, science, and economics journals. Patel is currently working on Generation Food, a multimedia project about reinventing our global food system. He was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2009. 



When it comes to feeding the world, most of us support the idea. We are taught from a young age that if someone is hungry it’s our moral duty to feed them, whether they live down the street or in another country. For decades, agriculture companies have used the noble goal of “feeding the world” to increase yields by any means possible, from genetic modification to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This logic has justified ecological destruction from prairies to rainforests. It has wreaked havoc on indigenous and small-farming communities. And with 870 million chronically undernourished people on earth right now, it has failed to get food to the people who need it most.

Instead of a fed planet, we have monoculture farms, poisons on food, and toxic runoff in our land and water. Into our air, the global agriculture industry emits about 14 percent of total greenhouse gases, according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). If we include agricultural deforestation, that number jumps to 27.5 percent. “[I]t’s impossible,” writes CGIAR, “to address climate issues without including agriculture—and vice versa.”

Fortunately, real solutions aren’t difficult to imagine. Raj Patel interviewed one Wisconsin farmer, Jim Goodman, who seems to have a lot of this figured out.

 

In the first minute-and-a-half, Goodman tackles climate change, the politics of feeding the planet, the risks of monoculture and globalization, the aging U.S. farmer population, corporate greed, indigenous rights, and the failure of our globalized agricultural system to feed the people who need it most. “We need to let the world figure out how to feed themselves and we need to be able to let them do it politically. […] We’ve got more hungry people now than we did 20 [or] 30 years ago, when there was much more subsistence, much more local farming.”

He then moves on to the inspiration he finds in the growing number of young adults interested in a different kind of farming. “They want to grow food,” he says. “Not corn and soybeans. […] They want to grow vegetables, they want to grow small livestock operations, they want to do CSAs and farmers markets. And, you know, that’s the way most of the world really feeds itself is with small-scale, local production.”

More young farmers are part of the answer, and debunking the myth that it’s our job to feed the world is another. Also important: acknowledging that industrial agriculture cannot accomplish this. But, says Goodman, the most essential part must be accomplished on a political level. “The corporations that control the food system are no different from corporations that control the energy system, or whatever else. […] It’s all the money that goes into politics and lobbying that dictates how we live. And that’s what has to be changed.”

Image by Pritya Books, licensed under Creative Commons.

Oprah, Beyoncé, and Truth

 


Alexis Pauline Gumbs headshot 150px tallRadical 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 


From Beyoncé and Oprah to Serena and Venus Williams, African American women are some of the most celebrated people in today's media-saturated culture. Despite the largely positive nature of this attention, misconceptions and stereotypes are often reinforced when we see these women on screens and in the pages of magazines. In a new book of poems contemplating celebrity, race, and representation, Alexis Pauline Gumbs considers "what it is possible to know about the most famous Black women alive today." Gumbs describes her book, One Hundred and One Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive, as "part prayer part polemic [...] an intervention into the consumption of Black women."

 

Without denying the strength of the 10 women she profiles, Gumbs questions the media's representations of them and attempts to carve a space for the actual people behind those larger-than-life personas. In the video above, Gumbs notes that "there's some critical thinking that should be going on as we observe and participate in the media representation of black women that often isn't going on. For me this is about practicing and making space for that thinking and rethinking and questioning." One Hundred and One Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive is available for a small donation through Scribd. Below is Gumbs' poetic introduction to the book.

 

Ten Things That Are Not True About This Project Instead of a Preface*

There are no risks to speak of when loving black women becomes a religion.

This is a joke.

This is a game.

The media made me do it.

I could have said it better but I didn't.

I didn't have to do this but I did.

I have a working TV. And I know what you are thinking.

Restorative justice is possible here.

Dignity is possible here.

You are ready for this.

Love,
Alexis Pauline Gumbs

*After Diane Di Prima's "10 Things That Are Not True About the She-Wolf"

Occupy Wall Street 2.0: A Conversation with Kalle Lasn

 Banksy heart balloon girl 


Kalle LasnKalle Lasn is the co-founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine, and author of the books Culture Jam and Design Anarchy. Lasn was recognized as an Utne Reader visionary in 2001 for his efforts to reclaim Western culture from the influence of corporations, consumption, and advertising. 


This article originally appeared at
Solutions Online and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

 


Founder and editor of Adbusters magazine, Kalle Lasn is largely credited for conceptualizing and starting the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, New York, which eventually spread around the world. His new book, Meme Wars, aims to reinvent the study of economics. Here, he talks to Solutions about his vision for the future.

You have been trying to change consumer culture for years. How did the idea for Occupy Wall Street begin?

It began in early 2011. It was percolating in 2010. We were excited by the anarchist action in Greece and discontent among young people in Spain, and the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, and we saw how young people in Egypt were using social media to get tons of people out to the streets and pull off regime change. Our brainstorming sessions at Adbusters began and we said, “We need a regime change in America as well.” Not hard regime change like Egypt where dictators were torturing people. We are after a soft regime change. We felt the heart of American democracy and found that, in Washington, DC, things were rotten and corporations were getting their own way with lobbyists and money power. Wall Street people have created a global casino, and meanwhile young people are having a hard time finding jobs and are losing their houses. So let’s try to create a Tahrir Square moment in America.

How do you feel about how the protests ended? Did they flame out, or was it a success? What lessons were learned?

It was a huge success. A lot of people say, “They never came up with demands.” But here is a movement of young people who felt their future didn’t compute, and they fought it in a horizontal, leaderless way, and they launched a national conversation in America and in Canada, and last October the conversation went international. So a few hundred people in Zuccotti Park launched a huge international debate about the future and that’s as good as it comes.

Now, we know it’s winding down, and there’s a big question mark: can we keep this going, and morph into new strategies, and still command attention with the world? And I believe we can. This movement has long legs and a core impulse—this feeling among hundreds of millions of young people that their lives will be full of ecological and political and financial crises, and they can’t aspire to the lives their parents had, unless they stand up and fight for a different future. I don’t think anything can stop these young people and I predict we’re going to move away from large occupations of parks and we’ll have surprise, one-day occupations of banks and corporations and the economics departments of universities, with more and more people talking about the Robin Hood tax and high frequency trading and bank reform and campaign finance reform. These surprise, one-day occupations will start popping up in cities everywhere. This movement will fragment into a million projects.

What are members of the movement talking about now?

[...] Back in 2008, when the financial meltdown happened and caught all the classical economists by surprise, there were a lot of bioeconomists and ecological economists waiting in the wings, hungry to shift that paradigm. And there will be a revolt of students against their professors. And we may find ourselves next year with hundreds of students occupying the economics departments of their universities. It wouldn’t just be a policy shift like taxing the rich. It would be a shift in the fundamental axioms of economic science and a tinkering with the bedrock of our economic system. The next generation of economists would have a totally different worldview.

What should the new economic outlook be?

Ecological economists and the movement started by Herman Daly and others. There are already ecological associations and a journal. The natural world is the main part of this ecological paradigm and the money economists are just a subset. It would be a reversal of roles. It could give birth to a generation of barefoot economists with their feet firmly in the real world.

Herman Daly and Robert Costanza, both founders of ecological economics, are on the Solutions editorial board. Robert Costanza is our editor in chief.

I hope you tell them that from my perspective their ideas are reaching fruition, and I wish they would encourage their followers to be more aggressive. Suddenly, old and young people are pushing against the system and it’s time for ecological economists to stand up and be counted and not just play academic games in the background. Joseph Stiglitz actually went to Zuccotti Park and gave a talk. We need more of that. We need them to champion their paradigm.

We also don’t have full cost accounting. There is a dream among Occupiers to have a global market where products show their ecological cost, which would reflect their true cost. They will find that the price of cars goes up and bikes goes down. Maybe that McDonald’s napkin could suddenly have a certain price to it. And apples from New Zealand would have a different price. How much does all that stuff from China going to Walmart truly cost in environmental damage?

Given that populist anger had brewed for years among America’s middle and lower classes, why didn’t this sort of activism start earlier?

The moment wasn’t right. Something heaved back in 2008, when the meltdown happened. Something heaved again when the young people of Tunisia and Egypt stood up. This feeling that the young people have in the pit of their stomachs doesn’t compute. This is really sinking in with a vengeance now. If the global economy keeps tanking, we may be in for some version of the 1929 scenario, and a lot of these projects and paradigm shifts, and the dismantling of the global casinos, and Robin Hood taxes, and the radical transformation of businesses—they may well need that kind of crisis to be implemented.

Imagine that the Occupy movement achieves everything you think it can. What does the world look like after this ultimate success? How long will it take to get there?

It’s all about producing a different type of human being. Like the Occupiers who slept in the park. Their cynicism dissolved and they were engaged and they merged into this different kind of human being. They were alive and alert and energized and this is what it’s about. This movement will be a success if it can produce a new generation of young people who are fighting a good fight and can do what needs to be done. It’s going to take an eternity because the human project never ends. We are at a tipping point right now. This feels like one of the biggest tipping points. We have never faced the possibility of ecological and physical and political crises all swirling around each other and ready to swoop down on us and create a nightfall. Not just a 1929 scenario, but a 50- to 100- or 1,000-year blockade. It’s totally in the cards. I hope this Occupy movement will give impetus to young people and make them fight harder to avoid the pitfalls of humanity.

Image: Banksy Balloon Girl by Stew Dean, licensed under Creative Commons. 

A Real World Plan for Obama's Second Term

Obama-CrowdThe votes are in and President Obama has a second term with a virtual guarantee that he will again face a gridlocked Congress. So what is a president to do?

Those suggesting Obama reach out to Republicans forget President Clinton’s second term, when his impeachment became the top priority of congressional Republicans.

Governor Romney and a good many pundits are calling for him to reach out to the same Republican opponents who made a pact after his first term election to do everything in their power to assure the failure of his presidency—and persistently voted as a solid block to fulfill that promise.

Some suggest it may be different in President Obama’s second term because he will not be running again. They forget President Clinton’s second term, when his impeachment on the flimsiest of grounds became the top priority of congressional Republicans.

When Senator Obama won the election that put him in the White House, I wrote a national address I hoped he might deliver as president outlining policies for a new economy equal to the challenges of the 21st century. Since he did not choose to deliver it during his first term, I was thinking I might dust it off and put forth a similar proposal for his second term.

Reading it now, I realize that most of what I proposed requires congressional action that will never happen so long as congress remains captive to my-way-or-the-highway extremists. President Obama will have his hands full simply getting a budget bill through congress that is adequate to keep the country running and avoid a financial default. If he succeeds in this, it will be a heroic accomplishment.

That said, there is critical need to move the nation forward to address critical questions mostly or totally absent from the political debates of this now-past election cycle—including climate change, extreme inequality, and the corruption of our political and electoral processes. Realistically, the next congress is not going to move us forward on any of these issues, no matter how what President Obama does.

Any progress on these matters at the federal level will depend on using the considerable powers of the administrative branch of government—and President Obama should give high priority to doing so. That said, I do believe that most Americans are fed up with the scorched-Earth politics of ideological extremists with deep-pocket sponsors.

There is a need and opportunity for President Obama to reach out across political lines to launch a national conversation that involves all Americans, irrespective of political affiliation, interested in addressing the three defining challenges of a 21st-century world:

  1. Balancing human consumption with the generative capacity of Earth’s biosphere while;
  2. Providing every person with the opportunity for a healthy, secure, and meaningful life; and
  3. Achieving true democracy in which every person’s voice counts.

This conversation has the potential to force a realignment of both of America’s major political parties and might well lead, over time, to a significant restructuring of America’s political institutions to create effective space for a far greater range of voices.

A second-term President Obama can afford to take the lead in engaging such a conversation specifically because he will never again be campaigning for re-election. It could be his most significant legacy for America and for the world.

 


Korten mugshotDr. 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 WorldHe 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. 




Image by Austen Hufford, licensed under Creative Commons 

Real Change is Up to Us

 Slow Money  


Utne Visionary Woody TaschWoody Tasch is the founder and chairman of Slow Money, an organization that urges Americans to invest in small, sustainable, and local food systems. The Slow Money alliance doesn’t maximize investors’ profits regardless of environmental and human costs—which is exactly the point. Instead, profits are centered around stronger, more stable and sustainable communities. Tasch is the author of Inquiries in the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. He was recognized as an Utne Reader Visionary in 2010.


 
A few years ago, in Mark Anielski’s book The Economics of Happiness, I came across the words of Robert F. Kennedy, from the 1968 Presidential campaign. After recovering from the chagrin of not having heard these words previously, it became my pleasure to share them occasionally during public events. It was surprising to learn just how many folks have never heard them and wonderful to see how deeply audiences resonated with them. 

We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones Average, nor national achievement by the Gross National Product. For the Gross National Product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. The Gross National Product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads. … It includes … the broadcasting of television programs, which glorify violence to sell goods to our children.

And if the Gross National Product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials … the Gross National Product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America—except whether we are proud to be Americans.

Today’s world of sound bytes and fast money has no time for such discourse. A billion dollars of fast money purchasing TV ads, it seems, is all too much like hundreds of millions of tons of NPK fertilizer applied to industrial farm fields—past the point of diminishing returns we zoom, degrading public discourse and diminishing the fertility of the soil as we go.

Which brings us around to the leaping earthworm, one Brook Le Van, who, with his wife Rose, operates Sustainable Settings, a few hundred acres organic farm near the Crystal River, at the foot of Mt. Sopris, in Carbondale, Colorado, and who, at the dais of a recent anti-fracking rally in Denver, displayed considerable imagination and erudition.  It takes considerable reserves of both, when talking about cows and pigs and raw milk and food sheds and the water resources of Thompson Divide, to leap all the way to “anthropocene reductionism.” But Brook did it. In public. In a five-minute talk. I was there.

I’m looking forward to my next conversation with Brook, who is a Slow Money founding member, so that he can elucidate the relationship between Slow Money and anthropocene reductionism.

In the meantime, let’s appreciate the nuanced thinking behind RFK’s rhetoric and the strength of Brook’s grounded activism and remind ourselves that every time we support a small food enterprise, we are voting in a powerful, direct way for life after fast food and fast money.

Image: "Money" by Aaron Patterson, licensed under Creative Commons. 

 

The Name of the Hurricane is Climate Change

Sandy

This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.  

The first 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.

Katrina’s 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 schedule.

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 been.

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.

Disasters 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 action.

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.

Hope in the Storm  

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.

Clearly, the 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.

We Have 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:

“Amazing and 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?”

Occupy, 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.

When Occupy 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 invisible. Sandy is also an economic disaster: unlimited release of carbon into the atmosphere is very expensive and will get more so.

The 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.

After the Status Quo 

Disasters often 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.

Disasters often 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.

Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit


Rebecca Solnit 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 anti-oil-company campaign and the 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 TomDispatch.com. 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  


Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, licensed under Creative Commons  

Our Words Are Our Weapons

Occupy-Signs

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.


Rebecca Solnit 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 anti-oil-company campaign and the 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 TomDispatch.com. 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  


 

In ancient China, the arrival of a new dynasty was accompanied by “the rectification of names,” a ceremony in which the sloppiness and erosion of meaning that had taken place under the previous dynasty were cleared up and language and its subjects correlated again. It was like a debt jubilee, only for meaning rather than money.

This was part of what made Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign so electrifying: he seemed like a man who spoke our language and called many if not all things by their true names. Whatever caused that season of clarity, once elected, Obama promptly sank into the stale, muffled, parallel-universe language wielded by most politicians, and has remained there ever since. Meanwhile, the far right has gotten as far as it has by mislabeling just about everything in our world -- a phenomenon which went supernova in this year of “legitimate rape,” “the apology tour,” and “job creators.”  Meanwhile, their fantasy version of economics keeps getting more fantastic. (Maybe there should be a rectification of numbers, too.)  

Let’s rectify some names ourselves. We often speak as though the source of so many of our problems is complex and even mysterious. I'm not sure it is. You can blame it all on greed: the refusal to do anything about climate change, the attempts by the .01% to destroy our democracy, the constant robbing of the poor, the resultant starving children, the war against most of what is beautiful on this Earth.

Calling lies "lies" and theft "theft" and violence "violence," loudly, clearly, and consistently, until truth becomes more than a bump in the road, is a powerful aspect of political activism. Much of the work around human rights begins with accurately and aggressively reframing the status quo as an outrage, whether it’s misogyny or racism or poisoning the environment. What protects an outrage are disguises, circumlocutions, and euphemisms -- “enhanced interrogation techniques” for torture, “collateral damage” for killing civilians, “the war on terror” for the war against you and me and our Bill of Rights.

Change the language and you’ve begun to change the reality or at least to open the status quo to question. Here is Confucius on the rectification of names:

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”

So let’s start calling manifestations of greed by their true name. By greed, I mean the attempt of those who have plenty to get more, not the attempts of the rest of us to survive or lead a decent life. Look at the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame: the four main heirs are among the dozen richest people on the planet, each holding about $24 billion. Their wealth is equivalent to that of the bottom 40% of Americans. The corporation Sam Walton founded now employs 2.2 million workers, two-thirds of them in the U.S., and the great majority are poorly paid, intimidated, often underemployed people who routinely depend on government benefits to survive. You could call that Walton Family welfare -- a taxpayers' subsidy to their system. Strikes launched against Wal-Mart this summer and fall protested working conditions of astonishing barbarity -- warehouses that reach 120 degrees, a woman eight months pregnant forced to work at a brutal pace, commonplace exposure to pollutants, and the intimidation of those who attempted to organize or unionize.

You would think that $24,000,000,000 apiece would be enough, but the Walton family sits atop a machine intent upon brutalizing tens of millions of people -- the suppliers of Wal-Mart notorious for their abysmal working conditions, as well as the employees of the stores -- only to add to piles of wealth already obscenely vast. Of course, what we call corporations are, in fact, perpetual motion machines, set up to endlessly extract wealth (and leave slagheaps of poverty behind) no matter what. 

They are generally organized in such a way that the brutality that leads to wealth extraction is committed by subcontractors at a distance or described in euphemisms, so that the stockholders, board members, and senior executives never really have to know what’s being done in their names. And yet it is their job to know -- just as it is each of our jobs to know what systems feed us and exploit or defend us, and the job of writers, historians, and journalists to rectify the names for all these things.    

Groton to Moloch  

The most terrifying passage in whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s gripping book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is not about his time in Vietnam, or his life as a fugitive after he released the Pentagon Papers. It’s about a 1969 dinnertime conversation with a co-worker in a swanky house in Pacific Palisades, California.  It took place right after Ellsberg and five of his colleagues had written a letter to the New York Times arguing for immediate withdrawal from the unwinnable, brutal war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg’s host said, “If I were willing to give up all this... if I were willing to renege on... my commitment to send my son to Groton... I would have signed the letter.”

In other words, his unnamed co-worker had weighed trying to prevent the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people against the upper-middle-class perk of having his kid in a fancy prep school, and chosen the latter. The man who opted for Groton was, at least, someone who worked for what he had and who could imagine having painfully less. This is not true of the ultra-rich shaping the future of our planet.

They could send tens of thousands to Groton, buy more Renoirs and ranches, and still not exploit the poor or destroy the environment, but they’re as insatiable as they are ruthless. They are often celebrated in their aesthetic side effects: imposing mansions, cultural patronage, jewels, yachts.  But in many, maybe most, cases they got rich through something a lot uglier, and that ugliness is still ongoing. Rectifying the names would mean revealing the ugliness of the sources of their fortunes and the grotesque scale on which they contrive to amass them, rather than the gaudiness of the trinkets they buy with them. It would mean seeing and naming the destruction that is the corollary of most of this wealth creation.

A Storm Surge of Selfishness  

Where this matters most is climate change. Why have we done almost nothing over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present catastrophe? Because it was bad for quarterly returns and fossil-fuel portfolios. When posterity indicts our era, this will be the feeble answer for why we did so little -- that the rich and powerful with ties to the carbon-emitting industries have done everything in their power to prevent action on, or even recognition of, the problem. In this country in particular, they spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change and punishing politicians who brought the subject up. In this way have we gone through four “debates” and nearly a full election cycle with climate change unmentioned and unmentionable.

These three decades of refusing to respond have wasted crucial time. It’s as though you were prevented from putting out a fire until it was raging: now the tundra is thawing and Greenland’s ice shield is melting and nearly every natural system is disrupted, from the acidifying oceans to the erratic seasons to droughts, floods, heat waves, and wildfires, and the failure of crops. We can still respond, but the climate is changed; the damage we all spoke of, only a few years ago, as being in the future is here, now.

You can look at the chief executive officers of the oil corporations -- Chevron’s John Watson, for example, who received almost $25 million ($1.57 million in salary and the rest in “compensation”) in 2011 -- or their major shareholders. They can want for nothing. They’re so rich they could quit the game at any moment. When it comes to climate change, some of the wealthiest people in the world have weighed the fate of the Earth and every living thing on it for untold generations to come, the seasons and the harvests, this whole exquisite planet we evolved on, and they have come down on the side of more profit for themselves, the least needy people the world has ever seen.

Take those billionaire energy tycoons Charles and David Koch, who are all over American politics these days. They are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama, partly because he offends their conservative sensibilities, but also because he is less likely to be a completely devoted servant of their profit margins. He might, if we shout loud enough, rectify a few names.  Under pressure, he might even listen to the public or environmental groups, while Romney poses no such problem (and under a Romney administration they will probably make more back in tax cuts than they are gambling on his election).

Two years ago, the Koch brothers spent $1 million on California’s Proposition 23, an initiative written and put on the ballot by out-of-state oil companies to overturn our 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. It lost by a landslide, but the Koch brothers have also invested a small fortune in spreading climate-change denial and sponsoring the Tea Party (which they can count on to oppose climate change regulation as big government or interference with free enterprise). This year they’re backing a California initiative to silence unions. They want nothing to stand in the way of corporate power and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Think of it as another kind of war, and consider the early casualties.   

As the Irish Times put it in an editorial this summer:

"Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa, and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa face starvation. Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, headed up by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affects 300 million people annually. By 2030, the annual death toll related to climate change is expected to rise to 500,000 and the economic cost to rocket to $600 billion."

This coming year may see a dramatic increase in hunger due to rising food prices from crop failures, including this summer’s in the U.S. Midwest after a scorching drought in which the Mississippi River nearly ran dry and crops withered.

We need to talk about climate change as a war against nature, against the poor (especially the poor of Africa), and against the rest of us. There are casualties, there are deaths, and there is destruction, and it’s all mounting. Rectify the name, call it war. While we’re at it, take back the term “pro-life” to talk about those who are trying to save the lives of all the creatures suffering from the collapse of the complex systems on which plant and animal as well as human lives depend. The other side: “pro-death.”

The complex array of effects from climate change and their global distribution, as well as their scale and the science behind them makes it harder to talk about than almost anything else on Earth, but we should talk about it all the more because of that. And yes, the rest of us should do more, but what is the great obstacle those who have already tried to do so much invariably come up against? The oil corporations, the coal companies, the energy industry, its staggering financial clout, its swarms of lobbyists, and the politicians in its clutches. Those who benefit most from the status quo, I learned in studying disasters, are always the least willing to change.

The Doublespeak on Taxes  

I’m a Californian so I faced the current version of American greed early. Proposition 13, the initiative that froze property taxes and made it nearly impossible to raise taxes in our state, went into effect in 1978, two years before California’s former governor Ronald Reagan won the presidency, in part by catering to greed. Prop 13, as it came to be known, went into effect when California was still an affluent state with the best educational system in the world, including some of the top universities around, nearly free to in-staters all the way through graduate school. Tax cuts have trashed the state and that education system, and they are now doing the same to our country. The public sphere is to society what the biosphere is to life on earth: the space we live in together, and the attacks on them have parallels.

What are taxes? They are that portion of your income that you contribute to the common good. Most of us are unhappy with how they’re allocated -- though few outside the left talk about the fact that more than half of federal discretionary expenditures go to our gargantuan military, more money than is spent on the next 14 militaries combined. Ever since Reagan, the right has complained unceasingly about fantasy expenditures -- from that president’s “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird and PBS (which consumes .001% of federal expenditures).

As part of its religion of greed, the right invented a series of myths about where those taxes went, how paying them was the ultimate form of oppression, and what boons tax cuts were to bring us.  They then delivered the biggest tax cuts of all to those who already had a superfluity of money and weren’t going to pump the extra they got back into the economy. What they really were saying was that they wanted to hang onto every nickel, no matter how the public sphere was devastated, and that they really served the ultra-rich, over and over again, not the suckers who voted them into office.

Despite decades of cutting to the bone, they continue to promote tax cuts as if they had yet to happen. Their constant refrain is that we are too poor to feed the poor or educate the young or heal the sick, but the poverty isn’t monetary: it’s moral and emotional. Let’s rectify some more language: even at this moment, the United States remains the richest nation the world has ever seen, and California -- with the richest agricultural regions on the planet and a colossal high-tech boom still ongoing in Silicon Valley -- is loaded, too. Whatever its problems, the U.S. is still swimming in abundance, even if that abundance is divided up ever more unequally.

Really, there’s more than enough to feed every child well, to treat every sick person, to educate everyone well without saddling them with hideous debt, to support the arts, to protect the environment -- to produce, in short, a glorious society. The obstacle is greed. We could still make the sorts of changes climate change requires of us and become a very different nation without overwhelming pain. We would then lead somewhat different lives -- richer, not poorer, for most of us (in meaning, community, power, and hope). Because this culture of greed impoverishes all of us, it is, to call it by its true name, destruction.

Occupy the Names   

One of the great accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street was this rectification of names. Those who came together under that rubric named the greed, inequality, and injustice in our system; they made the brutality of debt and the subjugation of the debtors visible; they called out Wall Street’s crimes; they labeled the wealthiest among us the “1%,” those who have made a profession out of pumping great sums of our wealth upwards (quite a different kind of tax).  It was a label that made instant sense across much of the political spectrum. It was a good beginning. But there’s so much more to do.

Naming is only part of the work, but it’s a crucial first step. A doctor initially diagnoses, then treats; an activist or citizen must begin by describing what is wrong before acting. To do that well is to call things by their true names. Merely calling out these names is a beam of light powerful enough to send the destroyers it shines upon scurrying for cover like roaches. After that, you still need to name your vision, your plan, your hope, your dream of something better.

Names matter; language matters; truth matters. In this era when the mainstream media serve obfuscation and evasion more than anything else (except distraction), alternative media, social media, demonstrations in the streets, and conversations between friends are the refuges of truth, the places where we can begin to rectify the names. So start talking.

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Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit

Image by David Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.