15 October 2011

From Me Culture to We Culture: There IS An Alternative

Cynicism and Incoherence
I came of age in the 1980s which was, at the time, considered the epitome of pop culture, selfishness, competition, and corporate domination. The “greed is good” line from the movie “Wall Street” – meant as irony by the writer/director – became a motto for America. Indeed, the unbridled pursuit of material wealth was synonymous with “freedom.” Concurrently, in the context of the prevailing capitalistic system, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decreed to the world: There is no alternative (TINA).

Around the time I graduated from college in the early 1990s, the so-called disaffected youth had aided the election of a modern new president, viewed as almost a messiah by his flock. Sound familiar? The difference back then was that the deleterious effects of rugged individualism, blind ambition, unbridled greed, and neoliberalism had not yet permeated all of the masses. The poor, many people of color, and most indigenous people remained as marginalized by society as ever, but a critical number of the middle and upper-middle class citizens still had access to their “piece of the pie” to which they felt entitled. A faction of twenty-somethings that didn’t believe in the system of greed found themselves underemployed during this era for two main reasons: 1. A large number of available jobs had gone from union, livable-wage, skilled or professional labor positions to low-paying service-sector positions, and 2. The higher-wage jobs available were detrimental and damaging to people and the environment; these young adults did not want to partake in such a corrupt, destructive system. Those particular Generation Xers were dismissed as “slackers,” and though that label was inaccurate, it was a more useful meme for the powers that be to declare that the dissenters were lazy rather than admit that they were purposefully noncompliant with the fraudulent, unjust, unethical status quo.

However, the personal rebellion of these discontented Generation Xers were few and far between – as evidenced by the many now middle-aged members who safely reside in the sanctity of their suburban comforts - so they did not cohere into anything more than discreet individual acts, for the most part. Moreover, the stresses faced by the youth then did not necessarily amount to the kind of dire financial circumstances, grim future prospects, and desperation faced by the youth of today.

Domination and Desperation
Over the course of the past thirty years, popular culture, entertainment, narcissism, gluttony, and corporate imperialism have soared to heights unimaginable in the time of Centipede, the Cosby Show, and the Commodore 64. Until recently, the endless proliferation of these evils seemed as inevitable as the economic growth that resulted from them, and no one seemed to notice, no one seemed to care.[i] While the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and other similar events lent glimmers of hope, these twinkles were usually quickly and summarily extinguished by our own complacency and by the media blanket that kept all winds of change in the margins.

Now, the first contradiction of capitalism[ii] has at last emerged, just as predicted. (So has the second, more ominous contraction which involves the ecosystem rather than the economic system, but that vital subject will have to be left to another conversation.) In an era marked by the election of yet another phony Presidential savior, the somnambulant masses have been forced to awaken.  Not only have the conditions for the already marginalized grown excruciatingly horrific, but the members of socioeconomic classes who formerly expected to have a solid, productive outlook have been offered instead a harsh present and a bleak future. And even those who once assumed their lives secure have found their assumptions trashed along with their savings. It took these dismal conditions for people to finally proclaim that enough was enough, and for some of them to rise up and speak out on their own behalves.

The Canadian magazine Adbusters has been chronicling the inevitable downfall of Western Civilization and calling for massive resistance for over two decades now, which is why it is not surprising that they perceived the correct place to confront the masters of the modern world. But no one could have predicted that their request just months ago to Occupy Wall Street would have come at such an opportune moment.

What is happening in New York City’s Zuccotti Park and around the country is quite similar to what occurred during the capitol occupation in Madison, Wisconsin. People who could no longer stand to be controlled and exploited finally exerted their collective force. But more importantly, they demonstrated that the system in place to which we have been required to adhere is far from the only alternative.

While the corporate media deride the “anarchy” of Occupy Wall Street, they are not completely off the mark. Few are willing to admit that, just as in the Madison capitol, what is occurring among members of the rebellion on Wall Street is anarchism at its finest: cooperation, human relations based on shared values, organic collectives of non-hierarchical groups, and democratically advanced ideas. At the height of the Madison occupation in February/March 2011, thousands of people virtually lived in the state capitol. They organized themselves into units to maintain peace, to clean, to educate, to administer first aid, to distribute food and supplies, etc. No one concerned themselves with the potential for crime – and in fact, no one was harmed, and no personal items were stolen as thousands of people amassed in an unguarded space. There existed nary a fear for person or property. The society of the occupation was one to be envied and emulated in “real” life. It appears that the experience at Occupy Wall Street is similar. I learned that they have even constructed grey water filtration systems and composting on-site. These occupations lay bare the simple truth that There Is An Alternative (TIAA). In fact, there are many options, as long as we have the creativity and the will to imagine and realize them. Of course, this discovery is precisely what the power elite fear the most, that their systems – THEY – are not necessary.

Toward a Collective Future
So, I sincerely thank you, occupiers. As I stand in awe of and in solidarity with all of you on Wall Street, in D.C., and all over the country and the world, I hope that instead of capitulating to the moneyed forces and voices who insist upon concrete demands – which will undoubtedly allow for the continuation and promulgation of their deceitful, destructive systems – the movement imagines a whole new paradigm for our collective future. It cannot be accomplished through traditional means; it will not be expressed through traditional pathways. In addition, I hope that the resisters continue to see beyond their own personal, immediate concerns and incorporate the needs of the forgotten, those who have always been suffering - the poor, the homeless, people of color, and the indigenous. The movement must never forget to include not only the currently disenfranchised who thought they could succeed under this system, but the always disenfranchised who never had a chance. In short, the movement will be worthwhile and long-lasting if it can embrace a future society in which “we” always comes before “me.” There is a better alternative. It is here now, unless we retreat back to our superficial comforts, unless we surrender to our own egos, unless we cease to envision a healthier tomorrow for us all.

[i] George Carlin
[ii] Karl Marx

25 August 2011

More Jobs are Not the Solution; the Earth Needs Fewer

When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.                 
~ Cree Prophecy
I must start with the caveat that I am not an economist, nor do I wish to be one; I have only a cursory knowledge of economics. Nonetheless, anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of ecology or biology knows that the continuous growth model on which our capitalist economy relies is completely incompatible with life. Ecologists, environmentalists, and ecological economists have been screaming this for decades. It takes nothing more than common sense and observation with one’s own senses to understand that we live on a finite plant with finite resources which we depend on for life, and these resources are being plundered at an ever-increasing rate. Yet, this simple truth garners very little attention in the press where the environment is a “second tier” issue. The only issue that merits attention in the context of almost any discourse in the media is the economy.

The “health” of the economy is meaningless without healthy ecological systems to support it.

When speaking about our manufactured economic “crisis,” a fraudulent hoax created by wholly lopsided wealth distribution rather than actual scarcity, the right promotes putting more money in the hands of the rich, the so-called job creators. This meme should be put to rest once and for all, as it has been proven without a doubt that the accumulation of wealth by the rich does not result in job growth, but in hoarding by the upper classes. The left, on the other hand, feels that the government should be at the forefront of job creation. In either case, the belief is more jobs equals better lives. This is a myopic and dangerous assumption that will lead to the inevitable obliteration of our species.

We are in an age of ecological crisis. Just about every biological system on the planet is in decline. However, to combat this tragedy, instead of reduce, reuse, and recycle, we delude, deny, and distract.

Nearly every job requires the expenditure of tremendous amounts of energy. Now, if the energy came simply from manpower, then it would be a non-issue. Regrettably, the energy is generally generated from environmentally destructive fossil fuels or other renewable sources which may impart less harm, but still have negative effects on geological systems and/or organisms. For example, wind turbines are fatal to many birds and bats, and have been linked to illnesses in humans. Solar panels require mining, sometimes for very rare materials obtained via slave labor in Africa; they require a great deal of energy to produce and maintain; and the materials used and/or the by-products of production can be toxic. Of course, these are merely two examples, but for every large-scale energy infrastructure, there are great numbers of deleterious environmental effects. So, the more we work at jobs, the more energy we use, the more harm to ecosystems.

As for jobs themselves, no matter what they are, they all utilize materials and create waste. Moreover, many involve direct and/or indirect forms of exploitation of the environment, animals, or other humans. So the more jobs we have, the more harm to ecosystems.

We have enough basic goods to sustain every human on the planet. New and used clothing items far exceed the number of people who need them. (One need only see a Hollywood costume warehouse to realize our glut of clothing.) Empty homes dot the landscape across North America. Half of all food produced is wasted. Potable water would likely not be an issue if it were not utilized in and polluted by wasteful industrial processes (i.e., problems of overuse and contamination). Granted, the unequal distribution of these basic necessities renders them inaccessible to many humans on the planet, but that is a problem of allocation, not supply.

Despite the optimism of technophiles, “green” jobs and “green” products are more of a marketing ploy than a reality. Certainly, the basic necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, and water) when not obtained through reuse and recycling, should be produced and distributed in the most sustainable way. But we also know that when we produce other less necessary “green” products – more energy efficient light bulbs, refrigerators, or cars – we tend to just utilize more of the products themselves and rarely gain a net decrease in energy or materials consumption. Industrial production is clearly a source of unspeakable consumption and environmental degradation due to pollution and toxic waste. Increases in production and consumption of any kind are simply incompatible with environmental or biological sustainability. Sustainability requires jobs that maintain “needs” rather than jobs that produce “wants.”

Due to global capitalism, most of us do not have access to the means of production of our basic needs. We do not have land to grow food, materials for clothing, or materials to build shelters. We do not have clean water bodies of our own. We are wholly reliant on jobs to live.

Given these circumstances, how might we reduce production and consumption and still enable a populace to survive when they are faced with record high unemployment? One solution toward that end, one stop-gap measure on the road to localization, corporate annihilation, and total sustainability, could be a world-wide mandate for a living/livable wage.

I rarely feel a great deal of pride about my undergraduate alma mater, Georgetown University – a place that produced the likes of Bill Clinton, Pat Buchanan and Antonin Scalia. Six years ago, however, I was bursting with admiration for twenty-two brave young students there who staged a ten-day hunger strike to pressure the administration to implement a living wage for campus workers. Many of the service workers at the university could not come close to making a livable income to support their basic needs in our nation’s capitol, and these students took a bold stand in solidarity with the workers.

As income stratification has grown and wages for the majority of the population have stagnated, many people, if employed at all, find themselves with jobs that do not provide enough money to actually pay their bills. Thus, they are forced to take on second and third jobs – all at inadequate wages – which leave them with little or no time for their families.
Unemployment is obviously untenable for families, but so too is over-employment in low-paying jobs. And yet, as unions are being obliterated and CEOs bitch and moan their way to record obscene profits, the majority of jobs being created are lower and lower wage.

Imagine if every job was a 40-hr-a-week position that paid a living wage, a salary that enabled a person to cover her bills and live in a modicum of comfort. Economists will tell you that if you implement a living wage, the total number of jobs will decrease. That is precisely the idea. We do not need more destructive, crappy jobs. With living wages, perhaps only one parent would have to work rather than two. Perhaps the children could forgo working and concentrate on their educations. Then, more jobs would not be necessary because more people would not need to work. Some of the unemployed might be able to be categorized as non-employed and not needing to look. Others of the unemployed could take on the second and third jobs vacated by workers who no longer need them. We would not have to create more jobs; we could get by with fewer. (And that is the point, because fewer jobs mean less ecological destruction.) Additionally, governments would not have to expend as much on programs such as welfare and food stamps, which only have to exist because of insufficient corporate wages and greed at the upper echelons of society.

Sure, CEOs would complain that they could not afford to pay a livable wage, but we know that is an utter lie. Perhaps they might have to learn to cut from the top rather than from the bottom. Maybe they’d have to learn to live without those gold-plated bathroom fixtures, that extra corporate jet, or those thousands-dollar red-bottomed stilettos for a month or two. We know that their salaries alone could be slashed in half and used to pay their employees, and they would still be multimillionaires.  We can no longer allow the lies of the elite class to be taken for granted and perpetuated unchallenged.

A livable wage would be harmful to no one but the people at the top to whom too much is never, ever enough. It could be a means to begin to deal with the immediate problem of poverty, the social problem of the deterioration of the family, and the longer-term, most vital problem of ecological sustainably. I’m certain that all of the economists out there will find fatal flaws in my argument, but consider this in your critique: Do you have any way to attempt to deal with the crisis of ecology in your criticism? Do you even consider it at all?

11 August 2011

When You Play the Plutocrats’ Game, They Win: On Civility and Half Measures

Like many Wisconsinites, I am feeling rather dejected after the disappointing August 9th recall elections. But unlike most of my brothers and sisters, my disappointment stems not so much from the outcome, but from the adherence to propriety and to a faith in inherently corrupt and unjust systems.

I was inspired and awed by the spontaneous and sustained uprisings in February and March and solidarity of the people of Wisconsin. Having lived numerous places throughout this country, there is no other place I would have wanted to call home at that moment. I was so proud to be among the protesters and my tendency toward negativity was suspended for a brief period. And then it ended. People went back to work (or unemployment) and though small demonstrations continued, the massive manpower and money was instead redirected toward recalling six Republican state senators and attempting to replace them with Democrats.

Though I was surprisingly impressed by the bold stand that the fourteen Democratic state senators took to protect the rights of their citizens, and though, having attended hearings in the state legislature, I have found many of these Wisconsin Democratic representatives to be supportive of the needs of the people in the state, I chose not to devote my current activism to the recall elections.

I was at the bargaining table last year when the Wisconsin state legislature and governor’s office were controlled by Democrats. Nevertheless, we state employee unions were told off the bat that any increases in any types of monetary compensation were off the table, and that our health insurance premiums would be increased. Game over. Doing anything else was too risky in “this political climate,” they said. Having worked in the U.S. House of Representatives previously, I saw firsthand the complicity and complacency of many federal Democrats, but I really had no knowledge of politics at the state level in WI. I learned quickly as, after months of negotiating, even our very crappy contracts were voted against by a couple of turncoat Democrats seeking political leverage from the incoming legion of Republicans.

In the past thirty years, state and local governments – in fact society in general - have been catering more and more to corporate interests, and consequently corporate interests have been taking over our state and our society. This has resulted in their co-opting of the only two major political parties allowed to exist in the U.S., as well as in the largest redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich in history. In real terms, massive unemployment, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and social decay has spread across America, going largely unnoticed by anyone not experiencing it, or more likely, trying their hardest to deny it. The corporate controlled media does not report it to any substantive extent. They are too busy promoting new products, gadgets and consumer distractions.

In addition to consistent tax cuts for the rich and corporations and the expenses incurred from two-plus illegal and unnecessary imperial wars, the most recent recession in 2008 - caused by the unregulated casino known as Wall Street - has caused most of the fiscal crises in the states and throughout the nation. Yet, the Wall Street bankers committed fraud, the “brilliant” Ivy-League educated economists looked blithely away as the economic system collapsed, and the government officials who should have prosecuted the thieves let the perpetrators go scot free and proceeded to blame vital public employees for the financial woes caused by the rich. They not only allowed the criminals to go away unscathed, they fed these same criminals OUR money so that they could maintain their obscene wealth. Meanwhile, all over the nation, we, who had already lost everything, were being told we had to lose MORE so that those same rich people whom we had bailed out could “save” us through their privatization of all public goods (which, of course, does nothing but fatten their pocketbooks and starve us dead).
These unspeakable acts of reverse Robin-Hood corporate socialism took place under the watch of both Democrats and Republicans. We’d all like for it to not be so, in order for us to be able to easily place blame on one side, and go to the polls to vote in the other direction, but that vote is just a half measure. It often obtains little and changes nothing.

I do not wish to blame the Democratic officials in my state, because many of them - including Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and numerous state assemblypersons and senators whom I have had the good fortune of meeting during these recent months - have proven themselves more stalwart and progressive than most. I also recognize the insidiousness of the phony “grassroots” Tea Party, their corporate sponsors, their Republican allies, and their media propaganda machine. But laying the blame for the desperate state we find ourselves in solely at the feet of the GOP is completely disingenuous. Despite the rhetoric in the media, the real conflict is not between the Democrats and the Republicans; here and throughout the world, there is not a political war but a class war – and the rich are winning by a landslide. Given that context, trying to exact change through electoral politics is futile because the system is already rigged by the plutocrats, and because if one is not willing to deviate from their system, one is bound to lose.

Many political activists working on the recall elections have been saying that we want to elect Democrats to “stop the bleeding” and then we will hold them accountable to the people. From my vantage point, I do not see bleeding; I see fatal hemorrhaging from the carotid artery that only societal change, not politics, will be able to surgically repair.

When we play the game of the plutocrats, we allow:
  • A “Citizen’s United” election in which endless corporate moneys control the outcome
  • Continuation of the false premise that Wisconsin even had a budget “crisis”
  • Media framing that “the people have spoken through their votes” (regardless of the fact that this cannot be the case in a country where corporations are considered people)
  • Domination by “middle class” in discourse, instead of discussions about poverty, racism, and severe social injustices
  • Political tricks and illegal maneuvers (see: falsification of election date on absentee ballots, consistent election irregularities in Waukesha county clerk’s office, phony robo-calls by right-wing groups, voter intimidation at polls, voter disenfranchisement through cumbersome voter ID law, etc.) going uncontested or unprosecuted
  • “Conspiracy theory” narratives to dismiss all skepticism, despite tremendous evidence of organized wrongdoings

One of the main ways we play into their game is through prevarication and civility. What should have happened, as many chanted on March 8th – the day the state Assembly illegally voted on the anti-collective bargaining bill and 7000 people immediately flooded past the gatekeepers at the capitol doors to protest – was a general strike. If our elected officials can break a law that attempts to protect the transparency of our state legislative process by pushing through a vote without due notice, then citizens should have broken a wholly unjust law that attempts to criminalize the rights of workers to not show up for work.

I’m originally from New York. New Yorkers have a justified stereotype of being rude and abrasive (often unprovoked and for no reason). By contrast, what I have found living in Wisconsin for the past two years and in the Upper Midwest for the past four, is that civility is at a premium here. As a general rule, people like to maintain decorum and do not like to complain. That can be a very nice thing, for example, when you are new in town and everyone is welcoming and nice. But it is extremely disadvantageous when one is reticent to “act out” for fear of conflict or contention.

One of the Democrats in the recall elections said in an interview that she did not like the recent changes in Wisconsin government, because things had become so divisive and people could not compromise. Given the current state of affairs, I would say that compromise is not in order. When it comes to balancing a budget by hampering or eliminating all of the social safety nets for the poor in order to enhance incentives for corporate interests, a legislator who seeks a balanced “compromise” on these unequal terms is not a legislator that any citizen needs. Likewise, a citizen who would rather retract into her (not-so) comfortable life by casting a vote rather than by challenging an unjust political and social system is not a citizen who will be victorious for her cause. Right now, I hope that Wisconsinites can realize that when battling plutocracy, one must leave one’s civility at the door. Maybe now’s the time to take a lesson from the New Yorkers; maybe now’s the time to stop playing by their rules and to be belligerent, obstinate, and uncompromising.

01 August 2011

Enough Equivocation: Obama and His Democratic Comrades are Right-Wing Republicans

A few months ago as I walked around the buzzing and ignited capital in Madison, I came upon a vender selling T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers commemorating the ongoing sociopolitical struggle in Wisconsin. One read, “Recall Walker, Re-Elect Obama.” I loudly verbalized, “Well, HALF of that is right” and proceeded to go on a short tirade to my indulgent partner about how misled and idiotic it is to support Barack Obama for President in 2012. Some people around me seemed to glare as if I were crazy.

I have not seen anywhere, in neither the corporate nor the so-called alternative media, an analysis of the debt ceiling “crisis” that truly resembles the obvious truth. Numerous comments on alternative blogs suggest that there are citizens who have it figured out, but that which will not be spoken remains unspoken: not only is the crisis of the debt ceiling a fabrication, but Obama is also getting exactly what he wants.

Back when Barack Obama was inaugurated as President I recall watching the Daily Show, on which a former law school professor who taught both Barack and Michelle spoke about the couple. He told Jon Stewart that back when they were in law school, it seemed to him the Obamas were Republicans. I remember Jon Stewart laughing and thinking that the good professor was making a joke. I thought he was serious, and now more than ever, I still do.

What more evidence do we need that Obama supports a right-wing neoliberal agenda?

Here is but a short list of policies he’s enacted (or not enacted) off the top of my head:

  • Bailing out Wall Street while millions of Americans went homeless and hungry
  • Extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy
  • Enacting an ineffective new health care overhaul which puts even MORE wealth into the coffers of insurance companies but does little to nothing for the sick American (yet force them to pay for this atrocity)
  • Failing to prosecute the Bush administration for war crimes, including torture
  • Increasing free trade agreements throughout the world
  • Continuing detention at Guantanamo Bay
  • Continuing “extraordinary rendition”
  • Continuing the unwarranted and ill-advised war in Afghanistan
  • Cutting and/or threatening to cut Medicare, Medicaid. and Social Security (the latter which has NO connection to the federal budget debt – it is wholly funded by our own separate cash from the FICA tax)
  • Promoting nuclear power as “clean” energy
  • Promoting highly risky offshore drilling as safe
  • Continuing warrantless wire-tapping of innocent citizens
  • Prosecuting more whistleblowers than any other president in recent history

These are neoliberal policies that support the corporate state, not the people. Obama is not, was not, and has never been a socialist. He is not a liberal. He is a corporate conservative serving the ruling class – a class not comprised of you or me or anyone who makes less than a six-figure income, let alone finds themselves in a lingering state of unemployment.

Barack Obama knows exactly what he is doing. He did not cave to the GOP. He did not make concessions to the “other side.” He enacted policies for his side: the ruling class, the rich.

Sure, you may have donated ten, twenty, even a hundred dollars to his 2008 campaign, but that is just a drop in the proverbial bucket. The bulk of his contributions came from his real constituents; the rich and the corporations that they run have donated hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to their boy Barry. These are his people, much as George W. Bush came out and simply stated explicitly: this is his “base.”

Obama could have asked to raise the debt ceiling temporarily months ago. He could have utilized the fourteenth amendment to prevent the issue of raising the debt ceiling from being willfully conflated with the budget deficit. He could have tried to raise the debt ceiling indefinitely, thus ending the whole debacle. He could have taken Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security off the table. Could have, should have, would have …. But didn’t.

Obama is not concerned with the American people who are increasingly jobless, homeless, and in deteriorating health. He is concerned with his re-election and in pleasing those who will enable his victory. By forcing this spurious “emergency” with the debt ceiling, and by agreeing to a “compromise” that takes more of America’s wealth away from those in need in order to enable the ever-increasing prosperity of the 1% ruling class (who currently have 80% of the wealth and soon to be more), he sends a clear signal that he is on their side. He is their man – if even that was really in question to begin with. He indicates that it is safe to contribute to his re-election. It is safe to allow him another four years of pilfering the poor and working class to fatten the wealthy, of enabling ecological destruction to all for the economic benefit of the few.

It is time to open our eyes and understand that in politics, men like the eminently moral and resolute Bernie Sanders are a dying breed, and that Obama was never such a man.

It is time to recognize what some realized when they searched into the depths of Obama’s superficial rhetoric in 2008 – and found nothing. Our current president is not a progressive, not a socialist, not even what used to be a Democrat when I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. He is a corporatist of the ruling class and his actions have been completely consistent with that reality. Furthermore, this debt ceiling sham and its subsequent bill are an immoral travesty that was orchestrated to end precisely as it has.

27 July 2011

The United States of Tyranny and Injustice

Portrait from Robert Shetterly

It's been awhile since we've written. There is so much harm occurring throughout the world on so many levels that it is difficult to decide which is the most worthy of discussion.

One of the most recent atrocities (beyond the indirect genocide occurring in Africa) is the sentencing of environmental activist Tim DeChristopher to two years in prison.

Our criminal justice system is criminal, not just. It rarely defends real people yet always manages to defend white collar corporate thieves and murderers.

Instead of writing why the sentencing of DeChristopher is a travesty, I will just let this strikingly intelligent and moral young hero speak for himself, as he did prior to his sentencing:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak before the court.  When I first met Mr. Manross, the sentencing officer who prepared the presentence report, he explained that it was essentially his job to “get to know me.”  He said he had to get to know who I really was and why I did what I did in order to decide what kind of sentence was appropriate.  I was struck by the fact that he was the first person in this courthouse to call me by my first name, or even really look me in the eye.  I appreciate this opportunity to speak openly to you for the first time.  I’m not here asking for your mercy, but I am here asking that you know me.

Mr. Huber has leveled a lot of character attacks at me, many of which are contrary to Mr. Manross’s report.  While reading Mr Huber’s critiques of my character and my integrity, as well as his assumptions about my motivations, I was reminded that Mr Huber and I have never had a conversation.    Over the two and half years of this prosecution, he has never asked my any of the questions that he makes assumptions about in the government’s report.  Apparently, Mr. Huber has never considered it his job to get to know me, and yet he is quite willing to disregard the opinions of the one person who does see that as his job.

There are alternating characterizations that Mr Huber would like you to believe about me.  In one paragraph, the government claims I “played out the parts of accuser, jury, and judge as he determined the fate of the oil and gas lease auction and its intended participants that day.”   In the very next paragraph, they claim “It was not the defendant’s crimes that effected such a change.” Mr Huber would lead you to believe that I’m either a dangerous criminal who holds the oil and gas industry in the palm of my hand, or I’m just an incompetent child who didn’t affect the outcome of anything.  As evidenced by the continued back and forth of contradictory arguments in the government’s memorandum, they’re not quite sure which of those extreme caricatures I am, but they are certain that I am nothing in between.  Rather than the job of getting to know me, it seems Mr Huber prefers the job of fitting me into whatever extreme characterization is most politically expedient at the moment.

In nearly every paragraph, the government’s memorandum uses the words lie, lied, lying, liar.  It makes me want to thank whatever clerk edited out the words “pants on fire.”  Their report doesn’t mention the fact that at the auction in question, the first person who asked me what I was doing there was Agent Dan Love.  And I told him very clearly that I was there to stand in the way of an illegitimate auction that threatened my future.  I proceeded to answer all of his questions openly and honestly, and have done so to this day when speaking about that auction in any forum, including this courtroom.  The entire basis for the false statements charge that I was convicted of was the fact that I wrote my real name and address on a form that included the words “bona fide bidder.”  When I sat there on the witness stand, Mr Romney asked me if I ever had any intention of being a bona fide bidder.  I responded by asking Mr Romney to clarify what “bona fide bidder” meant in this context.  Mr Romney then withdrew the question and moved on to the next subject.  On that right there is the entire basis for the government’s repeated attacks on my integrity.  Ambition should be made of sterner stuff, your honor.

Mr Huber also makes grand assumptions about my level of respect for the rule of law.  The government claims a long prison sentence is necessary to counteract the political statements I’ve made and promote a respect for the law.  The only evidence provided for my lack of respect for the law is political statements that I’ve made in public forums.  Again, the government doesn’t mention my actions in regard to the drastic restrictions that were put upon my defense in this courtroom.  My political disagreements with the court about the proper role of a jury in the legal system are probably well known.  I’ve given several public speeches and interviews about how the jury system was established and how it has evolved to it’s current state.  Outside of this courtroom, I’ve made my views clear that I agree with the founding fathers that juries should be the conscience of the community and a defense against legislative tyranny.  I even went so far as to organize a book study group that read about the history of jury nullification.  Some of the participants in that book group later began passing out leaflets to the public about jury rights, as is their right.  Mr Huber was apparently so outraged by this that he made the slanderous accusations that I tried to taint the jury.  He didn’t specify the extra number of months that I should spend in prison for the heinous activity of holding a book group at the Unitarian Church and quoting Thomas Jefferson in public, but he says you should have “little tolerance for this behavior.”

But here is the important point that Mr Huber would rather ignore.  Despite my strong disagreements with the court about the Constitutional basis for the limits on my defense, while I was in this courtroom I respected the authority of the court.  Whether I agreed with them or not, I abided by the restrictions that you put on me and my legal team.  I never attempted to “taint” the jury, as Mr Huber claimed, by sharing any of the relevant facts about the auction in question that the court had decided were off limits.  I didn’t burst out and tell the jury that I successfully raised the down payment and offered it to the BLM.  I didn’t let the jury know that the auction was later reversed because it was illegitimate in the first place.  To this day I still think I should have had the right to do so, but disagreement with the law should not be confused with disrespect for the law.

My public statements about jury nullification were not the only political statements that Mr Huber thinks I should be punished for.  As the government’s memorandum points out, I have also made public statements about the value of civil disobedience in bringing the rule of law closer to our shared sense of justice.  In fact, I have openly and explicitly called for nonviolent civil disobedience against mountaintop removal coal mining in my home state of West Virginia.  Mountaintop removal is itself an illegal activity, which has always been in violation of the Clean Water Act, and it is an illegal activity that kills people.  A West Virginia state investigation found that Massey Energy had been cited with 62,923 violations of the law in the ten years preceding the disaster that killed 29 people last year.  The investigation also revealed that Massey paid for almost none of those violations because the company provided millions of dollars worth of campaign contributions that elected most of the appeals court judges in the state.  When I was growing up in West Virginia, my mother was one of many who pursued every legal avenue for making the coal industry follow the law.  She commented at hearings, wrote petitions and filed lawsuits, and many have continued to do ever since, to no avail.  I actually have great respect for the rule of law, because I see what happens when it doesn’t exist, as is the case with the fossil fuel industry.  Those crimes committed by Massey Energy led not only to the deaths of their own workers, but to the deaths of countless local residents, such as Joshua McCormick, who died of kidney cancer at age 22 because he was unlucky enough to live downstream from a coal mine.  When a corrupted government is no longer willing to uphold the rule of law, I advocate that citizens step up to that responsibility.

This is really the heart of what this case is about.  The rule of law is dependent upon a government that is willing to abide by the law.  Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law.

Mr Huber claims that the seriousness of my offense was that I “obstructed lawful government proceedings.”  But the auction in question was not a lawful proceeding.  I know you’ve heard another case about some of the irregularities for which the auction was overturned.  But that case did not involve the BLM’s blatant violation of Secretarial Order 3226, which was a law that went into effect in 2001 and required the BLM to weigh the impacts on climate change for all its major decisions, particularly resource development.  A federal judge in Montana ruled last year that the BLM was in constant violation of this law throughout the Bush administration.  In all the proceedings and debates about this auction, no apologist for the government or the BLM has ever even tried to claim that the BLM followed this law.  In both the December 2008 auction and the creation of the Resource Management Plan on which this auction was based, the BLM did not even attempt to follow this law.

And this law is not a trivial regulation about crossing t’s or dotting i’s to make some government accountant’s job easier.  This law was put into effect to mitigate the impacts of catastrophic climate change and defend a livable future on this planet.  This law was about protecting the survival of young generations.  That’s kind of a big deal.  It’s a very big deal to me.  If the government is going to refuse to step up to that responsibility to defend a livable future, I believe that creates a moral imperative for me and other citizens.  My future, and the future of everyone I care about, is being traded for short term profits.  I take that very personally.  Until our leaders take seriously their responsibility to pass on a healthy and just world to the next generation, I will continue this fight.

The government has made the claim that there were legal alternatives to standing in the way of this auction.  Particularly, I could have filed a written protest against certain parcels.  The government does not mention, however, that two months prior to this auction, in October 2008, a Congressional report was released that looked into those protests.  The report, by the House committee on public lands, stated that it had become common practice for the BLM to take volunteers from the oil and gas industry to process those permits.  The oil industry was paying people specifically to volunteer for the industry that was supposed to be regulating it, and it was to those industry staff that I would have been appealing.  Moreover, this auction was just three months after the New York Times reported on a major scandal involving Department of the Interior regulators who were taking bribes of sex and drugs from the oil companies that they were supposed to be regulating.  In 2008, this was the condition of the rule of law, for which Mr Huber says I lacked respect.  Just as the legal avenues which people in West Virginia have been pursuing for 30 years, the legal avenues in this case were constructed precisely to protect the corporations who control the government.

The reality is not that I lack respect for the law; it’s that I have greater respect for justice.  Where there is a conflict between the law and the higher moral code that we all share, my loyalty is to that higher moral code.  I know Mr Huber disagrees with me on this.  He wrote that “The rule of law is the bedrock of our civilized society, not acts of ‘civil disobedience’ committed in the name of the cause of the day.”  That’s an especially ironic statement when he is representing the United States of America, a place where the rule of law was created through acts of civil disobedience.  Since those bedrock acts of civil disobedience by our founding fathers, the rule of law in this country has continued to grow closer to our shared higher moral code through the civil disobedience that drew attention to legalized injustice.  The authority of the government exists to the degree that the rule of law reflects the higher moral code of the citizens, and throughout American history, it has been civil disobedience that has bound them together.

This philosophical difference is serious enough that Mr Huber thinks I should be imprisoned to discourage the spread of this idea.  Much of the government’s memorandum focuses on the political statements that I’ve made in public.  But it hasn’t always been this way.  When Mr Huber was arguing that my defense should be limited, he addressed my views this way: “The public square is the proper stage for the defendant’s message, not criminal proceedings in federal court.”  But now that the jury is gone, Mr. Huber wants to take my message from the public square and make it a central part of these federal court proceedings.  I have no problem with that.  I’m just as willing to have those views on display as I’ve ever been.

The government’s memorandum states, “As opposed to preventing this particular defendant from committing further crimes, the sentence should be crafted ‘to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct’ by others.”  Their concern is not the danger that I present, but the danger presented by my ideas and words that might lead others to action.  Perhaps Mr Huber is right to be concerned.  He represents the United States Government.  His job is to protect those currently in power, and by extension, their corporate sponsors.  After months of no action after the auction, the way I found out about my indictment was the day before it happened, Pat Shea got a call from an Associated Press reporter who said, “I just wanted to let you know that tomorrow Tim is going to be indicted, and this is what the charges are going to be.”  That reporter had gotten that information two weeks earlier from an oil industry lobbyist.  Our request for disclosure of what role that lobbyist played in the US Attorney’s office was denied, but we know that she apparently holds sway and that the government feels the need to protect the industry’s interests.

The things that I’ve been publicly saying may indeed be threatening to that power structure. There have been several references to the speech I gave after the conviction, but I’ve only ever seen half of one sentence of that speech quoted.  In the government’s report, they actually had to add their own words to that one sentence to make it sound more threatening.   But the speech was about empowerment.  It was about recognizing our interconnectedness rather than viewing ourselves as isolated individuals.  The message of the speech was that when people stand together, they no longer have to be exploited by powerful corporations.  Alienation is perhaps the most effective tool of control in America, and every reminder of our real connectedness weakens that tool.

But the sentencing guidelines don’t mention the need to protect corporations or politicians from ideas that threaten their control.  The guidelines say “protect the public.”  The question is whether the public is helped or harmed by my actions.  The easiest way to answer that question is with the direct impacts of my action.  As the oil executive stated in his testimony, the parcels I didn’t bid on averaged $12 per acre, but the ones I did bid on averaged $125.  Those are the prices paid for public property to the public trust.  The industry admits very openly that they were getting those parcels for an order of magnitude less than what they were worth.  Not only did those oil companies drive up the prices to $125 during the bidding, they were then given an opportunity to withdraw their bids once my actions were explained.  They kept the parcels, presumably because they knew they were still a good deal at $125.  The oil companies knew they were getting a steal from the American people, and now they’re crying because they had to pay a little closer to what those parcels were actually worth.  The government claims I should be held accountable for the steal the oil companies didn’t get.  The government’s report demands $600,000 worth of financial impacts for the amount which the oil industry wasn’t able to steal from the public.

That extra revenue for the public became almost irrelevant, though, once most of those parcels were revoked by Secretary Salazar.  Most of the parcels I won were later deemed inappropriate for drilling.  In other words, the highest and best value to the public for those particular lands was not for oil and gas drilling.  Had the auction gone off without a hitch, it would have been a loss for the public.  The fact that the auction was delayed, extra attention was brought to the process, and the parcels were ultimately revoked was a good thing for the public.

More generally, the question of whether civil disobedience is good for the public is a matter of perspective.  Civil disobedience is inherently an attempt at change.  Those in power, whom Mr Huber represents, are those for whom the status quo is working, so they always see civil disobedience as a bad thing.  The decision you are making today, your honor, is what segment of the public you are meant to protect.  Mr Huber clearly has cast his lot with that segment who wishes to preserve the status quo.  But the majority of the public is exploited by the status quo far more than they are benefited by it.  The young are the most obvious group who is exploited and condemned to an ugly future by letting the fossil fuel industry call the shots.  There is an overwhelming amount of scientific research, some of which you received as part of our proffer on the necessity defense, that reveals the catastrophic consequences which the young will have to deal with over the coming decades.

But just as real is the exploitation of the communities where fossil fuels are extracted.  As a native of West Virginia, I have seen from a young age that the exploitation of fossil fuels has always gone hand in hand with the exploitation of local people.  In West Virginia, we’ve been extracting coal longer than anyone else.  And after 150 years of making other people rich, West Virginia is almost dead last among the states in per capita income, education rates and life expectancy.  And it’s not an anomaly.  The areas with the richest fossil fuel resources, whether coal in West Virginia and Kentucky, or oil in Louisiana and Mississippi, are the areas with the lowest standards of living.  In part, this is a necessity of the industry.  The only way to convince someone to blow up their backyard or poison their water is to make sure they are so desperate that they have no other option.  But it is also the nature of the economic model.  Since fossil fuels are a limited resources, whoever controls access to that resource in the beginning gets to set all the terms.  They set the terms for their workers, for the local communities, and apparently even for the regulatory agencies.  A renewable energy economy is a threat to that model.  Since no one can control access to the sun or the wind, the wealth is more likely to flow to whoever does the work of harnessing that energy, and therefore to create a more distributed economic system, which leads to a more distributed political system.  It threatens the profits of the handful of corporations for whom the current system works, but our question is which segment of the public are you tasked with protecting.  I am here today because I have chosen to protect the people locked out of the system over the profits of the corporations running the system.  I say this not because I want your mercy, but because I want you to join me.

After this difference of political philosophies, the rest of the sentencing debate has been based on the financial loss from my actions.  The government has suggested a variety of numbers loosely associated with my actions, but as of yet has yet to establish any causality between my actions and any of those figures.  The most commonly discussed figure is perhaps the most easily debunked.  This is the figure of roughly $140,000, which is the amount the BLM originally spent to hold the December 2008 auction.  By definition, this number is the amount of money the BLM spent before I ever got involved.  The relevant question is what the BLM spent because of my actions, but apparently that question has yet to be asked.  The only logic that relates the $140,000 figure to my actions is if I caused the entire auction to be null and void and the BLM had to start from scratch to redo the entire auction.  But that of course is not the case.  First is the prosecution’s on-again-off-again argument that I didn’t have any impact on the auction being overturned.  More importantly, the BLM never did redo the auction because it was decided that many of those parcels should never have been auctioned in the first place.  Rather than this arbitrary figure of $140,000, it would have been easy to ask the BLM how much money they spent or will spend on redoing the auction.  But the government never asked this question, probably because they knew they wouldn’t like the answer.

The other number suggested in the government’s memorandum is the $166,000 that was the total price of the three parcels I won which were not invalidated.  Strangely, the government wants me to pay for these parcels, but has never offered to actually give them to me.  When I offered the BLM the money a couple weeks after the auction, they refused to take it.  Aside from that history, this figure is still not a valid financial loss from my actions.  When we wrote there was no loss from my actions, we actually meant that rather literally.  Those three parcels were not evaporated or blasted into space because of my actions, not was the oil underneath them sucked dry by my bid card.  They’re still there, and in fact the BLM has already issued public notice of their intent to re-auction those parcels in February of 2012.

The final figure suggested as a financial loss is the $600,000 that the oil company wasn’t able to steal from the public.  That completely unsubstantiated number is supposedly the extra amount the BLM received because of my actions.  This is when things get tricky.  The government’s report takes that $600,000 positive for the BLM and adds it to that roughly $300,000 negative for the BLM, and comes up with a $900,000 negative.  With math like that, it’s obvious that Mr Huber works for the federal government.

After most of those figures were disputed in the presentence  report, the government claimed in their most recent objection that I should be punished according to the intended financial impact that I intended to cause.  The government tries to assume my intentions and then claims, “This is consistent with the testimony that Mr. DeChristopher provided at trial, admitting that his intention was to cause financial harm to others with whom he disagreed.”  Now I didn’t get to say a whole lot at the trial, so it was pretty easy to look back through the transcripts.  The statement claimed by the government never happened.  There was nothing even close enough to make their statement a paraphrase or artistic license.  This statement in the government’s objection is a complete fiction.  Mr Huber’s inability to judge my intent is revealed in this case by the degree to which he underestimates my ambition.  The truth is that my intention, then as now, was to expose, embarrass and hold accountable the oil industry to the extent that it cuts into the $100 billion in annual profits that it makes through exploitation.  I actually intended for my actions to play a role in the wide variety of actions that steer the country toward a clean energy economy where those $100 billion in oil profits are completely eliminated.  When I read Mr Huber’s new logic, I was terrified to consider that my slightly unrealistic intention to have a $100 billion impact will fetch me several consecutive life sentences.  Luckily this reasoning is as unrealistic as it is silly.

A more serious look at my intentions is found in Mr Huber’s attempt to find contradictions in my statements.  Mr Huber points out that in public I acted proud of my actions and treated it like a success, while in our sentencing memorandum we claimed that my actions led to “no loss.”  On the one hand I think it was a success, and yet I claim it there was no loss.  Success, but no loss.  Mr Huber presents these ideas as mutually contradictory and obvious proof that I was either dishonest or backing down from my convictions.  But for success to be contradictory to no loss, there has to be another assumption.  One has to assume that my intent was to cause a loss.  But the only loss that I intended to cause was the loss of secrecy by which the government gave away public property for private profit.  As I actually stated in the trial, my intent was to shine a light on a corrupt process and get the government to take a second look at how this auction was conducted.  The success of that intent is not dependent on any loss.  I knew that if I was completely off base, and the government took that second look and decided that nothing was wrong with that auction, the cost of my action would be another day’s salary for the auctioneer and some minor costs of re-auctioning the parcels.  But if I was right about the irregularities of the auction, I knew that allowing the auction to proceed would mean the permanent loss of lands better suited for other purposes and the permanent loss of a safe climate.  The intent was to prevent loss, but again that is a matter of perspective.

Mr Huber wants you to weigh the loss for the corporations that expected to get public property for pennies on the dollar, but I believe the important factor is the loss to the public which I helped prevent.  Again, we come back to this philosophical difference.  From any perspective, this is a case about the right of citizens to challenge the government.  The US Attorney’s office makes clear that their interest is not only to punish me for doing so, but to discourage others from challenging the government, even when the government is acting inappropriately.  Their memorandum states, “To be sure, a federal prison term here will deter others from entering a path of criminal behavior.”  The certainty of this statement not only ignores the history of political prisoners, it ignores the severity of the present situation.  Those who are inspired to follow my actions are those who understand that we are on a path toward catastrophic consequences of climate change.  They know their future, and the future of their loved ones, is on the line.  And they know were are running out of time to turn things around.  The closer we get to that point where it’s too late, the less people have to lose by fighting back.  The power of the Justice Department is based on its ability to take things away from people.  The more that people feel that they have nothing to lose, the more that power begins to shrivel.  The people who are committed to fighting for a livable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today.  And neither will I.  I will continue to confront the system that threatens our future.  Given the destruction of our democratic institutions that once gave citizens access to power, my future will likely involve civil disobedience.  Nothing that happens here today will change that.  I don’t mean that in any sort of disrespectful way at all, but you don’t have that authority.   You have authority over my life, but not my principles.  Those are mine alone.

I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me.  If you side with Mr Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away.  I certainly don’t want that.  I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false.  I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government.  I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience.  If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them.  You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path.  You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing.  You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM.  You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it.  This is not going away.   At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like.  In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like.  With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.  The choice you are making today is what side are you on.

04 July 2011

On July 4th, Rejecting the Immoral "American Dream"

Courtesy adbusters.org

The United States of America can dream only because of one of the most extensive acts of genocide in recorded human history. When Europeans landed in the region that was eventually to include the United States, there were people here. Population estimates vary, but a conservative estimate is 12 million north of the Rio Grande, perhaps 2 million in what is now Canada and the rest in what is now the continental United States. By the end of the so-called Indian Wars, the 1900 census recorded 237,000 indigenous people in the United States. That’s an extermination rate of 95 to 99 percent.[3] That is to say, the European colonists and their heirs successfully eliminated almost the entire indigenous population -- or the “merciless Indian Savages” as they are labeled in the Declaration of Independence, one of the most famous articulations of the American Dream. Almost every Indian died in the course of the European invasion to create the United States so that we may dream our dreams. Millions of people died for the crime of being inconveniently located on land desired by Europeans who believed in their right to dominate.

I have concluded that the American Dream is inconsistent with social justice and ecological sustainability. So, I’m against the American Dream. I don’t want to rescue, redefine, or renew the American Dream. I want us all to recognize the need to transcend the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of the American Dream. If we could manage that, the dream would fade -- as dreams do -- when we awake and come into consciousness.

From  The Anguish in the American Dream  by Robert Jensen

06 June 2011

Walkerville Day Three: Protect Public Services

While “public services” was the theme of the day in Walkerville, the slogan surely could have been “We will not be silenced!”  At least a thousand citizens converged to march around capitol square to protest the cuts to essential public services in the upcoming biennial state budget.

 At 11:30AM, a diverse group comprised of firefighters, police officers, nurses, teaching assistants, students, farmers, and numerous other community members assembled and marched up State Street to the capitol, as they had done over and over in the past several months. The bagpipers of the local fire department led the way and tractors followed in the rear as protesters made their journey around the capitol building, repeating their now familiar chants calling for equality, justice, and democracy.

Stopping briefly at M&I bank, the group demonstrated against the taxpayer bailout received by that financial institution, who then used their funds to support Governor Walker’s campaign. Shouting, “You got bailed out, we got sold out,” the protesters marked their disgust about governmental funds being funneled to private corporations rather than public services.

After several rounds about the capitol square, the firefighters led the protest group to the door of the capitol building at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Hoping to re-enter the people’s building, as they had been able to in all times past, the protest group was blocked from entry. Discovering that a side door around the corner was left ajar, a number of protesters ran to the entrance and went into the building, only to encounter capitol police officers who tried to block their passage.
 The firefighters managed to gain access to the rotunda of the capitol to symbolically voice their concerns with the legislation being promulgated by the current administration. Meanwhile, others in the building did not fare as well. A couple of protesters were carried out of the building for failing to enter through the “proper” guarded door, even though at least one actually had. Two visiting documentary filmmakers from Vermont were forcibly escorted into an elevator and arrested for “disorderly conduct,” which apparently is now defined as being in the capitol with a video camera. Interestingly, there were more (erroneous) arrests today than in all of the prior months of protests, and for the first time members of the press were arrested.

As lobbyists and friends of Walker are whisked into the statehouse through a secret tunnel, the citizens who are the true owners of the capitol must be frisked and go through a metal detector to enter their own building. But this is a perfect analogy to the state budget, which hands out millions to those members of the corporate elite (who in turn, do nothing with their riches to help anyone but themselves), and slashes rights and services to all of the actual taxpaying citizens of the state.

What was clear here on Day Three in Walkerville was that fascism has become the dominant theme of the current state administration. Oppression is rampant, as not before witnessed in the previous demonstrations and rallies. Besides the continued blocking of open access to the capitol building, the Walkerville encampment itself faces severe restrictions in terms of the spaces and times allowed for the village to exist. In addition, police seem to be quick to arrest, with little to no provocation. Apparently, our new Mayor Paul Soglin is also complicit in the oppression, as sources say he reneged on his promises to the citizen protesters today, and assisted in the threats and arrests of anyone not strictly adhering to prescribed orders about when and where they could and could not be.

Nevertheless, the importance of this day should not be underestimated. Despite the attempts of the governor and state legislators to subjugate the citizenry, the citizens have proven that they will not lie down or retreat. Indeed, their struggle is about basic survival. One could immediately sense the exhilaration and excitement, the sense of purpose and strength as the crowds who had previously walked, rallied, protested, and even slept beside one another for days on end were once again united. The day marked a renewed effort in the ongoing movement against not just one anti-union bill, but the larger corporate takeover of government. It demonstrated that the ties made in recent months between numerous groups and individuals still hold strong and that the efforts to fight the anti-union bill will continue in the fight against the unjust Walker budget bill … and beyond.  

Not resting on their laurels, Wisconsinites establish Walkerville

After the huge wave of protests throughout February and March, the focus of activists in Wisconsin moved to the impending recall elections this summer. The winter actions erupted as a result of an anti-union bill which threatened to remove essentially all collective bargaining rights for public employees as well as hamstring unions by requiring the almost impossible tasks of annual recertification and individual opt-in dues collecting. In response, besides assembling in numbers reaching nearly one-hundred thousand, Wisconsin citizens amassed signatures on petitions to facilitate the recall of numerous state senators who had voted for Governor Walker’s duplicitous legislation.

In the past two months, though a presence of protesters has remained - with their t-shirts, buttons, signs, banners, vuvzelas – around the vicinity of the capitol building, it appeared the united front of thousands had waned. Groups still came to meet for solidarity sing-a-longs and to attend governmental committee hearings on the many new regressive, pro-corporate, anti-human bills being forwarded by the Wisconsin legislature. But with the recall elections on the horizon and with the recent small victory of the Dane County circuit court dismissing the anti-collecting bargaining law (as it had been passed so hastily as to not adhere to common legislative requirements), it appeared that Wisconsinites might be done with the fight, resting on their own laurels and those of the Democrats they hoped to elect via the recall.

Of course, the corporate media, who operate under the same anti-human system that fosters plutocracy and redistribution of wealth from the many to the few, would like nothing better than to make it appear that all is “back to normal” in the cheese state. So, perhaps few people outside of Wisconsin and even outside of Madison realize that we were serious when we said that this was not a protest but a movement. There is much yet to be accomplished.

As of 7pm on Saturday, June 4th, a diverse group of citizens, representing unionists, non-union workers, students, teachers, immigrants, farmers, families and people with no formal affiliation (save for being a part of the empathetic class who truly seeks liberty and justice for all) laid down their tents and founded “Walkerville” around the perimeter of the Wisconsin capitol building. With a nod to the Hooverville tent cities of the Great Depression, these activists are demonstrating that we are not only opposed to the aforementioned anti-union bill, but that we are opposed to the entire regressive budget of this state, which wholly removes the rights and social safeties for the most vulnerable members of our society and shifts all of the state’s bounty to the wealthiest and most anti-social corporate oligarchs.

The police state enacted by the Walker administration has severely hampered the lawful and peaceful assembly of citizens in our own statehouse, so Walkerville exists to re-establish the constant presence and occupation by the people of the state, whose voice is being muted within the capitol.

Most importantly, Walkerville demonstrates that we in Wisconsin are not going to let up. Just as we are being attacked on all fronts as citizens, we will be fighting back on all fronts. Though the Democrats in our state legislature have stepped up to the plate and helped to support the will of the people, it is unlikely that they would have done so had their feet not been held to the fire. If we had not gathered in the capitol clearly proclaiming our will, our presence, and our solidarity, it is not clear the state Democrats would have had the impetus to help us fight. Thus we know that simply electing new officials will never be enough to ensure justice for the people from the government.
States like New York and California serve as prime examples of how the Democratic agenda is just as corporate as the Republican. Governor Andrew Cuomo, the son of a man once considered one of the strongest liberals in NY State history, is promoting many of the same brutal and unnecessary cuts to education and poverty programs. The underserved of California are faring no better under Jerry Brown. If we citizens fail to realize that we must pressure ALL politicians of all politician affiliations, and we must be prepared to fight indefinitely against the bipartisan corporate takeover of our local, state, and federal our government, we are sure to lose.

Walkerville signifies the fortitude of the Wisconsin people, and the recognition that our struggles as citizens are not soon to end. Our actions may take new forms or may morph as they are reassessed for utility, but they are far from over.

For those of us in Wisconsin who cannot camp out day and night around the capitol but still want to volunteer with the movement, there are numerous opportunities to be present for more protests and actions against the state budget, which will be negatively affecting all of us. (See Defend Wisconsin for full details.) For those in other states who will likely see similar developments, please know that we are still fighting, as you will surely have to fight too. The more we acknowledge that this struggle against the ruling class will be ongoing, that it affects us all, and that we may not ever be able to “return to normal,” the more likely we may have a fighting chance for our future.

15 May 2011

Delusion and Denial Part 2: Ecology, Sustainability, et cetera

Western chorus frog in hand

I yelled at the Lorax, “Now listen here, Dad! All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad!’ Well, I have my rights, sir and I’m telling you. I intend to go on doing just what I do! And for your information, you Lorax, I’m figgering on biggering and biggering and BIGGERING and BIGGERING; turning MORE Truffula trees into Thneeds which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs!”
--- Theodor Geisel

 It is possible that in the backwards Bizarro world, “wants” means “needs” and “growth” means “sustainability,” but here in the actual world that we occupy there exist certain immutable biochemical and physical principles, whether we want to believe in them or not. Economics, politics, and law all have fundamental principles that are wholly human constructs and wholly alterable, yet we refuse to change them and pretend instead that they are absolute. On the other hand, science has fundamental principles that cannot be altered by humans, yet in our magical thinking even the “best and brightest” of us believe that scientific principles can be modified. In thinking so, we are perilously approaching our ecological limits. The public discourse about these scientific principles, where it even occurs, continually places them in the context of economics and politics – as if they are equivalent. Though the atrocious sociopolitical and economic conditions throughout the world certainly do need to be addressed, these issues are portrayed as the primary, if not the singular problems that our global society faces. In reality, all of these issues are secondary to the issue of ecology; for without a biome, without ecosystems to sustain life, we have no society, no politics, no economics, no homo sapiens.

In the world of interdisciplinary environmental studies, academics and organizations like to believe that their purpose is to address these issues of primacy, to help find “win, win” solutions to the criminal raping and pillaging that human civilizations have committed on the earth. Yet, they commence at a starting point that ensures their inevitable failure. Even those who acknowledge the dire environmental emergency that we face on the planet consign themselves to ruin because they refuse to conform to the reality that they themselves know and have studied.

The following comprise some common erroneous premises that many environmentalists/environmental scientists agree upon, which ensure our certain doom. Predicating research and activism on any one of these illusions merely enables us to deny the inevitable:

1. We need more (energy, fuel, goods, etc.)
I once read that a group of émigrés to America from the African continent were taken to the Mall of America in Minnesota and had to be escorted out because they were so overwhelmed with grief and discomfort to witness such a spectacle. Their reaction seems reasonable and rational. I have no idea why we do not all feel this way when we enter any large scale store any day. I often go into a supermarket or department store and feel ill thinking about how many items are present in that one store; probably enough to supply the needs of the entire city – forever. I cannot find any quantitative statistics on such a thing, as no one seems to care about our gross overabundance of material items, but we must have more consumer goods than the people on the planet could ever actually consume. And yet, there are dozens or more of these stores in my city alone. And yet, we keep producing more goods (or “bads” as I like to call them). And yet, millions of people still do not have the basic necessities they need. These items of necessity certainly do exist on the planet in plentiful abundance for all people, but they are not made for people, they are made for profit.

So, industrial nations continue to produce more bads, even though we need no more, and we continue to buy more bads, even though we need no more, and we continue to utilize precious natural resources.

There are renewable and nonrenewable resources, of course. Ecologists would say that if we just utilize renewable resources, then we can continue to produce more forever. But when renewable resources are consumed faster than they can be renewed, they become non-renewables. This is how we persist. With all of the political discussion of production, consumption, economy, and jobs, we too often deny that we live on a finite planet with finite resources – and even infinite resources that we have made to be finite. These will run out, and due to our continual neglect, they will run out faster than we can probably imagine. This way of life is not sustainable.

2. We must work with corporations
Emblematic of this idea that corporations are inevitable in our lives is the fact that at our annual Earth Day celebration, my environmental studies school invited the CEO of Stonyfield Farm to speak. Though Stonyfield Farm is an organic dairy corporation, it is still a corporation. It supplies products to Walmart, with the idea that selling organic products at Walmart promotes sustainability, since organic farming is certainly more sustainable than conventional farming and since Walmart supplies more products to more people throughout the globe. But selling more products, of course, organic or not, is not sustainable. Industrial organic agriculture is not sustainable. Flying, shipping, and trucking packages and products all over the globe is not sustainable. The corporate model of endless growth and constantly increasing rates of growth is incompatible with finite resources on a finite planet. Beyond the atrocities that corporations commit in the context of labor exploitation and increasing poverty, their basic model of business is not ecologically sustainable, no matter which way you slice it.

3. We need industry
Numerous reports have demonstrated recently that the solution to hunger throughout the world is small-scale organic agriculture. If you have ever grown a garden and/or shared your vegetables with friends and neighbors you know that unless you are visited with some agricultural calamity/disease, you almost always have more food than you can ever eat. Industrial agriculture is not necessary to supply the needs of the planet; in fact, it is only necessary to fill the coffers of industrialists. How one can possibly conclude that shipping packaged food throughout the globe and selling it to people through middlemen is the best way to provide this basic necessity of life is beyond comprehension.

Industry consumes raw materials and energy and emits harmful pollutants that last for eons in the environment. Industry simply fosters more use, more consumption of finite resources, more waste, and more profits for the rich. In an absurd and illogical manner, we actually use energy to gather and disseminate our energy supplies (coal, gas, oil, uranium). You cannot keep using energy to gain energy. Moreover, industry creates unbelievable, incomprehensible amounts of waste. Just look at the industrial wastelands of abandoned factories. Does that seem sustainable?

Have you ever seen or learned about a landfill? In a streak of creative insanity, some inane “genius” decided it would be wise to dig a large hole, bury all of our used or broken products (most of which cannot decompose, or at least, not quickly or safely) and cover them up for all eternity within our soils. Oh, and wait! These things might be somewhat toxic and might seep into our waterways, so we will line these holes with plastic (another product made from oil and also highly toxic) to prevent the waste from mixing with our clean water and our soil. Brilliant!

And these are but just a few examples of industry.

Needless to say, industry and industrial infrastructure are entirely unsustainable.

4. Science and technology will save us
Last year I went to a talk by economist and political activist Jeremy Rifkin. He explained the work he was doing in Europe, where they were dismantling large scale electrical infrastructures and replacing them with small scale, local “renewable” energy designs. Though, in theory, these designs appear to be a terrific solution to our energy problems, in reality, they are mere stop-gap measures. To deem them sustainable is to be delusional. A student remarked that even these small, local, renewable systems required not only inputs of materials - often rare-earth, extremely non-renewable materials (not to mention materials often garnered through slave labor) - but constant maintenance, which rendered them unsustainable in the long run. When asked how to deal with these quandaries of sustainability, rather than denying them, Rifkin merely remarked that it would be up to the next generation to figure out those solutions. And herein lies the magical thinking of science and technology. Though, of course, solar panels on one’s roof to power one’s home are far less harmful that nuclear power plants, they are not sustainable. Nor are wind turbines or hydroelectric plants (particularly those that require dams). To think that they are is simply ridiculous.

Likewise, in education, nearly all teaching now requires computers. Computers are in classrooms, lessons are provided through PowerPoint presentations, grades are monitored via online databases. In fact, I think every field of work in the western world also now requires computers and probably internet. We keep updating our technology and purchasing NEW! FASTER! MORE FLASHY! computers that keep our minds more idle than ever, keep us more occupied with more nonsense than ever, and keep our real interpersonal interactions more remote than ever. These computers require the input of many precious metals and rare-earth materials. They are called rare because they are rare. To assume that we can continue to produce and use  computers, internet, and cell phones is to be completely deluded. But we seem to believe we will go on like this forever.

The other day a nuclear physicist spoke to my environmental toxicology class. Having no knowledge about toxicological mechanisms or biology (or none that she demonstrated), she simply declared that not only were new (still hypothetical) third and fourth generation nuclear plants safer than the old, but that they were completely safe, period. In addition, she stated that we must not only built more nuclear power plants, but that we must find ways to recycle the waste as well as remove it for “clearance.” Clearance of radioactive materials is a euphemism for creating consumer products from low-level radioactive materials. She proclaimed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would not allow this low level radiation to be released to our environment if it were not safe for us. Her unfounded, unsupported words are the kind of industrial, corporate, ideological propaganda that is allowed to be imparted as knowledge to students. Not one thing about what this woman said was supported by scientific toxicological evidence – or common sense - and not one thing that she said established how on earth nuclear energy could possibly be safe or sustainable. What she demonstrated was nothing but illogic and ultimate human hubris. Yet most American politicians of both major parties tout nuclear as a safe and sustainable energy of the future, just as they tout offshore drilling as safe in spite of the glaringly obvious evidence to the contrary.

Finally, of late, science has played a crucial role in maintaining the status quo while examining and modeling systems. For example, conservation biology attempts to conserve natural systems and organisms while maintaining our industrial infrastructures. Science continually measures the harm stemming from alterations in ecological systems due to climate change. Science studied the pattern of movement of the oil plume in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP/Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. It studied the harm to wildlife following the disaster. It modeled the movement of radioactive material through the air emanating from the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. In short, science has tremendous capabilities to monitor our ruin. Yet science has done little or nothing to prevent our ruin. On the contrary, the need for scientific authentication of harms enables corporations to perpetuate those harms as science seeks the means of measuring and proving them. Prevention of ruin does not require science, it requires ethics and common sense actions, such as those found in the Precautionary Principle.
5. Climate change is the most important environmental problem facing the planet
Noted biologist Paul R. Ehrlich gave a speech here in Madison last year, in which he stated that climate change might not be the biggest problem facing humanity today – it might actually be toxics. For many, it was just another one of Ehrlich’s notions to dismiss, as he was the scientist who wrote of the crisis of overpopulation in 1968, but we have not suffered the effects of any such problem yet, right? While the population has not collapsed, how easily we neglect the more than two billion people on the planet without potable water and the billions who do not have adequate food supplies. Yet most will tell you that Ehrlich was far off in his dire predictions of calamitous overpopulation. That is because science favors Type II statistical errors – false negatives - rather than Type I errors – false positives. So the fact that the human race has not yet met its carrying capacity, as Paul seemingly predicted, makes his false positive an egregious error. However, science is highly tolerant of false negatives, even though these result in death and destruction daily. One of the major false negatives that we deal with every day is in the realm of toxics.

As physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva remarks:
I think one of the most tragic moments of human evolution was when, at the beginning of the scientific revolution, a bunch of men just decided that knowledge was reliable only when it was made totally unreliable. And you could define as totally objective that which had nothing to do with reality. But abstract categories became primary qualities, and primary qualities were reduced to secondary qualities about which you could not be certain. You couldn’t be certain about smelling rotten food or tasting chemicals in your food? … Can you imagine? To be reduced to that level of uncertainty that our most basic indicators of relating to the world - through our eyes, through our ears, through our nose, through our tongue, through our tactile sense – all of that knowing was … erased. And then we were put out with measuring … abstract constructions.  And I believe that has been a very big reason why not only have we ended up destroying so much of the world, but it’s also a reason why we’ve ended up creating so many illusions.
Of our many illusions, one of the greatest is that toxic substances are doing little harm. The other day I heard a report from Fukushima in which a government official stated that just because the radioactive releases from the nuclear power plant were odorous, it does not mean they were harmful. This notion flies in the face of evolutionary biology. In fact, malodor is indicative of harm, and is a means of detection that organisms have adapted to protect themselves from harm! Likewise, we are constantly told that carcinogenic substances – such as radiation – are safe at certain “acceptable levels.” And based upon what is now occurring in Fukushima, those acceptable limits can be arbitrarily increased when they are reached, as the Japanese government has been doing with limits to radiation exposure.
Interestingly, despite all of the evidence of carcinogenic exposure in our environment – radiation from nuclear sources such as power plants and medical diagnostic technologies, industrial chemicals in our air, food, and water, toxic substances within our cosmetics and consumer products - we somehow have come to believe that the cancer we suffer is mainly due to inheritance. While it is certainly true that cancer is genetic – in that it nearly always involves a mutation/alteration of our DNA – to equate cancer to heredity is not only to deny what is obvious all around us, but also to deny evolutionary biology. It is clear that lethal inherited traits – such as cancer – would, according to evolution and natural selection, inevitability be discarded from the population or at the very least decrease in incidence if they were solely hereditary.

Indeed, according to biologist and science historian Nancy Langston, women who possess the so-called “breast cancer genes” BRCA1 and BRCA2, who were born before 1940 (before the boom of synthetic chemicals), have little to no increased risk of cancer. Only those women with these genes who were born after 1940 have an increased cancer risk. In their cases, an increased risk does not inevitably mean cancer – which it would if their inherited genes were the cause of the disease. Thus, the genes allow for more susceptibility to the effects of carcinogens; so the fundamental causal factor here is not the gene but the toxic substance.

Evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald concurs with this assessment that cancer is not hereditary, yet he differs by hypothesizing that cancers are ultimately caused by viruses. Again, that is a nice notion to allow us to continue with our industrial pollution and toxification, but it flies in the face of evidence to the contrary. Though some cancers may be in part caused by viral infections, as in the case of human papillomavirus (HPV), and while it has been demonstrated that animals with impaired immune systems are more susceptible to carcinogenic effects, to deny the existence of carcinogens and to deny that our cancers are being caused by these substances is the ultimate form of delusion. Ever hear of mesotheliaoma? This is a rare form of cancer caused almost exclusively from exposure to asbestos. Unfortunately, most forms of cancer are neither so rare nor so clear in etiology. It is a convenient consequence of polluting the environment with so many toxic substances to which we are exposed that precise disease causation is often too complex to assess. But to deny that many, if not most, cancers are derived from our carcinogenic toxification of our environment is completely and utterly delusional.
Similarly, to deny climate change – the effects of which any of us who have lived more than thirty years (which is the temporal definition that distinguishes climate from weather) have witnessed with our own senses  – is to be living in Bizarro world. It is absolutely absurd and fatalistic. But also, how convenient to pin all of our environmental troubles on climate change! And even more, how convenient to reduce all of these troubles to one basic element: carbon. What an easy way to delude people into believing that solutions are simple and that we can continue as we are, if only we reduce our carbon footprint through advanced technologies and cooperation with corporations! Meanwhile, as we develop and enhance these wonderfully low-carbon technologies (such as natural gas, nuclear and “clean” coal) we slowly die from cancer and other preventable syndromes resulting from our synthetic chemicals and pollution in our toxic environment.

6. We cannot “go back”
When I became a vegetarian almost twenty years ago, so many people asked me what I would do to substitute for the meaty things I once ate. Would I now eat veggie burgers, soy bacon, vegan steaks - the assumption being that these sorts of foods that I once ate and once wanted were also foods that I could not give up and needed? Thankfully, having grown up in an Italian family I had witnessed a plethora of healthful, gourmet, delicious meals that required no meat whatsoever, and I knew that I could have an even more abundant variety of delectable foods available to me as a vegetarian. Just because I had eaten meat did not mean I could not “go back” to a seemingly simpler diet.

But as a student in environmental studies, I have heard the continual mantra that we cannot go back. It does not seem to mean anything. In actuality, as Derrick Jenson often notes, the only sustainable technology is stone-age technology. To call anything else sustainable is delusion. The only sustainable substances are those that re-enter our natural biogeochemical cycles. Thus, anything synthetic or processed is generally unsustainable. Food that is closest to the earth (unprocessed) and lowest on the food chain is nearly always healthiest and most sustainable; materials that are manipulated mechanically rather than chemically are nearly always less toxic and most sustainable. Not only is it wrong to say “we cannot go back,” in fact, if we want to survive, we must go back.

We are the only species on the planet who attempts to magically defy the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. We are the only species on the planet who does not seem to know how to live sustainably – or who wants to delude ourselves into thinking that we do not know.

Truthfully, I used to be more cynical about people. But I do not actually believe that everyone is so delusional, that everyone is in such denial. For example, do we not realize that all of the waste we have dumped into our oceans (take for example, the oil from spills, the endless ships that have sunk, the planes that have crashed, the radioactive materials that have seeped from industry, the run-off from all of our wastes on land), our oceans that sustain a multitude of organisms, is akin for these marine species to dumping drops of crude oil, batteries, electrical equipment, etc, into our own soup or our own bathtubs? It is no way to sustain life. It is all pretty obvious. Everything about our unsustainable lifestyle and society is obvious.

I do not actually think the delusion and denial is as pervasive as it seems. It seems pervasive since the corporate media perpetuate conventional wisdom as manufactured and dictated by their corporate paymasters. People are just fearful – fearful of change, fearful of being different, fearful of dissent. Thus, a “spiral of silence” ensues.

What I have learned from the recent political protests in Wisconsin is that when enough of the more courageous people have the guts to speak out, the more fearful are apt to follow suit. So what the more courageous need to do is identify our idiocy, our excesses, our wastes, our injustices, our unsustainable practices as exactly what they are. We need to put an end to our perpetual corporate manufactured phony positivity; we need to stop labeling the truth-tellers as “Debbie Downers.” The social, economic, and health effects of climate change, the health effects of toxic industrial technologies, and our inevitable ecological collapse do not only affect those who seem pessimistic – they affect all of us.

Do I believe we can prevent the collapse? No I do not. The earth will go on, but most organisms, particularly humans, probably will not. But do I believe that we can prevent as much harm as possible to our fellow humans, as well as our other fellow organisms, whom I love, on the way down? Absolutely. I think that may be the only moral imperative that we have left. After all, evolutionary biology has also shown that altruism and cooperation are inherent traits in organisms.

We cannot pretend that our hybrid cars, our long-life mercury lightbulbs, our energy star appliances, our “clean” coal and nuclear power, or even our solar voltaics, are sustainable. Nor can we pretend that endless economic growth, population growth, industrial technology, and job creation are sustainable. Delusion and denial do us no good. What we can do is acknowledge that unless we drastically alter - even stop - our way of life as we know it immediately, we are in for a tremendously difficult and challenging future as a species. Thus, perhaps all we can do is work our hardest to minimize our deleterious impacts on our ecosystems, to fight injustice, to destroy corporations and industry, to enjoy the beauty of the earth and its biota, and to, as much as possible, help all others who need our assistance as the inevitable ecological suffering unfolds. And, we can tell the truth.

The Game Never Named, the Addendum Never Spoken

Remember that silly game we used to play with fortune cookies from Chinese restaurants? Maybe people still play it. It’s the one where...