Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Conversation with a friend

Logan wrote: "Monica- there have been people looking at the world through rose colored glasses for a long time- has it worked yet? If you can think of a reason I am wrong, by all means let me know. But from what I can figure out, the green movement will make empire sustainable, not change the underlying power structure. I would love to be wrong, but I have been looking into this my entire adult life, and am hard pressed to find reason to think otherwise. Is there something i am missing?

"I am doing permaculture, I talk to people, and do networking etc, etc...nothing that I am doing, or anything anyone I know is doing, seem to affect the power structures that make it possible for the warmongers to rule, and continue to rule. It is not worthless, but that doesn't mean the eating healthy will stop the wars..."

And my answer

Logan, one of the reasons I am grateful that all the crises we now face (environmental, economic, social justice, political) have come all at once is that it forces us to realize that things are seriously wrong in all these areas, and that we have a chance to fix them in a holistic manner.

I greatly admire your permaculture choice, for you show the rest of us the way forward with it. But part of this new way of living demands we do not stop at individual actions (even if they are exemplary lifetime commitments).

You say you have networked and spoken to people and see no change. Believe me, I get that a lot. I’ve had fulfilling conversations with people that shared my vision, and utterly frustrating conversations with as many people that refused to believe the evidence I presented them. I sometimes walk away feeling there is no “net gain”.

Then I realized that what I was missing from this equation was a sense of community, and I’ll explain why. It’s much more difficult for a lone voice in the wilderness to change a person’s perspective. It is wholly another matter if an entire community (people you know and trust) not only makes you “walk the walk”, but takes the time to explain why it is important that you do so.

Industrialization gave millions of poor farmers an entry into a much better world (financial-, education-, health- and mass transportation– wise).

Unfortunately, it also destroyed communities and forced a type of individualism that has fragmented our society; it brought on the wide-spread environmental damage with which we suffer today; it abused people, places and resources for the benefit of a few; it concentrated wealth and corrupted our political process and our politicians; it gave rise to a massive military industrial complex that makes war a self-fulfilling prophecy and all the energy they expend on creating new weapons could in fact end up destroying us, and many other injustices and tragedies.

Writers and philosophers from Emerson and Thoreau to Muir and on down, have been decrying the negative aspects of industrialization practically since it began.

But society (us) chose to accept industrialization because people were able to see the immediate improvement on their circumstances and hoped for more progress for themselves and their family, even as they lived those injustices.

I try not to judge, but when I must, I judge a person’s character by the integrity of his compromises. If a poor farmer decided to work in a paper mill so his children could go to school, I cannot fault him.

That is the insidiousness of the path we chose. Escaping monarchy and feudalism, our founding fathers chose democracy and capitalism, and almost instantly, there were men out to “game” the system. We did not have the tools to think about growing as a community, just as individuals.

Absent any better role models, wealth at all costs became the overriding objective. Many businesses survived and prospered, expanded, proliferated and merged with one another, and we taught the rest of the world how we had managed to attain inordinate individual wealth and comfort, while downplaying the negatives, and keeping everybody happy with the palliative mantra that they too could reach for the brass ring.

The Robber Barons are aptly named, because they brooked no obstacle in their rush to hegemony, and they set the standard. Unions and enlightened legislation stunted the trajectory briefly, only to have some industries supplanted by other, newer industries that also only lusted for market supremacy, and this time, had become expert at influencing government to fulfill their needs.

So now, five generations later, we find ourselves in a seriously damaged ecosystem, with an entrenched business class in a massive rush to consolidate power and wealth as petroleum starts its downward slide, with a deeply divided country that is too worried about where their next meal is going to come from to think long term.

Here’s what I think. All actions have a specific path which by their own nature, exclude other paths. While there is more than one way to reach a goal, once a person, a community, a state or a nation decide upon the path they are going to take, all other paths are sidelined. The opportunity to cross onto a new path is always there, but with each passing year, the inertia of the original path grows, and the distance between it and other path becomes larger (harder to bridge).

So today we are faced with a military that has outposts in 160 countries and has millions of employees with families to support and suppliers that depend on them (not to mention the political relationships and responsibilities and dependencies we have built up with other less militarized countries); we have multinational corporations that pay the salaries of millions of people and act as rogue states (because they can), a political system that routinely undermines scientific data for short-term political gain and crony benefit; widespread belief that social programs are left-wing socialist propaganda; economic policies crafted from ideological demagoguery that have proven in practice to be detrimental to the middle class and the poor, and to the world; a financial system that has surpassed any known limit of prudence and rationality (one hedge fund manager making $4 billion dollars in one year while 25 million lose their jobs: are you freaking kidding me?). And so on and so forth.

The truth is, the small to medium size business sector cannot absorb any more employees, and in consolidating, multinationals rarely grow their employee rosters. From now on, most people that want good jobs are going to have to create them themselves: become entrepreneurs. And that is a long and risky process, and success is never assured.

So how do we turn this ship around? This society that for over a hundred years has been force-fed the notion that we must all become good employees, that we must all accept free market precepts, that the brass ring is there for the taking?

You do what you can, that’s what. And you never give up.

You’ve given your life to pemaculture and networking. I’ve given my life to building a holistic approach to sustainable development (at the community, state and national level from a business standpoint). We all do what we can with what we’ve been given.

As to your concern that environmentalists are simply making empire sustainable, I have a couple of thoughts. Globalization as it is now practiced will not survive Peak Oil. All this rush to “export, export, export” in the “free markets” will not survive Peak Oil.

In 100 years, the global business world will be smaller, and there will be many more small local businesses. But the demise of multinationals has its downside: What will we do with the millions of investors that rely on their multinational dividends and pensions? What will the millions of employees that work for them, do? We know we must stop killing the Earth, but we don't have a clear picture of how to transition out of what we have become without some serious lifestyle compromises and much less comfort.

Business, as nature, has it's own web of connections we have to feed. We were born just in time to ride the wave of cheap energy, and now it is our task to transition back into a local, organic, closed-loop economy as best we can. How do you tame a wild bull in a china shop, without breaking any china?

And that is the magnitude of the challenge. How do you wind down multinational corporations into more equitable, smaller pieces? How do you teach workers to survive in a world without really great salaries and much simpler, tougher lifestyles, but better community relations and support? How does every person become more self-reliant and self-sufficient, and at the same time, interdependent on his or her community for the things they cannot do by themselves? How can we manage this transition by educating everyone, getting everyone on the same page, as opposed to changing lifestyles by force, like we did with antebellum South and slavery?

How do you transition a military from a destructive to a proactive future? (it helps that the military realizes that they no longer just fight wars; it helps that they are driving alternative energy innovation; it helps that they are now charged with nation building), but ultimately the military may have to realize that to best serve us they must become builders instead of destroyers. I don't know how that would work yet, but I know there are some smart guys on the ground working on it, and lots of people that are tired of seeing the young people of this country come back mangled and destroyed, sentenced to a lifetime of physical pain or incapacity.

Until the world gets back down to a population number that is closer to the earth's carrying capacity (and believe me, global warming is set to pummel us into THAT reality), until we get over this population explosion hump and this concentration of wealth hump, the transition is going to be a long and possibly difficult one.

If we are lucky, we can all get on the same page and start saving the only ecosystem we have, and all other solutions will follow; the movement will grow organically. Of course, with fossil fuel interests shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars a year to delay or deny climate change, my wishes have very little chance of actually happening.

If not, we will grind this planet down to its meanest and least hospitable conditions, and either die off as a species, or condemn future generations to a hunter-gatherer existence, where humanity can hopefully begin again, from scratch.

Or something in between. I do not know how all the crucial information we have learned will be passed down. If we lose power before we can transition to alternative energy, whole swathes of knowledge will be lost (so much of it is kept in electronic archives now). People will have to re-learn what they used to know, and what you do so well: how to grow their own food securely.

So I live my life as simply and ethically as I can, I work and study in ways that are going to help me reach my life goals, and I spend a considerable amount of time on the internet, disseminating news and information that I think are important, and having conversations like this one.

Will I personally take down a multinational? No. Will I personally stop bad government, irrational financial institutions, and the military-industrial complex? No.

But by talking to others and framing the problem in broader terms, and choosing to act for long-term gain, I might create community, and from that community good things can happen. It’s not that I am wearing pink colored glasses, it’s that I refuse to wear dark ones. I choose to stay clear-eyed and positive, and hope you will too. Because I refuse to believe that the darkness has won.

PS. Since I took some time to write my response, Logan and others have continued the conversation on Facebook, bringing up more good information which I have not included here.