Saturday, July 16, 2011

They say: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” I say: “It’s the Stupid Economy!”

By Zvi Baranoff

What is the one, most compelling way that you, as an individual can contribute to stimulating the economy? Get in your car and crash it, preferably in a way that results in multiple injuries that will require hospitalization and legal complications that will take years to resolve in court. You have helped employ cops, tow truck operators, emergency responders, doctors, nurses and various hospital workers, lawyers, court personnel, auto mechanics, parts manufactures – the list goes on.

Waste, carelessness and destruction are good for the economy. Safely driving your car and avoiding accidents really contributes very little to our economic system.  If you feel the least bit reluctant to do your part in this way you probably have the basis for understanding the fallacies of virtually all discussions of jobs.
No class of people does more to help stimulate the economy than blown out heroin addicts. Under the current system many junkies steal to support their habits. A junkie with a $200 dollar a day habit may very well steal a thousand dollars worth of stuff to pay for his fix. This set up supports a wide array of people in the underground economy and keeps cops employed. Stolen items are replaced at full market value. Security systems are installed. If the junkie gets AIDS he stimulates the medical industry. If he goes to prison, he helps keep the prison-industrial complex going.

Now some may argue for a harm reduction approach to heroin addiction. I myself am one to take that position. From an economic perspective, harm reduction offers nothing but negatives. If you were to provide heroin to confirmed addicts by prescription in safe clinics at a reasonable cost, all the above mentioned economic benefits would disappear. If you can actually cure the addiction, even the doctors and clinicians would be out of work! Of course, you may think that it is a good thing to reduce the harmful social affects including lessening your chance of being mugged, but that is a pretty selfish point of view!

Clearly, “creating jobs” cannot be the primary motive of any individual action or social policy. The motive must be the greater common good. While some jobs may be created as a result, the most positive approaches will lead to less work being needed rather than more. For society no less than an individual, jobs are a means to an end. We want the security of having a safe place to live and enough to eat. We want medical care when we need it and we want to be able to educate our children. We want recreational opportunities and the occasional luxury. When politicians begin to wave the flag of jobs, they have distracted us from the true goal.

Almost all the public discussion and debate concerning the economy in general and jobs in particular is based on misconceptions, wrong thinking, delusions or outright lies. Pundits and other know-it-alls from the left, right, center, environmentalists and anti-environmentalists alike, all talk about creating jobs and stimulating the economy.  We are asking the wrong questions and the answers we are getting are at best useless and sometimes dangerous. We need to look at the bigger picture, draw honest conclusions and offer suggestions that will make our future more livable.

We need to start with the honest, blunt assessment that the nature of the economy is in the process of a fundamental change that will result in a future with less jobs. No amount of tinkering with structures, no ideological game playing, no government interventions and no wishful thinking will change this. There are things we can do to temporarily create jobs but in the long term we need to recognize that many of the jobs we have known in the past will no longer exist and most of them will not be replaced with an equivalent. We need to think beyond our current set-up.

Where did the jobs go? A popular response is to blame outsourcing or illegal aliens. This is a convenient way of sidestepping truer analysis, while stoking the fires of xenophobia. Newspapers, movie theaters and book stores did not move to India. Undocumented Mexican workers did not take all the jobs in the buggy whip factories. The jobs are going, going, gone mostly because our technology has made much of the work more efficient or obsolete.

In the not so distant past, it took a lot more workers to get anything done. Agricultural work on large estates was done by slaves or serfs. Early factories were crowded places. Mining was done by hand. Wealthy households were staffed by swarms of servants. Transportation required the support network of horse breeders, stables, blacksmiths, etc. Then was then. Now is now. It just ain’t like that any more!

Greater efficiency driven by the combined forces of scientific advancements and the drive for increased profit have steadily moved in the direction of getting more work done with less physical effort and fewer hands needed. First tools and then machinery have significantly reduced the number of farmhands required to produce food.   Production has moved from the craftsman to the factory. The factory system developed the assembly line and the assembly line has become more and more automated. Electrification and household appliances have significantly reduced the number of servants even in the wealthiest of households. Now a flick of a switch or the push of a button can accomplish what took manpower to do not so long ago.

 Of course, all this “advancement” has other costs as well, particularly the environmental degradation.  By the middle of the last century a comprehensive critique of much of the mechanisms of our economy developed as environmentalism. In a piecemeal approach, environmentalism has operated mostly as an emergency break on the madness-driven forward motion exploitation of natural resources for profit. Each step along the way dominant business interests claim that the more environmentally sensitive proposal is “jobs killing” and as of late the environmental knee jerk reaction is to start talking about “green jobs”.

A green transition is an imperative that falls outside of the widespread current understanding of the economy. The argument that a given environmental policy is “job killing” is spurious because continuing with ecologically destructive practices will not “create” jobs. When we respond that green initiatives will create jobs, we are using half truths and basing our arguments on wishful thinking and self-delusions. Ideology or philosophy will not create jobs. Only the need or desire to accomplish a given task and the willingness for someone to pay for it creates jobs. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

We are right to encourage the development of green technology and it is perfectly logical to use incentives like tax breaks or government loans to help bring about these developments. Manufacturing and installing solar panels, retrofitting older houses to make them more energy efficient, installing and maintaining windmills and more is certainly needed but to claim that it is “job creation” is less than truthful. Some jobs will be created, but many of them will be short term. Once the solar panels or the weather stripping is installed, that house is done. A crash program could –and should - convert the entire country over to energy efficient and clean energy in a relatively short time frame. This would be a labor intensive transformation. The end result of a job well done will be a much healthier environment, which is absolutely necessary but will not be lasting full employment.

The key catchphrase of Environmentalism as a movement has been “Reduce, Reuse & Recycle”. A greater truth has probably never been stated in such a pithy manner. Efficiency and voluntary simplicity are central to any long term healthy environment. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Of course, if we consume less, we manufacture less, which means fewer jobs.

Green activist are not the first, of course, to claim that adopting their policies will create jobs. Peace activists have long claimed that ending wars and reducing military spending will result in a Peace Dividend that will stimulate the economy. There is a failed logic here on several fronts. First off, it presupposes that if the military spending was curtailed, the same amount of money would be spent on social programs. The government has been funding the military with borrowed money. If we were to seriously cut back on military spending (and we certainly should) we could reduce or eliminate borrowing. Ending a war brings troops home with no jobs. Cutting out wasteful military production leaves factory workers idle. War is a good business. Nonetheless, peace is still a good idea.

Lately hemp activist have argued that the reintroduction of hemp would turn the economy around. Hemp offers a lot of environmental advantages and the reintroduction would certainly change the nature of the economy, but anyone that thinks that the economy will be stimulated has probably been smoking hemp’s psychoactive cousin. Hemp can produce a better cloth than cotton with less impact on the environment. This would replace one agricultural product with another. Hemp production would be less labor intensive than cotton and the resulting cloth will last longer, reducing purchases of clothing. Hemp can make paper better than wood pulp. The production of paper without cutting trees is a wonderful thing. The process however will certainly be less labor intensive and offer lower paying jobs. Hemp for fuel has a lot of potential. We certainly need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable. However, the key word here is “shift”. I’m all in favor of supporting farmers rather than the oil industry, but if we eliminate one industry and create another, how many jobs are “created”?

Every step we take in reducing waste at either the government, industrial or personal level also reduces the amount of work that needs to be done. We must recognize this, change our methodology of measuring economic worth and begin to develop mechanisms that promote a soft landing because the economy as we know it is going to come down.

One social reform that is already in use in other countries that it would be wise for us to adapt is a system of voluntary part time work.  In the United States part time workers are penalized. For instance, only full time workers have any company benefits and part time workers are generally paid at a lower hourly rate. If we were to adopt a system that made it easier for workers to have a part time work schedule, many full time workers would choose this as an option, having more leisure time for themselves and opening employment opportunities of others.

There is a growing movement striving for self sufficiency. This is made up of individuals, families and collectivist communities. As folks build their own homes, grow their own food, make their own clothes and generally care for their own needs, there is less need for the wasteful processes of industrial production or the assistance of government agencies. Government could encourage self sufficiency in various ways. At the very least, government should remove any regulatory impediments there are in the way of this sort of social development.

The goal must be the development of systems that offer individuals the ability to live securely and with self respect. A job is really only one path in that direction and very well might not be the best long term choice. As we develop alternative mechanisms of support outside of the industrial model, the lack of a “job” will become less and less significant. As a movement we should be far more focused on building alternative economic structures and far less concerned about “economic stimulus” and “job creation”.

The jobs of the last century are gone and will not be replaced. The workers however are still here. It is time for us to roll up our sleeves and do for ourselves what neither government nor capitalism can do; make a livable future.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Manifesto for Transformation: How do we get from here to there?

A Short Introduction & Disclaimer
There is little forward thinking going on. Corporate interests rarely see beyond the next financial quarter. Political interests look to the next election cycle. Most working people see as far as the next paycheck, perhaps the weekend or if they are optimistic the next vacation.

Of course there is widespread recognition that all is not well, in spite of the Smiley Face presentation of the Powers That Be. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the alternative viewpoints most likely to be presented fall into two categories.  One alternative viewpoint is apocalyptic – religious, economic, political or environmental. The second is the false hope of snake oil salesmen that everything will be just fine if we tinker with the mechanisms of the system and buy into an easy solution of their picking. The first breeds despair. The second breeds complicity. There must be a third choice.

There is much wrong politically, economically and environmentally. There are some forward thinking people working on shifting the way we see things and developing actions to shift the terrain. Change of monumental proportion will need to be made in a relatively short time frame. What is required is not simplistic or easy, but is essential. The changes essential for human survival will require a significant shift in consciousness and practice.  I believe that the human race has incredible capacity for learning and bringing about change.

The issues I discuss here are international, but the targeted audience for this essay is North American readers. The position we find ourselves in as United States citizens is unique. The USA makes up approximately 5% of the world’s population but we consume around 25% of the world’s resources. The “Land of the Free” also incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. The USA dominates the world economy and for better or worse is an international trendsetter. This gives those of us living here a moral imperative to take decisive action. I address ways that we can help support efforts for peace, justice and environmental sanity worldwide, but our primary actions need to be here, where we live. Physician, heal thyself.

Movements in countries worldwide can and should support each other’s efforts. We need to act in solidarity and will more and more need to act in a coordinated manner, but the place to begin, with each of us is in our own communities. I make no claim to have all the solutions, but I attempt to bring voice to a new approach. This is a call to action.

A Manifesto for Transformation: How do we get from here to there?

It is becoming more and more self evident that without an overall transformation of our culture, our political system and our economy, not only will life on this planet be difficult and often brutal, but may actually become impossible. In recent years we have begun to see a coalescence of ideas and movements that have in the past operated in fields of their own. A worldview that encompasses peace, environmental sanity and social justice is beginning to be recognized by a broad range of activists. Small scale, decentralized programs are blooming throughout the world that offer a glimmer of hope and serve as direction beacons for the future we must develop for our mutual survival. As we fine tune our common visions, we need to establish strategies to bring about the essential changes in a coherent way and with a rapidly accelerated pace.

What has become increasingly clear is that we can no longer consume the resources of the earth faster than the earth can replenish those resources without rapidly reaching a significant crisis point. We have done so for centuries but we cannot continue so for even decades. We need to reformulate our understanding of wealth and happiness and learn to live within the context of our one and only viable planet.

A relatively tiny percentage of the human race now consumes most of the world’s resources and a significantly large number of people eke out a marginalized living on next to nothing. Questions concerning equitable distribution play in here, but class conflict is not the crux of the matter. Unfairness aside, we are all on the same sinking ship. This is not the time to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is time to load the lifeboats. The industrial model of the last century will not carry us forward to the next. We need an entirely different approach.

We must develop an international strategy with a focus on local action to build self reliant and sustainable communities. By building strong and vibrant local economies we can enrich and support ourselves without exploitation of people and resources on the other side of the world. Likewise, with wise, ecological development, Third World communities can bypass the disastrous and detrimental industrial processes that the so-called advanced industrial nations went through.

The links between inappropriate practices in one part of the world inherently affects the rest of the world. We do not live in bubbles. Air pollution knows no borders. Neither does desertification, melting polar ice caps, deforestation, disease or hunger. What affects one region will affect the rest of the world, directly or indirectly. Developing wise practices to conserve resources and preserve our environmental security is in all of our interests, whether it is a solar project in California or an energy efficient cook stove in Uganda. Rational and sustainable farming practices are needed worldwide and a garden in one’s yard or on an urban lot is a good start no matter where on our planet you live.

Our struggle takes place on three fronts. We have the ongoing political struggles that take the form of lobbying and electoral campaigns. There are the aspects of resistance against corporate and state power that span the spectrum from boycott to mass demonstrations to civil disobedience and sabotage. And there is the direct action of building the new society in the shell of the old. Successes on the first two fronts tend to be more dramatic and headline grabbing. However, building a lasting economic and cultural base is essential to carry us forward into a transformative new paradigm.

Beyond Illusions

We need to build a stable state economy that sees beyond financial exchanges and paper profits. We absolutely need to get beyond any illusion that increased production and increased consumption is either desirable or possible.
Even among environmentalists there are those who foster the illusion that we can simply change our sources of energy and continue to consume at present levels. This is a form of self delusion and a misrepresentation. Wave a magic wand and make every car in the world today electric; the air quality would certainly be better but there would still be too damn many cars. While we can certainly place solar panels on virtually every rooftop, turning vast swaths of our deserts into solar fields to provide unlimited electricity to huge soulless cities is not my idea of sustainability. And turning Africa’s farmlands into production fields to fuel European automobiles is morally reprehensible.
We cannot simply tinker with the methods of production and continue onward. Useless crap made from recycled materials is still useless crap. Fulfilling work is a blessing but unsatisfying drudgery to feed the needs of corporate task masters and financial manipulators – even in hydrogen powered factories or solar lighted offices – is still a form of doing time. Substantial changes in the way we live not only are essential but are truly desirable. Eco-sleight of hand and enviro-capitalist exploitation will not save the planet, will not improve the quality of our lives and will not enrich our spirits.

We must hurry up and slow down! We must learn to consume less as part of living more. Our goal must be more than merely making changes in technology, as desirable as developing and implementing new technology may be. History is not a train moving forward on one track with inevitable results. We have choices that go beyond simply redecorating the train or even switching out the engine. We need to transform our lives and our culture. We can create a future on a different track.

Land is Liberty

The basis of all true wealth is land. Without land we are all landless peasants, whether we are campesinos or high tech workers or employees at Starbucks. On the other hand, control of land opens opportunities to truly take control of our own lives rather than simply being trapped between bosses and landlords. An impediment to the rapid proliferation of the post-industrial community base is the lack of a coherent strategy for land acquisition.

We need to carry forward the social experimentation on a long term basis. We must create an economic base that will allow for building a network of alternative communities and institutions, promote the new technologies and encourage the artistic and spiritual development of a revolutionary culture. The decentralized projects that center on new forms of housing construction, backyard and community gardening, radical recycling projects, community building and cutting edge energy sources are acting as incubators for the new society. 

We have moved forward in fits and jumps. The Back to Land Movement stemming from hippie communes of the 60’s and 70’s and the Squatters movements of the 1980’s have each contributed to the momentum. Unfortunately, neither wave was sustainable. The first relied heavily on the generous resources of a few relatively wealthy benefactors’ to purchase land and inexperienced communards to eke out subsistence. The next wave challenged private property and state interests in a direct manner in a way that, though noble and righteous, was fraught with internal conflicts and destined to fail due to the power of the state apparatus.

Squatted land, while “free” is an insecure base. Without a secure title guaranteeing the ability for continued occupation any project is tenuous and investing in infrastructure is unrealistic. Likewise, rented property is at the mercy of the landlord and local real estate market trends. Without the security of a very long term lease, how can one make the investment of labor or money required to develop organic farms, build experimental structures, install solar panels, etc?

Private ownership answers some of the problems noted above but is beyond the reach of many, becoming increasingly difficult for working class people. A 30 year mortgage ties one down to a long term economic relationship with bankers holding out a glimmer of eventual property ownership. Loans are offered based on the bank’s expectations for financial return and are hinged on an economic outlook that differs significantly from our own world view. Traditional mortgages from traditional banking institutions are difficult if not impossible to get for the funding of experimental projects. An individual or family making monthly payments will work full time with little if anything left over once the monthly bills are paid.

Bankers & Realtors for the Revolution

We need to form a National Transformation Land Trust dedicated to promoting the sorts of future oriented development that we support. By holding the land in trust and offering very long term leases (30, 50 and 100 years) to Transformational enterprises we can spread out the cost and financial risks of our social experiment.

The priority for land acquisition is to establish food production and distribution serving the greatest need. Focus should be on establishing organic farm communities adjacent to urban areas, urban farms on inner-city lots, sustainable housing near these urban farms and cooperative food markets for the distribution of the produce. A particular need is to establish housing for people working on sustainability projects.

We need to develop a step by step mechanism of building equity using a financial strategy in some ways similar to private or corporate real estate investors, but with a different set of goals and a unique operating system. As we acquire properties, we can offer favorable leases to cooperative enterprises that promote our shared vision. The equity from each property acquired will be used to back new loans to acquire new properties.

How do we get started?

We need to start by bringing together a circle of progressive property and business owners. We need to establish the Land Trust as a non-profit organization and set things so that it can receive tax deductible donations but we need to think well beyond the mechanism of a charity. People should also be able to think of the Land Trust as a secure investment. We should seek out funds from a broad base of supportive investors by offering low cost bonds. By selling bonds – similar to savings bonds – we give an opportunity for a broad range of individuals to be involved. As properties are acquired, the rents from the properties will also be reinvested for more land. Additionally, the fund can offer short and medium term loans to leaseholders to fund construction costs for housing, greenhouses and work spaces, purchase of farm equipment, solar and other energy development projects and start up capital for enterprises.
I don’t think I can emphasize enough the importance of a very broad financial base. By holding a $50 or $100 Transformation bond - amounts that can literally be raised by children from pocket change – we can create a broad base of shareholders in a shared vision of a much more satisfying future.

Shelter & Food Security

Millions of people worldwide – the vast majority of the world’s population in fact – are either employed in dissatisfying and unfulfilling work, underemployed, unemployed, in the army or in jail! We constitute a great and deep well of untapped potential. Even in the richest countries, even among the wealthiest of the classes, the level of dissatisfaction is high because it is evident that material goods in and of themselves do not produce happiness.
The official unemployment rate in the USA has been hovering around 10%. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the actual rate – considering the chronically unemployed and the seriously underemployed – is significantly higher. If you take in to consideration the entire American population (including those too young or too old for employment, the disabled, those that choose not to work, etc.) less than half of us hold jobs. Even within this context, a recent poll showed that half of those that have jobs would quit if they could! Yet, in spite of all this, there is little discussion concerning the nature of work and the value of human potential. Politicians and economists do not speak about our visions and desires. But when Johnny Paycheck sang Take This Job and Shove It, he voiced the feelings of millions of working folks. We can recreate work to reflect our true values.

A basic level of material security is clearly needed by all. By making basic shelter and food a core priority we create conditions where we free up and access our most important resource – human potential. As we expand our ability to insure a minimum standard of economic stability for an activist community, the creative wealth and experimental vibrancy of the individuals involved can truly flourish.

We need to mobilize the unemployed and the discontented, idealistic youth and visionary artists, the marginalized and the frustrated, the hopeful and the hungry, those who have never held jobs and those retired from years of self-sacrifice to the alter of the economic system. One by one, dozens by dozens and hundreds by hundreds, a bonding of mutual aid and a creation of an alternative economic and social reality is beginning to take place. We can and must encourage this process.

The North American Road Trip

Envision the W.P.A. but without the government. Envision Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters meeting Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity. I see a road trip of massive proportions crisscrossing the continent. Walt Whitman’s and Woody Guthrie’s spirits spurred forward by tech savvy computer geeks and media wizards.

A scenario: A small local core group laid the groundwork by scouting out the right location; a block of abandoned row houses is adjacent to a large vacant lot.  With the help of the Transformation Land Trust made up of sharp negotiators with a serious understanding of the ins and outs of real estate, purchase of the seemingly apocalyptic landscape was negotiated and the deed to the property is now held by the Land Trust.

What follows is not a random happening. It is well thought out and carefully orchestrated.

Picture this: A busloads of volunteers pour out of brightly decorated, vegetable oil powered buses onto a desolate section of an American inner city. Pageantry and music marks the occasion. Surely a media event, local television and newspapers are there as the busses unload. With garden and construction tools in hand, the crew pitches in.

By the end of the day, debris is cleared, a garden is plotted out and the row of buildings is nearly habitable, and within days there is an internet cafĂ©, a bicycle co-op, a farmers market, a tool sharing warehouse, a thrift store and a recycling center up and running. There is a collection center as part of an international solidarity program to gather and store used computers and bicycles for distribution in the third world. There is living space above the shops. Now, like the directions printed on the back of your shampoo bottle, “lather, rinse, repeat”.  Some of the volunteers may stay on to help out at this location but the buses move on to the next town and do it all over again!

The pooling of resources and tools coupled with the use of volunteer labor and recycled or donated materials will greatly accelerate the growth of equity of each property, creating conditions that help facilitate the next project. As each project gains traction, a financial base is created that can support more and more activists. With the sense that shelter and food are no longer tenuous, the material conditions to support the political and cultural transformation are encouraged.

Reversing the Industrialization and Corporate Consolidation of Farm Land

The industrial model for food production is large mono-culture farms “efficiently” producing food for urban “consumers”.  The introduction of pesticides and fertilizers changed the face of food production and stimulated the increased consolidation of land ownership into fewer and fewer hands. The North America Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was largely a manmade ecological and economic disaster, the result of poor farming practices that destroyed the topsoil of the North American Midwest.

Personal bankruptcy drove farm families off their land and desolated local economies, stimulating the largest mass migration in American history and a shift of our culture from agrarian based to urban. The process of economic consolidation has marched on. Government subsidies have largely encouraged the development of the larger farms leading us to the present corporate control of so much of our farmland and our food supply.

The trend is worldwide. Forced Collectivization was the policy of the Soviet Union and all the countries under the Soviet influence. The result in those countries was also the removal the masses of peasants, turning them into urban proletariat. In spite of the euphemistic use of the word “collectivization” the policy was the industrialization and centralization of production. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet economic model collapsed but the industrialization has not been reversed.

We are now seeing a trend in Africa where multinational corporations are gaining control over vast amounts of farmland. The primary economic incentive is the potential of energy production, using Africa’s farms to “feed” the fuel needs of Europe. This parallels the use of the North American Breadbasket to grow corn for ethanol. This trend epitomizes the addictive nature of our energy consumption. Like junkies that will choose heroin over food, we seem poised to giving up our food producing farms to maintain our habit of excessive energy consumption.

The idea that we can grow fuel and continue to consume at today’s rate is a greenwashing lie. It is most insidious with the use of corn based ethanol. Producing fuel from corn consumes nearly as much fuel in production. The only way it makes any sense is with continued government subsidy. To replace the amount of petroleum fuel currently being consumed in the USA with corn based ethanol would require virtually every acre of food producing farmland to be converted to energy producing corn.

The only plant that can be used with any efficiency in North America to produce fuel is hemp. Hemp can theoretically produce ten times more fuel per acre than corn. Unfortunately, the commercial cultivation of hemp in the USA has been effectively suppressed by corporate interests and the United States law. The suppression of hemp beginning in 1937 further exasperated the damage done to our agrarian economy as a result of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Reintroduction of hemp cultivation for use as fuel as well as for fiber use in the production of paper and cloth and as a source of building materials such as fiberboard has great ecological and economic potential. The political struggle to change the laws that suppress hemp must continue until the laws are overturned. But even if we were able to establish a hemp based economy tomorrow, that would not be a justification for unfettered consumption. No matter what the source, we must reduce use.

The Transformation Land Trust has the potential to act as a buffer against the trend of corporate takeover of our remaining farms.  The Land Trust can work with families owning existing farms to secure their use of the land in perpetuity. The Trust can help by acquiring indebted properties and offering very long term and adaptable leases in place of bank debts. The Trust can purchase farms that have gone under or properties that families no longer wish to farm and help establish alternative organic farms.

The support of rural farms works hand in hand with our development of urban gardens and food coops. Urban gardens can produce a significant portion of a community’s food supply. Nonetheless, there is a continued need for rural farms. By bolstering a rural farm network, we can foster a true independence from corporate food.

Additionally, rural areas offer far greater options for experimental construction. Most urban areas hinder experimental construction with an extensive web of permit requirements and governmental inspections. Rural alternative farms will be the incubators where the effectiveness of the new wave of experimental architecture and the cutting edge in solar development can be hashed out.

The Prison Industrial Complex & the War on Drugs

When Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” 40 years ago he understood what he was doing. The War on Drugs has never been about the common good, no mater what rhetoric was used. Nixon felt (rightfully) under attack from the anti-war movement and the counter culture. By declaring “drugs” public enemy number one, Nixon was able to draw a line in the sand and effectively used Middle America’s fears of crime, drugs, the “other” and the unknown as a wedge to divide the interests of the American working class. 

The right wing understood the value of Cultural Warfare. The Left (on the whole) tucked tail and ran, giving up any moral argument. “Drugs” became the third rail of American politics. The Liberals and the Left gave up the moral high ground on the issue and drugs have been used as an excuse to strip social liberties and build a culture of mass incarceration. Nixon was discredited and driven from the Presidency and any public discourse, but his War on Drugs is a legacy we still live with.

The prison industrial complex perhaps is enigmatic of what is wrong with the American economy.  Prisons produce nothing of value, cost the general public and enrich the few. The market is totally subsidized by government manipulation of market conditions. Over half of all prisoners are drug prisoners. As a result of a wide array of “tough on crime” laws including minimum mandatory sentences, three strike laws, the abolition of parole programs, etc. we have turned imprisonment into a growth industry. The United States locks up more of its own citizens that any other country in the world. A quarter of the world’s prisoners are in the USA.

The justification for the War on Drugs is the rate of drug use, yet the overwhelming vast majority of so-called drug users use no illegal substances other than marijuana. Clearly a majority of all drug arrests are for simple possession of marijuana. (Granted, most of these arrests do not result in prison time, but they do consume precious resources of cops and courts.) Marijuana prohibition is the linchpin of the War on Drugs, the cornerstone of the American War on Drugs and the entire Prison Industrial Complex.

America’s War on Drugs has global environmental consequences. The use of defoliants to destroy drug crops is wrecking havoc on rainforests. The military suppression of traffickers pushes processors into jungles. In the USA National Forests are damaged by illegal marijuana grow operations. As more cannabis is now produced indoors in grow houses – the practice a direct result of marijuana prohibition -unbelievable amounts of electricity are used to grow plants that would otherwise grow happily in backyards. And a side effect of all this is the continued suppression of hemp in the misguided legal and economic attack on marijuana’s industrial cousin.

The violence and death that is the result of America’s War on Drugs is also global. The huge profits guaranteed by prohibition fuel an industry with the primary purpose of supplying drugs to the United States. The Drug War in Mexico grabs some headlines. 40,000 people have been killed there since their government chose to ratchet up the military approach. Further south and beyond our immediate attention Central America is also embroiled in Drug War violence. The murder rate in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is four times higher that that in Mexico. Keep an eye on Western Africa and expect an uptick in violence as Africa becomes the transit choice of South American drug traffickers heading to European markets.

In Mexico we are now seeing the beginning of a mass movement to end the War on Drugs.  A peaceful movement challenging the Mexican Government, corruption and the militarization of law enforcement is taking root and finding voice just south of our border. This mass non-violent movement deserves our solidarity through parallel and supportive actions in the USA. After all, the War on Drugs was manufactured in the USA. It must be dismantled here.
We are just now coming seeing politicians beginning to pull their heads out of the sand on these issues. The high cost of maintaining prisons and the continued failure of prohibition policies is becoming increasingly clear. 

Conversely, the broad recognition and acceptance of marijuana as medicine, now legally recognized by sixteen states, has softened up the national psyche to discussions of cannabis legalization. The direct action of dedicated medical marijuana providers, many of whom face prosecution and some that sit today in American prisons helped bring us to this point. Until the Federal laws change, medical marijuana will be available only through the tenuous links of a modern Underground Railroad.

The Wheels of Revolution

In the industrial world the bicycle is often seen as a toy or at most a recreational accessory. The potential of the bicycle as a tool of social change is often overlooked. I see the bicycle as freedom in action, a counterbalance to a transportation regime dominated by the automobile. The petroleum industry holds us hostage but we can choose to pedal away.  More and more people are learning to live car-free.

For the Third World, the bicycle offers transportation which means access to education, work, and markets. Bicycle coops in America have become instrumental medium to create a positive link between advanced industrial societies and the newly emerging post-industrial societies of the Third World. Old bicycles and bicycle parts are being collected by activists as part of an overall campaign of bicycle advocacy. Shipped by cargo container loads to Africa and South America, the bicycles are being distributed by bike coops at the receiving end.

The bicycle has shown the way for a wide variety of direct aid to Third World communities. Alternative construction projects, solar energy, agricultural assistance and computer and internet access are combining to create conditions that will allow villages to leapfrog into the Twenty First Century. Much of this work through non-profit organizations has been piecemeal. As the strategy I envision for the USA expands, I foresee an opportunity to increase support and encouragement for this type of international development. After all, we share this planet as well as common dreams and aspirations.  

What the Health Care Debate Missed

For nearly two years the national media and the body politic of the USA seemed to be consumed by a national debate over health care. The debate focused on drug and hospital costs, insurance, lawyers and government policy. Progressives lined up with the President with hopes of a National Health Care program. The opposition ranted and raved about “creeping socialism” and government interference into our lives. What was frustratingly missing from the whole dialogue was any discussion of conditions that lead to health or illness.

The primary causes of illness are pollution, poor nutrition, stress and lack of exercise. By reducing energy use and wasteful production, supporting and developing clean energy, going organic, planting gardens, changing the nature of work, and making our urban areas bicycle and walking friendly we can do much to improve health and reduce the costs of health care.  The policies and strategies discussed in this program directly address these issues. A National policy that promoted health would most certainly make sense as a centerpiece of a National Health Policy. Much of this, of course, falls outside of the mechanism of State intervention and we can and should move forward to make our lives more livable with or without the help of government.

Mass Movements and Street Actions

Wide scale dissatisfaction often leads to mass demonstrations. Where the conditions are ripe, mass demonstrations can bring about regime change. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia has been felt around the world. European youth are camping in the streets. Some participants in the Peace Movement in Mexico credit the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as their inspiration. This can all be very exhilarating. We too have plenty of reason to take our issues to the street, but street action alone, even when governments are toppled, is not enough to bring about the sorts of changes that we require.

Mass demonstrations in the USA have been effective as a mechanism of opposition as in the Vietnam era anti-war movement and the anti-nuclear demonstrations. We certainly need to be in position to mobilize supporters and work in conjunction with others around a wide array of key issues. The building of our alternative economy helps create a base for mass organizing. The focus however must remain on the medium and long term development of a true alternative to the deteriorating established institutions.
Workshops, Universities & Playgrounds of Revolution

We both learn and we teach from experience. Each step along the way we have the opportunity to bring in new people, share our knowledge as well as learn from their experiences. We also live in artistic and joyful ways. The technical skills of construction, solar installation and organic food production combined with the social skills of consensus building of voluntary cooperative enterprises are all learned skills. The value of training should not be underestimated. On the other hand, we do not operate with a mapped out plan or a set of blueprints. We are building experimental workshops, universities where the students take on positions of leadership and playgrounds - yes, this can all be a lot of fun – as we humanize our culture and create a future for the generations to come.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

He Walked Home

By Zvi Baranoff 
( I wrote this story while in the County Jail in 2007)

Morning comes early in jail. Not with sunshine and birds like a rural morning nor with commuter traffic and rushed coffee.

The lights snap on and the guard yells "Chow!" Prisoners echo the calls "Chow!" "Chow!"

120 men dress in orange uniforms and begin to line up. He rolls off his cot, steps into his orange pants and joins the line of hungry inmates.

The line moves slow. Some cut ahead. As each man approaches the front of the line, he gives the guard his last name. The guard crosses the name off a list and a trusty hands over a tray.

"Whadda you gonna give me off your tray?"

"Anything you man enuf to take!"

Breakfast. Grits. 3 slices of white bread. One hard boiled egg, some applesauce and a small carton of milk. Served on a plastic tray with a plastic spoon.

He takes his tray and finds a spot on the metal bench at the metal table.

He picks the shell from the egg. Methodically, with the plastic spoon he slices his egg into three equal parts, one for each piece of bread. Breakfast goes down quickly, each man still hungry, each tray emptied, cleared, returned.

120 prisoners back to their cots. The guards change shift. The inmates are counted. A new day has begun.

Eventually, the "yard" is opened for exercise. The yard is a concrete slab surrounded by high concrete walls. There's a pole with a backboard and basketball net.

Some go back to sleep. Some sit at the tables and play spades or dominoes. Some head to the yard. He heads to the yard.

Fifteen paces north. Twenty-two west. Fifteen paces south. Twenty-two paces east. Some lean against the wall striking poses and talking trash. Basketballs bounce and fly and swish the net or not. Jailhouse experts discuss legal fine points about why they will get off or why they should have gotten off.

Some men simply walk. Fifteen paces north. Twenty-two paces west. Fifteen south. Twenty-two paces east. Again fifteen north...

He walks and walks; arms moving and legs striving, passing the dawdlers, the pacers, those with nowhere to go.

"What's the hurry, man? There's nowhere to go."

"I'm walking home" he responds, keeping up the pace, rounding the yard.

Two men sit against a wall. They are a shade of gray you never see in the outside world. One sits with his shirt off, an eagle tattoo on his right arm, a dog eared paperback folded in his hands. The other gray man is reading a twenty year old National Geographic. They take no notice as he passes by.

Rounding the yard again he passes a group of young bloods in the corner. "What's up, Pops?" "I'm just walking home" he tells them. He moves on and the jitterbugs go back to trying to outdo each other with street corner bravado to mask their jailhouse apprehensions.

An airplane flies overhead. The sun rises above the eastern wall and begins to heat up the western end of the yard. He rounds the yard again passing the Preacher Man who walks slowly while reading the Scriptures.

The gray men are still sitting against the wall. The sun shinning on them permeates their gray not at all. They are now watching ants as the ants work at consuming a cockroach. He passes by once more at a fast pace.

Again he passes by the Preacher Man. "Amen! Thank you Jesus!" shouts Preacher Man. The Preacher is as passionate now pitching his brand of religion as he was passionate selling crack a few months ago.

A basketball bounces into his path. He catches the ball and tosses it at the basket. Not Bothering to see if the ball connects, he continues on his way.

On the next pass the gray ones are gone. Three men dark as night with rippling muscles and tattoos are doing push ups. They count their push ups by tens and by hundreds. It looks like they've done jailhouse push ups for years. It looks like they will be doing them for years. He walks past them, continuing on his way.

The jitterbugs have gotten over their bravado. They are now debating which snack cakes are best. Their bodies pose less as the day gets warmer. He nods at the young bloods as he walks on.

The basketball session takes on a more serious tone. Eight men play hard, sweat running down them. Charging, pushing, taunting, jumping. The sun bakes down and the bouncing ball thunders.

Two Mexicans have found a small bit of the remaining shade and are talking in Spanish. The muscle bound with the push ups have headed for the showers. The Preacher Man has a new apostle cornered for an impromptu lesson.

Sweat runs down his face and his legs ache, but he maintains a steady pace.

"You still walking, man?" he's asked.

"I'm on my way home," he answers.

"You gonna out walk your shoes," he's told.

"If they can't keep up, it's their problem," he responds as he slides on by.

Fifteen more paces north. Twenty-two paces west. Fifteen south. Twenty-two east. And onward he goes.

A cloud covers the sun and he walks on. The ache in his legs is now a throbbing and the sweat is now a steady stream. He's almost there, he thinks. He's almost there.

Birds fly overhead. Some perch on the telephones wires. One step after another, he walks on the side of the road. Cars blow by on the long stretch of highway. The sounds of the surf washing against the shore mingles with the wind blowing through the trees. And then he is in his neighborhood.

A rooster crows as he walks through the neighborhood. A dog laying in the shade of a large tree barks without much enthusiasm or conviction. Another rooster further away responds to the first.

He walks up the wooden steps of the yellow house, pauses at the top of the stairs on the wide wooden deck. A Guatemalan hammock is in it's place. Two palm trees are in planters on the deck, providing the hammock with some shade. Over sized wicker porch chairs sit by thedoor.
Flowers are growing in the boxes balanced on the white railing. "My wife has a green thumb," he thinks as he looks past the deck to the yard for just a minute. Then through the front door he goes.

The radio is playing, tuned to the oldies station. His wife is in the kitchen, tossing a salad. Something is baking in the oven. He breathes in the aroma, trying to guess at the seasonings.

"You look hot and tired sweetheart," says his wife. "Did you walk far today?"

"I've been walking a long time" he responds simply.

"Have some ice tea and sit awhile" she tells him. "Lunch is almost ready."

He pours himself some peppermint tea and plops himself into his favorite recliner. "It's good to be home," he thinks. "It's good to be home." He nods off into a pleasant nap.

A hand shakes his shoulder. "It's lunchtime Pops. You coming?"

"Chow! shouts the guard. He joins the others in line.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A New Approach Is Needed

by Zvi Baranoff

Throughout human history, we have perceived - incorrectly - that there are unlimited resources. Our ancestors saw unending forests, lots of animals, long and winding rivers that seemed to go on forever, and assumed that the Earth could give to them endlessly. Localized shortages were resolved by simply moving along until again they again found unlimited wealth. Slashing, burning, plowing and harvesting, civilization marched on, destroying ecosystems and depleting soil with little long term understanding or concern. This was the way of humanity prior to industrialization and such an approach continued to hold sway with the development of industrial capabilities.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the common assumption – held by both the “Left” and the “Right”, by proponents of Capitalism and the mirror image proponents of Communism as well as the various ideologies that lay in between – is that with proper management and enough growth we can increase production, creating more and more wealth, and over time improve the living conditions of the human race. This presumption is based on the industrial myth that more and more energy is available, more and more resources can be mined, more and more products can be produced …essentially, that “more” is always possible and inherently better.

The industrial model has brought us many advances, but the progress has not come without its costs. We have become dependent on fossil fuels and mass production resulting in enormous waste, having created a culture where we work endlessly to produce and consume more without satisfaction and to the detriment of our physical, mental and spiritual health.  We do not have the ability to continuously produce more, and even for our current level of wasteful production to continue is contingent on the availability of relatively inexpensive sources of energy. While the industrial capitalist model has not run out of gas yet, the costs of fueling the mechanism have gotten more expensive and the price will continue to rise. We have reached a key juncture where we must decide what direction our civilization should take and how we move forward from here.

Issues concerning poverty and environmental sustainability are interwoven and need to be approached as part of the same fabric. We need a long term strategy that challenges many dominant assumptions. It is not enough to merely establish programs that feed the poor and house the homeless, although those tasks are certainly noble and needed. We need to establish the conditions that will allow us to recreate the very nature of our economic relationships and integrate our understanding of the environment, taking into account how we will choose to live in harmony with our planet. A new paradigm is required, not merely to bring a basic level of potential to each and every one of us, but to guarantee our collective survival.

A common understanding needs to be developed between activists working on social justice issues and on environmental issues that will lead to the development of sustainable ecological communities. Decentralized planning based on local conditions must be used to address fundamental issues of producing and supplying food, energy and shelter in a sustainable manner. This goes way beyond soup kitchens and emergency shelter for the needy. That kind of emergency stop gap approach has the possibility of serving as a bridge to longer term planning, but the crisis that is faced by the impoverished amongst us is a foreshadow of what we all face collectively if we do not in all seriousness begin a transition to an approach that reevaluates our expectations and reorganizes our daily lives.
It is high time that divergent organizations working on housing issues, solar energy development, gardening and farming issues, transportation, educational access and a whole range of economic and environmental issues find ways to work together, integrating their approach toward a common vision. Both in the most developed industrialized regions of the world and in the least developed villages we must now be coming to an understanding that we face many of the same issues, are threatened by many of the same dangers and our hope lies in shared solutions. We need to resolve the issues surrounding our resources, energy use and land use with a clear understanding that we need to live in a way that is sustainable to guarantee that future generations of humans can continue to inhabit this blue-green planet.

Some of the finest work is being done in the most decentralized manner. Thoughtful community planning can reduce the need for commuting and make basic resources locally available. Access to educational opportunities via computers through the Internet connects individuals even in very diverse communities. Bicycles provide virtually free transportation to any able bodied person on this planet. Self sustained housing that integrates proper land use, passive solar energy and food production offers long term answer to homelessness and hunger. Even in the most advanced nations, there is no reason that much of the food production can be through localized sources. During World War II, as a relatively recent historical perspective, 50% of the USA food was from backyard Victory Gardens. Eating from your own or your neighbor’s garden is a wiser and healthier choice for anyone and an essential way to end dependence on industrial farming practices and corporate control of the food supply. The various step by step approaches, when integrated, become an overall strategy of cultural, political and economic transformation. By developing and promoting approaches that are low impact, sustainable and self sufficient we can implement this new sort of development in any environment. Through the simple sharing of basic tools and knowledge we can bring a balanced prosperity to people worldwide.

We are at an important crossroad. One road leads to continued environmental destruction, scarce resources and warfare. The other path offers true peace and prosperity through the reevaluation of our needs and making informed choices about the way we hope to live. We need to head down the path that will lead to a greener, more satisfying future.