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.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Kathy Chang, Where Are You Now?

Kathy believed in peace, justice and environmental sanity. She vacillated between great hope and despair. She saw the great potential of the human spirit and could not accept brutality, ignorance and ugliness. She dedicated her life to social change. She believed so much in the possibility of Change she changed her name from “Chang” to “Change”!

Kathy was a truly inspiration being when she was “on”. Her public image was beauty personified. She was colorful and projected art with her very being. She felt she could do as she pleased and when she pleased. Kathy made you feel as if you were important and what you did mattered. She did not see the social barriers that define most of our lives.

Kathy believed that if the wealth of the world is shared, there will be no suffering from the ravages of poverty. Where there are abandoned buildings on the one hand and homeless people on the other, Kathy’s solution was the obvious.

With fanfare she led a ragged band into two empty houses in Philly and used her inheritance money to fund the squat. It was an eclectic band of hippies, punks, wannabes, crazies and idealists, a much younger “me” amongst them. Dubbed “Squat Central “, the liberated zone was an epicenter of cultural, political, emotional and artistic turmoil. Living there felt like living at the center of the universe.

Not far from MOVE's initial standoff with Rizzo’s thuggish Philadelphia police department, a colorful, arrogant, confused and antagonistic collection of dreamers challenged the status quo and brought the politics of possibility to the streets of Philadelphia and often the pages of the Philadelphia newspapers.

When the Daily News ran a front page photo of an angelic looking nun being arrested at a Marijuana Legalization rally at Independence Mall, only a chosen few knew that the “nun” was a lesbian stripper that lived at Squat Central and was arrested for flashing! When Eldridge Cleaver – during his Moonie Cult Road Tour – was hit with a flying apple pie, no arrests were made but the Philly police probably recognized the pie thrower. They sat in front of the Squat with their lights on for a while. Politics mixed with youthful angst and the waves of insanity. Kathy was at the center of it.
Freedom, with all of the absurdity that comes with it, was an essential element of anything Kathy was involved with. At our street demonstrations (held without permits) we always had an open mike.  One never knew what sort of ranting would be expressed by the rabble we attracted. Sometimes pure genius would bloom, sometimes merely madness.

The Squat projected an aura of bravado and strength.  Months of newspaper articles about squatters, and the issues surrounding housing as well as the cultural issues raised led up to a final conflict. When the police eventually raided the Squat, in spite the comparisons to the MOVE standoff and the vows to never leave, the occupation ended not with an apocalyptic battle but with a whimper. Someone had left the door unlocked and the cops walked right in while we slept! I suspect it an informant/provocateur was responsible (and I have a suspicion of who that might have been) but it could also have been simple carelessness. There was enough of that to go around! Coincidentally, the Squat fell shortly after Kathy’s money ran out.

Kathy believed in social transformation with a religious fervor. She was a Psychedelic End Times preacher. She believed in the human potential to change everything, to let go of old prejudices, to wake up in a new Evolutionary era. She saw the planet at a critical juncture and believed that everyone must get on board to set thing right, to avoid total destruction. “Hurry up and slow down!” was a slogan and a principle. She would meet with anyone and talk to anyone with sincerity. Of course, not everyone approached her in the same way. She lived for freedom. With her money gone and no job, she was dependent as well. She wasn’t always treated well by the men she chose to live with.

One night I got a phone call from her, a call from the police station. She had been picked up by the Philadelphia police because she had been walking in West Philly – naked. The police were quite willing to send her on her way if she would simply get dressed before leaving. Of course, I had to argue with her to accept this social compromise. My landlady and I begged her, and finally convinced her, to put some clothes on and leave with us. She seemed to not understand what the problem was with her late night stroll. 

Kathy killed herself on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1996. Visually and physically like the Buddhist monks of Vietnam, she poured gasoline over herself and her robes and set herself on fire. The political effect was unlike that of the monks. The world did not sit up and take notice. The country did not erupt into revolution. The emotional effect on those who saw it and on those that knew and loved her was shock and disbelief. From the end of the Squat era until Kathy’s untimely but dramatic exodus in 1996, Kathy sang, danced, ranted, waved flags, made speeches and generally protested the status quo. In a packet of her writings that she delivered to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and several of her friends on the morning of her death, she explained the rationale behind her suicide:
"I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. It is a waste of energy to get angry and gripe at the government. The government must be replaced with a truly democratic self-government of, for and by the people. Those working in industries essential to maintaining life should democratically take over their workplaces and organize an emergency economy to supply the needs of the people. The rest of the people should meet in their communities to organize a new directly democratic community-based self-government."
Kathy was often jubilant. Those that knew her better knew she also went through periods of despair. She believed that one can change the world through joy. This is a position similar to some Hassidic Rabbis, Sufis, Zen Masters, and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.  Joy, however, is hard to maintain, especially in the face of so much that is wrong in this world. Kathy wanted the world to simply wake up from the nightmare and begin to live in joy. She wanted the Messianic Age without waiting. And in her heart she truly believed that her final act would bring it about.
So much of what Kathy said and the way she lived was true, pure and beautiful. The premise that she based the taking of her own life was false.  She acted as if it was her right to end her own life and that somehow that would transform the world. What she didn’t know or refused to accept is that the changes that she (and I) deeply believed are essential, and should be implemented immediately will unfortunately take a minute or two longer than that.
But so much has moved forward in the 15 years since Kathy’s death. The manifestos that Kathy wrote about peace and environmental issues were quirky in the 1980’s. They now reflect the perspective of a growing number of activists worldwide. The synergy that we only saw as a possibility with the help of L.S.D. is now being actualized through the communications revolution, exchanges of ideas and energies worldwide being propelled through the Internet. And when our little ragtag band called for the legalization of marijuana, it only seemed possible to us because we were stoned. Today the debate of legalization has gone mainstream and the end on Prohibition may actually be near.
Kathy wrote in her final statement: “My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself.” What hubris, I would tell her, if I had that option. You don’t “own” yourself. You are part of the whole. You have responsibilities that include sticking around for the hard work, the slogging through the muck, to be part of history, to be part of the change. I wish I could argue with her, struggle with her, debate with her. She should still be here with us. We have so much more to do. We could use your help, Kathy. I guess we’ll just have to carry on without you.

I want to argue with her. I wish she was here so I could tell her how mad I am at her. When I lived in Philly, she would bounce ideas off me, but I had long since moved on, living in Arizona and working on other projects. Our struggle – our very lives – are made up of victories and losses, successes and failures, steps forward and missteps and falls.

Kathy, why weren’t you there to sing and dance at my wedding? Why weren’t you there to rant and protest when I was arrested? Why weren’t you there to write me poetic and uplifting letters when I was in prison? And why aren’t you here to work and argue and plan with us now?

She didn’t give me the opportunity to challenge the path she chose. She got the final word. Once she set the fire, the chance to dialogue was over. How can one argue with the dead? Kathy was so right about so much. Her death, however, was so wrong.