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.