Pioneer Days Are Over

It’s time to become Native to this place.


Many descendants of the new arrivals act like they still have one foot on the boat,  like they’re just going to be here for a while, take what they can, and go somewhere else. Where will they go?” Native American elder as told to Robin Wall Kimmerer Ph.D. in Braiding Sweetgrass.

What motivates pioneers?

Who becomes a pioneer?

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

Becoming Natives

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We Need Economic Stability, Not Economic Growth

             (Photo by Jamie Morris on Unsplash)

“When you realize that under capitalism, a forest isn’t worth anything until it is cut down, you begin to see where the ecological crisis comes from.” -Adam Idek Hastie

Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions can it lead into freedom.” -Hannah Arendt

When European settlers came to America in the 16th century, forests covered about 50% of the ground. Plains, woods and wetlands were filled with all kinds of animals and plants. Now the US looks like a giant subdivision connected by freeways, and most of the species are gone.

What happened? Economic growth happened. Economists, politicians and corporations consider growth the greatest good, even the purpose of an economy. The World Bank believes global growth is the answer to poverty, inequality, overpopulation, and environmental damage.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” in the words used by Ronald Reagan. But, as ecological economist Herman Daly points out, growth past a certain point creates more costs than benefits, more damage than progress. In the rich countries, Daly says, we are far past that point. The more we grow from here on, the worse off we will be.

America’s forests tell the story. In colonial times and since, entrepreneurs saw the forests and built logging operations, sawmills and factories, to turn the trees into houses and furniture, fences and railroad ties. At the same time, farmers cut down and burned trees to make room for agriculture.

When the forests in a region were gone, the industries moved on. According to historian Michael Goldston’s book The Southern Key, the wood industry started in the Northeastern states, then moved to the South, then the North Central region, finally to the Northwest, Alaska and Canada. In addition to buildings and furnishings, millions of trees (living things that provided homes for other living things) have been killed to make paper and toilet paper. All of these products were sold on the market, creating economic growth that has enriched some humans, but has left little behind for living things, including us. Trees can grow back, if farms, towns, or freeways don’t take their place, but what usually replaces the forests are tree farms lacking most of the life of the original.

As with wood, so with all wealth: everything we eat, wear, live in, use or own came originally from Nature. Human labor and technology have made these things more available, convenient, and useful, but the things themselves were provided for free by Mother Earth.

Beyond the products we make of it, the Earth provides all kinds of vital support services for life. Nature recycles wastes, purifies water, grows food, and maintains a healthy climate. Industrial activity interferes with those services, as we see with the increasing water shortages and climate chaos in the world today.

According to Herman Daly, capitalist economic activity is a three-step process: 1. Capture some resource from Nature. 2. Turn it into a product which can be sold and consumed 3. Return the waste products to some natural sink (like the ocean or atmosphere or the side of the road) in a degraded, nearly-useless, often-toxic form.

For example, oil is pumped from the ground, refined into a powerful fuel (along with toxic byproducts), burned for a car trip or electricity generation, and returned to the air as carbon dioxide, which has no significant use and is heating the planet. Capitalist society is like an animal consuming the world’s gifts and excreting its waste back into Nature.

Consumption of Nature always produces side effects that can outweigh the value of what is consumed. Deforestation reduces rain and creates deserts out of productive land. Mining makes toxic pits out of mountains and rivers.. The costs of economic activity include pollution, military conflict over resources, loss of other uses of land or water, denial of resources to future generations, and health impacts such as cancer from industrial processes.

This dynamic of economic growth swallowing up its own future is not only an American problem. It happens almost everywhere on Earth. Not only forests, but fish, water, oil, and topsoil are among the types of natural capital that industrial society consumes, calling that consumption “growth.”

Economic growth must stop if we hope to survive climate chaos. The emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels is strongly correlated (up to 99% in some studies) with economic activity. As this graph shows, the only time greenhouse gas emissions slow is when growth stops during economic downturns.


What is growth? How is it measured?

The size of an economy is usually measured by gross domestic product (GDP), sometimes called gross national product (GNP,) defined by Investopedia as “the total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period.” So, GNP is a measure of all the money-making activities in a country.

Economic growth usually means a year-to-year rise in GNP. Economists think rising GNP is always a good thing, because more money will be circulating and people will have more to spend. Some evidence supports the benefits of growth, but it ignores the question of what is growing. Economic activity can do all kinds of harm and still count as GNP, as long as someone pays for it.

Expenses like the cost of cleaning up a polluted river, or treating environmental illnesses are paid economic activities, therefore part of a growing GNP. So unsurprisingly, there is little evidence that economic growth correlates with health or happiness. In fact, Drexel University professor Jose Tapia Granados MPH,PhD has shown that people in economic boom times tend to have poorer health than during recessions. And Derrick Jensen, author of Bright Green Lies, writes more starkly, “The economy consists of converting the living into the dead, and GNP is a measure of how quickly this is done.”

One form of economic growth is human population growth. More people create a bigger economy, with more workers and more consumers. Limiting population growth is controversial for moral and religious reasons, but, although Daly says that limiting over-consumption is a more important problem, population control is also needed. China’s rapid climb out of deep poverty started in 1979 with their limiting families to one child each.

There are other ways of measuring economic well-being that do not monitor consumption of Natural resources. Instead of measuring consumption and calling it income, we could measure utility, meaning people’s health and happiness — there is already a Gross National Happiness Index or GNHI used by some countries — or sustainability, meaning the health of the natural world we are leaving for future generations. We could measure growth of human creativity and interaction, instead of things owned or money spent.

Not everyone agrees

Warnings about the dangers of growth are not new. Scientists from Thomas Malthus in 1798 to Paul Ehrlich in 1968 warned of the dangers of overpopulation. Economists and scientists calling themselves the Club of Rome published a long report in 1972 called Limits to Growth, warning of environmental collapse if the economy continued to expand. People listened, but many disagreed.

University of Maryland economist Julian Simon believed human intelligence would always solve problems as they were created, so things would keep getting better. In 1980, he famously bet Paul Ehrlich that the price of raw materials would go down over the following 10 years, rather than up as they would if resources were being exhausted. Simon won that bet.

Science keeps creating new ways for people to enrich themselves and solve problems. Instead of dumping the waste products of gasoline refining onto land and water, scientists created plastic, which turns those wastes into useful products, which in many cases replaced wood or paper. In his book, The Ultimate Resource, Simon argued that, while some supplies might be physically limited, technological innovation makes resources in practice inexhaustible. When resources run low, prices rise, driving people to find ways to recycle things and find new alternatives.

           A great scientific advance (Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash)

In the 20th Century, people warned that oil was running low (called Peak Oil,) but increasing prices drove the discovery of shale oil, (fracking) and tar sands that lowered the price again. When overfishing empties the sea of fish, we build fish farms along the coast. When topsoil is lost through industrial farming, farmers grow food with petrochemical fertilizers. And so on. So far, Simon has been right. From the standpoint of material standards of living, growth is good.

Others insist that human innovations have not changed the destructive effects of economic growth on Nature. We may be able to enjoy our rates of consumption for a long time, but only if we ignore the mountains of plastic waste clogging land and sea, the mass extinction of animal and plant species, the spreading deserts, the rising sea levels and the climate chaos caused by increased oil burning and deforestation. The economy cannot replace ecological capital at the rate it is being destroyed. It’s gotten too big.

Life without economic growth is possible

If economic growth is truly using up our living world, is there an alternative? Neoliberal economists say no; unrestricted capitalism is the only system that meets human needs. But actually, there are several choices. None of these ideas are new, but because capitalism needs growth to function, they cannot be implemented or even conceived of in a capitalist system. Because capitalism has provided high material standards of living to many for 200 years, while crushing its opponents, it has, in the words of philosopher Frederic Jameson, “become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Yet, the ordering of society around human greed — which is what capitalism does — has not been normal for most of human history. Living without growth (“de-growth”) will require profound changes in our ways of life, but most of them seem like positive changes to me.

● Indigenous people around the world have never pursued economic growth or even imagined it. As Robin Wall Kimmerer describes at length in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Native Americans based their economy and culture on giving back to the Earth, not only taking. They made decisions based on what would be good for the 7th generation to come, not for the next business quarter. They never took more than 50% of any species they harvested or fish stock they caught. Kimmerer says we need to learn to live more like indigenous people.

● Religious groups like the Quakers and the Amish emphasize living simply, avoiding unnecessary consumption and technological progress, and they work hard but live quite well. Successful religious communities like the Israeli kibbutzes and the early Christians, didn’t need economic growth, and they became powerful.

      Amish in 2020 (Image:

● More recently, movements to organize social sharing as an alternative to markets have gained strength and size. You can read about some of them at Gift economies are common among indigenous societies, where social status may come from how much you give, not how much you have.

● Rich people could reduce their consumption. We will probably need to make them do it, but it could be done. Societies could reduce population growth with a one-child policy like China had for 35 years. (In 2015, they adjusted to two children.)

● Herman Daly says that humans must learn to be frugal first, then efficient. Without a desire to conserve, more efficiency often leads to more consumption, a phenomenon called the Jevons paradox. For example, when cars get better gas mileage, people drive more because it’s cheaper.We have to love the Earth enough to make conserving it our guiding light.

We also need science and technology, in the service of Earth. Scientists in China and in the Netherlands have figured out ways to reclaim deserts into green valleys. You kind of have to see it to believe it.

          Desert turned green in China (Image: openEdu)

Robin Kimmerer, a botanist herself, says that science and indigenous wisdom can work together, if scientists stop thinking they have all the answers. She and her botany students and Native planters have spent years bringing sweetgrass back to the Mohawk Valley, where it had become extinct because of invasive species and paving of its land.

● Restoring land is the kind of work many of us could be doing. Because de-growing the economy will reduce jobs, we will need a universal basic income (UBI) and a jobs program restoring natural spaces, protecting water, and replacing wasteful infrastructure.

Daunting as such changes seem, they might still be possible. Michael Higgins, President of Ireland, told the Engineers Ireland 2020 national conference that the world needed de-growth, de-globalization, and eco-socialism instead of neoliberal capitalism, and he was counting engineers to help make it happen.

Higgins said the financial, political, and military forces supporting endless growth are huge and powerful, but that we must try to win them over or overcome them. We will also have to convince the billions of believers in wealth accumulation that there is a better way, living in harmony with our world. We need to speak up about this approach to life, and we need to live it.

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Listening to Bees

Life is Beautiful. But pay attention or you’ll miss it.

I’m celebrating this Spring with flowering cherry trees on the San Francisco State (SFSU) campus. The flowers last about three weeks, and I’ve been sitting with them when I can, enjoying their beauty and sensing the life force exploding through them and their bee partners.

I got to campus early one day, but the bees were there first, and I noticed something interesting about them. When I first approach the trees, I don’t see many bees around them. But the longer I watch quietly, the more bees I see. Soon, I’m amazed by how many there are.

I watch them buzz from blossom to blossom, bringing pollen from male to female organs as they drink the buds’ sweetness. I can see why people call them “busy,” but after a while I sense that they’re not busy. They’re focused; they’re enjoying themselves. They keep doing what they’re doing until they tire; then they stop. It’s very soothing to watch.

I think all life is like those bees. If we take the time to observe quietly, we will be thrilled by how much there is to see, hear, touch, taste and feel. We’ll be ennobled by living things’ beauty and intrigued by the ways they live and work with each other.

Most of the time, though, we miss this whole show. We keep rushing by things, or hurrying to do things to them, lost in thought or in our devices. If we continue to ignore them, we will die without ever having appreciated them. We’ll miss the deep, loving gifts the world is trying to give us. That is how city-dwellers tend to live, seeing Nature as a bunch of lifeless ‘resources’ or as wallpaper we roll by, if we see it at all.

Sadly, many people are imprisoned, literally in jails or figuratively in apartments and offices far from nature. The wonders of life might be hard to find in a concrete landscape. Even those not incarcerated often have our minds in electronic prisons of one kind or another. When was the last time you interacted with a plant or an animal? If your answer is ‘today,’ one point for you, but it’s not enough.

In a society that values doing and having above all else, treats animals and plants as things and people as robots, how do we learn to appreciate the gifts of Nature? I haven’t gotten far with this yet, but I’ve learned a few things:

۰Don’t look for the bees (or whatever you want to see.) You’ll miss them. Just observe and let them come to you.

۰When you see a bird or a plant or some other nonhuman person, stop and breathe. Make yourself comfortable. Try to feel your connection to this living being.

۰Learn more about what you’re seeing. A YouTube video, a book or web page about bees, flowers, trees, or whatever you want to observe can help you see and understand them better.

۰People are part of Nature. Realize everyone you meet has layers of being far beyond the surface.

۰Old people have so much history, places they’ve been, people they’ve known, things they’ve done, wisdom they’ve learned. If you take some time with them, they will love you for it.

۰Children remember stuff that adults have forgotten. It’s all new and wonderful for them. Maybe some of their joy will rub off on you if you let it.

۰Young adults are going through interesting and important struggles, and if you can get them to talk, you might be touched or might be able to help. Interacting with them might give surprising rewards.

۰Use all your senses. Eat slowly and taste more deeply. It slows me way down if I’m mindful of where the food came from. I imagine the food growing and give thanks to the plant (or animal), the Earth and Sun.

۰Listen to the sounds of birds, people, and music. Same with smell and touch; stop and pay attention to them! All senses take us out of our thoughts and put us in touch with reality.

۰Minimize screen time. I mean seriously minimize, like take a day or more off, and never spend more than two hours on without a break. This is the most important thing for me. An hour on Facebook can erase the benefits of two hours of relaxation in Nature.

۰Make gratitude your default response to Nature’s gifts. Plants literally take care of us. They give us their bodies for food and clothing, furniture and housing. They give us beauty, like the cherry trees and bees. If we thank them for making our lives better, we will feel better too. At least, gratitude always does that for me.

A scientifically-minded cynic might say that neither the plants nor the bees care about us at all. They are just doing what Nature programmed them to do in order to survive. There could be some truth in that; nobody knows what goes on in the minds of insects. But as Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, plants and bees do what people in love do. They give us gifts; they make us feel better. We should help them in return, and the very first thing to do is to take time to appreciate them.

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A super book on this is Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants Milkweed Editions 2013

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Confessions of a Conspiracy Theorist

                                       Image: Architects and Engineers for  9/11 Truth

Bad thinking

              Hijacker’s passport “found” near WTC. image: Wikipedia

I don’t like being gaslit

I don’t believe everything is a conspiracy

Conspiracy theory wasn’t always an insult

I will keep doing this as long as I can

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You May Be Privileged

In ways you do not know

               Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

You may be privileged

If animals and plants

Give you their bodies

Each day, to feed your body.


If no one’s waiting outside your door to eat you

If you even have a door.

If no one’s slithering into your burrow

To snatch your children

You are one lucky bastard.


You may be privileged

If your cells have enough clean water

To swim in, be nourished by, excrete

Into and not be poisoned.


If your first thought before moving

Is not, ‘How much will this hurt?’ or

‘Will I fall?’ or ‘Can I afford this?’ or

‘Is this safe?’ count yourself blessed.

Not everyone has that freedom.


If you are not imprisoned

In a shell of concrete and steel

If you still have connection to your siblings

Of all shapes and species, be grateful.


If your mind can contemplate

The wisdom of philosophy

The beauty of art

The wonders of science,

The face of God in Nature,

You have been given a rare opportunity.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Value everything that comes.

Be aware. Learn, give back

Speak up. Help out.

Fight for those

Who pay for your privilege.

 — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

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How Free Markets Damage People and Planet

They are unjust, inefficient, and bound to crash.

                          Image taken from Tyrone Grandison blog

Celebrity stockbroker and failed Senate candidate Peter Schiff (net worth $70 million) said, “The government can’t create jobs; they’ll destroy jobs trying to do it. We need free markets to create jobs; if the government wants to help, they should reduce their burden on the economy.”

Rich people never tire of preaching the importance of free markets. Extreme free market ideology is called neoliberalism and dominates economics in the United States today. Most politicians of both major parties, no matter how conservative on social issues, are neoliberals when it comes to protecting the power of corporations from government restrictions.

Neoliberals believe that the less government regulates or sponsors businesses, and the less financial support they give working people, the better off we will be. Labor will be free to move; capital will be free to grow. In reality, though, unregulated markets have caused tremendous suffering and repeated market crashes, not least the worldwide economic crisis of 2008.

But where are neoliberals wrong? If, as most believe, freedom is good, and markets are good, how can free markets be bad? Haven’t they created the extraordinary wealth we see in the rich countries today?

Actually, no, they haven’t. In his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Dr. Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University points out how markets need structure and regulations. “Markets without restrictions are like cars without brakes,” he writes. “They’re bound to keep crashing.”

             Ha-Joon Chang Image:

First of all, Chang says, there is no such thing as a free market. It’s just a public relations term, designed to mislead. “Every market has some boundaries and rules that restrict choice,” Dr. Chang writes. “They only look free because we unconditionally accept their underlying restrictions.”

The question is what rules will markets have and who will decide them. Right now, the richest people control the markets, make the rules, decide how they will be enforced, and change the rules whenever it suits them, as we saw in the recent stock market battle over GameStop. Our markets are only free to our rulers.

What is free and who isn’t

In a free market, are workers free? Neoliberals’ answer is “Yes and No.”

To reduce wages and maximize profits, employers want workers free to wander the world in search of work, but they want immigration kept illegal. That way, desperate people can come and work for poverty wages, and can then be deported if employers don’t need them anymore, if they demand better wages or working conditions, or if political leaders need scapegoats to blame when things get too hard.

The result is constant conflict between immigrant and native-born workers. Likewise, employers oppose any restriction on who can work and in what working conditions. The rich opposed laws against child labor; they oppose regulations on working conditions and fight against minimum wage legislation. If a sawmill worker is willing to risk getting his arm chopped off for $5/hour, who is government to say he can’t do it? ‘Willing’ in this case means too desperate to refuse work, no matter how dangerous.

In neoliberal ‘free markets,’ workers don’t need labor unions. They are free to negotiate with employers as one person against a corporation. They are free to leave if they don’t like how the employer treats them. Many US states have passed “right-to-work” laws, guaranteeing workers freedom from labor unions, part of what capitalists call “labor market flexibility.” Wages and working conditions in those states are, predictably, lower than in more unionized states.


Free market economists believe government supports such as welfare, social security, or services of any kind (except police), should be reduced, privatized, or eliminated. Government programs are drags on economic growth, and taxing rich people to pay for them is unfair and inefficient. (Note: government bailouts of banks and corporations are NOT considered violations of market freedom. Only supports for small business and workers are bad. Keep the story straight.)

England’s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the USA led the way in making austerity into national policy. Support for government programs in health care, education, culture or income support used to be mainstream but are now considered radical Left.


Global labor markets further imprison workers. We don’t just compete with our neighbors, but with workers all over the world. Corporations move their factories to low-wage countries or bring the low wage workers here. In order to find cheaper labor and looser environmental protections, they negotiate agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central American FTA (CAFTA), and hundreds of others. These agreements may bring consumers some cheaper products, but they cost jobs in the rich countries and destroy businesses in the developing countries.

Dr. Chang explains that, “No rich country became rich through free trade. They protected their businesses. After becoming rich, they want poor countries to have free trade with them.” Less-developed countries and new industries need some protection from rich-country competition to get started.

Photo by White.Rainforest ∙ 易雨白林. on Unsplash

The Living world

Free market advocates want to restrict or eliminate environmental protections. If companies want to dump toxic waste in rivers, cut down or burn whole forests for lumber or cattle ranches, or pollute sensitive wetlands with oil drilling, that should be their right. The rights of poor people, animals, plants, and unborn generations to a healthy environment can’t compete in the free market, because those groups don’t have money.

Making markets work

We need markets, but so-called free markets without restriction and regulation don’t work. We need a system that combines individual initiative with social regulation and control. Here are some ideas from Dr. Chang, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and others:

۰ Rip down the edifice of high finance that collapses the productive economy. Ban complex financial derivatives, such as the CDOs and Credit Default Swaps that caused the 2008 crash. Put brakes on the financial economy with transaction taxes and restrictions on capital flows in and out of developing countries.

۰Cut the pay of top executives and increase workers’ pay. We must give up the fiction that people are paid what they are worth; they are paid for their position in a system. CEOs are not 300 times more productive than their workers. Why are they paid so much?

۰ Value work that involves making things, caring for people and environments. People who sit in offices all day should not receive so much more than those who work with their hands. People should not need 16 or 20 years of formal education to find well-paid work.

۰ Government needs to be bigger and do more. Welfare states like Sweden and Norway have healthier and richer economies than free-market economies like the US and UK. Governments make mistakes; they can be corrupted, but they are not solely motivated by shareholder profit.

۰ The world economic system needs to “unfairly” (Chang’s word) favor developing countries. Poor countries must be given more space to protect their businesses, workers, and environment, to regulate foreign investment and ownership, not forced to open their economies to world capitalism before they’re ready.

Dr. Chang says all his suggestions “go against the received wisdom of the last three decades. But, unless we abandon the free-market orthodoxies that have held us back, we will meet continued economic disasters and do nothing to alleviate the poverty and suffering of billions around the world. “

There are more good ideas in Chang’s and other books. We can work on this through union organizing, forming cooperative businesses, and through political action. We can start by simply refusing to believe the free-market myths.

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Cruelty Vs. Caring in America

What has society done to our hearts?

                                              Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

With Texans freezing and hungry in winter storm Uri, Colorado City, TX Mayor Tim Boyd took to Facebook to tell his constituents, “Fend for yourselves. Only the strong will survive and the weak will perish. The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout.”

Spoken like a true Republican. But Mayor Boyd was only giving voice to the cruelty that has run through America’s veins and brains since the British first settled here. Many Americans consider hard-heartedness a virtue. They call making people suffer, ‘promoting individual responsibility’ and have managed to create a society of widespread misery in the midst of affluence.

Millions of Americans don’t go along with the cult of cruelty, though. They are fighting for a society based on caring, in which people help each other. During winter storm Uri, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) raised $5 million dollars in three days from online supporters and brought it to Texas to feed people and provide supplies. People care, and they want a society that cares. We can see the battle between cruelty and caring play out in a dozen ways, including:

Denying people food

Recently, a Fred Meyer grocery in Portland, OR dumped loads of refrigerated food after a storm-caused blackout shut down their freezers. When activists came to distribute the discarded food to hungry people in the city’s warming centers and shelters, the store called the police. The cops spent three hours guarding the dumpsters, making sure the food would not be used to feed people, before finally backing off.

                                     After the police left (Photo by Beth Nakamura)

Fred Meyer managers were acting in a long tradition of destroying needed food. In the Great Depression of the 1930s and since, food dealers and farmers have burned or dumped food, in order to keep prices up. Sometimes they would destroy food right in front of hungry people, as John Steinbeck described in Grapes of Wrath.

At the same time, thousands of Americans devote much of their lives to saving food and getting it to people who need it. There are food banks and soup kitchens; organizations like Second Harvest and Feeding America that collect food from farms, stores, and restaurants where it would go to waste.


Surveys find about 600,000 people sleep in streets and parks each night in America. Yet, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2018 that over 17.000,000 housing units are vacant in the U.S., about 28 vacant units for each homeless person. Even though homelessness brings misery, disease, and early death, society not only fails to house poor people, but actively works to make them suffer.

Police routinely confiscate possessions of people living on the street. These sweeps often take people’s blankets and tents, even in the cold of winter. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed and won suits in cities around the country to stop this extraordinary cruelty, but the sweeps continue.


Some cities have made cruelty to the homeless government policy. Cities have taken to embedding spikes on flat surfaces or removed park benches, so people won’t have places to rest.

It’s not just police and officials attacking those without houses. Ordinary citizens do, too. There is a category of crime called Hate Crimes Against the Homeless, which includes throwing stuff at them, dumping water on them while they sleep, beating them or even killing them. Fortunately, most of us don’t do sadistic things like that, but we walk by homeless people without acknowledging them or doing anything to help.

Caring people build tiny houses to give homeless people shelter, although cities often destroy them. There are squatters’ movements in some cities, creating communities in unused properties. Many groups and individuals, and some governments feed the poor or get them access to showers and places to wash clothes.

Mass incarceration

The U.S., which calls itself the Land of the Free, imprisons far more people than any other country in the world. According to The Sentencing Project, there are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last 40 years, although crime did not increase.

Imprisoning people devastates their lives and communities. Prisoners lose contact with families; they lose careers and jobs; they face daily violence from guards and other inmates. Suicide is common. Children lose their fathers; wives lose their husbands, communities lose their entrepreneurs. Crime victims typically are not compensated or supported to deal with their trauma; the system focuses only on punishment. Mass incarceration is cruelty, not justice.

Most countries do not deal with troubled people by locking them up, unless they pose a serious threat of violence. They may supervise, mentor, and support offenders, while protecting and compensating victims of crime.

This program is often called restorative justice, and it is used successfully in American jurisdictions. Including Genesee County, New York. Offenders are required to make restitution, do community service, meet regularly with a mentor, and listen to victims tell how they have been hurt. Their program has a far lower recidivism rate than incarceration and saves Genesee County millions of dollar.

Now, some school districts such as Oakland, California’s have started restorative justice programs. These programs create stronger school communities, reduce rates of suspension and expulsion nearly to zero, and break up the school-to-prison pipeline. Their program takes advantage of people’s natural tendency to care for each other, giving troubled kids time and attention, forcing them to have hard conversations.


As cruelly as America treats its own people, it does far worse in other countries. I won’t even mention the bombing, drone wars and invasions, just focus on the economic sanctions imposed on at least 30 countries, from Russia and Cuba to Libya and Venezuela.

War and sanctions on Syria  Image

Particularly hard hit have been Syria, Venezuela and Iran, where the U.S. has declared secondary sanctions, meaning we will sanction any other country that trades with the target country. For countries that depend on exports, secondary sanctions are strangulation.

Venezuelan companies have had their bank accounts closed, their assets frozen, food and medicine imports restricted. In Syria, half the country lies destroyed in a proxy war carried out by Jihadists, paid and armed by the U.S. Now American sanctions prevent any reconstruction of the country, while millions huddle in refugee camps. Political and religious antiwar groups fight to get the U.S. government to drop the sanctions, but so far, both Republican and Democrat administrations keep tightening them.

From a long and heartbreaking list of American cruelties, I will mention only one more: factory farming. Billions of sentient animals kept in tiny cages and tortured for a lifetime, then slaughtered for food. How much of that cruelty carries over to our relationships with people?

Where did this cruelty come from?

The USA has a 400 year history of savage systemic cruelty. We can’t escape it; we can’t pretend it’s not living inside us, shaping our attitudes and actions. We have to face our history and grow:

۰At the time that America’s founders fled, England was extraordinarily cruel. Over 200 crimes were punishable by death. Many English settlers came here as indentured servants for one or another petty crime. They were all traumatized, and that trauma shaped how they structured the society we live in.

٠ Slavery — No human relation ever has been more cruel than chattel slavery. Families were sold apart; slaves tortured, raped, murdered, or worked to death. This history has an effect on everyone living here: victims, victimizers, and onlookers.

۰ Genocidal expulsion of the Native Americans. Indians were repeatedly massacred and driven off their lands to starve. A nation founded on treating different people as nonhuman is likely to be an uncaring one

٠ The Protestant work ethic — People came here from Europe with a religious belief that people were born sinful. Their problems were their own fault, and the only way out of them was hard work. Helping people was bad for them, because it reduced their self-reliance.

۰ Capitalism — We’re not talking here about free markets, but about government by the greediest. When greed is good, cruelty is inevitable. Money spent helping people is money wasted.

Caring vs. cruelty, not capitalism vs. socialism

This isn’t so much about economic systems. All systems can be cruel. We have to make a conscious decision to care for each other. World leaders including Pope Francis, less-known teachers like Rabbi Michael Lerner, and indigenous communities constantly promote the ideas of a caring society. So do millions of people who volunteer and help others in their daily lives.

Maybe human biology evolved us to behave cruelly, at least to outsiders. Hopefully, we can outgrow that tendency before it’s too late. I’m pretty sure it won’t be enough for us to go around doing nice individual things, although that makes us feel better. On a higher level, abandoning some of government’s cruel practices, like stopping sanctions and freeing nonviolent inmates would be easy. Others, like ending homelessness and closing factory farms would be harder, but if we make caring the new normal, we can have a far better society.

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Beyond Gratitude

There is a place of joy

Image: Aman Shrivastava aman-shrivastava-w6caoaJzXIE-unsplash.jpg


I’m not one of those saints

You see walking around beaming

Giving thanks, radiating peace.

Maybe I would, if I could walk, but

Still, sometimes a feeling comes

Beyond thanksgiving. Blown away.

Overwhelmed by the bounty I’ve been given.


Sometimes my life is like

Being treated to a global feast.

Sushi and salad, meats and breads

Fruits and vegetables, drinks and desserts

Samosas, noodles, soups from five countries

More than I ever dreamed.

Where did this come from? What did I

Do to deserve it?


Then if I’m lucky, I stop thinking

Stop wondering and give myself over

To tasting the feast, listening to the musicians

In a place beyond gratitude

Without guilt for those who do not have

In delight, like a saint on the street.

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Alabama Amazon Workers Could Arrest America’s Slide

Into total domination by billionaires

Photo by Bryan Angelo on Unsplash

As U.S. companies send production to lower-wage countries, American workers have become poorer, less organized, and less secure. Only 10.3% of US workers belong to unions, compared to about 30% in the 1950s. Fewer organized workers has meant lower wages, more poverty, and a meaner, more stressful society for everyone.

Unions mostly collapsed because large factories disappeared. Without large workplaces in which workers can associate, and without the power to shut down production with strikes, labor has a much harder time organizing. We are all living harder lives as a result.

Now in Bessemer, Alabama, over 5,000 mostly Black workers at an Amazon warehouse may reverse that downward slide. Over 3,000 of them have signed up to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU,) and if they win the representation election, they would be the first Amazon workers organized in the USA.

Why this is a big deal

Amazon warehouses (fulfillment centers) are the new factories, with conditions as bad as the old ones. Amazon’s disgustingly wealthy owner Jeff Bezos treats warehouse workers as if they were machines. He will probably replace them with actual machines as soon as he can, but for now, Amazon monitors everything workers do, and all staff must keep to the rigorous schedule the monitor puts them on. This dehumanization shows vividly how modern capitalists think of the people they employ.

I attended a rally for the Bessemer workers on Feb. 20 in Oakland. One speaker read a letter from a former Amazon worker, now in a Nevada State prison, who said prison life was not as bad as work at Amazon had been. Another talked of having no time for bathroom breaks, so some workers have to take bottles with them in which to pee. A worker in a California warehouse reported that the workplace had no break room, though such rooms are mandated by law. Workers took their break in a corner of the parking garage, without chairs.

Other speakers reported that many Amazon jobs are being replaced by gigs, where workers become “independent contractors,” with no job security, no benefits, and few, if any, rights. Gig labor is spreading throughout the American economy, creating generations of workers who will never be able to retire, send children to college, or afford health care.

Unionization of a fiercely anti-union company like Amazon could change this dynamic. For a rapidly sinking and badly divided working class, a movement led by militant Black workers winning fair treatment could inspire and empower struggles around the country.

Alabama has led before

Alabama has led American workers before. The warehouse workers in Bessemer follow a long tradition of organizing in their state. According to labor organizer turned historian Michael Goldfield in his book The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, Alabama was among the most organized states in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th Century. Southern workers were leaders in organizing coal and iron mines, steel mills, wood working and textile mills. Even teachers and preachers were organized.

Some of the unions were dominated by whites and treated Blacks as second-class, but others were mostly Black and some were integrated top to bottom. Alabama-based unions helped other states and industries organize by sending organizers and money north, and encouraging workers that their lives could get better.

The unions were eventually crushed by racial division, de-industrialization and right-to-work laws, and Alabama is now one of the poorest states in the USA. Only 8% of its workers are in unions, and the average annual household income in Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham, is just over $30,000. But with their long history of labor organization and struggle for workers’ rights and civil rights, Bessemer Amazon workers may make Alabama a labor leader once again.

The fight at Amazon is a classic case of a battle against racism that will lift all working class and middle class people if they win. Like many other Black-led and progressive unions, RWDSU takes organizing beyond the workplace to the community, addressing issues of discrimination and poverty. Beyond economic demands, they demand that people be treated with the respect due human beings.

Treating people with respect, though, is what Amazon refuses to do. Their whole business model is to mechanize work, whether with machines or people forced to act like machines. Many other companies are moving in Amazon’s direction. By shutting down their profit streams with strikes or threats of strikes, unions like RWDSU could force employers to treat workers better.

Existential threat

Amazon takes unions as an existential threat, and as Amnesty International documented in this report, uses all kinds of coercion and surveillance to stop organizing drives. In France, where unions represent Amazon workers, working conditions and wages for workers are much better than in the U.S. or UK, and Bezos seems to find that unacceptable.

Global companies like Amazon have huge built-in advantages against unions. With workers in dozens of countries speaking different languages and out of touch with each other, they are hard places to organize.

We heard at the rally about Amazon’s many warehouses in Poland. They have few Polish customers; the warehouses distribute products to Germans, who can afford stuff most Poles can’t. But the warehouse workers in Poland make only 1/3 as much as German workers make, so that’s where Amazon prefers to build.

The movement against Amazon has already gone global. Natasha Lennard wrote in the Intercept that workers have held work stoppages and protests in Bangladesh, India, Australia, Germany, Poland, Spain, France, the UK, U.S. and elsewhere.

The drive at Bessemer could take the global workers’ movement to the next level. Alex Press wrote in The New Republic, “Amazon’s whole business is an anti-social, winner-take-all model: extractive, degrading. That is what the workers in Bessemer are fighting, and why the eyes of the world are turned to them.”

How to support Amazon workers

Find out about rallies and protests near you here. Learn more options from the Southern Workers Association. Write to your Congress people to demand their support for Amazon workers. You can donate to the union or to individual workers’ Go Fund Me-type accounts. Write to Amazon and their subsidiary Whole Foods and let them know you will not shop there until the union is recognized.

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Don’t Dismiss Trump Voters

Many could become class allies

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      Image: David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

“But they’re racist!”

Fascism starts with a betrayed middle class

Keeping us divided

It’s our choice

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                            Black Panthers and Young Patriots Chicago 1969

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