Love Life, Don’t Poison It

Stop the chemical war on Nature.

Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

Feeling sad this morning. Reading the World Wildlife Fund report on the global crash in wildlife populations. Our world now has about 70% less non-human life than 50 years ago, and some areas have lost as much as 94%.

I mourn the thousands of species that have become extinct, never to be seen again. I can’t even touch the grief for the billions of individual creatures — mammals, birds, fish, plants, and insects — civilization has killed. It feels overwhelming, but after a while, grief turns to anger. Who is doing this to our relations, and how can we stop it?

Humans destroy wildlife in several ways, some more evil than others. The biggest one is habitat destruction. When increasing human populations take up more and more space, animals have to leave. That strikes me as tragic, but the killing is kind of unintentional. Other crimes against Nature seem more malicious.

When colonists in the USA hunted the passenger pigeon to extinction for their feathers or slaughtered the buffalo to deprive Indians of food; that was evil driven by greed and racism. So is cutting down rainforests for palm oil plantations or cattle ranches.

I think the deliberate poisoning of insects and plants is both evil and stupid. So is the ignorant poisoning of water through industrial processes. A poisoned world is one of the main reasons for wildlife loss, and causes human health problems as well. We’re poisoning all life, including ourselves. Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Killing for convenience

In the 21st Century, people seem to consider Nature an annoyance. I see ads on commuter trains begging people not to poison rats or mice, because owls and raptors eat the poisoned rodents and die. There are other ways to control rodents, — get a cat! –but people still use poisons that kill thousands of hawks, ravens, mountain lions and other predators.

They do it because poisoning is easy. But by killing predators, people make their rodent problems worse.

People spray pesticides in great quantities to kill insects in homes, gardens, and farms. A Facebook friend in Florida posted that she wasn’t seeing bugs in her house, but there are some nasty ones around. So, ‘just to be safe,’ she has an exterminator spray her whole house twice a year. Poisoning herself and  her house is what she calls ‘safe.’

Insecticides used in homes and in agriculture kill butterflies, pollinators such as bees, and soil-builders such as ants and worms. Herbicides, used to control weeds (which are just plants we can’t eat or sell,) kill all kinds of plants surrounding the fields and in the water when rain washes them into streams.

And they don’t work. Fruits don’t grow without pollinators; soil becomes depleted; weeds rapidly evolve to resist the herbicides and become super-weeds.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS,) super-weeds started when biotech company Monsanto created seeds that could tolerate their top-selling herbicide Roundup. These “Roundup-ready” seeds made things so convenient for farmers! They dropped their more labor-intensive weeding practices and just sprayed lots of Roundup from planes instead. More crops with less labor, until the Roundup resistance genes escaped from the Monsanto plants into the weeds themselves, creating a new generation of weeds that could not be chemically killed.

Undeterred, Monsanto and other companies are developing new strains of patented herbicide-resistant seeds to boost sales of their patented herbicides. These profits are what GMO seeds are all about, and they keep farmers in debt while killing off beneficial insects.

According to UCS, the overall use of herbicides has gone up since GMOs appeared; while plant, fungal, and insect life in agricultural areas has been devastated. And soil loses fertility over years of pesticide applications, so crop yields go down without ever-greater chemical fertilizer use.

You may be old enough to remember the days when windshields would become covered in bug splatter when you went for a drive at night. That no longer happens, because the insects are already dead. A Danish study found bug splatter decreased by 80% between 1996 and 2017. And loss of insects means less food for birds, so less birdsong in the air. It means fewer pollinators, so in some places, fewer fruits and flowers.

It seems kind of obvious that deliberately killing things might have some harmful effects. But chemicals not intended to kill often do as much damage as the pesticides

Chemical waste and processes

A full discussion of industrial chemicals is too long for this article. But the list of chemicals used in one industry, mining, is terrifying. The market research firm Grand View Research says toxins including nitric acid, mercury, sulfuric acid, cyanide, lead, and uranium are used to produce the chemicals actually used in mining. These are all well-known poisons, some of which are also used in processing ore into metals. Any gold you’re wearing probably came from cyanide leaching on some tropical hillside.

Grandview writes that, “global mining chemicals market size was valued at USD 10.15 billion in 2021 and is anticipated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.7% from 2022 to 2030.” That’s a lot of poison, and we’re only talking about one industry.

Solvents are another huge category of industrial poisons. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC,) “Organic solvents are carbon-based substances capable of dissolving or dispersing one or more other substances. Organic solvents can be carcinogens, reproductive hazards, and neurotoxins. They are used in paints, varnishes, lacquers, adhesives, glues, and in de-greasing and cleaning agents, and in the production of dyes, polymers, plastics, textiles, printing inks, agricultural products, and pharmaceuticals.”

Such toxic chemicals injure workers and consumers, and kill wildlife when they are dumped into rivers or sink into soil. And we use them voluntarily in our own homes, because they’re convenient. Labels on dishwashing soaps like Dove say they allow for “70% less scrubbing.” How much easier! Then read the ingredient label on the back and realize: you are exposing yourself to toxic chemicals and forcing fish and other sea creatures to live in them.

Are we poisoning ourselves?

In most countries (though not the United States), people are living longer than ever. So, are chemical poisons really that bad for us?

I can’t say with absolute assurance, but I do know from decades of data that chemicals are making people fatter. Studies have shown that virtually all the weight gain we have seen in humans since the 1970s can be accounted for by chemicals (called ‘obesogens’ because they make us obese.)

Obesogens include diethylstilbestrol (DES), bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, organotins, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs), organochlorine (OC) pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and some solvents, according to scientists writing in the Journal of Environmental Public Health.

Fat people are always blamed for their fatness, but the reality is they are being poisoned. Then they are treated like inferior beings because of their weight. And they actually do tend to get sicker, so this is one known way we are poisoning ourselves.

But for me, it’s not all about humans. Animals and plants, our relations, are dying from these chemicals. We need to protect them.

What can we do about it?

How sad that we have to protect our world from our own science and technology. Yet we do. Some ways include:

Use way fewer chemicals in our homes and gardens. You might be surprised how far this can go. I stopped using dishwashing soap and laundry detergent years ago, and dishes and clothes seem adequately clean to me and even to my much more fastidious wife. And I’m not killing fish.

● Most people can’t grow a lawn without chemicals, so tear yours up and plant an organic garden. It will look better; it will feed you, and if the homeowners’ association says you can’t do it, sue them. Organize your neighbors to follow your lead. I didn’t say this would be easy.

● Stop buying the obesogens listed above, which means buying a lot less stuff in general. Buy organic food or grow your own. Cut plastic use as near-zero as possible, because its whole production process and life cycle is toxic.

● If toxic chemical factories are poisoning your community, organize to get them shut down or, better yet, converted to producing useful stuff.

● I’m not saying get rid of all chemicals. Chemists aren’t evil people, and chemicals do have some value, but society has to use them judiciously and wisely. When chemicals that kill are used for convenience or to increase profits, they are extremely dangerous. If used well, some can be valuable, but that means taking decisions about their use out of the hands of capitalists.

A classic example is the insecticide DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.) DDT stopped typhus outbreaks by killing the lice that spread the disease. It greatly reduced malaria by repelling germ-laden mosquitoes. It would have been a net benefit if they had just used it indoors, on walls and furniture to keep bugs off (a process called indoor residual spraying or IRS). But farmers and agricultural corporations started spraying it on crops everywhere; it got into the water, birds and bees started dying in large numbers. DDT was banned in many countries, but a society that consciously protected Nature could have used it cautiously and relatively safely.

If we prioritize life, we can still have the benefits of chemicals, but if we continue to prioritize profits and convenience, we will die and take our relations with us. Chemicals have to be strictly regulated. That means government agencies like Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have to commit to putting Nature ahead of profits and convenience. Industry must be prevented from taking over the agencies and rewriting the rules. Reduce your own chemical use to a minimum. Mass killing by chemicals has to stop, if Earth is to live.

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If Nature Were Our God

Belief in the source of life will sustain us.

                      Photo by Joel Holland on Unsplash

After Sept 11, 2001, I listened to some Muslim students from Indonesia talking about why Islam would beat the American-led Empire. “They don’t believe in anything,” one said. “They just want more for themselves; they don’t answer to any higher power. We follow Allah. He will help us stay strong, and they will eventually give up and leave us alone.”

So far, the student’s prediction has not come true, except in Afghanistan. But he had a point about needing to believe in something larger than ourselves, more important than material wealth. Belief strengthens us, makes us willing to sacrifice. It helps us see ourselves as a collective force for a common good, not as isolated individuals going our separate ways in a meaningless world.

I don’t share Muslims’ belief in the invisible sky god Allah, who Judeo-Christians call Jehovah. I do believe in a higher power, because I can see it all around me and feel it within me. We call it Nature, and It (whatever It is) is the force that gave us life. All our energy comes from the sun; all the water, food, and other necessities of life come from Earth. These gift-givers are the ones I give thanks to every day, the ones I live for and would gladly die for.

I’m not saying Earth or Sun are Gods like Allah or Jehovah, conscious beings with personalities who demand obedience. Nature is like the Hindu Brahman, the fabric of being, everything there is. Sun and Earth are Nature’s manifestations.

Indigenous peoples have worshiped Nature as Creator or the Great Spirit or by other names, but it’s all the same thing. A mouse or a mustard seed are all part of God. So are we. Uniting in their (our) defense is the movement we need. That’s why my Substack is called Make Earth Sacred Again.

Seeing Earth as sacred

For tens of thousands of years, people saw Earth as sacred. Nature was something to be feared, to be thanked, to love, to serve, to behold with awe. If modern humans got back to a sacred Earth, we wouldn’t be commuting in two-hour traffic jams to stupid jobs; armies wouldn’t be killing each other over access to oil or gold. We wouldn’t be poisoning ourselves and all living things with chemicals to kill “pests” or make our clothes clean and bright. We’d have less stuff, but we’d be happier and healthier.

If we saw ourselves as part of Nature, we could step out of what Charles Eisenstein calls The Story of Separation, the belief that we are all disconnected individuals in a dangerous, meaningless world. In a belief system like that, it makes sense to seek safety by accumulating wealth and power and to believe that only we and our immediate families count. This disconnection explains the high rates of mental illness we see even in rich societies.

Focusing on individual material wealth is not only unhealthy; it is completely unsustainable, because unlimited desires must be met by a large but limited Earth. Economist Herman Daly said, “It cannot be wise to treat Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.” Liquidating the forests, wetlands, and soils brings wealth, but is killing all of us. A recent study from the UK found wildlife populations are down 69% worldwide and by as much as 94% in some areas just in the last 50 years.

Do we mourn their loss? Would we treat our Mothers or our Gods that way?

I should note that capitalists do profess other values besides wealth. When they want support for a war, they talk about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ But these concepts are myths, nice-sounding ideas that barely exist in real life. Even where they do, they don’t make people happy or create sustainable societies.

Treating Earth as sacred is not a lifestyle choice. Well, it is a lifestyle choice, but it’s much more than that. Because the people who run most human societies are completely divorced from physical reality, living in mansions, working in offices, and valuing things only by the money they can bring, the rest of us need to come together to defend ourselves and all our relations. All the living things with whom we share our world are counting on us to save them. How do we do that?

Living for a sacred Earth

The current environmental and political crises may seem hopeless. But are they really hopeless, or is it just that we don’t know what to do? Eisenstein says that when healing comes, it will seem like a miracle, because healing seems impossible inside the Story of Separation. But some people have other stories and have been telling us about them for 500 years.

Indigenous people and their allies around the world are defending forests and waterways with their bodies and in court. We can join with them, follow their leadership, or support them in various ways. We can learn indigenous ways of being in the world that make Earth our top priority. We can learn these practices from books and workshops, not to appropriate them, but to find places to connect with and support them.

Self-defense — If we love our Earth, our relations and ourselves, we may need to physically fight for them. Talking to people and modeling better ways usually works better than combat, but some people won’t listen if they find it easier to run over us. I think war should be avoided at all costs, but protecting Earth might require violence — like when miners come for your riverbed, lumber companies for your forest, or capitalists deny your humanity.

Realize you are part of something far bigger and more important than your ego-self. Remember that other people and other creatures are your cousins.

Learn about and appreciate the world –Slow down, observe, interact with other living things. Take time with eating and touching. Meditate and become more aware of your body, feel the power of Nature inside of you. Give thanks for all of it.

Pay attention to Science (real science, not government bureaucrats’ version of it.) Science helps us see the beauty and power of Earth and Nature. It can help us live in harmony with them. Scientifically informed restoration is happening all over the world.

Join with others — For rituals, actions, ideas, and mutual support. Speak out, connect with family, faith, community. It’s not hard to find people on-line; it’s a little harder but much better in person.

I believe that if we follow Nature, we could overcome many of the divisions currently plaguing the world: the political, racial, ethnic, economic and cultural schisms promoted by our rulers. It’s not capitalism vs. socialism, although a sacred-Earth society would probably look more like the latter than the former. It’s not science vs. religion; it’s an understanding that unites them in service to creation. We are all children of Nature.

The false religion of money and goods doesn’t serve anyone, even those who think it serves them. We need to stop idolizing money and return to our Creators. Canadian First Nations teacher Blair Stonechild says his people’s way is to live with humility and gratitude, a sense of connection with all living things. Civilization’s way is to dominate other beings, including other humans, and this way has caused centuries of suffering and is now bringing catastrophe.

I’ll be writing more about this for the rest of my life. I invite you to do the same if you write, and serve Nature in other ways as you move through the world, remembering who you really are.

Resources

Books — The Knowledge Seeker and Loss of Indigenous Eden – Blair Stonechild
Braiding Sweetgrass– Robin Wall Kimmerer PhD

Honor the Earth — indigenous-led sustainability activists led by great Indian leader Winona LaDuke https://honorearth.org/mission-vision

Facebook groups (in English) — Indigenous Resistance, Indigenous Communism

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Can “Development” Be “Sustainable?”

Can we improve people’s lives without killing Nature?

                                               Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

An allegory told by a rat, as related by Robert C. O’Brien in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH::

“A woman in a small town bought a vacuum cleaner. Her name was Mrs. Jones, and up until then, she, like all her neighbors had kept her house perfectly clean with a broom and a mop. But the vacuum cleaner did if faster and better, and soon Mrs. Jones was the envy of all the other housewives in town. So they bought vacuum cleaners, too.”

“Vacuum cleaners became so popular, in fact, that the company that made them opened a branch factory in the town. The factory used a lot of electricity, and so did the women with their vacuum cleaners, so the local electric power company put up a big new plant to meet the demand. “

“In its furnaces, the power plant burned coal, and out of its chimneys black smoke poured day and night, blanketing the town with soot and making all the floors dirtier than ever. Still, by working twice as hard and twice as long, the women of the town were able to keep their floors almost as clean as they had been before Mrs. Jones bought a vacuum cleaner in the first place.”

I hesitate to call this story an allegory. It’s more like a history lesson. The rat didn’t say, but I’m sure that the involved manufacturers, advertisers, the electric company and the banks made a lot of money. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the area soared. Only the people, creatures, land and sky were worse off.

The same kind of “progress” happens in real life, on a global scale. It is called “development” and pollutes the environment, forces people to work twice as hard for a little more money, and enriches a small minority. Without doubt, many live in grinding poverty and deserve better lives. But how to  improve lives sustainably, meaning without destroying the natural world that is source of all wealth?

In his book Climate, A New Story, Charles Eisenstein describes what development means for people when defined as economic growth, which is how most economists and capitalists define it.

“Economic growth means the growth in goods and services exchanged for money. So, a remote village in India or a traditional tribal area in Brazil represents a great growth opportunity, because the people there barely pay for anything.”

“Imagine a development expert goes there and says “What an investment! These backward people grow their own food — they could buy it instead. They cook their own food too. Restaurants and delis could do it for them much more efficiently. The air is full of people singing; they could buy entertainment and play it through headsets. The children play with each other for free; they could enroll in day care. They follow their adults around to learn traditional skills — these kids could be in school. When a house burns down, the community gets together to rebuild it. They could just buy insurance. Everyone has a strong sense of social identity, a sense of belonging. They could buy brand name products for that.”

“You might ask, ‘How are they going to pay for all that?’ Easy. They earn money by converting local natural resources and their own labor into commodities. The rainforest becomes a palm oil plantation. The mountain becomes a strip mine; the river becomes a hydroelectric plant. The population abandons traditional ways and goes to work in the money economy. A few become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. The rest migrate to the slums.” In a nutshell, this is the process called “development.”

In the countries where development happens, the GDP goes up. The people are ‘richer’ in dollars and cents. But many, usually most, are poverty-stricken and miserable, having lost their way of life and often their homes, in exchange for shoddy imitations of Western civilization. Rates of depression, addiction, and crime go up. You might recognize this happening in your own cities.

The animals and plants of the forest are rendered homeless and endangered. The rivers stop running; the land becomes desert. Pretty soon, people are starving.

At least, this is how capitalist development works. Banks in rich countries, led by the World Bank, lend money for development to poor countries at substantial interest. They know well that the debtor countries cannot pay them back. They stay in debt forever, paying interest that compounds over time. The loans are used to build highways and ports to export the poor country’s resources, and factories to employ their laborers. Capitalist development means more efficient transfer of poor countries’ wealth to the rich countries.

Even for people whose income rises due to development, their lives may worsen. Development disrupts traditional cultures that have supported people for centuries.

Development without capitalism

When the environmental effects of capitalist development started to become clear in the 1970s, developers started talking about making development “sustainable,” meaning they wouldn’t use up resources or create waste faster than Nature could restore itself. It hasn’t happened. Since inventing the idea called “sustainable development,” industrial civilization has consumed more and more. True sustainability, meaning leaving future generations the same opportunities as this one, is farther away than ever.

Capitalism needs endless growth, so capitalist development can never be sustainable. The system has to take more and more resources and acknowledge no limits. But there are other kinds of development without capitalism. Could they be healthier for people and Earth?

One is socialist China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is the most comprehensive development plan in the history of the world. In the words of the Chinese government, BRI is an “all-dimensional, multi-tiered and composite connectivity. It will realize diversified, independent, balanced and sustainable development.”BRI envisions developing Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, and has signed up partners on each of these continents.

BRI includes the land based Silk Road Economic Belt, comprising six development corridors through Asia and its neighbors. They will be building lots of highways and high-speed rail.

BRI also envisions the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, to connect land based transport to shipping.

Third, the map below shows the Polar Silk Road, also called the Northern Sea Route, as officially mentioned in China`s Arctic policy. They mean shipping and exploiting the Arctic resources newly exposed by melting ice caps.

Map of the New Silk Road

The BRI’s web site says they will treat all countries equally and coordinate their efforts in five ways:

1. Governments will cooperate on policy and communication mechanisms.

2. All projects will use infrastructure that fits together. (As in, making sure your hose fits onto our pipe.)

3. Reduction of investment and trade barriers, promotion of regional economic integration.

4. Financial integration Coordination and cooperation in monetary policy, set-up of financing institutions.

5. People-to-people bonds Cultural and academic exchange and dialogue, media cooperation.

Most capitalists would applaud. More trade, better connectivity, invest where you want; those are things free-market capitalists always push. True, it sounds way better without the cutthroat competition backed by military force that we have now. But is it really sustainable?

I don’t think so. All this infrastructure they are building is bound to cause immense unintended harm. As the World Bank has discovered and I wrote about here, infrastructure such as roads and dams, no matter how well-intentioned, lead to destruction. People in need will follow them to where they hope to make a living, however they can. This kind of development is how the people logging the Amazon forest get there, and how the logs get shipped out.

Infrastructure like roads and power plants will certainly make people’s material lives easier, but if it degrades what is left of the planet, the benefits won’t last long, and they will be decidedly mixed.

I find the Polar Silk Route especially scary, opening a huge new area to mining and industrial fishing. But I guess that if BRI doesn’t get there, the US Empire will. BRI’s inclusive model beats the current World Bank/IMF model of rich exploiting Nature and the poor, but BRI does not seem remotely sustainable.

Already, China and Russia are cutting down Asian forests at a furious pace to supply building materials for new cities. Human Rights Watch reports on BRI dam projects in Cambodia drowning indigenous land, home to thousands of farmers and fishers and living species. I’m sure the electricity from these dams will help Cambodia develop, but the Earth, people, plants, and animals are suffering.

Is sustainable development possible? The UN SDG

The United Nations has been promoting ‘sustainable development’ since a conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In 2015, UN member states agreed on 17 sustainable development goals (SDG) that they call a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

Most of these goals involve improving people’s lives in material ways. End poverty. End hunger. Promote health. Quality education, water quality and sanitation, gender equality, and reduced social inequalities are some of them. I can’t argue with them, but how do they protect Nature?

                     

Three goals address the needs of Nature, calling for preserving biodiversity on sea and land, and “responsible consumption and production.” So far so good, but four of the other goals seem to relate specifically to sustainability:, and not necessarily in a good way. These goals are: Affordable, clean energy, Decent work and economic growth, Industry, innovation, and infrastructure, Sustainable cities and communities.

Like BRI, the SDG seem to prioritize human well-being, which sounds way better than prioritizing corporate fortunes. But they apparently define well-being as higher levels of development and consumption. One of the goals calls for “Ongoing, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” There’s nothing in there about protecting ecosystems from this growth, and we see what economic growth is doing to the planet already.

Calling desirable things “sustainable” doesn’t make them so. How are SDG and BRI different from capitalist development? As an indigenous leader told Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “This sustainable development sounds like they just want to keep on taking and not giving back. Tell them they need to consider first how they will give to the Earth.”

Some at the UN see this

Eight years after the SDG were published, very little has improved, and some at the UN seem to realize they need a different model. In 2021, they published a document called Making Peace with Nature that takes the SDG in a different direction. Lead authors Ivar A. Baste and Robert T. Watson write, “Humanity can make peace with nature and tackle the combined environmental crisis by redeploying human skills from transforming nature to transforming the social and economic fabric of society, meaning people’s relationship with nature and with each other.”

                  
                               UN Environmental Program’s breakthrough book

They call for “inclusive wealth accounting,” which measures the value of natural capital, including clean water and air, and a stable global climate, and of social capital (education, community organization) along with human skills and knowledge, and manufactured capital (buildings, infrastructure, and machines).

Notice they are valuing real things, and not the mounds of money called financial capital that run the world. Notice that they value things that never show up in economic accounting because they are not sold for profit, and they insist that all wealth is ultimately dependent on preserving natural capital. They are calling for development that gives back to Nature instead of just taking from it, not insisting on economic growth. This could be a substantial breakthrough.

Could BRI and SDG come together?

The bottom line is that the BRI or the SDGs are far better than today’s models, but neither is truly sustainable. If they were combined, though, behind leadership that embraced Making Peace with Nature, they could change the world. It’s a far better hope than the US dominated World Bank/IMF system, and they may have the power to replace it.

BRI gets things done. What if they focused less on growth and more on sustainability? The Chinese have already transformed huge areas of desert in the Loess Plateau into farmland and turned 200 cities into water cycling “sponge cities.” They do seem to take Nature seriously.

The many governments subscribing to BRI are big enough to change the course on which the West has set the world. The problem is most don’t see the necessity or the benefits of working with Nature. How will they ever put Nature first?

The same applies to the UN SDG. UN delegates represent governments that represent the rich. How can they do what’s right for people and planet? But if they decided to, they have the power.

Maybe that’s where we come in — making enough noise that they hear us, and modeling enough regenerative practices that they see us. Maybe we could shut down the World Bank and IMF or transform them into institutions that focus on restoring Earth. Cancel all the debt that forces countries to tear up and sell off their natural treasures. Can we (the global “we”) demand that China and the UN put Nature first, and that they work together to achieve the SDG and BRI’s laudable goals?

And the dinosaur in the room: Can we persuade or force the United States empire to stop trying to dominate the world and cooperate with the rest of us? Admittedly, such transformation would be extraordinarily difficult. But it’s a do-or-die situation. What else have we got to do?

 

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Why Police Can’t Keep Us Safe

Strong communities protect us better than armed militias.

                They’re not here to protect us. Photo by ev on Unsplash

Just three months after San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled for being “soft on crime,” local media and police advocates are screaming louder than ever about crime in the city. News stories about crime run every day. If they can’t find some locally, they report scare stories from elsewhere.

Regular people are, in fact, scared. All over the country, threads on Nextdoor.com are filled with complaints about crime and fear of crime, ‘Watch out for this guy across the street,’ ‘The police never come when you call’ and things like that. People feel less safe, and authoritarians use that fear to push for increases in police budgets and repression of people seen as dangerous, whether or not they pose a real threat.

This dynamic has been normal in over-policed African-American communities for decades, but now all kinds of people are affected. Why are people afraid, and what can we do about it? Can police protect us from the effects of poverty, homelessness, mental illness and addiction, climate chaos, and social disintegration? Although some studies show slight crime reductions with more police, lots of studies show they can’t help. I argue here that building stronger communities is the best way to feel safe and to actually be safe..

Why people live in fear

Life is getting harder. Prices go up, wages stay low, people don’t have jobs or places to live, so some turn to crime. As with chronic health problems like diabetes, society has the disease. Individuals (whether diabetics, criminals, or victims) just get the symptoms. People have a right to fear crime, but for many, crime is just one out of a raft of potential disasters.

I see how fear of crime affects people in my own neighborhood. A 3200 unit rental development in San Francisco, it has been lower-middle class since its construction in the 40s and 50s. When I came here in 1998, my neighbors were teachers, nurses, plumbers, retirees, and young families just starting out. It was uninteresting but attractive and safe.

Times have changed since then. The kinds of people who used to live here cannot afford the rent; though it’s below San Francisco averages. Many units are now filled by people on housing assistance (Section 8) or by squatters who don’t pay rent at all. One staff rep told me there are too many vacancies for them to keep on top of, so squatters move in, stay until thrown out, then come back a few days later.

Of course, most people don’t really care if their neighbors are paying rent or not, but a lot of these squatters supplement their income by robbing packages, breaking into cars, even robbing stores in the local strip mall at night.

Some people are understandably uncomfortable with these changes, which are the same problems the whole city and many other cities are dealing with. The forms differ because the environments differ. We don’t have people living in tents outside our doors. There’s not much street crime yet, but it’s gotten so Amazon Prime shouldn’t even bother delivering packages. They don’t get to the customers anyway.

To me, these feel like minor problems, but they have an impact. If the complex gets a bad reputation and occupancy rate drops too low, owners will cut back on services, buildings will deteriorate, and our homes will sink into a downward spiral.

So, what can we do? Management has an answer: call the police. A lot of residents do that; it’s natural to trust authority. But it doesn’t work.

Why police can’t help

While having more officers on the street probably reduces crime in their immediate vicinity, data  shows police have very little effect on overall crime. The problem is that crime and violence don’t come out of nowhere. There are deeper causes that must be addressed, and police aren’t equipped to address them. Locking up offenders to stop crime is like cutting the top off an encroaching kudzu plant and expecting the kudzu to go away.

The Marshall Project, a justice reform think tank wrote, “Since the 1970s, rollbacks in the social safety net, growing income inequality and de-institutionalization of the mentally ill have meant that police officers are tasked with responding to an ever-growing list of social problems. At the same time, lawmakers have chosen to criminalize and prosecute nonviolent misdemeanors like sleeping on the sidewalk and disorderly conduct.” Police are not the right ones to address such issues. Community organizations are.

Instead of building communities, though, governments at every level rely on police to maintain order. A thorough study from 2012 in the Center for American Progress found that, “As the size and budgets of American police forces grew, so too did their role in the community. Efforts to address underlying community problems through social investment took a backseat [to] policing strategies. As a result, American police officers make more than 10 million arrests each year, less than 5 percent of which are for serious violent crimes.”

More recently, a large study by the Brookings Institution detailed how policing had very limited effects on antisocial behavior and called for a “Public Health approach” to crime.

Their recommendations included providing people with medical care including mental health and substance abuse treatment. Cities such as Eugene OR and Denver CO successfully use non-police community responders to deal with mental health and drug related problems.

Some of this intervention is done by professionals, and some by neighborhood-or-street-level “violence interrupters” or “neighborhood change agents” who de-escalate conflicts, build relationships, and promote community safety through nonviolent means.” San Francisco has a couple of organizations like that, such as Urban Alchemy, though not in my neighborhood.

               
               Urban alchemists Photo: San Francisco Standard

The authors report on economic opportunity programs such as jobs, financial assistance, grants to fix up and develop housing, and resulting drops in crime of up to 50%, including in domestic violence.

Other community-based approaches with proven success include youth programs such as job skills training, mentorship, sports, culture, and education. For youth and adults, creating healthier environments helps — “including fixing abandoned buildings, increasing access to parks, improving lighting, creating community gardens and gathering spaces.”

Crime is a symptom; it’s not the disease. A healthier community will have less crime. People are starting to see now that personal wealth won’t enable us to live well in a disintegrating society. That might work in gated communities of millionaires, but in our neighborhood, we need each other. Without substantial support from government or philanthropists, we can’t do all the things the Brookings report recommended. But we can start where we are and build up.

How strong communities can help

We can start by getting to know our neighbors. In my building, we organize monthly social hours, as I described here, and encourage new people to come. Young healthy neighbors can check in on older ones. People leave extra food and clothing in a common space for people to pick up. Many things other than crime — think food and housing insecurity — make people unsafe, and we can address some of them.

Problems such as homelessness and outdoor drug markets might go beyond our abilities to handle by ourselves, but if management and government collaborate with community groups, maybe we could handle them.

In our neighborhood, the low-income tenants moving here under Section 8 need support. Most have never lived in a place like this before; older residents are suspicious of them; they don’t have friends here. We are asking management to provide support for them, somebody of whom to ask questions, arrange meetings with neighbors so people get to know each other. We want to call these consultants ‘community builders.’

As a community, we can defuse conflicts between residents, but violent people can come in from outside, and at some point neighborhoods might need community patrols. At some point if things continue to collapse, they might need to be armed. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense started as a community patrol and built a whole movement before the government crushed them.

Problems with communities

Strong communities have pluses and minuses. While they give constant support — kids have kids to play with and adults they can trust — they also limit individual freedom, because people are paying attention to each other.

Community is opposed to the dominant narrative of life purpose — increasing wealth and personal development, career, travel, entertainment. There is not much room for place, family or community in that kind of life, so the more successful you are in the dominant paradigm, the less community you will have and the more stressed you might be. The narrative that exalts individuals over community seems like a marketing scam, one that has taken in our whole society.

The dominant narrative of separateness may not cause crime, but it sets us up for crime when times are hard and wealth inequalities reach insane levels as they have now. If you can’t support yourself with work, why not steal? Community takes us out of that narrative. The more involved we become in the places we live and work, the safer we will be.

Conclusion

Crime is up because economic desperation is up and social supports are breaking down. But crime is only one of many dangers people face. More public safety providers could help, but police aren’t the best people for this job. Only by organizing our communities, including talking to people who might break laws out of need or distress, can we be as safe as possible in a world our leaders are making more dangerous every day.

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The Real Causes of Climate Change

Go far deeper than fossil fuels

                                          Photo by shun idota on Unsplash

People who fear climate change (AKA global warming), usually blame rising temperatures, droughts and floods on people burning too much oil, coal, and gas. These “fossil fuels” warm the globe by putting a heat-trapping blanket of carbon dioxide (CO2) over Earth. But there are several other, more fundamental causes for climate change.

The deeper causes are civilization’s destruction of forests, wetlands, soils and oceans. CO2 isn’t causing climate change by itself. The problem is loss of the plants, animals, and microorganisms who keep climate in balance. Fossil fuels are just the straw breaking the camel’s back.

We can’t heal the planet with electric cars or other emission-reducing technological fixes. We need to understand, embrace, and support Nature in its tireless work of keeping the Earth fit for life. If we live as part of Nature, not as consumers of it, we can have not only more sustainable, but happier, more fulfilling lives.

Fossil fuels are not the only way industrial civilization kicks Nature in the face. It’s not even the worst way, and our abuse of the natural world carries over into how we treat each other and treat our own bodies. We are part of Nature, and we have to help Nature and help each other to heal the wounds that industrial civilization has inflicted on us. This is a big project with a thousand places one can connect and serve.

Stop paving over everything

Living things such as plants, fungi, and bacteria all absorb carbon and either cycle it into growth, like trees do, bury it deep beneath the surface, where it may eventually turn into coal or oil, or use it to feed other life forms. Life mediates climate. But modern civilization is all about getting rid of life: building roads and cities and parking lots on all unused land. “Unused” means not making a profit for a corporate owner.

Instead of maximizing profit as capitalism does, we should maximize life. We need more unused land. Good things happen there. Any land that isn’t growing food should be helped to grow whatever will grow there: grasses, shrubs, forests, swamps, whatever is best suited for the space. Nature can usually figure this out for herself if we let it alone.

I would go further and un-pave areas that are currently lifeless and serve no real purpose. Cities could turn huge areas of abandoned parking lots, roads and factories into parkland, farms or wild land, and soak up a lot of carbon in the process. This would undo some of the “urban heat island” effect, described by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “Urban heat islands occur when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat. This effect increases energy costs (e.g., for air conditioning), air pollution levels, and heat-related illness and mortality.”

Urban heat islands are significant contributors to global warming. The islands often spread along highways into long chains of heat-trapping suburbs and cities.

There are strategies to bring more plant and animal life to cities and reduce heat. These include “Green (living) roofs”, which EPA says “provide both direct and ambient cooling effects.”. There are also green walls, or what is called Living Architecture.

                     
                                    Living wall. Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

China has created over 200 “sponge cities” in which large chunks of downtowns are dug up and turned into lakes, marshes and parks which absorb water and heat. Sponge cities reduce flooding, attract animals, and bring water to surrounding farms and wild land.

To me, Priority #1 is to stop building on unbuilt land. Instead of robbing more land from Nature, repair and care for what’s already built, like our bridges. Of course, people will still need housing and companies may need factories. But look at all the unoccupied, underutilized and decaying housing and factories we already have.

We could fix those up or rebuild instead of taking more land. Turn the rest into gardens and forests and grassland. They would cool the cities directly with shade and indirectly by absorbing carbon, while providing beauty and food.

I recognize that these changes would require large infringements on owners’ “property rights,” and I say, ‘Go ahead and infringe on those rights.’ Who gave anyone the right to degrade and destroy land, a gift from God (the Universe?) If you didn’t make it, how is it yours? We could also choose to compensate people for their land rights.

The same principles apply to agriculture. Maximize life, not production, and let Nature cool itself off.

Bring back the family farm

Industrial agriculture is constant rape of the farmland. We pour chemicals on the land to make some things grow and kill everything else. These chemicals inevitably run off into streams and neighboring land and poison the insects, birds, and plants there. Massive tractors compress the soil instead of aerating it. Land is typically left bare between growing seasons instead of planted with cover crops, so it dries out and erodes away. These practices turn farms into carbon emitters, when they could be carbon sinks.

Industrial farming typically boosts food production for a few years and replaces a lot of workers with machines, which don’t receive salaries and so lower food prices. But the benefits haven’t proved sustainable, while the costs keep growing. Chemically-treated land loses productivity over time, because the life forms that would regenerate soil are degraded or killed. Without insects, birds, fungi and the like, farmers need increasing amounts of fertilizers to make crops grow and pesticides to keep weeds and pests down. They have to pay mortgages and buy new bags of hybrid seeds every year, falling deeper in debt.

According to scientists in India, the economic pressure to grow more food faster forces farmers to burn the previous crop’s waste, rather than letting it decompose into the soil. Without that nutrition, the soil loses its carbon-absorbing and plant-nurturing capacity.

There are positive alternatives to factory farming. Traditional family farms can focus on restoring land and growing food in sustainable ways. These methods are usually called “regenerative agriculture” or “permaculture.” They may include planting cover crops, trees and hedges, and creating ponds and marshes to hold water and attract animals that enrich soil.

Food produced in this way will usually be healthier, tastier, and pricier. It requires more labor and cannot be done in huge fields farmed by machines. How can small farmers compete with corporate farmers with their 100,000 acre spreads of land growing single commercial crops?

We could go a long way to house the homeless, employ the jobless, and connect people with Nature by breaking up those giant farms and moving people there to work them. To meet the world’s food needs with permaculture farms, we’ll need a lot more family farmers.

Like other landowners, industrial farmers will have to give up some rights, and small-scale farmers will need financial support from the rest of society. The rich will scream ‘This is communism;’ to which the only reasonable reply is “STFU. This is about keeping our planet a decent place to live.”

Since sustainably-grown food involves more labor, lower-income people will need help to buy it. Say everyone was given food stamps to buy Earth-friendly food through Farmers Markets or Community-Supported Agriculture programs. In a few years, we could have a better-fed, healthier world. Those who want to grow but aren’t able to create a whole farm could do gardens or participate in community gardens. Newbies can learn how to do this on the Internet. There are also organizations and communities to help people who want to farm learn ways that heal Earth.

This is a win-win-win proposition. But it all depends on having enough clean water.

Water and Climate

Philosopher of science Charles Eisenstein says water, not carbon dioxide,is the key molecule to understand for our climate. A lot of what I write here comes from his book Climate: A New Story.” 

                                           
                                                      This is a great book

I can’t speak for the rest of the universe, but on Planet Earth, water is life. Everywhere there is water, things live. Without water, no life exists. Water also helps control climate by absorbing heat and carbon and allowing forests, wetlands, and prairies to thrive and regulate their environments.

Yet we waste water as if it had no value. Industries dump toxic waste into rivers and lakes. Oil companies use billion of gallons in fracking operations to get at gas trapped in rocks, a process that leaves the water hopelessly poisoned.

Oil pipelines crisscross every continent bringing fuels to people but constantly leaking oil into soil and groundwater, contaminating it for the rest of us. We’re doing a straight-up trade of water for fuel. The source of all life is given up for gasoline we then burn to drive to the mall.

These kinds of exchanges make sense when everything in the world is reduced to its ‘value’ expressed in dollars. Water has been so abundant that it was free; you couldn’t make money off it, while oil sells for big bucks. Ironically, now that industrial civilization has made clean water scarce, it’s starting to become expensive for ordinary users paying water bills. But big companies can still prevail on governments to give them all they want for almost nothing.

Water is also poisoned by dumping from chemical plants and mines, from agricultural runoff loaded with chemicals, pharmaceuticals and polluted urban wastewater.

When water isn’t poisoned, its life-giving flow is impeded by dams. Dams block rivers to create power and control floods, processes often celebrated as ‘fighting climate change.’ But the fossil fuels saved through hydroelectric energy need to be balanced against the loss of land that could soak up carbon, the methane released by flooded vegetation, and the displacement of people to the cities where they must consume more to survive.

Flood control is also a double-edged sword. Flooding brings huge amounts of nutrients from rivers on to surrounding lands. Without that flooding, farmers must replace those nutrients with petrochemical fertilizers, and land degrades.

I won’t go into the loss of ocean life here — the sea grass, kelp, fish, coral reefs and mammals that human activity intentionally or unintentionally destroys. But their loss has a huge effect on other life, including on climate. Organizations working to protect the oceans could use your help.

May the forest be with you

No discussion of climate change would make sense without including the effects of forest removal. According to research cited by Eisenstein, people have been clearing forests for up to 7000 years, long before anyone was burning fossil fuels. A lot of cleared land eventually turned into deserts.

                                 Photo by Dmitry Bukhantsov on Unsplash

Since colonialism started in the 16th Century, the rate of deforestation has steadily increased and is still increasing today. The rainforests of Amazonia, Congo, Indonesia, and the Pacific Northwest are all being vigorously logged, with the result that denuded land supports less life, and water runs off without being absorbed.

Forests bring rain by transpiring water from the ground into the air, where it forms clouds that reflect sunlight into space. Without forests, the world dries out and heats up, and billions of creatures die.

I don’t have the heart to go into the horrors of deforestation now, but will mention one particularly awful industry, the grinding of living trees into wood chips for use as biofuels. This crime is presented as an environmental benefit, because wood chips are used instead of fossil fuels. Much of the world’s forest is slated to be used as fuel if plans go ahead.

Killing forests for money can’t continue, but society needs to help loggers find better work. Many loggers and the corporations that employ them have killed people who get in the way of their logging. Restoring and protecting forests could be better jobs for them, and other people volunteer to help forests. There are a lot of groups doing this work. I suggest connecting with one that is indigenous-led.

One last climate destroyer can’t be ignored, and that is war.

War against climate

The US military is the biggest single polluter in the world. Their planes and tanks and trucks burn enormous amounts of gas. Shells and bombs pollute and destroy infrastructure and water. The lives of farmers are disrupted; people go hungry and cannot worry about sustainability or their impact on Nature.

Yet wars continue and show no signs of stopping. People in power are now talking seriously about use of nuclear weapons. I’m not sure what the effect on climate of nukes would be, but it couldn’t be good. In times of wars and threats of war, all other priorities — such as a livable world — lose importance. All must be sacrificed to defeat the enemy, whoever that is.

Working for peace is working for a healthy climate.

So, what about those fossil fuels

Climate change has a dozen causes, and fossil fuel use is only one. Does that mean we can drive and fly all we want and live in big houses that consume huge amounts of electricity and fuel? Can we keep building subdivisions whose residents must drive 90 minutes each way to work? Keep burning coal for electricity to light up the night sky so stars become invisible?

I would say no, we can’t do that, and most people don’t want to. We should indeed ride bikes, walk, or take public transport instead of driving. We should use fans instead of air conditioners, conserve as much energy as possible. But those changes are just a start, and it’s OK to start somewhere else. It’s not all about the greenhouse gases.

As Eisenstein says, reducing the climate crisis to carbon dioxide levels is counterproductive and wrong. We need to transform our economic and social relationships. We need to change from a culture that values everything by the money it can bring, a society in which we are isolated individuals seeking to survive, to one based on relationships. We should cherish animals, plants, places and people, and makes life our top priority in all we do.

With a million changes to make, no one person can do it all, and no one has to. Since all life is interconnected, anything you do will reverberate through the whole system. Housing homeless people helps. Freeing incarcerated people helps. Planting flowers for bees and butterflies, donating money to indigenous land defenders, buying from regenerative farmers, helping create community in your neighborhood so people aren’t isolated, whatever, it all helps. The odds may be against us, but there are billions of us. We can do this.

Resources

Eisenstein, Charles The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (2013) Also Sacred Economics (2011) and Climate: A New Story (2018)

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. I know I recommend this book a lot, but it’s life-changing and world changing. If you don’t read it, you will have missed something wonderful.

Thanks for reading! Please comment, share, or steal. Follow me on Twitter, on Facebook or on Medium.com. Hire me for freelancing, editing, or tutoring on Linked In

 

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How Capitalism Killed Democracy

No matter who gets elected, the rich still rule

                                               Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

In a democracy, the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to repress them.” Karl Marx

Media, especially liberal media, keep telling us “our democracy is in danger” from ‘mobs’ aligned with Donald Trump, or from ‘foreign interference’ in elections.   In reality, democracy in the USA died long ago. Capitalism killed it; politics has become a reality TV show that only serves to hide the real power structure.  Whoever wins elections, the billionaires and big corporations still make all the important decisions.

What is democracy anyway?  Democracy means rule by the many, which Aristotle, the first political analyst, explained meant rule by the poor. (There are far more poor than rich.) Oligarchy means rule by the few, meaning by the rich.  Both democracy and oligarchy can take many forms, and social classes fight for forms that serve them.

Democracy is clumsy, and in the long run, oligarchs usually win. Since revolutions brought an end to absolute monarchies and a start to modern democracies in the 18th and 19th centuries, the oligarchs have found ways to corrupt democratic governments and turn them into de facto oligarchies.

As a result, despite all the nonstop news and entertainment around elections and politics, a 2014 Princeton study showed that the US was already far more oligarchy than democracy. Other researchers have said the Princeton study overstated the control of the rich, but I think it didn’t go far enough, as I’ll explain.

Bureaucracy

The government you can see isn’t the real government. When we look at actual governmental structure,  the appointed or elected Secretaries, Ministers, Directors, and Governors of various agencies and states have loads of assistants, advisors, deputies, undersecretaries and other bureaucrats who do the real work and make the day-to-day decisions.  A new administration may bring in new people at the top, but any bright ideas they may have about serving the many and not the few are likely to be suppressed or ignored until they learn to do things the approved way.

 

                        Organizational chart of the Dept. of Energy, a typical bureaucracy. Is this democracy?

This consistency is especially obvious in foreign policy, which never changes, no matter who is elected. Remember how many times Donald Trump said he was withdrawing troops from Afghanistan? It never happened on his watch.  Dept of Defense bureaucrats (a category which includes many generals) simply ignored him. They floated stories in the media like “A full withdrawal from Afghanistan would take years.”

Then, when Trump was out of office, those same bureaucrats decided to leave Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. They abandoned millions of dollars worth of equipment and sacrificed their Afghan allies.. The chaos of the withdrawal was blamed on Trump by Democrats or on President Biden by Republicans, but neither had control over it.  Pentagon bureaucrats did.

Where do these bureaucrats come from?  Many come from the corporations they are supposed to regulate. Executives move from corporations to government offices and back so often that the connection is called a “revolving door.”  Two of the most glaring, top-level revolvers:

Economist Larry Summers – went from an undersecretary of the Treasury to President of Harvard University to managing partner at the hedge fund D. E. Shaw & Co., where he advised other financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and others.  Then, he became President Obama’s chief economic advisor, where he oversaw the massive bank bailouts which started with the 2009 crash and have continued under Trump and Biden.

                                                          Bankers’ man Larry Summers. Image from Slate.com

These ongoing multi-trillion dollar bailouts are the reason for current inflation, not small amounts of debt relief or tiny wage hikes given to the working class.  Summers has overseen all the bailouts from various positions in the revolving door.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin graduated from the US Military Academy  in the 70s and spent 40 years working his way up to be a 4-star general. He retired from the armed services in 2016 and joined the boards of arms giant Raytheon Technologies, , the steel company Nucor, Tenet Healthcare, and Auburn University.  On December 7, 2020, President-elect Biden nominated him Secretary of Defense. From this position, he oversees wars and military buildups around the world.

                                                            Lloyd Austin, one man military-industrial complex

People like Summers and Austin have thousands of colleagues — over two million of them actually –  filling government at every level.  Many were educated in elite schools such as Harvard and Yale, Georgetown or University of Chicago. They know their job is to serve the corporations, and they believe in their work.

They also know there will be lucrative jobs awaiting them in the private sector when they go through the revolving door. Many enjoy gifts and investment tips from their corporate friends while they’re still in government. They know who to call when they want to get something done or are unsure what to do They pass those contacts on to new bureaucrats when they arrive from Harvard or wherever.

This is what the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin meant when he said, “The capitalist state is bound by thousands of threads to the capitalist class. The working class cannot simply lay hold of the state [e.g. by winning an election – DS] and use it for its own ends.”

The role of elected officials

The rich may control the bureaucracy, but they still need leaders to bring the people along.  That is why they go to such great lengths to elect leaders who will speak for them, a true puppet government.

Barack Obama was a superstar puppet. With his African father, he could pose as an alternative to business as usual. With his vague but eloquent promises of “hope and change”, he drew millions of disaffected young people and people of color back into an electoral process they had rejected. As a result, his party won massive majorities in the House and Senate in 2008.

Obama and the Democrats could now do whatever they wanted. And nothing happened.  Nothing changed. His programs were actually moderate Republican programs that didn’t challenge power at all. The people Obama charmed back into the system realized they had been duped and dropped out, and American politics shifted to the Right.  Wealth disparities and poverty have increased ever since, while the corporations grow in power.

Reaction on the part of angry white people to this betrayal is how we got Donald Trump.

Occasionally, an outsider will sneak through.  Someone like an AOC or a Cori Bush can win office and make some noise for a while, but they soon find they can’t accomplish anything. Then they either choose to play their role in the puppet show, quit, or become entrapped in some scandal or redistricting that forces them to leave, as happened to Georgia representative Cynthia McKinney.

Two party system

Every  capitalist democracy has its own way of keeping control, but in the U.S. they have created an almost unbeatable two party system. Other countries have systems of proportional representation, in which many parties can form and elect people to Parliament (Congress) in proportion to the number of people who vote for them. If you get 20% of the vote, you get 20% of the seats. Other places, including some US cities, use a system of ranked choice voting, where people vote for candidates in their order of preference.

Most places in the US have no such system. There are only two candidates, and whoever gets the most votes for a particular office wins, even if most people hate them. That’s how we get a Congress with a 17% approval rating, who somehow keep getting re-elected.

Elections are fixed in several other ways. Third parties are legally excluded from the ballot in many states. Voting districts are wildly unequal in size. The US Senate includes two Senators from each state, so that some represent 30,000,000 people and others represent a few hundred thousand. But they get the same number of votes in the Senate, including votes for President in the Electoral College. Voting districts are “gerrymandered,” meaning drawn in ways that virtually guarantee wins to the party that does the drawing.

Working class people can be excluded from voting if they’ve been to jail, if they don’t have up-to-date ID, if they owe money to the government, or if they have to work during limited election hours. Black voters are most likely to have their voices suppressed in this way. The voting machines themselves can be easily hacked, especially by the people who own and operate them.

Along with all this, the capitalists have a far more powerful tool to guarantee favorable results.  They have the biggest, most sophisticated propaganda machine in history in the form of corporate media.

Media’s extraordinary power

In the 21st Century, very few of us know the candidates or the issues from personal experience. Most rely on media to tell them what’s happening, and the controlled media is the final, most powerful weapon capitalism wields to kill democracy.

In response to the Princeton study that found the U.S. an oligarchy, some academics pointed out that rich people weren’t overruling the majority, because the majority agreed with them most of the time.  And they do agree, because the official story is all anyone hears or reads in media. Anything else is called disinformation and suppressed.

In large scale electoral politics, candidates have to get their message out through media, and the media does not repeat messages that displease the billionaires.  One can buy media time, which is where most of the billions of dollars spent in US politics goes.  Right-wing capitalists like the Koch family in particular spend billions of their own money to influence elections.

The cost of advertising tends to exclude those without access to rich, powerful friends. Their message doesn’t get out.

The stories people believe determine how they see the world and what they do about it. Capitalism has created a story-telling machine that determines what most people believe. Then they vote those stories into power.

What can we do?

Representative democracy under capitalism is over. It can’t be fixed, because those in position to fix it want to keep it a meaningless show. They want their corporations to be able to continue looting the planet and don’t care what it costs working people or the environment. They want a government that helps them loot, not one that sets limits on their greed.

There are alternatives. One would be direct democracy, as they had in ancient Greece, where people actually vote on important questions. This could be done in small communities or theoretically in large groups via the Internet. Another would be an authoritarian system where people and businesses can do what they want, but within strict limits enforced by an authority, as they do in China.

But would such authorities represent people and planet, or billionaires and corporations? I like the idea of a council of authoritative elders (preferably indigenous elders) who must sign off on any policy decision.

Even though most democracy is a puppet show, it still makes sense to me to vote. Parties and candidates do disagree on  social issues about which the capitalists don’t care. Laws criminalizing reproductive behavior could vary slightly by who is in office, even if wars, economics, and environmental policies don’t.

Especially at the local level, District Attorneys make huge differences in peoples’ lives by deciding who to prosecute for what. Mayors can have huge influence on their cities including greening them and finding solutions to homelessness.

At the very least, we can stop believing democracy is real. Our pretend democracy is only a tool to confuse, divide, and repress us. It’s okay to participate in it, but don’t worry about ‘defending’ it. We want to blow it up. We can tell everyone who is interested what the real situation is. We might even run for local office ourselves with the express intent of exposing the system.

And we can work outside the system. We can spend more time with real people in the real, physical world  and do what it needs us to do.

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Community Building Drama

Creating community isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding.

                        Where I live      Image Maximus Partners

Last year, a neighbor friend, my partner Aisha and I decided to try and make our 12-story building more of a community. We wanted a place where we knew a lot of people, where people knew each other and sometimes helped one another.

We live in ParkMerced, a large housing development in San Francisco I would call lower-middle-class. A lot of teachers, nurses, bus drivers, tradesmen, and retired people live here, many of them 1st or 2nd generation immigrants. In recent years, we’ve seen reverse gentrification, as management has leased to more Section 8 housing assistance recipients, many of them disabled.

So, how to build a community? We’re all renters, and renters are notoriously difficult to organize. They come and go and tend not to see the buildings they live in as their home. But it can be done. We started with a monthly two-hour social in the building lobby on the second Fridays of each month. I made up flyers and posted them in the elevator, the lobby, and the laundry room the Sunday before the social. After the social, we take them down and reuse them next month.

Some people came, between 15–30 each time. The events lasted two hours but there wasn’t much to do besides talk, eat snacks and drink wine or juice. The socials were nice, but most residents gave them a miss.

Then one day I was on the nearby campus of San Francisco State University, and as luck had it, it was new student orientation day. A young man was there from a Black Gay Lesbian social club for students, and he had a big sign about “Building Community.” I asked him, “How do you do that? What do you actually do to build community? Because we’re trying to do that in our building.”

He thought for a minute and then said they tried to get people to share something about themselves with at least one other person. That made a lot of sense to me, and we started coming up with activities we could do at the socials where people shared about themselves. One was “What brought you to 405 [street name]?” We put the question on a sign and had post-it notes where people could write their answers. Their reasons were interesting; people liked the game.

Last month, I bought a large world map and a USA map on Maps.com. For the social, three neighbors — I always ask for help — taped them on the lobby walls with 8 1/2 X 11 signs that said “Where We’re From. Put a green sticker where you were born and yellow stickers where your grandparents were born.” I bought stickers at Target ($1.89 for a good supply), put them in open envelopes, and a friend taped them next to the maps.

At the social, people put up their stickers and looked where other people came from. We left the maps up overnight, and the next day, Saturday, more people played, including the custodian, to whom I explained the game, asked her to leave the maps up, and invited her to play. I planned to leave the maps and stickers up for a month or more. They certainly made the lobby more interesting than the plain housing project look it usually has.

Here’s the Drama

But Saturday night / Sunday morning someone stole the world map. I don’t know who or why; it just disappeared. That afternoon, Aisha put up a couple signs in the lobby saying, “We live at 405 as neighbors. Please return the map to [our apartment.]” I figured maybe a 20% chance of getting it back.

The theft made me sad. Not like we lost anything valuable or had been personally attacked, but just that I hoped to build community, and some people obviously didn’t care about that and would sabotage if they could get anything out of it. It hurt, as if my ideas and effort had been rejected. I didn’t get angry or cry, but I felt depressed, doubting what I was doing in life.

On the other hand, people in the building seemed as upset as I was. People would see Aisha or me in the elevator or the lobby and say ‘how awful about the map. Hope you get it back’ or words to that effect. So, in a way, the theft was having the purpose of bringing people together, which was the map’s purpose, after all.

Three days went by and nothing happened. Then Wednesday around 4:00, there was a knock on my door. It was a Russian neighbor from down the hall. He handed me the world map, neatly rolled up and taped. He said he had found it in the lobby and brought it up, because he knew it was ours and didn’t want it to disappear again.

I was so happy I could have cried. Tears did come off and on for a couple of hours. I don’t know why it felt so important to me. I hadn’t realized how much the loss had hurt, but the return felt wonderful.

We still don’t know who took the map or why they returned it, but I don’t need to. This morning I posted a big thank you in the lobby so people would know the map had been returned and whoever took it knows they are forgiven and still part of the community.

Neighbors were also pleased. A couple of folks told me, “Glad you got it back” or things like that. The whole mini-drama turned out very good for the community-building project.

I encourage all of us to do what we can to build community connection where we live. I now see that there will be challenges; there will be drama, but I also know that as times get crazier and tougher, a strong community will help us live good lives. I’m glad I have the time and energy to do this work.

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The Eagle and the Condor

An ancient prophecy of salvation for here and now

                            Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

What would it take to reverse humanity’s current catastrophic course? Must we keep growing faster, consuming more, fighting each other for power, and destroying the Earth, our home and source of life?

Indigenous people have pondered these questions for centuries, ever since Industrial Man came from Europe and started killing them. Here’s one of the stories that came to them, from the Achuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, as told to Lynne Twist and recounted in her book The Soul of Money.

                        Photo by Jean Vella on Unsplash

“In the beginning, all the Earth’s people were one, but long ago they divided into two groups, and each followed a different path. The people of the Eagle were highly scientific and intellectual. The people of the Condor were highly attuned to nature, relationships, and the intuitive realm.”

“At a certain time of Earth’s history, the Eagle people, the people of the intellect and the mind, people with a highly developed sense of the aesthetic and cognitive skills — will have reached a zenith in their amassing of scientific knowledge, technology and tools, high art, and the ability to build and construct. The Eagle people will produce technological marvels of awesome power and breadth. These accomplishments will bring tremendous material wealth to leaders of the Eagle world. At the same time, they will be spiritually impoverished to their peril, and their very existence will be at risk.”

“In this same era, the people of the Condor — people of the heart, the spirit, the senses, and deep connection with the natural world — will be highly developed in their intuitive skills. They (the indigenous peoples) will reach a zenith in their wisdom, their understanding of the great cycles of the earth, their connection with the spirits, the animals and the plant kingdom. At the same time,, they will be disadvantaged in their interactions with the material world of the eagle such that their very existence will be at risk.“

“At the beginning of the fifth Pacha — an Inca calendar cycle of 500 years, the time we are in now — there will be a great upheaval, called a pachakuti. A reunion will come to pass between the long-separated people of the Eagle and people of the Condor. Remembering they are one people, they will reconnect, share their knowledge and wisdom and save each other. The eagle and the condor will fly together, wing to wing, in the same sky and the world will come back into balance after a point of near extinction. Neither eagles nor condors will survive without this collaboration.”

Well, that’s a hopeful story, but really?

According to the web site LivinginPeru.com, the fifth pacha started in 1990, but is there any evidence that this pachakuti, this upheaval leading to reconnection is actually happening?

Indigenous people are certainly trying. Lynne Twist met Achuar leaders and heard this story after receiving a long series of visions of faces in traditional crowns and face painting. When she described the visions to Amazon jungle defender John Perkins, he said they sounded like Achuar headdresses and set up a meeting. In the meeting, the Achuar said they had been sending these visions out, hoping to reach people in the Eagle world who could help.

Now, through their connection with Twist and the Pachamama Alliance they created, the Achuar have their own web pages and a retreat center where they can connect with rich-world people. They can tell their own story.

Others are following this path toward reconciling Eagle and Condor. Robin Wall Kimmerer, PhD, wrote her book Braiding Sweetgrass, subtitled “Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants.” The whole book consciously seeks to braid the Eagle and the Condor paths together, and her book has changed millions of lives. Published in 2013, it didn’t hit the New York Times bestsellers list until 2020. Now it has been there for 115 weeks, has sold well over 500,000 copies, and sales are still rising. People are hungry for this.

Kimmerer is a unique and awesome talent, with European and Indigenous American ancestors and extensive training in both botany and Native ways. But she is not alone. Here are some others to check out, read, and consider joining.

Winona LaDuke, whose father is Ojibwe and mother Jewish from the Bronx, graduated from Harvard and has spent most of the succeeding 45 years organizing. She co-founded the Indigenous Women’s Network, the White Earth Land Recovery Project, and Honor The Earth, which she co-founded with the Indigo Girls band. She ran for Vice-President on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000. She works for land back to rightful Native owners, restoration of forests and wetlands, and much more.

Her many books include Recovering the Sacred and All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life.

Hundreds of other indigenous leaders around the world start movements for better lives for their people (of all species) and for the Earth in countries like Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Canada, and pretty much everywhere. If enough Eagle people follow them and support them, a lot of seemingly impossible changes could happen. And groups are following. Check out

Pachamama Alliance supports indigenous people and land in the Amazon

The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) funds research and publicizes efforts of Condor people like the Achuar.

Bioneers, founded in 1990 in New Mexico, their slogan is, “It’s all alive. It’s all connected. It’s all intelligent. It’s all relatives.” They hold conferences and classes with strong indigenous input.

There are dozens more such groups, many of which are listed in The Soul of Money.

So you see. There are leaders; there are places to connect; the Achuar’s prophecy is coming true. Note that they don’t predict a final struggle, but a coming together of the scientific and the intuitive, the material and spiritual. As Charles Eisenstein wrote in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, it’s not about good vs. evil. It’s about people waking up to our shared oneness.

And people are waking and sharing the story. But the prophecy only predicts there will be, in this pacha, a potential for transformation. It’s not guaranteed. It’s up to us, the people of this place and time, to make this beautiful, sustainable world a reality.

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We Need Nature in Our Lives

We are part of something eternal we ignore at our peril

               Industrial civilization kills.  Photo by Dominik Dancs on Unsplash

“The source of suffering is separation from God.” Soren Kierkegaard

Substitute “Nature” for “God” and Kierkegaard’s diagnosis reads true today. Nature is our source of life, the one who does everything religious people think of as God’s domain. We and our bodies are intimate parts of Nature. Indigenous people call It the great spirit. Yet we pretend It has no importance.

No wonder individuals and societies tend to craziness. Urban people especially live in artificial worlds. We walk on concrete if we walk at all. We look at videos of animals and plants instead of their living selves. We see buildings instead of hills, streets instead of rivers.

Sitting in front of screens, we come to believe that money is real and the most important thing in our lives. We think the dramas playing out on media are what life is about, not Nature’s tireless provision for our needs and Its own need to be nurtured in return. Our minds stay absorbed in past regrets and future worries or in nonexistent fictional worlds, while here-and-now physical reality goes unnoticed.

This disconnect from Nature may be the #1 cause of our problems: from war to pollution to depression and anxiety, to climate collapse, mental illness, and violence of all kinds. It is so hard to remain sane and happy, so easy to fall into destructive ways when we are alienated from the source. What difference does anything we do make, when what we know as the world is a made-for-TV movie, which we have no say in scripting and in which the characters and plots make little sense?

Our rulers, the people who dump coal mine wastes in rivers and build thousands of bombs and prison cells, or who turn the world’s jungles into cheap furniture, do not live in the natural world. They live in the industrial world that treats Nature as a source of profit, not as their home. They have no home, and they have no meaning to their lives.

We shouldn’t follow them. Aspiring to be like the the Musks or the Kardashians is making us sick. To live in peace, everyone needs to feel part of something larger than themselves, something that will last beyond them. Nature fills that need if we let it.

Some ways to reconnect with Nature

● Farming and gardening — Growing food is not only vital for life; it teaches us how life works and where food comes from. You have to get your hands dirty, use your muscles, breathe in the plants’ expired air, observe how Sun and Earth create life. I think it would be hard to spend the day growing food and then go to work and order a missile strike on some other country.

            Gardening   Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Not everyone can farm, but almost anyone can garden. If you have no land or community space, you can grow food in pots. The kind of gardening/farming that regenerates soil fulfills our responsibilities to the cycle of life, taking from Nature and giving back at the same time. It’s very different from buying food in Styrofoam packages at a supermarket.

● Trees — Poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” Forests give life to millions of creatures, create oxygen and absorb carbon, making livable environments for everyone. They bring rain and raise the water table so other plants can grow.

Trees let us know life goes on. Walking among them or sitting in their shade brings a sense of peace. The Buddha found the meaning of life while meditating under a tree.

Forests are terribly endangered now, being cut for timber and burned for crops or grazing. Planting trees and caring for them bring us connection and sanity, especially if we do it right.

● Along with forests and farms, we need healthy oceans, and some people find the sea their greatest sources of peace. The ocean is the original source of life, and poets for centuries have described its healing powers. Now it needs our help, as you can observe here and here.

Organizations like SeaTrees plant mangrove trees and kelp forests, restore coral reefs and support ocean cleanups. If I were younger and more able, I would definitely like to participate in projects like theirs.

In a sustainable society, everyone would have to do or support this kind of work. We have to give, not only take. And if people reconnect with Nature and feel ourselves part of life, there will not be so much damage to repair.

Not all paths to Nature involve so much work. People can go camping, getting out to actual parks and wild lands, making sure to leave them better than they found them. For city people, camping helps us remember that the real world is out there. But there are ways to reconnect within cities also.

Animals R Us

● Animals and plants– Our living cousins are sources of delight and sanity. If you get outside, do you notice the birds and bugs or the occasional non-human mammal? You definitely won’t if you’re in a car, and even on foot you have to pay attention, but there is a world of creatures out there trying to survive.

If you’re not able to see wild living animals, pets and plants are also cousins (sharing a common ancestor if we go back far enough.) If we have animals in our lives, we can be reassured and centered by touching them and visiting with them. Wild or domestic plants are also relatives, breathing out oxygen so we can breathe with them.

Children give us a lifelong course in how Nature works. We see them grow, mature, learn, delight, get hurt, recover. Younger ones, less corrupted by media and school, can make us feel young, too.

                  Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash

● And then there are our own bodies — Paying attention to the physical things we do, like our movement and our body functions is a way of noticing nature. Urinating and defecating mean returning our food to Nature. Eating and drinking might be our closest interactions with the physical world.

Do you pay attention when you’re eating? Do you even taste anything after the first bite? Most people don’t, and many in mid-meal couldn’t tell you if they are still hungry or filled up. Tasting, appreciating, giving thanks, remaining aware of how our guts are responding make eating a form an enjoyable and powerful form of meditation on life.

In my opinion, that is the deeper meaning of the Christian Eucharist (eating the “Body of Christ” as a wafer). When we eat, something else in Nature has given up its life or part of itself to keep us going. When we drink, the cycle of life in the form of water comes through us, connecting us to the world.

Sex gives us a unique opportunity to connect with our bodies and with other people. But usually we don’t. People will be thinking about other things, worrying about their performance, or judging their partners instead of fully concentrating on their sensations and on the miracle of life that sexual energy represents.

● Meditate — observe the whole natural world within you. Sense your breathing and circulation. All the spiritual teachers I’ve heard have said that we should go inside ourselves to experience true freedom.

● Gratitude — moving around, give thanks for the trees, plants, birds and all that makes life possible and beautiful. Be specific about their unique gifts. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes up these thanks in a chapter called Allegiance to Gratitude in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.

How Nature connections could heal our sick society

As I and many others have written, our leaders are crazy.. They really believe wealth and power are the goals of life. They can’t admit mistakes or change course. They’re in process of provoking a nuclear war.

Meanwhile,  the madness of their disconnection has spread to most of the population, at least in the U.S.  As I write this, temperatures in Las Vegas, Nevada, are going over 110 degrees F most days. The level of Lake Mead, the source of water for over two million people in the area, is dropping precipitously.

Yet, people are still moving there in droves. New subdivisions get built every week, spreading farther out into the desert. People come because there are (relatively) good-paying jobs and affordable housing. Those financial considerations somehow outweigh the obvious fact that it’s 110 degrees and there will soon be no water!

How disconnected is that? Maybe not as bad as the coal companies, banks, and governments’ mining coal on the Hopi and Navajo reservations south of Vegas. The mine companies sell coal to power the Vegas Strip and other cities, while the Indians’ land is degraded and their water polluted.  The bankers seem to think, ‘The land is just sitting there. It should be making money.’ They don’t get that Nature has value beyond what ‘natural resources’ can bring on the market. It brings life if we allow it to.

How will this end? When one generation of Nature-denying leaders ages out, another equally bad replaces them, and not just in the USA. Russia and China, India and Brazil’s leaders appear at least as divorced from Nature as ours. It might be too late for them. It might require a violent revolution to create a better system, and I don’t know how that could happen.

But there could be a way for future generations What if every child had to do something in Nature a few times a week, meditate every day,, and take a full year every decade to do stuff like land restoration? Would they still spend the rest of their lives in pursuit of profit or power? Would they still feel hurt, isolated, and alienated from the world? I don’t think so; I think Nature would heal them.

Note that indigenous people live in Nature every day. They know they’re part of Nature (or of God if you prefer) and have practices, prayers and rituals to help them remember. Maybe that’s how they stay strong despite their ongoing oppression. We should learn from them and follow them.

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Miracle in the Desert

How Impossible Things Can Happen

     
            Dancing in Senegal  Image: cnn.co

“Everything possible has been tried and failed. Now it is time to try the impossible.” Sun Ra

Scrolling through newsfeeds, I often feel anguish, anger, and despair. All these problems and suffering with no apparent solutions! Then stories like this one come and hit me with a gut-punch of hope.

In her book, The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist, co-founder of the Hunger Project “to end world hunger” and the Pachamama Alliance “to save the rainforest” describes her trip into the Sahel, the dry region spreading South from the Sahara and swallowing up thousands of square kilometers of Africa every year. Twist and a group of Hunger Project donors had been invited to see if they could help some Senegalese villages in desperate need of water.

                Photo by Ryan Cheng on Unsplash

They drove for hours down paved roads, then dirt roads, then across the orange sand of the desert. “There hardly seemed to be anything living there,” she wrote, but then they started to hear drums beating. A few minutes later they were greeted by a large group of exuberant children, dancing women in beautiful dresses, and a whole village who had come out to meet them.

The visitors and the villagers danced until the drumming stopped, then sat in two large circles, men in the inner circle and women and children behind them. Only the men spoke. They said they were strong, resilient people of the desert who had lived well there for generations, but now the wells were running dry. If they couldn’t get water, they would have to move or die.

As they were talking, Twist sensed that the women wanted to say something. She asked the village leader if the female donors and villagers could meet separately, and this request was granted. In the meeting, women told Twist, ‘There is a vast lake far under the desert. We can feel it in our bodies; we have seen it in visions and in dreams. We want to dig deep down to this lake, but the men won’t allow it. They don’t believe the water is there, and digging wells isn’t women’s work.’

“What we need the Hunger Project to do,” one woman said, “is convince the men to let us follow our vision.” Though there was no observable evidence for the lake’s existence, the women convinced Twist, and they negotiated with the men to allow digging to go forward. Women dug almost entirely with hand tools, for a year. They took turns watching each other’s children and cooking. They sang while they shoveled.

And they uncovered the lake. With Hunger Project donations, the men set up a pumping station, and now 17 local villages have been brought back to life. They’re selling local crafts in the city and educating their children as they never could before.

I read this story and literally couldn’t speak for ten minutes.  It still brings tears to my eyes. We can draw at least 4 lessons from this story that might turn the seemingly impossible problems we face today into healing opportunities.

Don’t look in the usual places

The Senegalese villagers’ problems seemed insoluble, and from the point of view of their leading men, they were insoluble. There just wasn’t enough water, and they had to deal with it.

The village women saw a solution. But from the men’s objective viewpoint, the women’s idea didn’t make sense, and the men had the power. I imagine 90% of women and 100% of children can remember having their ideas discounted in this way. Most workers and nearly all indigenous and oppressed people probably can too.

I remember organizing a neighborhood treasure hunt with my wife Aisha back in the 90s. We had a bunch of clever clues, and we broke the guests up into teams of three to find little treasures. On one team were an 11-year-old boy, his father and the father’s friend.

Aisha and I walked around the neighborhood spying on the hunters and offering help if needed. The 11 year olds’ team seemed lost. I heard him saying, “It’s over that way, Dad. Look at the map.” The adults were ignoring him until Aisha intervened and said, “He’s right.”

Those used to being in authority don’t easily imagine that they are wrong. Experts don’t admit their limitations. As a nurse, I often heard doctors tell patients, “Nothing more can be done,” when what they meant was, ‘I don’t know anything else to do.’ There’s a difference.

We are beyond the point of listening only to experts who believe that if they don’t know something, it doesn’t exist. Their expertise may have pushed them into mental boxes, but we don’t have to follow. We need to hear everyone’s input and consider them seriously. We don’t know where lifesaving ideas will come from.

Science is not the only path to knowledge

The village leaders in Senegal weren’t scientists, but they were following the scientific method of evaluating observable evidence to form conclusions. How could they believe in their women’s visions of a magical lake they had never seen?

The women had different ways of knowing. They told Lynne Twist, ‘We see this lake in our visions. We can feel its presence.’ And they were right. That doesn’t mean we should ignore scientists or guide our policies with dreams, but it does mean science doesn’t have all the answers. There are forces that cannot yet be measured, or are so complex that we haven’t figured out what they mean. Different ways of knowing should collaborate.

Right now, greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere, causing rising temperatures, which set off positive feedback loops which further increase concentrations of warming gases such as methane. Science, which as usual is under the control of capitalism, has found no solutions, though they’re working on it. But Nature — soils, seas, grasslands, forests, swamps, may have their own solutions, and people may be discovering others each day, if we listen to them.

Sufficiency, not scarcity

Twist says most social problems since the dawn of civilization stem from a mindset of scarcity. “There’s not enough; I have to get mine; more is better.” She says scarcity beliefs lead to waste, war, environmental destruction, and empty lives spent pursuing unnecessary wealth.

She contrasts this with an attitude of sufficiency, in which we understand there is enough, in which we appreciate, care for, and share what we have. She says people living from sufficiency will feel richer and more secure than people who live from scarcity, regardless of how much material wealth they actually have.

Twist prefers “sufficiency” to the New Age term “abundance.” She says the point isn’t that there’s an endless abundance of material things coming to us, so we can be greedy and wasteful with it. There is sufficiency; we have enough, if we care for it and appreciate it.

In the Senegalese Sahel, things were self-evidently scarce. You could go miles without seeing a living thing, with the exception of an occasional lonely baobab tree. Yet the women knew the surface scarcity was a deception. There was enough, if they could get to it.

Notice the difference between “abundance” and “sufficiency” here. I can imagine from an abundance point of view (or from scarcity really; look at Las Vegas), people in the Sahel might start planting lawns or golf courses to become tourist destinations. They might set up factories that pollute the underground lake. They might use it up and be back where they started. But seeing their water as the great gift that it is, they are cherishing it, sharing it, and using it well.

Why solutions remain invisible

Possible solutions to terrible problems go unseen for many reasons. Most of these solutions involve a lot of hard work. For the women to find water took a year of heavy labor, and most of us can’t even imagine such difficult approaches.

Solutions may also remain invisible because they take a long time to show results. 11 months in, the Sahel women had nothing to show for their project but callused hands, aching backs, and annoyed husbands. They kept following their vision until it paid off.

But the biggest barrier by far is that our current leaders don’t want such solutions and will fight any idea that encroaches on their power and profit. Military corporation want wars; financiers want to keep accumulating wealth. The construction industry wants to keep building houses made of wood, the prison industry wants to keep locking people up for slave labor. They are living in scarcity and can’t imagine a way out.

As Derrick Jensen, founder of Deep Green Resistance puts it, “Those in power get too much money and privilege from destroying the planet. We aren’t going to save the planet — or our own future as a species — without a fight.”

I don’t know how to win a fight with heavily armed sociopaths. I think these leaders need to heal, and I’m not sure how to make them do it. But I see the Senegal story as a metaphor for our current world. It feels like a desert out there, but I wonder. Is there a hidden source that we can tap if we look and listen for it and commit to reaching?

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