Decolonize the Earth

Capital has conquered the land – Return it to its rightful owners.

    Image: Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability

Last week I got to hear Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, director of the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS). He described the effects of Israeli colonialism on Palestinian people, animals, plants, water and land. I came away with the understanding that if life on Earth is to survive, colonialism has to go.

PIBS tries hard to protect the land, but they face great obstacles. Imagine trying to preserve your natural heritage when you don’t control any of it. When someone far away decides what happens to your water and where you can live, or cuts down your trees and builds roads on which only they can drive?

Palestine has strict laws against pollution and deforestation, but they are not enforced, especially against Israelis. The Palestinian government has appointed people to oversee and conserve certain protected areas, but they are often not even allowed to visit them, much less start actual projects.

Journalist Zubayr Alikhan wrote on Mondoweiss, “Israel’s construction of roads, the methods used to do so, and a sheer disregard for their ecological ramifications all threaten and harm Palestinian wildlife. The destruction of animals’ natural habitat — particularly their breeding and nesting sites — through extensive land leveling and the fencing-off of settlement perimeters has disrupted natural passageways and endangered many species, affecting the food chain and local ecosystem as a whole.”

Does all that leveling and fencing remind you of something? Like what has happened to the whole United States of America in suburban sprawl since World War 2?

The colonial relationship to land is killing much of Earth. What’s happening in Palestine has happened all over the global South and in North America for centuries. It’s only because Palestine is being destroyed in current time, and because their scientists and journalists tell the world what’s happening, that we can see the destruction and try to stop it.

What is colonialism?

Colonialism means the domination of weaker countries, usually in the global South by richer, more powerful countries in the North. Most colonialism resembles what the British did in India and the Spanish in Mexico: the sustained looting of a colony’s minerals and other natural resources. But sometimes, like in America and Palestine, colonizers don’t just grab and run; they stay. This is called settler colonialism and usually involves the mass displacement or killing of the indigenous people and other life.

Colonizers see conquered land as a profit center. The land is a storehouse of treasures they can haul away, leaving a wasteland behind if it profits them. To the colonized, their land is home, and its long-term health is a top priority. Unfortunately, the colonial attitude toward land often spreads and distorts people’s attitude to nature in general.

In modern capitalism, the colonizers often can do without military control of the land (though that still happens, like the US military in Syrian oil fields.) Instead, multinational corporations can corrupt indigenous governments or install new ones willing to sell their resources to colonizers. If necessary, the rich countries’ military or their local proxies can push the native people out of the way.

This is how Japanese and Korean companies take the trees of Indonesia and Southeast Asia for sale in Japan, or multinationals turn them into pulp to make toilet paper for imperial bathrooms. It’s how oil companies spill lakes of oil into jungles in places like Ecuador and Nigeria, poisoning all who live there, far from company HQ. Colonized people may not be literally enslaved as the Americans were by Spanish conquistadors, but they lose their livelihood when they lose their land and wind up serving their colonizers for pennies to stay alive.

Strangers in a strange (to them) land

Even when they aren’t taking all a colony’s wealth, colonizers can make a mess out of conquered land by thinking they know more than the people who live there. When the French ran the West African colony of Niger, they encouraged farmers to remove trees from their fields so they could grow more food. But according to Smithsonian Magazine, in the climate of Niger, the absence of trees caused the land to dry out and grow less foods, while the people lost access to firewood, a main fuel source. The Sahara desert moved in. What worked in France didn’t work in Niger.

The colonial policy of trying to export European ways to the global South wreaks havoc in Palestine, too. According to Dr. Qumsiyeh, “Once Israel was declared a Jewish state in May 1948, native trees (such as oaks, carobs, and hawthorns) and agricultural crops (olives, figs, and almonds) were systematically uprooted and replaced by European pine trees. Pines shed leaves that are acidic and prevent the growth of understory plants, reducing biodiversity. These trees are also very susceptible to fire because of their resins.” Palestine had rarely if ever known forest fires before colonization; now they are a regular occurrence.

It’s not that indigenous people can always prevent land from degrading. Pressure of growing populations and climate change can wear land out. But the pressure from colonialism is far greater, because the people in charge don’t feel they are part of the land. They want to take all they can as fast as they can. This disconnect remains true when colonialism morphs into global capitalism, which gives control of land to investors who do not live there and who seek profit above all.

The two isms have the same core value, that land and living things are sources of profit, not valuable for themselves. And since humans also fall into the category of “land and living things,” it’s not hard to see where colonial capitalism leads. It leads to misery and death, as indigenous people have long known and is now becoming obvious to all of us with climate change and the mass extinction of species.

Decolonizing the land

If colonialism can be pushed back, people can rehabilitate land. In the 1980s, according to the Smithsonian article, farmers in Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso abandoned the colonizers’ advice to clear trees and started going back to traditional methods which grew trees and crops together. They supplemented their plan with other water harvesting techniques and learned how to re-grow trees from the stumps that remained on their land.

They did this without help from their government, the French, or the World Bank. Now large parts of Burkina Faso and southern Niger are turning green, growing more food and firewood for the people. US Embassy staff watching a slide show of regenerated farms commented, “This can’t be Niger. It looks like Ireland.”

In settler colonies, it’s harder to decolonize. Since Native people won’t abandon the land where they grew up,colonizers seek to remove them, as in Palestine. A farm called the Tent of Nations near Bethlehem, has a stated mission of bringing peace to Israel/Palestine, including to the land. They are under constant attack from the Israeli government and settlers who want to take their farm.

According to their Facebook page and the Friends of Sabeel website, their trees are burned and uprooted, crops are bulldozed, permits to build or repair are denied, roads to the farm blocked with concrete, electricity cut off. In response, they fight in court, block armed settlers from their land, and bring groups of volunteers from around the world to help them work the land.

                     International volunteers at Tent of Nations farm

In Bethlehem, Dr. Qumsiyeh and PIBS are trying to restore land and protect threatened species of wildlife. They research and educate about Palestine’s unique flora, fauna, and human ethnography. They create videos on subject such as water and desertification and show them to whoever wants to see them or finds them.

PIBS welcomes visitors and donations. According to their beautiful web site, they teach about biodiversity, history, and permaculture to “promote sustainable communities.” Based at the University of Bethlehem, they have created a natural history museum, large demonstration gardens and water reclamation projects. They teach traditional farming techniques online, on campus, and wherever they’re allowed to teach.

             Image: PIBS

In Palestine and elsewhere in the South, it’s easy to see how colonialism damages Nature. But colonial mindsets, seeing Earth and living things as profit centers and not as home, will always kill. They kill from Louisiana’s Cancer Alley to the burning rainforests of Asia, Africa, and Amazonia. Would capitalists destroy those places if they lived there?

People who live on the land, work it, or love it should be in control of it, indigenous people and family farmers first of all. We can’t save Earth until we take it back from colonizers. I can’t imagine how this process could happen, but can imagine it will at times be bloody and ugly. I doubt strict nonviolence will get it done, and it’s obvious who would have the advantage if things turn violent.

But where we are now, colonizing the world, is already bloody and ugly. It’s unlivable for our living cousins and ultimately for us. We have to act.

Dr. Qumsiyeh’s webinar is here.

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Heal the Earth, Heal Ourselves

We are part of Nature, so they’re the same process

Environmental leader Wangari Maathai (1940–2011) Image

We are all part of Nature. When the world suffers, we suffer. We can medicate ourselves with drugs, material possessions and all the marvelous distractions of culture. Still, every day brings proof that industrial civilization is burning the world down, poisoning it and turning it to desert. No wonder so many people are depressed and anxious! No wonder our leaders do such crazy things. It’s time to devote ourselves to healing.

Kenyan environmental leader Wangari Maathai wrote, “If we live in wounded environments — where water is polluted, air is filled with soot and fumes, food is contaminated with heavy metals and plastic residues, or the soil is practically dust, it hurts us, creating injuries at a physical, psychological, and spiritual level. In degrading the environment, we degrade ourselves and all humankind.”

But this connection works both ways. “In the process of helping earth to heal, we help ourselves. If we see the earth bleeding from the loss of topsoil, biodiversity, or drought and desertification and if we help reclaim or save what is lost, through regeneration of degraded forests, the planet will help us in our self-healing and indeed survival.”

There is no other way. We can’t heal ourselves without healing our wounded Earth and our relationship with it. This can be done, as Professor Maathai’s life proves.

In 1977, Maathai founded the GBM), which plants trees and empowers women throughout Kenya and other African countries. In 2004, she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her book Replenishing the Earth explores how people can heal societies and environment together. GBM starts with planting trees to help local communities and employ women, but planting is only what she called “our entry point.” Trees can start big changes.

She describes returning to some hillsides where GBM had planted and cared for trees a decade earlier, and being shown how new streams were coming out of the ground. She went down into the valley and saw how the streams came together to form a clear-running river, where formerly there had been only a muddy wash. Farms were producing more food; people weren’t going hungry, wild animals were returning. People were cooperating with each other. Healing Nature helped everyone thrive.

                                       Water is life. Trees bring water.

Ignoring Nature leads to war and death

Maathai envisioned the movement she started as a template for a global transformation, political and spiritual. At the time she wrote her book, the neighboring countries of Sudan and Chad were in a state of over the border province of Darfur, trying to overthrow each other’s governments. There were constant battles between the Arab Muslim population in the North and the Christians in the South.

Meanwhile, as Maathai writes, the Sahara desert was spreading over Darfur, leaving the land they were fighting for unlivable. “I visited Chad during the rainy season. Although there was flooding everywhere, fields remained parched and the crops were failing. I saw hardly any efforts to harvest rainwater, plant trees or ground cover, or create terraces in fields to stop soil erosion. Now, wisdom would say, ‘Stop fighting. Combine all your resources to stop desertification and reclaim the land.’ Yet, the leaders and people continue to fight and destroy what little they have.”

As she describes it, the Darfur war was terribly senseless, but it was also a typical resource war. How is Darfur different from the wars the United States engages in month after month? Were Chad and Sudan any madder than US/NATO bombing and overthrowing governments in places and ? Why kill to control more oil reserves, when burning that oil causes global warming and pollution, killing you, too?

Water conservation expert Brad Lancaster put it this way: “We squander the vast resources that we already have, then spend vast amounts trying to replace what we squandered by taking it from other people in other places, worsening scarcity for everyone.”

Even those wars may be no worse than what corporations do on a daily basis. Companies massively pollute the natural world for profit: through chemicals, industrial farming, and mining. Disconnection from Nature — the one and only source of all life — leaves people adrift and liable to do horribly destructive things. Do we think society’s single-minded focus on material wealth is making us healthy or happy? ? We can and must focus on life instead.

How environmental restoration can heal

Maathai’s book lays out how people can heal themselves while restoring Nature. GBM has four key values: Love for the Earth, Respect and Gratitude for the gifts it gives us, Self-empowerment and Self-improvement, and a Spirit of Service and Volunteerism.

Start with gratitude. The gifts of Nature include water, air, food, shelter, clothing, pretty much everything we need and use. Human ingenuity can make things more useful, but they all come from Nature originally. We can’t live without it, whatever Jeff Bezos thinks.

When we realize the gifts we are given, we should pay them back. I think that every action we take should be guided by asking “Is this good for Earth, animals, and plants? If not, is this really good for me?


There’s nothing in the core values about revolution. Maathai understood power and stood up to it, going to jail for opposing her government and winning 98% of the vote when she ran for Parliament. She accepted government’s power and tried to empower people to influence it. She didn’t think she could overthrow it.Instead, she tried to change values and hoped they would spread.

Professor Maathai believed the values the Green Belt Movement employs in the service of the earth serve people too. “We can love ourselves by loving the earth, feel grateful for what we are given, as we are grateful for the earth’s bounty, better ourselves even as we use that self-improvement to improve the earth, offer service to ourselves as we practice volunteerism for the earth.”

We are part of Nature, so healing Nature and healing ourselves are the same process. This is what indigenous people have always known, according to Robin Wall Kimmerer PhD in . Kimmerer’s people, like Maathai, believe environment is sacred, because to destroy what is essential for life is to destroy life itself.

A movement to heal the Earth

Modern society addresses social problems through politics of various sorts, and you may have noticed that politics tends to drive people apart. Political beliefs can separate people before they even begin trying to work something out. What if, instead, we recognized the far greater danger we face from environmental destruction, and agree to work together to heal it on every level :from to from the ocean to vastly reducing use of cars and planes, to repurposing militaries to restore forests, swamps, and grasslands?

This work is spiritual, social, and scientific at the same time. It’s driven by compassion for ourselves and all suffering creatures. If our rulers see the possibilities and provide resources, millions of people will come out to do the work. Refugees are already coming back to countries like Senegal to participate in the reforestation project called the which will stop the spreading Sahara desert with trees. Projects like that could

I’m saying believe in Mother Earth, believe in Nature. We are part of it. Our individualistic, materialist selves are just advertising gimmicks to make someone else money. Inside, we are parts of families, communities, a species, and Nature as a whole. It feels good to remember that.

Professor Maathai said, “If we were able to achieve this consciousness, we’d see that the planet is hurting, and internalize the spiritual values that can help us move to address the wounds. We’d recognize that it should be in our nature to be custodians of the planet and do what’s right for the earth and, in the process, for ourselves.”

If we embrace this sense of connection, we can make a beautiful world. If we keep going as we are, we might as well join Elon Musk on his .

Learn more

Maathai, Wangari, : Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the Earth

Kimmerer, Robin Wall, : Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants.

A wonderful, short about Professor Matthai’s life and work

about her work

The “When people see what we are doing with the green wall, they will stop the dangerous migrations by sea. It’s better to stay here and work the land.”

Brad Lancaster on to green cities. Practical ways to conserve water in dry environments.

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Return to Eden

Let’s create a global garden, not a parking lot.

                                  Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

How we lost Eden

         Eden was a busy place Image

China’s Loess Plateau after and before restoration Image

Becoming world gardeners

Fix what can be fixed

Living in Eden

Learn more

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Two Guys Who Helped Earth Heal

Nature has healing power. It’s time to start planting trees and gardens.

                    Rainforest Photo by Mandy Choi on Unsplash

Planting a forest

Jadav Payeng photo The Week Magazine India

Bringing life

Abdel Karim in his forest Image:

What Does This Mean to Us?

Wangari Maathai of the Green Belt Movement Image

Time to start planting

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World Bank’s War Against Nature

Bankrolling destruction, calling it progress

        Amazon burning — the result of development Image

A recent report from the World Bank (WB), officially called the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, praises the mountain country of Bhutan for maintaining 70% of their land as forests. For three paragraphs, then they get to the point, all the money Bhutan could make if they just loosened up.

World Bank Country Director for Bhutan Mercy Tembon writes, “Fully applying the principles of sustainable forest management to Bhutan’s forests and modernizing the sector could significantly increase productivity and improve ecological resilience.” Tembon goes on to list the advantages “sustainable” forest cutting could bring. “It could increase employment opportunities,” she writes, “create forest-based enterprises and move to a market-based approach for trading timber and non-wood forest products.”

Mercy Tembon, World Bank country director, Bhutan and Bangladesh

In other countries, “sustainable development” and “market-based approaches” turn forests into furniture and leave animals homeless, while accelerating global warming. It is more of what capitalism does, turning Nature into products to sell. That is how our world is being devoured piece by piece.

WB and their sister organization the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are well aware of the dangers of deforestation and industrial development. Tembon herself has written about it several times. They know what they are doing to the world, but they can’t think any other way. To capitalist economists, economic growth is the ultimate good. It makes people’s lives better, and nothing should get in its way, even the survival of life on Earth.

Tembon’s article reports that Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world, meaning the only one that absorbs more carbon than it emits.

As the only country slowing global warming instead of accelerating it, Bhutan should be a model for the whole world, but the WB says they are doing it wrong. They should focus instead on raising their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and opening their markets to exports and imports. That’s how the big boys get rich.

What are the World Bank and IMF?

The great capitalist banks and governments of the US and Europe joined in 1944 to form the WB and IMF to stabilize the global economy, keep it growing, and help poor countries export more stuff. WB consists of five related organizations that handle every area of international finance. They keep global capitalism going.

The WB and IMF have advised countries throughout the global South to focus on export-led economic growth for 70 years, advice backed up by threats of loan defaults and imposed structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that normally lead to more poverty in the targeted countries.

World Bank currently has 189 member countries. The WB proudly says it “helps more than 100 developing countries and countries in transition on issues ranging from climate change, conflict, and food security to education, agriculture, finance, and trade.” They say they focus on “development, with a heavy emphasis on infrastructure such as dams, electrical grids, irrigation systems, and roads.”

Becoming “sustainable”

In the 1970s, with the publication of studies such as The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, international bankers found they needed to address the ecological devastation development can cause. Before 1980, WB maintained environment and indigenous rights were somebody else’s problem.

Then, environmental catastrophes like the ones described below created massive pressure on bankers to move beyond “Growth at any cost.” They started talking about “sustainable development” meaning economic growth that didn’t kill the basis of its own existence.

Now WB talks about sustainability all the time. But what do they mean? According to the WB web site, “The three pillars of sustainable development are: economic growth, environmental stewardship, and social inclusion.” Nice list, but the first two points contradict each other. Economic growth past a certain point always conflicts with “environmental stewardship.”

As an indigenous leader told Robin Wall Kimmerer in 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.”

Sustainable development in practice

The killing of the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the planet,” took off with a World Bank project to build highways through the forest. According to researcher Jose Castaneda of Pace University, the “Polonoroeste (Northwest project) in Brazil built a 1500 km road into the heart of the Amazon forest. The highway was designed to encourage the creation of new settlements and to open land for agriculture.” From 1981 to 1985, the World Bank disbursed nearly half a billion dollars, in support of Polonoroeste.

“The project caused enormous human suffering,” Castaneda writes. “Thousands of peasants, lured to the jungle by land development schemes, moved with their families under subsistence conditions. The peasants were subsequently joined by waves of city dwellers seeking escape from their urban plight. Conflicts with displaced native tribes developed, and faction wars, hunger, and disease ensued.”

Ironically, Polonoroeste was WB’s first attempt to include indigenous people and environment in their plans. But the project backfired.  It brought millions who set the forest ablaze or cut it down, demonstrating that even well-intentioned infrastructure such as roads often leads to destruction. It’s what roads do; people will follow them to wherever they hope to make a living, however they can.


Another Amazon project, the Carajas Iron Ore complex, the world’s largest iron mine, was initiated in 1970 with a $304 million WB loan, which funded the construction of iron smelters and a 600-mile railroad to transport the ore to Ponta de Madeira, from where it is exported to the world. However, the project has also burned 58,000 square miles of Amazon forest in order to provide charcoal for the smelters and fuel for mining communities.

Mining is the opposite of sustainability. It is only about extracting nonrenewable “resources” from Earth. The wealth from the mines goes to the corporate owners, not the masses of people. But the WB funds mining in 24 countries. The projects, they say, “have contributed to an increase in investment in the mining sector and related economic indicators such as exports, fiscal revenues and gross domestic product (GDP) in recipient countries.” See? Exports and GDP grow, and that’s good, no matter what happens to Nature.

Electric power generation

Generating electricity is a big part of WB’s development strategies. They fund hydroelectric dams such as the Singrauli Power Plant in India. “This project was part of a large industrialization plan approved by the World Bank for a region which only two decades ago provided a safe habitat for a wide variety of animal species,” writes Jose Castaneda. “This is no longer the case due to the constant influx of settlers and entrepreneurs.”

“The project itself is a source of pollution because ash emissions from the thermal plant are spread over the area. Airborne ash has caused floods, and has so encrusted the soil that agriculture is almost impossible.” As indigenous people have tried to defend their land, they have been set upon by armed forces moving them out, much as happens with pipeline projects here.

Coal-burning power plants

While claiming to oppose climate change, WB funds some of the world’s largest coal-burning generators. Environmental lawyer Bruce Rich wrote on Open that “World Bank policy statements and press releases show that the Bank’s coal finance binge took place even as it was simultaneously managing many billions of extra funding that donor nations gave to it fight climate change.”

The Tata Mundra coal plant in India, is one of the world’s top 50 greenhouse gas emitters and devastates the local environment. Rich writes, “Affected local communities maintained that project negligence resulted in the contamination of drinking and irrigation water of local farm communities, causing severe harm to fisheries and fisherfolk and adversely affecting public health through air pollution and inducing involuntary economic and physical displacement.”

Another giant coal plant, Medupi in South Africa, will be the 3rd largest coal powered generator in the world when it comes on line, pumping out greenhouse gases. There have already been explosions and water contamination.

Mechanized large-scale farming

WB also “reforms” and “modernizes” agriculture in low income countries. In practice, this means bigger fields farmed with machines such as tractors and planes and petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. They may get higher yields for a while, but they displace millions of small peasants and farmworkers, driving them to crowded slums or sometimes to suicide. They also pollute surrounding water and make the land progressively less productive.

Do they reduce poverty?

WB and IMF say their mission is to bring people out of poverty, preferably in a sustainable way. But do they do that? While their loans create great wealth for some, do the people benefit?

Some obviously do benefit. The owners of mines and shipping companies, industrial farms and electrified factories get richer. Some middle-class people get good jobs. Life starts to look more like it does in the North, with people driving around and working in steel framed office buildings.

                       Nairobi Kenya Image

But most people in the South do not share in this wealth. Their countries sink deeper into debt paying for development projects that only ship the country’s natural wealth to the North. Meanwhile, their environments start to look like giant shanty towns or wastelands.

             Nairobi as most residents live it Image

The IMF plays bad cop to the WB’s good cop. WB will offer big loans for development projects and help with the planning process, but when the loans cannot be repaid, the IMF is called in to wring every dollar they can out of a “developing” economy through their structural adjustment plans (SAPs).

SAPs involve massive cuts in social programs. Since COVID, the IMF has imposed SAPs on many countries to “help them” pay back the loans they needed after pandemic shutdowns wrecked their economies. The result has been health care systems collapsing when they are most needed.

The World Bank must go

I believe most people working for WB have good intentions. They want to reduce poverty, but they are locked into the belief that economic growth solves all problems. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,(OECD) — the rich countries — Department of International Development says, “A successful strategy of poverty reduction must have at its core measures to promote rapid and sustained economic growth.”

Rapid and sustained growth is what cancer does. It kills the host. Growth-centered thinking dominates the WB, IMF, and other multi-national lenders. They can’t think any other way. A page into the OECD report, they mention the need to grow “sustainably” with good management techniques. No specifics are given, because rapid sustainable growth is a contradiction in terms, no matter how many environmental buzz words you throw in.

Can the WB be saved? Their own studies show it could. A recent study on protected areas in four countries demonstrated that investment in conservation “generates positive economic returns, creates income multipliers, and provides practical green recovery options.”

So, maybe WB and IMF could transform themselves to invest in Nature. Except that they are run by bankers who believe in economic growth with every fiber of their being. They are funded by rich governments that Karl Marx called the “managing committees of the capitalist class.

So they won’t change. We need to tear them down. Then we can think about a replacement Natural Bank, one that focuses on restoring Earth, not ripping it apart and calling it progress.

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Corporations Aren’t People; They’re Super People

Part human, part machine, programmed to profit, devouring the world

                               Photo by Aditya Vyas on Unsplash

What is a corporation?

What is the cost of a human life?

Taking control of governments

Devouring the natural world

Corporations CAN be executed

Why this won’t work

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That Time I Actually Helped Someone

Photo by Mubarak Showole on Unsplash

Like most people, I enjoy helping others, but I’m not very good at it. I sometimes offer people help they don’t want, or I think I’m helping when I’m just getting in the way.

I give, but I rarely feel like I’m making a difference.

It’s easy to give tidbits of help, and sometimes that’s all people need, like when someone drops a package and you return it to them. But effective help, the kind that enables people to change their lives, is a lot harder. It takes time, patience, focus, and consistent effort. That’s what I learned from helping my 18 year old neighbor graduate high school. In the process, I learned a lot about myself and what it means to really help.

Four years back, Roland enrolled in a Catholic high school that was more demanding than his public schools had been. They were teaching concepts and requiring students to demonstrate what they had learned. It was a much better education, only available to him because a cousin in Spain decided to fund his tuition, along with financial aid.

Roland is a total sweetheart who has been taking care of his three sisters and disabled grandmother for several years already. He helps with my mobility equipment and on two occasions has helped pick me up when I have fallen. He’s great, but he has some glitches that interfere with academic work. He got through three years of high school at a B- level with assistance from academic counselors.

Then COVID-19 hit, and school went online. Roland was cut off from the teachers, counselors, and fellow students who helped him focus. Having to do all his assignments on various Web platforms, he gradually stopped turning in most of them. He would do the work but then fail to submit it, not believing his work was good enough.

As the adults in his life watched his grades slide, we asked him to please turn in what he had completed, or please consult with us how to negotiate the system.

He never did. He always replied, “I’m OK. Everything’s OK.”

Nobody in Roland’s immediate family has graduated high school. Grandmother and he both said they wanted him to be the first and to inspire his sisters. When we saw a notice from the school that he had four incomplete courses to finish along with his current classes in order to graduate in June, I could see his graduation was much in doubt.

The family has so many needs that my partner Aisha and I often find it easy to consume hours trying to deal with various issues, not really getting anywhere with them. I had come to believe that their situation was hopeless. But this time, I decided I wouldn’t worry about any of their other problems. I would focus on Roland and commit to seeing him graduate. This commitment became a great learning experience, and unlike most learning experiences, it did not involve much suffering, only focus.

Online schoolwork

I started by clearing out two hours a day when Roland could come and work on my computer, since his home three doors down is so disorganized. He downloaded the various platforms the school used. We started a practice where he would read material and write assignments while I watched. When he seemed to be getting off track, I would ask things like, “What do you think about this paragraph?” or “What are you trying to say in this sentence?” or “What is the question they are asking you?” But most of the time I kept quiet and observed.

When he would write sentence-length or essay-length answers, I could help him with organizing and structuring the writing so it made sense. My experience as a community college tutor helped, since C.C. work resembles what this high school assigned.

There were some frustrating days when Roland’s perfectionism drove him to go over the same sentence a dozen times trying for some idea I couldn’t get him to explain.

At times, I would say, “You go ahead and keep working on this if you feel you must. I’m going to go do something else. Call me when you’re done.” Usually, he would call me back after a few minutes. I was only able to spend this much time with him because of being on disability and thus having time to give. Others might have to set less time-intensive strategies.

I felt rewarded as I noticed his focus and ability to complete work improve week by week. I no longer had to walk him through the submissions: ‘Click on this; attach that.’ Then I no longer had to get a firm agreement from him to submit; we could just agree it was ready. When he reached the point of completing and submitting work without asking, I realized he actually could graduate. But he also needed some advocacy.

Because Roland was so far behind, and because one of his classes was a Digital Art (DA) class where I couldn’t help, I realized we couldn’t do this alone.

The school has a large academic support department, and he had an assigned advisor, but she wasn’t helping. No wonder: she would meet with him and ask how school was going, and he would say ‘I’m OK, I’m working on it.’ In his conversations with teachers, he would say similar things.

I felt I had to go over his head. People weren’t communicating, and I could act as a platform for them.

I started e-mailing and calling Roland’s advisor. We set up some 3-way Zoom meetings. I contacted his teachers to explain some of his problems. Eventually I went to the head of the counseling department, and he found another class Roland had passed that fulfilled his art requirement, so he could drop the DA class. His advisor contacted the teachers who had given incompletes and got them to create make-up assignments with which he could pass their class. Each time a counselor helped or a teacher made an adjustment for Roland, I insisted he send a thank you e-mail, and I sent one, too.

I went back to sitting with him while he did the make-up work. But it had gotten so much easier! He would go home and continue working and submitting assignments on his own. I was delighted. He was doing the work himself, on a level that was definitely passing or better.

June came, and Roland graduated, on stage! His two grandmothers were in the audience, and he brought his diploma home to show me. That was a great day.

In the following months, I got to see how much Roland had grown. I helped him get documents he needed to apply for work, and he’s got a job. He’s learning to drive and exploring what he might do with his life. He still helps me and other neighbors when we need it.

● My presence was as important as what I actually did. Just being with him kept him focused. I may have taught some writing skills, but I don’t know. Mainly it was just being there for him.

● Asking questions and listening is usually far more helpful than advising and talking.

● Speaking up and making waves is sometimes necessary to help someone. Don’t be afraid to bother people, including the person you are helping. Willingness to be demanding also applies to speaking up for myself.

● Helping people isn’t a one-off; it involves forming a relationship, continuing beyond the specific help. It might bring new demands and new rewards.

● Help can spread out from a focused start. I was surprised to see how, as Roland grew and had more success, two of his sisters also pulled it together. The 15-year-old who had been way behind and in-and-out of trouble has become an A student. I doubt I had anything to do with that, but it’s nice to see.

I think the same rule applies to other areas, like activism. Focus on one thing and watch the ripples spread.

● When you really help someone, they will always be in your life. Roland will always be in my life. At least, I hope so.

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

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Supply Chains Collapsing: Time to Go Local

Globalization no longer works. We need community-based economies.

                            Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

My friend Willa has an old Toyota that needs a part which Toyota no longer makes. They are supposed to be sending one from a warehouse somewhere, but four weeks have gone by and still no part. They apparently don’t have trucks, warehouse workers or drivers to ship it.

You may have experienced something similar, because global supply chains are breaking down. Trucker Joshua Collins the “co-op trucker” on Twitter, says, “Right now, your experience of the supply chain issue might just be less choices at grocery stores. But in December, you won’t be able to get important shit. This isn’t simply a trucker shortage. It’s an everything shortage. We don’t have enough people to load & unload trucks. We don’t have enough mechanics. Hell, we don’t even have enough trucks. The whole thing’s fucked at every level, & keeps getting worse.”

Supply chains are breaking because global capitalism is breaking. It’s time to go local. We don’t need to eat fruit grown in Chile or wear clothes from factories in Bangladesh. We don’t need the latest iphones made in China and six other Asian countries with materials from Chile, India, Brazil, Nevada, or mined with slave labor in Congo and Rwanda. That is a corporate capitalist way of life, where more and newer is always better.

Instead of producing and trading things locally, multinational corporations import and export all over the world, seeking the lowest prices and loosest environmental regulations, and paying the lowest wages they can. This brings down consumer prices, creating great wealth in the rich countries but making the whole system vulnerable to disruptions like those caused by COVID-19.

Trucks, trains, shipping containers and the workers who operate them are in short supply. Collins says, “With everything being shipped and re-shipped, trucks are wearing out. They’re not being kept up as well, because one of the products in short supply is truck parts. New trucks are extremely hard to buy because of needed parts, including for the manufacturing machines. So products are not being completed or have long waits to get to market.”

When you get raw materials from three continents, make them into parts on another, then assemble them somewhere else, (probably in China) ship them all over the world, then transport them from the ports on trucks and trains, a lot of things can go wrong. We saw during the early COVID closures that pharmacies ran out of a number of drugs made in China, often produced with chemicals made in India.

And even when global capitalism is working smoothly, it punishes people and planet. It may make finished goods cheaper, but it does so by driving down wages and poisoning environments with industrial chemicals and fossil fuel emissions to power all that shipping.

What is globalized capitalism?

“Globalization” is an American term. Most of the world calls what’s happening “Americanization,” because the whole system is set up to benefit US corporations and spread the American way of life.

Michael Hudson, IMO the world’s greatest economist, described in his book Super-Imperialism how, by spending billions of dollars on wars, military buildups and consumer spending, the US ran up enormous debts to Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other rich countries. But the debts would not be paid, only rolled over into new Treasury bonds. Creditors couldn’t use the money to buy companies or important properties in the US, only stocks, bonds, and minor properties like the Pebble Beach golf course. By buying US treasury bonds, other countries finance the US government and military and keep stock markets rising.

Why did other countries go along with this scam? For the same reasons John Perkins described in Confessions of an Economic Hitman; leaders who didn’t go along were either bribed, persuaded, threatened, murdered, or overthrown, as happened in Iraq, Libya, Brazil, Panama, Indonesia, and dozens of other countries.

Countries of the global South have literally not been allowed by rich countries of the North (not only the USA) to develop local agriculture to feed themselves. They are only allowed to invest in their export/import sector. When socialist Honduran president Manuel Zelaya started fostering food production for local use in 2009, the Obama/Biden administration sponsored his overthrow by the military. The self-sufficient agriculture program stopped.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) force debtor countries to focus on exports and open their markets to imports from the US and Europe. Otherwise their loans go into default and they get no money at all.

Globalization is not the international capitalism Adam Smith envisioned in The Wealth of Nations. Economist Herman Daly explained the difference in this article. Early capitalist thinkers thought each country would have its own self-sufficient economy, supplemented by importing things they didn’t produce and exporting things that they made well. This is called international trade and is a good thing.

Globalization is different. Countries are not to have their own economies; they’re supposed to meet all their needs by trading in a global economy and focus on what they can export (read: raw materials or tropical fruit). This leaves poor countries completely at the mercy of the industrialized North. It also leads to long, complicated supply chains that easily break down.

The only way to be even partially free of global corporate capitalism is to have food security and productive capacity of your own. This is true of communities as well as countries.

Going Local

When we buy all our stuff from Amazon and our food at corporate supermarkets, it might be hard to imagine living without global capitalism. But global supply chains are a recent development. Indigenous people had local economies for centuries. Peasants and small farmers met their own needs and shared with each other. They’d work together to build a barn or harvest a field. In fact, family farmers in many countries still share farm equipment. They trade with each other in local markets.

Capitalism has trained us that each family, and often each individual, relies on their own money to meet their needs, and that money must come from competing in the globalized market place. As we can see from growing poverty and homelessness, many come up short in that system.

We don’t have to do it that way. We could rely on strong communities and local economies, as people did for 100,000 years before capitalism. We might not have as much stuff, but we wouldn’t have the extreme poverty, isolation, and crime we see now. Some things people can do to build local economies include:

● Shop at locally-owned businesses, instead of Walmart or Target. Seek out businesses that sell regionally-produced goods.

● Try to build up local supply chains. Maybe start a business your community needs. Ask existing local companies and neighbors what products or services they import that you could provide locally.

● Consider local currencies — historically, many towns, districts, and countries have established their own money when the official money became hard to get. In the modern USA, this Wikipedia page lists over 60 of these local currencies now in operation.

To organize a local currency, one has to sign up merchants to agree to accept the local money, which requires a critical mass of companies who will take them and people who will work for them. When a local currency has enough users, people can pay each other with it for work or local trade. Some local currencies can be traded for national currencies if people agree.

● Trade in kind — people can barter or share things with a program like Buy Nothing, or buy things from each other instead of from corporations, perhaps using sites such as Craig’s List or NextDoor.

● Start a workers’ cooperative business. These build economies and strengthen community at the same time. From what I read and what I hear from friends, though, they do involve a lot of meetings.

● What can be produced locally? Most important are food, clothing, and shelter, right? Most communities have available vacant housing, though it might need a lot of repair. Unfortunately, capitalist governments tend to call people who live in unused housing “squatters” and evict them, but people fight the evictions and sometimes win.

● Growing more food is essential and can be done even in urban areas, even in winter with greenhouses like these.

● There is so much clothing in the USA now that a lot is being dumped. Really, nobody ever has to shop for clothes new anymore. And every community has people who can make clothes, if they don’t have to compete with Ross or Target.

● Whole countries have gone local. After the USSR disbanded in 1992, Cuba lost access to oil and much of its imported food. Under a US embargo, they were kicked out of the global economy entirely. They had some very hard times, but with local farms in cities and villages, widespread use of bikes, communities organizing themselves to create what they needed, they pulled through and remain healthier and longer-lived than US Americans to this day.

Think big about going small. Perhaps we can’t end capitalism without a revolution, but we can get ourselves out of it to a large degree. If we turn people’s creativity loose, who knows what they’ll come up with? We just have to get off the supply chain.


On starting a local currency

Urban farming successful examples, and this article on barriers and difficulties.

Books on what’s wrong with globalization and how we can do better.

Graeber, David Debt: the first 5000 years

Hudson, Michael Super-Imperialism: The economic strategy of US imperialism

Daly, Herman Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development

Schumacher E.F Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered — one of the first books on localism, and still good.

Books which includes teaching on how indigenous economies worked

Kimmerer, Robin Wall Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I always refer to this book, because it changed my life and the way I think.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne An Indigenous People’s History of the United States

The Center for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy works to get the world off global capitalism and on to a sustainable economy.

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Imagining The End Of Capitalism

What would a sane, sustainable world look like?

                 Photo by Koushik Chowdavarapu on Unsplash 

Philosopher Frederic Jameson wrote, “It has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Most of us share this mental block, and why wouldn’t we? For 150 years, we’ve been taught in the West that capitalism is not just the best system; it’s the only system that works. Only by unleashing men’s boundless greed for material wealth and allowing them to compete in a market place with minimal restrictions, will human society progress to its full potential.

The failure of the Communist systems in the USSR and China made capitalism look that much better. The nonstop celebration of material wealth in movies, print, and electronic media has reached full saturation; there’s no room for another vision of what life is about or how it could be organized.

Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister and sworn enemy of the working class, used to repeat “There is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism so often that she became known by its acronym TINA.

But, now we can see that capitalism doesn’t work either. Capitalism creates enormous wealth, but it’s like a fast car with no brakes or steering system. It’s a hell of a ride, but it’s bound to keep crashing.

True, the failures of communism caused hunger and state violence in Russia and China, but capitalism has its own failures, including world wars, depressions, and slavery. The difference is that the successes of capitalism are just as bad as the failures. It produces wealth by burning forests, digging up or paving over grasslands and wetlands, temperatures and sea levels rising, chemical and radioactive pollution killing and endangering every living thing on Earth in the name of progress. When material wealth becomes the highest priority, everything else goes to Hell.

The environmental disasters and starving people we see on our screens are what “unsustainability” means. Capitalism by definition is unsustainable, since it is based on constant change, growth, and progress, always seeking more. Capitalism, again by definition, values all things by how much money they can bring in the market, not by their intrinsic value.

If there truly were no alternative, we must all die, and soon. Fortunately, there are many alternatives both historic and modern. Even now, there are the hybrid social democracies in Scandinavia and the whatever-you-call-the-system in China, which are healthier and happier than any country in the neoliberal UK/US axis. People are finding old and new ways to share, and to consume less. Indigenous societies have been doing that for centuries.

Indigenous examples

Can we find alternatives to capitalism? We have teachers and leaders if we listen to indigenous voices. There are no indigenous capitalist societies. They build their lives around human relationships and the land, not around money, and they are sustainable. Some, like the New Guinea highlanders have lasted as long as 40,000 years that we know about. Indigenous people still have their wisdom and are willing to share it. We need to follow their leadership, and other brilliant thinkers can help.

Capitalism comes in many forms, so when I describe potential ways of replacing it, I will use “corporations” to stand for “capitalism.” I know they’re not the same, but corporate capitalism with its layers of bureaucracy and financialization is the dominant kind, and imagining life without corporations gives an approximation of the challenges and opportunities we face.

People rightfully wonder what we’d do without global capitalism. How would we eat without fruit from Mexico and meat from factory farms? Would we have to give up our cars and all move into small apartments? Or go back to the land and live in tents? Who would keep the electricity flowing and the Internet running?

Good questions. I certainly don’t know the answers, but I read and follow people who do. In this essay, I’ll look at a few of those ideas, many of them already in use in various places.

Some other crucial questions I won’t address here. Who will own the factories and other means of production? Who will run things if rich owners don’t? And even if we knew exactly the society we want, how could we possibly get there?

Those answers remain to be created. When you start imagining life without capitalism, you quickly realize that such changes would transform everything from the way we work and eat to how we organize our communities at all levels. Replacing neoliberal austerity systems with social democracies would make things a lot fairer and happier, but by itself wouldn’t do much to save the Earth.

In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein wrote, “We are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate…But the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

Opposing such powerful forces might be an impossible dream, but I know one thing. Before you can cancel a system, you need at least a dream of what will replace it.

So, let’s start imagining. This story will deal with only two aspects: How will we support ourselves? How will we help heal the Earth? Just two of a thousand questions, but I list some resources at the end that answer more.

How will we support ourselves?

The end of capitalism will mean the end of millions of pointless or destructive jobs. The military and its industrial complex alone would shrink by millions. A lot of prison guards would be out of jobs. The kinds of work for which capitalists pay well will be harder to get.

But we don’t need well-paid work; we need real work that does some good. People don’t need stupid jobs; we need basic income to meet our needs. In a society without capitalism, a person’s livelihood will not depend on their work. Work will mean actions that make the world a better place: maintenance, repair, caregiving, etc.

Can you imagine working a 15-hour week and having that provide everything you need? Economists such as John Maynard Keynes have written since 1930 that people should not have to work more than that. We have had the technological capacity, but capitalists and their governments refuse to share the productivity the technologies create.

People can live on 15 hours a week if we are given a basic income (UBI) to bring us above poverty. Everybody in the world should have that.

What kinds of work would there be, though? A lot more of it would be in agriculture. In the 1830s, over 70% of work was agricultural. In the age of factory farming, it’s less than 8%. We could hire a lot of people to replace the farm machines and chemicals that destroy our land and water. We could all get work healing the damage industrial capitalism has wrought.

In his book, Bullshit Jobs, anthropologist David Graeber demonstrates that easily half of office work is pointless or worse. Whole industries such as finance do more harm than good and could be done away with. Closing down corporations would free a lot of people to do meaningful work growing food, creating culture, or caretaking people and planet.

The end of capitalism would mean the end of of interest-bearing debt. There is no reason most people should be in the kind of debt they’re in; capitalism’s relentless promotion of consumption puts them there. Kids are sent unsolicited credit cards when they go to college. The “American Dream” is a big house with a huge mortgage attached. Capitalism promotes debt on one hand, and demonizes debtors on the other.

“From an ecological point of view, the best thing people could do to save the planet is to work less.” David Graeber

People working and consuming less will reduce carbon emissions. We’ll pollute less. There will be fewer disposable plastic containers and less shipping things around the world. We’ll need smaller-scale, more local markets and businesses, freed from capitalism’s growth compulsion.

                              Photo by Guille Álvarez on Unsplash

How will we heal the Land?

Why get rid of a system that provides so much wealth? Why not just try to reform it so that more share in the benefits? It’s because this is about so much more than people. It’s about the animals, plants, the living Earth. We need to remember what Lakota leader Mary Brave Bird said,

“The land is sacred. The land is our mother, the rivers our blood. Take our land away and we die.”

Whether we’re indigenous or not, we are part of Earth and Earth is part of us. Take the land away from us or kill it off and we’ll die. As Native American botanist Robin Kimmerer wrote, we can’t treat land like a warehouse full of products to sell. Healing land is the top priority, and we must embrace it.

Indigenous people (as a group) see themselves as part of Nature and so can better feel how industrial capitalism affects all living things. In their book The Red Deal, the Red Nation of indigenous activists has a 2-point plan to allow land to survive the climate crisis.

Point 1: Give land back to the Natives — They know how to take care of it. Let’s start by acknowledging the 386 treaties that have been broken and by giving some of that treaty land back.

Of course, the thousands of non-indigenous owners and millions of residents of occupied land will fear this, but maybe it can be worked out. The Yellowhead Institute, a Canadian First Nations-led research center says #LandBack doesn’t mean ceding ownership in all cases as much as controlling what is done with the land. The nature of land ownership must change. They say #LandBack means “reclaiming Indigenous jurisdiction” and “breathing life into rights and responsibilities.”

   Photo by Vlad Shapochnikov on Unsplash

Point 2: focus on Caretaking — of land, life, water, and each other. Restoring marshes and swamps will purify water and protect against rising sea levels. Restored prairies and forests, and growing perma-culture farms will absorb a lot of carbon and produce lots of food. Protecting rainforests will save millions of lives and species. Consuming less stuff will give Nature a chance to replenish Herself. Getting ourselves out of the materialist madness of capitalism with the constant drive to consume and compete will heal us.

Obviously, capitalists and militarists aren’t going to like any of this; even though their families benefit too. We need to learn and think more about an Earth-based alternative to capitalism. Then organize for it.


Kimmerer, Robin Wall PhD- Braiding Sweetgrass Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the wisdom of plants. Beautifully combines modern and traditional science. Most of what we need to know is in this book.

The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth — a lot of history leading to a straightforward action plan.

Eisenstein, Charles The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.-

Indigenous Environmental Network fights for Earth in non-revolutionary ways.

Johnson, Allan If Not Capitalism, What? A celebration of social democracy, some of which we could definitely use.

I put a list of indigenous organizations to support at the end of this article.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter, on Facebook or my blog The Inn by the Healing Path. Hire me for freelancing, editing, or tutoring on Linked In

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Cancel The Bogus Debt

Photo by Ruth Enyedi on Unsplash

Why should poor people always owe rich people?

Living in communities, people owe each other all the time. Sometimes I give you a ride; sometimes you bring me dinner. Society is a network of obligations that keeps us from falling into isolated desperation.

Such obligations don’t become “debt” until we put a money value on them. Suddenly, instead of infinite ways to repay a kindness, there is only one, money. Over time, according to anthropologist David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years, those who lent money (the creditors) developed a state with the power to collect their debts. Then debt became violence. Borrowers became liable to lose their homes, their land, and their freedom.

That doesn’t mean debt is a bad thing, but it does mean that some debts are illegitimate and shouldn’t exist. Illegitimate debt means debt acquired at no fault of the borrower. It was imposed on them; they were swindled into it, or the creditors just made it up. Miners trapped in debt to the company store had illegitimate debt. Medical expenses, taxes, fees and fines are imposed; dishonest mortgages like the “subprime” loans that caused the crash of 2008 are swindles.

Even if debts start off legitimate, high interest rates and compound interest can cost borrowers far more than the benefit they received from the loan. They’re just transferring money to the rich, like many people’s credit card debts and student loans do.

Right now, citizens, governments, and businesses are drowning in levels of debt that would have been unimaginable even a generation ago. Because of debt, the rich have become inconceivably rich, while the poor are going hungry and homeless or being jailed for nonpayment. Economist Michael Hudson says that Western capitalism has morphed from a system of production and markets into a system of debt creation and collection. This is why we can’t compete with countries like China who actually produce things.

A brief history of debt

Indigenous people had no debts. They had obligations to each other. With the rise of agriculture and cities, loans accounted in money and charging interest enabled economies to grow, but they caused great suffering. The invention of interest made debt harder to repay. Then came compound interest, in which the creditor charges the borrower additional interest on the interest they already owe. The creditor’s money is making money for them, and the borrower falls deeper into debt.

Graeber describes how this widening chasm threatened early agrarian societies such as Babylon and Sumer, in what is now Iraq. When peasants got into debt; creditors took their land or their cattle, and often sold their children into slavery to pay off loans. Farmers were driven away to become nomads, and the food supply collapsed.

Eventually, creditors stopped selling children into slavery in most places, but replaced that practice with debtors’ prisons. Debtors often died in prison in utter misery. Debtors’ prisons never disappeared. According to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, they changed their name and are growing rapidly in America today. According to the Federal Trade Commission, debt collection cases now make up the majority of many states’ criminal cases. People are being sent to prison for parking tickets, or for an unpaid credit card debt.

What Is illegitimate debt?

Medical expenses, taxes, fees and fines are often incurred without much choice. High compound interest rates can make debts unpayable, as with mortgages and student loans. I’ll come back to these individual bad debts later, but first I want to look at the far more damaging and dishonest debt between nations.

Nearly all the debt the poor countries “owe” the rich countries represents theft by the rich. The model case was the catastrophic debt imposed on Haiti when Haitian slaves overthrew their French masters in 1804. Instead of the defeated masters having to pay their former slaves for the vast wealth they had created and the suffering they had endured, French, English, and American threats of invasion forced the Haitian government to compensate their masters for winning freedom from them.

The 150 million francs they were forced to pay (equivalent to $21 billion in today’s money) to prevent the restoration of slavery was far more than they could deliver. They had to borrow to make payments, incurring interest, which was compounded, so no matter how much they paid, the principal shrank very slowly, if at all. That debt wasn’t paid off for 150 years and sunk Haiti, once one of the world’s wealthiest islands, into utter misery and poverty.

Most 21st century international debt is equally bogus. John Perkins wrote in Confessions of an Economic Hitman about his years as a “strategic consultant” working with countries in the global South “We go into a country; we make this big loan. American companies go in and build an electrical system or ports or highways, and these would basically serve just a few of the very wealthiest families in those countries. Most of the loaned money comes back to the United States; the country is left with the debt plus lots of interest, and they basically become our servants, our slaves.”

Poor countries’ leaders don’t take these loans because they’re stupid. Western economic “consultants” like Perkins try to persuade or bribe them. If that fails we threaten them, and if they still say no, we overthrow them with a coup, assassinate them or invade and destroy them, as in Iraq and Libya.

Once a country is in unpayable debt, they will be forced to go to institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank for new loans to repay outstanding loans. The IMF will impose a structural adjustment program, (SAP), typically involving cutbacks to government services and employment and full opening of their internal markets to imports from their creditors. The local economy inevitably shrinks and their debts grow deeper.

Everything the global South “owes” is illegitimate.

                                            Photo by Jonathan Kho on Unsplash

Illegitimate Individual debts

Our culture tends to treat poor people the way Wall Street treats poor nations. We blame people for being in debt. Debt is a source of guilt and shame; the debtor made bad decisions or doesn’t work hard enough. But much personal debt is imposed by an unjust society.

Taxes have been a major source of debt for thousands of years. Some tax money goes for needed services, but much of it goes for things the taxpayer would never choose to buy, such as military adventures (historically the main use of tax money.)

Medical debt — is frequently outside the debtor’s control. Nobody chooses to get sick or be in an accident. Patients don’t make their own decisions about care. (Doctors and hospitals do that.) Most countries have government support for medical expenses; we have GoFundMe and 500,000 medical bankruptcies a year.

Student debt — According to the US Department of Education, about 43 million Americans owe a total of $1.4 trillion in student loans (an average of $32,000 each.) Because of compound interest, a student loan that seemed reasonable can become unmanageable. If one misses a payment, the late fee gets added to the principal and starts having interest charged on it. The American Civil Liberties Union reports on a truck driver whose $2500 federal driving school loan had “mushroomed to $12,000 with interest and fees,” despite his efforts to pay it off while supporting a family.

Legal debt — States around the country are charging people money for being arrested. In North Carolina, and many other states, prisoners have to pay room-and-board for nights spent in jail, crime lab fees if the police sent specimens, and a fee for appearing in court. If a convicted person is released on probation, they may have to pay for their own probation officers and drug tests to prove they are sober. Parents who have children taken away by Child Protective Services have to pay for foster care in many states.

● Some cities and counties and some police departments fund themselves with fines and tickets. Poor people can be fined for letting their grass grow too high or walking in the street. As with parking tickets, these fees will go up if not paid promptly, which many poor folks are not in a position to do, and if not paid, people can be jailed for nonpayment

Credit card debt is sometimes legitimate, sometimes not. Under influence of non-stop advertising and media expectations, people often choose to buy things they don’t need on credit. But the compound interest and late fees are not legitimate.

Illegitimate debt must go!

As the people of Babylon found out 5000 years ago, interest-bearing debt tends to grow and impoverish a whole society. We can see exactly that process happening now, sinking the world in poverty and environmental chaos while creditors become billionaires. These problems aren’t new, and ancient solutions could still work.

● Cancel bogus debt (called Jubilee in the Bible)  — massive forgiveness of all illegitimate debt, especially international debt and legal system-related debts.

● Strip interest payments from consumer debt. Once someone has paid back the principal on a student loan, credit card, or mortgage, plus maybe a 5% service charge, their debt should be considered paid.

● Close debtors’ prisons. Jailing people for owing money is unjust and benefits only the prison industry.

● Eliminate compound interest. Why should money make more money at worker’s expense?

I know this is less a political program than a vision. Of course, capitalists will rage and claw against any forgiveness of debtors. Debt creation is what they do. Their system might well collapse without it.

But for most of us, and for our planet, the system has already collapsed. Get out of it! Stop paying, stop buying on credit, demand debtors be released and bogus debts be canceled, and we’ll see what happens.

Learn more

A powerful and disturbing essay
A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt, ACLU

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber

“In jail for being in debt,” Star Tribune
“Debtors’ Prisons, Then and Now: FAQ,” The Marshall Project
The Steep Cost of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines The Brennan Center
Unjust Debt Goes to the Heart of International Inequality, The Guardian
The Long Fight Against Unjust Taxes Wall Street Journal
China’s Fortune Cookie vs. America’s debt economy — Michael Hudson

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