OUT OF THE FRYING PAN, INTO THE FIRE

18 12 2016

music: Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows

I confess, I didn’t really expect it to happen. I’m kind of in shock that it did, and I still wonder if some strong wind will suddenly rise up and blow this strange, new, apparent reality away, but for now, the fact remains: On November 8, a strategically located minority of America’s voters–barely a quarter of those eligible–rose up against being slowly roasted in the frying pan of the Democratic Party’s kinder, gentler neoliberalism and…jumped directly into the fire of an undisguised corporate/reactionary/climate denialist takeover of the United States Government. That strategic minority of voters didn’t jump alone, however. They took the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, with them. That’s the bad news. The good news is, millions of people who might have thought everything was OK because Hillary Clinton was in charge now feel extremely insecure, and with good reason. That may not sound like good news, but it’s actually an improvement on what their state of mind with Clinton as President would have been, namely, “feeling secure, but without good reason.” More on that later. It’s one of the several facets of this complex question that we are going to be examining.  We’ll call that “Bad news/Good news.” The others are “how did we get here,” “What is the nature of this “here?” we now find ourselves in?” and  “Can we/How do we change this “here” into a different, happier ‘here’?”

So…how did we get here? Let’s start by looking at a couple of intertwined longer-term phenomena: our overall national sense of well-being, which, I think, is the force that’s been driving the second phenomenon, the waxing and waning of political party ascendancies since the late sixties and early seventies. The Kennedy-Johnson years and early Nixon years were the point in our country’s history when American workers were at the peak of their earnings. A guy with a blue-collar job could buy a house, support his stay-at-home wife, have a family, and send his kids to college if they wanted to go, or into a high-wage blue-collar job of their own. Note use of pronoun “his.”

Psychological sophistication was, not, and still is not, a hallmark of this culture, however, and white, working-class America’s response to change has been to perceive it as stress, and to respond to change/stress by rejecting the change/source of stress. Thus, some people perceived the Civil Rights movement and the Democratic Party’s efforts on its behalf, the hippies, and the anti-war movement as emotional threats, and reacted viscerally to them, rejecting Johnson’s heir apparent, Hubert Humphrey, and voting instead for Richard Nixon, who promised “law and order,” but proved to be pretty disorderly and unlawful himself. Too much stress. Jimmy Carter is a very unstressful Democrat, a Southerner that Northerners feel comfortable with. He’s the Pres.

But another, far more visceral, source of stress had started to kick in in the late 70’s. Workers’s wages quit rising, but the rest of the economy didn’t. In other words, everything cost more, but workers didn’t have more money at their disposal. Source of stress. Throw in a small Middle-Eastern country grabbing America by the crotch, aka the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and a botched rescue attempt, too much stress–Jimmy Carter is outta there after just one term, replaced by an entertainer, who had received hundreds of hours of television exposure as an easy-going, but principled, actor and show host. Much less stress! “It’s morning in America!” Ronald Reagan actually managed to hand the show off to George Bush, Sr., for one term, but the economic stress was continuing, even intensifying, and here’s two nice young Baby Boomers with a fresh approach. Hey, we all know he really did inhale, and so did his VP…they’ll chill us out way better than that crusty ol’ WWII vet. Read the rest of this entry »

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“TRANSITION NASHVILLE”–ORGANIZING FROM THE GROUND UP

11 12 2010

 

As Margaret Mead famously said,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

The potluck didn’t happen due to the weather…a bit ironic to have a “transition” potluck cancelled because of extreme weather, eh?

This coming Monday, December 13, there will be a gathering of thoughtful, committed citizens, and you, dear reader, are invited.  The event will be a potluck dinner, so bring a dish or drink that is, or could be, grown or raised here in middle Tennessee.  Please note:  while I am a vegetarian, this is not necessarily a “vegetarian” event.  Cheese, eggs, turkey, beef, venison–if it’s your thing and it’s at least theoretically local, bring it.  Sorry, no pineapples, avocados, or tuna casseroles!  Catfish?  Of course!  Me, I’m bringing a bean dish.  I’ve seen truckloads of Tennessee-grown beans, and I ain’t just talking soy.

The dinner will take place from 6:30 pm until 9:00 pm at West Nashville United Methodist Church (4710 Charlotte Avenue), at the corner of 48th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue.  Parking is across the street in front of Richland Library. Enter the Fellowship Hall next to McDonalds.  (McDonald’s! Oh, the irony!)

For more details, check out Transition Nashville’s meetup.com site, or the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council’s meetup.com site.

Nashville is a big city, and I think that ultimately it will take a great many neighborhood transition councils to really change the way we do things around here, but I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for a mass movement.  I’m just gonna do my best to get something started, and trust that we will inspire people who are more talented at community organizing and politicking than I am–and, believe me, that’s not a high bar to set–to take this idea and run with it.

As far as I can tell, one of my gifts, such as it is, seems to be an ability to grasp and communicate the big picture–so what follows is the big picture, past and future, of the transition movement.  To the extent that I can translate that into specific examples, I’ll give you those as well.

It was twenty years ago today, you could say, that Tennessee’s two prize Alberts, Bates and Gore, first struck up the band on the subject of human-caused climate change and imminent resource depletion. Bates’ book, Climate in Crisis, published in 1990 with a forward by Gore, attracted notice mostly in the counterculture, although Gore did give a copy of it to every member of Congress.  (It would be interesting to know how many actually read it!)  Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, which came out a couple of years later, became the first book by a US Senator since John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage to make the New York York Times Bestseller list.

Unfortunately, Gore’s early effort, like his follow-up, An Inconvenient Truth, failed to inspire a working majority of either the politicians or the people of America to get up and dance to his tune. The reasons for that are legion, but the bottom line is this: due to our collective failure to sufficiently change our ways, we are beginning to feel the effects of climate change, not to mention resource depletion, AKA “Peak Oil,”and for the rest of our lives, we will have to deal with an increasingly erratic but overall warmer climate, while at the same time  the financial and material options available to us to cope with this change will  narrow and diminish. Climate scientists have published reams of statistics and “big picture” predictions. What I am going to explore here is what that may mean for our daily lives.

Let’s start in the garden. It’s a good place to start, because we’re probably all going to be spending a lot more time there in the future.  Our winters are overall going to be milder, but with the ice off the Arctic Ocean, there will be an increased possibility of heavy snow and extreme cold waves. At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive that a warmer Arctic will make our winters colder, but here’s the reason:  open water evaporates more readily than ice, and so, if the Arctic Ocean isn’t frozen, it will generate stronger storms that will push further south and east.  We’re seeing that now in the cold weather that is striking here, as well as northern Europe.  Last summer, we were all hot and dry.  Russia’s wheat crop burned in the fields, remember?  First time ever.

Here in Tennessee, we are on the boundary between the “polar continental” climate region, where weather is driven by  that Arctic pattern I was just talking about,  and the Gulf region, where the weather is sub-tropical, generated by evaporation from the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Pacific,and the South Atlantic Oceans.  As the planet heats up, they, too, are evaporating more, and all the water that goes up, comes down, in the form of tropical storms and hurricanes. Being on this boundary makes our weather in Tennessee especially difficult to predict, according to a NOAA meteorologist I once met.

This much is for certain: we can expect our summers to be hotter, with more erratic rainfall, and our winters, too, will be milder, but with more erratic cold snaps, like the one we’re currently riding out.  Hotter summers may shut down some traditional summer garden crops like tomatoes and peppers, which won’t set fruit if it’s too hot. We may find ourselves planting these as spring and fall crops. More tropical species like okra, black eyed peas, and sweet potatoes should continue to thrive. Did you know that sweet potato leaves can be cooked and eaten?  Overall warmer winters will make it easier to keep cool weather crops like spinach, kale, collards, and the many delicious types of oriental greens through the winter, especially with the aid of simple cold frames and hoop houses.

Our fruit tree menu may have to change somewhat. We are already near the southern boundary for successful apple growing, but pears, especially the oriental types, should continue to do well in Tennessee. Peaches, which bloom early, are likely to be even more chancy as our later winter/early spring weather becomes more erratic. Late freezes could be a problem for all perennial fruit crops. On the plus side, rabbiteye blueberries, which are native to north Florida, should continue to thrive, and if winter temperatures start to consistently stay above the 10 degree Fahrenheit mark, we will be able to add local  figs, oriental persimmons, jujubes, and pomegranates to our diet.  Yum!

More erratic weather patterns will not just be a hardship for local gardeners, however. As we saw in Russia and Pakistan last summer, entire countries may see their agriculture burned out or washed away. Here in America, we have not yet begun to feel the strain of food shortage, but I think that home gardeners would be wise to expand their production from “just” vegetables to staple crops—lots of winter squash, white and sweet potatoes, beans, and even grains. Field corn is fairly easy to grow, harvest, and grind. Diversifying your gardening efforts is probably the best way to insure that, whatever the weather, your garden will provide you with something to eat.

OK, that’s kind of “the good news.”  Let’s factor in a couple of other likelihoods:  a much-diminished economy, and increasing scarcity of oil-related products, which includes everything from gasoline to electronic devices to plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Our economy in this country is largely funded by money we borrow from China and the oil Sheikdoms of the Middle East.  They loan us money so we can keep buying oil and manufactured goods from them, but they are growing increasingly uncomfortable with this arrangement, and we may wake up one morning to find they have decided to quit financing the American way of life and world domination.  As I commented last month, even mainstream, middle-of-the road politicians like our Governor, Phil Bredesen, recognize this, although Bredesen and his interviewer didn’t explore its full significance.  Here’s my short take on it:

It all revolves around one simple statistic. We Americans, about 5% of the world’s population, consume about 25% of the world’s resources. That’s five times our fair share, and we are buying it on credit.  When we can no longer get that credit, the result will be an “adjustment”–a more equitable distribution of resources.  To be blunt,we will probably be (barely!) able to afford only our 5% fair share of the world’s resources.That’s an 80% reduction in the average American standard of living. If those to whom we owe money push hard to collect on our debts to them and take possession of chunks of our infrastructure, real estate, and remaining resources in lieu of cash payment, we will have even less.  For the wealthy few, it will not be so onerous, but for most of us it will be pretty severe, albeit hard to imagine from this side of the “adjustment.”

“The American Way of Life” will be over.  It has been sacrosanct, declared non-negotiable by every President since Ronald Reagan booted Jimmy Carter out for the cardinal sin of proposing to negotiate it.  (“The moral equivalent of war,” as Mr. Carter said.)  Oops….We have all but lost the war to maintain American hegemony.  It’s too late for negotiation, and it turns out the only alternative is unconditional surrender.

“Welcome to the third world, America!”

Ah, hubris…..must be time for a music break.

music:  Steve Earle, “Ashes to Ashes”

Okay, enough with the current situation already.  Looking in my crystal ball, what kind of future do I see?

I see that we are going to have to learn to get along better with each other, because we are likely to be living in larger groups and tighter quarters.  With less income and higher costs to heat and light houses, people will increasingly move in with friends and family because their only other option is homelessness. As Robert Frost wrote,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

We will have to re-learn co-operation, and not just to grow our gardens and feed our faces.  We will need to co-operate to create or obtain the goods we need for our every-day lives, because we won’t be able to buy Chinese goods from big-box stores any more.  We will need to co-operate to educate our children and each other–because a whole lot of us are going to have to learn a broad spectrum of new/old skills, the house-holding and homesteading skills we lost when our cultural norm became going out and working for money and buying things instead of staying home and making do.  And we will need to co-operate to take care of the ill and elderly, because hospitals  and “assisted living,” along with most other medical care, will be out of reach of all but the very wealthy.

The good news is, more of us will be born at home, and more of us will die at home, and more of us will attain the maturity that comes from familiarity with birth and death.  The bad news is, more of us will die earlier, from conditions that, currently, are rarely fatal.

We’re not going to have–and indeed, are already in the process of losing–universal access to private cars and the fuel, whether gasoline or electricity, to run them.  Cities and states will increasingly lose the ability to maintain public transportation, highways, sewers, water and gas lines, and police forces.   Warm weather and drought may curtail power plant operations–both nuclear and conventional electric generating stations require plenty of cool water to operate, and if they can’t get it,  your electric stove, your air conditioner, your lights, and your computer will become increasingly unreliable. My lights, computer, and electric stove and water heater won’t work either.  This troubles my sleep.

As I write these words, our government is watering down the value of our currency.  They call it “quantitative easing.”  This is just one of the things that is alienating the countries we borrow money from. If the U.S.’s credit rating and currency value drop much further, other countries will be able to outbid us for oil.   If our economy loses access to the level of oil we are dependent on, America will come undone so fast it will take your breath away.   Walking and bicycling will be increasingly important modes of transportation, but, to paraphrase Gary Snyder,  the most appropriate thing for most of us will be staying home as much as possible, making do with what’s at hand and enjoying the company of our house-mates and neighbors.

Have some more blueberries!

Boy, that neighbor kid sure can play the guitar!  He’s right proud of that guitar of his–weeded the woodworker’s garden all summer to pay it off.

First step in staying warm next winter–sharpen up the ax and the crosscut saw.

I’m gonna take this bundle of rags to the paper maker.  Sure am glad we’ve got a neighborhood mule to tote ’em for us.

Internet? Telephones?  The U.S. mail?  I remember when we used to  have those!  Man, we was living high on the hog in those days!

A pound of sugar?  Wow, how’d you come up with that?

I hope I haven’t scared you half to death with this little rant, but it should be nothing new to my regular listeners and readers.  “Transition” people are, understandably, a bit skittish about disclosing what it is we are transitioning into.  It was Chellis Glendinning who wrote about needing a twelve-step program to break peoples’ addiction to consumer culture.  One of the basic maxims of the twelve-step approach is “one day at a time,” and in this essay I have perhaps violated that precept.

Some may question what this kind of “doomerism”  has to do with politics in general or the Green Party in specific.  Here’s my response:

The Republicans and Democrats are completely unwilling to face these issues.  Somebody’s got to point out that not just the Emperor, but the Empire, has no clothes, and that dirty but necessary job has fallen by default to the Green Party.  Although we are still pretty much locked out of national or even state politics, we are slowly increasing our influence at the local level, which is where a great deal of what actually needs to happen to facilitate transition gets decided.

But you don’t have to sign up for the Green Party to join the Transition movement, which, among other things, involves a transition out of politics as we have always known it–along with the rest of the familiar, if deeply alienated, reality that we have become, however comfortably or uncomfortably, accustomed to.

One day at a time.  Today, all you “thoughtful, committed citizens” who can make it are invited to a potluck dinner.  That potluck dinner is Monday, December 13, at West Nashville United Methodist Church (4710 Charlotte Avenue), at the corner of 48th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue.  Parking is across the street in front of Richland Library. Enter the Fellowship Hall next to McDonalds.   (Mc Donald’s–remember them?  They used to be everywhere.)

For more details, check out Transition Nashville’s meetup.com site, or the Cumberland-Green River Bioregional Council’s meetup.com site.

If you can’t make our potluck, maybe you can get together with your friends and neighbors and start your own ball rolling.  That would be great.  It’s gonna take a lot of balls to pull off a smooth transition.  (Ladies, please don’t let my little joke put you off!)  There’s a lot of insight, skill, and vision in this city, and sharing them only increases their power.  It’s been twenty years since Al and Albert first raised a warning..  It’s time to let it grow.

music: The Beatles, “Sgt.Pepper>A Little Help From My Friends”





TRUTH IN STRANGE PLACES…GOLDEN OLDIES DIVISION

9 05 2010

Our “Truth in Strange Places” award this month is a bit of a golden oldie, as it was uttered as part of a college commencement address in 1969.   According to my source, the speaker

repudiated an “acquisitive and competitive corporate life” in her class address at Wellesley College. She called for “a more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.”

The speaker was Wellesley’s valedictorian that year, Hillary Rodham, our future first lady.  Damn it, woman, you should have inhaled and ingested a whole lot more than whatever you did!  Maybe it would have helped…not that it seems to have helped our current President all that much, but… How far we have fallen!

We, not just she, not just Hillary Rodham-Clinton.  We, the children of “The Greatest Generation,” the Americans who overcame the Great Depression AND the Nazi-Japanese attempt at world domination, we saw our calling as we came out of the starting gate with a clear, acid-etched understanding of our parents’ failings and a strong determination to take America and the world to the next level.

At first it all seemed to go so well.  We stopped the war on Vietnam, toppled a corrupt President and replaced him with a guy who cheerfully posed for pictures with Jimmy Buffet and the Coral Reefer Band.  (I’m sorry, that photo seems to have vanished from the archives!)  We started a nationwide network of radical newspapers, alternative radio stations, food co-ops, head shops, communes, ashrams for dozens of Eastern spiritual teachers.  We delivered our own babies and nursed each others’ babies, shared childcare among husbands, wives, and family friends, started our own schools based on the philosophies of A.S. Neill or Rudolf Steiner or Maria Montessori.  We blew the lid off the idea that marriage meant one man, one woman, their children, forever, by experimenting with open marriages and multiple marriages, and by accepting same-sex relationships, which ought to be marriages, already!.  We lived simply, sharing cars, homes, gardens, tools and televisions.  We produced shelves of books touting our way of life–Small is Beautiful, Diet for a Small Planet, Foxfire, Voluntary Simplicity, the Whole Earth Catalogues, just to name a few.  We started “Earth Day,” and got Martin Luther King’s birthday recognized as a national  holiday.

That’s the tip of another of the icebergs of my generation’s early accomplishments.  We declined to accept the tacit segregation of our parents’ generation.  Not only did we date and marry across racial lines, many of us ignored ghetto lines in cities and created racially mixed inner city neighborhoods.

We raised hell about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons and the cold war and Israeli repression of the Palestinians, white repression of native South Africans and Native Americans.  We pushed Richard Nixon, one of our creepiest Presidents, to create an Environmental Protection Agency, a Council on Environmental Quality, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a Federal Products Safety Commission,  and to pass a Clean Air Act, a National Environmental Policy Act, and a Water Pollution Control Act.

We were on a roll…then, somehow, it all started falling apart.  Perhaps blackmailed by Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter granted asylum to  the newly deposed Shah of Iran, the enraged Iranians took over the US embassy, our secret rescue mission failed.  The President who had called energy conservation and independence “the moral equivalent of war” lost his bully pulpit in a reactionary landslide and Ronald Reagan, the great miscommunicator, steered America into a trance.  Our movement melted away, as former radicals sought the apparent safety of professional careers, suburban homes, and safe investments for retirement.  Many of us traded bulk foods for fast foods, community engagement  for televised distraction, political passion for sports fandom, LSD for CGI, and pot for prozac.

How did this happen?  As far as I can tell, there was a lot of pressure from a lot of directions.  Early on, the record companies whose ads were a major source of finance for the “underground press,” withdrew their support and started the papers’ slide into “entertainment weeklies.”  Somewhere in her voluminous output, Barbara Ehrenreich reports that a cabal of network executives and advertising agencies determined that hippiedom and communal living would never be shown in a positive light on national television, because the ideal of sharing was bad for business.

There was financial pressure.  In 1974, median income peaked; although the average has gone up since, this has been due to the rich getting richer while the poor and middle class get poorer.  This has resulted in people having less time for leisure and non-income producing pursuits like social change.  College education became much more expensive, saddling students with debt and giving them a strong disincentive to rock the boat.  Did the barons of finance put the squeeze on us because they didn’t like what we were doing with our leisure time, or was our loss of leisure, AKA time to think and dream.  just an unintended consequence of being wrung dry?  We may never know

I believe there were internal pressures, as well.  The ideals that we held and shared were, for many of us, largely intellectual constructs that were not deeply anchored in our psyches.  What lurked in the depths  of all too many of us was the unreconstructed insecure materialist conditioning our parents had burned into us, and all it took was stress–whether from financial pressure, interpersonal turmoil, or the shocks that came as our cute little kids turned into sexual, independent-minded teenagers–to unleash that conservative parental programming and turn legions of once airy hippies into mainstream American zombies who would just die if their kids ever found out what they had done in their foolish youth–and who would completely go postal if those kids ever dared try any such stunts themselves.

That’s what I saw going on around me, anyway.  I’m not sure what I (and the mother who raised me) did right, but somehow I seemed immune to the pressure that was causing people all around me to cave in.  Not that I (and my kids) didn’t have some baggage to deal with–but somehow I seem to have ended up one of the last hippies standing.

I’m tooting my own horn way too much here.  I may be alive and more or less well and idealistically intact, still pumping for local food, local industry, and local control, but the Hillary Clinton I once saw eye to eye with about the dangers of,  as she put it ,”acquisitive and competitive corporate life” is now one of the lead spokespeople for corporate life.  I’m not picking on Hillary personally–she’s just a symbol for millions of members of my generation who sold out for what I’m sure they thought were all the right reasons.

Meanwhile, the promises of corporate America ring hollower and hollower to more and more people, and we’re not just talking furriners here.  As George Carlin famously said, “They call it ‘the American dream’ because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Formerly middle-class Americans are falling out of their cocoons and waking up with a bang on the sidewalk in front of what used to be their homes, their dream derailed by job losses, medical bills, and sucker mortgages among other things.  Maybe it’s not too late for a national reawakening.

music:  James McMurtry, “Jaws of Life”  (actually played “Paris“–two different songs on the same subject, different points of view..





SOLVIVA

10 11 2005

Type www.solviva.com into your web browser, and you get a luminously green page that advertises, “Sustainable Solar-Dynamic Bio-Benign Design: /Offering Better Ways to Live, at Less Cost /Today and Tomorrow, Anywhere on Earth.” When you read through the web site, you find a wealth of practical, down-to-earth, thoroughly doable advice on small-scale agriculture, wastewater treatment, and energy-conservative design that does not sacrifice comfort and grace.

If America had really made energy conservation “the moral equivalent of war,” as Jimmy Carter counseled us, the government would have been doing everything it could to foster places like Solviva not just all over America, but all over the world. Instead, government after government in this country, at both national and local levels, has opted for more of the same old dysfunctional same old: long supply lines, the squandering of local agricultural resources, and continued dependence on the availability of affordable oil.

Still, there are bright lights in the world like Solviva, I thought, and so I arranged to interview Solviva’s founder, Anna Edey, for what I expected would be an upbeat story about one of the successes of the environmental movement. Instead, I found myself talking with a profoundly discouraged woman. “Everybody says what I”m doing is wonderful and they really admire me,” she told me, “but nobody is willing to step up and do what I’m doing.” She was unable to find a competent manager for her commercial greenhouse, and it when it deteriorated to the point that it no longer worked as a food production facility, she put it on the market; but the only buyer she could find was someone who just wanted the site—who tore down the greenhouse and put up a profoundly energy-hungry home instead–”big windows facing north,” Anna said.

The island of Martha’s Vineyard, where Solviva is located, had not taken Anna’s advice about ecological design and had embarked on many costly “improvements” that were polluting the island’s limited fresh water supply and driving up the need for heating oil on the island—and, of course, driving up the taxes of the limited number of residents, making it less and less possible for someone who is not an active and successful player of the money game to live there—and, while Anna demonstrated with her greenhouse that it is possible to earn big money with her ideas, they are not fundamentally about making money, but about getting outside the money system.

Her book, in spite of nationwide publicity and rave reviews from Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News, has sold less than ten thousand copies. You can order it online at her website, www.Solviva.com.

Anna expressed her concern to me about the inertia she had witnessed: “People know what we need to do in order to make the change, but it seems like they just won’t do it.. I find myself wondering if, as a species, we’ve lost our will to survive and will be going extinct. Will our children’s children be able to have and raise children?”

I wish I had some overwhelming proof I could present her that would give her hope in this weary world, but I confess I share the same forebodings. No one can tell the future. All I know is, I want to work as hard as I can to create a world in which my worst nightmares are only dimly remembered dreams, a world of sufficiency and sustainability and justice and love and respect. Isn’t that what you want, too? Is that too much to ask for?








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