Occupy Earth

In the week since the Occupy May Day General Strike, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of the event.

Friends who were in New York City that day say it was tremendously exciting, especially the permitted march from Union Square to Wall Street, which apparently stretched out strong over some 30 blocks.

As far as I could tell, mainstream media reported only the arrests that occurred, and that fairly grudgingly.  There has been little effort to explain or explore the anger and frustration that propelled hundreds of thousands worldwide out into the streets on May Day.

Maybe that’s because it’s an old story.  Yesterday’s news!  We know that students are unhappy about being $1 trillion in debt; we know that millions of homeowners are unhappy about being “underwater” with their mortgages, or losing their homes due to foreclosures.  We know that there aren’t enough jobs to lift our economy out of the doldrums.  It’s old news, people!  Tell us something we don’t know!

So the question becomes, is a protest effective if it is ignored by the mainstream media?

I would say yes: the fact that the MSM treated May Day as unimportant is more revealing of how out of touch the editors are than of whether or not the protest was real and meaningful.

On social media, May Day was well covered, especially at interactive, citizen journalism-type venues like Livestream and Twitter.

And if you go on the Occupy Wall Street site now, you’ll find that the organizers are already bounding on to the next action.

May Day was just one in a whole series of protests planned. It was an opening volley of what promises to be an intense, engaging spring.

But it opened up a question that is not likely to go away any time soon.

How important is it to actually show up, in the flesh, for a protest?

I was berated by one reader for choosing to stay in my classroom on May Day rather than joining the protests.

Other readers expressed their support for my decision to “occupy my classroom,” where my individual presence was perhaps more important than it would have been as an anonymous member of the crowd on Broadway.

I have been pondering this question in the past week.  As someone who is deeply involved with new media, I have to say that I believe that what happens in cyberspace is at least as important as what happens in physical space.

Maybe it’s even more important.

It is no exaggeration to say that millions of people participated in the May Day protests online, via Facebook, Twitter, Livestream and so many other interactive platforms.

The protests spread around the world, just like the May 5 “Connect the Dots” climate change awareness events.

Through the magic of cyberspace, we were all united in a common goal: expressing our outrage over the cynical manipulation and impoverishment of the 99% by the 1%, and demanding that the interests of the 99% be taken into account in matters of political and economic policy.

Although I have no doubt that face-to-face General Assemblies and marches are important, it is ridiculous to discount the impact of what goes around and comes around in cyberspace.

Are we approaching the weird tipping point when our cyber-selves will be more important than our physical selves?

As I keep reminding people, cyberspace is totally dependent on electricity for its existence.

So if we want to preserve cyberspace as a place of radical openness, communitarianism and oppositionality, it behooves us to pay attention to the real 99% in the current equation: the natural world that has been providing us with the means to create the current that runs the virtual world.

I might be tempted to buck my agoraphobia (fear of crowds) and make the leap from cyber-protest to physical protest if the goal were defending not just jobs or homes or social equality, but the underpinning of it all, the great mother herself, our beloved community, our Earth.

To Avert Climate Change Disaster, Connecting the Dots Must Go Viral

As of 8:30 a.m. EST this morning, 10,000 Facebook folks had already “liked” the new 350.org “Connect the Dots” campaign, which encourages people around the world to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather.

That’s a good number of “likes.” But what we really need is for the concept to go viral, the way the Kony 2012 campaign did a few weeks back.

It will require the attention of millions of people, particularly those in the driver’s seat of climate change—that’s you and me, my fellow Americans—to turn this global heating juggernaut around.

Lately I can’t seem to stop asking myself why it is that so few people I know are willing to focus their attention on the crucial issues of our time: climate change, the chemical poisoning of our environment, the steadily accelerating wave towards what scientists call “the sixth great extinction event on Earth.”

I often feel like Cassandra of Troy, who was able to see disaster in the future of her beloved community, but was under a curse, imposed by the god Apollo, of never being believed or listened to.

It’s not so much that people don’t believe what’s coming (although we certainly have our share of climate change deniers in the U.S.)—it’s that they just don’t want to hear it.  They don’t want to know.

Maybe this is simply the animal in us coming out.  Like my peaceful dog, who sleeps by my side without any thought or concern for the future, we humans focus on the immediate tasks at hand—making a living, bringing up children, keeping the house clean, exercising, shopping, planning birthday parties, you name it—and we get so wrapped up in all that busyness that we are able to blot out the daily dying screams of millions of birds and animals, the rip and tear of millions of acres of forest going down before the chain saw and bulldozer, the sobbing of millions of children who go to bed hungry every night, the ever-increasing militarization of our world civilization, and the sinking knowledge that those in control of all those weapons and surveillance systems do not stand for good.

Sometimes I really envy my friends and neighbors who are able to cheerfully ignore what’s going on in the background, and focus on making the best of each day they’re given.

Sometimes I think that’s what I should be doing too.

Why torment myself with the constant awareness of spiraling crisis, especially if I can’t do anything about it anyway?

But there’s the rub.  I do have something to offer to the fight to connect the dots and raise the necessary momentum to push Americans, potentially the most powerfully innovative, can-do people on earth, off their couches and out into the trenches of turning this crisis around.

I have my voice, which thanks to the internet can be amplified around the world and swelled into a great chorus that cannot be ignored.

Over the last few years, I have made a study of change agents—otherwise known as activists.  I know full well that every single one began as I am beginning, just sitting with the burning knowledge that things are not right, and that change is possible.

The great Bill McKibben began his climate change work in his classroom, working with a group of tech-savvy college students who realized that the Web could be used to raise awareness about the necessity of keeping carbon emissions to under 350 ppm in order to head off extreme and irrevocable climate change.

In 2007, Bill and his students launched the first iteration of 350.org and were off and running, using the incredible tools of social media to connect people, places and events all over the world.

This is the thing.  We have the ability, as never before, to see the Earth as a whole system; to understand that every creature and community on the planet is vital to the functioning of the whole and has the right to a peaceful, prosperous life.

We as humans have the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and we know full well that the damage we are causing with our reckless, destructive, indifferent ways is wrong.

We need people from all over the world, but especially Americans and Europeans, who have been responsible for so much of the damage, to come down on the side of right, on the side of life, on the side of justice.

Yes, it’s going to mean making lifestyle changes.

Yes, it’s going to take some focused attention on the local, national and international levels.

But if we do nothing—if we continue in our unconcerned merry ways, too busy and distracted to get involved—then we will wake up one morning facing some much more severe lifestyle changes.

One morning it will be us waking up to a howling tornado flattening our town, or a raging flood sweeping away our Main Street, or an oil slick blackening our local beach, or a spike in food prices that makes even the basics no longer affordable.

It’s time to connect the dots, people, and pay attention.  Add your voice to mine, and let’s go viral with a campaign for a sustainable planetary future that cannot be ignored.

Staring down the crystal ball

I really want to believe it’s all a hoax.

Why else would not one mainstream media outlet be reporting on the massive danger posed by the unused fuel rods in Fukushima Reactor 4?

Today I learned (through a link posted by on Facebook by my friend, the author Susan Griffin) that a group of high-level scientists, diplomats and civil society organizations has issued an urgent call to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, requesting U.N. leadership in an international effort to stabilize the fuel the wrecked Fukushima plant.

This call has been endorsed by U.S. Senator Roy Wyden, who visited the plant in April and reiterated the call for urgent international action.

If the fuel in the plant were released into the atmosphere, which would be almost inevitable in the event of another earthquake, “this could result in a catastrophic radiological fire involving nearly 10 times the amount of Cesium-137 released by the Chernobyl accident,” according to the letter to Secretary Ban.

Fukushima burning

Given the climatological realities of wind and ocean currents, this could potentially put hundreds of millions of people at risk of radiation poisoning—not to mention the devastating effects on flora and fauna.

Remember the reports of thousands seals with fatal skin lesions washing up in the Arctic? Apparently polar bears and whales are also known to be affected.

Imagine that multiplied tenfold, and affecting not just marine life, but humans as well.

And then ask yourself, why is only one U.S. Senator engaged with this issue?

Why are we frittering away our precious time on White House Correspondents Dinners and sports events, when in so many ways our future hangs in the balance, connected by a very short fuse to multiple forms of total catastrophe?

Sometimes I look down at my peacefully sleeping dog and think, maybe he has the right idea.

Why fret and worry about the future?  It will come soon enough…might as well enjoy life while it lasts.

But that is what separates us humans from other species.  We can see into the future.  We can spin out possible future scenarios based on how we act today.

And given these crystal balls of ours, can we really in good conscience shrug our shoulders and head off peacefully to bed?

No More Leave it to Beaver

In the lively “Room for Debate” series in this week’s New York Times, provocatively entitled “Motherhood vs. Feminism,” the piece I like best is the one by Annie Urban, who reminds us that “it’s about parenting, not mothering.”

“Too often the discussion about women’s choices (stay at home, go back to work) ignores the role of fathers. To achieve meaningful equality, we need to push for a society that values fathers who strike a balance between their career and their family life too. Women shouldn’t have to be equally uninvolved parents to reach their goals; they should be able to ask their spouses to step up too.”

Hear hear, Annie!

Amazingly, she was the only one of the seven women columnists commenting on Elisabeth Badinter’s slamming indictment of “attachment mothering” who thought to look to the fathers.

Is it because for the six other women, the fathers are so absent from the parenting landscape that their input is immaterial?

Erica Jong, who describes herself as a “zipless gran,” is the only one to point out that the intensive, at-home parenting required of the “attachment” model “takes resources”: “An affluent mom who doesn’t need to earn can afford co-sleeping, making pure food, using cloth diapers and being perfectly ecological,” Jong rightly observes.

She doesn’t say, but it’s easy to assume, that such a mom is supported by a hardworking spouse.  The unspoken assumption about fathers, unchanged since the Leave it to Beaver days, rears its head: the primary function of a father is to pull in the bucks.

But times have changed. For mothers who must work to keep our kids in food and shelter, short-cuts are necessary, and juggling too many responsibilities becomes a fine art. Should I miss the cocktail party after work today, where all the important networking takes place, or should I pick my kid up from day care in time for dinner and a relaxed bedtime story?

How about calling dad to pitch in here? Why can’t he do the bedtime story so mom can go to her cocktail party and chat up the boss?

In my experience, the answer to such a query is too often a flat no—you handle it, honey.  And so she will, making those tough choices day after day, doing the best she can.

It is no accident that women still earn 77 cents on the male dollar.  The other 23 cents go to our unpaid, unsung attention to mothering and family care of all kinds.

Elisabeth Badinter says we should get over our obsession with the “voluntary servitude” of mothering and go play the career game with the boys, giving it all we’ve got.

I’d rather see a kinder, gentler scenario, in which parents, both male and female, work together to balance the conflicting demands of work and child care.

As a society, we could encourage this in a material way by acknowledging the value of parenting via Social Security and other benefits.

By dint of hard struggle we have enshrined the concept of family leave and parental leave in law, but we could do a lot more to support parents through the difficult years when so much is demanded of them on the home front while they are also in their prime career-building years.

Instead, our society seems to be pushing women back into the unpaid homemaker roles, by sinking our efforts to balance career and mothering under the weight of guilt, frustration and sheer exhaustion.

Do we really want to focus the bright minds and creative spirits of 50% of our population exclusively on issues of breast-feeding, diaper rash and what to have for dinner?

Do young men really want to return to the good old days of being the sole provider for a houseful of dependents?

Feminism needs to demand that fathers fully engage in the struggle to make parenting a joyful, cooperative stage of life, rather than a gendered minefield.

And mothers and fathers need to insist on the social support they deserve for the valuable labor they perform every day, both in the home and outside of it.

May Day: Here, There and Everywhere

A reader asks why I did not stay home from work and join the May Day protests today, and I feel like this question deserves a serious response.

Partly, I have always had a phobia about crowds, and never willingly put myself into a crowd situation.  I don’t even like to go to an agricultural fair, or a peaceful parade.  In my Manhattan youth, crowds and violence often went together, or at least crowds and the fear of violence.  I am a wimp.

Partly, I felt like I could do more good in my classroom today than anonymously out on the streets.  It is the last full week of classes at my institution; students are finishing up projects that need response and guidance.  If I didn’t show up to work today, it would throw a monkey wrench in the plans I made for a graceful and productive ending to our semester together.

Partly, I don’t have any beef against my own employer, so not showing up for work today would affect the wrong target, while making no difference at all to the intended target, the 1%.

I guess the biggest reason I felt like my presence was expendable to today’s protest is because no one would notice if I was or was not out there on the street, but I would definitely be missed from my classroom.

However, in at least one of my two classes today, I did spend some time talking about May Day and the reasons for the protest.

I was surprised to learn that very few of my students had any clue as to what May Day signified to the labor movement, or why the protests today were taking place.

I don’t know why I assumed that my students would be more politically aware than I was at their age.

Turns out, few of them even realized there were going to be significant protests today, much less what they were all about.  Some also had their doubts as to whether the Occupy approach was likely to be effective.

Well, I pressed them, if occupying public spaces is not an effective means of protest, what would be more effective?  Joining a political campaign?  Writing a letter to the editor?

No one had an answer to that, but I could see the wheels turning.

And that’s why I am glad I decided to stay at work today.  At least with this one small group of students, I was able to foreground these historic May Day protests in their minds, and ask some questions that no one else probably would have asked them today.

Maybe as a result they will be paying attention to the news in a different way, and thinking more concretely about how the issues blazoned across all those posters and banners are relevant to their own particular lives.

Whether working on the small canvas, in the classroom, or the big canvas, out in the street, we are working together to build up the necessary momentum to blast our way to a better world.

 

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