The People’s Climate March: Taking the Evolutionary Leap of Radical Democracy

The People’s Climate March in New York City is just one manifestation of a huge sea-change sweeping through our culture. Or perhaps “seeping” would be a better verb—this shift in awareness is not happening with the tsunami force of a revolution, but more with the steady, determined drip-drip-drip of water undermining rock.

Humans are paradoxical. On the one hand, we love everything that’s new and innovative, we all want to be out ahead of the curve when it comes to technological breakthroughs and new ideas. On the other hand, we hold tight to the received wisdom of our forebears, living by enshrined writings thousands of years old (the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, Confucius, etc.) or hundreds of years old (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights).

We have established elaborate educational, political and legal systems designed to hold us to a particular form of society, permitting free, innovative thinking only along narrow channels carefully defined by the interests of business and commerce.

The arts and humanities, traditionally the realm of creative, imaginative exploration, have been steadily starved in this brave new world, which can only imagine creativity in the service of profit.

What happens to a society that can only envision creative energy in an instrumental, utilitarian light?

We become a society of robots. We lose our connection to the soul of the world, the anima mundi that sustains us humans along with all other living beings on the planet.

http---pbs.twimg.com-media-ByDzJSPIYAA_RHcThe People’s Climate March, which is happening not only in New York City but worldwide, with 2,808 marches and events in 166 countries, bears welcome witness to the fact that the sparks of creative, independent thinking have not totally gone out.

There are many, many people worldwide who are aware, and aghast, at the failure of our political and business leaders to act in the best interests of the people and all the beautiful, innocent creatures who are slipping away into the night of extinction day by day due to the relentless human assault on our shared planet.

We are here, we are aware, and we are engaged. We are not going to stand by silently and let corporate greed and shortsightedness overwhelm us.

It is true that business and government have a stranglehold on official channels of communication, education and social change.

They control the curricula taught in our schools, what appears on our major media channels, and what projects and areas of creative exploration are funded. They keep us in line with the debt bondage of school loans, mortgages, car payments and the fear of not having enough money in the bank for a comfortable old age. We’re so busy running on the treadmills they’ve set up we have no time or energy to think about changing the system.

Or do we?

So far, the one social area that has not been overtaken by corporate/governmental control is the World Wide Web. It’s still a Wild West space, a place where you can find everything and everyone, from dangerous sadists to beneficent spiritual leaders. There’s room for every kind of idea out there to percolate through our collective consciousness. And make no mistake: the energy we’re seeing in the People’s Climate March is fueled in large part by the distribution power of the Web, the ability to get the word out and get people fired up to come together to take a stand.

We saw it happen in the Arab Spring, where people used cell phones and texts to organize themselves to resist oppression.

We saw those people get beaten back, the promise of their revolution squashed by the entrenched power of men with guns and tear gas.

The rise of the Islamic State, like the rise of Al Quaeda and the Taliban, is all about conservative forces resisting change.

I am just as afraid of men with guns and tear gas as the next woman. I am happier making revolution on my laptop than in the streets. But at some point we have to come out from behind our screens, get off the treadmills of debt bondage, look around us at the beauty of the world, and say: this is what I want to live for, and this is what I’m willing to die for.

Terry Tempest Williams.  Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Terry Tempest Williams. Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, in her book The Open Space of Democracy, says that the time has come to “move beyond what is comfortable” (81) in pursuit of what she calls a “spiritual democracy.”

“We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt,” she says.

“It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few” (87)

Williams calls for a radical recognition of the interdependence of all life on Earth. “The time has come to demand an end to the wholesale dismissal of the sacredness of life in all its variety and forms,” she says. “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” (86)

If we humans could step into our destiny as the stewards of our planet, the loving gardeners and caretakers of all other living beings, we would harness our incredible intelligence and creativity to re-stabilize our climate and do what needs to be done to ensure the well-being of all.

Williams calls this “the next evolutionary leap” for humanity: “to recognize the restoration of democracy as the restoration of liberty and justice for all species, not just our own” (89).

DSC_2200WIf we are able to take this leap, we will not only avert climate-related disaster on a Biblical scale, we will also overcome many of the social problems that we currently struggle with. “To be in the service of something beyond ourselves—to be in the presence of something other than ourselves, together—this is where we can begin to craft a meaningful life where personal isolation and despair disappear through the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry,” says Williams (89).

Williams’ small gem of a book grew out of a speech she gave at her alma mater, the University of Utah, in the spring of 2003, as America was rushing into its ill-conceived War on Terror in Iraq. She describes her heart pounding as she got up to make a speech advocating a different form of democracy than that embraced and espoused by all the conservative friends and family sitting in the audience before her.

Challenging one’s own friends and family, betraying one’s own tribe, is the hardest aspect of being a social revolutionary. You have to question the very people you love most, who have given you so much and made your whole life possible.

But if we become aware that the social systems that gave birth to us are the very social systems that are undermining the possibility of a livable future on this planet, can we continue to just go with the flow, to avoid asking the difficult questions?

Or will we become change agents who work slowly and steadily, drip by drip, to awaken those around us, those we love most, to the necessity of undertaking “the next evolutionary leap” in the human saga on the planet?

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America, land of the brain-damaged and debt-enslaved

Is it any surprise that we Americans treat animals and the natural world so badly, given the way we treat even our own cherished children?

This week there were two grim news stories illustrating the callousness of American society towards its young adults.

The first was a disturbing column by Nicholas Kristof revealing to the public what research scientists have known for a while: the skyrocketing rates of PTSD and suicide among young veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are due not to mental instability, but to the physical effects of repeated exposure to shock waves caused by bomb detonations.

The military is in the process of performing autopsies on veterans who committed suicide, and so far an alarming number of them have shown evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a degenerative disease of the brain best known for affecting boxers and football players who endure repeated concussions.

“In people with C.T.E.,” writes Kristof, “an abnormal form of a protein accumulates and eventually destroys cells throughout the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes. Those are areas that regulate impulse control, judgment, multitasking, memory and emotions.”

In other words, even young soldiers who return home physically intact may in fact be suffering from the hidden effects of shock wave concussions, which will destroy their lives over time; apparently the disease “typically develops in midlife, decades after exposure. If we are seeing C.T.E. now in war veterans, we may see much more in the coming years,” says Kristof.

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Number two, we learned yesterday that the combined student debt in the United States reached $1 trillion. 

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators participating in a street-theater production wear signs around their neck representing their student debt during a protest against the rising national student debt in Union Square, in New York, April 25, 2012. The protest eventually marched to Wall Street; two people were arrested during the protest. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

I can’t even wrap my mind around a number that big, but one thing I can understand is that this is an egregious example of how we as a society are condemning our best and brightest young people to spending the best years of their lives in debt bondage to the banks.

For the wealthy, college and graduate school continue to serve as playgrounds for the young, a place to have fun, learn a few things and pair up before joining the family business.

For the rest of us, college is an essential step along the road to personal and professional success.  It’s not optional, and the price tag just keeps rising, while the ability of parents to pay for their children’s higher education keeps falling.

And so we find kids still in their teens signing loans for tens of thousands of dollars.  It is not uncommon for these kids to find themselves, just a few years later, with a B.A. and $200,000 worth of debt.

If you have ever tried to pay the interest on that much debt on a typical entry-level salary, you know that it’s nearly impossible.  Certainly it’s daunting to try to achieve the American dream—the car, the house, the spouse and two kids—with that kind of stranglehold of debt around your neck.

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So this is the way we treat our precious children in America.

In a new twist on “friendly fire,” we send them to war without even realizing the longterm effects that our fancy new bombs will have on them.

And we blithely tell them that a) a college education is the only way to get ahead; and b) if you want one, you have to get in line at the loan office and spend the first 20 years of your working life paying off that interest.

There is something deeply, hauntingly wrong with this picture.

And you know what the worst thing is?  There is no widespread outrage about it!

If you are a young person, a parent, or any person with a conscience, you should be working furiously to end war and to end debt bondage for students.

How?

Well, start by standing up and saying NO MORE!!!!

American-style debt bondage–how much longer can we go on this way?

A propos of this question of what the Occupy Wall Street protest is all about, I would like to raise the issue of debt bondage.

Usually when someone says “debt bondage,” we flash to images of Indian rice farmers or child brick carriers or trafficked women from Southeast Asia.

There is horrendous debt slavery in South and Southeast Asia, and the conditions under which men, women and children labor there are far worse than anything we face here in the U.S.

But at the same time, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to call the average American middle-class lifestyle a form of debt bondage.

This graphic does a good job at giving us the picture:

In case you can’t read the fine print, the end of the “game” shows that Americans will pay about $600,000 in interest alone during their lifetimes.  [Source: Visual Economics.]

Working to pay off debt has become so commonplace that we scarcely even notice it anymore.  But it’s a relatively new phenomenon.  And all that interest, plus all those fees, are among the prime ways that the Wall Street bankers have gotten so phenomenally rich in the past 50 years or so.

What can be done about this?  For starters, a quality education should not so expensive that a middle-class student has to go into debt to attain it.

And we have to think much more deeply as a society about the job question.  We should not make it so easy for corporations to outsource jobs to cheaper labor markets.  Just as we are beginning to think about localizing agriculture and energy, we need to think about localizing jobs.

That’s the way human beings have made their livings for the past millennia, after all.  Only in the last 30 years or so has the world become so small (thanks to cheap fossil fuels) that it was conceivable to export manufacturing and other basic services to the other side of the globe.

Is outsourcing really more cost-effective, when you add in the costs of social welfare for all these displaced workers?  And the costs of millions of foreclosed homes?  And the costs of warehousing millions of poorly educated young people in jail? Not to mention the costs of global climate change?

Well, it depends on who is footing the bill, doesn’t it.  The Occupy Wall Street protesters are speaking for all American taxpayers in declaring that we should not have to pay for the greedy, short-sighted mistakes of the global corporate elite.

If they had to pay the true costs of the agendas they’ve pursued since World War II, well–it would be quite a different world we were living in, friends.  Maybe we would still be able to make a living that didn’t involve constantly adding more links to the chains of our debt bondage.

Unthinkable, you say?

Think again!

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