Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

Friday, September 03, 2010

A WORLD IN COLLAPSE?

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas. He is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity; The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege; and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, among other works. He spoke to New Left Project’s Alex Doherty about the threat of environmental catastrophe.

You have written that: "To be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one’s own condition in the world but for the condition of the world, for a world that is in collapse." Even amongst environmentalists it is rare to describe our situation in such apocalyptic terms. Why do you think it is justified to describe the world as collapsing?

Take a look at any measure of the fundamental health of the planetary ecosystem on which we are dependent: topsoil loss, chemical contamination of soil and water, species extinction and reduction in biodiversity, the state of the world’s oceans, unmanageable toxic waste problems, and climate change. Take a look at the data, and the news is bad on every front. And all of this is in the context of the dramatic decline coming in the highly concentrated energy available from oil and natural gas, and the increased climate disruption that will come if we keep burning the still-abundant coal reserves. There are no replacement fuels on the horizon that will allow a smooth transition. These ecological realities will play out in a world structured by a system of nation-states rooted in the grotesque inequality resulting from imperialism and capitalism, all of which is eroding what is left of our collective humanity. “Collapsing” seems like a reasonable description of the world.

That doesn’t mean there’s a cataclysmic end point coming soon, but this is an apocalyptic moment. The word “apocalypse” does not mean “end.” It comes from a Greek word that means “uncovering” or “lifting the veil.” This is an apocalyptic moment because we need to lift the veil and have the courage to look at the world honestly.

Why do you think many leftists shy away from such language when discussing the environment?

I think not only leftists, but people in general, avoid these realities because reality is so grim. It seems overwhelming to most people, for good reason. So, rather than confront it, people find modes of evasion. One is to deny there’s a reason to worry, which is common throughout the culture. The most common evasive strategy I hear from people on the left is “technological fundamentalism”—the idea that because we want high-energy/high-tech solutions that will allow us to live in the style to which so many of us have become accustomed, those solutions will be found. That kind of magical thinking is appealing but unrealistic, for two reasons. First, while the human discoveries of the past few centuries are impressive, they have not been on the scale required to correct the course we’re on; we’ve created problems that have grown beyond our capacity to understand and manage. Second, those discoveries were subsidized by fossil-fuel energy that won’t be around much longer, which dramatically limits what we will be able to accomplish through energy-intensive advanced technology. As many people have pointed out, technology is not energy; you don’t replace energy with technology. Technology can make some processes more energy-efficient, but it can’t create energy out of thin air.

I’ve had many left colleagues tell me that they agree with some or all of my analysis, but that “people aren’t ready to hear that yet.” I translate that to mean, “I’m not ready to hear that yet.” I think a lot of leftists displace their own fear of confronting these difficult realities onto “the masses,” when in fact they can’t face it.

The other factor is that truly crazy end-times talk, which comes primarily from reactionary religious sources, leads many people to reflexively dismiss any talk of collapse. So, it’s important to be clear: I’m not predicting the end of world on a specific date. I’m not predicting anything. I’m simply describing what some of us believe to be the most likely trajectory of the high-energy/high-tech society in which we live. And I’m suggesting that we keep this trajectory in mind as we pursue left/feminist critiques of hierarchy and domination, in the hope that more egalitarian and humane models for human organization can help us deal with collapse.

Given the severity of the situation you are describing what are the implications for left activism? Should other forms of activism be abandoned in order to focus on the threat of climate change? How realistic are proposals for alternative economic systems such as green bio-regionalism or participatory economics in the context of climate catastrophe?

First, I think every political project—whether it is focused on labour organizing, resistance to white supremacy, women’s rights, anti-war activity—has to include an ecological component. That doesn’t mean everyone has to shift focus, but I think there is no meaningful politics that doesn’t recognize the fragility of our situation and the likelihood that the most vulnerable people (both in the United States and around the world) are going to bear the brunt of the ecological decline. A responsible left/feminist politics should connect the dots whenever and wherever possible. Here’s one obvious example: U.S. imperial wars, born of a patriarchal system, are waged to support corporate interests in the most crucial energy-producing regions of the world, which are predominantly non-white. Resistance to those wars requires a critique of male dominance, white supremacy, capitalism, and the affluent First-World lifestyles that numb people to the reality that they are morally implicated in these wars. Those wars are dramatically escalating the intensity and potential destructiveness of the coming collapse. Concern for justice and ecological sustainability demands an anti-war and anti-empire politics. There is no way to focus on one aspect of an injustice without understanding these intersections.

Second, more than ever, “let a hundred flowers blossom.” When we know so little about what’s coming, it’s best if people pursue a variety of strategies that they feel drawn to. In Austin, I’m working primarily with one group that advocates for immigrant workers (Workers Defense Project) and another that helps people start worker-owned cooperative businesses (Third Coast Workers for Cooperation). Neither group is focused specifically on the ecological crises, but there’s incredible energy and ideas in these groups, and they create spaces for advancing a coordinated critique of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, all with an understanding of the ecological stakes. Maybe it’s natural for people to want to believe that they have hit on the solution to a problem, but I believe that the problems are complex beyond our understanding, and it’s not only unlikely that there’s a single solution but there may be no solutions at all—if by “solution” we mean a way to continue human existence on the planet at its current level. We need experiments on every front that help us imagine new ways of being.

Lately you have been writing about the way people react emotionally to the reality of climate change. Why do you believe that is an important topic? What is your emotional response to humanities current predicament? What reactions have you seen in others?

It’s not just climate change, of course, but the multiple ecological crises. Anyone who is paying attention is bound to have some kind of emotional response. I think emotions are important because we are emotional animals. It really is that simple. How can we confront the end of the systems that have structured our lives and not have powerful emotional reactions? Yes, we have well-developed rational capacities, but in the end we are animals who feel as much, or more, than we think. And if thinking and feeling are not wholly separate processes but are part of the way people understand the world, it is folly not to pay attention to our emotional reactions. None of this should be confused with the apolitical therapy culture that dominates in the United States. I’m not talking about emotions separate from politics, but the emotions that flow from political engagement.

To borrow a phrase from a friend, I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief. We humans have been given a privileged place in a world that is beautiful beyond description, and we are destroying it and destroying each other. I cope with that by building temporary psychological damns and dikes to hold back that grief. But the emotion comes so powerfully from so many different directions that life feels like a process of constantly patching and moving and rebuilding those damns and dikes. Some of this is intensely personal, but for me the political work is a crucial part of that coping process. If I weren’t politically active, I would lose my mind. The only way I know how to cope is to use some of my energy in collective efforts to try to build something positive.

There is a lot of individual variation in the human species, which means there will be lots of different reactions as the reality of our predicament sets in. I worry that in a society like the United States, where so many have lived for so long with abundance and a sense of entitlement, people won’t be able to face up to the dramatic changes that are inevitable. That could lead people to accept greater levels of hierarchy and authority if political leaders promise to protect that affluence. In that case, people’s inability to deal with the emotions that arise out of awareness of collapse could usher in an era of even more unjust distribution of wealth and resources in an even more violent world.

The only way to combat that is to talk openly about what we see coming and work to create conditions that allow us to rely on the best of our nature, not the worst.

You dismiss the possibility of technological solutions to climate change but given the severity of the crises we are facing do we not have a duty to try everything we can to avert disaster? Shouldn’t we be ramping up research into alternate fuels and renewable energy resources? What about geo-engineering as way to avert the worst effects of climate change?

I don’t dismiss the relevance of advanced technology to sensible policy proposals. I do dismiss the claim that because we want to solve problems with technology we will invent that technology, and that it will be safe and not cause new problems. I reject that because it strikes me as a fantasy that ignores history and diverts us from the reality of the present.

So, yes, we have that duty, and I support serious investment in alternative energy. My concern is that the culture’s technological fundamentalism leaves people vulnerable to scams. The first step is to recognize we are all going to live in a lower-energy world fairly soon, and that means a massive shift in how we live in the First World. There is no replacement for that fossil energy, and we had better come to terms with that. When we don’t recognize that, we are more easily suckered into absurd schemes like the tar sands in Canada, which is an ecological disaster. The same for biofuels and the absurd claim that we can sustainably replace fossil fuels with ethanol, which is also an ecological loser.

Geo-engineering goes a step beyond that, into real insanity. Proposals to manipulate the planetary ecosystem through schemes like putting reflective particles into the atmosphere, or mirrors in space to deflect sunlight, or altering the clouds—all of them prove that we haven’t learned the most important lesson of the industrial era. We have not learned, as Wes Jackson puts it, that we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. We have a history of imagining that our knowledge is adequate to manage major interventions into the ecosystem, leaving us to face the unintended consequences of those interventions. At this point, there is no rational approach to the ecological crises that doesn’t start with this recognition: We are going to live in a low-energy world that is powered primarily by contemporary sunlight, not the ancient energy of fossil fuels. As a society we are not prepared, in terms of either physical infrastructure or cultural awareness, to deal with that. Anything that further delays coming to terms with this reality is a threat to life on the planet, not a solution.

In a recent talk you said that "I am glad to see the end of most of what we have come to call “the good life,” for it never struck me as all that good, at least not for most people and other living things." In what respects do you think contemporary capitalism has failed to meet the needs of even the most privileged sectors of western societies?

Capitalism is the most wildly productive economic system in history, but the one thing it cannot produce is meaning. Even more troubling is the way, through its promotion of narcissism and mindless consumption, that capitalism undermines the larger culture’s ability to create real meaning. Virtually all of what is good in society—solidarity, compassion, creativity, ethics, joy—comes from outside capitalism, giving the illusion that capitalism is a civilized system. It’s a cliché, but important enough that we sing it over and over: Money can’t buy you love. Capitalism cannot create a healthy human community, and it undermines the aspect of human nature rooted in solidarity and love.

The other obvious failure of capitalism is its contribution to the erosion of the health of the ecosystem. Humans have been drawing down the ecological capital of the planet since the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, but that process has intensified dramatically in the capitalist/imperialist/industrial era. Our culture is filled with talk about the success of capitalism even though that system degrades our relationships and threatens our existence. That’s an odd definition of success.

Are there any writers on this topic whose work you would like to recommend?

Wes Jackson is one of my most trusted sources on these issues. Wes is a scientist working in research on sustainable agriculture, but his critique encompasses politics, economics, and culture. His new book, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture, is due out this fall, and I’m looking forward to reading. I think Bill McKibben’s latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, is important, though I think his faith in the power of the internet to help us through the transition is dangerously naïve. William Catton’s books Overshoot and Bottleneck have also helped me come to terms with reality.

In addition to the ecological questions, I think we also have to keep focused on the political and cultural questions, about how the existing distribution of wealth and power are serious impediments to meaningful change. That means continuing to think about the predatory nature of empire and capitalism, and the degree to which patriarchy and white supremacy structure our world and undermine our capacity to be fully human.

ANOTHER SPEAKER AT VFP RALLY


Lisa Savage from CodePink Maine and one of the leaders of the Maine Campaign to Bring Our War $$ Home speaking at last Sunday's VFP rally in Portland

POLITICS IN AMERICA


  • Hurricane Earl is heading toward Maine. We are expected to get heavy winds and rain. We need the rain but this will likely be a gusher. It is supposed to hit us tonight. In the morning we are supposed to take the train to New York City to go to a ball game (Yankess against the Orioles) with my son. My late birthday present from Mary Beth. Hope the train is running on schedule.

  • I looked today for the first time at the stats of who looks at this blog. Some big surprises. Here is the list of places that folks live who have been reading the blog since I started it. Thanks to all of you who stop by for a visit.

1) United States

2) South Korea

3) Russia

4) Canada

5) Germany

6) Netherlands

7) Japan

8) United Kingdom

9) Kenya

10) India

  • The Washington Post reports this morning, "With just two months until the November elections, the White House is seriously weighing a package of business tax breaks - potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars - to spur hiring and combat Republican charges that Democratic tax policies hurt small businesses."

This is very interesting because just the other day I heard a report that the investor community in the U.S. was doing quite well financially at this time (they are the ones during this so-called "recovery" who are not hurting) but they are not creating new jobs. They are sitting on their cash. So now Obama is thinking to give them more tax breaks at a time when the government should be spending that same money creating jobs in local communities doing things that are needed to be done - hiring teachers, upgrading water systems, fixing bridges, remodeling schools, building public transit, etc. The truth is that once he gives these new tax breaks few new jobs will be created.

In fact most big corporations are laying off workers. The figures show that those CEO's who fire the most workers tend to get paid the most - some as much as $20 million per year. The 50 top companies that have fired the most workers have CEO's that average $12 million each year. Obama's plan to give them even more tax breaks is sick.

  • The governors race in the state of Arizona is heating up as we approach November. Current Gov. Jan Brewer, who has become well known for passing the racist anti-immigration bill in that state that basically makes all Latinos criminal suspects, had some problems speaking during a recent debate. Those who say we are "dumbing things down" here in America are correct. See below for yourself.


Thursday, September 02, 2010

REAL STORY ABOUT MEXICO


Flourishing drug demand in the U.S. and Canada has combined with the destruction of Mexico's traditional economy to increase the power of the Mexican drug cartels. At the same time, the cartels are at war over the drug market in Mexico, with drastic results including the recent massacre of 72 undocumented migrants in Northern Mexico.

Bruce Livesey has been a journalist for more than 25 years, most recently focusing his attention on the drug war in Mexico where he produced radio pieces for NPR and CBC radio.

See part two of the interview here

INDIA TIMES COVERS GN CONFAB CANCELLATION

There can be no doubt that India is moving quickly into space. Thus it was a natural for the Global Network to plan to hold our 18th annual space organizing conference in India on October 9-12. Here is an article from the Times of India about that government's decision to not allow the international conference to happen. No doubt the subject was much too "sensitive" for the government to allow. It's sad that in a so-called "democracy" like India organizations must seek permission to hold an international event.

'No seminar on nuclear disarmament'
August 25, 2010

NAGPUR: In an apparent move to curb an 'unwanted' congregation, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) has struck down the application by a city-based activist known for his left leaning to hold a global seminar on nuclear disarmament in city.

The Centre for Cultural Educational, Economics and Social Studies had planned to hold an international seminar on 'Achieving A Nuclear Weapons and Missile Defence Free Asia', from October 9 to 12. The application for clearance was sent in February but on July 27, the MEA wrote back saying the issue of getting a political permit for the seminar had been carefully examined and the ministry did not recommend holding this conference.

The centre's secretary J Narayana Rao who corresponded with the various ministries said it appeared after the interaction with various bureaucrats that he had almost got the approval, until he received final letter of rejection last month.

A senior official in the MEA said it would be difficult to respond about any one case in particular. He added that it was rare to reject an application. Such a decision is taken only when the case appeared problematic. He said the approvals were given on the basis of inputs by various divisions in MEA which handle different countries.

They were held back if the topic was too sensitive topic or persons invited to speak were categorized as risky or there were problems with countries they were coming from. The organiser could write to the MEA asking for reasons for rejection but it was up to the ministry to respond.

Rao wondered how could nuclear disarmament be a sensitive topic. "An academic discussion would hardly have any political ramifications," he said. Rao felt the rejection might be because the seminar was being held to close to the date of US president Barack Obama's visit to India during November. "May be the government did not want to annoy Uncle Sam," he mused.

He added that US wanted to push India into an arms race as it wanted a market for its defence industry.

Interestingly, he also stressed that India need not increase its nuclear stockpile keeping China in mind. Rao said China's nuclear arms were not meant for India but were a defence against the US. "Since China is not going to attack India with nuclear weapons there is no reason for us to enter into an atomic arms race with it," he added.

SPYING ON YOU FROM SPACE


A federal court in California has issued a ruling that’s raising widespread alarm among advocates for civil liberties. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said law enforcement agents can sneak onto a person’s property, plant a GPS device on their vehicle, and track their every movement. The court’s ruling means the spying is legal in California and eight other Western states.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

ISRAEL BLOCKS PALESTINIAN EDUCATION

Israel announced weeks ago that it would ease its siege on Gaza, but students who want to travel to the West Bank to study are still banned - as they have been for 10 years. To publicise the problem, the Israeli human rights group Gisha has created an online game that demonstrates just how difficult it is to leave the Gaza strip.

SPACE WEEK ORGANIZING PICKING UP

Pentagon's "Full spectrum dominance"


  • I am working now to promote our 10th annual Keep Space for Peace Week which will be held October 2-9 in local communities around the world. So far we are off to a good start and the showings of the new documentary film Pax Americana and the Weaponization of Space will take our message that week into new countries like Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Our mailings of the space week flyer have gone out and posters had previously been sent to our key contacts globally. We are starting to hear from folks who will be organizing a local event (vigil, film showing, public meeting). Media work will follow in the coming weeks.

  • Even though the Indian government has rejected the holding of our 18th annual international space organizing conference I will still be going to India. I will attend what will now be a national conference in Nagpur on October 9-11 and then head on to Bhopal, Agra, Jammu, and Srinagar where I will give some talks.

  • I have heard from around the country that some peace groups who are working to get the new START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) passed refuse to talk about U.S. "missile defense" deployments at their public events. The treaty, not yet ratified by the U.S. Senate, is a bilateral nuclear arms reduction pact between the U.S. and the Russian Federation that was signed in Prague on April 8, 2010. Just yesterday I read that Vladimir Putin was expressing deep reservations about Obama's plan to deploy "missile offense" systems in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Czech Republic and likely Georgia -- all near Russia. Putin has long warned that these deployments could kill the new START Treaty so you'd think that groups holding events would want to make the public aware of these connections. One activist wrote me today saying that in her community the group hosting the event to push the START Treaty ratification won't even let her announce Keep Space for Peace Week. Myopic organizing if you ask me.

  • It has been blazing hot here all week and our summer in Maine is the hottest in recorded history. What makes it all the worse is that we have to keep all the windows shut in order to prevent the dust cloud from the road work outside from covering us head to toe. The progress seems to be slow out there as they are just a couple doors beyond our house now but seem to find all kinds of reasons to keep dropping dump truck loads of dirt near us.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

THE BANKSTERS GO FREE

Private gains and public loss.....it's a Wall Street government.

SUPPORT THE TROOPS WHO WANT TO END WAR



And more from Ethan McCord, the GI who extracted the children from the van, below:

HOW DO WE CREATE JOBS?


I love this tire photo. To me it represents the collapsing U.S. economy. The solution to the problem is close at hand - so close it cannot be seen.

That's the way it is today when people talk about jobs for example. I watched a long video yesterday produced by some union activists about folks who have lost their jobs. They talk about "fighting" to get their jobs back but never did the words "war" or "military spending" cross their lips. Somehow these good people think that the government is going to create new jobs for them if they just push hard enough.

But let's face the facts. The right-wing is pushing just as hard to cut government spending and a growing number of people in the country have been made to think that slashing spending and lowering taxes on the rich will bring the economy back - the business model. But that is not going to work. In truth, this will only increase joblessness as the government lays off teachers, janitors, and the like.

These good union folks don't want to talk about military spending because many unions (particularly the Machinists Union and the United Autoworkers Union) represent workers inside the military production process. (By the way I am a member of the National Writers Union which is part of the UAW.) So they block this important connection from being offered as a real solution to our national economic flat tire.

Jobs have left this country by the millions in recent years. The corporations are maximizing their profits internationally and I don't see these jobs coming back to the U.S. at all. So where will the economic recovery come from? Where will the investment in job creation come from? For me the answer is clear as a bell. Massively cut military spending....stop funding the Afghanistan war at the tune of $7 billion a month. Then use those funds to build public transit, wind turbines, a solar society, weatherize homes, fix roads and bridges, and more.

There will be a big rally in Washington DC on October 2 being organized by unions and the NAACP. It is being billed as One Nation Working Together and I believe the principal purpose of the event is to have a big turnout rally before the November elections to help swell support for the desperate Democrats. In the call to action they state: "We are One Nation, born from many, determined to build a more united America – with jobs, justice and education for all." The only mention of the military issue is one weak phrase: "We are families who pray every day – for peace and prosperity".

Peace groups supporting the October 2 event have had to create their own web site in order to flesh out the anti-war message but you won't find a link to it at the primary One Nation web site. So the message is, sure we want the peace movement to turn their folks out for this event but the primary drivers - the unions and NAACP - don't want to get too close to those calling for an end to wars. It's the basic half-stepping Democratic party position. Thus it is evident to me that the October 2 event is largely a Democratic party event.

I had long ago been invited to speak in Washington on October 1 at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House so I will stay and attend the October 2 event. I will take along the Bring Our War $$ Home banner and join the march.

But I will have no illusions that this event is the coming of a grand coalition that will finally lift the veil on war spending. As long as large blocs in the progressive movement refuse to deal with Pentagon spending there will be little hope for true economic recovery and job creation.

Sadly the peace movement is once again treated like the black sheep in the family.

GREAT CONCERT COMING

Click on flyer to enlarge...Tom is one of my favorite musicians. Try to make this concert if you can.

Monday, August 30, 2010

SHIP SINKING MYSTERY STILL NOT SOLVED IN KOREA


30% of South Korean citizens still don't believe their right-wing government's story about the sinking of the Cheonan naval ship.

Some critics have made the case the South Korean vessel ran aground and was not sunk by the North Koreans.

BECK'S PEEPS SPEAK



Plus God delivers a "fly over" of geese for Beck's promised miracle.....

NO REST FOR THE WEARY


This morning's Portland Press Herald carries another story from the VFP confab. This one is about our march and rally yesterday. You can see it here

For all my criticism of that newspaper I must give them kudos because we got four big stories out of them in six days. Can't beat that.

One leader of national VFP told Maine VFP member Doug Rawlings yesterday that, "This march/rally was the best-organized, most impressive closing event that he had been to in all of his years of VFP work."

Nice compliment for us. Nothing like satisfied customers I like to say.

Thanks to all our friends outside of VFP who supported this conference and concluding march.

Our next steps here in Maine will be to organize a peace walk through the state on November 3-11 that will culminate in our VFP chapter marching in the November 11 Veterans Day parade in Portland. Please put those dates on your calendar and come walk with us.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

MORE TV COVERAGE OF VFP CONFAB


Another news spot from the first day of the convention.

VFP MARCH AS CONVENTION FINALE

TV news coverage of the VFP march in Portland this morning as the convention ended. We had 300 people in the march, although the TV announcer said we had 1,000. Not very often the media so dramatically over estimates our numbers.

It was a great event though and people left the convention in good spirits. Last night Chris Hedges was the keynote speaker at the banquet that drew more than 350 folks. His hard and dark analysis of our future got some people taking exception to his very direct comments. He doesn't leave much squirm room and people want to feel good after such a speech. But Hedges doesn't do that.

It reminds me of when Native American chiefs were taken to Washington to meet the "great white father." They would come back to their tribes and say we are screwed. They would tell stories about the huge cities they passed through along the railroad trip east and the heavy weapons technologies they saw even during those days. They knew they could not ultimately stand against that power.

Hedges says that the collapse of capitalism is going to be harsh and that the crackdown on folks like us will be hard. He calls on us to find hope and courage in the moral acts of resistance to what he sees as a fascist dictatorship.