Monday, July 30, 2012

the multifold resistance: an invitation

In Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone, Climate Change’s Terrifying New Math, he identifies “the enemy” as the oil industry. But like so many of today’s enemies, this one too is not well defined. Whether we like it or not, the architecture of the “developed” world has been meticulously structured around the entire population’s dependence on non-renewable resources. We don’t just support the industry when we unconsciously flick the switch, fly, or fill up at the pump; old-fashioned pensions are now shadowy “investment portfolios” (beware: even “green funds” support oil companies and war profiteers). Plastics, products shipped via plane and truck from faraway lands, crops grown with petrochemicals…fossil fuels are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. If we could trace our paychecks back to the source, many of us would have to admit that our livelihoods, in one way or another, depend on the fossil fuel industry.

So how do we fight an enemy with whom we are so thoroughly intertwined?

First, we must accept that the problem is a complex one, riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. YES, it is possible to be part of the problem and part of the solution at the same time. By cultivating awareness of all factors involved and learning to weigh the consequences of our actions, we can begin to make choices that contribute less to the problems and more to the solutions.

Next, we’ll need to see the fossil fuel industry for what it really is: not as an ordinary industry, but as an oppressive regime that has, by wielding massive power in the form of financial capital, taken control of our government and infiltrated every facet of our society.

Fortunately, oppressive regimes can and have been toppled, and we can draw on historical evidence to help us in the development of effective strategies to subvert them.

Dr. Gene Sharp, a political scientist who has dedicated his life to the study of non-violent resistance movements, states in his book From Dictatorship to Democracy that:

“When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:

  • Strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills
  • Strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people
  • Create a powerful internal resistance force
  • Develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.”

Additionally, Dr. Sharp recommends that we discover the sources of the oppressors’ strengths and destabilize them. At the same time, we must identify weakness and concentrate our attacks on “Achilles heels”. Sharp suggests that, "Liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people’s ability to liberate themselves."

What would it mean to “liberate ourselves” in the context of bringing down the fossil fuel industry? Self-liberation will involve extricating ourselves from the corrupt system to the greatest extent possible. Personal, community, and national energy independence are not separate issues: they are one issue with many facets, all of which can and must be addressed simultaneously for maximum, immediate impact.

A “wise grand strategic plan for liberation” will provide the tools the oppressed peoples will need once they have been freed. In this case, we are going to need to develop new habits and skills that will be necessary in a post-fossil-fuel dominated society. Beginning to develop these skills as soon as possible will immediately begin to diminish the power of the oppressor and empower the ones who resist, while preparing us to thrive in the future.

There has been much ado about the roll of “personal action” – as opposed to political action – in averting ecological catastrophe. There is some concern amongst activists, expressed both in the McKibben article and by Annie Leonard in her new video The Story of Change, that the public will be apt to mistake token gestures (such as recycling and switching to high-efficiency light bulbs) for wholehearted dedication to holistic system change. Rather than proceeding to educate eager audiences about ways we can begin to implement more substantial kinds of changes in our own lives and communities in addition to concerted political action, these leaders have chosen to begin a fight against the system from the top down instead. Meanwhile, while we wait for authority figures to direct our efforts, our outrage and eagerness to become involved becomes diffused.

The urgency of this situation demands that each of us take the initiative to lead ourselves, to develop solutions that can be implemented immediately, and fit the scale of our own lives. Why not fight the system from the top down and the bottom up simultaneously?

The most abundant “green” technology is available to everyone right now at zero cost: it’s our collective ability to maximize efficiency and reduce waste. In light of the profoundly destructive effects of human activity on our planet’s ecology, we must reevaluate what we consider to be a necessity vs. that which we consider convenience. Reducing or eliminating consumption for convenience, multiplied by millions, will result in an immediate, quantifiable reduction in the demand for fossil fuels.

During WWII the U.S. and British governments initiated an intensive and wildly successful resources conservation campaign. The public was asked to voluntarily use less gasoline, fabric, metal, rubber, paper and other material goods, and to grow small backyard “Victory Gardens”.  “Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without” was the motto of the day. By becoming more self-sufficient, the government could invest more of the country’s resources in the war effort.

Obviously, is not in the best interest of a government that is “for the corporations, by the corporations” to ask us to consume less, in spite of the fact that the health of the entire planet depends on it. A similar campaign today – only this time with the purpose of investing in the peace effort – if it is to happen at all, must come from the grassroots. It must come from ourselves.

Perhaps prominent environmental groups hesitate to include us because they are loath to lay even a modicum of blame for our predicament on the very people whose support they require. But until we acknowledge our complicity and admit that there is no one perfect solution – and most of all, that we are in this together – any strategy that we could devise would lack the enduring strength that could be derived from a truly inclusive movement, founded in honesty, transparency, and collective responsibility.

By inviting us to contribute personally and directly in the solution, our actions, however small, however symbolic, will provide us with a sense of unity around a common purpose that has been absent from our culture for far too long.

We can look to Dr. Sharp to help us dismantle an oppressive regime, but unless and until we learn how to live in harmonious relationship with one another and the earth, no solution will be permanent. For these kinds of skills, we’ll need to draw inspiration from the wisdom of other, more earth-centered societies, many of which are alive on this planet today.

If we’re going to lobby for better legislation, the Great Law of the Iroquois would be an excellent place to start. “The Law of the 7 Generations” requires that all decisions be made with consideration for how our actions would affect a person born seven generations into the future. We don’t need a government to pass this law – we can establish it for ourselves right now.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

the homeopathic remedies for the 5 ills of society

PHILSOPROP*: The Homeopathic Remedies for the 5 Ills of Society is a set of elixirs for social ailments based on the premise that "like cures like" (similia similibus curentur).

Shortly after 9/11/2001 I found a bullet on the ground in NYC and began wondering if I could create a remedy for violence by making a tincture from it? The recipes for the other remedies came to me shortly thereafter:

ALIENATION: Empty (according to homeopathy, the most dilute remedies are the most potent).
VIOLENCE: Dilution made from bullet soaked in distilled water.
GREED: Dilution made from coins soaked in distilled water.
CONSUMERISM: Diluted drop of bottled water from Wal-Mart.
DETACHMENT: Miniscule dose of superglue (this is a "dialectic remedy", the ailment being countered by its opposite. I wonder if, like especially diluted remedies, paradoxical ones have special potency as well?).

* Philosprops are objects (including booklets, posters, garments, sounds, and videos) that are intended to demonstrate a concept or spark a dialog. Please see PHILOSOPROPS: A UNIFIED FIELD GUIDE for more information.

Sets of the remedies are occasionally available in the Philosoprop Pop-Up Shop.

Friday, July 20, 2012

we have met the environment, and it is us

Newton by William Blake

A Constructive Critique of Bill McKibben's Article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math in Rolling Stone Magazine, July 20, 2012

Published in Truthout on July 23, 2012

Clearly, we have a catastrophic problem on our hands. But climate change isn’t it. In fact, climate change isn’t a problem at all – to be precise, climate change is merely a very acute symptom of a much, much larger matrix of problems that, if left undiagnosed, will rapidly lead to limitless, albeit unnecessary, suffering for every living creature on the planet.

Ironically, the climate change debate itself is an extremely potent anesthetic for those on all sides of the argument. Pose the question to any good scientist or well-informed environmentalist, “Is the extreme weather we’re having this summer caused by climate change?” and we can give you only one definitive answer: maybe. Even if we could convince the majority of the public that all the terrifying math in the world is real…then what?

In a culture that habitually treats symptoms without examining the underlying causes of a disease, it’s really no wonder that even the world’s foremost environmentalists remain fixated on the warning light while the engine seizes. On another level, perpetual misdiagnosis of a problem gives us all a very convenient excuse not to participate in the solution. As with the overpopulation argument, it’s easy to understand how discussions of climate change can so easily segue into that classic bit of cul-de-sac logic, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway…”

So, what is the problem, who is to blame, and how can it be solved? To understand our current predicament, we’ll need to back up a bit….

Slowly but surely throughout the course of history, a small faction of power-hungry über opportunists have taken control of the main systems that sustain our basic needs – food and fuel – and commodified them. In other words, a few enterprising masterminds have successfully identified the most critical things that people need to survive, and found ways to profit by controlling them. If these influential individuals had been altruistic rather than covetous, they might have developed and implemented what are known as “appropriate technologies” – solutions that are adapted to conditions, materials, and labor at hand, and designed to maximize efficiency and minimize cost, waste, and environmental impact. As we know, when altruistic geniuses such as Buckminster Fuller and Nikola Tesla do come along, the über opportunists have their ways of discrediting, undermining, and negating their ideas.

The über opportunists are also über marketing specialists. They have manufactured needs for their products and planned for their obsolescence. They have cornered markets, so that the very same company that sells electricity sells products that use electricity – the less efficient the product, the more money the company makes. The sicker we are, the more the pill-makers earn. Under the guise of feeding the world, the chemical industry thrives while small farmers perish. The opportunists’ PR campaign is so successful that we have even come to refer to these manufacturers of global inequality, waste, and disease as “job creators” when the jobs they create serve only to gild their own lilies, not to serve the families, communities, or environments in which we live. It is in their interest to keep us fighting amongst ourselves. The less united we are, the more we have to struggle, the less time we have leftover to think about where we’re headed.

So here we are, a good ways down the road the über opportunists have laid out for us. We are all looking around as a global society, all coming to the realization that we’ve been duped. Collectively, we know we must stop going down this road…but how, when we’ve come to rely so heavily on the system that the über opportunists have created? How, when an entire culture is structured around consumption, inefficiency, and waste – and when so many of us rely on the flawed system for our livelihoods – can we suddenly change course?

There are no easy answers. Realizing that there is a problem is a critical first step. The next one is to correctly identify it. Many of us can see for ourselves, without any additional scientific evidence, that pollution is a major cause of ill health. Toxins in our air, food, and water cause cancer and a host of other diseases. Whether or not humans are changing the climate, it’s very easy to understand that humans are causing pollution, and pollution is making us sick…not “maybe”, not in 5 years or 100 years – NOW.

Who is to blame – the über opportunists who are the architects of the current system? The people who unwittingly (or not) build and maintain the system? It doesn’t really matter. What matters now is that we hone in on the solution…

The obvious but rarely articulated solution – impeccable environmental stewardship – is as complex as the problem, and strategies for its achievement will be as diverse as every single individual who participates in it. It is a tragic irony that willingness to join in the solution is inversely proportional to the amount one is contributing to the problem.

Another critical obstacle to the immediate implementation of this solution is a fundamental sense of alienation from nature that has been intensifying since the 17th century when people first began to study the world through the lens of the telescope and microscope. These marvelous tools lent early scientists a profound sense of separation from their subjects. Suddenly the world was broken into parts that could be deciphered using mathematics, physics, astronomy, and biology. We have been slowly forgetting that we were once part of nature, that we can study ecosystems using math, but the environment is not math – it is us.

Until we come to the collective, visceral realization that by harming nature we are doing very direct harm to ourselves, all the data in the world – including dramatic images on the TV news or even right outside our window – will do little to move us to action. Before enough of us can become inspired to participate in impeccable environmental stewardship on the scale necessary to recover from the damage already done, we’ll need to remember that we are nature.

Let’s just drop all the numbers for a while and take in the smell of a blade of grass or the sound of a cricket. Please hurry - we don’t have much time.

Monday, July 9, 2012

welcome to the dialectic revival

Here in the United States, whether we look to the language used amongst ourselves, in the media, or by politicians, we may find that our standard method of communication is based on rhetoric – a style of argument that relies on a set of distinctly isolated viewpoints, with each view-holder applying a range of persuasive techniques in an effort to prevail over a perceived opponent.

As we navigate our way into increasingly fragile ecological and social conditions unfolding around the world, however, another lesser-known approach with roots in ancient Greek, European, and Asian thought may be worth revisiting.

In stark contrast to the goal of rhetoric – to win an argument at all costs with all forms of manipulation (including willful dishonesty) on the table – the goal of dialectic is to earnestly expand overall understanding of a situation and the conditions that surround it.

It is not surprising that dialectic is so little-known and little-understood in contemporary culture; throughout the course of history the term has been appropriated by different people for different purposes. Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx each developed their own signature varieties. If we could get all of these thinkers in a room together to engage in a dialectical discussion about the definition of dialectic, they may or may not agree on at least two basic tenets: 1) participants in a dialectic dialog understand that reality and our perception of it is in a constant state of flux, therefore definitive conclusions may not be necessary 2) apparent paradoxes and contradictions are identified and embraced as inherently interdependent conditions whenever possible (cases in point: the notion of “light” ceases to be meaningful without darkness by which to compare it; each of us is simultaneously an individual and part of a society).

Throughout history, forms of dialectic reasoning have been applied to discussions of a wide range of political, philosophical, spiritual, and scientific matters. While horns are locked and the clock ticks away on all manner of pressing social and environmental issues, I am suggesting that now is a fitting moment to evaluate the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of prevailing mechanisms for the exchange of ideas, and develop a more modern, appropriate, efficient, and constructive paradigm.

A new dialectic method has revolutionary potential. Transparency in communication is a radical act. The powers of obfuscation, confusion, and polarization are wielded with great skill by those who seek to suppress and control, often inadvertently drawing in even those with an earnest interest in clarity. Dialectic technique is an antidote, a way of dissolving veils of calculated deception to reveal the inner workings of an underlying reality.

A dialectic method would be applied like a scientific method especially for communication and distillation of understanding. Like the scientific method, it would be taken for granted that any practitioner who wished to be recognized by his or her peers as a clear, principled communicator would be obliged to employ it.

In order for the dialectic method to work effectively, a few parameters would need to be established at the outset. All participants must understand that the primary goal of the dialectic method is to pool knowledge and compare and contrast differing viewpoints on a matter for the purpose of deepening overall understanding. Unlike forms of debate in which one side attempts to demonstrate the superiority of a singular view over an opposing one by any means available (including emotional persuasion not based in reason), those willing to engage in a new dialectic favor logic, analytical proof, and rational deduction. Those who participate in dialectic discourse recognize that all conditions are in a continuous state of flux, and therefore definitive resolution may not be possible.

A preliminary outline of steps in a new DIALECTIC METHOD:

1. Establish the matter to be considered.

2. Identify and define abstract or ambiguous terminology and concepts.

3. Acknowledge the existence of apparent contradiction, paradox, and nuance.

4. Determine commonalities and points of connection.

5. Reevaluate the matter in light of information gleaned through elucidation of both paradox and connection.

6. Develop and implement solutions based on a refined understanding of the matter at hand. If further clarification is desired, begin again at step 1.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012



July 4, 2012 – Independence Day offers a prime opportunity to reflect on one of the great paradoxes of contemporary American culture: independence and interdependence are not, as is commonly assumed, mutually exclusive concepts.

We are not either self-reliant, autonomous agents or cooperative, interconnected beings. Clearly, we are both. Paradoxically, we are simultaneously individuals and members of a society. Our freedom to be independent is not only not hindered by our willingness to act in cooperative, altruistic, compassionate ways – rather, it is enhanced.

Life, liberty, and happiness are the products of true freedom. Most of us know from first-hand experience that sensations of happiness and contentment rarely stem from selfish acts; on the contrary, the most profound joy comes most often from acts of generosity and caring.

Here in the US the words freedom and independence are so often coupled with the romanticized American idea of the “rugged individual”. We are taught from an early age that we are separate from our neighbors and our environment, that to achieve success we must compete, and that the only success that matters is financial success.

Now is a good time to ask ourselves: have these principles led us to become healthy, happy people? Are we achieving the kinds of prosperity we have been striving for? Are we truly free in a society that has a different, far more lenient set of laws for the wealthy? Would we be freer and therefore more independent if we could choose paths that diverge from the limited ones advocated by the powers-that-be?

Even those who possess at least some freedom to make choices that result in greater health and contentment for ourselves, our families, and our planet often fail to do so in part because we have not been invited to embrace the paradox that to become the most profoundly free, first we must recognize our profound interdependence. 

~ text and graphic by Alyce Santoro