Archive for the 'America' Category

If You Think Flapping Underpants are Scary Wait ’til You See the Chickens!

Sharon October 13th, 2009

I love the New York Times’ attempt to make it seem like the debate over line drying of clothes has two equally credible sides.  Thus we hear that (gasp!) once some realtor tried to sell a house to someone who didn’t like laundry hanging next door, and (gasp!) now that house is in foreclosure.  So it must be a real issue. Never mind that there are nearly a million houses in the US in some stage of foreclosure now, and one in one million is a statistical irrelevance.  Maybe they all have undies hanging on the line!  Perhaps the entire housing crisis could be stopped this way!  Why hasn’t anyone thought of this!  Someone call Tim Geithner!

Driven by “nostalgia” the Very Important Paper reports that the right to dry movement has brought together a coalition of the old and the young, the poor and the environmentally conscious.  Ummm…duh.  And obviously, “the same nostalgia that has restored the popularity of canning and private vegetable gardens” is definitely the most important motivating factor.  Sure.

There is no such thing as ecological use of a dryer.  The air dries clothes – it dried all the clothes of all human beings for thousands of years.  Yes, it takes longer when it is cold or humid.  Yes, sometimes you have to do it inside.  Yes, it takes a little longer.  So? 

My favorite quote from this piece is this one: “Richard Jacques, 63, president of the condominium’s board, said he moved to the community specifically for its strict regulations. “Those rules are why when I look out my window I now see birds, trees and flowers, not laundry,” he said.”

Awesome, Richard – you can see a whole host of species, slowly being destroyed by global warming, all so that you never have to see anyone’s sheets hanging up.  Enjoy the spectacle!  Ah the beauty of a dying ecology!

And know this – when I and all those old folks and young folks, those poor folks and environmental folks and those who just think it is silly to buy a $300 appliance to do something that the breeze or their heating source does for them get through with you, the laundry will be the least of your worries.  I’ve got goats, and a plan for inflicting them on you and all the other reactionary zoning fascists ;-)! 


What Does it Look Like to You?

Sharon October 7th, 2009

It has been a while since I’ve had people post their updates of what they are seeing, but this article at Huffington Post encouraged me to ask how things are going in your neck of the woods?  Are things as much better as the news reports?  

I find myself fascinated by the insistence of the media that things are getting better – it is true that the stock market is up, and that the rate of job losses has declined slightly (although not nearly as much, we learn, as the reports suggest), but the idea that not losing quite so many jobs constitutes recovery is sort of fascinating.  The definition of “a good sign” or an indication of “recovery” keeps changing, and getting lower. 

Meanwhile, at the practical “affects how you actually live” level, things are getting worse.  Deflation seems to have taken full hold, state budget receipts are falling, leaving deficits that state constitutions don’t permit, and services for those most in need are falling.  The big question is how long the nation can borrow from the future to keep things going.

So what does this look like through your eyes?  Are things getting better?  Worse?  How about for your community?


Is It Home Yet?

Sharon August 26th, 2009

Apparently a cynical new ad campaign, funded by home improvement and furnishings companies is about to begin, trying to get you to spend your money on a new sofa or wing chair, since, after all, you haven’t been foreclosed on…yet.  The advertising slogan is “is it home yet?”

According to the New York Times:

“With such dreams of sudden wealth having gone the way of Dow 14,000, Americans may be getting used to the idea that they will be living in their current homes or apartments for a while longer. And if they are staying home more, because they cannot afford to take vacation trips or dine out as much as during the boom times, thoughts may be turning to refurnishing, refurbishing and generally sprucing up.

Those are the underpinnings of an ambitious campaign, with a budget estimated at $20 million, that is scheduled to begin on Monday. The campaign, by agencies that are part of the North American operations of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, a division of WPP, seeks to persuade consumers to start shopping again for furniture and home furnishings.

Needless to say, such discretionary merchandise has been particularly hard hit by the buying strike that has affected marketers during the recession in almost every category except, perhaps, groceries and gasoline. Sales of home furnishings fell 0.9 percent in July from June, according to the Commerce Department, and declined 12.9 percent last month compared with July 2008.

The campaign carries the upbeat theme “Is it home yet?,” which will be featured on a logo depicting the phrase embossed across a welcome mat. The theme evokes schmaltzy television commercials from decades ago for Lipton instant soup mix, in which hungry children asked their mothers, “Is it soup yet?”

The campaign will include print, outdoor and online advertising; search engine marketing; and promotions and materials in stores. There will also be a celebration of September as “National Home Furnishings Month” as well as a special Web site (

“For the last 10 or 15 years, you looked at your home as a financial investment, but the return on this investment is actually emotional,” said Robert Maricich, president and chief executive at the World Market Center Las Vegas, a showroom, exhibition space and design center for the furniture industry that was opened in 2005.”

Yup, you can’t afford to move, you are already 3 payments overdue, but definitely put some new drapes and wing chairs on the credit card.  You can’t get any money out, and the payments are impoverishing you, but the emotional return, is, like the credit card company says, “priceless.”  After all, who could put a price on the feeling wall-to-wall carpet gives.

This, of course, is the commercial version of home is where the heart is.  It is also, of course, complete bullshit.  Later in the story, a furniture executive observes that buying that new sofa isn’t discretionary – after all, “try sleeping on the floor, sitting on the floor, dining on the floor.”  Besides noting that all over the world, the vast majority of people do precisely those things, it might be worth noting the ridiculousness of the duality set up here – if you don’t buy a new sofa, you’ll have to sit on the floor.  Ok, everyone who doesn’t have anything to sit on, but internet acccess or who buys Elle Decor and has no sofa, raise your hand?  Anyone who can’t find a perfectly nice sofa down at the local Salvation Army, raise your hand.

Now advertising is like this, and there’s really no point in getting heated up, except for this – they’ve gotten very close to something we do need to know about our homes – that it is possible to tranform the into a place that can be home in the long term.  This is what Adapting in Place is about.  But for most of us the tools for this are precisely the opposite of those being sold by consumer culture – not the new sofa, but the ability to retrofit the old one or make do with something else; not the ability to purchase, but the ability not to, not “home as expression of one’s consumer taste” but “home as workshop and workplace, as a place that makes it easier for you to go on.” 

The more we are taught that home is made by our purchases, the harder it is for us to fundamentally transform our relationship with home, and make it a place that gives back to us, rather than absorbs the contents of our pocketbooks, until, of course, the day they are emptied, and the repo guy comes to take the sofa, and the house, back.


Palin’s Face, Klein’s Language and the Problem of Self-Diagnosis

Sharon August 5th, 2009

I don’t like Sarah Palin, and I do very much admire Naomi Klein, whose book _The Shock Doctrine_ was one of the most important books of the decade.  Had you asked me a few days ago whether I’d write an essay criticizing Naomi Klein for, among other things, her representation of Sarah Palin, I would have suggested that the odds were, to say the least, extremely low.  And yet I find myself doing precisely that, which just, as they say in the song, just ”goes to show you never can tell.”

The problem with Naomi Klein’s essay, originally given as a speech, is not that we disagree about many of her basic observations about the problems we face, but rather that I think she’s allowing a cheap shot, and a false description of a moment to blind her to the scope of the real problem, and to throw up barriers to what needs doing.  In the end, Klein and I agree about a lot – but the devil is always in the details, and in this case, her use of details troubles me.

Klein begins her essay using Sarah Palin as the embodiment of a moment in time, as the human version of the idea that our culture can go on as it is forever.  She writes:

“I usually talk about the bailout in speeches these days. We all need to understand it because it is a robbery in progress, the greatest heist in monetary history. But today I’d like to take a different approach: What if the bailout actually works, what if the financial sector is saved and the economy returns to the course it was on before the crisis struck? Is that what we want? And what would that world look like?The answer is that it would look like Sarah Palin. Hear me out, this is not a joke. I don’t think we have given sufficient consideration to the meaning of the Palin moment. Think about it: Sarah Palin stepped onto the world stage as Vice Presidential candidate on August 29 at a McCain campaign rally, to much fanfare. Exactly two weeks later, on September 14, Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the global financial meltdown.

So in a way, Palin was the last clear expression of capitalism-as-usual before everything went south. That’s quite helpful because she showed us—in that plainspoken, down-homey way of hers—the trajectory the U.S. economy was on before its current meltdown. By offering us this glimpse of a future, one narrowly avoided, Palin provides us with an opportunity to ask a core question: Do we want to go there? Do we want to save that pre-crisis system, get it back to where it was last September? Or do we want to use this crisis, and the electoral mandate for serious change delivered by the last election, to radically transform that system? We need to get clear on our answer now because we haven’t had the potent combination of a serious crisis and a clear progressive democratic mandate for change since the 1930s. We use this opportunity, or we lose it.

So what was Sarah Palin telling us about capitalism-as-usual before she was so rudely interrupted by the meltdown? Let’s first recall that before she came along, the U.S. public, at long last, was starting to come to grips with the urgency of the climate crisis, with the fact that our economic activity is at war with the planet, that radical change is needed immediately. We were actually having that conversation: Polar bears were on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And then in walked Sarah Palin. The core of her message was this: Those environmentalists, those liberals, those do-gooders are all wrong. You don’t have to change anything. You don’t have to rethink anything. Keep driving your gas-guzzling car, keep going to Wal-Mart and shop all you want. The reason for that is a magical place called Alaska. Just come up here and take all you want. “Americans,” she said at the Republican National Convention, “we need to produce more of our own oil and gas. Take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska, we’ve got lots of both.”‘

And to a degree, all of this is true.  But the problem with holding Sarah Palin up as the embodiment of business as usual, is that it is a cheap shot.  I don’t like Sarah Palin, and I sure as heck don’t want her to be in charge of anything bigger than the local Elks Club.  But if we are going to use Sarah Palin as the embodiment of our failure, to imply that our doom comes from the right, we need to ask what alternatives the left has proposed?   That is, who isn’t Sarah Palin?  Is there someone out there who stands up as the essence of this new, progressive movement that Klein claims is in progress, and that undermines our situation?

The logical candidate, of course, would be Obama.  And while I am always a fan of the lesser of two evils, and give Obama sincere credit for some of his actions, I think an attempt to imply that our disaster comes from an ignorant right is a deeply false and troubling one.  The contrasting figure, Obama, was a senator from the midwest, fully complicit in the massive ethanol boondoggle that helped create a new starving class worldwide, as cars competed with people for food.  He is and was an advocate of so-called “clean coal” – despite the fact that there is no such thing, despite the fact that carbon capture and storage is a non-starter.  He is certainly an advocate of continued economic growth, and I find myself queasily forced to admit (since I like George W. Bush a whole lot less than Sarah Palin) that I think Bush’s stimulus package, which at least put money in the hands of ordinary people who needed it, was more populist, more successful and more humane than Obama’s funding of the auto industry and a whole lot of re-paving and highways projects. 

It would be just as accurate, and far less petty for Klein to state that the figure that represents business as usual, going on as we are, is Barack Obama.  And in giving a speech to a group of people at a celebration of _The Progressive_ it would have been a whole heck of a lot more honest and more just.  That is, the problem is not just the world vision embodied by the people you already don’t like, it is the problem embodied by the people you do, and in fact, by the people you are. 

Klein claims that last August, we were actually “having that conversation” about the urgency of dealing with our ecological crisis.  After all, polar bears were on the cover of Newsweek.  I’m casting my memory back to last summer, and trying to recall a sense of invigorated national dialogue on the subject of climate change.   I’m not finding it.  If the subject was coming up in discussion more, which it probably was, although not nearly as much as Obama’s birth certificate or McCain’s fits of temper, or who would be VP, well,  great.   But the terms in which the discussion was occurring were still completely unrelated to the scale of action that we must function on to address climate change – and they still are.  Yeah, there were polar bears on the cover of a national magazine – why not, they are cute, and as long as the issue is framed in terms of how much we care about fuzzy bears, it is conveniently placed outside of our own future and our own survival.

Now Klein goes on to frame our discussion in precisely necessary terms – she turns us to the basic idea that we have to end growth, that we can’t live on a planet that engages in the kind of rapine, endless growth modern capitalism that we have.  I’m thrilled that she did so, and I think this is the important essence of the discussion – and Klein’s use of her platform to have it matters a great deal.  She says,

“The President tells us he wants to look forward, not backwards. But in order to confront the lie of perpetual growth and limitless abundance that is at the center of both the ecological and financial crises, we have to look backwards. And we have to look way backwards, not just to the past eight years of Bush and Cheney, but to the very founding of this country, to the whole idea of the settler state.Modern capitalism was born with the so-called discovery of the Americas. It was the pillage of the incredible natural resources of the Americas that generated the excess capital that made the Industrial Revolution possible. Early explorers spoke of this land as a New Jerusalem, a land of such bottomless abundance, there for the taking, so vast that the pillage would never have to end. This mythology is in our biblical stories—of floods and fresh starts, of raptures and rescues—and it is at the center of the American Dream of constant reinvention. What this myth tells us is that we don’t have to live with our pasts, with the consequences of our actions. We can always escape, start over.

These stories were always dangerous, of course, to the people who were already living on the “discovered” lands, to the people who worked them through forced labor. But now the planet itself is telling us that we cannot afford these stories of endless new beginnings anymore. That is why it is so significant that at the very moment when some kind of human survival instinct kicked in, and we seemed finally to be coming to grips with the Earth’s natural limits, along came Palin, the new and shiny incarnation of the colonial frontierswoman, saying: Come on up to Alaska. There is always more. Don’t think, just take.

This is not about Sarah Palin. It’s about the meaning of that myth of constant “discovery,” and what it tells us about the economic system that they’re spending trillions of dollars to save. What it tells us is that capitalism, left to its own devices, will push us past the point from which the climate can recover. And capitalism will avoid a serious accounting—whether of its financial debts or its ecological debts—at all costs. Because there’s always more. A new quick fix. A new frontier.”

Why on earth am I quibbling with someone who gets so much right in this speech?  She goes on to call our modern economic models a leaky pirate ship, and suggests we need to destroy the ship and buid a whole new vessel.  And she’s absolutely right – that is, our economic models, our whole way of life, our assumptions that there are always more resources, have to change – they will change, one way or another, by virtue of climate change and energy limitations.  Our only choice for a softish landing is to change them voluntarily, before we have no other options, and our window for doing so is getting very, very, very narrow.  And the only possible option is to change as we must – that is, not as we want to, not as we are comfortable with, not as would be easy for us, but as the facts demand.  And that change is going to be quite profound.

Klein gets the problem right.  She gets that we can’t continue to live this way.  But she still is attached to old enlightenment political categories that simply do not function well in the face of our crisis.  She imagines a rapine right, selling the Business As Usual model, and a at least partially critical left.  There is some truth in this analysis (and there is often some truth in the criticisms of the left from the right) - but not enough to take us where we need to go.  Because the left has been complicit in creating other myths, just as false.  It is the left who created the idea that we could buy our way out of this, simply because we want to retain our identity as consumers.  It is the affluent left that has told us that if we just buy better products, if we just recycle more, it will be enough. 

 It is leftist environmentalists who have understated the scope of the problem, and who have told us over and over again that our economy will grow again, this time with plenty of green jobs for everyone, that sacrifice is not necessary. But when you look closely at the studies that support this idea, they all involve radically lower emissions cuts than those that are necessary, radically longer time frames, the viability of technologies that do not presently fully exist and the assumption that we have all the energy in the ground and all the money in the world to do it.  All of those assumptions are fundamentally false – they are still working with old numbers, often with 450 ppm rather than 350 ppm, and without acknowledging that many of the things we thought we had a lot of time for – the melting or arctic ice, the leaking of methane out of the permafrost – are happening now, decades or centuries before even the IPCC reports expected them.

Left and right, working together, have conspired to create a culture of denial, have declined, for the most part, to offer clear terms to the general public.  The right has claimed that we can drill our way out, the left that we can build solar panels in the desert and capture our coal emissions.  Neither one has a remote handle on climate change, much less climate change intersecting with peak oil and economic crisis.

And this is why her talk bothers me so much – she gets the answers right.  But until you frame the discussion correctly, we’re back to banging on the same old drums – back to arguing over who is better, Obama or McCain.  Sure there’s a difference, and an important one, but that’s not the central question – the central question is how do we get to a leader who will actually deal with realities.  Sarah Palin is one face of our disaster.  Barack Obama is another one.  And all of us wear that face too – every one of us who does not want the solutions to be too hard, too extreme, and thus, declines to fully understand the evidence in front of our faces; every one of us who desperately wants the solutions offered on both sides to be true, and thus, chooses lies over truth.

We do have to end growth.  We do have to sink the pirate ship and build again.  We also have to acknowledge the true state of our ability to do that – the pressing limitations on our capacity to rebuild.  We do have to acknowledge what that actually means, and find a way to make it politically palatable to people on both sides of the aisle, because it is the vast middle, those people who are mostly neither left nor right, but who move with our political tides towards where they think their future lies, that matter most. As a leftist, of course, I’d prefer that wasn’t true – but we don’t have the time to change the world in every respect before we deal with the impending crisis.  So the question becomes this – in what terms do we speak?  How do we move the majority in the direction of the painful and necessary alterations that we face?  And I don’t think we do it by making Sarah Palin the rhetorical face of our failure. Not when that wears so many other familiar faces.



Sharon July 29th, 2009

Note: Yes, another re-run.  Today’s project is to re-do the Table of Contents and Book Proposal for my next book, which is now a one-author (me) project.  So yes, re-play, but this one, I think is even more important as time passes.

Barbara Ehrenreich has a wonderful essay on the way we’re turning on ourselves in response to the financial crisis – and how we should be turning our anger outwards.  She’s right – and it isn’t just suicide.  Depression, domestic violence, child abuse – all of these are on the rise, and in large part due to the fact that people are poorer, scared and frustrated.  Ehrenreich writes of the move to respond to the financial bad news by destroying yourself that we’re aiming in the wrong direction:

“Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition — like an ever-rising number of Americans — you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”

The alternative is to value yourself more than any amount of money and turn the guns, metaphorically speaking, in the other direction. It wasn’t God, or some abstract economic climate change, that caused the credit crisis. Actual humans — often masked as financial institutions — did that, (and you can find a convenient list of names in Nomi Prins’s article in the current issue of Mother Jones.) Most of them, except for a tiny few facing trials, are still high rollers, fattening themselves on the blood and tears of ordinary debtors. I know it’s so 1930s, but may I suggest a march on Wall Street?”

And may I hear an amen?  I’m with Ehrenreich here – we’ve all been taught to be ashamed of poverty, that we’re in charge of our own destiny, and thus, if we are poor, we’ve failed.  This, of course is a lie – but a terribly potent one, one with the power to hurt us very badly – as long as we let it.

It is time and past time to stop buying that lie, to get angry and turn our anger towards the places we can make a difference.  For example, right now, our future is being stolen from us as the Fed and other government agencies pour billions of dollars – billions that might have been spent on food aid, hunger relief, reinsulation of millions of homes, renewable energy applications for schools and hospitals – into Wall Street, into an economy that is collapsing anyway.  Our money, and our future is being treated as so much garbage.  And we are permitting it.

In his book _The People’s History of the Twentieth Century_, Howard Zinn speculates that in fact, the New Deal wasn’t so much a response to the desperation of the American people during the Depression, but a response to the sheer success of collective action by ordinary people.  Labor Unions and organized resistance to foreclosures and evictions became so powerful, so dangerous to institutional powers, that government response was in part motivated by the recognition that their power was *GOING TO GO AWAY PERMANENTLY* because people realized – oh wait, we don’t have to let them take our homes away, or treat us like slaves.  That is, the Depression brought great suffering – but it also brought the recognition that the only solution to that suffering lay in the hands of ordinary people.  This is no less true now than then, although it is sometimes hard to see or remember.

Or think, for example, about the tremendous energies used by Southern slave owners to prevent slave rebellions.  The prohibitions against reading and writing, the hideous punishments of failed ones, all of this was used to convince slaves that they could not win – even though there’s an excellent chance they could have, had enough rebelled.  Deep at the heart of slavery and every kind of repression is the knowledge that if enough people care enough, are angry enough, are willing enough to sacrifice for something better, all the slave owners and entrenched powers are doomed.  All it takes is enough “no”s.

On the same day I read Ehrenreich’s article, I got an email from a man who said:

 ”I’m getting ready for climate change and peak oil. I’m working with my community.  I’m preparing personally. I know I’m doing the right thing by reading and learning and teaching others.  But I can’t shake this feeling of sadness.  When my daughter was born, 6 years ago, I was so excited, so filled with hopes and dreams for her.  Now, as I learn more about the world, I feel like all my dreams have died, and my hopes are being reduced to ‘I hope my daughter gets to live in a world that isn’t too brutal and inhumane’ or ‘I hope even though there might not be enough resources to go around that she gets some.’  I don’t like the dreamless person I’m becoming.  How do I find something to hope for, to dream of, that isn’t the bare minimum of survival?”

It was an email I didn’t quite know how to answer when I first got it, and the gentleman kindly gave me permission to think about it and print an answer here.  But now, I think I do have a kind of an answer. 

One of the criticisms levelled at my end of (the relocalizers, permaculturists, sustainability crew) is that we’re unrealistic, utopian, that we don’t fully grasp how hard it will be to simply keep alive, and now we’re shooting at making things better?!?  And there’s almost certainly some truth to that criticism – as there is to all potent critiques.  And lord knows, as a recent Onion Headline (”Small, Dedicated Group of Concerned Citizens Fails to Change World”) points up, it is easy to get a little too fuzzy and cute about empowerment and imagine that simply by reducing the scale of some things while fundraising and putting up the right bumperstickers that we’ll magically make all the entrenched powers go away.

But while they are pretty good at ignoring or subverting small groups of concerned citizens, the old adage about coyotes (that they are more scared of you than you are of them) rather applies to politicians, corporations and other entrenched powers when faced with big groups of pissed off people.  Want proof?  Look at history – at the number of times angry groups of people have changed societies quite rapidly and radically.  It happens all the time.  It isn’t happening yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. 

So as I cast about for answers to what my correspondent can dream for his children, and I for mine,  I found this – a dream of anger, used wisely.  A world in which today’s parents,  and all today’s grownups have the courage to get angry, and use the power they have.  In which they have the ability to see what is possible, and to take in a host of ways as much power as they can for ordinary people.  As institutions and politicians and corporations are more and more proved utterly unequal to the task of meeting our needs, we can open our eyes and see that we can meet them – or we can withdraw our support and tolerance from those institutions until serve us, rather than forcing us to serve them.  Anger is a dangerous tool – but it is a tool, and one we cannot put down entirely, because if those of who us know the truth put it down, it will be wielded by those who tell lies.

I can dream of two things for my boys, and for my reader’s daughter.  First, that they will grow up uncowed by those powers – aware that they only seem distant and immovable.  And also that they will know that their anger and passion are powerful enough to take an imperfect, warmer, depleted world, and find a kind of sufficiency within it – with enough left over for dreams for the next generation.



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