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The Story of Civilization: Stuck in Traffic

22 Jan

Are things too big and out of hand? I’m bumping this one from September 2012 to the top of the queue.

One day I waited an hour in traffic to go a quarter of a mile so I could enter the Holland Tunnel and cross under the Hudson River to my home in Jersey City. While sitting in the cue and kept thinking why why why? Why?

In answer the question with a boiling-frog story, a parable about Happy Island. I conclude by suggesting that the world is happy island and we’re stuck in traffic.

Tunnel Traffic

I live in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. Whenever I go to Manhattan I use public transportation, which is reasonably good, though just a bit inconvenient from my present location.  Driving my car through a tunnel or over a bridge and parking it on Manhattan, that’s VERY inconvenient. And so I avoid doing it.

But I had to go to rural Connecticut to meet Charlie for a trip up to Vermont. I could have taken public transportation to a point where Charlie could pick me up. But that’s a longish walk and four trains, or a longish walk and three trains and a long walk or a cab. Which was a hassle. So I decided to drive. Yes, I’d have to cross the Hudson River, but the Holland Tunnel’s nearby and I could avoid rush-hour traffic on both trips, too and from. And driving on Manhattan was a bit of a hassle, but not too bad on this trip because I’d be mostly on the West Side Highway.

So I drove. I left on Thursday morning at, say, 9:45 AM. By 11:30 I’d crossed off the northern end of Manhattan and was headed toward Connecticut. That’s an hour and forty-five minutes to go the first 15 miles, and probably an hour to go the first four miles, from my place in Jersey City through the Holland Tunnel and onto the West Side Highway headed North.

And that wasn’t rush-hour.

Nor was it rush-hour mid-afternoon on Saturday when I made the return trip. It took at least 45 minutes to get from West Side Avenue and 12th street into the tunnel, and traffic was unusually slow inside the tunnel, for whatever reason. Continue reading

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When Ravi Bhalla was sworn in as Mayor of Hoboken US Senator Cory Booker spoke of love

4 Jan

Sometime in the late summer or early fall of last year, 2017, I noticed that Ravi Bhalla, who was running for mayor of Hoboken, where I live, was holding a meet and greet at a coffee shop near the supermarket where I do much of my shopping. I went, talked with Ravi and others on his team, including James Doyle, who was running for councilman-at-large, and liked them. Some, come November, I voted for him. And he won.

And so I decided to attend Bhalla’s inauguration on January 1, 2018. I had no particular expectations about what this would be like, but I was a little surprised to see a packed auditorium with the aisles ringed with TV cameras. This, apparently, was a big deal.

It didn’t occur to me that we would say the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the ceremony. It’s possible that high school was the last time I stood, hand over heard, saying those words. I remembered the words, and felt a lump in my throat as I said them.

A big chunk of the (progressive end) of the local Democratic establishment was in the audience, and several of them were on the stage, along with New Jersey’s two US Senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker; the Governor-elect, Phil Murphy, sent Gurbir Grewal, his nominee for Attorney General, as his representative. Grewal, like Bhalla, is a Sikh. The opening prayer was offered by a Sikh, Giani Raghvinder Singh, and a Jew, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, offered the closing prayer. A Roman Catholic offered the benediction, Monsignor Michael Andreano. This was an all-nations program.

As it should be, for Hoboken, along with its southern neighbor, Jersey City, the whole of northern New Jersey, and metropolitan New York, is an all-nations region. That was the theme of Senator Cory Booker’s remarks. As background he referred to the divisiveness and “darkness” in the country in 2017; he didn’t name names, but we all knew who and what he was referring to. Against that he talked of America’s ideals, fully acknowledging that our founding documents did not reflect those ideals – women were not mentioned and African-American’s were said to equal only 3/5s of a person – he argued that, in time, those ideals having been winning against the darkness.

It’s in that context that he talked of love. I was a bit surprised and shocked when I first heard the word, love; it’s not one that politicians use very much (if at all), and I forget his exact phrasing. But he must have used the word at least half a dozen times – love love love love love love – though obviously not in immediate succession (he wasn’t channeling the Beatles). His point was that when Robert Menendez was the first Latino elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, that was not merely a victory for Latinos, it was a victory for American ideals. Love. And when Barack Hussein Obama was elected President of the United States, that was not only a victory for African Americans, but, and more importantly, it was a victory for American ideals. Love. Nor is the victory of Ravi Bhalla – a “towel-head” at a time when He Who Shall Not Be Named legitimized and valorized such epithets on the national stage – only a matter of pride for his fellow Sikhs and Asian Indians. That victory is something for which all Americans can be proud, for it exemplifies and further amplifies the ideals equality and justice on which this nation was founded. Love.

Love is not all we need. We need hope, imagination, courage, and determination as well. But, yes, we do need love, for it is the foundation on which the others rest.

* * * * *

Cory Booker on The Conspiracy of Love.

The city-state redux

16 Sep

Jamie Bartlett, in Aeon:

Until the mid-19th century, most of the world was a sprawl of empires, unclaimed land, city-states and principalities, which travellers crossed without checks or passports. As industrialisation made societies more complex, large centralised bureaucracies grew up to manage them. Those governments best able to unify their regions, store records, and coordinate action (especially war) grew more powerful vis-à-vis their neighbours. Revolutions – especially in the United States (1776) and France (1789) – helped to create the idea of a commonly defined ‘national interest’, while improved communications unified language, culture and identity. Imperialistic expansion spread the nation-state model worldwide, and by the middle of the 20th century it was the only game in town. There are now 193 nation-states ruling the world.

But the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world.

Maybe Trump was right”

On 17 September 2016, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: ‘A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!’ The outcry obscured the fact that Trump was right (in the first half, anyway). Borders determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who puts in and who takes from the common pot. If a nation cannot defend its border, it ceases to exist in any meaningful way, both as a going concern and as the agreed-upon myth that it is.

Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century.

Tough, of course, The Donald doesn’t believe in climate change. Continue reading

GOOD: Global Organization of Democracies

5 Apr

Here’s a triple, a trifecta, a trinity, from Charlie Keil. It’s about a Global Organization of Democracies (GOOD). Let him explain it.

An Open Letter to Citizens of the World

Dear Citizen:

I think we need a common GOOD, a Global Organization Of Democracies, one nation one vote, (so that a confederation of indigenous peoples up the Amazon can have the same voting power as the USA, Okinawa the same vote power as Japan, etc.) [big so-called democracies may not want to be members at first], to be meeting year round to suggest ways of: stopping “ethnic cleansing” and “administrative massacres,” terrorism, and wars; sharing air, water and resources fairly; raising global carbon taxes for local carbon sequestration (planting trees, fostering permacultures) going strong everywhere; planning and fostering a global literacy campaign focused on young women, etc., etc.

For every real problem you can think of, the world needs to hear these discussions, suggestions, planning sessions year round so that hopes can realistically be raised about stopping climate destruction, reducing global storming, etc. Can you give these “self-determination of peoples” and “conserving the speciation” ideas 8 minutes a day? 12 minutes a day on Saturday and Sunday?

Peace is the Way! (to ecological balance)

Charlie Keil

For the common GOOD

To stop the ecocatastrophe and build world peace processes a Global Organization of Democracies (GOOD) supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC) could coordinate efficient regional police forces to help prevent “administrative massacres” and terrorism, thereby enhancing the security of all peoples and encouraging states to redirect a growing portion of their military budgets to economically sustainable problem-solving over time. Continue reading

Sometimes David Brooks Makes Sense: After the Women’s March

24 Jan

In the first place, this movement focuses on the wrong issues. Of course, many marchers came with broad anti-Trump agendas, but they were marching under the conventional structure in which the central issues were clear. As The Washington Post reported, they were “reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable health care, action on climate change.”

These are all important matters, and they tend to be voting issues for many upper-middle-class voters in university towns and coastal cities.

Alas and alack:

But this is 2017. Ethnic populism is rising around the world. The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation-states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace.

All the big things that were once taken for granted are now under assault: globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order. If you’re not engaging these issues first, you’re not going to be in the main arena of national life.

There it is again, the problems of the nation-state.

Now he gets down to the nitty-gritty:

Without the discipline of party politics, social movements devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism. People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something. … It’s significant that as marching and movements have risen, the actual power of the parties has collapsed. Marching is a seductive substitute for action in an antipolitical era, and leaves the field open for a rogue like Trump.

Alas, he’s right: “Identity-based political movements always seem to descend into internal rivalries about who is most oppressed and who should get pride of place.” But I’m not at all sure about Brooks’s prescription:

If the anti-Trump forces are to have a chance, they have to offer a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a central mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality.

Can “the nation” be repaired in that way? Color me skeptical.

The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story

21 Nov

by Charles Eisenstein*

IMGP4751

Normal is coming unhinged. For the last eight years it has been possible for most people (at least in the relatively privileged classes) to believe that society is sound, that the system, though creaky, basically works, and that the progressive deterioration of everything from ecology to economy is a temporary deviation from the evolutionary imperative of progress.

A Clinton Presidency would have offered four more years of that pretense. A woman President following a black President would have meant to many that things are getting better. It would have obscured the reality of continued neoliberal economics, imperial wars, and resource extraction behind a veil of faux-progressive feminism. Now that we have, in the words of my friend Kelly Brogan, rejected a wolf in sheep’s clothing in favor of a wolf in wolf’s clothing, that illusion will be impossible to maintain.

The wolf, Donald Trump (and I’m not sure he’d be offended by that moniker) will not provide the usual sugarcoating on the poison pills the policy elites have foisted on us for the last forty years. The prison-industrial complex, the endless wars, the surveillance state, the pipelines, the nuclear weapons expansion were easier for liberals to swallow when they came with a dose, albeit grudging, of LGBTQ rights under an African-American President.

I am willing to suspend my judgement of Trump and (very skeptically) hold the possibility that he will disrupt the elite policy consensus of free trade and military confrontation – major themes of his campaign. One might always hope for miracles. However, because he apparently lacks any robust political ideology of his own, it is more likely that he will fill his cabinet with neocon war hawks, Wall Street insiders, and corporate reavers, trampling the wellbeing of the working class whites who elected him while providing them their own sugar-coating of social conservatism.

The social and environmental horrors likely to be committed under President Trump are likely to incite massive civil disobedience and possibly disorder. For Clinton supporters, many of whom were halfhearted to begin with, the Trump administration could mark the end of their loyalty to our present institutions of government. For Trump supporters, the initial celebration will collide with gritty reality when Trump proves as unable or unwilling as his predecessors to challenge the entrenched systems that continually degrade their lives: global finance capital, the deep state, and their programming ideologies. Add to this the likelihood of a major economic crisis, and the public’s frayed loyalty to the existing system could snap.

We are entering a time of great uncertainty. Institutions so enduring as to seem identical to reality itself may lose their legitimacy and dissolve. It may seem that the world is falling apart. For many, that process started on election night, when Trump’s victory provoked incredulity, shock, even vertigo. “I can’t believe this is happening!”

At such moments, it is a normal response to find someone to blame, as if identifying fault could restore the lost normality, and to lash out in anger. Hate and blame are convenient ways of making meaning out of a bewildering situation. Anyone who disputes the blame narrative may receive more hostility than the opponents themselves, as in wartime when pacifists are more reviled than the enemy.

Racism and misogyny are devastatingly real in this country, but to blame bigotry and sexism for voters’ repudiation of the Establishment is to deny the validity of their deep sense of betrayal and alienation. The vast majority of Trump voters were expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the system in the way most readily available to them. (See herehereherehere) Millions of Obama voters voted for Trump (six states who went for Obama twice switched to Trump). Did they suddenly become racists in the last four years? The blame-the-racists (the fools, the yokels…) narrative generates a clear demarcation between good (us) and evil (them), but it does violence to the truth. It also obscures an important root of racism – anger displaced away from an oppressive system and its elites and onto other victims of that system. Finally, it employs the same dehumanization of the other that is the essence of racism and the precondition for war. Such is the cost of preserving a dying story. That is one reason why paroxysms of violence so often accompany a culture-defining story’s demise.

The dissolution of the old order that is now officially in progress is going to intensify. That presents a tremendous opportunity and danger, because when normal falls apart the ensuing vacuum draws in formerly unthinkable ideas from the margins. Unthinkable ideas range from rounding up the Muslims in concentration camps, to dismantling the military-industrial complex and closing down overseas military bases. They range from nationwide stop-and-frisk to replacing criminal punishment with restorative justice. Anything becomes possible with the collapse of dominant institutions. When the animating force behind these new ideas is hate or fear, all manner of fascistic and totalitarian nightmares can ensue, whether enacted by existing powers or those that arise in revolution against them. Continue reading

Has the nation-state become obsolete?

29 Sep
Nation states cause some of our biggest problems, from civil war to climate inaction. Science suggests there are better ways to run a planet
Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none.
Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them.
And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new state in the Middle East. Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way.
Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it.
Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.
How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?
These are not normally scientific questions – but that is changing. Complexity theorists, social scientists and historians are addressing them using new techniques, and the answers are not always what you might expect. Far from timeless, the nation state is a recent phenomenon. And as complexity keeps rising, it is already mutating into novel political structures. Get set for neo-medievalism.

Peace Now! War is Not a Natural Disaster

3 Aug

Department of Peace

Over at 3 Quarks Daily my current post reproduces a section of a slender book I’ve put together with the help of Charlie Keil and Becky Liebman. The book collects some historical materials about efforts to create a department of peace in the federal government, starting with at 1793 essay by Benjamin Rush, one of our Founding Fathers: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States.” It includes accounts of legislative efforts in the 20th century and commentary by Charlie Keil and me. The book is entitled We Need a Department of Peace: Everybody’s Business; Nobody’s Job. It’s available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and eBook formats.

Below the peace symbol I’m including the Prologue, which is by Mary Liebman, an important activist from the 1970s. The book include other excerpts from the newsletters Liebman wrote for the Peace Act Advisory Council.

one of them old time good ones

War is not a Natural Disaster

The human race knows a lot about how to make war. We should: we’ve been doing it since Biblical times. Experts define “war” as any conflict in which the dead number more than 3,000 people. Below that number – by revolution, insurrection, armed exploration, native uprising, clan feud, violent strikes, lynching, riot, excessive partisanship of soccer fans, or plain personal murderousness – none of that counts until more than 3,000 people have been slaughtered. Then it gets in the record books as a war. Disregarding our barbarian ancestors, the Attilas and Genghis Khans for whom war was a way of life; overlooking two centuries of carnage in nine Crusades, and the Hundred year’s War, which occupied France and England for 115 years, just looking at the world since Columbus discovered America, we find that the world has been at peace less than half the time, and the wars are getting bigger and worse.

Out of this collective experience with war, we’ve learned how to do it. Homer left notes. We have the memoirs of generals and statesmen from Caesar down to modern times to guide us. There are textbooks to study. And almost everyone in government has served in the armed forces or some other war-connected duty. They understand it.

By contrast, what do any of us know about how to make peace? Nobody has ever done it. Until Hiroshima, few people talked very seriously about doing it. The Bomb changed things forever. We began to realize that no nation would ever again fight through to glorious victory. The celebrations, the cheering crowds in Times Square, the church bells ringing and the bands playing – those are sounds that belong to history. They will never be heard again at the end of any war, anywhere, by anybody. So while we are not better men than our ancestors, and maybe not much smarter, we are faced with the necessity of making peace – and nobody knows how.

Well, let’s start with what we do know. In any public undertaking, from building a dam to putting a man on the moon, we start by hiring somebody to be in charge. We give him an office, a staff, a desk, a typewriter, a telephone. We give him a budget. We say, “Begin.” It may come as something of a shock to realize that in this vast proliferating federal bureaucracy, there is no one in charge of peace. There is nobody who goes to an office in Washington and works 9-to-5 for peace, unhampered by any other consideration or responsibility. […]

War is not a natural disaster. It is a manmade disaster, directed and carried out by ordinary people, who are hired and paid by other ordinary people, to make war. It will stop when ordinary people decide that, whatever satisfactions and rewards war may have offered in the past, the risk is now too high and the return too low. If you are ready to invest in a new and exciting American enterprise, you can start by spending an hour telling your Congressman why you want a Department of Peace.

* * * * *

Mary Liebman published these words on the first two pages of the February 1973 issue of PAX, the newsletter for the Council for a Department of Peace (CODEP). It was a message she had been honing for two years and would continue for three more. We note that back then it was true, as she said, “almost everyone in government has served in the armed forces or some other war-connected duty.” That’s no longer true. Conscription ended in 1973 with the eventual result that most people in government are too young to have faced the military draft or to have friends and relatives who did.

Table of Contents

Prologue: War is not a Natural Disaster
Mary Liebman 2

What’s in this Pamphlet?
Bill Benzon 4

A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States
Benjamin Rush 6

Comments on Benjamin Rush’s Proposal
Bill Benzon 9

Why a Department of Peace?
Fredrick L. Schuman 12

Peace is Everybody’s Business; Nobody’s Job
Mary Liebman, Bill Benzon 29

Waging Peace
Charlie Keil 36

Resolution for a Department of Peace
Charlie Keil 42

Appendix: List of Selected Peace Organizations 44
About the Authors 46

Is the American Body Politic Crumbling?

5 May
The media has made a cottage industry out of analyzing the relationship between America’s crumbling infrastructure, outsourced jobs, stagnant wages, and evaporating middle class and the rise of anti-establishment presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Commentators are also tripping all over one another to expound daily on the ineffectual response of America’s political elite – characterized by either bewilderment or a dismissal of these anti-establishment candidates as minor hiccups in the otherwise smooth sailing of status-quo power arrangements. But the pundits are all missing the point: the Trump-Sanders phenomenon signals an American oligarchy on the brink of a civilization-threatening collapse.
The tragedy is that, despite what you hear on TV or read in the paper or online, this collapse was completely predictable. Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. Internal pressures and the sense of betrayal grow as desperation and despair multiply everywhere except at the top, but effective reform seems impossible because the system seems thoroughly rigged. In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends. If we are lucky, the public will mobilize behind honest leaders and effective reforms. If we are unlucky, either the establishment will continue to “respond ineffectively” until our economy collapses, or a fascist will take over and create conditions too horrific to contemplate.
Handwriting on the well:
Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate. Developed by British archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew in 1979, the following “Signs of Failing Times” have played out across time in 26 distinct societies ranging from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the collapse of the Soviet Union:
  1. Elite power and well-being increase and is manifested in displays of wealth;
  2. Elites become heavily focused on maintaining a monopoly on power inside the society; Laws become more advantageous to elites, and penalties for the larger public become more Draconian;
  3. The middle class evaporates;
  4. The “misery index” mushrooms, witnessed by increasing rates of homicide, suicide, illness, homelessness, and drug/alcohol abuse;
  5. Ecological disasters increase as short-term focus pushes ravenous exploitation of resources;
  6. There’s a resurgence of conservatism and fundamentalist religion as once golden theories are brought back to counter decay, but these are usually in a corrupted form that accelerates decline.
Prospects:
Today’s big challenge is twofold. First, we need to find a way to unite today’s many disjointed reform efforts into the coherent and effective reinvention we so desperately need. This unity will require solid science, compelling story, and positive dream. Secondly, since hierarchies are absolutely necessary for groups beyond a certain size, this time we must figure out how to create healthy hierarchical systems that effectively support the health and prosperity of the entire social, economic, and environmental system including everyone within. In short, our goal must be to figure out how to end oligarchy forever, not just create a new version of it. This is a topic I will take up in my next blog.

E. O. Wilson on preserving biodiversity

5 Mar

This week he publishes his 32nd book, Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, in which he argues that we must set aside half the earth a preserve for non-human life. Claudia Dreifus interviews him in The New York Times:

Q. Why publish this book now?

A. Because a lifetime of research has magnified my perception that we are in a crisis with reference to the living part of the environment.We now have enough measurements of extinction rates and the likely rate in the future to know that it is approaching a thousand times the baseline of what existed before humanity came along.

Reading your book, one senses you felt a great urgency to write it?

The urgency was twofold. First, it’s only been within the last decade that a full picture of the crisis in biodiversity has emerged. The second factor was my age. I’m 86. I had a mild stroke a couple of years ago. I thought, “Say this now or never.”

And what I say is that to save biodiversity, we need to set aside about half the earth’s surface as a natural reserve. I’m not suggesting we have one hemisphere for humans and the other for the rest of life. I’m talking about allocating up to one half of the surface of the land and the sea as a preserve for remaining flora and fauna.

In a rapidly developing world, where would such a reserve be?

Large parts of nature are still intact — the Amazon region, the Congo Basin, New Guinea. There are also patches of the industrialized world where nature could be restored and strung together to create corridors for wildlife. In the oceans, we need to stop fishing in the open sea and let life there recover. The open sea is fished down to 2 percent of what it once was. If we halted those fisheries, marine life would increase rapidly. The oceans are part of that 50 percent.