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The Law of the Land

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A friend of mine in Texas had a hobby of doing grave rubbings. She favored old, out-of-the-way cemeteries, the final resting places of the notably not rich and famous. She would place a large piece of thin paper over the tombstone and rub it with charcoal to take an impression. My favorite was one that was roughly chiseled, obviously home made. The epitaph said simply, “I told you I was sick.”

That’s what the Earth is telling us.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may have finally sounded alarms loud enough for the country to hear. The message is crystal clear. When we fight nature, we lose. The disconnect between the state of nature and the nature of the state is producing a state of emergency. The first homeland security comes from environmental security. The law of the land must become the law of our land.

Katrina also unmasked the corrosive injustice that poisons us as surely as the pollution unleashed by the storm. It’s an open secret that poor people and people of color are consigned to live amid the worst environmental hazards of industrial civilization. As E.L. Doctorow said, “We have two types of citizenship in the United States: common and preferred.”

While an inept, cynical government staged damage-control press conferences, a new Underground Railroad provided real damage control. A fiercely compassionate person-to-person daisy chain surged with the loving determination of friends and relations, and the kindness of strangers. It’s largely the American people and local heroes who salvaged the disastrous government response from utter disaster.

This extraordinary public response signified a larger trend. Even as our institutions are failing, people of good will everywhere are rising in waves of caring, conscience and kindness. Our true social security is woven in community.

But the choice we face is stark: an Age of Extinctions or an Age of Restoration. Which do we choose?

The mission is daunting. Katrina and Rita are just coming attractions for the new world disorder. The violence of these storms should come as no surprise. Over the past twenty years, the force and duration of hurricanes have doubled as a result of global warming. There is a certain poetic justice that these ill winds souped up on fossil fuels struck right at the matrix of the petrochemical industry.

Meanwhile, half a world away, American troops fight for more oil in a hopeless war that only deepens our dependency and binds our ties to anti-democratic regimes. No wonder they call oil the “devil’s tears.”

For once, we got some real reality TV. We saw the poorest people, dazed and traumatized, trapped on the roofs of their flooded lives. These images are familiar to us from impoverished nations: refugee camps, broken safety nets, indifferent, incompetent governments.

When we see these images from what we politely call lesser developed countries, we know what it means. It means people live with the daily hardship of collapsed infrastructures. They live with environmental degradation. They are resigned to inequality as a way of life. The people struggle under corrupt ruling elites of big corporations, crony politicians and the military. Citizens face government secrecy, contempt for the rule of law, the loss of civil and human rights, and rigged elections. Families live with the austerity and instability endemic to an insolvent government indentured to global finance capital.

In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: “As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances there is a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such a twilight that we must be aware of the change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

These once faraway images have now tumbled off our TV screens and onto our streets. History teaches us that the demise of empires can come startlingly fast. No, we are not immune.

Behind this disorder, however, is a purposeful ideology: the dismantling of the public trust for private profit. In fact, the real issue has never been about smaller government. It’s about whose interests government serves. The ethic: You’re on your own. The vision: Replace FEMA with Wal-Mart. The mission: the care and feeding of corporations. The canvas: globalization. The strategy: “economic shock treatment.”

The desperation and fear created by catastrophes such as political upheavals, wars and natural disasters provide perfect political cover for radical social and economic engineering. It presents itself as the conflation of democracy with so-called “free trade.” In the former Soviet Union after the collapse, this experiment resulted in an authoritarian oligarchy. In Iraq, as journalist Naomi Klein put it, the neo-conservative promise of a free-market utopia unbound transmogrified into a corporate dystopia “where going to a simple business meeting can get you lynched, burned alive or beheaded.”

The Asian tsunami provided the next opportunity. The relief aid from the World Bank and IMF came not as grants but as loans. It’s not helping the recovery of the 80 percent of victims who comprise small fishing communities. Instead it’s supporting the expansion of industrial fish farms and the Club Med tourism sector.

Naomi Klein calls it “disaster capitalism.” It’s no aberration. In 2004, the White House created within the State Department a new office that drew up elaborate “post-conflict” privatization plans for up to twenty-five countries – nations that are not yet in conflict.

Now disaster capitalism has come home to the Gulf Coast. This is the world the people of the majority world call the Fourth World War.

But the reality on the ground is that the wheels are coming off the globalized race to loot the commons. Simultaneously, a uniquely diverse and pervasive resistance is arising around the world. “The globalization of dissent,” Arundhati Roy calls it. Improbably, it first pierced the myth of globalization’s inevitability in Mexico on New Year’s Day, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect.

On that day in Chiapas, armed with a few AK-47’s and fake wooden rifles, a ragtag army composed mostly of Mayan Indians wearing ski masks declared autonomous zones and burned land records. Calling NAFTA a “death sentence,” some of the world’s most ancient indigenous survivors rejected the privatization policy that was about to extinguish even their precarious threadbare subsistence and nominal rights. These Zapatistas challenged the authority of national government officials, whom they called globalization’s local “company managers.”

Their message was simple: Ya Basta: Enough is enough. They refused to be history. They said they took up weapons only to be heard. They wore masks to be seen. They were willing to die to defend their lands, culture and traditions. They chose dignity over oblivion.

Fourteen days after the armed struggle began, the rebels declared a ceasefire. They said their intention was never to replace one ruling power with another. They declined to form a political party. Mexican civil society arose spontaneously and called adamantly for peace from both sides, and for justice. The Zapatistas seized the moment to transform guerrilla war into guerrilla theater. The word became their weapon. Their words resonated in perfect pitch with a nascent global democracy movement.

They identified themselves with a movement of “one no and many yeses.” The “no” was to the concentration of wealth and the distribution of poverty, to the whole world becoming one company town. “In the world we want,” they said, “everyone fits. In the world we want, many worlds fit. A world capable of containing all the worlds. The struggle has many paths and it has but one destiny: To be one with all the colors which clothe the earth.”

“The path we have chosen,” they said, “is just one, not the only one. We invite people to do the same, not to rise up in arms, but to struggle for a truly free and democratic government that can fulfill the aspirations of each and every person.”

Be realistic: Demand the impossible, the saying goes. Impossibly, the Zapatista uprising helped topple Mexico’s corrupt seventy-five-year single-party rule. It placed the rights of the indigenous at the center of Mexican politics for the first time since the Conquest 500 years ago. As Zapatista spokesman and military leader Subcommandante Marcos said, “It is not necessary to conquer the world. It is sufficient to make it new.”

The Rand Institute warned that in this new kind of war - netwar, the war of the network - “The war of the flea can quickly turn into the war of the swarm.” That swarm has magnified into the “other superpower,” quite likely the biggest movement in the history of the world. Paul Hawken calls it “humanity’s immune response to resist and heal political corruption, economic disease and ecological loss.” It is a quest for justice, for freedom, for dignity. It is a quest for human rights and the rights of nature.

As Naomi Klein wrote, “This is a global call to revolution that tells you not to wait for the revolution, only to stand where you stand, to fight with your own weapon – a video cam, words, ideas, hope. Yes, you can try this at home.”

What we the American people need, what the land needs and what the world needs is to reclaim democratic governance and restore the public trust. We have a lot of work to do. We need to reinvent our infrastructure to harmonize with nature’s infrastructure. We need to align business with biology. We need fairness and equity and good jobs. As Paul Hawken wrote, “If we are to save what is wild, what is irreplaceable and majestic in nature, then ironically we will have to turn to each other and take care of all the human beings here on earth. There is no boundary that will protect an environment from a suffering humanity.”

As those holding power well know, the creation of wealth is largely dependent on public policy and the public purse. We must change public policy to serve the common good. Imagine creating a Green Deal, a green public works program to jump-start the restoration. We can launch it just by shifting the current existing subsidies to speed the transition to renewable energy, ecological agriculture, and a robust public health system based on wellness, disease prevention and the restoration of the ecosystems on which all health depends.

With a Green Deal, we can reboot a flawed domestic economy that the IMF now warns is heading for a “wrenching correction.” We can reverse what Warren Buffet calls our “sharecropper society.” We can attend immediately to our crumbling, misbegotten infrastructure, to which the American Society of Civil Engineers just gave a near failing grade of “D.”

By doing all this, we’ll dramatically enhance our national and environmental security. We’ll catalyze a vast jobs-creation program of meaningful, living-wage work. We’ll spur countless new businesses and technological innovations that can be disseminated worldwide to spread the wealth.

These kinds of favorable government policies have made Germany and Japan the world leaders in wind and solar energy. Toyota and Nissan are posting huge profits while Ford and GM credit ratings have sunk to junk-bond status. Global business is already moving steadily into clean technology investments, which are expanding exponentially. Ironically, a growing sector of the US business community is chafing at our own government’s retrograde policies while it watches other countries seize the lead.

What does restoration look like? The South African government started a series of programs in 1995. After the Working for Water program hired unemployed people to clear thirsty alien trees from important watersheds, rivers began to run again that had been dry for forty years. Working for Wetlands is restoring marshes to purify polluted water. Working on Fire sends crews to prevent and control wildfires. Working for Woodlands is reforesting subtropical thickets to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and support biodiversity. These programs serve as job training, and often hire the poorest of the poor. THIS is what restoration looks like.

As David Suzuki says, “The real bottom line is the biological bottom line. We are animals who live within the exquisite confines of the air, water and land where life exists. It’s the biosphere that is the source of everything that matters to us including the economy.” This biological bottom line offers us the happy marriage of economy and ecology. In great measure, solutions are already present.

Across the country, communities, cities and states are rising up with one “no” and many “yeses.” States are voluntarily banding together to cut carbon emissions, install renewable energy sources, and reduce and eliminate toxic chemicals. One hundred thirty-two mayors came together this summer to share practical urban solutions to mitigate global warming at the local level, and reinvent their infrastructures. Over 395 communities across the political spectrum have passed resolutions denying the Patriot Act’s intrusion on civil liberties, and 280 more are developing them. These are not left-right issues. This is about our common survival, our quality of life, our freedom. This is about the future of our grandchildren, and the land that will care for them. This is about what we love. As Pete Seeger said “The world is going to be saved by people saving their own homes.”

This movement, this new superpower, has been called the “dreaming revolution.” That’s what we’re here to do together: re-imagine the world. We’re dreaming a world where many worlds can fit. It’s at once a new dream and an ancient dream.

The Lakota prayer says it with simple elegance: “All my relations.” We’re learning the hard way that all life is connected, that we are all connected, that we are all related. The scientists are confirming what the poets and mystics have known all along: that we are all one. As Leslie Gray, the Native American psychologist and teacher, puts it, “In a universe of beings intimately related, the biosphere is our family, and that family has family values. The family values of this American land are gratitude – respect for nature’s cycles – the sacred – harmony – and above all, reciprocity – don’t take something without giving something back. What needs to happen is a return to these traditional American values.”

We come together to give thanks, to celebrate, to walk in beauty. What we hold sacred is life itself. It’s time for the law of the land to return as the law of our land.

Kenny Ausubel
 October 14, 2005

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