Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Other Side of the Portal

The Other Side of the Portal

Perhaps, as noted writer and activist Arundhati Roy suggested recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us into “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” We know the one world we were in, although we each experience it differently. It seemed, for all of its flaws and problems, that it had a  predictability about it, like our notion of the arrival of the coming season. It feels like that predictability has evaporated and that certainty of nearly anything seems a fiction.

I don’t pretend to have a strong sense of what the ‘next world’ on the other side of this portal looks like. I waffle between visions of an unimaginable disaster and an opportunity to reimagine our future together on this singular planet we share. Even if we only focus on the two immediate challenges confronting us--health and economic collapse--it’s easy to see disaster internal and external to every nation. Even before COVID-19 the United Nations reported more than 70 million refugees fleeing their homes because of climate, political turmoil, violence, and economic austerity. Increasing predictions of food crises by the FAO as well as growing concerns over plastics pollution, decline of fisheries and coral reefs, etc., pile up in headlines.

In 2015, all 193 member nations of the United Nations, including the U.S., agreed to direct our attention to addressing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) by 2030: eliminate poverty, end hunger, provide access to  clean water and sanitation, good health, quality education, gender equity, affordable and clean energy, decent work, innovation and infrastructure, peace and justice, reduce inequality, responsible production and consumption, climate action, life on the land and below the water, and build strong partnerships.

Sustainable Development Goals launch in 2016

The SDGs, with targets and indicators, preceded the pandemic and offered a globally agreed upon framework and direction. The challenges were daunting then; they are absolutely essential now. A tiny virus has made our interdependence  on this singular planet palpable. The pandemic has shown us but two facets of the greater challenge the authors of the SDGs could foresee, if the ‘business as usual’ approach was to continue.

Health and economic prosperity must not be our only two concerns, especially in the long run. While  we certainly need to address them in ways that lift us all up, (in the spirit of the SDGs, “leave no one behind”), failure to address the many other issues, foremost being the unravelling of our underlying ecological systems, will hasten further global collapse. Our challenge is to see the connections between all 17 of those goals and work on solutions that address many at the same time. That’s clearly the intent behind proposals like the Green New Deal. While climate change has gotten the majority of our attention in recent years, the 2003 UN Millenium Ecosystem Assessment showed that many if not most ecological systems were already in decline. Meanwhile increasing income inequality both domestic and global causes rips in our social fabric. 

MNV/RL 1 Indicators of climate change on ecosystems and ...

The bottom line is that our growing human population cannot consume as too many of us have become accustomed to doing without further destabilizing those systems upon which we depend. There will be ongoing calls from every corner of society as quarantines lift for us to “grow our economy”, to consume more and more. But such calls fail to recognize the limits of nature.

No one is capable of figuring out how to steer us out of this potential route to the abyss alone. What we need is a way to unleash our collective knowledge and wisdom. This shouldn’t be a competition, to show some are superior to others. We need to recognize we all-- including those in the natural world--are in this together. The current economic system that has delivered us to this state of affairs is a human designed one. We can and must clearly reimagine a different economic system that builds into it more of the values we cherish – more democracy, more fairness, more cooperation.

Perhaps one of the few blessings this pandemic has brought us is a plethora of possibilities, one example being the decision to give everyone in the U.S. a “basic income”, unthinkable even months ago. But which possibilities will emerge, and which will we work build, community by community remains our choice.

A Universal Basic Income is Essential and Will Work -

 Arundhati Roy offers a clarion call at the end of her piece on the portal.

 “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Where Are We Headed?

This brief article “Tackle climate crisis and poverty with zeal of Covid-19 fight, scientists urge"  in today's Guardian is prescient and important I believe. It’s not the only or unique piece I’ve read with a similar perspective, but it illuminates that we are in a key opportunity moment. If we honestly believe that returning to business as usual once the current pandemic is past us is the way to go, then we will almost certainly continue on a path with increasing and accelerating challenges that will overwhelm our ability to survive them. If we feel a change is necessary then of course we need to come to some agreement, not just within the U.S., but globally, on what principles should drive our collective decision-making. 

What it comes down to, or what I think the vast majority of we humans want, is a "Good Society". Now where we differ is how we might define what a 'Good Society' looks like. In my last blog, already more than five months back I had written about sociologist Erik Olin Wright's last book before he succumbed to cancer, wherein he lays out four theses as summarized succinctly in the afterword written by Michael Burawoy. “First, another world is possible; second, it could improve conditions of human flourishing for most people; third, elements of this world are already being created; and finally, there are ways to move from here to there.” (p. 154) 

Wright directs us throughout the work to consider three essential cluster of values in both critiquing capitalism and in forming alternatives – 


In this new offering, Dumas despite his long tenure as an economist who can crunch numbers with the best of them, manages to open economics up beyond a plethora of numbers and graphs to the underlying purpose of an economy - to build a good society. While I’m not quite finished with the book, it is clear that Dumas believes that freedom, democracy, and personal development, and preserving the web of life are at the heart of what a good society must be built on. I found some of his more insightful passages around the notion of meaningful work, the role of attitude, meritocracy, and authority. 

The tone of the volume like that of the late Dr. Wright, is one of honest reflection, not didactic nor arrogant, but almost as if offering a gift. While I haven't completed the book yet, I see that he concludes by condensing his argument into six fundamental principles. These principles and idea align not only with the late Dr. Wright’s but they are alive and well and at the center of the work of a number of organizations here and abroad.

Democracy Collaborative                                  
Post Carbon Institute                                         
Transition Network                                             
Next System Project                                           

We already have a globally agreed upon approach to what a good society should look like with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 goals, 169 targets and 240 indicators that every member nation of the United Nations agreed to in 2015, will move us much closer to building that society, not just here in the U.S., but around the globe. That most of the American public is ignorant of this agreement, and that only a few institutions, businesses and communities are focusing on realizing them, does not mean they should be abandoned. Rather it's time to make them all of our work.

As the late songwriter, Phil Och's implored, these are Days of Decision.

We might also revisit and absorb the Declaration of Interdependence that the David Suzuki Foundation offered almost 30 years ago. The pandemic has made this all the more clear.

This we know

We are the earth, through the plants and animals that nourish us.
We are the rains and the oceans that flow through our veins.
We are the breath of the forests of the land, and the plants of the sea.
We are human animals, related to all other life as descendants of the firstborn cell.
We share with these kin a common history, written in our genes.
We share a common present, filled with uncertainty.
And we share a common future, as yet untold.
We humans are but one of thirty million species weaving the thin layer of life enveloping the world.
The stability of communities of living things depends upon this diversity.
Linked in that web, we are interconnected — using, cleansing, sharing and replenishing the fundamental elements of life.
Our home, planet Earth, is finite; all life shares its resources and the energy from the sun, and therefore has limits to growth.
For the first time, we have touched those limits.
When we compromise the air, the water, the soil and the variety of life, we steal from the endless future to serve the fleeting present.

This we believe

Humans have become so numerous and our tools so powerful that we have driven fellow creatures to extinction, dammed the great rivers, torn down ancient forests, poisoned the earth, rain and wind, and ripped holes in the sky.
Our science has brought pain as well as joy; our comfort is paid for by the suffering of millions.
We are learning from our mistakes, we are mourning our vanished kin, and we now build a new politics of hope.
We respect and uphold the absolute need for clean air, water and soil.
We see that economic activities that benefit the few while shrinking the inheritance of many are wrong.
And since environmental degradation erodes biological capital forever, full ecological and social cost must enter all equations of development.
We are one brief generation in the long march of time; the future is not ours to erase.
So where knowledge is limited, we will remember all those who will walk after us, and err on the side of caution.

This we resolve

All this that we know and believe must now become the foundation of the way we live.
At this turning point in our relationship with Earth, we work for an evolution: from dominance to partnership; from fragmentation to connection; from insecurity, to interdependence.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Beginnings and Endings

As I approach the conclusion of seven years of blogging under the moniker of Possibilitator, it is clear that my production has dropped precipitously. It has been clear since early this year that my ability to read and write at the earlier level is diminished. So as I looked back recently at some of those posts I was surprised at the numbers. If I actually publish this one it would be the 269th blog over that time, but only the 4th this year. The blogs have been viewed nearly 100,000 times by lord only knows whom, maybe Russian bots.


It was interesting to read the initial post that gave the blog its name – Possibilitator. In reading it this past week I can still say I am happy with what I proposed to do seven years ago. I was not dogmatic in always following the ideal expressed in that post, but largely I did. The hope has been to share some ideas of others that I encounter along the way that resonated with me at the time, and that I judged were of high enough quality to suggest they might be worth your time. Almost nothing I have referred to in this blog have been best sellers, or voices you might hear on broadcast tv, or read in local or national newspapers.   

What it shows me is that all over the world, there are many people thinking and acting to more clearly understand the world we share and to try to make it better, not just for themselves, but for everyone. Obviously, they don’t all propose the same analysis or solutions, but the intention is obvious and encouraging. In essence they share a view of possibilities. Nothing promised or guaranteed. Since my current reading is greatly reduced in amount and depth, there has been less to share. Pulling something out of that which I read has become a challenge, one that I am not winning. But there is at least one title recently that I would like to make more visible to others.

It was the last book authored by noted sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who passed away in January after a short battle with cancer. He had visions of a bigger book, but what he has packed into this short (less than 150 pages) tome is both insightful, cogent, and lovingly shared. In reading a few of the obituaries and memorials to him it affirms the tone of his book is one he lived.


How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century was meant to be a book in two parts as he describes in the preface.
“I wanted to write something that would be engaging to any reader interested in thinking  about these issues. But I also found it difficult to write about new arguments and themes without the usual academic practices of entering into debates with alternative views, documenting the sources of various ideas that contributed to my analysis, using footnotes to counter various objections that I knew some readers might have, and so on. My problem was basically that I was writing for two different audiences: people who would be interested in the issues but not the traditional academic elaborations, and readers who would feel the book was not intellectually rigorous without those elaborations.” (pp. xi-xii)

The cancer interfered with those plans, but luckily for us he managed to complete part one - for a general audience.In it, Wright lays out an analysis of the failures of capitalism and provides possible approaches to address them. He lays out four theses as summarized succinctly in the afterword written by Michael Burawoy. “First, another world is possible; second, it could improve conditions of human flourishing for most people; third, elements of this world are already being created; and finally, there are ways to move from here to there.” (p. 154) 

I won’t try to summarize the many good points in this remarkably cogent and erudite book. You should read it for yourself. Ask your library to order it. But Wright directs us throughout the work to consider three essential cluster of values in both critiquing capitalism and in forming alternatives – 


I have a growing realization that it’s at this basic level that our deeper conversations must go to move ahead as a single family on a finite planet. Wright helps us consider those fundamental values and their different meanings to different folks. Spending some time with him and his ideas through the pages of this book is a good tonic, regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum. His tone is a compassionate one, not an angry one. It makes it an easier read. That he dedicated his last days on earth to offer these ideas to us is quite a gift we should treasure and share. Hopefully a couple of readers of this blog will find their way to it and be glad they did.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Books Are Important!

I have come to appreciate this more as my ability to read long nonfiction has been fading. It's a key reason why this is only my third blog entry this year. When I began this blog in 2012 I was writing almost two a week. The purpose was to highlight thoughts, ideas, and possibilities I would find largely through the reading of an average 25-30 nonfiction books a year from cover to cover and probably an additional number where I would read significant sections.

When dealing with complex or wicked problems, tweets and bullet points only nibble at the edges of understanding the breadth and depth and inter-connectedness of the issues. A full length manuscript allows the author to make a deeper and more full developed case for their analysis.

Sound bites neglect nuance, context, history. In our hurry to summarize, including my own failed blogs we miss vital pieces of understanding. I was reminded of this again this week when the Trump administration announced it was going to cut food stamps for 3,000,000 of those living in a fragile state. I wrote about food insecurity about a year ago referencing an insightful book on the rise of foodbanks.

I think its time for me to start reading what I wrote over the past nearly eight years, more than 260 posts. Here's that one that I wrote almost a year to the day. I may be forwarding others from the vault in the months ahead.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Enough Already!!

This was originally published at The Sports Column.

‘Enough Already!’ With Big Sports Salaries

The elephant in the room is increasing income inequality—the outlandish incomes and escalating growth at the top of the income chain. Perhaps nowhere is that situation more evident than in athletics.

Last month we saw two record-breaking salaries. The Phillies’ Bryce Harper signed for $330,000,000. Mike Trout of the Angels signed for $430 million.

While it would be easy to focus attention only on the highflyers of professional sports, that’s far from the only place where we have a problem. In college sports, the coaches—not the players—are raking in an outrageous amount of cash.

For example, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski makes $8.9 million a year, and twenty-six other coaches make at least $2.5 million annually. That includes the 2019 Final Four coaches: Tom Izzo (Michigan State), $4.36 million; Chris Beard (Texas Tech), $3.17 million; Bruce Pearl (Auburn), $2.57 million; and Tony Bennett (Virginia), $2.43 million.

What makes the data especially problematic is that all of the Final Four coaches work at public universities. Worse yet, those huge salaries fit a larger narrative nationally: college coaches dominate the list of the highest income earners among public employees across the country.

How might we interpret those data through a broader lens? Let’s compare coaches’ salaries to the annual salaries earned by other public officials.

President of the United States: $400,000
U.S. Supreme Court Justice: $255,000
U.S. Senator: $174,000
U.S. House Representative: $174,000.
And what about high-ranking officials in the states represented in this year’s Final Four?
Virginia Governor: $175,000
Michigan Governor: $159,000
Texas Governor: $150,000
Alabama Governor: $119,950

In Michigan, the state’s governor would have to stay in office for nearly 28 years to match one year of Izzo’s salary. Alabama’s senior Senator Richard Shelby would need to serve 15 years to match Pearl’s annual paycheck.

The median U.S. household income is $61,372 per year. That means it would take about 40 years for an American household to earn what a high-end major college basketball coach makes in one year.
I know that coaching others is a noble profession. Most coaches love what they do, and getting paid for what they love to do is a gift. But nobody needs to make more in one year from doing what they love than what a typical family makes in a lifetime.

That’s what makes this situation outrageous! It might be different if we didn’t have nearly 40 million of our neighbors living in poverty, but we do. And if such inequality exists in public institutions, where in the world is the toe-hold to bring about systemic change?

Here’s a place to start. University trustees—especially those at public institutions—need to reassess institutional priorities, including putting the public good ahead of shallow gains associated with winning games and seeking athletic championships.

There are far more important ways to invest public resources—things like investing in the liberal arts, enhancing the financial status of part-time faculty, and improving salaries for hourly laborers who toil in custodial, food service, and other support areas across our universities.

The list of constructive things to do is long. The current situation—in public good terms—is indefensible.