Saturday, October 24, 2020

COVID-19 and Our Future


A week ago I was reading this daily blog From Poverty to Power, by,  Oxfam’s Duncan Green. Green is author of How Change Happens, a book I stumbled upon a few years ago. Since reading it I’ve been following his daily (5 times a week) blog how change is being made in the world, especially as relates to global development. Last week Green posted a blog post which he called “COVID-19 As a Watershed on How We Run the World. The subtitle was "Important Reflection from Rutger Bregman." Bregman is a Dutch historian. Green links us to a piece Bregman authored in May 2020 which begins:

"In a crisis, what was once unthinkable can suddenly become inevitable. We’re in the middle of the biggest societal shakeup since the second world war. And neoliberalism is gasping its last breath. So from higher taxes for the wealthy to more robust government, the time has come for ideas that seemed impossible just months ago."

This led me to look a little more at Bregman and to checking out his 2017 book Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World. What a fun book. I just got the book from the library this week and I'm almost half way through it (I’m not a fast reader). It is one of those books that helps stand things on end for a different perspective. Steven Pinker, writes:

 “If you’re bored with hackneyed debates, decades-old right-wing and left-wing cliches, you may enjoy the bold thinking, fresh ideas, lively prose, and evidenced based arguments of Utopias for Realists.

or from a review in The Independent, 

“ If energy, enthusiasm, and aphorism could make the world better, then Rutger Bregman’s book would do it. Even in translation from the Dutch, the writing is powerful and fluent...A boisterously good read.”

I think I am drawn to works like this because something foundational in me believes that a better world is possible, if only we could throw off the straight-jacket of our thoughts about what is possible. Regardless of the outcome of the election in just two weeks time, if we don’t believe a better world is possible, we probably will not find the energy to repair all that is broken. Bregman’s look at, for example how we think about poverty, alone is worth the price of your time.

Needless to say I’m only half way through the book, so I do not want to preclude where it ends up and what I might have to reconsider as I move through the pages Bregman has painted of possibilities. I just feel in my bones that it is this type of thinking, of recognizing the failures of our economic and social systems and then asking some better questions about what kind of world do we want to live in, that we might find both, some answers and some energy to redirect ourselves and our human family in that direction.

As Duncan Green notes more than once in his review of Bregman's essay, Bregman recently became a rather celebrated persona as a result of this clip of him speaking at the World Economic Forum in Devos. Perhaps that's another reason I started in on his book and in passing this along to you all.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Words Matter - a Possible Shift

"Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect to those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it's an individual or the earth itself; toward the historical record. It's also a kind of self-respect; there are many old cultures in which you are, as the saying goes, as good as your word." 
 Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays,) 2018, Haymarket Press.

I have been wondering for quite a while what would happen to our society if we changed the words that we use to describe law enforcement. Just as we have increasingly militarized our community police forces with products of the military-industrial complex, we have perhaps unwittingly weaponized their orientation to managing conflict. Note the distinctions in the definitions of these words from the American Heritage Dictionary:  

Police - "the governmental  department charged with the regulation and control of the affairs of a community, now chiefly the department established to maintain order, enforce the law, and prevent and detect crime." American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, 2002 (p.1077)

Peace Officer - "a law enforcement officer, such as a sheriff, who is responsible for maintaining civil peace." AHD (p. 1024)

In our current society, pundits, elected officials and citizens rarely use the word "peace" whether applied within communities or between nations. The bombardment of violence on television and in movies depicts, as commonplace, murder, war and terrorism, with courageous armed defenders who save the day. We are saturated with these visions, day in and day out. It may well be that the gun-carrying vigilantes in our midst feast at this trough of fear and macho heroism.

We have a President who believes that bullying is the best way to manage people and affairs.  Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler, directors of Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory, perhaps asked the right question recently in The Atlantic – “The First Step is Figuring Out What Police Are For.” Following the 50-year-old Kerner Commission and Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, as they suggest, may help us begin to answer that with real policy changes. But as Solnit and other great writers tell us, words matter. Imagine official vehicles in the community emblazoned not with POLICE but instead with PEACE OFFICER. How might that new moniker affect not only how police see themselves but also how their community sees them if their work is redefined to align with the word “peace”?

The emblems of force that pervade typical policing – guns, sticks, pepper spray, handcuffs and, more recently, armored vehicles, drones, acoustic grenades and other military hardware-- create their own fear and power of control. In the hands of a bully, these are weapons used to dominate the other. Distinguish that from individuals dressed in vests that exclaim ”PEACE” who are inserting themselves between potential adversaries and using conflict resolution techniques to tone down potentially escalating conflicts. These “peace officers’” first dictum is to prevent harm and then to resolve conflicts peacefully. In a recent discussion with strong supporters of gun ownership, one of the fallback arguments shared was their belief that government shouldn’t be the only faction with weapons. If we demilitarize the police, could we then deny open-carry adherents their rationale for publicly brandishing weapons?

We have tried increasing the availability of weapons as a way to reduce violence (fight fire with fire) and it hasn’t worked, certainly not in the long run. Nonviolence has better and longer lasting peace effects. That we don’t hear the word “peace” uttered much in the public sphere anymore is perhaps the fallout of the militarization of our society. Peace is not simply the absence of war. A sustainable peace, as noted by leading development economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, would offer all a sense of personal security, not just protection from violent actions but also access to the necessities of life – food, shelter, energy, access to health care and education, and the opportunity to develop the possibilities of a fulfilled life in a prospering and ecologically healthy society. As the late peace leader A.J. Muste noted, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Growing Pile

I'm slowly sifting through a small pile of books stacked to my left. Alternating between titles each morning, the pile grew recently with the addition of two new books to arrive from Powell's Books in Portland.  Here's the opening paragraph from the introduction of one of those.

"Plato  thought democracy a preface to tyranny. Aristotle was not much more sanguine. The founders of our republic were wary of it. John Adams always believed that democracies always end in suicide. James Madison believed that with luck democracy in America might last a century. Alex deTocqueville thought it would evolve into majority tyranny. English writer E.M. Forster could give it two cheers. H.L. Menken none at all, believing people incorrigibly stupid. Economist Joseph Schumpeter likewise thought voters became dumber when they entered the political arena. Robert Dahl, perhaps the greatest student of democracy in the twentieth century, described himself as a "pessimist" about its future. Winston Churchill captured our predicament in his oft quoted observation that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others ever tried. In short, democracy is always a bet that enough people will know enough, care enough,be tolerant enough, and informed enough to participate competently in the conduct of the public business. The United States, a representative democracy is not exempt fro the terms of the wager".  (David W. Orr) in Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People (2020, The New Press).

Democracy Unchained

This title is 400 pages of collected essays that emerged from a conference on the topic  that David Orr hosted at Oberlin in November 2017. Orr's introduction alone is worth the price of the book he and his three associate editors pulled together. But they have collected the thoughts of 38 distinguished scholars and leaders that I look forward to devouring soon.

In the other newest addition to the pile, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) (2018 Haymarket Press), Rebecca Solnit in her forward notes, 

" Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect to those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it's an individual or the earth itself; toward the historical record. It's also a kind of self-respect; there are many old cultures in which you are, as the saying does, as good as your word. Our Word Is Our Weapon was the title of the compilation of Zapatista  Subcomandante Marcos' writings. If your word is unreliable, junk, lies, disposable pitches, you're nothing -- a boy who cried wolf, a windbag, a cheat." 

They join the pile of the almost completed Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2015, Harper) and Ways to Go Beyond and Why They Work: Seven Spiritual Practices for a Scientific Age, by Rupert Sheldrake (2019, Monkfish Book Publishing Co.). Also in the pile are the half-way read Trading for Good: How Global Trade Can Be Made to Serve People not Money by Christian Felber (2019, Zed Books) and Michael Nagler's, The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Nature (2020, Berrett-Koehler).

It's hard to say what they all have in common other that resting in the same space adjacent to my favorite reading spot. Certainly they each have called to me to the point of sharing considerable time in their company of ideas. Harari's work is a work that is truly of mind boggling scope. His writing style is quite airy making his vast leaps to connect elements like flying in open air plane. While I don't concur with all the connections he makes in this erudite effort, he perks up the readers attention to connections not usually considered. Everyone I know who has read it has been duly impressed. The scope is rarely something most of us would ever contemplate. That exercise alone makes the read worthwhile.


Rupert Sheldrake is a British biologist, author of more than ninety technical papers and fourteen books.  He has been driven to seek understanding regarding the connections between science and deep consciousness and/or spirituality. In this tome he looks at these connections through seven practices he associates with spirituality - "Spiritual Side of Sports"; "Learning from Animals"; "Fasting"; "Cannabis, Psychedelics, and Spiritual Openings"; "Powers of Prayer";  "Holy Days and Festivals"; and "Cultivating Good Habits, Avoiding Bad Habits, and Being Kind". In each of these he examines what the history and science tell while offering tips on how one might integrate aspects of each into our daily lives regardless of any faith tradition.

Book cover for Ways to Go Beyond and Why They Work

Michael Nagler has been one of the leaders in nonviolence education for many decades. We were fortunate to host him once at MSU a couple of decades back. For someone like myself who has read and studied nonviolence, there isn't much new yet to me, but it really reaffirms its practical benefits and possibilities. [Remember I'm only half-way through so I expect more to come]. Given the activism of Black Lives Matter and Sunrise Movement in recent days and months this work is timely in what it can teach all of us wanting to see change in our world.

I've written about Christian Felber a number of times, whose book Change Everything was one of the very best economics book I've read in recent years. Felber sets his sights in this book on how to create a system of trade that would make the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals more likely. You don't have to be a number cruncher to enjoy and appreciate this look at the dismal science. Like he did in his earlier work, Felber critiques the dominant global trade policies, but then spends an equal time, if not more [I'm only a little past half-way point] outlining innovative policy options. These are the kinds of ideas we need to get to our policy makers in Washington.

Trading for Good

Exposure to the ideas in these collected pages will no doubt shift how I think, and possibly act in ways I can't even imagine. In my more facile moments I might be better able to paint how the ideas in these books interact and nudge us towards some more just, secure, and happy future. That ground doesn't feel very fertile at the moment, but who knows if in the remaining pages, especially of the newly arrived titles, some spark of fresh possibility might appear.

One possibly overlooked connection between these works besides their proximity to my reading space is the publishers. 

"The New Press is a nonprofit public interest publisher. New Press books and authors play a crucial role in sparking conversations about the key political and social issues of our day."

"Haymarket Books is a nonprofit, progressive book  distributor and publisher, a project of the Center  for Economic Research and Social Change. We believe that activists need to take ideas, history, and politics into the many struggles for social justice today."

"Berrett-Koehler is an independent publisher dedicated to an ambitious mission: connecting people and ideas to create a world that works for all. It is the first book publishing company to be both a B corporation(a rigorous certification) and a benefit corporation, which together require us to adhere to highest standards for corporate, social, and environmental performance."

"Zed Books is a platform for marginalized voices across the globe. It is the world's largest publishing collective and world leading example of alternative, non-hierarchical practice."

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.