Monday, April 21, 2014

Earth Day and Divestment

I sense a pulse of momentum finally detectable in the information vortex regarding divestment from fossil fuels. Just in the past two weeks we have the following announcements:


  •  British Medical Journal's editorial calling for divestment
 Building on its recent update of the physical science of global warming,1 the IPCC’s new report should leave the world in no doubt about the scale and immediacy of the threat to human survival, health, and wellbeing...
Our University invests in the fossil fuel industry: this is for us the central issue.  We now know that fossil fuels cause climate change of unprecedented destructive potential.  We also know that many in this industry spend large sums of money to mislead the public, deny climate science, control legislation and regulation, and suppress alternative energy sources.

  • New terminology is emerging to discuss "stranded assets" as this recent 81 page paper from Oxford University analyzes the potential fallout for fossil fuel companies that cannot use the assets now on their books. Or the recent analysis by the  Carbon Tracker Initiative

 Carbon Tracker Initiative

Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets.

Whether or how soon these fledgling efforts lead to a similar success as the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa will depend on whether the actions can move to the "third wave" of action as suggested by the Oxford University report on Stranded Assets noted above.

      Divestment campaigns typically evolve over three waves, with examples drawn from the tobacco and South African experiences...Despite its relatively short history, the fossil fuel campaign can be said to entering the second wave of divestment. (pp.10-11)

Heck even retiring librarians/sustainability directors have been known to try to cajole their university's president and provost into divesting.

 Photo taken at MSU faculty retirement  luncheon, April 8, 2014. Dr. June Youatt, Acting Provost, the Possibilitator, and MSU President Lou Anna Simon. (Their photo here is not to be construed as showing support for divestment of fossil fuels from the university's endowment. Although my re-purposed library catalog card hanging around my neck does indeed represent my position.)

I keep hoping that our university which was one of the first to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1978, will once again take a leadership role in moving the world away from the threatening devastation from climate change.

          Between January 1979 and January 1980, Michigan State sold $8.5 million of stock in thirteen companies. Far from being costly, the transactions actually made money for the university and diversified its portfolio. MSU did, however, experience a punitive decline in corporate donations in subsequent years, especially from Michigan-based Dow Chemical, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, all of whom operated in South Africa.

There are so many positive investment opportunities that would be good for the world and those we share it with, that we should redirect those funds towards. And based upon the increasing reports about the financial risks in staying invested in fossil fuels, one would think even conservative financial planners will steer away from those risks and not be the last one's holding stranded assets.

But thinking of this only as a FINANCIAL issue misses the more fundamental problem with our finance mindset. Harvard's president did recently agree to become the first major university in the U.S. to sign the UN's Principles for Responsible Investment for their endowment, the largest in the U.S. 
UNEP Finance Initiative

So perhaps a close review of those principles will have them deciding to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in triple bottom line firms soon. It's the drive to unlimited economic growth on a finite planet that got us into this mess. Universities should be places where that madness is challenged. Anyone can be a leader and as the MSU experience with apartheid clearly demonstrates, the decision-makers will need to hear from the members of their community. Time for WAVE III.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Expand the Us to Include the Them

The title of this blog comes from the closing chapter of Douglas Fry's recent opus, War, Peace and Human Nature. This crucial sentiment is captured magnificently in this short video from the Cleveland Clinic, that me beloved wife shared with me this week, after she viewed it as part of some volunteer training she received.

 Cover for 
War, Peace, and Human Nature

Fry shares this important reflection from the late Wangari Maathai, that

     Sometimes the inspiration to act arrives as a spark; sometimes it takes the form of a process. Whether one is drawn into action through a sudden rush of inspiration, or through the slow dawning of a realization that something needs to change, I would argue that it all comes from the Source. But it's nonetheless essential to cultivate an attitude that allows you to take advantage of that awakening. This entails keeping your mind, eyes, and ears open, so that when an idea arrives you'll be ready for it. (cited in Fry p.550)

 As mentioned in a recent post, a book generously shared with me recently, has absorb some of my attention over the past ten days. Completing it this morning I can only describe the experience as one that had me squirming from the uncomfortable confrontation with beliefs that have been challenged and laid bare. In War No More: The Case for Abolition, author/activist David Swanson takes no prisoners. Over four aptly titled chapters: 1) War Can Be Ended; 2) War Should Be Ended; 3) War is Not Going to End on Its Own; and 4) We Have to End War, Swanson passionately confronts most challenges thrown at those might hold that such an ambitious aspiration is simply tilting at windmills.

He offers multiple approaches to push towards that end, but if there is one foundational one that supports all the others is that simply one must believe war can be ended. The forces that prevent us from considering such a thought are substantial as he notes for example in citing  a recent book by Bill Bigelow in a book called Teaching About the Wars:

      Now as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, our wars in the Middle East have moved from the front pages of our newspapers to the inside of our textbooks. The huge corporations that produce these texts have no interest in nurturing the kind of critical thought that might generate questions about today's vast inequalities of wealth and power --or, for that matter, about the interventionist policies of our government. Exhibit A is Holt McDougal;s Modern World History on the U.S. war with Iraq, which might as well have been written by Pentagon propagandists. Maybe it was. In an imitation of Fox News, the very first sentence of the Iraq war section mentions the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein side by side. The book presents the march to invasion as reasonable an inevitable, while acknowledging: 'Some countries, France and Germany, called for letting inspectors continue searching for weapons.' That's the only hint of any opposition to war, despite the fact that there was enormous popular opposition to the war, culminating on February 15, 2003 the date which saw millions of people around the world demand the the United States not invade Iraq - if you're keeping track, this was the largest protest in human history according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

He quotes Bigelow further. And actually it was his earlier reference to the work of Fry that led me to his work. Swanson is no partisan hack. He dresses down Obama as well as Bush, Truman as well as Reagan and Clinton. As uncomfortable as it was, this book should be widely read and discussed. I now see why the givers of copies of this book bought so many copies to share. Now if we could only share our stored energies to make the end of war the call of our generation. Then maybe we might be honored by future generations as an honorable one.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Killing Must Stop

     "As we put out resources and energy into war we lose out in other areas: education, parks, vacations, retirements. We have the best military, and the best prisons, but trail far behind in everything from schools to healthcare to internet and phone systems." (p.105)

So reads, War No More: The Case for Abolition by David Swanson. This was gift received from a fellow board member at our last Peace Education Center board meeting (Thanks Kate and Raoul!!). Shortly after reading this page this morning I opened the Sunday paper (Lansing State Journal)  to see a chart that showed where the US ranks among OECD nations in a number of areas, which confirmed Swanson's statement.

Nonkilling Global Political Science

As I come down the homestretch of reading political science Prof. Emeritus Glenn Paige's, Nonkilling Political Science, I find myself astounded at the absence of any serious consideration of his thesis, which is briefly shared in the short interview with him from 2009.

Last night, Ellen and I watched the PBS American Masters, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song and were so deeply moved by his life, one dedicated to justice peace, community, and song. Seeger, epitomized, by his life's decisions how to confront the impossible, whether it was the House UnAmerican Activities Committee that blacklisted him, or the cleanup of the Hudson River. His willingness to suffer the abuse for standing by his convictions, evidenced by the powerful singing of "Waist Deep  in the Big Muddy" during the Vietnam War on the Smothers' Brothers TV show. He made change possible. Oh, to emulate such a good soul.

Also on the table of books I'm reading includes one added this week, Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? by Ajahn Brahm. This light-hearted but deeply profound collection of short pearls of wisdom by a Buddhist abbot, called the 'Seinfeld of Dharma', covered the concept of 'fear' in the pages read this morning

  He points out that fear is future based. We worry about what MIGHT happen, not necessarily what will happen, because we can't predict the future. Swanson shows how this same fear drives much of our war activity. It seems likely then that reading Brahm might offer some ways to see both Paige's and Swanson's goals of ending killing and war. There can be no doubt that our fears drive us to waste lives, resources, time and so much more preparing to kill others. Our nation''s defense ( largely used offensively) budget and our university research labs designing more distant ways to kill those we have never met offer telling examples.

Seeger's ability to bring people together through song was brought home not just by all the great footage of him over 70 years of singing and activism, but perhaps most powerfully by one of the last stories told in the 90 minute biography, about an angry Vietnam Vet who came to a concert of his with plans to kill him, but whom after the concert had a sea change of heart.

So as all these sources made abundantly clear to me - if we can't end war and killing we will never stop climate change or the resulting ecological unraveling or the increasing inequality that threaten our existence as a species on this earth. As Paige describes in the interview above, it seems likely that if we could end the killing we would likely solve most of the other issues before us. There is little recognition, let alone emphasis on how important this change of mindset is for those calling for sustainability. If we could abolish slavery, we can abolish war. Maybe we've been starting in the wrong place. These gents offer us some refreshing possibilities. The future is ours to create. Nonkilling is as good as any place to start. War No More. All in favor? Let your voice be heard.

A special plea to my fellow baby-boomers - what could be a higher calling than to use our last years working to make the dream of no more war a reality. any of these writings or videos may nudge us towards that possibility. Feed your better wolf...

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Great Unraveling and an Antidote

(CNN) -- When Congressman Paul Ryan opined recently that there was a "real culture problem" in poor communities, "in our inner cities in particular," and that this culture was behind some of the country's economic troubles, he didn't realize how half right he was.

People are continuing to debate fiercely what Ryan said and whether he meant to propagate racially coded explanations of poverty's roots. But put that aside for a moment. Here's what he was right about: There is indeed a culture in America that is pathological and now threatens our social fabric. It's not the culture of poverty, though. It's the culture of wealth.

 Citizen University

So begins Eric Liu's opinion piece "How America is Rigged for the Rich" this week on CNN. Liu is the founder of Citizen University and author of several books, including Gardens of Democracy. In this short piece Liu goes on to say,
             When the richest 400 families in America have more wealth than the bottom 155 million        Americans combined, the danger to the republic is far more clear and present than that posed by the "welfare queens" of lore or by anecdotes of shiftless inner-city men.

In another article that found its way into my line of vision this week, Evolution Institute Vice President  and professor of biology and anthropology, Peter Turchin, shares his analysis of forces at work in earlier societies unraveling.


 He cites some examples that turned earlier marches to the cliff around.

            In some cases, however, societies come through relatively unscathed, by adopting a series of judicious reforms, initiated by elites who understand that we are all in this boat together. This is precisely what happened in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Several legislative initiatives, which created the framework for cooperative relations among labor, employers and the government, were introduced during the Progressive Era and cemented in the New Deal. 

          By introducing the Great Compression, these policies benefited society as a whole. They enabled it to overcome the challenges of the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and to achieve the postwar prosperity. Whether we can follow such a trajectory again is largely up to our political and economic leaders. It will depend on all of us, rich and poor alike, recognizing the real dangers and acting to address them.

While I found each of these pieces informative and thoughtful, the underlying frame offered in Mohammed Mesbahi's "Commercialization: The Antithesis of Sharing" is the more radical, both in the sense of getting at the "roots" and in what it has us ask of  ourselves.


       The danger is not commercialization per se but our constant identification with its inner and outer manifestation, in which humanity’s intelligence is led in the opposite direction from nature and spiritual evolution. What is evil, anyway, if not our identification with it?

Mesbahi, who founded Share the World's Resources, goes on to elaborate. 

         We all understand what sharing means on a personal level, as everybody shares within their homes and communities. So why do so few people understand the need to implement the principle of sharing on a national and worldwide level? A large part of the answer to this question can be simply put: it is because the foundations of our society have been constructed in such a way that market forces have become loose. We have developed complex economic and political systems that are increasingly geared towards profit and commercialization: the tax structures, the large corporations, the countless legal regulations that are created to defend private interests - all of this creates a highly complicated and divisive society. Nobody understands the system in the end, but the system understands precisely how to manipulate us for its own purposes. And in such a complex society, with so many laws and policies created to facilitate commercialization, the principle of sharing is almost non-existent.

          As long as we live in a society that is driven by profit and commercialization, the principle of sharing will always be eclipsed. In every sphere of human activity it can be observed that when commercialization moves in, sharing moves out. The same reality also pertains to the environment: when commercialization moves in, nature moves out. Indeed when commercialization moves in it can be so invasive, so destructive, that it can break apart families. It can break apart traditions and national identities, as we have seen with many free trade agreements and the economic integration of Europe. Wherever these forces are unleashed it can lead to a widening gulf between rich and poor, a loss of community solidarity and a contagion of spiritual turmoil, and a diversion of man’s God-given intelligence in the opposite direction of social progress and evolution. And if commercialization is left to blindly guide a society for a long enough period of time, it can even compromise human life.

The signs are everywhere that we are unraveling not only the life-support systems we depend on, but the social fabric that might hold us together - the IPCC report from last week just being one recent piece of evidence. The increasing concentration of wealth and power just being another. And as  one can deduce from reading the pieces cited above they are fundamentally because our social myopia has us believe that we are free and independent from each other and the planet that sustains us. The boundaries of difference that we erect - political, class, ethnicity, religion are mere fictions. When we can both understand that reality and act in accordance with it, embracing Meshabi's call for sharing, maybe we can forestall the unraveling and enjoy our connectedness with nature and all those we are in kinship with.

Monday, April 7, 2014

If For No Other Reason

Maybe it was the recent mailing that shows Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes,

FY2015 Pie Chart Flyer

or maybe it was a the gift of a little book, War No More: The Case for Abolition at last week's Peace Education Center board meeting,

or maybe it was reading a short piece on the Israeli prime minister's recent statement that it was the Palestinian Authority's decision to seek involvement in various UN activities including the Geneva Conventions that was undermining peace discussions, or maybe it was the shooting at Ft. Hood. I don't know what specifically triggered this blog today, but surely all these things contributed. As author David Swanson makes so clear, the possibility of abolishing war begins with believing it is possible. It was the same necessary first step in ridding the world of slavery.

Or maybe it was Rebecca Solnit's piece in Today's Guardian, Call Climate Change What It Is: Violence.

Yes as the War Resisters' League pie chart above makes abundantly clear, the forces for war and violence are aligned against those who believe in its abolition. President Eisenhower's parting alarm about the military-industrial-complex has come to pass. Forty-five percent of our taxes are spent for military efforts. We have bases and soldiers, and increasingly private profit contractors housed all over the world.

Abolishing war and violence is possible, if we think it is possible. David Swanson clearly thinks it is and marshalls a strong case for its abolition. Like slavery, those of us in the senior age category are not likely to see its complete abolition in our remaining years, but how can we not work with everything we have to make it more likely that our children or grandchildren will know it and enjoy it?

Cynicism and pragmatism are convenient and lazy barriers to change. Like the battle we have with growing greenhouse gas releases we know the first step is halting investments in fossil fuel companies. A similar approach is called for divesting from military investments. If we were to reduce our investments in militarism, we could reinvest in peacebuilding as evidenced in this legislation before Congress. Let's push forward the possibility, using Milton Friedman's sage advice...


"Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Milton Friedman. Capitalism and Freedom, p.2 (cited in Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill, Enough is Enough, 2013).

Our children and grandchildren deserve our best efforts....