Monday, November 28, 2016

Maelstrom on Steroids

I know I am not the only recipient of countless takes on the U.S. election. Everywhere I turn there is a new attempt to either assess how it happened or that predicts what will follow. I'm pretty convinced that no one understands either very completely. Yet that doesn't mean that we should not glimpse at them and in so doing add additional perspective to our own emergent understanding of the cause and effect.

At some point we each have to make sense of it and act with some measure of congruence with that understanding. Those choices we make and act upon do matter. Even the choices where we do nothing different, as if it is 'much ado about nothing'. Life goes on, right! Besides, there is nothing any one can do against the huge forces of the systems - economic, social, environmental, political, etc. This is the malaise of dis-empowering our young through an education system that largely confines thinking to True/False or three or four multiple choices. We teach civics as something out there, that government does, not a lifelong calling of citizenship to build community. 

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule - Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, Ralph Nader, Wangari Maathai - that break free of the constraints of formal education to find their voice and to link it to a lifetime of action for community betterment. This is the crossroads we find ourselves facing. I believe that our thinking is generally too narrowly construed and thus we lose potential allies necessary to build more forceful presence both against darker forces and for progressive possibilities that we have yet to achieve.

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With all the swirling possibilities of what we might be facing, especially with the recent US election [for a more challenging view check out George Monbiot's particularly gloomy 13 Impossible Crises That Humanity Now Faces posted Friday], no one really knows what might unfurl. They are simply hunches. Trump himself, now a main actor on the stage, is himself unpredictable, contradicting himself, changing his tune, as if sometimes on a whim. As he announces his cabinet nominees we will get a better picture perhaps. In my opinion his first few nominees do not support optimism for a more progressive, just, or peaceful future. So like others I have been pondering how to proceed. I am certainly not inclined to retreat entirely to the sanctity and quiet of my domicile or to silence my thoughts or concerns or suggestions for alternatives. But where is my energy most effectively harnessed? 

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Here are some of my hunches, honed on trial an error, expansive reading, and reflection. 

1)  We need a horizontal approach that connects many issues and citizens involved in them. We should make the connections visible, palpable. For example, peace is not simply the absence of war. It is tied to issues related to domination, to winning and losing, and to a respect for human life, not just at birth.

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2)  We need to address wicked problems that know no national borders. If we get hung up on seeking advantage for our community, or our state, or our country we will be building walls that create insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies. We can't solve the challenges facing us looking to win while others lose. Climate destabilization is clearly one of those wicked problems. But the recently globally agreed upon Sustainable Development Goals offer many wicked problems to face.

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3) As individuals there is no one activity that will bring about the changes we need to see if we are to survive and thrive as a human community on this finite planet. Individual actions do matter. How we vote, how we consume, how we support and challenge others, and how we come together or not all matter. Indeed policies need to change, and that is political work which requires involvement beyond the ballot box. Those with power, wealth, lobbyists will not give up their advantages without a struggle. As the power concentrates in fewer and fewer hands citizens work is even more critical.

4)  Our efforts need to be visible. There is a place for large public gatherings of protest or of affirmation. See for example the March for Women on Washington, scheduled for January 21, with parallel events in many state capitols. But protest is not enough. We need to be visible in letters to the editors, at public meetings, in the offices of government lobbying for policies we believe in.

5)  We don't have to wait for government to move. We can come together with others to build organizations and community that we believe in. There is a great fertile field for social entrepreneurship, for community ownership, for building a commitment to a community without harming other communities . 

Perhaps Barbara Kingsolver has it at least part right in her November 23 post "Trump Changed Everything, Now Everything Counts".

          "We refuse to disappear. We keep our commitments to fairness in front of the               legislators who oppose us, lock arms with the ones who are with us, and in the           words of Congressman John Lewis, prepare to get ourselves in some good                    trouble." 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

One Possible Pathway at the Fork in the Road

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We are two weeks away from the fourth anniversary of this blog. I had no idea I would continue to pass along some of the ideas that I continually bump into for this long. In fact, this post is number 227 over that span. I have no clue who reads what. Although I do get notes, or sometimes people I meet say they have read some piece or another. I suspect a few individuals read many. The website data tells me I average 150+ readers per post, but I know nothing about them or whether what they have read has propelled them to pick up one of the books or articles I reference in most posts.

Today, I want to try a little different track -- one more closely in line with the title of the blog, Possibilitator. While I hope all my posts offer some possibility of viewing or understanding our world a little better, this one is aimed more specifically to directions and actions we might consider as we seek to re-balance our lives from the outcome of this week's election results.

I have no intention of reanalyzing why the election resulted the way it did. I like to believe that I would have written this same piece regardless of the outcome. Although, the specific outcome has been a spur to move ahead with ideas that have been invading my head for awhile. For regardless of who sits it which seats of government, my responsibility is to push for justice and peace and speak the truth as I know it. That last sentence should paint clearly a picture of my own fallibility in knowing completely this world we share. Acknowledging from the outset the incompleteness of my understanding can allow me to learn. Where I can't acknowledge that imperfection, I will not be able to learn.

So the following is offered with that humility, but with assertions that I will try to support by noting their origins.

1)     The planet we share is increasingly destabilizing from that which has allowed us to emerge as a species. We know this not only from the rigorous scientific work and consensus process of the International Panel on Climate Change, but from the similarly rigorous work of the 2003 UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Subsequent reports tend show that the ecological unraveling is accelerating faster than most scientists projected.

2)     Income inequality, both nationally and internationally is also at it's highest level in a hundred years. We know this from reports from our own census data and data from countries around the planet. Research also shows that with growing income inequality we tend to see higher levels of societal ills, including increasing child mortality, more crime, more violence, more poverty, less life expectancy.

3)     Political power is concentrating more and more in the hands of the wealthy few. There are numerous serious studies that indicate this fact, as noted by three highly regarded political scientists in comprehensive research on the topic.

4)     Women and people of color, as our own nation's history demonstrates, have not had equal opportunity. While progress has been made, we are a long way from a society where discrimination by gender and race is an anachronism.

These issues confronted us before the election last Tuesday, and they confront us today. It would be a foolish mistake to assume that those elected to govern this week have all the answers to these complex challenges. No one does. If we are concerned with any or all of these challenges it becomes our responsibility to learn more and to advocate for changes we believe. These suggested changes should be based on whatever evidence we can unearth, to effectively address these challenges.

We are constrained in many ways. Principally we are constrained by the fact that there are no quick solutions that we are certain will work. Even if we are wise enough to select and apply the options that lead to reducing the threats of these challenges, we likely won't know that from one two-year Congressional term or one six year Senate term. Note how long it took us to end slavery or for women to get the vote? These challenges will take dedicated effort for generations. Yet our culture looks for quick fixes - the corporate quarterly report, the daily stock price, or monthly unemployment or housing figures. As we speed our lives up we have moved from hand written letters to telephone calls, to emails, to now 140 word character messages, the preferred medium of our new president. Such a constricted environment can have no room for nuance or complexity, let alone the interdependence of multiple systems.

So how might we move forward under these circumstances?

I offer the recently globally agreed upon Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 goals cover all of the challenges I mentioned above plus a few more. 193 nations of the world agreed on these goals a year ago. The United States agreed to these goals. These goals have actual measures that have been produced and for each nation state to be measured against. They have a deadline, 2030. The agreed upon penalty is that our planet will be in even worse shape in 2030 if we don't meet these goals together.

As an individual those seventeen goals might seem beyond our ability to effect them. Different individuals looking over the goals will be drawn more strongly towards some than others, based largely on one's own circumstances. It is indeed hard to focus on all of them at the same time, but that is a weak excuse for doing nothing. For those reading this far and who are struggling on how to engage with the world under the new regime, I suggest you look over those goals and find one or two that call to you most deeply. Find organizations, government agencies, businesses that are concentrating on them and get involved. Speak up, write letters, suggest policies, volunteer. See how the issue dovetails with the other 16 goals. Does your work assist accomplishing other goals, or does it hinder?

Let's have companies and nonprofits provide annual reviews of their own operations and how they contribute to or hinder accomplishment of the 17 goals. There is already a few scorecards that approximate an SDG scorecard. B-Corporations have a certification process that covers most of the goals. More recently, Austrian economist, Christian Felber has developed a Common Good Balance Sheet that addresses many of the same challenges. These scorecards could assist consumers and other businesses and organizations when choosing which entities to support. There could be provided, as Felber suggests, incentives for those companies and organizations which receive higher scores for the common good - preferred purchasing contracts from governments, reduced loan interest rates, quicker review of regulatory requirements, etc..

No doubt in the weeks and months ahead, there will be plenty of need to use our citizen voices and power to halt actions we deem harmful to our brothers and sisters and our planetary health. But we need also voices committed to providing positive alternatives. This election shows the harm caused when so many voters voted more against one candidate than for another. We need candidates and others to help provide us with new ideas, based on best evidence we can muster, to try and meet the goals that the human family through our global governance system have agreed to. Such a pursuit should not be about winning, but about bringing our collective intelligence together to devise policies better than any single-party could devise alone.

We're all in this together, and until we get the majority of people realizing this fundamental truth and working together, those goals for 2030 and our ability to thrive beyond that are in jeopardy.

Richard Falk, noted international relations scholar, offers a powerful serum for needed citizenship in Citizens v. Subjects in a Democratic Society.


      The moral substance at the core of genuine citizenship only exists if the political structure        allows opposition without imposing a severe punishment. If citizenship is possible, then it automatically gives rise to responsibility to act accordingly, that is, by honoring the imperatives of conscience. Unfortunately, considerations of prudence, career, and social propriety make it more attractive these days for most Americans to behave as subjects living within a rigid set of constraints. Citizens are those who not only proclaim the virtues of freedom, but act responsively to the vectors of conscience even if these go against the established public order and prevailing cultural norms.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Seeking Advantage

Advantage  n - “superiority of position or condition”.   Thus seeking advantage is to gain a superior or upper hand.  We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that this orientation will produce all that is good and worthy for a life to be fulfilled, that it is a natural biological imperative. Some have argued that Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is all there is to know and that it is the dominant characteristic of all life. Of course, that’s the narrow reading of what Darwin actually said in The Descent of Man.

We are used to stories of winners and losers and are thus are attracted to them. Be that as it may, we have taken this biological factor to be transferable to our social, political, and economic lives as well. Winners, or those with “superiority of position or condition”, use this advantage  to establish the rules to maintain or improve that condition or position.  While this might seem innocent enough during a friendly game, where winning is a side benefit of the enjoyment of playing, in our larger social, economic and political lives disproportionate and lasting advantage hampers community well-being.

Linked closely to ‘seeking advantage’ is a drive towards domination.  When our world was less developed and less crowded, the planet could absorb some of the damage inflicted on it as advantage and domination were sought over nature and other beings.  Obviously many suffered and continue to suffer from domination. It is clear that our economic model is fundamentally glued to this drive to seek advantage and domination.  No doubt many, if not most, corporations who love to achieve “too big to fail” status. Hardly anyone questions endless growth or concentration of power as a concern. As in cancer, we often find out too late, that such an unchecked appetite is fatal.

Of course, our recent political season, is emblematic of that same notion in our political system. Both major parties are out to dominate. When in power they change the rules to benefit their position and condition. The Republican Party took this to new levels upon the election of Barack Obama, when Sen. Mitch McConnell  said “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Of course, the game of gerrymandering is all about securing party advantage. We just assume this kind of “seeking advantage” is normal, and therefore acceptable.

Step this up a notch to global affairs and the predominant  ethos among most of the more powerful nation states is too secure as much advantage as possible for as long as possible over every other nation. This is emblazoned in the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council and the special powers they hold over the global community.  In the US we never heard from any of the presidential candidates any commitment to any sense of a just global governance system. I don’t even think there was single mention of the United Nations.  US exceptionalism is just one symbol of advantage and dominance sought. There seems to be no real sense of seeking unity, certainly not from the five permanent members of the SC.

In this all-encompassing worldview -- winning for oneself, one’s team, one’s state, or one’s nation is the true goal. The others, the losers, don’t matter. They are separate from us. They don’t matter. There is no room for empathy or compassion when winning, or seeking advantage, is the goal. As I sit here this evening thinking about these things, I see no desirable future with this worldview for the human family or the other living things we share this planet with. Some folks will surely find their condition and position superior to others. Until we challenge this unfettered myth that we can escape terrorism, climate destabilization, and increasing inequality if everyone simply seeks their own advantage, we are destined to heighten those same challenges. Our obsession with and fealty to spectator sports is a reinforcing loop to these more important systems where advantage and domination are the prize.

For all its many imperfections, the human family took a major step together at the end of WWII with the establishment of the United Nations. Recently those 193 member nations agreed on 17 goals to attain together by 2030 if we are to live well together on this fragile planet for the remainder of this century. The Sustainable Development Goals offer us a framework for making choices at all levels. How do the choices we make affect the attainment of those goals across the globe? If we are fixing one goal but making attainment of another less likely we can’t make the progress we need. We will need collective intelligence of many to insure our choices move multiple goals forward at the same time and that improvement in one place does not put another place in jeopardy. This is where democracy, especially in the sense that we are ALL global citizens holds some promise, some possibility that we must seize.

This is a major change in worldviews, at least as represented by the visible systems and leaders in this country. As has been the case in the past, change of this level must be led from the grassroots -- from us as individuals and members of communities. Let’s hope it’s not too late. Imagine a world where everyone is secure economically – good shelter, ample good food, good and plentiful water, and personal security wherever they live.  We can do this if we share and work to rid ourselves of the seeds of violence and domination. This is system change I can believe in.