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Op Ed

As CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon must now cope with the recently enacted financial reform bill, which imposes a host of regulations meant to rein in the rip-offs, frauds and other excesses of Wall Street bankers.

Republican lawmakers, however, are crying that the Democrats’ reform bill puts a crushing burden on the poor financial giants. While these Wall Street apologists wail and keen, slick operators like Dimon are wasting no time on tears. They’re devising ways to slip out of the new regulatory reins. For example, the law limits the outrageous overdraft fees that banks have been sneaking onto our debit card accounts. No problem—the giants are quietly imposing new “maintenance fees” for basic checking accounts. Forget receiving a free toaster for opening an account; banks now hit you with up to $15 a month for the privilege of putting your money in their bank.

Dimon insists this is all necessary: “If you’re a restaurant and you can’t charge for the soda, you’re going to charge more for the burger,” he says.

Come on, Jamie, drop the mom-and-pop pose. You’re not a little restaurant struggling to make ends meet—you head a monopolistic financial behemoth that helped ruin the economy for America’s moms and pops, and then took billions in taxpayer bailouts. Your bank used the crisis to increase banks’ monopoly power. It continues to get federal money, just announced a 78-percent hike in profits, and gave you a salary and bonus of $18 million.

The Dimons of Wall Street keep picking our pockets because they believe they’re entitled to excessive profits. To help bring these greedheads down to Earth, visit Americans for Financial Reform.

Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work–and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown–at

Projecting Power or Promoting Peace

The Prophetic Call for Justice, Kindness, Humility

A version of this essay was delivered at the “People’s Response to the George W. Bush Library and Policy Institute” event at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, on November 14, 2010.


I want to speak tonight in the language of spirit, but about subjects that transcend religion. I want to discuss politics, but in a way that transcends parties. I want to struggle with crises we have created out of ignorance and inattention; face up to problems that have no simple solutions; deal with the depths of human destructiveness and despair.

This will lead us, of course, to George W. Bush and his administration’s contribution to this mess.

But first I want to talk about sin and redemption. I want to confess, to testify, and to prophesy. I want to speak in this manner not just because we are at Southern Methodist University, but because it is appropriate for end times.

By end times, I don’t mean the fantasies of a rapture that will take us to a heavenly place but the realities of a rupture in the fabric of our living world. These are the times in which we must end the unjust and unsustainable systems that govern our world — the end times for U.S. imperialism, for a predatory corporate capitalism, and for the fantasy of endless abundance. If we cannot end those systems in our time, then the end times surely are coming.

There is no place better to face our obligation to end those times than the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a monument to these failed systems.

In the shadow of that center, let’s begin by posing a spiritual question: Are we going to settle for piety (in both theology and politics) and sink into the profane? Or can we strive for humility and seek the holy (in spiritual and secular terms)?

This evening I am speaking in the language of the Christian tradition in which I was raised and to which I have returned, though the values I speak of are common to all the theological and philosophical traditions that people hold dear in this world. We speak through the stories of our culture and our time, but I believe those of us here tonight speak a common language of love. More on that later.

Tonight we are focused on one specific period of time, one administration, one set of lies and obfuscations, and their terrible consequences. But our task is to face a larger reality in regard to empire, economics, and ecology. The problem is not that the policies of George W. Bush’s administration put us on a new road, but instead that they took us faster and further toward the inevitable destination of the road on which we’ve been on. This road on which we have been traveling leads to a cliff, and we are perilously close to the edge.

So, I want to speak theologically but in the service of a political question: Do we imagine our future will be secured through the projection of power or through the promotion of peace? If we dare to answer “peace,” are we willing to take the risks necessary to challenge that power?


Confession and testimony

First, my confession. Although I am arguing that we should focus on the big picture — on the systems and institutions that structure power in society — I have sometimes succumbed to the temptation to mock political opponents. During the eight years of the Bush administration, I sometimes made fun of our president, suggesting he was intellectually and/or emotionally and/or morally unsuited for high office. I sometimes repeated his most comical verbal missteps, using phrases such as “make the pie higher” as cheap laugh lines, even though I knew that played into the hands of Bush’s handlers, who loved presenting him as an ordinary guy, clearing brush on his ranch and clear-cutting the English language.

For these sins, I ask forgiveness. It’s easy to shore up one’s own sense of moral and intellectual superiority by mocking others. Even when others deserve to be mocked, it is almost always self-indulgent and counterproductive. Better than implying we are right because others are so obviously wrong, we should demonstrate we are right through righteousness.

Second, my testimony. In a funny way, George W. Bush is responsible for me returning to membership in a Christian church, a tradition that I had abandoned as a young person. I joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin in 2005, in part because of the welcoming atmosphere of that progressive congregation and the political courage of its pastor, the Rev. Jim Rigby. I was pleasantly surprised to find a church that welcomed my radical politics and didn’t demand that I accept supernatural theological claims (the belief in god as a force, entity, or being that has the capacity to direct the world; or the belief in the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event). St. Andrew’s was a hospitable place for me to land, where religion was understood as the struggle for deeper wisdom through historical experience, mythology, and poetry, rather than the imposition of rigid rules through delusion, dogma, and doctrine.

But I might not have been looking for a place to land if not for Bush’s skillful use of religion politically, which forced me to think more about the Christian character of the United States. By that I don’t mean we are a “Christian nation” in the sense that Glenn Beck suggests, but only that Christianity provides the dominant spiritual narrative of the culture. Bush helped me realize that I could deride the forces that are most prominent in that tradition today (which vary, depending on the denomination, from the mushy centrist to the harsh reactionary) or I could fight for a progressive theology and a radical politics rooted in the Gospels and the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For two decades I had assumed that the crude, ham-handed theology and politics of the Moral Majority and similar groups would run its course, but I finally realized that was based on wishful thinking, not evidence. So, I went back to church.

For this revelation, I am grateful to the former president. Not everyone has to work within a religious tradition, of course, but progressive/radical movements cannot afford to abandon that turf to the reactionary right. For most of my life I had felt smug and comfortable in my secular worldview, which reduced my political effectiveness and limited my vision. Bush changed my heart, in a roundabout sort of way.


The prophetic voice

Confession of sin and testimony about faith are important, but more crucial for the future is our willingness to prophesy. I don’t use that term to suggest I can see the future or have special status. Rather, I believe we all should strive to tap into the prophetic voice within us. To speak in that voice is not to claim exclusive insight or definitive knowledge, nor is it to speak arrogantly. We speak in the prophetic voice when we are true to the best of our traditions and the best in ourselves. The prophets of the Hebrew tradition, for example, typically did not see themselves as special. When the king’s priest confronted Amos for naming the injustice of his day, Amazi’ah called Amos a “seer” and commanded him to pack his bags and head to Judah and “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos rejected the label:

[14] Then Amos answered Amazi’ah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,

[15] and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

[Amos 7:14-15]


You may be saying to yourself, I seek no such calling, but neither did the prophets. Jeremiah told God he did not know how to speak, but God didn’t buy the excuse:

[7] But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak.

[8] Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

[9] Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.

[10] See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

[Jer. 1:7-10]


Nor was it typically much fun to fill the role of a prophet. On this, Jeremiah was clear:

[9] Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me, all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and because of his holy words.

[Jer. 23:9]


My heart is broken within me as well. This room is no doubt filled with broken hearts tonight. I speak not just of the heartbreaks that come, inevitably, with being human — the heartbreaks of disappointment, distress, disease, and death. The heartbreak that I refer to is not the unavoidable suffering of being human, but the suffering produced by imperialism, a predatory corporate capitalism, and a fantasy of endless abundance. That avoidable suffering demands that we speak prophetically in opposition to the systems out of which that suffering arises. We know we must reject religious fundamentalism, but we also must reject the national fundamentalism at the heart of imperial wars of domination; the economic fundamentalism at the heart of capitalism’s cult of greed; and the technological fundamentalism that spins the story of infinite consumption on a finite planet.

To speak prophetically we must strip away the delusional trappings of the culture and remember the core of our humanity. The world is complex, but the command is simple. Another of the Old Testament prophets, Micah, captured this:

[8] He has showed you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

[Mic. 6:8]


Of those virtues, I want to focus on the importance of humility. When we speak in the prophetic voice, we necessarily speak with passion and conviction. But we all know that passion and conviction can lead any of us to arrogance and self-righteousness. The counterbalance to that is humility, which brings us back to George W. Bush.


False humility

In Bush’s first presidential campaign, during the second debate, he used the word “humble” five times when discussing his approach to foreign policy:

“It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.

“We’re a freedom-loving nation. And if we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.

“I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.”[1]


That’s the Bush rhetoric on humility, but we know what the reality was like. Humility was not the strong suit of the Bush administration, especially in foreign policy. The Bush administration didn’t really do humility, unless we define humility as the instinct to use massive violence to achieve the goals of elites, while expressing contempt for international law, international institutions, the views of a vocal group within the United States, and the views of a majority of the people of the world.

That’s a fair description of U.S. foreign policy during the Bush administration. I use the term “unilateralist thugs” to describe the Bush gang. “Thugs” in the sense of the willingness to use violence, and “unilateralist” in the approach to international law and organizations, and domestic and world opinion. When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration didn’t even bother going to the U.N. Security Council for authorization, preferring to ignore international law. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it attempted to secure a resolution but went forward anyway when that attempt failed.

The humility Bush promised evaporated quickly, but that shouldn’t surprise us, for humility hasn’t been the stance of any U.S. administration. We might recall the Clinton administration’s Iraq policy. During Clinton’s eight years, economic sanctions starved the Iraqi people by the tens of thousands each year, and although most of the world opposed that policy the Clinton administration kept the U.N. Security Council in line to maintain the embargo. When that strategy — described as genocidal by a U.N. official who resigned in protest — wasn’t working well enough, Clinton authorized the bombing of Iraq in December 1998 in “Operation Desert Fox.” The Clinton gang argued that existing Security Council resolutions gave them the right to kill, a position the rest of the world rejected, and Clinton bombed away without concern.

Clinton followed that up with the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. That also lacked U.N. authorization, though in that endeavor the Clinton administration marshaled NATO to provide the appearance of legitimacy. That operation was not only morally bankrupt but also a “crime against peace” in international law, but effort was put into garnering some level of international cooperation. We might think of the Clinton gang as “multilateralist thugs,” willing to use violence but providing the appearance of concern for international opinion when it suited them.

Obama continues the trend, making it clear that U.S. foreign policy remains based on the only trump card the United States has left in its hand — a decisive superiority in the capacity to kill and destroy, the result of the fact that we spend as much on war as the rest of the world combined. So, the occupation of Iraq continues; the occupation of Afghanistan surges forward; we conduct drone attacks in Pakistani territory; we continue to threaten Iran.

If we look at economics, we see the same pattern. The Republicans favor a reactionary capitalist program that would drive a stake in the heart of the New Deal, while the Democrats prefer a conservative capitalist approach that would keep the New Deal breathing, barely. For the energy needed to run an irrational consumption-based economy, the Republicans offer fantasies of more intensive penetration of the Earth to keep the machine running, while the Democrats prefer fantasies of endless invention.

Given a choice between those two sets of approaches, I’ll take the less violent, the less harsh, the less ugly. But being forced to choose between these options is a classic case of false alternatives, an attempt to constrain our imaginations at the time we need them most. We are not forever doomed to live in a monstrous imperial world system or a predatory capitalist economic system or an unsustainable high-energy/high-technology system. There are other options, other models, other visions.

We need to shout that truth, in the prophetic voice. We need to tap into our conviction and passion, speaking prophetically about the evil of these systems and our refusal to capitulate to them.

We also need humility, recognizing none of us has a perfect system to take down off the shelf and implement tomorrow. When we critique evil and are challenged — “Well, if you are so smart tell us how you would run the world” — we need not pretend to have all the answers. We need only to be confident in our critique and committed to constructing alternatives.


Harsh humility

We try to balance passion and humility. We recognize our limits but don’t hesitate to speak harshly w
en necessary. Let’s return to Micah, the source of that call for justice, kindness, and humility. Micah also called out the injustice around him, never softening what he knew to be the truth:

[12] Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.

[13] Therefore I have begun to smite you, making you desolate because of your sins.

[14] You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be hunger in your inward parts; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save I will give to the sword.

[15] You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.

[Mic. 6:12-15]


[2] The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a net.

[3] Their hands are upon what is evil, to do it diligently; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together.

[4] The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their watchmen, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand.

[Mic. 7:2-4]


If we were to tap into our prophetic voice, what would we say about George W. Bush? He is guilty of crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Opening a presidential center in his name is an abomination. I empathize with the students, staff, and faculty of SMU, who must now walk a campus with a monument to a war criminal. That empathy comes easy, for it is my own fate as well. Less than a mile from my office at the University of Texas is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, another monument to a war criminal. Just as the cries of the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan will float over SMU, the cries of the dead in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia ring in my ears at UT.

Let’s review the presidents of my lifetime: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama. Republicans and Democrats; liberals, moderates, and conservatives; from the west, east, Midwest, south, north; dull- and quick-witted, or just plain witless. All of them different, yet all of them thugs, all of them criminals.

The cries of the dead echo not just at SMU and UT, but across the United States, across an imperial society in which we citizens have failed to force our government to respect even minimal conceptions of human dignity and equality, the hallmarks of a decent society.

What would Amos and Jeremiah and Micah say? What will we say?  More importantly, what will we do?


Love in action

I promised I would come back to the topic of love. Whether we are secular or religious, or what religious tradition we might come from, we all recognize not only the power of love in our individual lives but the necessity of love in our political lives. As so many great political figures have noted — from a revolutionary such as Che Guevara to a proponent of non-violence such as Martin Luther King, Jr. — love must be at the center of radical politics.

Another of the prophets made this crystal clear in one sentence, from the Book of Osheroff, chapter 1, verse 1: “Solidarity is love in action.”

If you are scrambling to figure out why you don’t remember the Book of Osheroff, don’t worry — I made it up. My late friend Abe Osheroff was real and he spoke in as prophetic a voice as I have ever heard, but he’s not in the biblical canon — he was a thoroughly secular 20th century radical activist. Starting as a teenager in Depression-era New York helping evicted tenants, Abe was involved in progressive politics at every level — from fighting in the 1930s for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War to community work in the civil rights movement in the United States, from neighborhood organizing against developers at home to the seemingly endless struggle to end U.S. wars around the world. Abe so impressed me that I produced a documentary film about his life,[2] and the film’s final frame carries that point he made so often: “Solidarity is love in action.”

Abe knew that if solidarity is to be lived, it requires both love and action. Abe knew that love without action is empty, and that action without love is dangerous. We all know people who profess to love the world but who retreat into the passivity made possible by affluence and privilege. We should ask of them, what do they truly love? We also all know people who act out of what they claim to be a commitment to justice but through their actions hurt others without thought. We should ask of them, to what are they truly committed?

We know these people exist because, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we all can remember moments when that person was us, when we fell short. That’s because radical love in a political context is not easy. Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian activist and educator, always talked of love in this way:

As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation. It must generate other acts of freedom; otherwise, it is not love. Only by abolishing the situation of oppression, is it possible to restore the love which that situation made impossible. If I do not love the world — if I do not love life — if I do not love people — I cannot enter into dialogue.

On the other hand, dialogue cannot exist without humility. The naming of the world, through which people constantly re-create that world, cannot be an act of arrogance.[3]

To speak in the prophetic voice is not to proclaim the truth self-righteously but to claim our rightful place in dialogue, the collective struggle to understand the truth, which requires love and through which we seek to deepen our capacity to love. We seek the prophetic voice within us to allow us to love more fully, something that Paul the Apostle understood. When we call out injustice, when we find the courage to speak truths in a fallen world, it can be easy to be consumed by our anger and our grief, to lose track of that love. As we go forward to find the courage to speak prophetically, we should hold onto these words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

[2] And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

[1Cor. 13:2]

We all struggle with this. For me, being angry is easy. After 20 years of political activism, I can easily launch into angry condemnations of the craven and the corrupt in power. But I struggle to hold onto my capacity to love, always more, and always more authentically. That may be the defining quality of the prophetic; it is our authentic voice in which we speak the truth with love, preparing to act on that truth.

Authenticity is a tricky concept. It is a state or quality we often invoke, though we are not always clear about its meaning. Abe gave me the best definition of authenticity I’ve ever heard:

Authenticity comes when your thoughts, your words, and your deeds have some relation to each other. It comes when there’s a real organic relationship between the way you think, the way you talk, and the way you act. You have to fight for authenticity all the time in this world, and if you don’t fight for it you will get derailed. But when you have it, when you feel that surge of recognition — that I’m saying exactly what I’m thinking, and I’m ready to do something about it — well, that’s an intellectual and emotional orgasm that makes sex look like nothing.[4]

Abe made that point in an interview with me, the transcript of which I titled “On the Joys and Risks of Living in the Empire.” In his political life, Abe took far more risks than I have to date. And, as a result, I think Abe experienced a deeper joy than I. The prophetic voice of Abe, who died on April 6, 2008, inspires me, but more importantly his memory haunts me. He encouraged me in my political activities, but what I remember most is not the supportive words he spoke but the unspoken challenge: What are you willing to risk?


Risk and joy

Think back to February 15, 2003. Many of us on that Saturday participated in actions in opposition to the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was an exhilarating day, the largest coordinated political protest in the history of the world. At least 10 million people participated worldwide, with a clear message for the Bush administration: The invasion being planned is illegal and immoral, and we reject not only this war but your right to use violence to achieve your political and economic goals. I was the emcee of the event in Austin, and I remember being amazed at the thousands who gathered at the Capitol, stretching back so far that our loudspeakers couldn’t reach the entire crowd.

We had a compelling message, rooted in international law, political principles, and moral values. We had huge numbers of people. We had an international presence. And none of it mattered; the war came. Why could the Bush administration ignore us without consequence? I have pondered that question for the past seven years, and I keep coming back to one thing: What level of risk were we willing to take?

For most people, attending an anti-war rally posed no risk. Immigrants and people in targeted groups (Arabs, South Asians, Muslims) had reason to feel threatened, but people who look like me — with only rare exceptions — don’t face serious repression in the United States today for engaging in peaceful political activity. What were most of us willing to do beyond attending a rally in opposition to a war being planned? A month later, when the war came, we got a partial answer. The crowd for the standing call to come to the Capitol when the bombs fell was at best one-fourth of the pre-war rally. Most of the people who came on February 15 weren’t willing to come out in public once the nation was at war; even that trivial a risk was too much.

I could be cocky and say that in 2003 I was willing to risk my job, my physical safety, even my life to stop the war. It might be true; I certainly felt the urgency of the moment. But the question is moot, because at that time there was no strategy for taking such risks. These decisions about risk are made by individuals but in the context of options developed collectively, and the movement I was part of had not discussed such options.

A political movement that wants to challenge entrenched power cannot succeed without substantial numbers of people willing to take risks. If those in power know we aren’t ready to take risks, they can ignore our voices, confident that our opposition will dissipate. To create that group of people, we need to talk seriously, not about juvenile fantasies of armed revolution but about long-term commitment to a radical political project that aims to end imperialism, capitalism, and the ecologically unsustainable living arrangements of the affluent world.

So, I want to leave you with three questions that I heard posed by the sociologist Allan Johnson[5] in a workshop for activists. In our political and social networks, Johnson suggested, we should ask:

1.      What are the risks you would have to take (or have taken) if you actively work for social justice and ecological sustainability in a way that is self-critical and challenges powerful   institutions and people?

2.      What are the risks if you don’t do that work?

3.      If you take the risks in #1, in order to survive and thrive what do you need from:
         *institutions and organizations (public and private)

The point of the exercise is, first, to force us not only to articulate the risks in acting but the risks in not acting. Rather than assume that the greater risk is in challenging power, we should ponder our fate if we let our fear rule us. Second, Johnson wants us to think about risk not in the abstract but concretely. If we can articulate what we need, we can start to imagine how to act.

Back to Abe: The phrase I used was the “joys and risks.” One of the most important lessons I learned from Abe was that the joy I will feel in this world is directly related to the risks I am willing to take. When I think of Abe, what I remember most is not his insightful analysis, his knowledge of history, or his stories about past political actions. Instead, I remember his laugh. I remember the way he embraced life, even at the end when he was in considerable pain and unable to move far from his chair in the living room. Abe took risks I have never taken, and I think he felt joy at a depth I’m still struggling to reach.

Abe would be the first to tell me not to spend too much time comparing myself to him, and not to assume that the choices made in a previous era can map the choices we face today. Nothing is so simple.

But this much is simple: We face cascading crises on all fronts — political and economic, cultural and ecological — crises that may well outstrip the human capacity to cope. As a species, we aren’t nearly as smart as we like to think, and as a result we have to come to terms with the likelihood that some of the problems we have created may be beyond solutions that we can imagine. The human capacity to love and create is up against not only our capacity to hate and destroy; we also struggle with our tendency to create solutions that bring into being even greater problems. It is not only our ignorance that is dangerous, but our inability to understand our ignorance.

This much is also simple: We live in dark and dangerous times, and we know we cannot be seduced by those urging us to revert to religious, national, economic, or technological fundamentalisms, all of which would only exacerbate the danger. To whom should we listen?

Listen to the cries of the dead from imperial wars.

Listen to the cries of those suffering in a predatory economic system.

Listen to the cries from the living world all around us.

And, perhaps mostly importantly, listen to the cry of your own heart.


[1] Second presidential debate, Winston-Salem, NC, October 11, 2000. Transcript available online at

[2] “Abe Osheroff: One foot in the grave, the other still dancing,” dir. Nadeem Uddin (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2009).

[3] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000), pp. 89-90.

[4] Robert Jensen and Abe Osheroff, “On the Joys and Risks of Living in the Empire.”

[5] Allan G. Johnson has written two widely used texts about power and privilege: The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005); and Privilege, Power, and Difference, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005). For more information, click here.

The Reckoning

On Nov. 2, Texas voters gave conservatives unprecedented control of our state.

Republicans handily won every statewide race, giving Rick Perry, already the state’s longest-serving governor, another four years to hone the patronage system he’s built to reward friends and campaign contributors. Former Houston Mayor Bill White, heralded as the Democrats’ best gubernatorial candidate since Ann Richards, lost by 12 points. Three Democratic congressmen were swept out of office by Republicans. The three incumbents—Chet Edwards, Solomon Ortiz Sr. and Ciro Rodriguez—had served a combined 57 years in Congress. While none of them reminded anyone of Barbara Jordan, they did bring a lot of federal dollars home to Texas. The loss of seniority will hurt their districts and the state. 

But perhaps the Democrats’ most devastating defeats came in the Texas Legislature. The GOP gained 22 seats in the state House—an electoral sweep we would have considered unfathomable had we not just witnessed it. At press time, Republicans held 99 seats, with a recount looming in one Austin district. Most House rules can be suspended by a two-thirds vote, so 100 seats in the 150-member House would permit Republicans to legislate whatever they want.

That’s a scary prospect with the state facing an estimated budget shortfall of $18 billion to $25 billion. Many of the new GOP legislators are Tea Party activists, elected on a platform of balancing the budget with “no new taxes.” They will arrive in Austin intent on cutting bloated state spending. They’ll quickly run hard into the realization that the lawmakers who went before them have already cut state services to the bone. Texas spends less per resident than any state in the country.

The question is how far the far-right revolutionaries will go. Will they mellow as they govern? Or will they permanently hobble our state to honor Tea Party ideology, inflicting lasting harm on Texas’ poor, sick and elderly?

Texas Democrats often talk of the 2003 legislative session as their historic low point, when Republicans held 88 seats in the House and used a $10 billion shortfall to eviscerate state social programs. Well, the bad times are here again—only this time, it’s worse. The prospect of 99 (or 100) conservative House Republicans addressing a $25 billion shortfall by hacking away at the state budget is truly frightening.

There will be better days ahead for Texas Democrats. But for the vulnerable Texans who rely on state services, life is about to get worse.

Monsanto Takes a Tumble

Poor Monsanto Co.—the mighty manipulator of Mother Nature has tripped on its own hubris, falling far, fast, and hard.

The biotech and chemical giant has reaped huge profits by messing with the DNA of the world’s food supply. During the past couple of decades, Monsanto has become the Frankenstein of agriculture, taking genetic parts of one or more species and engineering them into another. The corporation creates a living profit center for itself inside the mutant seeds it engineers for corn, soybeans, and other staples. Its specialty has been altering plants to withstand heavy doses of an herbicide manufactured by – guess
who? – Monsanto.

This kind of techno-gimmickry dazzled Wall Street speculators for a while. Monsanto stock soared to $140 a share in 2008, and in 2009 it was named “company of the year” by Forbes magazine.

Farmers have found the altered seed ridiculously expensive and less beneficial than advertised, and the herbicide Monsanto sells with the seed isn’t effective because weeds have developed a resistance to it. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating the corporation’s antitrust activities, and global opponents of genetically tampered crops have been scoring victories in the fight to stop their spread.

Monsanto’s response has been to double down on wizardry. Its new corn seed, for example, has not one, but eight altered genes. Farmers aren’t buying the mumbo jumbo, and Wall Street has pushed Monsanto’s stock price down by two-thirds. As one market analyst now says, “This may be the worst stock of 2010.”
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Elections: The Day After

November 2 is going to be a big day in our political lives.

But November 3 will be far more important.

On mid-term Election Day, voters will choose between candidates with different positions on health-care insurance, withdrawal from Afghanistan, and CO2 levels that drive global warming. The politicians we send to the legislatures and executive offices will make — or avoid making — important decisions. Our votes matter.

But Election Day is far from the most important moment in our political lives. The radical changes necessary to produce a just and sustainable society are not on the table for politicians in the Republican or Democratic parties, which means we citizens have to commit to ongoing radical political activity after the election.

I use the term “radical” — which to some may sound extreme or even un-American — to mark the importance of talking bluntly about the problems we face. In a political arena in which Tea Partiers claim to defend freedom and centrist Democrats are called socialists, important concepts degenerate into slogans and slurs that confuse rather than clarify. By “radical,” I mean a politics that goes to the root to critique the systems of power that create the injustice in the world and an agenda that offers policy proposals that can change those systems.

In previous essays in this campaign series on economics, empire, and energy, I argued that the conventional debates in electoral politics are diversionary because painful realties about those systems are unspeakable in the mainstream: capitalism produces obscene inequality, U.S. attempts to dominate the globe violate our deepest moral principles, and there are no safe and accessible energy sources to maintain the affluent lifestyles of the First World.

Why would politicians be unwilling to engage these ideas? Part of the answer lies in who pays the bills; campaigns and political parties are funded primarily by the wealthy, who have a stake in maintaining the system that made them wealthy. Also crucial is the ideology that pervades the dominant society; people have been subject to decades of intense propaganda that has tried to make predatory corporate capitalism and U.S. imperial domination of the world seem natural and inevitable.

As a result of these economic and political systems, 20 percent of the U.S. population controls 85 percent of the country’s wealth, and half the world’s population lives in abject poverty. None of that is natural or inevitable. This inequality is the product of human choices that benefit a relatively small elite, who buy off middle- and working-class people with a small cut of the wealth. This state of affairs is the product of policies that were chosen, and can be chosen differently.

Because these crucial questions are not on the agenda for the two dominant parties battling on November 2, we have to commit to a radical citizens’ agenda on November 3. The first step is building and fortifying — both the local grassroots institutions that can work independently of the powerful, and the networks of empathy and caring that will be needed if we are to survive the fraying of the systems in which we live.

For that work, don’t look to the corporate bosses or the politicians they employ. Look to the person sitting next to you.

The state budget isn’t the sexiest campaign issue. There’s probably no faster way for a candidate to bore an audience than to start tossing around terms like “budget deficit” and “revenue projection.” So it’s not surprising that Texas’ two major-party candidates for governor have largely ignored the budget.

But here’s the thing: In 2010, there’s no more important issue facing Texas. The state’s finances are a mess. When the Legislature convenes next year, lawmakers will have to contend with an unnervingly large budget gap. We won’t know exactly how big the deficit will be until early January, when the comptroller releases a—ahem—revenue projection. Some smart people, including the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, estimate the deficit at $18 billion to $21 billion. That equates to about a quarter of all state spending.

The state’s Republican leadership has made plain its desire to balance the budget largely through spending cuts. Severe budget cuts will imperil some Texans’ lives. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. As The Dallas Morning News reported recently, the state’s HIV Medication Program, which provides anti-retroviral drugs to 15,000 Texans with HIV or AIDS, is running out of money. Without more state funds, the program will end, and 15,000 lives could be at risk. Cuts to state programs that provide medications and treatment for the mentally ill (state officials have already recommended cuts that would deprive 13,000 adults and children of mental health care) and substance-abuse treatment for drug addicts will also endanger lives.

Despite the high stakes, neither Republican Gov. Rick Perry nor challenger Democrat Bill White has said how he will deal with the looming budget crisis. White has at least listed general spending priorities—education and public safety top the list—though he’s been disappointingly vague about how he would address the shortfall. Would he support expanding the sales tax to cover professional services such as law firms and architects—a change that could bring billions into state coffers? We may never know. Perry, meanwhile, is hoping the deficit won’t be as large as predicted. That’s foolhardy. We know of Perry’s aversion to raising taxes, but does that mean he intends to slice tens of billions from Texas’ already meager budget? The governor hasn’t said.

The voters have a right to hear from their candidates for governor before the election—not after—how they plan to deal with the most pressing issue facing Texas.

There’s no shortage of political blather in this year’s mid-term election campaigns, but most of us yearn for substantive discussion of the serious problems we face. What should the politicians be discussing? The University of Texas at Austin asked faculty members who teach about politics “to analyze, examine and provide their perspectives” on key political issues for the university’s web site, with new essays posted each weekday throughout the campaign season.

Below are my contributions, three short essays that raise critical questions about economics, empire, and energy that are routinely ignored by most politicians.


Economics: Doing business as if people mattered

When politicians talk economics these days, they argue a lot about the budget deficit. That’s crucial to our economic future, but in the contemporary workplace there’s an equally threatening problem — the democracy deficit.

In an economy dominated by corporations, most people spend their work lives in hierarchical settings in which they have no chance to participate in the decisions that most affect their lives. The typical business structure is, in fact, authoritarian — owners and managers give orders, and workers follow them. Those in charge would like us to believe that’s the only way to organize an economy, but the cooperative movement has a different vision.

Cooperative businesses that are owned and operated by workers offer an exciting alternative to the top-down organization of most businesses. In a time of crisis, when we desperately need new ways of thinking about how to organize our economic activity, cooperatives deserve more attention.

First, the many successful cooperatives remind us that we ordinary people are quite capable of running our own lives. While we endorse democracy in the political arena, many assume it’s impossible at work. Cooperatives prove that wrong, not only by producing goods and services but by enriching the lives of the workers through a commitment to shared decision-making and responsibility.

Second, cooperatives think not only about profits but about the health of the community and natural world; they’re more socially and ecologically responsible. This is reflected in cooperatives’ concern for the “triple bottom line” — not only profits, but people and the planet.

The U.S. government’s response to the financial meltdown has included some disastrous decisions (bailing out banks to protect wealthy shareholders instead of nationalizing banks to protect ordinary people) and some policies that have helped but are inadequate (the stimulus program). But the underlying problem is that policymakers assume that there is no alternative to a corporate-dominated system, leading to “solutions” that leave us stuck with failed business-as-usual approaches.

It’s crazy to trust in economic structures that have brought us to brink of economic collapse. But even in more “prosperous” times, modern corporations undermine democracy, weaken real community, and degrade the ecosystem. New thinking is urgently needed. Politicians who talk about an “ownership society” typically promote individual ownership of a tiny sliver of an economy still dominated by authoritarian corporate giants. An ownership society defined by cooperative institutions would be a game-changer.

None of this is hypothetical — there are hundreds of flourishing cooperative businesses in the United States . The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives,  provides excellent information and inspiring stories. In Austin, a cooperative-incubator group, Third Coast Workers for Cooperation,  offers training and support for people interested in creating democratic workplaces.

Putting our faith in institutions that have become too big to fail has failed. Institutions that are too greedy to defend can’t be defended. Cooperative businesses aren’t a magical solution to the critical economic problems we face, but a national economic policy that used fiscal and tax policies to support cooperatives would be an important step on a different path.


Empire: Affluence, violence, and U.S. foreign policy

The United States is the most affluent nation in the history of the world.

The United States has the largest military in the history of the world.

Might those two facts be connected? Might that question be relevant in foreign policy debates?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for such discussion in the campaigns; conventional political wisdom says Americans won’t reduce consumption and politicians can’t challenge the military-industrial complex. Though not everyone shares in that material wealth, the U.S. public seems addicted to affluence or its promise, and discussions of the role of the military are clouded by national mythology about our alleged role as the world’s defender of freedom. Business elites who profit handsomely from this arrangement, and fund election campaigns, are quite happy.

There’s one word that sums this up: empire. Any meaningful discussion of U.S. foreign policy has to start with the recognition that we are an imperial society. We consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, made possible by global economic dominance backed by our guns.

Today the United States spends as much on the work of war as the rest of the world combined, and we are the planet’s largest arms dealer. Professor Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University reports in her book The Bases of Empire that we maintain 909 military facilities in 46 countries and overseas U.S. territories, and we have more than 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilians working at those sites. That’s in addition to U.S. bases, military personnel, and contractors occupying Iraq and Afghanistan .

The military is there to project power, not promote peace. We regularly use these destructive forces, especially in the Middle East , home to the largest and most accessible energy reserves. Flimsy cover stories about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, or self-indulgent tales about U.S. benevolence toward the people of the region, cannot obscure the reality of empire. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were unlawful, in direct violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution, but such details are irrelevant to empires.

Terrorism is real, of course, as are weapons of mass destruction. Law enforcement, diplomacy, and limited uses of military force need to be vigorously pursued through appropriate regional and international organizations to lessen the threats. Most of the world supports such reasonable and rational measures.

In its global policy — especially in the Middle East — U.S. policymakers prefer force, not only though invasion but also by backing the most repressive Arab regimes in those regions and unconditional support for Israel ’s illegal occupation of Palestine . In the short term, this cynical and brutal strategy has given the United States considerable influence over the flow of oil and oil profits.

But these policies, which have never been morally acceptable, also aren’t sustainable. Just as the age of affluence is coming to a close, so is the age of U.S. domination of the world.

That need not be bad news, if we can collectively tell the truth about our own greed and violence, and begin to shape a new vision of the good life and a new strategy for living as one nation in the world, not the nation on top of the world.


Energy: Recognizing how much isn’t there

Will America ’s energy crisis be solved by more aggressive pursuit of fossil fuels or by more vigorous development of renewables?

In this campaign season, there are politicians on all sides. Chants of “drill, baby, drill” ring out, while others sing the praises of wind and solar, and some argue we must try everything.

Unfortunately, politicians don’t seem willing to face a more difficult reality: There is no solution, if by “solution” we mean producing enough energy to maintain our current levels of consumption indefinitely.

To deal with the energy crisis we must deal with a consumption crisis, but politicians are reluctant to run a campaign based on a call for “less” — the American Dream, after all, is always “more.” But, whether the public and politicians like it or not, our future is about learning to live with less, starting with a lot less energy.

In the United States , we have been living with the abundance produced by an industrial economy, all made possible by the concentrated energy of fossil fuels. We tell ourselves this is the product of our hard work, but our life of plenty was made possible by the incredible energy stored in coal, oil, and natural gas. How long can that continue?

It’s true that there’s a lot of coal in the ground, but burning all that coal means an acceleration of global warming and climate disruption. Easily accessible reserves of oil and gas are quickly being exhausted, and while geologists can’t tell us for sure when the wells will run dry, we should be thinking in decades, not centuries.

High-tech schemes for extracting oil from tar sands or “fracking” — hydraulic fracturing, a process of injecting water and chemicals deep underground to force out pockets of gas — are so ecologically destructive that they should be abandoned immediately. The same for most deep-water drilling; the Gulf disaster of the past year is a reminder that no matter how sophisticated the technology, we cannot control these processes. Nuclear energy presents the same trade-offs, magnified by our inability to dispose of the deadly waste safely.

There are more reasons to be positive about renewable energy sources, and intensifying research funding for wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy is the sensible move. But the reality to face there also is one of limits: None of those technologies, alone or in combination, will ever replace the energy stored in fossil fuels. The belief that because we want that energy we will create ways to produce it is the most naïve technological fundamentalism.

The most important step in dealing with our energy crisis is to realize just how much isn’t there. Either approach — believing that we can drill our way or invent our way out of the predicament — is magical thinking. Instead of fantasies of endless abundance, we have to recognize that a radical shift in the way our lives are arranged is necessary for survival. The most obvious of these arrangements we need to change is our car-based culture, but it doesn’t stop there. If there is to be a livable future, we need to commit in the present to major changes in our entire infrastructure.

The solution to the energy crisis can be stated simply: We must move around less and consume less. That means the solution is not only about where we get our energy, but how we define ourselves.


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Bring Back Retired Teachers

Larger class sizes are not the answer to budget cuts.

 The crisis in education we are facing cannot be solved by increasing class size as a short-term budget fix. The current class sizes are already too large. We can lower the teacher/student ratios without increasing cost by getting our retired teachers to come back into the system on a part-time basis.

There are two underlying assumptions here. First, there will probably be no substantial additional funding available for education in the foreseeable future. With the end of the stimulus dollars the outlook for local and state budgets appears to be pretty bleak. Second, with a population skewing ever older, it is incumbent on our society to devise methods for keeping people in the work force longer. We must tap into our increasing life spans to increase our productivity as a nation, and we must increase our overall productivity if we are going to pull ourselves out of this current economic situation.

One place that is ideal for this is education. 

Here’s the way it is in Texas. Retired teachers can work up to half time without losing any of their retirement benefits. Even though someone might not be able to hold up under a full work load anymore, four hours a day or two eight hour days a week would keep a person active and involved, giving the educational system the benefit of their experience and expertise. With a standard school year of 187 working days this would mean that a retiree could work the equivalent of 93 days without losing any benefits.

They certainly wouldn’t be doing it just for the money though. Part time, certified teachers in the Austin ISD make $80 per day with the total cost to the district being $86 including payroll taxes. The total cost per day for the average, full-time salaried teacher in the Austin ISD, including benefits, is $293. Therefore, we could hire 3.4 part-time retired teachers for the same cost as one full-time teacher.

As the teacher/student ratio in the district is about one teacher to eighteen students in grades K through 3, and we can hire the equivalent of three part-time retired teachers for the same amount as a full-time teacher. We could achieve a one to six teacher/student ratio, at no additional cost to the district, by getting retirees to come back into the system.

I specifically mention grades K-3 because I consider this to be the most critical area of need. In my management classes at the University of Texas, decades ago, we studied a business concept called the “span of control.” This basically is the number of people that one person can manage effectively if those people need constant instruction and supervision. At that time we were taught that one person could not effectively manage more than six people. To equate this management ratio to the educational process is not a stretch at all, and I can think of no more intensive a management situation than in grades K-3. I believe that we would improve our ultimate product by increasing our teaching staff at these most formative and most receptive grade levels.

Many educational sociologists believe that the most critical learning period is from ages 2 to 5 and that the parents’ responsibilities here are paramount. Given our high level of irresponsible parenting this means that many kids coming into kindergarten are already in a remedial situation. Therefore, it is crucial for us to be ready to determine who needs to play catch-up and have the resources available to do it quickly. In the past grandparents played a big role in parenting and education, and I think it is a good sociological fit to give these youngest students an older role model to be a grandmother or grandfather to them.

Before getting to the problems inherent in this proposal, let me run down some general observations and opinions about the current state of education and what I see as the positive benefits of reducing class size at this level.

In the Austin ISD a high school was finally forced to close after failing to meet state-mandated standards of performance for several years in a row. A few of the teachers from that high school wrote letters to the op-ed page in the Austin American Statesman in which they lamented the poor educational character of the students they were trying to teach, citing a high truancy rate and the fact that most of those who did manage to show up did not really come to learn and were constantly disruptive. Where does this breakdown begin? Is it a hormonal thing? Is it the parents’ fault? Is it the district’s fault?

Whenever, wherever, or however we lose them, we need to make sure that the kids get off to a good start by building a solid educational foundation. We need to pump as much knowledge into them as we can when they are of a receptive age and then hope to reap long-range benefits. Striving for long-range results is not something we do much any more as a nation, as even our governmental entities have begun to operate with a short-run corporate mentality.

So I believe that if we cut down the class size we will be able to keep the kids more focused, ultimately improving their performance and appreciation for education. I believe this concept would work all the way through grade 12. It would certainly be a long-range dream to see this theory, for the reduction of class size, permeate the entire system through grade 12.

The main problem in implementing this plan is one of sheer numbers. It will take six part-time teachers for each eighteen-student class to do this. Are that many available? Can we do this without appreciably increasing our administrative costs? Would we have enough classroom space?

I believe the concept is a sound one. We must, as a community, take more control over our educational system. For too long we have seen our politicians pay lip service to education during the election cycle only to do nothing once in office, or do something that serves only to increase a teacher’s administrative burden.

This is something we can do now. We don’t have to wait for legislative mandate. We don’t have to wait for funding. It should be patently obvious by now that our elected officials are not up to the task, and if you are waiting on them for a solution you are “waiting for Godot.” Our school boards, district superintendents, administrators, teachers, and retired teacher organizations must partner to begin design, testing, and implementation. Even if only one class can be done at first we must begin the process and begin getting feedback.

With the widespread losses in 401(k)’s and the crisis looming in Social Security, we need to begin planning for a different future. As Yogi Berra so gracefully phrased it, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And let’s face it, retirement just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a manageable class size and a shorter workday? With the boomers now hitting retirement age, there will be increasing numbers available for a while to come. Also available might be those who trained to be teachers but dropped out of the educational system to follow other career paths or to raise a family. Perhaps programs could be started to integrate retirees from other professions. Couple this with an increasingly productive life span and I think we’ve got a viable plan.

There are simply too many positive aspects in this plan both to the educational system and to society as a whole for us to not begin its implementation in some form or other. This moment in history can be the beginning of a renaissance for our society and our nation but it is up to us to seize the standard.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

The days of politicians answering tough questions are waning. Ahead of this November’s elections, candidates duck, dodge and slip away more than ever when the media comes calling.

From Tea Party starlet Sharron Angle’s demand that she only be asked the questions she wants to answer, to Republican Senate nominee Mark Kirk’s bolting out the back door to avoid reporters, it’s safe to say that cowardice is now an acceptable campaign strategy. (Despicable as that may be, at least they don’t threaten to “take out” reporters the way New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino did.)

In Texas, political escape and evasion has become de rigueur. Gov. Rick Perry’s refusal to face editorial boards, or even his opponent in a debate, is but one regrettable example.

Press conferences have been scarce, and campaign staffers frequently deny reporters access to events. Spokespeople play multiple rounds of phone tag until the reporter either has to give up or is forced to take more direct measures. To avoid the people’s watchdogs, campaigners hand out generic phone numbers and e-mail addresses that are answered by interns with no authority to say or do anything. Pretty slick, guys.

Instead, the new generation of politicians direct campaigns exclusively to their die-hard voters through social media, blogs, and select cable network appearances. The more rabid the voters, the more rabid their election-day turnout. The candidates are now picking their voters, rather than the other way around.

Conservative candidates like to argue that journalists are biased, part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to overthrow American values. They argue that thanks to the Internet and social media, voters have unfettered access to the marketplace of ideas. The news industry, as purveyors of information, has become passé.

On the contrary, citizens need trained reporters more than ever to sort fact from propaganda and truth from spin. They need well-informed journalists to ask the hard questions on their behalf.

The founders of this country, whom conservatives enjoy quoting so much, knew that an aggressive, diverse, skeptical and at times irreverent media is the best defense against demagoguery. That is why freedom of the press comes before the freedom to bear arms, and that is why journalists are the only non-governmental profession with rights spelled out in the Constitution.

So what are journalists to do when the powerful try to act with impunity? Simply put, kick more ass and take more names. And that’s exactly what we intend to do.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A poet, an economist, and a biologist walk into a barn in Kansas and start talking. What do you get when you cross their ideas?

Answer: Hybrid vigor.

OK, the joke might not quite work unless you’re an agronomist (and maybe even the agronomists aren’t laughing), but it captures the importance of the conversations at The Land Institute’s annual gathering in Salina, KS. In the search for alternatives to our dead-end industrial agriculture system, Land Institute researchers are pursuing plant breeding programs that just may be the key to post-oil farming. But beyond the science, “The Land” — that’s how everyone there refers to the Institute in conversation — provides a fertile space for mixing the ideas of people as well as the genes of plants. In both cases, the hybrid vigor — the superior qualities that result from crossbreeding — is exciting.

With the rain providing an intermittent backbeat on the barn roof throughout a Saturday in late September, the 2010 Prairie Festival began with three talks — by poet/novelist Wendell Berry, economist Josh Farley, and biologist Sandra Steingraber — that were insightful on their own, but even more intriguing as an intellectual mash-up. The three were telling the story of how sin brought us to this place, how we must redefine success if we are to atone, and how essential that change is for our own safety. I had come expecting those kinds of insights and analyses, but surprisingly I left the barn that day with one revelation burning in my brain: While evil lurks in many places, it is most concentrated in fossil fuels.

On Sunday morning, Wes Jackson, The Land’s co-founder and president, played the role of ecologically evangelical preacher. We do indeed face challenges, Jackson testifies, but there is a better way to be found in Natural Systems Agriculture. Perennial polycultures can deliver us from that evil.

But before getting to the solutions, we have to understand the problem, which starts with sin.



Wendell Berry, who farms in his native Henry County, Kentucky, has become a kind of poet laureate of the sustainable agriculture movement, exploring culture and agriculture in verse, short stories, and novels. Establishing himself as a leading critic of industrial farming with his 1977 non-fiction book The Unsettling of America, he has been relentless in his analysis of the disastrous consequences of a consumption-obsessed, profit-driven society on both the human and the natural world.

The lanky Kentuckian began his talk by noting that he is not from Kansas, and therefore would speak about his home state, the place he knows and loves. That reflects one of Berry’s core themes, that the universal principles we articulate must be lived in intensely local fashion; one of his most well-known sayings is, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

Wherever we are living, Berry argues, we’re in trouble as a consequence of a “land-destroying economy” that pursues “production-by-exhaustion.” That’s most clearly visible in the rapacious destruction of the land’s biotic communities in mountaintop-removal coal mining in his part of the world, Berry says, but also true of agriculture most everywhere. Extracting fossil fuels from the ground is dangerous, and so is the way those fuels are used to work the ground in farming.

The mining of the forests and soil, along with the extraction of fossil fuels, may have started innocently, but since the European conquest of the Americas, “It took us only a little more than 200 years to pass from intentions sometimes approximately good to this horrible result, in which our education, our religion, our politics, and our daily lives all are implicated,” Berry tells the packed house in The Land’s barn.

“This is original sin, round two.”

The sin comes not just in the greed that drives exploitation but the lack of attention we pay to “what is not obvious” — the way we so often ignore the complexity of the world beyond our powers of observation and our failure to recognize the consequences of our inattention. Berry argues that when it takes 1,000 years for nature to produce one inch of topsoil, human farming practices that erode that soil are not simply bad practices but an act of desecration.

While Berry doesn’t hesitate to condemn the corporate henchmen who direct much of this destruction and the politicians who enable them, his point is that “the carelessness of our economic life” means we all play a part in that desecration. We are, in fact, all sinners against the integrity of the ecosystem.

Despite the severity of the critique, Berry articulates “authentic reasons for hope” that sound simple but require much of us.

“We can learn where we are, we can look around us and see,” he suggests. We also can rely on land health, “the capacity of the land for self-renewal,” and work at conservation, “our effort to understand and preserve that capacity.”

Berry doesn’t look to educational, political, or corporate institutions for much help in those efforts, suggesting that we instead look to “leadership from the bottom” that can be provided by groups and individuals “who without official permission or support or knowledge are seeing what needs to be done and doing it.”

As a writer, Berry thinks not just about our actions but about our words. He argues that slogans such as “think globally, act locally” are of little value and that terms such as “green,” which are too easily exploited by corporations for marketing, are downright dangerous.

“What gives hope is actual conversation, actual discourse, in which people say to one another in good faith, fully and exactly, what they know, and acknowledge honestly the limits of their knowledge,” he advises.



Josh Farley found that saying exactly what he knows has rarely helped his career as an economist. Walking the grounds of The Land before his talk, he told me that the more he studied neoclassical economics, the more he realized that free-market ideology couldn’t account for ecological realities. Most of his advisers counseled him to stick to the dogma of the discipline, but Farley managed to finish a Ph.D. and stay true to his calling. Seeking out other mentors, he hooked up with Herman Daly, a central figure in “ecological economics” and ended up co-writing with Daly the 2003 text Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications.

Now teaching at the University of Vermont, Farley is part of a small but growing group of economists who don’t simply treat the “environment” as a component of the economy but instead ask how we can construct an economy that can balance what is biologically and physically possible with what is socially and ethically desirable.

The first step in that, Farley told the Prairie Festival audience, is to dispense with some of the mythologies and mistakes of neoclassical economics.

High on the list of mythologies is the notion that our affluence is the product of the wonders of the capitalist market economy. Farley reminds us that capitalism developed alongside the exploitation of fossil fuels, first coal and then oil and natural gas.  Our productivity is the result not of the magic of the market so much as the magic of fossil fuels. Given that a barrel of oil can do the work of 20,000 hours of human labor, Farley says, such dramatic expansion of productivity is not so magical after all.

Markets also make mistakes. Humans use all that energy to transform our ecosystems faster than they can recharge or be restored. Resources are mined and waste is spewed according to the dictates of the market, not the limits of the natural world. Farley points out that there’s no feedback loop in the market economy that stops us from destroying the planet, nothing that resets the prices of goods to reflect that destruction. That’s a problem, Farley says, in his trademark understated fashion.

As a result, we get confused about terms such as efficiency, Farley says. Before fossil fuels, when humans lived almost exclusively on the energy of contemporary sunlight, one calorie burned by a worker could create 10 calories of food, but now we use 10 calories from oil to create one calorie of food. And remember that the market has no way to account for the disastrous consequences of burning all those fossil fuels. And we’re increasingly dependent on non-renewable resources for the food we need to live. That’s efficiency?

But perhaps most dangerous is the story capitalism tells us not about the natural world but about us. Glorifying greed, capitalism tells us we are nothing more than “atomic globules of desire” and that “we’re individuals, apart from community, and all we want is more and more and more.” We need, Farley explains, a different conception of success.

To cope with these problems, Farley sets a modest goal: “A fundamental redesign of our economy.” Sounds naïve, but if we don’t find a way to do that, well, remember that the economy is based not on the “laws of economics” dreamed up by free-market ideologues but on “laws of nature” that we can’t dream away.



As a biologist, Sandra Steingraber has long studied the negative consequences of our inattention to human intervention into the natural world for individuals and ecosystems. She describes those two different trunks of the environmental movement: The focus on toxins’ effects on organisms, which first hit the public radar with the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring; and the focus on larger ecosystem effects, of which global warming/climate disruption are the gravest threat and which hit the public consciousness first with Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature in 1989.

Steingraber is best known for her inquiry into the effects of those toxins, an investigation that has been intensely personal; she is a cancer survivor, and her 1997 book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, examined the lines of evidence that establish connections between cancer and chemical contamination. Recognizing that both trunks amount to a “de-creation of life,” Steingraber has decided to turn to what she believes is the source of the problems.

Says Steingraber: The two trunks — “the toxification of all life” and “the dissolution of the whole life support system on which the planet rests” — have one root, fossil fuels.

“When you light [fossil fuels] on fire, you destroy our life-support system through the creation of heat-trapping gases,” she explains. “When you turn them into synthetic chemicals with the power to break chromosomes and tinker with brain cells and hormones, you destroy children.”

This realization has led Steingraber, a visiting scholar at Ithaca College living in upstate New York, to get involved with the movement to stop hydrofracking, a controversial method of getting at natural gas in shale that involves blasting millions of gallons water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground to force gas out of the rock. That process, she says, is another version of mountaintop-removal and deep-water drilling, another desperate attempt to extend a fossil-fuel economy that is fundamentally unsustainable. In such a world, no one is safe. We all live downstream.


Nature as measure

In the talks of Berry, Farley, and Steingraber — three very different people with very different backgrounds and training — the common thread is the recognition of the centrality of fossil fuels: to the desecration of land and communities, to the economy’s distortion of our sense of success, to the threats to the health of each of us and the ecosystem.

In that Kansas barn, friends of The Land gathered out of a belief that there are alternatives, and that nowhere is the pursuit of those alternatives more important than in agriculture, the way in which we feed ourselves. For many at Prairie Festival, the research being conducted at The Land is a key to our hopes, and those hopes are bolstered in Wes Jackson’s talk, which traditionally closes out the festival.

Jackson, who grew up on a Kansas farm before earning a Ph.D. in plant genetics, gave up a comfortable university teaching position to start The Land in 1976. His talk reflects both his roots on the farm and his specialized training, but there also are strains of the preacher in his presentation, as he speaks of both sin and redemption.

That redemption in agriculture can come, Jackson preaches, from recognizing that industrial farming — annual plants cultivated in monocultures, dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides — has greatly expanded yields but at the cost of increased soil erosion and decreased soil fertility. That “failure of success” as Jackson calls it, leaves us no choice but to look to nature for guidance. Rather than mimicking industrial processes, farmers have to ask how natural ecosystems hold soil and ensure fertility. Wheat farmers in Kansas should be looking at the prairie for inspiration not a factory assembly line.

That is the core of Natural Systems Agriculture, taking nature as measure. The key to The Land’s research program is breeding perennial grains — whose deeper roots help hold the soil in place — that can produce adequate yields to feed us. Those perennials would ideally be planted in polycultures — mixtures of plants that to help control pathogens and weeds without petrochemicals.

While this research is the heart of The Land, Jackson speaks as much about solidarity as he does about science, about the commitment it will take to see this through. Prairie Festival is in part about an exchange of information between the invited speakers, The Land’s staff, and guests. But equally important is the role of this annual gathering in creating what Jackson calls “a consecrated community” that is committed over the long haul to the project of an agriculture that can reverse the erosion and depletion of the soil and provide a model for reversing the larger degradation of the planetary ecosystem.

If that project is to succeed, it will have to combine the traditional wisdom that farmers acquire in the fields with the specialized knowledge that scientists develop in the laboratory. But Jackson knows it also requires faith, and he ends with a preacher’s charge to the congregation.

Our task, he says, is to “save the soils as we save our souls.”

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