Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bonobos and Chimpanzees

Bonobos are apes that look similar to chimpanzees. (There are physical differences, but I'm not enough of a primate expert to be able to pick them out.) Their behavior, however, is something else. You have to read a lot about them to believe that they exist. They seem like something a sex-obsessed leftie would dream up, but they're quite real. Frans de Waal, an expert on Bonobo behavior, describes them as being "female-centered, egalitarian, ... and substitute sex for aggression." That is an understatement.

(There is a lot of information on the web about bonobos--much of it is from de Waal, but other stuff collaborates his findings. If you want to read a fun blog look at Bonobo Handshake, written by a researcher at the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Congo.)

Chimpanzees and bonobos are the two primates that seem most closely related to humans. More than 98% of their DNA is identical to ours. But the behaviors of bonobos and chimps couldn't be more different. Bonobos are a true matriarchal society--bonobo males stay near their mother throughout their life and in bonobo society, it's the mothers that are dominant. However, in chimpanzees, aggressive males rule.

"The most important fact, which has remained unchanged over the last three decades of bonobo research, is that there exist no confirmed reports of lethal aggression, neither from the field nor from captivity. For chimpanzees, in contrast, we have dozens of cases of adult males killing other males, of males killing infants, of females killing infants, and so on. This is in the wild. ... There is absolutely no dearth of such information on chimpanzees, which contrasts greatly with the zero incidence in bonobos. " (Frans de Waal)

De Waal cautions against 'fairy tale' writing about bonobos. There are plenty of conflicts between bonobos. But generally the animals deal with them by 'sexual conflict resolution', a true case of 'make love, not war'.

"... at a forested sanctuary at Kinshasa it was recently decided to merge two groups of bonobos that had lived separately, just so as to induce some activity. No one would ever dream of doing this with chimpanzees as the only possible outcome would be a blood bath. The bonobos produced an orgy instead." (from an article by Frans de Waal)

Bonobos are overall more co-operative and egalitarian than chimpanzees. In experiments reported in the journal Current Biology, bonobos were able to cooperate better to retrieve food than chimpanzees (although chimpanzees hunt cooperatively in the wild), particularly when the food wasn't easy to divide.

So here are our two closest primate 'relatives'--one that's dominated by aggressive males that engage in hunting and warfare, and one that's headed up by the females, that's cooperative and relatively egalitarian, and where sex, rather than violence, is used to deal with conflict. As de Waal says, "The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power, the bonobo resolves power issues with sex..." In my last post, I wrote about our need for physical affection and how lack of affection is correlated with violence. Here we can see that it's not just true for human beings.

Frans de Waal has written a book called Our Inner Ape pointing out how similar the behavior of chimps and bonobos is to human behavior and how our biology is connected with their biology. He talks about the chimpanzee and the bonobo within each of us, and seeing humans as a hybrid of the two.

I'm sure anyone who has read much of this blog has no doubt which of the two I'd like to see humans be more like. But de Waal has also written a book called Peacemaking Among Primates where he talks about reconciliation behaviors in many ape and monkey species, including chimps and bonobos. He points out that forgiveness is not just a human characteristic.

Before you let anyone convince you that we can't change war, hierarchy, and domination, beause patriarchy, imperialism, and militarism are in our genes, check out the bonobos. Some of our closest relatives are peaceful bi/poly* feminists.

(*Bisexual and polyamorous. I'll talk more about being bi and poly in a future blog.)

Quote of the day: "...the art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behavior. Given its peacemaking and appeasement functions, it is not surprising that sex among bonobos occurs in so many different partner combinations, including between juveniles and adults. The need for peaceful coexistence is obviously not restricted to adult heterosexual pairs." - Frans de Waal
Word (or phrase) of the day: Biomass
Hero(es) of the day: Viktor Frankl

Monday, July 28, 2008

Love and Affection

In some of my earliest posts, I talked about how important love is. Being loving is fine, but it's also important that it's expressed.

I believe that affection, particularly physical affection, is an important way of telling people they are loved. And, while I can be an advocate for sexuality as a means for giving pleasure and affection to others, probably even more important are those physical but nonsexual means of showing affection: cuddling, snuggling, hugging, holding, holding hands, giving massages/backrubs/footrubs, and, of course, kissing. Nonphysical ways of showing affection are important as well: smiling at people and telling them you like them, or even saying "I love you".

The need for physical affection begins young.

James Prescott, a neuropsychologist formerly with the National Institute of Health, started his career by following the lead of primate experimenters such as Harry Harlow, who showed that monkeys raised without some type of physical connection (even such a minimal connection as clutching a cloth 'surrogate mother' as opposed to a metal wire one) became anxious and violent. He then turned to anthropological findings to see how much this need for affection applied to human beings. Dr. Prescott looked at the literature covering 49 different societies, and found that cultures which provided high levels of infant physical affection were very low in adult violence, and cultures which did not provide much infant physical affection were high in adult violence. There were a few cultures that didn't fit that picture but it turned out that all the high infant affection, high violence cultures punished premarital sex and all the low infant affection, low violence cultures permitted premarital sex. Prescott says that without the premarital sex factor the presence or absence of infant physical affection predicts adult violence 80% of the time, and when the premarital sex factor is included, the two variables are a 100% accurate predictor of adult violence. There is a whole website devoted to the work of James Prescott and other relevant literature entitled The Origins of Peace and Violence.

Other researchers support much of this. Tiffany Field, who has done a great deal of research on the need for infant touch and stimulation, also looked at studies that used massage with aggressive adolescents. According to her, this research suggests that touch and human contact reduced violent behavior in these teens.

I don't think it's an accident that our patriarchal, capitalist society, downplays physical affection. Lack of affection not only increases the likelihood of violence, it creates lonely, needy people who are prey for advertisers who use sexual motifs to suggest that their product will give you what you are missing (not to mention being prey to military recruiters). Imagine if we had all the affection and connection that we needed. Maybe we wouldn't need so much in the way of material goods. Maybe we wouldn't need heirarchies and domination. Maybe there would be a lot less violence in the world.

Reach out to someone. Let them know that you care. Give them a hug if they want it. Love and affection are revolutionary acts.

Next: Sex, affection, equality, and violence among the primates.

Quote of the day: "We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth." - Virginia Satir
Word (or phrase) of the day: Geothermal
Hero(es) of the day: Phan Thị Kim Phúc

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Going Local

In this era of globalization, it's nice to see that some authors are focusing on local economic efforts. Three books in particular have caught my attention: Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age by Michael Shuman, Making a Place for Community: Local Politics in a Global Era by Thad Williamson, Gar Alperovitz, and David Imbroscio, and America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy by Gar Alperovitz. It's probably not an accident that all these authors are associated with the Institute for Policy Studies, and that Making a Place for Community frequently sites Going Local, and America Beyond Capitalism cites both of the previous books.

The theme of all three books is that local economic alternatives, including community- and municipally-owned corporations, help build stable communities and, as Alperovitz points out in America Beyond Capitalism, create more more democratic ownership of wealth. The books cover a lot of alternatives, including employee-ownership, worker-run businesses, cooperatives, community development corporations, and land trusts. Both Going Local and Making a Place for Community have extensive resource lists in their appendices: Shuman calls his 'Around the World Economy in 80 Ways'; the appendix in Making a Place for Community is more simply entitled 'Resources for Rebuilding'. The amount of information in these books is incredible and very useful.

But that may be the main problem with at least two of these books. While they each do some evaluating, in their attempts to be comprehensive, all three of them almost seem more like catalogs than well argued works. While having so much information is useful, reading these books is almost numbing at times, as they list one local economic enterprise after another. These books are wonderful resources, but I'd like to find some works that critically evaluate community-based economic experiments--what works, what doesn't, and what could be connected to build regional economic networks. Alperovitz does devote a couple of chapters in America Beyond Capitalism to 'The Regional Restructuring of the American Continent', but rather than just listing a few regional structures, he needs to flesh out what is possible if his 'Pluralistic Commonwealth' is going to be more than just another idea.

On the other hand, Going Local gets prescriptive in its last chapter. Michael Shuman ends his book with suggestions and ideas of where to go with all this. Among other things, he includes 'Ten Steps Toward Community Self-Reliance', starting with 'A Community Bill of Rights' and ending with 'Interlocalism' (and including things like 'Community Currency' and 'A Lobby for Localism'). While I think all of these books are worth reading, if only to learn how much local and cooperative organizing is going on, Going Local may be the most useful of the three. It may also be worth owning both Going Local and Making a Place for Community to have both of these comprehensive appendices on hand.

Quote of the day: "A new commitment to going local would mark a dramatic shift in the economic-development strategy of almost every city in America. It's a strategy that will unify people of many political stripes. Talk with the heads of Chambers of Commerce and the leaders of progressive social movements, and you will find that both are livid about being misled and sold out by the promises of disloyal corporations." - Michael Shuman
Word (or phrase) of the day: Libertarian Municipalism
Hero(es) of the day: Thomas Merton

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Feeding Ourselves in the Future

In 1977, Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins published a book called Food First. One of the points of the title was that while there are many issues to consider, food is a priority. After air and water, food may be the next most important thing for our survival.

If the peakniks are right, if industrial civilization collapses, making sure that people will be fed will be a major issue. And, even if the peakniks are wrong, if we are going to try to create some sort of alternative system, we will still have to feed people.

Some parts of an alternative food system are actually in place now. Like farmers. We don't need agribusiness--megafarms and the Green Revolution aren't going to help us come the collapse or the revolution. What we want are small-scale farmers, family farmers.

So how can we support them now? And how can we get as many of them as possible to grow their food organically? Not because it's cool and groovy, but because it's better for us and because when oil gets too pricy, farmers won't be able to afford the pesticides and fertilizers.

One way to support small farms is farmer's markets. Most cities have them these days. The Local Harvest website has a farmer's market locator. One way to support your local farmers is to support your local farmer's market. Shop there.

Another way to support farmers is Community Supported Agriculture, also known as CSAs. CSAs are a European creation that came to the US in the 1980s. With CSAs, individuals and families can become "shareholders" in a farm, by paying a yearly membership fee, and in return receive an often weekly (during the growing season) share of what the farm is harvesting. The members get fresh food and help support the farm and the farmers can focus on growing the food and not have to worry about marketing and financial concerns. The USDA has a website devoted to CSAs with much more information and there is also a CSA locator on the Local Harvest website.

The farmers themselves can form producer co-operatives. While some agricultural cooperatives, such as Land O'Lakes, Ocean Spray, Sun-Maid, and Sunkist, have become agribusinesses unto themselves, often forgetting their local roots in an effort to gain a market share, others, such as Organic Valley and Cabot Creamery Cooperative, are proud of their 'farmer-owners' and co-operative structure.

The 'Eat Local' movement (aka locovores, locavores, localvores, or 'local heros') has been a strong supporter of small, local farms. These groups often advocate eating produce grown anywhere from 50 to 200 miles away. There is a 100 Mile Diet website that advocates their 'Diet' as a local-eating experiment. Noted author Barbara Kingsolver co-wrote a book with her husband and their daughter about their year of eating locally. Animal, Vegetable,
Miracle (website) has popularized the notion of eating locally, as has Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma (website) which looks at the food industry and the difference between organic food from Whole Foods (some originating in Argentina) and organic foods grown at a local farm.

Beyond supporting local farmer, it's worth supporting local vendors. If you go to the store, do you want to go to megafoods supermarket (and you may have no choice) or do you go to a little family run store--or your local food co-op? Megafoods is owned by a major corporation (possibly based on a different continent) and run by a corporate directorate. You can meet the owners of the family run market when you walk in the market. Or you can be one of the owners of the food co-op--most food co-ops are consumer co-operatives, owned and run by the people who shop there.

And then there's the possibility of growing some of your own food. There are literally hundreds of books on growing food from Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening to Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening--not to mention all the literature on permaculture (see my last post).

But what if you live in the city and don't have any land? There's always container gardening (Ohio State University , Texas A & M, and North Carolina State University all offer online resources). More importantly, there are community gardens where you can garden with your neighbors. In the US, the American Community Garden Association has a website where you can locate community gardens near you.

I'm fortunate to be living in Boston where there are lots of these types of resources, including one organization, the Food Project that teaches young people (often urban youth) to farm, helps local residents by providing raised beds for gardening and giving workshops on garden maintenance, has a CSA and contributes to Farmer's Markets, and has created a guide to local farms and farmer's markets. They see their mission as building a sustainable food system.

In essence, I think the long term goal is to build a sustainable food system. We need to find ways of networking small-scale farms, farmers markets, CSAs, producer co-ops, consumer co-ops, small family-run stores, community gardens, and the local food movement, to create lots of alternative food systems that are sustainable and can sustain us without agribusiness and when cheap fuel is not available.

Note: I was going to call this post 'Feeding the Future'--then I discovered that there is already a book by that name full of what looks like intriguing essays. (I know, I know, there was a 2006 Minnesota conference called 'Feeding Ourselves in the Future'--but I had to call this post something...)

Quote of the day: "Family farms are the engines for economic vitality, in both rural communities as well as urban areas that benefit from jobs created by vibrant local and regional food systems. ... The more we keep farming local, the stronger the community." -Willie Nelson
Word (or phrase) of the day: Pansexual
Hero(es) of the day: Starhawk

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


'Permaculture', a term coined by Australian naturalist, Bill Mollison, and his student, David Holmgren, around 1978, is a bit of a two-headed beast. It means both 'permanent agriculture and 'permanent culture'. This makes sense when you realize that permaculture can be a method of gardening or farming as well as a way of looking at systems such as community and society.

As an agricultural method, permaculture employs a great many techniques ranging from sheet mulching and polyculture to emphasizing things like tree crops and edible perennial plants. More than this, however, it is a method of designing food systems that are ecological, interconnected, and sustainable. In permaculture, each plant or design element performs multiple functions and each function in the design is supported by many components of the system. Permaculturists talk about beginning with thoughtful observation of ecological systems, looking at interconnections within a system (sometimes referred to as the 'working relationships' between plants), and designing in the patterns of natural systems. While this certainly applies to gardening, more and more permaculturists are applying the same principles to social systems.

Permaculture, of all types, has made an ethical commitment to three principles: caring for the earth, caring for people, and distributing whatever surplus is available to make sure that resources are used in fair and equitable ways. This last principle means placing limits on consumption--and population.

Permaculture has had a growing influence on activists as well as organic farmers. Starhawk, in her book Webs of Power, points out how permacultural principles suggest ideas for new economic and political systems.

A resource I'd suggest for people interested in exploring permaculture is the Introduction to Permaculture website which contains various definitions of permaculture as well as a resource list of books, articles, and many, many websites. A good book for someone wanting to start using permaculture in gardening is Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway.

Quote of the day: "The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children..." - Bill Mollison
Word (or phrase) of the day: Pluralistic Commonwealth
Hero(es) of the day: Kai Leigh Harriott

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Peak Everything

In my last post I discussed the phenomenon of Peak Oil. But it's not just oil that's peaking. Most peak oil people are quick to point out that our natural gas supplies are just as limited. More to the point, peak oil theorist Richard Heinberg has published a newer book, Peak Everything, where he claims that oil and gas are just the tip of the iceberg.

Some nonecological types, when confronted with peak oil, will say not to worry--there's always coal and nuclear power. Forgetting about the environmental implications of using these fuels for a moment, reading Heinberg makes you wonder how long even things like coal and uranium will last. Heinberg claims that world coal production will peak in ten to twenty years and the uranium supply will begin diminishing midcentury. He also says that over the next hundred years we will also see declines in population, grain production, arable land, wild fish harvests, fresh water, climate stability, and yearly extraction of copper, zinc, platinum, silver, and gold--and he has charts to back this up. The next few decades are going to bring us less energy, food, and fresh water. From there, Heinberg sees things leading to a lessening of consumption, economic growth, mobility, technological change, and political stability.

He does say that the news isn't all bad. Some other things he thinks will peak over the next century include: economic inequality, environmental destruction, and greenhouse gas emissions. And he points out that there are things that are not in any danger of peaking. He doesn't list renewable resources like wind and solar (although they won't be going away); instead he lists community, cooperation, ingenuity, artistry, and things like satifaction from honest work, intergenerational solidarity, personal autonomy, leisure time, happiness, and 'the beauty of the built environment'.

He sees an end to Industrial Capitalism. And Heinberg isn't the only one. James Kunstler, whose book The Long Emergency has a similar dire forecast, has also written a novel, World Made by Hand, that tries to imagine what a post oil world would look like. There is a whole website (Life After the Oil Crash ) devoted to thinking about life beyond our current western civilization. There are, of course, lots of writers who think that all this is nonsense. Some don't believe in peak oil (a few, like the abiogenic theorists, don't even believe that there are limited supplies of oil) and others think we have the technology to replace oil and whatever else we run low on. They deride the believers in industrial decline (and I am coming to be one of them) as 'peakniks'.

But I don't think we can make wind turbines and solar cells fast enough. The hydrogen fuel cell is in its very early stages of development and struggling there. Coal (which many nations are turning to) causes massive pollution and accelerates global warming (which is already a major problem). I can summarize the difficulty with nuclear power in two words: waste storage.

I really think that we are coming to the point where we may need to choose between poisoning ourselves with what little coal and uranium we have left, and seeing industrial civilization come to a grinding halt.

And it may be soon, especially if we want to eat. One of the major effects of oil and other energy shortages is around food production. Food supply is very dependent on oil, not just for transportation and distribution (and it is very dependent on oil for this) but for the creation of fertilizer. The so-called Green Revolution was completely fueled by oil. I don't think it's an accident that food prices are rising as fast as oil prices and that food riots are breaking out. We are going to need to learn to grow our own food again. Heinberg, writing in Peak Everything, predicts a vast increase in the number of people becoming gardeners and farmers. He has a chapter called 'Fifty Million Farmers' where he claims that we will need to see the majority of workers return to farming if we are going to survive.

I talked in an earlier post about the need to move from Agitating (protests) to focusing on Educating and Organizing. Here's where that really comes into play. Like the Chinese word for 'crisis' (made from the symbols for 'danger' and 'opportunity'), the possibility of industrial collapse gives us a risky chance to create local, decentralized systems that could work for us. The situation reminds me of the title of Martin Luther King's 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Whether the collapse of corporate capitalism would result in dangerous chaos or the opportunity to recreate community will probably depend on how much education and organizing of alternatives we are able to do now.

(Actually, from a social change perspective, it doesn't matter whether capitalism collapses or not. Even if the peak oil stuff is all wrong and we do need to struggle with the system, the same work of educating and organizing alternatives would have to happen before we can tear down the system. Unfortunately, as history has taught us, without an alternative in place, after the revolution things slowly return to where they were before the struggle, only with different people in charge.)

Quote of the day: "...efforts to try to bring industrialism to ruin prematurely seem to be pointless and wrongheaded: ruin will come soon enough on its own. Better to invest your time in personal and community preparedness. ... Learn to understand and repair (as much as possible) existing tools--including water pumps, farm implements, and woodworking tools--that are likely to still be useful when there is no gasoline or electricity." - Richard Heinberg
Word (or phrase) of the day: Womanism
Hero(es) of the day: Emma Goldman

Friday, July 18, 2008

Peak Oil

Watching the oil prices go up, up, up, is fascinating. Commentators keep arguing about whether this is because of producers playing the market, speculators playing the market, pipeline sabotage, oil workers threatening to strike, etc, etc. Amazingly enough, for business folks who usually talk mostly about supply and demand, few articles are talking about the oil supply and demand.

But a number of writers--many of them geologists, financiers, and journalists--have started discussing something called Peak Oil. (Some books about this include: Kenneth Deffeyes, Beyond Oil; Colin Campbell, The Coming Oil Crisis; Jeremy Leggett, Half Gone; Matthew Simmons, Twilight in the Desert; Dale Allen Pfeiffer, The End of the Oil Age; Richard Heinberg, The Party's Over; Paul Roberts, The End of Oil; and James Kunstler, The Long Emergency.) The gist of Peak Oil theory is a prediction (first made by a geologist working for Shell Oil, M King Hubbert, in 1969) that the peak production of oil would occur around the millenium. (Hubbert apparently thought it would occur around 1995-2000, Deffeyes claims it happened at the end of 2005, and the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas is guessing it will occur in 2010. Even the wildest oil optimists--for example the US Energy Information Administration spokesperson quoted in Roberts, The End of Oil--forecast an oil production peak of 2035.) Regardless of the actual date involved, the point is not that we are running out of oil (the peak is the halfway point) but that oil production can't be sustained at the rate it's happening now. Moreover, once we've reached the peak, the decline may be fairly rapid.

For one thing, the oil we've been using is the oil that's easy to get--it's going to take more and more energy to get the oil and at some point it isn't going to be worth it. More importantly, the demand (especially with developing countries such as China and India using more and more energy) appears to be increasing even as the supply may be diminishing. That's the supply and demand that I think may be responsible for the surging oil prices. Even with the increase in oil prices, the demand (worldwide) is increasing with it.

What does all this have to do with social change? Industrial society runs on oil. Our cars, buses, trucks, trains, and airplanes all depend on oil. Almost everything that's made of plastic is made from oil. Most of our medicines are made from oil. And our food is brought to us by trucks running on oil--and, depending on where you live, that could be a lot of oil.

Radical writers are always talking about how to dismantle the system, how to smash the state, destroy corporate capitalism. I saw a bumper sticker in 1991 that said 'Visualize Industrial Collapse'. I couldn't do it then. I can now. What if rather than dismantling capitalism, it collapsed on its own? Especially if oil isn't the only thing that's reaching its peak...

More next post...

Quote of the day: "Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." - Kenneth Boulding
Word (or phrase) of the day: Parecon
Hero(es) of the day: Aung San Suu Kyi

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Complexity Theory

One theory that I find useful in thinking about how we can create a better world comes out of the science that's being called 'complexity' or the theory of complex adaptive systems. I've put stuff related to complexity in my 'Word (or phrase) of the day' but I haven't been happy with the links that I could find. I've had to resort to Wikipedia and even those articles were filled with technical jargon. Basically, 'Complex Adaptive Systems' (in my last post) are what they sound like: systems that are complex but are able to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. 'Emergence' (in a future post) means things can spontaneously arise from the reorganization of systems. More on all this below.

There are a lot of books out on complexity, including Complexity by M Mitchell Waldrop, At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman, Complexity, Life at the Edge of Chaos by Roger Lewin, and Emergence: From Chaos to Order by John Holland. I've read the Waldrop book and it seems useful and readable. Unfortunately, I can't vouch for the other books. Fritjof Capra has also written several books influenced by complexity theory (plus systems theory and ecology) which I will review in the future. Also note that chaos theory (which has gotten lots of popular press) is related to complexity, but where chaos stuff concentrates on how things work (like weather and turbulence and coastlines and the formation of snowflakes), complexity is more concerned with life and living systems.

Complexity theorists talk about how complex systems emerge from simple systems, often spontaneously. They believe that there are self-organizing tendencies in life and the universe at large that counter the better known tendency toward disorder (often called entropy).

Researchers found that as complex living systems emerge, things grow from the bottom up. When these scientists did computer simulations, they found that top-down systems didn't work. The top-down systems tried to manage everything but couldn't cope with lots of new, unexpected situations. Bottom up systems, on the other hand, evolve and learn so that they are better able to handle the unexpected. Some of the complexity scientists think this may be part of the explanation for the failure of the top-down 'Communist' revolutions of the twentieth-century. They suggest we're better off using local control and letting systems of behavior emerge from the bottom up than using global, top down control. (Global, top down control is, of course, what transnational capitalism does. The need for building from the bottom up is something that most grassroots organizers know anyway, but it's nice to have it scientifically validated.)

Complexity scientists compare healthy societies and economies to cellular organisms which use feedback to regulate themselves. They talk about life developing on 'the edge of chaos' and point out that both chaos and order are needed for cells, economies, and societies. They also note that creativity is needed to change and adapt in response to new conditions.

In what I thought was a very interesting experiment, some computer scientists held a competition between computer simulation programs. They found that a simple, cooperative program (that was described as "nice, forgiving, tough, and clear") outperformed the seventy-five other programs it was matched against, many of which were very complex and aggressive. This got several of the scientists to rethink their ideas about the value of competition and survival of the fittest. They began talking about the coevolution of cooperation, and how it seems to work better than any cutthroat strategy.

Being "nice, forgiving, tough, and clear" seems like a pretty good strategy, perhaps even an extension of loving-kindness. This, along with flexibility, creativity, and building small systems and then networking them (yes, the complexity scientists talk about that as well), is a good place to start the work of social change. From there we can go to creating larger, more complex systems built and developed from the ground up. It's the grassroots organizing model and it seems to be the only model that will really work for changing things.

Quote of the day: "I think the next century will be the century of complexity." — Stephen Hawking (January, 2000)
Word (or phrase) of the day: Permaculture
Hero(es) of the day: Thich Nhat Hanh

Monday, July 14, 2008

An Annotated Utopia

So here's a list of utopian fiction. I've mostly annotated stuff I've read. Additions are welcome.

Some classic Utopias:

Plato, The Republic
Sir Thomas More, Utopia
Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward
William Morris, News from Nowhere
H. G. Wells, Men Like Gods
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

Unfortunately, although these often come up on list of utopian novels, I haven't read any of these books. I probably should but I prefer to read more contemporary visions of a better society.

Late Twentieth Century Utopias:

BF Skinner, Walden Two
Okay, it's a behaviorist utopia, and, yes, it's from the same man who wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, but have you actually read it? It looks at work, and class, and sex roles, and creates a very egalitarian model--and Skinner wrote this in 1948. Also, Twin Oaks, the classic egalitarian intentional community, is based on this book.

Aldous Huxley, Island
From the author of Brave New World, an ecological and psychological paradise. Huxley elsewhere has pointed out that much of the same techniques and technologies are used in both works, but the intention is different. Do we want to control people or free them? Huxley shows how out how the same conditioning can be used to spread love and compassion or sell cigarettes and dictatorships. A bit heavy on the psychedelic substances, but Huxley was a pioneer user of these drugs in the early sixties.

Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
An early classic of the feminist utopia. Her descriptions of psychiatric institutions seem bit exaggerated to me (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets Brave New World) but when Piercy describes Mouth of Mattapoisett, she makes me want to live there. After reading it I'm always tempted to start using 'person' as a pronoun.

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia
The classic ecological utopia. For me, it's missing the depth of the feminist utopias, but it has lots of good ideas for a more ecological lifestyle--and some silly ones (the war games, for example). Probably the most influential of the utopian books. Joel Garreau, in his Nine Nations of North America named the coastal region from northern California to southern British Columbia 'Ecotopia', after this book.

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia Emerging
The prequel. Callenbach creates a bridge between now and his utopian future, and sketches out one way to get there. It relies a bit too heavily on technological luck (a self taught young scientist figures out a cheap way to make solar cells) and worse, on nuclear blackmail, but it still gives some good ideas on social change.

Sally Miller Gearhart, The Wanderground
A feminist classic. It may push a lot of men's buttons, especially since she raises the question of whether women can trust men--and doesn't answer it. She does create a group of sympathetic gay men ('the Gentles') and sketches one scene where they push the women on disability issues. Unfortunately, this utopia is very dependent on psychic abilities, but there are a lot of good descriptions of consensus and feminist processes.

Larry Mitchell (with Ned Asta), The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions
More of a fable than a utopian novel, I think of this as the Gentles' (from The Wanderground--only here they're called 'the Faggots') version of things. A sweet parable with cute pictures, but it may disturb folks that are either homophobic or don't like gays to use terms like faggots and queers. Also sexually graphic. I like that it portrays some men moving away from gender roles and disavowing patriarchy. Unfortunately, it doesn't show what life is like after the revolution.

Joan Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean
Well written but almost too simplistic, following the feminist formula of a planet of women meeting a planet run by militaristic men and defeating them by nonviolent witness. Some good description of how sharing information freely can convert those who oppose you. The ocean planet is interesting--sort of a Dune (for those familiar with the Frank Herbert science fiction book) in reverse. The point of not interfering with ecological processes even when they seem disastrous is well made--the consequences of stopping a rather scary phenomenon turns out to be even more horrendous.

Joan Slonczewski, Daughters of Elysium
A much more nuanced book than A Door Into Ocean. It takes place on the same planet but is set over a thousand years in the future. Here the intersection of many cultures (the Sharers from A Door Into Ocean, the Elsians who now also live on the planet, the Windclan family from Bronze Sky, the militant and patriarchal Urulans, and an emerging culture of sentient cyberbeings) raises fascinating questions and looks at issues of cultural diversity. While A Door Into Ocean remains Slonczewski's more popular book, I highly recommend this one.

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed
An anarchist and, as Le Guin writes, 'An Ambiguous Utopia', describing a decentralized, anarchist (and far from perfect) world and contrasting it with a planet, very much like late-twentieth earth, that holds capitalist and dictatorial socialist societies. I particularly liked her depiction of the city Abbenay with its teeming, colorful neighborhoods, and vividly portrayed omnibuses. Ursula LeGuin also wrote The Left Hand of Darkness which looks at gender issues, The Word for World is Forest, a novel of war, oppression, and ecology, and another utopian book Always Coming Home which I haven't read yet--but intend to.

Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing
This is Ecotopia from a pagan, feminist perspective. It's centered on the conflict between an earth-based, decentralized northern California (and focuses mainly on San Francisco) and a militaristic, right-wing Christian nation in southern California. While it does have good examples of nonviolent resistance, it relies on magic to solve many of the dilemmas. Starhawk also wrote a prequel, Walking to Mercury which, while not utopian fiction, does give some insight into
Maya, a main character in The Fifth Sacred Thing, as well as giving Starhawk's take on events in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-eighties.

Rob Brezsny, The Televisionary Oracle
Not quite a utopian work, but mostly fiction and pointing toward a very different kind of future. This is a zany take on subverting patriarchy and 'killing the apocalypse' and is quite entertaining. It reads the way that Tom Robbins would write if he decided he was a 'macho feminist' and wanted to change the world. It's not always politically correct, it often goes off the deep end, and it has lots of graphic heterosexual sex, but I'd recommend it if you want to read something completely different.

Other recent (mid-sixties to present) utopian works (that I either haven't read or forgotten):

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (On my list to read. I've seen it listed by some people as a 'dystopia'[horrible future] but apparently it contains elements of revolutionary struggle and alternative family culture. I'll let you know how useful it is after I've read it.)

Dorothy Bryant, The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You (I read this a long time ago and remember little about it)

Mary Staton, From the Legend of Biel (ditto)

Sheri Tepper, The Gate to Women's Country (A feminist utopian classic, I hear. I haven't read it but probably should.)

Kim Stanley Robinson, the Three Californias Trilogy (especially Pacific Edge) and the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars) (I've only read Green Mars which was enjoyable but too interwoven with Red Mars to make an intelligent comment without reading them both--I really can't comment on either series--but they sound worthwhile.)

Mike Resnick, Kirinyaga (I just found out about this book--it's a collection of short stories and "A Fable of Utopia", but it looks interesting enough that I want to read it.)

Peter Hamilton, The Night's Dawn Trilogy (The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God) (These works appear massive and complex--I don't know if I'd tackle them, but it's nice to know that the writer cares about issues of creating egalitarian societies enough to write so much.)

Brian Aldiss, White Mars (Apparently, the long-time science fiction author's answer to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.)

Harvey Wasserman, Solartopia (I haven't read it, but it looks like an updated version of Ecotopia, heavy on the alternative energy stuff, especially hydrogen power and, of course, solar energy.)

Heidi Wyss, Gormglaith (Written in 2007 by a Swiss/English author, it's available online. The piece is difficult to read and comes with it's own glossary. I started it but I'm not sure how much of it I'll read. It's described as hard science fiction with a witchy bent, set in a radical feminist separatist world of the future.)

Whew. So what did I leave out?

(And for those overwhelmed by this list, or someone who might just want a few choices to begin with, I'd recommend Ecotopia, Woman on the Edge of Time, and The Dispossessed as good starting books.)

Quote of the Day: "...vigorous utopian thinking sketches models of a peaceable kingdom, points us toward society's repressed possibilities, enables us to see more clearly actual tendencies, both positive and negative, strengthens our grounds for rejecting existing social forms, reactivates lost dreams and longings, and encourages political action." - Ronald Aronson
Word (or phrase) of the day: Complex Adaptive Systems
Hero(es) of the day: Julie and Michael Weisser and Larry Trapp

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why read Utopian Fiction?

I read a lot of books about politics, economics, psychology, ecology, science, sexuality, spirituality, and even things like peak oil, gardening, writing, and music. (Let's just say I read a lot.) Mostly these days I read nonfiction. When I do read fiction, I read mostly speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, and utopian fiction.

Speculative fiction, particularly utopian fiction, allows the writer to perform thought experiments. What would happen if...? In a sense all fiction does this but speculative fiction allows greater latitude and experimentation.

For those of us trying to imagine a new world (and I think we need to imagine it in order to create it), utopian fiction gives us glimpses of what could be, what we could go for. In each book, the author has put together a world which works, at least on paper, and is far different from this world. We may not agree with everything in the world that is presented to us, but it often contains ideas that may prove useful in working for the world that we want. If nothing else, reading a variety of utopian works gives us a panorama of what's possible.

I mentioned several posts back that in order to change things, we need to really understand what is happening now, to know clearly what we are going for, and to come up with a way (or maybe a lot of different ways) to get from here to there--analysis, vision, and strategy. I mentioned that there are plenty of good analyses around and I talked some about strategy. Vision is an essential part of the picture. If you don't know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?

In a sense, social change groups without clear goals are like buses without destination signs (hey, I live in the city--I take buses all the time). I wouldn't get on a bus that didn't have a clear destination. Why would I ride it if I didn't know where it was going?

So we need goals and visions. We particularly need dreams and visions in order to create change. And I think that reading utopian fiction encourages the most creative type of dreaming. So you don't like what the author wrote. How would you do it better? What exactly do you want? Even the worst of utopian fiction can be an inspiration to clearer thinking about what we are going after.

In my next post, I will provide an extensive, annotated list of some utopian fiction. Feel free to email me with some of your favorites--or comment on the list after I post it. The more we read and think about possible futures, the more creative we can become about building the one we want.

Next up: The List!

Quote of the day: "I am leaving this legacy to all of you ... to bring peace, justice, equality, love and a fulfillment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die..." - Rosa Parks
Word (or phrase) of the day: Peaknik
Hero(es) of the day: Dom Helder Camara

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Inciting Democracy

Randy Schutt, an activist out in Cleveland, has written what he calls "A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society". His book is Inciting Democracy (a great title, by the way) and is available through through his website.

The project that he proposes is interesting and detailed. But it's the analysis and strategy behind the project that I found so inspiring. He writes clearly and comprehensively about the skills and values needed to change the society. He lists what he views as the five primary obstacles to progressive change. Then he outlines what he considers the 'Essential Components of an Effective Strategy':
  • Clear Conceptions of Progressive Change (what I've been referring to as 'Vision'),
  • Widespread Education (so necessary, as I've said),
  • Widespread Emotional Therapy (I would put this more in terms of personal growth or personal healing, but yes),
  • Supportive Community for Progressive Activists (absolutely!),
  • Large Numbers of Activists Working Simultaneously for Progressive Change (of course), and
  • Many Concerted Change Efforts Continuing for Many Years (ie, persistance pays off).

He follows this with what he entitles the 'Four Stages of Societal Transformation':
  1. Lay the Groundwork,
  2. Gather Support,
  3. Struggle for Power, and
  4. Diffuse Change Throughout Society.

He breaks each of the first three stages into sub-states; for example his first stage of 'Lay the Groundwork' has sub-stages of: Find Other Progressives, Learn How Human Affairs are Now Organized, Learn and Practice Change Skills, and Form Supportive Communities.

Most of this is very similar to what I had been thinking even before I read the book, but Randy Schutt writes so well and has thought so thoroughly about social change that reading this has crystallized much of my current strategic viewpoint. On top of all this, he includes an entire chapter of the book devoted to useful resources, including 21 pages of books and articles (with annotations), a list of progressive book publishers, an annotated listing of magazines that have a social change focus or alternative perspective, and lists of progressive radio programs and

Beyond the book, Schutt's website contains papers that he has written on Nonviolent Action, Social Change, and Cooperative Decision Making, as well as links to nine different activist training programs. He is also partly responsible for another website (along with long-time activist, Pamela Haines): the START project which is a home study course that teaches social change basics by giving people the information to be able to do analysis, vision, and strategy (it's one of the links I keep on my sidebar).

I'm quite grateful to Randy Schutt for offering the world so much really useful stuff.

Quote of the day: "As I stood with my colleagues singing songs of struggle and love... I knew what it was like to really live--to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other people, to boldly fight oppression and injustice, to courageously risk my career and my life for something truly important, to love people deeply, to cherish all of humanity.
"What if everyone did this? What if the whole world were like this? What if our daily lives had this same camaraderie and loving spirit?" - Randy Schutt
Word (or phrase) of the day: Watershed
Hero(es) of the day: Jeremiah Wright and James Cone

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Participatory Economics and Economic Theory

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel are two of the main writers of the general radical theory that I talked about in the last post. After developing the general theory, they also came out with work specifically oriented toward the economic sector. They are clear that they don't think this sector is primary, just that this is where they've started and worked hardest on. They've stated their wish that others develop similar theory for the other sectors.

Their theory is called Participitory Economics or Parecon for short. I will only briefly summarize it. There is a Parecon website that has booklists, instructionals, and discussions. (They actually have three books--Parecon, Thinking Forward, and Moving Forward--online at this site. Albert and Hahnel have written quite a few books about Parecon.)

Parecon is built around 'balanced job complexes' (work that is organized so that everyone has an equal proportion of enjoyable, empowering tasks, and basic hard and tough grunt work), 'remunerative justice' (everyone gets paid for how long and hard they work, and not for the status of the position), self-management through workers and consumers councils, and 'participatory planning' through a highly developed process that Albert and Hahnel lay out in their work.

I think Parecon is the best developed alternative economic theory that I've come across.

The only thing I've found wrong with it is Albert and Hahnel's claim that it is the only viable, nonoppressive alternative to capitalism. Sometimes they act like it's The Answer. There are actually a variety of approaches to economic change.

One example of a current alternative economic system (I think it's actually somewhat similar to Parecon although Albert and Hahnel might not think so) is the one that they use at the Twin Oaks community in Virginia. The economic system there has evolved over the years (and is still evolving) but their system takes care of all the 'needs' of the people living there in what they describe as a 'fully communal economic system'. (See Is It Utopia Yet? by Kat Kinkade for a full description. She devotes several chapters to both the economics of the community and how it is governed.) Some of how it reminds me of Parecon is the egalitarian nature of the system--everyone gets the same credit regardless of the work and, while they have 'planners'and 'managers', they try to share these duties (almost anyone who's been there a while and wants a manager position can get one) and "members who are managers in one area are workers in someone's area." Kat Kinkade goes on to say that "All of us take as much responsibility as we feel we can handle, and nobody bosses anybody else around." It's not quite as well thought out as Parecon, but Parecon is a theory and Twin Oaks is a real life situation. And it's been going strong for over 40 years now, so something is working. If you're interested in economic theories in practice, it's worth checking out Is It Utopia Yet? to see how some of this can work out.

For an overview of several alternative economic systems, Starhawk, who is among other things an anti-globalization activist, includes one in her book Webs of Power. (She also gives an overview of the antiglobalization movement in the book along with her thinking about rethinking nonviolent direct action. I'll talk more about some of Starhawk's thinking in a future post.) One thing I like is that she lists nine points which she sees as a minimal agreement for a new economic system.

Her list (from Webs of Power):

1. We must protect the viability of the life-sustaining systems of the planet, which are everywhere under attack.

2. A realm of the sacred exists, of things too precious to be commodified and must be respected.

3. Communities must control their own resources and destinies.

4. The rights and heritages of indigenous communities must be acknowledged and respected.

5. Enterprises must be rooted in communities and be responsible to communities and future generations.

6. Opportunities for human beings to meet their needs and fulfill their dreams and aspirations should be open to all.

7. Labor deserves just compensation, security, and dignity.

8. The human community has a collective responsibility to assure the basic means of life, growth, and development for all its members.

9. Democracy means that all people have a voice in the decisions that affect them, including economic decisions.

She expands these principles and then condenses them into the statement: "The job of the economy is to produce security and abundance for all, equably, efficiently, and sustainably, in a way that furthers human freedom and mutual solidarity, that strengthens our bond to place, and that protects the interests of future generations." She calls this 'Restorative Economic Democracy' and sees this as a starting point to build whatever alternative economic system (or systems) we decide on.

Quote of the day: "If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves." - Lane Kirkland
Word (or phrase) of the day: Walkshed
Hero(es) of the day: Frances Moore Lappe

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Radical Political Theory

There's a book called Liberating Theory by Albert, Cagan, Chomsky, Hahnel, King, Sargent, and Sklar. I'm not going to recommend it, because I don't think it's a particularly well written book (though some parts are fun and entertaining--it may be worth getting if you find this post useful). Fortunately there is a clearer version of much the same thing in a tutorial on ZNet--check out the Radical Theory Instructional.

The basic idea is that the progressive/radical movement is pretty fragmented. Albert, et al, claim that there are a few different basic ideologies that make up the movement. Four of these focus on different 'spheres' or sectors of society. (There are two other ones that focus on what's beyond this society--I'll get to these.) The four social ideologies are the major liberation movements. Albert and friends label these the Feminists, the Socialists, the Nationalists, and the Anarchists. The Feminists claim that Patriarchy is the problem and the family, the cradle of society, is the primary area we need to focus on. The Socialists claim that Capitalism is the problem and we need to focus on class and the workplace since that is what supports the society. The Nationalists claim that White Supremacy is the problem and we need to look at our cultural system and how the dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture oppresses anyone in our society who is not a WASP. And the Anarchists claim that the State is problem and we need to look at how government and hierarchy control our lives.

Albert, et al, point out that all four analyses are correct but each simply focuses on one 'sphere' of the society: the Feminists focus on the kinship sphere, including the family, gender, and sexuality; the Socialists focus on the economic sphere, including work and class; the Nationalists focus on the community sphere, including race, ethnicity, religion, and culture; and the Anarchists focus on the sphere they refer to as 'polity', including government and political structure. In spite of what each of these groups claim, none of these spheres are basic; they are all interlinked and all important in maintaining the society we have--and we have to change all four of these spheres (nearly simultaneously) in order to transform this society.

The point of the theorists who wrote Liberating Theory is that once we understand that all these 'spheres' are interconnected and none are primary, we can create more coherent strategies. I agree. I think we need to take all of these analyses in to account in order to build a better strategy. Getting caught up in which problem is 'primary' usually leads to counter productive arguments.

Two more ideologies focus on our connections beyond this society: the Ecology movement looks at how we relate to the environment, and the Peace movement looks at how we relate to other societies. We need to remember that our society doesn't exist in isolation. So as well as needing to change all different spheres of this society, we need to improve our connections to other societies and the natural world. This is an overview of what we'll have to do in order to create real change. It's a tall order, but there's what I think is the direction for change. It's complex, but there is no simple answer.

Quote of the day: "First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it." - William James
Word (or phrase) of the day: Interlocalism
Hero(es) of the day: Rosa Parks

Friday, July 4, 2008


I don't think of myself as a very patriotic person. In fact, I have sometimes described myself as a 'matriot', more loyal to mother earth than the fatherland. Nevertheless, it's July 4th, the American day of independence, and this, for me, brings up questions about the meaning of independence.

From a developmental perspective, I think of childhood as a time of dependency, adolescence as a period where the goal is independence, and adulthood as a time to strive for interdependence. In fact, I know some people who want to celebrate today as 'Interdependence Day'.

Independence is the great American myth. 'Rugged individualism', as the Republicans would say. 'I will do it myself, alone.' But the truth is that no one does it alone. There may be times, even in adult life, when we need to prove something and, as result, we need to act independent. And, unfortunately, we may need to return to dependence when we are sick or get old. Most of the time, however, we are part of a web of relationships: needing others and helping others. Interdependence means that we give and we take, we care for others and get taken care of in return. Interdependence means we do things together

Interdependence isn't always easy. It's often easier to say, 'I'll need to do it', or to say, 'do it for me', than to say 'we', 'us','let's do it together'. Often we don't know who the 'we' is. But none of us is really completely on our own.

This myth of independence and individualism, relates to social change as well. I've learned I can't change things by myself. Often we are waiting for a charismatic leader, a savior who will come and change things for us. As much as I admire leaders like Gandhi, or Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, they aren't the ones who made things happen. It wasn't Gandhi that liberated India, it was the thousands of Indians who marched, who struggled, who said no. The gains of the civil rights movement weren't made by Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, or Stokely Carmichael or Bayard Rustin or Rosa Parks. They were made by the thousands of marchers, the ones who wouldn't ride the bus and walked home, the ones who sat at coffee counters and faced down the police. I've pointed out in previous posts that top-down change doesn't work. No one can create change for us. If we are going to change things, we are going to have to do it together, building from the ground up. As the saying goes, "We are the ones we have been waiting for." (Apparently Alice Walker got this line from June Jordan, who may have gotten it from the Hopi.)

Years ago, I went camping out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I spent three days by myself; hiking, cooking, and sleeping under the stars. I never felt lonely--even though I didn't see another human during that time. I never felt I was alone. Everything that I did, I realized that I learned from someone. I may have been far from other humans, but I brought many people with me: my friends, my family, those that taught me to survive on my own. I realized then that I'm never really on my own. I've carried that insight with me since.

Quote of the day: "In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence." - Henry van Dyke
Word (or phrase) of the day: Eco-communalism
Hero(es) of the day: The Diggers (both incarnations)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Creating Social Change

Here's one possible overview of how to create change. You need three things: 1) You need to see very clearly what's going on now, 2) you need an explicit idea of where you want to go, and 3) you need a way of getting from here to there. Radical groups often refer to this as analysis, vision, and strategy.

There are a lot of good analyses around. Feminists can show clearly what patriarchy is and how it works. Black writers like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks detail how white supremacy keeps African-Americans and other people of color second-class citizens. Socialist writers have shown how capitalism and especially corporate capitalism (aka monopoly capitalism) makes a few people rich while workers and poor people suffer. Anarchists from Peter Kropotkin to Emma Goldman to Murray Bookchin point out the oppressiveness of both the state and hierarchal systems. Writers like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy demonstrate what global imperialism is doing to the world. Peace activists focus how war affects, not only those being warred upon, but the attackers, even if they are the so-called victors. Ecologists and environmentalists of all types provide an analysis of what we are doing to the planet. All of these writers are worth reading, but reading too many analyses of what's wrong gets depressing rather than activating. Analysis needs to be balanced with vision.

There are lots of good visions. Some of the best are in utopian novels--I'll put a list of these novels in a future blog.

My question is, how do we make that change happen? What kind of strategy do we need?

I learned the slogan "Agitate, Educate, Organize" when I was involved with community organizing out in Detroit. Unions and organizers have been using it for a long time. I've never been able to trace the quote to its source. I've seen it attributed to everyone from Susan B Anthony, to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, to the Knights of Labor, to Mother Jones, and to the Fabian Society.

When I've thought about social change and tried to figure out why we haven't gotten that far after all we did in the sixties (not to mention the twenties, thirties, seventies, and eighties--and all the other decades as well), "Agitate, Educate, Organize" came to my mind.

It seems like we've been really good at agitating. Using various kinds of demonstrations, protests, and direct actions, we stopped the Vietnam War, made some progress on civil rights (of all kinds), and stopped the building of nuclear power plants, among other things.

Organizing, however, has been so-so. There was a lot of good organizing done in the twenties and thirties (not to mention the eighteen-nineties). Much of that was coopted or destroyed in the red scares of the fifties. Since the sixties there have been some alternatives built, and some of them have lasted (more on this later). Liberals and progressives have built some organizations that have done quite a bit. But it feels as if there's a lot of strong, long-term organizing that still needs to be done.

However, it's in educating that we really need to work. Our message has been lost to the general public. Yes, there are some messages we've gotten out that have made it. Racism (at least overt racism) is not okay. Women have rights, and there is even some sympathy for gay people. There is more awareness about ecology and the environment, and recycling is common. People worry about global warming. The Iraq war is now widely recognized as a mistake.

But there is a lot of misinformation out there and the system often coopts what changes that do happen into their own ideology. Radicals and progressives are often seen (largely due to the success of our agitation) as against everything. It isn't clear to many people what we are actually in favor of. Although the conservatives claim the mainstream media is biased toward the liberals (and, yes, a lot of it is owned by people identified as liberal) the actual content is middle of the road (at best) to quite conservative. Of course, there are liberal media outlets--NPR for example. But how many people in this society get their information from NPR? Many more people get their information from commercial TV stations (FOX News being the worst) and talk radio. Along with that, fewer and fewer people are reading.* Yes, some people get their information off the internet, but that's a mixed bag, and it still leaves a large percentage dependent on TV and radio and the misinformation that comes from it.

One example of how widespread that misinformation is: A Harris poll in April 2004 found that 49 percent of Americans believed that "clear evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found." Only 36 percent disputed it. Of course this doesn't make a lot of sense if you know that Saddam Hussein's secular government stood for little that the Islamic fundamentalists in Al Qaeda believe in. Or that groups like the September 11th Commission (after thorough investigation) found no evidence of such a collaboration. But Vice President Cheney claimed that evidence of a link was "overwhelming," and stated that Hussein "had long-established ties with al Qaeda." And when the government claims something, and the media reports it as truth, people assume that it's reality. (The claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is another piece of misinformation, along with the assertion that Iran was building nuclear weapons--both of which have been disproved.) It seems like the government and the media do a better job 'educating' of the public then we do.

But simply making people aware of how bad things are is often counterproductive. In the sixties, when much of the public believed things were wonderful for everyone, learning the reality of things got a lot of folks angry. It got them out protesting and trying to change things. But by the time I was out in Detroit in the eighties, telling young people how bad things were was greeted with 'Yeah, we know that. That's just the way things are. You can't change that.' No one needs more information on how bad things are (they get that in the news every day). People need hope. More than that, they need a hope grounded in a vision of where we could be going and practical steps to get there. They need to see what could be and believe that it's possible.

How do we do that? We need clear strategy. Beyond agitating, we need to be able to educate and organize.

I suggest that we begin with theory and research. Begin by answering the questions: 'What's possible?' and 'How can we do this?'

As we get clearer about where we need to go, we must educate the public. We need to wake people up and get them thinking. Make more and more people aware of possibilities, as well as ways of moving forward. The more that people are aware of what’s going on and get support to think about it, the more they are going to want to see and create alternatives.

At the same time we need to do more organizing. The more alternatives we build, the more models are out there for people to see. We need to publicize these options and models so people know about them. And we need to reach a critical mass where building alternatives becomes the norm.

I'll talk about theory and theories in a future blog.

*[Newspaper readers are declining. Polls done a few years ago found that 54 percent of all Americans read a newspaper during the week and 62 percent read a paper on Sundays. In addition, fewer than half of American adults read anything literary.]

Quote of the day: "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love." - Che Guevara
Word (or phrase) of the day: Code Pink (and also Code Green)
Hero(es) of the day: Danilo Dolci