Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sustainability and Practicality

In order to make something that is Sustainable, it has to be Practical. That may seem self-evident, but there are many 'sustainable' options proposed that aren't practical (particularly if you try to put them into practice without many other pieces in place) and therefore are not really sustainable. Likewise, many things that people claim are more 'practical' aren't sustainable, and therefore in the long term they aren't practical. To create a world that works for everyone, we need to build things that are both practical and sustainable, since sustainability and practicality support each other.

Idealism is wonderful, creativity is important, but we always need to remember practicality and sustainability in what we do, since we are building for the long term.

Quote of the day: " makes no sense to be concerned about sustainability unless the aim is to try to actually achieve it. Sustainability should always be approached with a sense of immediacy and practicality even if the task to achieve the sustainability of something that is valued is enormous." - Philip Sutton
Word (or phrase) of the day: Redundancy
Hero(es) of the day: La Onf

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Community and Individuality

This is one that I know. I've lived it, I'm living it to some degree now, and I intend to keep living it.

I spent five years living in an intentional community, I currently live in a co-op house, and I hope to live in community again. What attracts me about all of this is the balance between the individual and the group. A group of individualists would have little real sense of community, but any group without a lot of individuality would be a mob or a cult, not a community in the sense I'm talking about. Neither holds any interest for me. I believe that community exists in the tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. If the individual or the group predominates, the living, thriving sense of community disappears.

Interestly enough, the complexity scientists talk about this very issue, describing it as a balance between autonomy and connectivity.

Really, both community and individuality are needed.

Quote of the day: "Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others." - Harriet Goldhor Lerner
Word (or phrase) of the day: Financial Permaculture
Hero(es) of the day: Mary Ellen Pleasant

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Equality Returns

In my last post, I discussed Walter Benn Michaels' book, The Trouble with Diversity. He sees diversity and 'identity politics' as taking the focus away from economic inequality. He sets diversity and equality in opposition to each other.

Lisa Duggan, in her book The Twilight of Equality, agrees about how neoliberalism is using diversity and identity politics to camouflage increasing economic inequality. But her solution is to reconnect diversity and equality. She argues that neoliberalism is deliberately dividing the movement, and analyses like Michaels make matters worse.

This is a very short book (111 pages including notes, bibliography, and index--but not including the introduction) but it contains a lot of ideas and information. The thirteen page introduction gives a dense, documented history of the last fifty years, including the development of neoliberalism and how the movements of the '60s and '70s were ripped apart in the '80s and then coopted in the '90s. As Lisa Duggan puts it,"During every phase, the construction of neoliberal politics and policy in the U.S. has relied on identity and cultural politics. The politics of race, both overt and covert, have been particularly central to the entire project. But the politics of gender and sexuality have intersected with race and class politics at every stage as well."

She goes on to say: "The most successful ruse of neoliberal dominance in both global and domestic affairs is the definition of economic policy as primarily a matter of neutral, technical expertise. This expertise is then presented as separate from politics and culture, and not properly subject to specifically political accountability or cultural critique. Opposition to material inequality is maligned as 'class warfare', while race, gender or sexual inequalities are dismissed as merely cultural, private, or trivial. This rhetorical separation of the economic from the political and cultural arenas disguises the upwardly redistributing goals of neoliberalism..."

The book itself consists of four chapters. The first is an expansion of the introduction's history of neoliberalism, this time starting with the development of capitalism and liberalism beginning in the seventeen century, and going up through the 1990s where she focuses on the concrete examples of welfare "reform" and the mass incarceration of young men of color in the name of "law and order" as ways of shifting public opinion. She ends this chapter by pointing out conflicts within the "elites" between those attacking diversity (which she refers to as "culture wars") and those embracing a new "equality politics" that supports "diversity" as long as it doesn't threaten the economic policies of "globalist neoliberalism". The second chapter focuses on an example of the "culture wars", a conservative attack on a conference on women's sexuality (called "Revolting Behavior") held at SUNY New Paltz. She goes on to analyze the economic reasons behind this attack. In her third chapter, Lisa Duggan looks at how and why many gay organizations (such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, not to mention the Log Cabin Club) have begun a shift rightward, embracing single issue politics and repudiating progressive/radical groups that want to 'restructure' society. She singles out the Independent Gay Forum, an online writers group consisting mostly of white male writers (twenty-nine white men, one African-American man, and three white women) and dissects statements from two of the more well-known contributors, Andrew Sullivan, a former New Republic editor, and Bruce Bawer, a former writer for the American Spectator.

In her final chapter, Lisa Duggan looks at leftists, similar to Walter Benn Michaels, who denigrate "identity politics", as opposed to a more 'serious' class/economics politics. She ends by citing writers such as Robin Kelley, Cindy Patton, Eric Lott, Wahneema Lubiano, Amber Hollibaugh, and Nikhil Singh, who are able to see and integrate the connections between identity and economics, between diversity and equality. To quote her last sentence: "For it is pleasure and collective caretaking, love and the egalitarian circulation of money--allied to clear and hard-headed political analysis offered generously--that will create the space for a progressive politics that might both imagine and create...something worth living for." (Italics and ellipsis in original)

It seems like equality and diversity may go together.

Quote of the day: "... as long as the progressive-left represents and reproduces itself as divided into economic vs. cultural, universal vs. identity-based, ... it will defeat itself. On one side, the identity politics camps are increasingly divorced from any critique of global capitalism. ... On the other side, critiques of global capitalism and neoliberalism, and left populist or universalist politics within the U.S., attack and dismiss cultural and identity politics at their peril. Such attacks strip them of prime sources of political creativity and new analyses, and leave them uncomprehending before the cultural and identity politics of the opposition. In addition, they drive constituencies seeking equality away, toward the false promises of superficial neoliberal 'multiculturalism'. In other words, they help create what they fearfully or critically imagine." - Lisa Duggan
Word (or phrase) of the day: Victory garden
Hero(es) of the day: Sarah and Angelina Grimké

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Diversity Troubles

The Trouble with Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels is one of the most infuriating books that I have read recently. What makes it particularly infuriating is that I agree with so much of its basic premises.

Michaels believes that we have been ignoring inequality and that diversity is being used as a way to divert attention from inequality. He points out how easy it is for corporations, colleges, and the wealthy to be in favor of diversity, since it costs so little, especially compared to what even beginning to rectify inequality would cost. Especially cheap are the apologies corporations make for their participation in slavery--and the benefits they can reap from acting contrite.

He points out the ambiguity of race and the motley interconnections of race and culture. More importantly, he points out the problem with treating class as a diversity issue--you end up talking about the contributions of poor and working class people instead of talking about changing the class system. Imagining a society where rich and poor are both respected is a liberal dream. Imagining a society without rich or poor is a more radical vision.

In all this, I agree with him. The problem is that instead of simply saying diversity is used sometimes as a smokescreen, in this book Michaels attacks diversity. He blames diversity for subverting attempts at equality, claims that if one culture is as good as another than no culture is worthwhile, states that cultural identity is meaningless, and believes that it doesn't matter if the entire world speaks only one language in the future and all other languages are forgotten (and he doesn't care which language it is).

All this reminds me of the song from the sixties that wanted to make the world into a big melting pot "...turning out coffee colored people by the score." Everyone the same color, speaking the same language, dressed identically... sure it makes equality easier, but it's not my vision of a better society.

In an early post I discussed the various radical groups that each believed that their focus was the only one possible, including Marxists who thought everything could be reduced down to economics. I'm not sure that Walter Benn Michaels is a Marxist, but he certainly seems to act as if economics were the essential thing. While diversity can be used to mask economic inequality, looking at the importance of cultural and gender differences is as much a part of social change as the elimination of class. It's not an either/or proposition, but about going for both/and.

He gets so worked up about people who talk about race instead of class that in one of his notes he singles out Betsy Leondar-Wright for talking about a "racial wealth divide" in a report about Hurricane Katrina. He says: "It's not the wealth divide that Leondar-Wright sees as the problem; it's the fact that it's racial." The trouble is that it's not true. Betsy Leondar-Wright is the author of the book Class Matters and has worked with United for a Fair Economy to "help build social movements for greater equality." She definitely sees the class divide as a problem for everyone.

Michaels likes religion, ideology, and other belief systems because they don't simply talk about differences, they think that what they believe is right and what others believe is wrong. He is, for this reason, particularly critical of 'religious diversity'. I get the sense that Mr. Michaels likes conflict. The final chapter of this book is entitled "Religion in Politics: The Good News" and, as far as I could see, the good news is that people are fighting about religion. How this helps reduce inequality is something I can't figure out.

He ends the book with a section analyzing himself in the third person ("Conclusion: About the Author"), which while making some valid points, is a bit too cute for my comfort. I mostly agree, however, with his final couple of sentences: "When it comes to economic inequality, we should stop finding ways to ignore it, we should concentrate not on respecting the illusions of cultural difference but on reducing the reality of economic difference. That is the heart of a progressive politics." Unfortunately, nowhere in this book does he describe a program for "reducing the reality of economic difference".

Lisa Duggan has written a book that addresses the same issues, but she doesn't set diversity and identity politics in opposition to economic equality. I will review it in my next post.

Quote of the day: "Where the (neoliberal) [sic] right likes status instead of class, the (neoliberal) left likes culture and the diversity version of respect the poor is respect the Other. ... That's why multiculturalism could go from proclaiming itself a subversive politics to taking up its position as a corporate management tool ... in about ten minutes and without having to make the slightest adjustment." - Walter Benn Michaels
Word (or phrase) of the day: Chapstick Lesbian
Hero(es) of the day: Gregory Bateson

Friday, November 21, 2008

Equality and Diversity

Some might think this is a no-brainer. Certainly, there are many, many organizations claiming to go for both equality and diversity. A search of the web brings up an overwhelming number of organizations trumpeting equality and diversity--including just about every large company and university (not to mention dozens of training organizations), and even such unlikely candidates as the US Army.

But there are some challenges to the connection between diversity and equality. What I find most concerning is statements like Clay Shirky's: "Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality." Fortunately, Clay Shirky gives a more detailed explanation. While it sounds like he has scientific proof that you can't have equality, diversity, and freedom (elsewhere he simply says: "Diverse. Free. Equal. Pick two."), here he points out that "You can get out of a system with power law distributions by giving up on scale. ... one way to avoid the inequality of large systems is not to _have_ large systems." Since I believe we need to build small scale systems anyway, that may answer that concern.

With a slightly different take, several authors have devoted whole books to trying to figure out whether if progressives work for diversity, that foregoes working for equality. In my next two posts I will look at two very different takes on this by two different authors.

I want to end by something my mother once said to me. (I come from what might be considered, at least by today's standards, a large family.) My mother simply said, "Every one of my children is different and I love them all the same." There is the best statement I know on diversity and equality.

Quote of the day: "We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color." - Maya Angelou
Word (or phrase) of the day: Rhizosphere
Hero(es) of the day: Margaret Mead

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Simplicity and Complexity

The full title of Duane Elgin's book (see my posts of 9/24/08 & 9/26/08) is Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. He might have even said 'Inwardly Complex'. Simplifying our outer lives makes room for a richer, more complex interior life. Having less stuff enables us to take in the complexity of life. Here simplicity makes room for complexity. (The reverse is true as well. The more complex our lives are, the less room there is to appreciate the complexities of the world. It is easy with too much stuff to get overwhelmed and, in reaction, oversimplify our view of the world.)

In my post of 7/16/08 on Complexity Theory, I mentioned that "Complexity theorists talk about how complex systems emerge from simple systems..." Indeed, anything that we create will have to be simple, not because the world is simple, but because complex systems are built from simple systems. Here simplicity creates complexity.

Like order and chaos, simplicity and complexity are involved in a dance together. We need simplicity in order to appreciate complexity. We need simple systems to build complex systems. I would say that simplicity and complexity complement each other.

Quote of the day: "Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Word (or phrase) of the day: Pattern Language
Hero(es) of the day: Buckminster Fuller

Monday, November 17, 2008

Contradictions or complements?

Complex, Diverse, Individual, and Practical. At first, CDIP may seem like it contradicts SECS. Isn't Complex the opposite of Simple? Individual what opposes Communal? And while Egalitarian and Diverse aren't opposites, it's certainly easier to have a society that is Diverse and hierarchal (such as ours) or Egalitarian and uniform (which the Amish are in many ways), than something that's both Diverse and Egalitarian. Not to mention the question of how practical sustainability is... But it is in these contradictions, or rather in the tension between them, that a true alternative future can emerge.

I am going to examine these contradictions/complements one by one to see if a SECS/CDIP scenerio is possible. Let's explore the interrelationships between Complexity and Simplicity, Diversity and Equality, Individuality and Community, and Practicality and Sustainability. Let's see if we are talking about contradictions or complements...

Quote of the day: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself..." - Walt Whitman
Word (or phrase) of the day: Naturally Grown
Hero(es) of the day: Lucy Stone

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How CDIP is Interconnected

I mentioned when I started my section on CDIP that this was some of what I liked best about this society. It's not that we do this well, but we do it a lot better than other cultures.

Embracing complexity isn't easy, but it is a complex world. And it's a lot more complex when you have to deal with individuality and diversity. Embracing diversity supports embracing individuality and embracing individuality support embracing diversity--but it doesn't have to. There are individualists that think individuality is all and don't see the need for culture--any culture--and there are certainly many cultures that disapprove of individuality. But supporting both individuality and multiculturalism (as complex as that is) is basically supporting freedom and liberty for both individuals and a diversity of cultures.

I'm not as sure that real practicality is a mainstay of this culture, but a belief in being practical certainly is. In fact, I'm not even sure that individuality and diversity are supported that well in this society, but again, it's certainly what we believe in.

And I think that embracing this complex, diverse world of individuals and cultures may be one of the most practical things that we can do.

Quote of the day: "Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day." - E.B. White
Word (or phrase) of the day: Byke
Hero(es) of the day: John Chapman

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Practical Resources

When I think of practical resources, I think of useful things, such as tools, and when I think of tools, I think of The Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968, and revised under such names as The Last Whole Earth Catalog, The Whole Earth Epilog, The Next Whole Earth Catalog, The Essential Whole Earth Catalog, and The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. There was also a 30th anniversary edition published in 1998. In addition, the Whole Earth people put out a magazine, Co-Evolution Quarterly, which they published from 1974-1985. In 1985, the name of the magazine was changed to the Whole Earth Review, later called simply Whole Earth. The final print issue was in 2003, but there is a website that has information about the catalogs and magazines, and contains book reviews, articles, and back issues. Co-Evolution Quarterly was a major influence on my life, introducing me to things like voluntary simplicity, bioregionalism, soft technology, the New Alchemy Institute, watersheds, the Gaia hypothesis, Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, Ivan Illich, Betty Dodson, Anne Herbert, and Donella Meadows. I still have a stash of old CQs that I look at from time to time.

Perhaps a twenty-first century version of the Whole Earth extravaganza is the WorldChanging website. They claim that "...real solutions already exist for building the future we want. It's just a matter of grabbing hold and getting moving." They even publish a 600 page book full of 'ideas for creating a bright green future' called Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century, which has been compared to the Whole Earth Catalog. In fact, the founders of WorldChanging acknowledge the influence of the Whole Earth Catalog on their work.

Both the old Whole Earth and the new WorldChanging are full of idealism, but they are also full of practical, useful ideas, and we need more practical ideas.

Quote of the day: "...another world is not just possible, it's here. We only need to put the pieces together." - from the WorldChanging Manifesto
Word (or phrase) of the day: Butterfly Effect
Hero(es) of the day: Francis of Assisi

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Yes, I am idealistic, but I try to be practical as well. There's no use in spinning out visions, no matter how wonderful they are, if they won't work. We need practicality as well as vision; we need to focus on what is possible as well as all the wonderful things we can think of. While we can change reality, reality is where we need to start and reality is always part of what we have to deal with. We need to take practical steps if we are going to change things and what we work toward needs to be practical if it's going to happen. In essence what we are working toward is combining the idealistic and the practical. Gandhi referred to himself as a "practical idealist" and his philosophy as "practical idealism". (Unfortunately, this is also a phrase that has been misused by the Bush administration, especially Condoleezza Rice in describing her version of diplomacy. All the wonderful terms we might come up with, can and will be used by those who intend very different things.)

Practicality means that we ground our work in the possible. We can extend what is possible--often far beyond what the cynical will tell us is possible--but we need to anchor our dreams in the soil of this real earth and build our new world on firm foundations.

Quote of the day: "Goals are not dreamy, pie-in-the-sky ideals. They have every day practical applications and they should be practical." - Les Brown
Word (or phrase) of the day: Commodification
Hero(es) of the day: Janie Porter Barrett

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Individual Resources

Individualism is so ingrained in this society, it's sometimes hard to separated individuality from individualistic philosophies.

One philosophy that takes individuality into account without being heavily individualistic, is existentialism. Existentialists believe that 'existence precedes essence', therefore we get to define ourselves--or, to put it another way, "The Individual Defines Everything". One good starting place for understanding existentialism is the Existentialist Primer. Related to this is phenomenology, which is about understanding how the individual perceives the world, from the individual's own perspective. A good site to begin exploring this is What is Phenomenology?

Another way to look at individuality is from a psychological perspective. Any textbook on Developmental Psychology would give information on the development of the individual. Theorists talk about identity formation and the creation of our 'self-concept' (how we understand ourselves as individuals). (The Psychology Wiki contains a large section devoted to Developmental Psychology.)

The rights of the individual are an important part of developing political theory. Although libertarians and individualist anarchists go too far in this direction, communitarian anarchists, libertarian socialists, and 'left-libertarians' try to protect the rights of the individual while creating a more egalitarian society. The Alliance of the Libertarian Left has a website that has a huge amount of information on Left-Liberarianism. Mutualism is a somewhat more conservative, but quite interesting, version of this. They want to get rid of capitalism but keep 'free markets'. A good introduction to this is at Mutualist.Org website.

Quote of the day: “Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized.” - Albert Einstein
Word (or phrase) of the day: Same Gender Loving
Hero(es) of the day: Leo Tolstoy

Friday, November 7, 2008


Diversity of cultures is important, but even more important is the recognition and celebration of the fact that each one of us is different. Individuality and differences between people is often irritating, but a society that honors individuality and gives us each the liberty to pursue our own path is not only complex and diverse, but truly fascinating.

I'm not talking about the Republican/Libertarian 'Rugged Individualism' here. Ugh. I dealt with that in my July 4th post on 'Interdependence'. I'm talking about a connected individuality, that celebrates our uniqueness while acknowledging the importance of others and our need for others.

Who wants everybody to be identical? A faceless mob is not community. I want a society where we each get to be ourselves and our unique contributions are what makes it stronger.

Quote of the day: "Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers." - Mignon McLaughlin
Word (or phrase) of the day: Fecundism
Hero(es) of the day: Susie King Taylor

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Post Election

I realize this blog is several hours later than usual, but I wanted to interrupt my discussion of CDIP (Complexity, Diversity, Individuality, and Practicality), again, as reality intrudes.

Yesterday was election day in the US. The good news is that Barack Obama was elected as the next president. The bad news is that no matter who might have won, there are limits on what they can do. I realized a while ago that the best, most aware, most radical leader really can't do much. Complexity theory and the experience of governments like the Soviet Union and other 'communist' countries show that even the most well intentioned politicians, the most well intentioned governments, can do little, and often what they do, backfires. You can't create change from the top down. Unfortunately, the reverse of this isn't true. Leaders such as Reagan and Bush/Cheney have proven that a lot of damage can be done from the top down. So I'm quite glad that Barack Obama won. Congratulations to everyone who made it happen. Now we need to get back to the real work of rebuilding the world, from the bottom up.

Quote of the day: "Wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work - that goes on, it adds up." - Barbara Kingsolver
Word (or phrase) of the day: Synergy
Hero(es) of the day: Ginetta Sagan

Monday, November 3, 2008

Diverse Resources

Two diversity resources I have already mentioned in my post on Egalitarian Resources (10/4/08): Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider and bell hooks' Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Another good book is Joan Steinau Lester's The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas.

I found a few interesting websites on biodiversity: The Biodiversity Heritage Library, The Encyclopedia of Life, and The World Atlas of Biodiversity.

I'll have a couple more when I get into equality versus diversity.

Quote of the day: "In nature, diversity means resilience. A prairie that has hundreds of different plants growing together can resist pests or respond to storms that would devastate a field of identical hybrid corn." - Starhawk
Word (or phrase) of the day: Noosphere
Hero(es) of the day: Ammon Hennacy

Saturday, November 1, 2008


I am going to interrupt my discussion of CDIP and Diversity to note that this is a special time of the year. This is the time of Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Day of the Dead, and, for those pagans (including witches and druids) with any sort of Celtic connections, Samhain.

I mentioned in my post on Thinking Positive (8/1/08) that I am a naturalistic pagan. That means that I don't believe in a lot of the things other pagans believe in. (I've had to explain to some of my witch friends that I am rather 'belief challenged'.) But there are certain things that I do believe in: earth, water, fire, and air, the sun, moon, and stars, and the changing of the seasons. And darkness. I believe in darkness and the value of darkness.

All the holidays around this date are about darkness, death, disorder, and decay. A lot of this can be summed up in the word 'Entropy'. (Another blogger, SoapBoxTech, and I got into a discussion of this on his blog.) The point of holidays like Samhain is that that entropy--darkness, death, disorder, and decay--is part of the life cycle and we need to celebrate these things as well as life's sunny, creative, organizing properties. We need chaos and disorder to create new things out of. We need death and decay to make room for new life. And we need darkness to nurture new growing things and to allow us to appreciate life.

If you want to fully join in the dance of life, you've got to acknowledge all the participants--and that includes darkness and decay.

Quote of the day: "The dark: all that we are afraid of, all that we don't want to see--fear, anger, sex, grief, death, the unknown. The turning dark: change. The velvet dark: skin soft in the night, the stroke of flesh on flesh, touch, joy, mortality. Hecate's birth-giving dark: seeds are planted underground, the womb is dark, and life forms itself anew in hidden places." - Starhawk
Word (or phrase) of the day: Riparian Zone
Hero(es) of the day: Ernestine Rose