Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The United State of the movement

From June to September I traveled across the USA, visiting activist groups, co-ops, social enterprises and farmers. It was a rare opportunity for reflection on the ‘state of the movement’. I soon learned that the US has the best and worst of everything. In contrast to extreme social injustice, environmental degradation and corporate capitalism, the US is also home to some of the most inspiring progressive initiatives and the most well organised, passionate and radical social movements that I’ve ever encountered.

The literary backdrop to my journey was “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, which provides a context for the rich fabric of social movements that exist today. It is a truly inspiring take on US history that is written from the perspective of American Indians, slaves, women, and working people - who are usually written out of history altogether. It charts the history of people resisting oppression – from the first invasion of Columbus, through hundreds of years of strikes and workers uprisings, the anti-slavery struggle and the civil rights movement. It is difficult to convey this profound history of struggle and resistance, suffice to say that the rise of corporate capitalism has been confronted by organised resistance at every step of the way – often with bloody and brutal consequences.

Today the mechanisms by which power is maintained and concentrated by an elite minority have become ever more sophisticated, subtle, and in many ways more difficult to combat. Take for example the Presidential election. Most progressive organisations (spanning environmental and social justice issues) have spent a large part of the past year organising around the election – either through voter registration drives or through direct campaigns to support the Democrat vote. Even some prominent anarchists who normally eschew voting were advocating that people get out and vote for Kerry! This is despite the fact that Kerry was talking about increasing military spending (even further) and basically wasn’t proposing to change any of the key policies or institutions that are the source of the social and environmental problems facing the US. The point is that most of these people didn’t want to vote for Kerry. They just wanted to vote against Bush.

As Zinn notes, the two party political system in the US (and here in Australia) is possibly one of the most ingenious schemes ever devised to ensure that popular dissent is directed in a way that leaves the fundamental power relationships in society in tact. It provides a formal channel for political expression but both parties effectively represent the interests of corporations and the ruling class – so the underlying system remains unchallenged regardless of who is elected.

The fact that in a single term of office George W. Bush managed to roll back a range of social and environmental policies that took years (sometimes decades) to win, has meant that many progressive groups suspended their other activities to focus on the election. They key question facing many groups was how to organise around the election in a way that would help to build community power in the longer term so that they would be in a better position regardless of who gets elected.

As I traveled across the country, I was trying to get a sense of where activists thought the movement was heading. I asked everyone that I met: “What is the most interesting and effective social change organising that is going on in the US at the moment?” Most responses fell into one of two categories. People either said “ and mass internet based organising” or they said “It is grassroots, face to face organising – door to door conversations in local communities.” started in response to the Republican attempts to impeach Bill Clinton and in a few short years have grown to have over a million members and are the acknowledged leaders of internet based campaigning. During a workshop I did with one of their campaign strategists, he said that they had increased their membership list by 300,000 through a single cyber action. They are now figuring out how to move beyond email lists and cyber actions down to real grassroots organising – and have been experimenting with ‘house parties’ and other tactics which involve real people building real grassroots political power.

This new model of organising is starting to connect with a much older tradition of community organising that has grown out of the civil rights movement and the labour movement. This tradition has a clear language framework and clear concepts of how change happens and how power operates – and there are a number of training organisations that teach community organising.

When they talk about grassroots community organising, it generally means helping communities to organise themselves so that they can build and express their own political power. It generally includes tactics that involve pressing the flesh :– door-knocking, neighbourhood meetings, street stalls, house parties and the like, but it also includes a focus on consciously building power. This means training community leaders, building institutions, and building the capacity of the community to win not only the current campaign, but also future campaigns.

The assumption behind this community organising approach is an analysis of power relationships that is most eloquently captured by Fredrick Douglass, one of the first black lawyers in the US and a prominent anti-slavery activist. It is well worth remembering as we face a 4th term of the Howard government.

"Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” - Frederick Douglass (letter to an abolitionist associate, 1849).

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Responding to a 4th term of Howard

Ok, so the election result wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for. At least the Labor party didn’t get elected. But that is some small consolation given that the Liberal coalition did – with effective control of the senate to boot. The public contest, as usual, was basically substanceless – crisp, crunchy soundbites of nothingness. But what else can you expect when there is a fundamental consensus between the major parties? In reality the differences are superficial – so it is not surprising that this is reflected in the public debate.

That’s not entirely fair I hear people saying. Labor probably would have ratified Kyoto, their Tassie forest package was slightly better, and the mandatory renewable energy target would have been increased by 1%. Whoopie. Did Labor clearly oppose the invasion of Iraq? Do Labor have a humane position on refugees? Do Labor have any alternatives to trade liberalization and an economic model that is killing the planet? Hardly.

The Right has effectively defined the boundaries of allowable political discourse. Both major political parties have adopted the neoliberal economic model in its entirety (known in Australia as ‘economic rationalism’) – elevating the pathological nonsense of ‘economic growth’, regardless of social or ecological realities, to be the most worthy objective of government. Vandana Shiva uses the term ‘monocultures of the mind’ to describe the colonization of our imagination by a reductionist, economically rationalist, industrial world view. Welcome to the world of mainstream Australian politics and economics.

The internal logic of the system is so compelling that it closes down any possibilities of imagining anything different. We are destined to tinker with the arrangement of the deckchairs on the vast, expansive deck of the titanic of neoliberal economics. An occasional tug of war decides who gets to direct the arranging of the chairs for the next 3 year period. The point is, regardless of who is in power, the ship is still going in exactly the wrong direction and is still picking up speed. While there are a small number of passengers starting to revolt - and we should duly celebrate the increase in the Green vote from 5% to 7% - we should also cut the crap and start asking the real questions.

Why is it that only 7% of Australians voted for the only party that is actually sane and life affirming? Given everything we know about the ecological crisis, we should be in the situation where we are asking why 7% of people didn’t vote for the Greens rather than the ludicrous situation where 7% did. So I don’t want to discuss why the Greens didn’t get 10% as they might have hoped, or why there was a swing against Labor. I’ll leave these questions for others. I am interested in why the Greens (or at least the values that the Greens stand for) didn’t attract the other 93% of the vote – and what we need to do about it. I’m also interested in how we can make sure the Greens don’t also adopt the hubris of economic rationalism in an attept to be seen to be ‘credible’ and ‘realistic’ – but I’ll save this discussion for another article.

Do we think that most Australians are mean spirited, selfish people who don’t care about the environment, don’t care about social justice or the plight of the majority of the people on this planet who suffer at the hands of the global economy? Is that really our experience of the people in our communities? I would argue not. If you ask most people what is important to them, they’ll tell you things like: family, community, a clean environment, jobs etc. A lot of these values play a central role in how Australians have seen themselves for most of the last century – particularly the ethic of ‘a fair go for all’. I’m not saying that we haven’t got a long way to go in terms of a values shift that will enable us to live in harmony on and with this planet, but over the past decades, our movements for justice and sustainability have created a considerable shift in awareness and in values – albeit against a strong current of economic rationalism.

The problem is that these values and assumptions are not reflected in the choices that people make – either on polling day or in other parts of their lives. These shifts have not been harnessed into building political or institutional change. The people have moved but are not a ‘movement’. Many whose life has been changed by coming into contact with some part of progressive movements through single issue campaigns have not made the connections with other issues and are, for whatever reason, not part of a broader movement for change.

To bring people with us, our movements need to stop focusing on only the details and must deepen their message by more effectively articulating the values crisis that underlies and creates the problems (or symptoms). Unless the details of our campaigns articulate a broader vision, they are just more background noise in our information saturated culture. Our campaigns and actions must tell inclusive, provocative stories that create more and more space for people to see themselves in the story. We must tell the story of values crisis. Our stories must make people take sides – are you part of the sickness or are you part of the healing? Are you part of the life affirming future or are you part of the doomsday economy? We must lay claim to life-affirming, common sense values and expose one of the most blatant truths of the modern era: the corporate rule system rooted in sacrificing human dignity and planetary health for elite profit is out of alignment with common sense values.

This is the domain of post-issue activism - the recognition that the roots of the emerging crisis lie in the fundamental flaws of the modern order and that our movements for change need to talk about re-designing the whole global system — now. Post-issue activism is a dramatic divergence from the slow progression of single-issue politics, narrow constituencies and band-aid solutions. Post-issue activism will not replace single-issue politics – the worst excesses of the corporate industrial system need to be challenged immediately - but rather it allows us to strengthen ongoing struggles by providing a larger social change context.

Post-issue activism - articulating the values crisis

So how do we move beyond (rather than abandon) single issue poltics? Post-issue activism is the struggle to address the holistic nature of the crisis and it demands new frameworks, new alliances and new strategies. We must find ways to articulate the connections between all the issues by revealing the pathological nature of the corporate system. We have to learn to talk about values, deepen our analysis without sacrificing accessibility and direct more social change resources into creating political space for a truly transformative arena of social change.

To articulate the pathology of the corporate system we must avoid debating on the system’s terms. As the classic organizer’s tenet says “We have to organize people where they are at.” In other words, if we tell people our truths in a way that that connects with their experience, they will understand them. It is our job as activists to clarify the choice by revealing the nature of the system and articulating the alternatives. Will it be democracy or global corporate rule? Will we be subsumed into a fossil fuel addicted global economy or build vibrant sustainable local economies? Which will win out - ecological sanity or pathological capitalism? Will it be the corporate globalization of economics and control or a people’s globalization of ideas, creativity and autonomy? Democracy versus corporate rule. Ecology versus pollution. Life versus the doomsday economy. Hope versus extinction.

When we say a better world is possible – we mean it. We want a world that reflects basic life centered values. We’ve got the vision and the big ideas and the other side doesn’t. We’ve got biocentrism, organic food production, direct democracy, renewable energy, diversity, people’s globalization and justice. What have they got? Styrofoam? Neo-liberalism? Eating disorders? Designer jeans, manic depression and global warming?

Decolonising our imagination

The system we are fighting is not merely structural it’s also inside us - through the internalization of oppressive cultural norms that define our worldview. In many ways, our movements have become complicit with a cynical mass media that makes fundamental social change unimaginable.

As a consequence activists frequently ghettoize themselves by self-identifying through protest and fail to belive that our movements that can actually change power relations. We somehow allow ourselves to be portrayed as anti-social radicals - as dissent is de-legitimized to be unpatriotic, impractical, naïve or even insane. The reality is that the neoliberal policy makers and corporate executives who think the world can continue on with unlimited economic growth in a finite biological system are insane, not us. We are not the fringe.

The corporate/government elite are basically driving a political and economic agenda which is a radical departure from what most people think is acceptable moral, human behaviour. We can and must re-frame the debate. The values of the Greens, the environmental and global justice movements are basically values that most Australians relate to. The values of the Howard government are mean spirited, selfish and pathological – hardly the stuff that most people feel affinity with once they are laid bare. In fact neither of the major parties can talk about values. After the last 20 years of economic rationalism (led most ably by Keating and now Howard) they can no longer talk about our hopes and aspirations. All that remains is to mobilize our fears and our vices – will it be refugees, xenophobia or interest rates?

When Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, he captured the imagination of American public and helped to catapult the civil rights movement into history. He didn’t stand up and say “I have a nightmare” – which would have been instantly forgettable but is roughly the equivalent of what we in the environmental/justice movements typically do today. We need to stand confidently behind, and clearly articulate our positive values and our vision – and bring the majority of the Australian public who share our values with us. We need to stop believing that we are marginal and we need to stop limiting what we aim for.

A great example of this shift in thinking in the context of the climate change debate is the New Apollo Project ( It aims to create 3 million new energy jobs and free the USA from foreign oil dependency in 10 years. It is a bold and radical attempt to reframe the climate change campaign in a way that is value based and that breaks out of the single issue mold – it is about a positive new vision for economic, social, technological and environmental transformation. Anything less is unrealistic if we’re actually going to achieve the changes that are required.

Building grassroots power

All too often we project our own sense of powerlessness by mistaking militancy for radicalism and mobilization for movement building. Or even worse - we invest in dead end reforms that actually leave the fundamental power relations in society strengthened rather than weakened.

Getting tens of thousands of people to take joint action (as in the anti war marches in 2003) is not an end in itself, rather only the first step in catalyzing deeper shifts in the dominant culture. It was a serious failure of the leadership of the Australian peace movement that less than two weeks after the huge March 20 rallies, most people felt disempowered and felt as though the movement had failed. The reality was that the decision to go to war had already been made. But we failed to build on the incredible groundswell of opposition to the war and as a consequence we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

At the rally in Sydney, it was estimated that there were around 500,000 people. I was at the rally for about 4 hours but not once did I see a collection bucket and I wasn’t given any information about how I could get involved in future activities. Contrast this to a recent rally in Washington DC in which an estimated 750,000 people rallied around issues of womens choice. Every person at the march was given an “I’ve been counted” sticker along with a leaflet about how they could get involved in the ongoing campaign. They were asked to make a donation and their email address was collected. After the rally, each of the member groups of the coalition that organized the rally had built their electronic mailing lists (and potential supporter base) by over half a million new people.

Another world is possible, but it isn’t going to happen by osmosis. It takes planning, high levels of organisation, and conscious strategies to build power. It also requires that we learn the lessons of history. The US Right is probably the best contemporary example of how to do it well (and we’re all paying the price for their success). After the failed presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Right got serious about obtaining power. They organized for the long term. They established think tanks, they trained leaders, they developed a sophisticated media and messaging machine (check out the recent book “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank) and they built power. They created a literal army of community leaders who could clearly articulate the ideology of the right in a way that everyday Americans could relate to. They gained a virtual monopoly on ‘family values’. The opposition remains a shambles. Even when in power, the Democratic Party agenda is radically shaped by the Republicans who have successfully managed to define the boundaries of allowable political discourse - much the same as here in Australia.

The beginning

So how do we get to the situation where the Liberals and Labor are squabbling over 7% of the vote?

We remove the pathological ideology of economic rationalism from Australian universities and replace it with a people and earth centred economics. We banish the entire cadre of neoliberal acolytes (of whatever political party) from the corridors of power. We create a new political imperative that is rooted in the values and the challenges of social justice and environmental sustainability. We create the equivalent of a ‘wartime economy’ to fastrack the changes we need to transition to an ecological economy.

We think big. We frame our issues as part of a broader values crisis. We recast our definitions of ‘environment’ and ‘social justice’ and see our hitherto separate struggles as one and the same. We build new alliances. We start training people in campaign strategy, building grassroots power and direct action. We build new organisations to do this training and capacity building of the global justice/environmental movement. We create new think tanks. We develop bold visions and strategies that are commensurate with the size of the problem – and that capture the public imagination. We create powerful Meme’s and messages that touch people’s lives. We clearly articulate a positive vision for the future. We communicate with people where they are today. We get out of the ghetto and onto the streets. We take direct action. We work as though our lives depend on it – because they do. We believe that we can win because we have to…because what we are doing now isn’t working… because we have the only realistic vision of how to live on this planet… because we need to be able to look our children in the eye… because David actually did beat Goliath.

by John Hepburn

(Acknowledgement: Key ideas and some sections of text on post issue activism have been adapted from “Decolonising the revolutionary imagination”, by Patrick Reinsborough, which is printed in full in “Globalise Liberation – How to uproot the system and build a better world” (edited by David Solmit) and is also available from the Smartmeme Project - a movement training and strategy organisation based in San Francisco)

Friday, August 27, 2004

Shortening grace

I’m not a religious person, but several of my close friends and relatives are. So from time to time, I have the occasion to witness, or even to say Grace before an evening meal. In most cases, this has been a general ‘give thanks to the lord’, but in some circles it has involved a heartfelt thankyou to the people who made the meal possible -to the cook, the farmers and to the truckies who brought us the food. And of course to nature for her endless abundance. It is an opportunity to appreciate where our food really comes from.

But what would Grace look like if we really did appreciate all of the hands that played a part in creating our evening meal? Maybe something like this…

We give thanks to Mum for cooking, and the farmers for growing the food. We give thanks to the supermarket for setting up the distribution and retail system. We give thanks to the checkout chicks. We give thanks to the truckies for doing all that driving. We give thanks to Cargill for setting up the grain handling systems and the crushing mills. And the contract haulers and harvesters for getting the grain from the farms into the silos. We give thanks to the banks for lending farmers the money so that they could buy equipment and finance planting. We give thanks to the insurance brokers for providing crop insurance. We give thanks to the seed merchants for selling the seed. And the research labs and seed companies for developing the seed varieties. Oh, and of course, We give thanks to the hundreds of generations of subsistence farmers who developed the crops in the first place.

We give thanks to the chemical companies for designing the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We give thanks to the petroleum industry for providing the raw materials for the chemicals, and for providing fuel for transportation. We give thanks to the agricultural engineers for designing the equipment that has helped to mechanise farms. We give thanks to the agronomists for helping farmers to understand the complexities of new chemicals and seed varieties.

We give thanks to neighbours for not complaining too much about spray drift. We give thanks to the waterways for quietly accepting all of the nutrient and chemical run off. We give thanks to the atmosphere for dealing with all of the CO2 emmissions from the petrochemical use. We give thanks to the frogs for being OK about being born with 5 legs because of Atrazine run off into their habitat. We give thanks to the parents of children with leukemia in agricultural areas for not causing riots. We give thanks to rural communities for being willing to die slow and silent deaths as farmers gradually sell up, and businesses close down. We give thanks to future generations for subsiding the cost of our food so that we can continue to ship food all over the world in one of the most irrational and wasteful systems ever devised - without paying any of the environmental costs.

I could go on, but have stop at this point because half of the table is asleep - face down in their soup. Bored or depressed into submission.

Maybe we can come up with something shorter?

Monsanto are giving it their best shot. So are ADM (Archer Daniels Midlands), Cargill, ConAgra and a few other agribusiness giants. In their vertically integrated vision of food, we’ll just be able to rattle of a quick… “We give thanks to Monsanto for providing the seed, the chemicals, the agronomists and for funding the research institutions. We thank Hastings Deering for the fully automated, driverless tractors and farm machinery. We thank ADM and Cargill for owning the entire distribution system. We give thanks to Kraft for processing and to Woolworths for delivering it to our door. Thanks to Miele for the microwave oven. Oh, and a quick thanks for future generations for you know what.”

There that was better. Only half as long at the most. At least most people are still awake.

But an increasing number of us are trying to shorten grace in a different way. In a way that takes out the bits about future generations paying the price, and puts people back into the story. There are lots of options, but it goes something like this…

We give thanks to nature for the incredible gift of food that grows on trees. We give thanks to the seed savers for protecting our common heritage. We give thanks to our garden for providing what it can. We give thanks to the Ernst and Gertie and the other farmers in the district for growing our food. We give thanks to the producers co-op. We give thanks to the farmers union. We give thanks to the food buying group. We give thanks to Kristen for picking up our veggies this week. We give thanks to the farmers market and the community supported agriculture scheme…

You see, there is another vision of food that is growing around the world. It is about people knowing where their food comes from. It is about locally produced food. It is about food grown without artificial chemicals. It is about an end to monocultures. It is about food grown in harmony with nature, rather than an industrial food system that treats nature as an obstacle to be overcome.

Something urgently needs to change about the way that we do food. In the affluent countries of Europe, North America and Australia, the shift is being led by consumers who are demanding to know where their food comes from, and who are demanding that it meet high environmental, health and ethical standards.

In the majority world of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the shift is being led by producers who are standing up to the structural adjustment packages of the World Bank and the IMF. They are demanding that food be grown to feed local people rather than for export cash crops. They are demanding the biotech companies be disallowed from patenting seeds and traditional knowledge. They are demanding that their future be determined by them, not by agribusiness corporations.

So, next time you sit down for your evening meal, think about what kind of Grace you need to say if you are really being honest and grateful for your food. And then imagine what kind of Grace you might like to say instead…and then join the millions of other people around the world in making it so.

By definition, this change will not be led by experts, corporations or politicians. It will be led by individual people like you…people like your mum, your brother, your sister, your neighbour, Like all exciting journeys, reclaiming our food culture and shortening Grace starts with the first step.

Friday, August 06, 2004

The New York skyline from Central Park. Posted by Hello

A day in New York in a time of “Orange Terror”

It feels like a stinking hot Brisbane summer morning. Lying on the soft foam mattress in the hostel, my skin is sticky with sweat, the sounds of the street drift in through the window. I had no idea New York could be this hot.

Out on the street, you can feel the pulse of the city. Harlem is alive. Traffic honking like there’s no tomorrow. Commuters streaming into the subway. The start of a new day in the biggest, craziest city in the world.

I venture underground into the famed subway system – vaguely thinking about all the movies I’ve seen about muggings in the New York subway. Don’t be stupid, I say to myself as I awkwardly try slip my credit card into my shoe.

The subway is insane. Worms couldn’t have devised a more elaborate subterranean system.

I catch the blue line down to the World Trade Centre. How could I come to New York and not visit ‘ground zero’? But when I get there it just looks like a big ugly parking lot. There are some peeling billboards with the partly obscured names of people who died on September 11, others showing the history of the site and how amazing the buildings were.

I expected to feel something…inspired, hopeful, depressed, guilty, moved? something? anything? But mostly it just feels like unproductive urban space. A work in progress. A momentary lapse amidst the swirling commerce.

There were signs saying ‘no selling of merchandise allowed’, and occasionally passers by would tell the people selling merchandise to stop. You could tell they were half-hearted though. The spirit of capitalism is strong here.

Next stop - the Statue of Liberty. I can vaguely make out it’s shape across the smoggy Hudson Bay, but can’t be bothered spending 10 bucks and 2 hours on the ferry trip out there. Looking at it does make me wonder why nobody talked about sending the statue back to France at the height of the ‘Freedom Fries’ incident. Maybe people forgot that’s where it came from?

As I get off the subway at Wall Street, outside the New York Stock Exchange, I glance at a newsstand…”New York on Terror Alert”. Apparently plans had just been uncovered that showed Al Quaeda were planning to attack the Stock Exchange and other prominent New York landmarks. The Terror alert had been increased from ‘Orange’ to ‘Rose Magenta’ (or some other colour more serious than orange) and many people had deliberated about whether or not to come to work today.

I can see the next headline in my mind…’Dumb Australian Tourist Stumbles into Terror Attack’. Brilliant! If only my mum could see me now.

I quickly fumble around in my pocket. Damn! I knew I should have brought John Howard’s anti-terror fridge magnet. (They were sent to every Australian household to help ward off terror attacks) It was probably stuck on the fridge back home, and here I was, in the midst of a terror zone. I repeate the mantra silently under my breath – stay alert but not alarmed.

I amble up to the stock exchange and proceeded to walk towards the entrance. The whole area is cordoned off. There was a row of black mirror windowed vehicles and police carrying automatic weapons. Somehow I think that all of this isn’t relevant to me, so I keep on heading for the door until one of the security dudes steps in front of me. “Where do you think you’re going’, he grunts.

I said, “Hi, I’m from Australia and I’m only in New York for the day, and I’m keen to see the inside of the stock exchange”…silence….”That’s the entrance over there isn’t it?”… more silence …”Can I go in?”…”Not today” was the terse reply. This crack operative isn’t about to be disarmed by my naievete.

I hang around for while, taking photos, waiting to see if anything interesting will happen. Mainly just serious looking men wearing black and carrying guns, standing around chatting to each other and smoking cigarettes.

I get a copy of the paper. It turns out today’s ‘terror alert’ was triggered by some guy getting caught in Pakistan with copies of plans of various New York buildings. My irreverence towards the whole thing remained intact. As if this had any connection to anything TODAY? The politics of terror are clear enough. The need to be seen to respond greatly outweighs any rational response.

The only other thing in the paper was the ongoing reporting on the upcoming election - ever percolating in the background like bad American coffee. Weak, tepid, indescribably bland…leaving a slight bitter taste in your mouth. Nobody bothers reporting about the actual issues. All you ever hear about is the campaign - kind of like a ‘meta’ election. The shrill voice of the CNN ‘face’ droning on and on…”And today in the campaign, Bush said blah in reponse to Kerry responding to Bush’s response to Kerry saying blah blah” …zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…hmphh..zzzz. You could be excused for nodding off if the future of the planet wasn’t at stake. But then it’s hard to get excited in a contest between between Brand X right wing fundamentalist and Brand Y right wing ideologue, both of whom want to increase military spending.

I’d had enough of politics and high finance. Time for some Art.

The Guggenheim Museum has both kinds of Art. Flat and lumpy. I normally prefer lumpy art – but flat art can be good too sometimes. There was an exhibition by some European guy, I can’t remember his name. He claimed to be inspired by nature. “Fair enough”, I thought to myself. I can relate to that.

There were a couple of great sculptures. And some good photos. And paintings too. But then there was all of this weird stuff. There was a painting that obviously had been inspired by the wall of my flat back home. A plain white canvas no less. When I looked closer, I saw that it’s inclusion in the exhibition had been sponsored by such and such a foundation. “I wonder if they knew what they were paying for?” I thought to myself. Oh. Well. Whatever. At least it doesn’t kill people.

When I get back to Harlem, ‘the hood’ is buzzing. People are hanging out on the streets, kids running around like mad, old folk sitting in deck chairs chatting with their neighbours, homeboys hangin out. There’s something about having so many people living so close together that creates an amazing sense of community. I feel tempted to just hang out on the street in Harlem, soaking up the vibe of the street. But I was am of place - an outsider with a digital camera and wearing hiking boots. Safer to head back to the anonymity of the city.

I get out of the subway at 42nd Street near Broadway, and feel like I’ve stumbled onto the set of Blade-Runner, except the cars are still on the ground. It was then that I realize Sydney is actually a small, boring country town. Rockhampton, where I grew up, is off the scale.

I joine the throng of people just hanging out in the street…taking digital photos of people taking digital photos of people…taking digital photos. What is this obsession with photos anyway?

I head for the most gawdy and offensive advertising sign I could see. Toys R Us! I don’t have kids, but I’m interested in the future, and toy shops are a great place to learn about it.

Our kids will shape the future. And our Kids are shaped (at least to some extent) by the toys that they grow up with. In a bizarre self referential twist, toys, in turn, are shaped by some marketing executives idea of the future, or what they think kids think the future will be. So, the latest generation of toys often ends up being a pretty good window into what our future will be like. Ok, maybe not an accurate window – but at least an interesting one.

Walking into Toys R US!, I’m greeted by a full size fairis wheel inside a 4 storey toy shop, complete with a life size, robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex that, had I been 4 years old, would have scared the life out of me.

The ‘Nano building system’ display, alongside the ‘Bionicle’ creatures makes me wonder if I’ve been reading the right books. I’ve just finished reading a report by the ETC Group into the convergence of Nano and Bio technologies and what it means in terms of democracy and environmental risk. But it didn’t mention any of this stuff!

I’m lured to a salesperson touting the amazing capacity of “ROBOSAPIEN!”. The websites I’ve been browsing about cybernetics and genetic engineering in humans didn’t mention anything about this either. Maybe I should hang out in toyshops more often?

I lie to the salesperson about having a son, and asked how “ROBOSAPIEN!” could be used as a learning tool. “It’s easy”, he said. “You just press this button and it does a karate move. Or you press that button and it does a little dance.” “Yes, but I’m really looking for a toy that is also useful as a learning tool?”. “Well, it’s not really a toy”, he replied. “It’s actually a robot using the same technology as NASA and Microsoft use. And it’s got 67 different routines!”. Yes, but how do kids learn anything, or actually engage with this toy? “It’s got 67 different routines, and…blah blah blah”. I began to wonder if there wasn’t a 2nd model of ‘ROBOSAPIEN!’ out on the shop floor that evening.

After a quick spin around Times square on an 6 seater bicycle (an octagonal bike with 6 people facing inwards – all geared together), I head down to Union Square. I could only live in the shadow of a 50 metre high flashing image of David Beckham for so long.

It seems like Union square is the place to hang out if you like hanging out in the city but aren’t obsessed with taking digital photos. It’s an eclectic collection of people skating, skipping (with two ropes!), busking, reading, watching, just hanging out breathing…breathing life into the city.

There’s a circle of guys doing a rap thing. I remember in highschool in Rockhampton in the 1980’s we used to call it ‘breakdancing’. I wonder if they still call it that? These guys are really good - like they could have been in some hip hop or gangster rap video clip. I often wonder how people get to be good at things like hopping up and down on one hand in time to music.

Just for a joke, I go into a café and ask if they have anything that fits with the Atkins diet. They take me seriously. As a vegetarian I am offended by my own sense of the ridiculous.

I wander into an internet café and do a search for “new york poetry slam monday”. Sure enough, there is a slam going down at club 13 just around the corner.

The $8 entrance goes towards a prison activist group who for some reason are concerned about why 1/3 of all black American men end up in jail at some point in their life and in some states there are more black men in jail than in college. I’d met a guy in Minnesota who is the food director for one of the state prisons there. He said that it costs the government $88,000 to keep a person in jail for a year. They could create jobs for half the price. As usual, ‘rational’ or ‘fair’ obviously don’t play much of a role in policy making.

The poems come slick and fast…emotionally potent tirades about life, love, politics and prisons. How can there be so many amazing poets in one place? I said the same in San Francisco. I wonder if Sydney would reveal a similar poetic genius if there was an outlet? Or Brisbane? Or Rockhampton even?

Around midnight I head back down into the subway – feeling like New York is bigger, faster, stranger and more exciting place than I could ever have imagined it to be.

The guy standing accross to me on the train leans over out of the blue and says, “You know what? You gotta learn from your mistakes brother. People who don’t learn from their mistakes are stupid!”

I thought about prisons. I thought about ROBOSAPIEN!. I thought about George Bush. And I thought about John Howard and the fridge magnet.

“You’re spot on brother”, I said. “You’re spot on”.

New York Stock Exchange. I can't believe they didn't let me in. Posted by Hello

Welcome to Broadway and Times Square - New York city. I expected to see Harrison Ford shooting androids... Posted by Hello

Signs of resistance during the height of a 'code aubergine' terror alert in New York Posted by Hello

Military recruitment centre under the watchful eye of the NASDAQ - New York Times Square. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The unity of Freedom and 'overwhelming force'

OK. So what is wrong with this statement? General George C Marshall's words of infinite wisdom are carved into Washinton's WWII Memorial. George Bush presided over the opening of this Monument - and he no doubt wouldn't have picked up on the obvious absurdity of this statement. Of course, when was there ever a contradition between 'freedom' and 'overwhelming force'?

I'm getting concerned that the world is becoming a parody of itself. Soon there will be nothing left to ridicule. Satire will die a lonely, tragic death, wallowing in obsolescence in the face of of a society whose absurdity reigns triumphant. Posted by Hello

citizens instead of women?

It goes from the bizzare to the absurd. Colonel Ovet Culp Hobby obviously wasn't a liberal. Fancy that, women being considered citizens of the nation instead of as women? Interesting idea...George didn't pick this one up either. Maybe 'W' doesn't stand for 'women' after all? Posted by Hello

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Washington as the home of empire

The Lincoln monument - Washington DC. Flash forward two thousand years, through the collaps of empire, vandals, and pilfering by the Vatican, and it could fit in well among the ruins in the Roman Forum, in the shaddow of the Collosseum.

I was struck by how much Washington DC reminded me of Rome. Grand architecture standing as a tribute to empire. Bold marble pillars stretching into the sky. Statues of strong men on horseback staring into the distance. The creators of history. The mythmakers.

Nation building and empire building is not a simple process. Nor is it all that complicated. But it doesn't happen by osmosis. Great empires are built upon great stories...carved into war public monuments to the founding fathers.

The architecture of Washington DC speaks of great power. It speaks of enduring strength. It speaks of empire. Instead of the great emperor Augustus, we have George Washington. In place of Caesar we have Abraham Lincoln. In place of the Collusseum we have the superbowl.

The founders of Washington DC certainly understood the power of architecture to tell enduring stories. Patriotism in the USA isn't going anwhere anytime soon.

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The Washington monument looking out from the Lincoln monument in Washinton DC. Posted by Hello

Freedom is not Free

The words 'Freedom is not Free' are carved into the granite near the Korean war memorial.

The implication is that war is somehow necessary and justified. It implies that the price of freedom can be picked up by the government and the military. But what is meant isn't the freedom of the government or of the military. What is referred to is the freedoms of the American people. It could have said 'The price of freedom is eternal vigilance' - but that might be too much of a jolt. It, rightly, puts the onus back onto the individual. Freedoms have never been won by Governments. They are won by people - often struggling against governments that act in the interests of established powerholders.

As Aldous Huxley wrote: "Liberty is not given, it is taken".
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Korean War Memorial - Washington DC

'Our nation honours her sons and daughters who answered the call defend a country they never knew and a people they never met. 1950 - Korea - 1953.'

Seems to be a familiar theme here. Most the 19 year old kids in Vietnam hadn't ever met a vietnamese person before either - but they risked their lives to "defend", "protect" or "liberate" them. Same in Iraq.

I can't help but be moved by war memorials. Maybe it's something about lies being etched into stone. They stand the test of history. Long after people have forgotten, the words remain carved into the granite. History written by the victors. Not written by the soldiers, but by politicians and statemen who also carve their own names into the blocks of history.

Maybe it's something about the futility of it all. Something about the innocence of the mostly young men who died serving interests other than their own. The lists of names seem to go on forever...thousands of poeple senselessly slaughtered while senselessly slaughtering others.

Where are the memorials to the conscientious objectors? Where do we remember the people who said NO to war? Who refused to take up arms against people they didn't know? Who refused to kill or be killed in the service of power and wealth?

Maybe it's time for a new kind of memorial? A peace memorial? To remember the times when we weren't at war. To celebrate leaders who solved conflicts peacefully. To celebrate people who stood up for peace in the face of a culture of war.

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Inspiration for design of Capitol Hill

By chance, I discovered the architectural inspiration for Capitol Hill. There it was, revealed in all it's glory - the humble fire hydrant. Posted by Hello

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Patriot Act makes it illegal to read Patriot Act

Welcome to Washington DC. Your digital profile has been entered into our system. Posted by Hello

Roundup ready in North Dakota

Genetically engineered soy as far as the eye can see. Welcome to North Dakota. Over 90% of all the soy grown in the US is now genetically engineered. The soy plants have been engineered to be resistant to glphosate, which is the active ingredient in Monsanto's #1 selling herbicide 'Roundup'. Roundup is a broad spectrum herbicide which means it kills pretty much all plants that it comes into contact with - except the soy plants that are engineered to be resistant.

So, farmers plant out the soy crop and then about 3 weeks after the seedlings come up they spray the entire paddock with roundup. This kills all the weeds so that they don't compete with the soy for moisture, nutrients and sunlight. Then, depending on the crop, the farmer will normally spray again later in the season. It is a truly incredible system. Not a weed in sight. It creates a true monoculture.

From the farmers point of view there are a number of benefits. They don't need to think about weeds (at least not until they become glyphosate resistant - after which they have a fairly serious problem). It is generally a less labour intensive system and allows farmers to plant out a larger area. It also means that farmers can use less skilled labour for spraying - because it's just so simple. In fact, farmers don't even really need to know anything about farming any more at all. The instructions are pretty much all on the packet.

The next step is to use a GPS (global positioning system) in the harvesters and tractors so that you can do away with the driver. The driverless tractor is probably only a few years away, and coupled with the roundup ready system will mean that a smaller number of farmers, using large amounts of capital equipment, will be able to farm much larger areas. This should mean that we can do away with most people in rural communities. Excellent. They're dirty anyway. In the not too distant future we'll be able to be completely seperated from our food. It can be grown by machines that are out of sight and out of mind.

The great thing for consumers about Roundup Ready soy is that you get to eat soy with a higher level of glyphosate residue. You also get to have some unknown fragments of DNA in your food that, in all likelihood has never before been part of human diet and which has never actually been tested for long term safety. Hopefully it will be ok.
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Rocks, rocks and more rocks in Kluane NP

Kluane nation park. It's a wonder sheep bother climbing mountains like this. They don't normally eat rocks. Neither did David and I (this photo is David - a good friend and fish biologist from Montreal). We didn't see any fish up there either. We did see Hoary Marmots though. They are kind of like Hairy Mammoths, except only about one hundredth the size and from a totally different species. The stuff in this photo that looks like rock is actually rock. The thing that looks like flowing rock in the bottom in the valley is a rock glacier. If we wait long enough some engineers from Los Angeles will probably try to build a casino on top of it. Posted by Hello

OK, so I'm going to start doing a tourist thing and putting up some photos of wilderness areas that I've been visiting. This photo is from Atlin lake. It is in the Yukon near the border with Alaska. It's wild country. This lake is fed by the Llewleyn glacier and the water is ffffffff...cold. You don't want to stuff around too much in a kayak. If you fall out you probably have about 3 minutes before you lose the use of your hands and then about another 5 before you stop moving altogether. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

This tree is really big

This is a very large tree. The Redwoods of Northern California are truly amazing. Apparently the Ewok battle in "Return of the Jedi" was filmed in Redwood National park - just near where this photo was taken. Driving through Northern California and into Oregon is at once awesome and harrowing. You travel through thousand year old forests, drooping with moss, with Redwood trees over 2 metres in diameter stretching up into eternity. And then things start to get a bit weird. You feel it before you notice what has changed. Trees a bit smaller and twisted. Too close together - packed in like sardines. And then you see the sign..."Clearfelled in 1978, due to be harvested 2015 - creating jobs through forestry". Other places look like the big hairy hand of god has reached down with a razor blade and scraped the landscape raw. The scarred hillsides standing out scarred hillsides. In Australia, we (as in 'we' the people - ably represented by our government) get a massive 10 cents per tonne for the privilege of allowing our ancient forests to be woodchipped and sent to Japan. I think the folk over here have the same problem.  Posted by Hello

Monday, June 28, 2004

Reflections on Farenheit 9/11 - by Michael Moore

A black screen was the only possibility. A muffled soundtrack…the first explosion…blackness…screams of fear and disbelief…another explosion…on and on in the darkness… our fears, nightmares, hates and hopes (yes hopes) were absorbed. Swept up, at once expressed and banished into the blackness. Slowly the light emerged. Images of swirling papers, facing staring up in disbelief and horror.

There was no other way to show the events of 9/11. Michael Moore knew this. The nerves are still too raw. Prejudices too brittle and sharp. For a while, for a few precious weeks, there was a space for questions. The jelly of uncertainty wobbled as people struggled to understand. The inevitable question of ‘why’ sprang up – at least for some. But the crystals formed quickly and set into jagged, sharp edges.

In the immediate aftermath, sales of American flags went through the roof. People rallied round the flag and beat the drums of war. But George Bush’s responses to the events of 9/11 have been slowly tempering the brittle resolve, rounding the edges of the harsh public backlash against the ‘attackers’.

It is now clear that the only connection between Iraq and Al Quaeda is the letter ‘Q’. As we all know, ‘Q’ is shorthand for ‘Questions’. And Michael Moore goes some way to providing answers.

Like, how a mother feels when her son is killed in a far off country, fighting a war, that he doesn’t believe in, for no clear purpose other than enriching the business buddies of the President? And like why US Senators turn their back and walk away when asked if they would like to enlist their children in the army to fight in Iraq? But we already knew the answers to these questions. At least many of us did. But what Moore does is make it real.

You have to struggle not to share the tears of the mother as she reads the last letter from her son. Not quite sure whether to laugh or scream as George W stands on a golf course, driver in hand, spouting war rhetoric before turning to play his tee shot with a joke for the cameras. You can’t help but realize that for him, it is all just a hideous and sick game.

You feel a bizarre empathy with young US soldiers as they turn the stereo up full boar before heading into battle…chanting ‘burn mother f###er, burn!’ along to the CD, while others reflect on how they can live with themselves after having killed other human beings. Moore makes us laugh. He makes us cry. He fearlessly and brilliantly walks the line between patriotism and fervent criticism of the US government and the military industrial complex.

Of course there are things the film could have said but didn’t. Things are missed out, arguments partly made, and it has Michael Moore’s idiosyncrasies etched all over it. But he tells a compelling and important story, at a crucial time in history.

Bush bashing provides most of the real entertainment in the film, and there are some explicit calls for action in the upcoming election – kind of like electoral ‘product placement’. But Moore does go further than bi-partisan politicking. He ends with the obvious but seemingly poorly understood truism that war is not about justice or peace - it is about making sure that people who have power and wealth are able to hold onto, and increase that power and wealth.

As I left the cinema on the opening night in San Francisco, there was a throng of activists handing out leaflets about how I could get involved in the campaign to get Bush out of office. I passed a Democrat stall, screaming ‘VOTE FOR JOHN KERRY!”…the ardent activists focused on signing up as many people as possible while the fire was still burning in their bellies.

As I wandered off to the pub with my friends, I thought to myself, didn’t John Kerry (and most Democrats) vote in support of the war in Iraq?

The philosophy of reform

"Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all absorbing, and for the time being putting all other tumults into silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. - Frederick Douglass - Letter to an abolitionist associate, 1849. (Quoted in Howard Zinn - A peoples history of the United States).

Sunday, June 27, 2004

795 Americans killed since Iraq was invaded

795 Americans have been killed in Iraq since George W decided to invade. This 'art' exhibition took place in Washington DC in early June, with 795 pairs of combat boots and the name, age and home state of each of the Americans killed. It was organised by the American Friends Sevice Committee (Quakers) and they had several veterans of the Iraq conflict there to talk to passers by. This photo was taken by Terry Foss - American Friends Service Committee
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So this could be me?

These are young high school recruits. The US military aggressively recruits from low income communities. Young men 'in trouble' often are given few other options. As in Vietnam, the average age of soldiers killed in Iraq is around 19 or 20. I don't think anyone has counted the average age of the iraqi's who have been killed in this war. Photo by Keith Snyder - American Friends Service Committee. Posted by Hello

Combat boots of Steven Acosta, Age 19, killed in Iraq.

Combat boots: Pfc Steven Acosta Age 19 from California - Photo by Chris Pifer, American Friends Service Committee Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Why aren't rich kids in Iraq?

Yes, a very good question indeed.... In earlier times in US history, conscription usually had an escape clause for rich people who could buy their way out of the draft. While there isn't a formal draft in the US (yet) there is an economic draft. For many, the army is their only prospect for a stable income. Posted by Hello

Book of the month - A peoples History of the United States

Henry Kissinger once wrote: “History is the memory of states.” Howard Zinn has written “A people’s history of the United States” as the memory of ordinary people – of slaves, of the native (Indian) peoples, of women, and of the working poor.

To quote from the opening pages… “…this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest…I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasise new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare. That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.”
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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Urban Ore re-use centre in Berkeley, California

Urban ore in Berkeley, California. This re-use centre turns has been going for over 24 years and has an annual revenue of around $1.6Million. They divert around 6000-7000 tonnes of materials away from landfill each year and employ 32 staff. Posted by Hello

Dan & Mary Lou are the founders & owners of Urban Ore

Dan and Mary Lou are the founders and owners of Urban Ore. Very generous, very knowledgeable....all round great folk who are passionate about reducing waste and protecting the environment. Posted by Hello