Tuesday, January 1, 2013

THE END OF THE WORLD

So the world didn’t actually end, or did it? On the night that Hurricane Sandy hit New York I wrote a post titled “Are you listening?” concerning the way we deal with crisis after the fact rather than addressing the root causes ahead of time. We focus on preparing for the approaching crisis so that we can “weather the storm,” but we rarely take preventative measures to deal with the real challenge and its underlying causes. I don’t want to suggest there is a one size fits all response to this pattern, but I do think that we should pay closer attention to who profits from the crisis, from not taking steps to prevent it, and how our reactions may be manipulated to that end. Perhaps we need to break with the past and start addressing potential emergencies (not to be confused with the fabricated crisis after crisis coming out of our political process) from a perspective of providing for the common good rather than a function of defense. Maybe this “end of the world,” with multiple crises, real and fabricated on tap, is a good time to re-examine our priorities.

In the quiet days following Sandy, with our internet down but our power still intact (and much of the city shut down), we ventured to the video store (remember those?). On display at the counter was the movie The Day After Tomorrow. I remember when the film was released it was promoted as a fun way to raise awareness about global warming. I love a good doomsday flick, but now, with large areas of New York underwater, hundreds of homes destroyed, countless people without power, heat, food, clothing, shelter - it had lost its appeal. My partner and I were fortunate to live in an area relatively undamaged by the impact of the storm. Over this last year we have kept a computer near the bed when we sleep to periodically check in with the National Weather Service Radar. We have become more vigilant about such things since a tornado passed within half a block of our apartment. That same summer we spent my birthday camped out in an interior room, avoiding the windows during Hurricane Irene. Having lived in this neighborhood for nearly 20 years, this is something entirely new to me. During the summer there now seems to be a fairly regular pattern of storms passing through Brooklyn, building relatively quickly, some with tornado warnings in tow. There was no warning issued prior to the tornado I witnessed - someone got caught with their pants down... Two more tornadoes touched down in Brooklyn and Queens less than two months before Hurricane Sandy arrived in NYC. Seeing the devastation after Sandy left me with a distinct impression, we were lucky - this time.

Back before the millennium, while some folks were frantically stocking up on canned goods, I was tremendously optimistic about what might be coming in the new century. All of that changed for me when an unelected imbecile was installed in the White House following the 2000 election debacle, only gaining legitimacy through his forceful response to the 9/11 tragedy. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans I couldn’t help but think about how the Iraq war had come home. Surely with the media focused so intensely on the details of the disaster there would be no way to hide any opportunism that might take place in the aftermath of the storm - forced relocation, land grabs, real estate developments, a redistribution of voters, privatization of schools. Imbedded Iraq war journalists might not be expected to report exactly how Iraq’s abundant oil resources would be ultimately delivered into the hands of foreign corporate interests for “safe keeping,” but this was happening right here in the USA! I don’t believe it to be mere coincidence that the largest US petroleum producing region is off the coast of Louisiana, accounting for 80% of US deep water oil production. I read news articles at the time about national guard troops mobilized from outside Louisiana (and therefore responsible to federal rather than state authority) to “protect” land that was now vacant after the relocation of former residents. This kind of federal intervention in state affairs might seem warranted in lieu of the magnitude of the crisis, but again, I think it is important to consider who stands to benefit from the shift of control. If the land and resources are held in perpetuity, does the controlling party (occupying force) have the authority to lease the land, to harvest the resources? Should these decisions be made on a local community level, or by those with a controlling stake in the oil and gas industry? The argument is generally that these resources are too important (a matter of national interest) to be managed on a local level, that “experts” must be consulted in order to manage the resources correctly and efficiently. And who are these “experts”? They are professionals from the oil and gas industry of course, “experts” that will reap the profits from the decisions they make. The fox guarding the henhouse.

Within weeks of Sandy, Congress passed (and the President signed) legislation “authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to allow the construction and operation of natural gas pipeline facilities in the Gateway National Recreation Area and for other purposes.” Will the folks who live in the Rockaways, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, have any recourse if this federal level deal turns out badly for them? If many of these former residents are not allowed to return or “choose” not to return (they are bought out or informed that their land is uninhabitable, etc.) after the storm, will it go unreported as in New Orleans? Is this an attempt to create a buffer zone around industry, to shield industry from regulation, to hide questionable conduct from the public? While we focus on the crisis at hand, is industry being allowed to convert our homes and our public assets into a means of production and delivery of their product? Strangely ironic that the rationale for this initiative is presented as a means to stem climate change through transition to “cleaner burning natural gas,” sponsored by the congressional representatives of people who lost their homes to the storm.

I recently attended a demonstration down the street from Mayor Bloomberg’s uptown residence - we were not allowed to be across the street as the entire block had been barricaded on both sides before we arrived. My partner and I held simple signs made on the spot that read SANDY IS NOT OVER and OCCUPYSANDY.COM FOR MORE INFO. The relationships that Occupy Wall Street engenders through its horizontal organizing model permits a back and forth between actual people that is much harder to achieve when dealing with larger hierarchical organizations. Assessing people’s immediate needs after the storm and finding creative ways to address them was a perfect match for Occupy. Time and time again I have heard people say the simple phrase “how can I help?” There is no need to be in control, no opportunism, no ulterior motive - just a genuine desire to help. I read an AP article that claimed, “The world heard the cry as that camp grew and inspired other ones around the globe. Ultimately, though, the movement collapsed under its leaderless format, and Occupy became largely forgotten. But core members, and a spirit, have persisted and found a new cause in Occupy Sandy.” I wrote the following comment:

Americans don’t want to believe that the Occupy movement was systematically repressed around the country and around the world. It is more comfortable to believe that a “leaderless format” must inevitably lead to the demise of OWS, but just because this narrative has been repeated over and over in the main stream media does not make it true. Similarly, just because the media hasn’t been there to cover the tremendous work of OWS over the last year doesn’t mean it did not happen. Rather than wasting words forecasting the demise or longevity of Occupy (we’ve heard that all before), why not write about how amazingly effective the Occupy model continues to be despite the systematic repression that occupiers have faced across the country and around the world over this past year? It is the way OWS deals with these and other challenges that makes it so special, not necessarily the specifics of the challenges themselves.

While researching for this post I came across a piece by Kevin Gosztola responding along the same lines to the false assessment in the AP article. What I think is really important to recognize here is that while it is clearly a good idea for us to address major challenges like climate change and its effects (as well as other emergencies) through some type of collective action, we must get beyond the default of relying on our military (and other hierarchical institutions) in these situations. It really should not be surprising when institutions focused largely on force and control turn out not to be the best suited to provide assistance and comfort. And we should not be surprised if, when these institutions are deployed, there turns out to be some motivation beyond the goodwill of the American people.

So what will it take for us to prioritize caring for one another over controlling one another? As we narrowly escape yet another “end of the world” and enter into this new year can we take a moment to visualize the path that we wish to take forward, setting aside the restrictions of what may or may not be possible? Can we see this as an opportunity for us to rethink our conditioned responses, to reset our reactions, to renew our resolve? Is this cultural obsession with catastrophic endings just a way for us to avoid the possibility that we may actually all have to live here together forever? It certainly makes it easier not to take responsibility for our actions, for how we treat one another, if the whole thing is going up in smoke anyway. There doesn’t seem to be any indication of catastrophe at the “end” of the Mayan calendar. We don’t expect the world to end every New Year’s Eve (well there was that one in 1999...). A cycle ends, another begins - it is up to us how we choose to take advantage of this new day. The more I hear the ceaseless din of crisis, the clearer it becomes that the first step through the noise may simply be to not join in the hysteria and outrage. If we can reroute this energy into seeking out a deeper camaraderie and compassion through interaction with our sisters and brothers, we will already be demonstrating a new vision of what is possible.

Peace in the New Year.
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Forth Position designed sign for Febuary 17th climate change rally/march in DC.

2 comments:

  1. "The more I hear the ceaseless din of crisis, the clearer it becomes that the first step through the noise may simply be to not join in the hysteria and outrage". That's what I'm doing. Missing point.

    Thank you for your powerful piece. May we all be so wise as you are.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words Anonymous :)

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