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Powerful ideas, practical actions
Updated: 2 min 8 sec ago
I was a relative latecomer to Facebook—and a skeptic, too. Well into the Obama era, I was parroting the standard criticisms that people who haven’t actually spent time on the platform like to recycle: chiefly, “Why would I want to know what a bunch of my old classmates and distant acquaintances just had for breakfast?”Takei’s kitschy cat photos are not themselves of political interest, but their popularity has given him a platform for his online activism
I’ve come around. It’s always unnerving to be hooked to a giant corporation, and I still keep my guard up a little. But once I got to using Facebook it quickly became clear why it has a mass following. It’s a fun way to keep in touch with friends, a useful source of interesting links (link up with some media-savvy users and you’ll have a customized news feed that’s hard to beat), and an effective means of affectionately razzing extended family members (when a cousin’s March Madness bracket started doing far worse than mine, I somehow made time in my busy schedule to gloat).
And then there’s the joy of seeing posts from George Takei.
Takei—a seventy-five-year-old actor most famous for playing Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek—is friendly and warm-hearted, matter-of-factly out of the closet, always ready with a pun, and unabashedly nerdy (items that combine or conflate the Star Wars and Star Trek universes are a subspecialty of Takei’s). If there is a more beloved personality in the world of social networking, I haven’t met him or her.
It’s likely that you don’t need me to tell you any of this. I’m merely one fan out of the 3,789,097 that Takei has amassed on Facebook. Admittedly, those aren’t Justin Bieber or Rihanna numbers. Yet Takei manages to stock the online world with more cartoons, humorous memes, and cheeky quips than pretty much anyone else. Even more so than people with larger followings, his fans respond to and re-circulate his content in droves—whether the posts are merely frivolous, heart-warming, or politically pointed.Takei describes his approach to promoting LGBT rights as “combating idiocy with humor.”
Takei’s kitschy cat photos are not themselves of political interest, but their popularity has given him a platform with exceptional reach for his online activism. This past week was the two-year anniversary of the launch of his Facebook page; it also witnessed several developments that highlighted Takei’s commitments as an engaged public figure.
One development was the national discussion of same-sex marriage, precipitated by the arguments taking place before the Supreme Court. (A useful and funny summary of last Tuesday’s oral arguments about the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 is available here.) The debate is directly relevant to Takei, who in the past decade has become an outspoken advocate of LGBT rights. He and his partner Brad were among the earliest and most prominent same-sex couples in Hollywood to obtain a marriage license in 2008, and they were the first gay couple ever to appear on the Newlywed Game.
As an online advocate, Takei describes his approach to promoting LGBT rights as “combating idiocy with humor.” This was on display during his “It’s OK to Be Takei” campaign in 2011. That year the Tennessee state legislature considered a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would have prohibited teachers from discussing homosexuality with their students. In response, Takei helpfully offered his last name (which rhymes with gay) for use by schoolteachers who needed a handy substitute for any words forbidden in the classroom.
While his status as a spokesperson for LGBT rights is relatively new, Takei has long been involved in other civil rights issues, such as raising awareness about the government internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. As a child, Takei was held with his family for four years in prison camps. Last week, TED made available Takei’s talkabout the experience and how it motivated him to create a forthcoming Broadway musical, entitled Allegiance.
Social media holdouts may have good reason for their wariness. But if you are going to cave to Facebook, Takei’s distinctive combination of politics and meme silliness—what he describes as “talking about the internment of Japanese Americans, mixed in with some cute kitties”—is a pleasure worth indulging.
Mark Engler is a consulting editor YES! Magazine, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, and author or How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com. You can follow Mark on Twitter (@markjengler) or on Facebook.
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Ideas for co-ops may flourish, but few people understand exactly how to make theirs real. The Co-op Academy is providing answers. Founded four years ago by Omar Freilla (who recently made Ebony magazine’s list of the Power 100), the academy runs 16-week courses that offer intensive mentoring, legal and financial advice, and help designing logos and websites.
Run by the South Bronx-based Green Worker Cooperative, the academy guides up to four teams per session through the startup process and has graduated four organizations now thriving in New York City. These include Caracol Interpreters, which is raising the bar on interpreter wages, and Concrete Green, which focuses on environmentally sound landscaping. Six more co-ops are in the pipeline.
“I’m amazed at how little knowledge and information is out there for the average person about how co-ops function and how to start one,” says Janvieve Williams Comrie, whose mother-owned cooperative Ginger Moon also came out of the program.
“That’s one thing the Co-op Academy really provides, the hands-on know-how.” Even money for tuition ($1,500 per team) gets the treatment. Freilla is adamant that teams fundraise to cover that cost—even if they can foot the bill themselves. “By fundraising for the registration fee, you are promoting the vision for your cooperative, gaining supporters, and creating a buzz before the program even starts,” he says. “That is just the kind of support that will propel your business forward, and while you’re doing it you’ll be getting an early opportunity to see just how well you and your teammates work together.”2. Red Clouds Collective , Portland, Ore.
They shared an active, outdoorsy lifestyle in the Pacific Northwest. They shared a talent for creative work. It seemed logical for the group of friends to leave their corporate jobs to form Red Clouds Collective, a Portland manufacturer of handcrafted canvas and leather gear. The worker-owner cooperative pools the talents of a variety of artists and allows them to make a living as craftsmen beyond what any of them could do individually. A percentage pay system benefits the original designer, the assembler, and the collective. After one year, business is great. What’s popular? theGOODbook™, a leather wallet/iphone case/sketchbook all in one. From left, Owen Johnson, Seth Neefus, Jason Thomas Brown, and Casey Neefus in their garage-turned-factory.3. Seward Community Cafe , Minneapolis
It’s one thing to run a successful cooperative business, and quite another to lend a hand to the competition. But that’s exactly what the Seward Cafe in Minneapolis did, loaning $10,000 to Hard Times Cafe when the nearby worker-run restaurant was struggling through an extended closure due to repairs. “They’re like our little sister,” says Nils Collins, a worker at Seward, which is the oldest collectively run restaurant in the country. “We can’t function in an environment where everything is corporate-owned. It’s a lot more effective to have mutual support and solidarity.” The two businesses often help each other with tax-form preparation and even food delivery. “We call it a friendly rivalry,” said Hard Times’ bookkeeper Rozina Doss. “A worker-run business has its own set of difficulties, so our relationship is just a recognition that other people have the same commitment that we do to changing the way work is done.”
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Don McCormick, a former health insurance executive, opened a free, charity-funded clinic to better understand the problems in health care and stumbled onto something that surprised him: Uninsured people were willing to pay a nominal monthly fee—like $18—if it guaranteed access to medical care. Then McCormick learned that doctors actually earned more by billing patients directly—even at those nominal fees—than they did by going through Medicare, Medicaid, or HMOs. With that realization, McCormick founded the Houston-based Patient/Physician Cooperative in 2005, which now has 60 participating clinics. Members of PPC function as a group, which allows them to purchase health care at affordable prices. There are no co-payments or qualifications for those with pre-existing conditions, and the model has since spread to North Carolina and Portland, Ore. “This turned into a very practical solution,” McCormick says, “and it’s better than what anyone else is proposing.”5. Community Food Forest , Providence, R.I.
The new plantings at Roger Williams Park hover around three feet tall. But in a few years, they’ll sprout leafy greens and medicinal herbs. All will be available to harvest for free, along with wild mushrooms, tubers, and fiber. The edible forestry project, which broke ground in April 2012, is a partnership between the University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners and city officials at Roger Williams Park. The location is no accident. More than 83 percent of nearby residents live in a USDA-declared food desert, with little access to supermarkets selling fresh produce. But in years to come, the edible forest, which sits adjacent to a community garden, will provide nuts, mulch, fruit, and fuel. Similar projects are popping up in other urban areas. The Beacon Hill Food Forest in Seattle—funded in part with a $20,000 grant from the city’s Department of Urban Neighborhoods—is the largest edible forest on public land in the nation.
“We live here, work here, invest here. We just want to buy some socks here,” reads the motto of Quimper Mercantile in Port Townsend, Wash. After the town’s general store closed in 2011, residents of this out-of-the-way town found themselves with few nearby options for buying basic goods, and they weren’t interested in inviting Wal-Mart to move in. Their solution? A dozen activists and business owners raised $50,000, formed a corporation, and began selling shares to friends and neighbors. To date, 1,008 folks have invested—a hundred-dollar share at a time—$570,000, and Quimper Mercantile opened for business in October 2012. When the bankroll reaches $950,000 investors can start trading their shares. “We’re a for-profit venture, not a co-op,” says Peter Quinn, CEO. “So it’s essentially buying stock in a startup, with all the usual possibilities and risks.” At this fledgling stage, participation is motivated less by profit-seeking than community-building. “A much more altruistic purpose,” Quinn says.7. Buying land as a cooperative, Duvall, Wash.
Mobile homes provide a source of long-term, low-income housing but, vulnerable to rate increases or eviction, it’s hardly stable. Last year, in Duvall, Wash., 24 mobile-home dwellers joined to create a cooperative and purchase their trailer park. Final price: $1.18 million. That sounds pretty steep, but Ben Guss, a facilitator with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, linked the residents to funding through ROC USA Capital, which has made loans to 125 such communities across the country. For the Duvall project, ROC partnered with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, and now for $475 a month—just $15 more than they were paying before—each member of the newly-named Duvall Riverside Village Co-op is an owner. “It’s great to change from having Damocles’ Sword in the air that you know can fall,” said Stewart Davidson, who lives there and serves as board president. “When I pass, my wife can live here and not be worried about having a knock on the door with someone saying, ‘Here’s your notice, you’re out.’”
Claudie Rowe wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Claudia has been an award-winning social issues journalist for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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When Florence Williams was nursing her second child, she had her breast milk tested: It was a cocktail of synthetic chemicals, from flame retardants to BPA. This experience started her research into what exactly is in a breast and how that body part connects us to our children, our past, and our surroundings. The result is her compelling, highly readable, often funny, but also deadly serious book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.
The human breast—unique in nature for its size and shape—developed early in our species’ life, for the suckling of infants with bigger heads and flatter faces. Now its augmentation is the number one plastic surgery, and breast milk is sold online for 262 times the price of oil.
The breast is the organ most sensitive to chemicals, especially to the synthetic endocrine disrupters present almost everywhere—in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the cars we drive. As a result, breast cancer is the number one fatal cancer in women worldwide—and it’s increasingly becoming a problem in men. Rather than responding to these dangers with fear, Williams inspires us with thoughtful, well-researched consideration of what others may only want to ogle or avoid thinking about altogether.
Williams adds her strong voice to two connected and important, growing movements: for the regulation of chemicals, and for cancer prevention, not merely treatment. This book is an impassioned cry for a more holistic vision and more collective action to safeguard not just body parts, but the whole body—not just the individual, but also the species and the world that supports us.
Editor's note: This story initially claimed that Florence Williams' breast milk contained "inorganic" chemicals. Alert reader djanick pointed out in the comments that toxins such as BPA are, in chemical terms, organic. The word has been changed to "synthetic" to correct this error.
Nadia Colburn wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Nadia is a writer and teacher of writing living in Boston.
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Books introduce us to fascinating strangers; they take us to places we would never visit alone. So why not send them out into the world, to share stories with new readers? Better yet, why not follow their adventures? That’s the idea behind BookCrossing. Put a tracking label on your book, leave it in a public place, and wait to see where it turns up next. The labels encourage new readers to release the books they find, and to enter where they found them on the website: train stations, park benches, and cafes across the globe. Part social networking, part world library, bookcrossing.com connects book lovers, anonymously, to the pleasure of sharing a good book with a stranger.2. Make your library mobile
Most public libraries make a point of giving away books that have been withdrawn from circulation. But two Portland women have a new spin on library outreach with Street Books, their bicycle-powered mobile library. Using what looks like an ice cream cart, Street Books brings a fresh rotation of great books to people who live in Portland’s streets and parks. Patrons do not need to provide an ID or proof of address, and they return their books on an honor system. Readers are invited to submit book reviews and share stories from the road on streetbooks.org.
Mobile libraries vary according to the countries they’re found in. The coastal town of Port Philip, Australia, keeps a lending wheelbarrow traveling down its beach during summer months. In Colombia, grade school teacher Luis Soriano brings a children’s library to remote villages on the backs of his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto. His Biblioburro project serves children inland from the Caribbean coast, and the idea has been adopted in other regions of Colombia.3. Build a tiny library
The Little Free Library movement inspires bibliophiles to plant bookshelves in unexpected places: on front lawns, city sidewalks, against tree trunks and beside bus shelters. These colorful handmade libraries, as small as mailboxes or as large as vending machines, invite neighbors and passersby to browse and borrow, lend, and linger. Some of the boxes are rustic, while others are whimsical. Some repurpose containers like newspaper dispensers or reuse materials like old license plates. Many are supplied with a reading bench, and all are free to anyone. No check-outs required.
Todd Bol built the first of these libraries in Wisconsin as a tribute to his late mother, a librarian. People loved it, so Bol and a friend started a web site, littlefreelibrary.org, to help people build their own libraries. Aspirants can find instructions on building, weatherproofing, and mounting libraries. They can also read about the movement’s goals: to promote literacy, the love of reading, and a sense of community. And to build more than 2,510 (tiny) libraries around the world—more than Andrew Carnegie!4. Have a book exchange party
Introduce friends to good books, and each other, by throwing a book exchange party. Set the tone with party decorations and treats on a literary theme: giant letters, book banners, quotation cakes. Ask guests to bring a wrapped book to exchange. The names of givers and recipients are picked out of a hat, and the book swap, which can involve several exchanges, begins.
Talking about books provides an icebreaker at parties for adults. And a simple book exchange for children (bring one, take one) is a break from the usual emphasis on presents and party favors.
Fabien Tepper and Signe Predmore wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Fabien and Signe are editorial interns at YES!
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Eric LeCompte is the executive director of the Jubilee USA Network.
Last October, soldiers from the West African nation of Ghana boarded an Argentine naval ship called the Libertad. They overtook the crew and brought the ship to port in the town of Tema. This was not an act of piracy, at least not in the sense we normally understand it. The detaining of the Libertad took place after hedge fund NML Capital convinced a Ghanaian court that the ship, which was sailing in Ghanaian jurisdiction, should be held ransom for a debt the hedge funds claimed Argentina owed them.
The saga began in 2001, when Argentina was thrown into economic crisis and defaulted on its loans. Hedge funds swooped in and bought Argentine debt for almost nothing and circled until the country was in recovery to collect the debt in full.
The case is set to be decided in the coming days in the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court, the jurisdiction in which the original loans were contracted. The decision will impact whether certain hedge funds commonly known as "vulture funds"—funds that buy a struggling country’s debt for pennies on the dollar and then sue for the full amount when a country is in recovery—will continue to extort poor countries.
The long 2nd Circuit Court proceedings between Argentina and hedge funds NML Capital and Aurelius have propelled the international debt crisis into the spotlight. It’s been called the “debt trial of the century,” and the proceedings could have the most far-reaching impacts on global poverty in our lifetime.
The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court is the case's last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court, and if the vulture funds win, it will mean these funds will be allowed to more aggressively target poor countries in financial recovery. Argentina would possibly default. But if Argentina wins, it will be much harder for these types of hedge funds to exploit poor countries in the future, destabilize emerging economies, and target assets that should be improving the lives of the world's most vulnerable people.
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Because the U.S. government acknowledges that this behavior hurts legitimate investors and poor people, the Obama Administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief that argued that a ruling against Argentina could make it much harder for poor countries or countries in financial recovery to access credit and restructure debts. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are similarly critical of vulture funds.How they work
Vulture funds create an international version of a situation that often takes place on the individual level: You lose your job and you can’t pay your debts. You file for bankruptcy and restructure your debts, but the owners of your hospital debt and credit card debt refuse to negotiate. Instead, these debts are sold for almost nothing to collection agencies when it could have been resolved directly with you. The collection agencies hover while you are trying to get back on your feet. When they find out a relative gave you $200 to take your daughter to the dentist, the collection agencies seize the money.
The equivalent impacts on a poor country just getting on the other side of a financial crisis are devastating. In 1999, a vulture fund called Donegal International bought a debt owed by Zambia for a knock-down price of $3.3 million. Most of Zambia's debt was canceled and the country began saving $40 million a year when they stopped repaying loans to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. After Zambia received this debt relief, Donegal sued the African nation for $55 million and in April 2007, the court ruled that Zambia must pay $15.4 million—roughly 65 percent of the debt relief that was specifically directed for development projects. It was a huge profit for the vulture fund and a theft from the poorest Zambians.
Typically, vulture funds refuse to negotiate with countries who are indebted to them. They often make 400 percent profits with their legal proceedings, which often take place in New York or London courts where previous contracts on the loans were signed. “These funds are among the very worst actors in our international financial system," notes Dr. Collins Magalasi, executive director of the Zimbabwe-based African Forum and Network on Debt and Development. "They are aggressive, selfish, and greedy. In fact, they are so egregious that most legitimate investors won’t stand in the same room with them.”
And those running the funds continue to lobby for even greater powers.
Occupy Offshoot Set to Cancel Millions in Medical Debts
Medical debt is the cause of 62 percent of bankruptcies, say organizers of Strike Debt, which threw last night's offbeat fundraiser for their new “Rolling Jubilee.” Ordinary people donated enough money to collectively buy an estimated $5.9 million in bad debt in order to cancel it.
Last June, the organization I work for, Jubilee USA Network, along with our partners at American Jewish World Service, put enough pressure on New York legislative bodies to stop proposed legislation that would allow vulture funds to sue a struggling country, even after a court had rejected their claims.
Then in November, Argentina's case was brought to the U.S. District Court, which ruled in favor of the hedge funds. Argentina was ordered to pay $1.3 billion to NML Capital and other creditors it represented. When Argentina appealed, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals froze the payout to hear new arguments from both sides.
In February, the federal appeals court heard the arguments and ultimately asked Argentina to outline a payment plan. The plan the country laid out would essentially give the holdout creditors the same deal as 92 percent of the creditors that had previously restructured after Argentina’s default. It still offered a significant profit to the "vulture" funds.
The hedge funds rejected this plan; now we wait for the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court to issue a final ruling.
Last October, the Libertad was returned to Argentine waters by Ghana. We hope to see a similar outcome in the case of NML Capital LTD, v. The Republic of Argentina. The legal outcome will either offer more devastation or greater protections for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
Eric LeCompte wrote this op-ed for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Eric is the executive director of Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of more than 75 U.S. organizations, 250 faith communities and 50 Jubilee global partners. Jubilee USA Network has won critical global financial reforms and more than $130 billion in debt relief for the world’s poorest countries. www.jubileeusa.org
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The playground in Manchester, a neighborhood on Houston’s east side, is empty much of the time. Children who play for too long here often start to cough. They go back inside, leaving an empty swing set in the shadow of a nearby oil refinery.For the residents of Manchesters, the effects of the Keystone XL pipeline will be right next door.
Yudith Nieto, 24, has lived in Manchester since her family came from Mexico when she was a small child. While it’s OK to visit the playground, she says, it’s not OK to bring her camera. On several occasions, security guards from the Valero refinery next door have appeared and ask her to leave, claiming that taking pictures in the park was “illegal.” They’ve even brought in Houston police as reinforcements. Valero, one of the major oil companies operating in this industrial part of Houston, keeps its security busy: Nieto says that they have harassed documentary filmmakers and journalists. And when college students participating in an “alternative spring break” program came to the park to talk to her about the neighborhood’s problems, a guard drove up in an unmarked vehicle and took video of the meeting on his cellphone.“I'm not afraid of the attention I'm getting from these people,” Nieto says, “because we want people to know that we're aware.”
Manchester, one of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods, is surrounded by industry on all sides: a Rhodia chemical plant; a car crushing facility; a water treatment plant; a train yard for hazardous cargo; a Goodyear synthetic rubber plant; oil refineries belonging to Lyondell Basell, Valero, and Texas Petro-Chemicals; as well as one of the busiest highways in the city. Industrial development continues uninterrupted down the Houston Ship Channel for another 50 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. The refineries around Houston have been called the “keystone to Keystone” because they’re expected to process 90 percent of tar sands crude from Alberta if the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is completed.
It’s one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the U.S., one where smokestacks grace every backyard view. But it’s taking on a new significance as the terminus of Keystone because the pipeline is at the center of the highest-stakes environmental battle in recent years. As international pressure builds, residents are beginning to organize, educate themselves, and speak out for the health of their families.
For them, the struggle over Keystone not a political game. It’s not even about climate change, at least not exclusively. The effects of the pipeline will be right next door.A grassroots movement begins to grow
Manchester is in some ways typical of low-income urban neighborhoods: it’s almost entirely Latino and African American, with a large number of undocumented immigrants. A full third of residents live below the poverty line. Drugs, unemployment, and gangs are a problem. And there’s a strange smell in the air: sometimes sweet, sometimes sulfurous, often reeking of diesel. The most striking thing is that people here always seem to be sick. They have chronic headaches, nosebleeds, sore throats, and red sores on their skin that take months to heal.
It took a groundbreaking study by the Houston Chronicle in 2005 to reveal for the first time the extent of the air pollution here. It identified five human carcinogens ( a 2010 EPA study identified eight), including enough benzene that one scientist told the Chronicle that living in Manchester was “like sitting in traffic 24/7.” Toxin levels “were high enough that they would trigger a full-scale federal investigation if these communities were hazardous waste sites,” the Chronicle wrote.
Given this, it’s easy to understand why there are so many chronic respiratory problems. But the health risks go beyond asthma: for children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, chances of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia are 56 percent higher than for children only ten miles away. “Children are being bombarded with toxins every day of their lives,” Nieto says.
Nieto, like many others in Manchester, grew up with asthma. Now an after-school teacher at Southwest Elementary, she spends her spare time working to organize this community, which has long been paralyzed by poverty, language barriers, and lack of access to information about exactly what is making them sick. But the business of grassroots organizing is a slow one. It’s family to family, house to house. Many residents have reasons to resist taking action. They’re preoccupied with earning a living, fearful of authorities—often because of their legal status—and hesitant to accept just how bad their air might be.The free store is tiny, but represents an alternative to the feelings of helplessness that have long been dominant here.
Most people, Nieto says, just want to get out of Manchester. But they can’t afford rents anywhere else, and it’s impossible to sell. After all, who would buy a house with an oil refinery in the backyard?
So far, government representatives have been unwilling to act on behalf of residents who live along the Ship Channel. Juan Parras, a community organizer who founded Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS, says that a major goal is simply holding public officials accountable and enforcing the laws already in place under the Clean Air Act. But in a state where oil is king, he says, “our elected officials are more responsive to industry than they are to community needs.” Fossil-fuel companies—and the politicians whose campaigns they fund—stand to profit enormously from projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, Parras says. “They have our elected officials in their back pockets.”Where grassroots meets DIY
But residents of Manchester are finding ways to take action that don’t depend on those representatives. Alongside two organizers from the group Tar Sands Blockade, Nieto, her partner Emmanuel, and a few other young people have set up a “free store” with regular hours. It’s an outdoor community space based in a neighbor’s yard, a tent and some tables crammed with information and arts-and-crafts materials for children. The store offers free donated clothes, food, information on air pollution, meetings of local government officials, and trainings in skills like talking to the media and filing pollution complaints with the city.
The free store starts to address some of the immediate, daily needs for things like clothing and healthy food, which might prevent residents from engaging politically. It seems tiny in comparison with the industrial behemoth that’s so close. But it represents a critical shift towards mutual aid and self-sufficiency, an alternative to the feelings of helplessness that have long been dominant here. By creating a space where neighbors can come together to take control of their own needs, organizers hope they’ll pave the way for deeper empowerment.
After a small rally and march last year, two activists from the Gulf Coast locked themselves to trucks entering a Valero facility in Manchester and launched a 45-day hunger strike, demanding that Valero divest from the Keystone XL pipeline. For now, the people risking arrest in these actions remain outsiders—U.S. citizens with greater access to resources and support. For many locals who struggle with supporting families under already difficult conditions, civil disobedience isn’t an option.
For Nieto, though, it’s about “building the support from people that I’ve known all my life.” Residents are mistrustful of even the most well-intentioned outsiders. That puts Nieto and the small handful of other young people from Manchester in a unique position to create change from the inside.A critical position
The Alberta tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline have taken on a monumental significance for the North American environmental movement. It’s not just another pipeline; former NASA climate scientist James Hansen famously referred to it as “the fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” In February, it was a rallying point for the largest demonstration on climate change in U.S. history. Over 60,000 people have already signed a pledge to engage in civil disobedience should the final leg of the pipeline be approved.
If that happens, almost all of the tar sands crude that flows through Keystone will be processed at refineries in East Houston. Activists from Tar Sands Blockade say that Valero has contract rights with TransCanada, which will allow them to purchase up to three-quarters of Keystone’s capacity. Tar sands crude oil is much more toxic than regular crude, and contains 11 times more sulfur and nickel, and 5 times more lead.
That puts neighborhoods like Manchester in a critical position not only to affect the future of the pipeline—and by extension the fight against climate change—but to raise environmental justice issues around race and class into the national conversation. After decades in the shadow of the refineries, Ship Channel residents have the potential to play a major role in the debate. The political pressure around Keystone might be just big enough to catalyze both residents and public officials to change the composition of the air in East Houston and the carbon in our atmosphere.
Will Tar Sands Drain the Rocky Mountains Dry?
A centuries-old cycle has been interrupted by the tremendous volume of water required to extract oil from the Alberta tar sands.
What’s more, East Texas is the belly of the beast: the heart of America’s oil country and the seat of power for the fossil fuels industry. Juan Parras of TEJAS says he tells national environmental groups concerned about climate change to get involved in Manchester. “Because if you can fight them here,” he says, “and beat them to the punch, it’s going to have a huge impact on the rest of the nation.”
But Parras also worries that spotlighting Keystone will allow the media to forget the myriad other issues faced by residents of Manchester—that even if the pipeline is stopped, public attention will move on, and local people will still be dealing with polluted air, cancer and asthma, and the poverty that makes it impossible to leave.
Yudith Nieto, through her activism, has started to travel. She has met organizers from places all along Keystone’s path, including indigenous people from the Alberta tar sands.
Meeting them only deepened her sense of shared destiny, she says, the sense that she and her neighbors are not alone. “It put everything else into perspective,” she says. “This has been going on for such a long time. I became an ally to those people, and they became allies to me.”
Keystone is a threat to the health of communities along its path, from the source in Alberta to the terminus in Texas. But it also presents a challenge, and an opportunity, for those communities to realize what they have in common and make their voices heard. What’s at stake is not only the air quality in East Houston, but the stability of the climate across the planet.
Kristin Moe wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Kristin writes about climate, grassroots movements and social change. Follow her on Twitter @yo_Kmoe.
- Newly Released Tim DeChristopher Finds a Movement Transformed by His Courage
Tim DeChristopher, who was just released from federal custody, is best known as the man who disrupted an auction of pristine public lands. But there’s more to his story than his role as “Bidder 70.”
- Alberta Tar Sands Illegal under Treaty 8, First Nations Charge
In 1899, First Nations in northern Alberta signed a treaty with Queen Victoria that enshrined their right to practice traditional lifeways. Today, it’s the basis for a legal challenge to Shell Oil’s mining of tar sands.
Peering down Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the Bullitt Center appears to be just another high-end commercial building—until you look up and notice the roof, which is overlaid with shiny silver photovoltaic panels that extend far beyond the building’s exterior walls. Even in the cloudiest of cities, the panels generate all the electricity the six-story structure requires.
The building is a project of the Bullitt Foundation, which calls it “the greenest commercial building in the world.” The foundation, which was founded in 1952, has focused since the 1990s on helping to create cities that function more like ecosystems. Its new building provides office space for eco-conscious tenants, but also functions as a learning center that demonstrates how people and businesses can exist in harmony with nature.
The Bullitt Center was built according to a demanding green building certification program called the Living Building Challenge, which lists net zero use of energy and water among its many requirements. The standards specified by Living Buildings far surpass those of the better-known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program, which even at its highest level still produces buildings that harm the environment.
Jason McLennan, the founder of the program, says the goal of the Living Building Challenge is to create a structure that is in harmony with nature. “Even when buildings are promoted as 10 to 30 percent greener than the traditional code, the building is still extremely harmful to the environment.”A tour of the world’s greenest office building
It turns out that making a building beautiful can help to make it green. In an effort to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the elevator, the architects of the Bullitt Center created an “irresistible stairway” encased by floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow for an abundance of light and offer captivating views of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains.
Office spaces are airy and bright, so the center requires no artificial illumination even on the dreariest Seattle days. And since most of the walls are made of glass, employees can see straight through one side of the building to the other, creating a feeling of community and openness.
What do tenants think of the space? “Everybody seems to be wildly enthusiastic,” says Bullitt Foundation president and CEO, Denis Hayes. “Psychological studies show that people perform better when they have the diorama going by outside—they are happier, healthier, take less sick leave, and are more productive.”
With no on-site parking for cars, tenants are encouraged to ride bikes to work and park them in a space the size of a three-car garage. And for those who arrive sweaty from the bike ride in, rainwater-fed showers are available on every floor.
While some developers may argue that it is too expensive to build this way, the Bullitt Center’s initial costs were only one-fifth above average for an office building of its class. And that’s not mentioning savings from energy and water bills, which will amount to zero when measured across 12 months.
The sewage bill is also zero because the building requires no hookup to the city’s sewer system. Composting toilets produce biologically pure waste, which is mixed with King County’s compost facility to produce agricultural grade compost.
The Bullitt Foundation hopes others will replicate their building. Bankers, developers, appraisers, insurance companies and government officials are invited to visit the center to learn more about building and investing in sustainable buildings.
McLennan concludes by suggesting that the Bullitt Center demonstrates the viability of taking a stronger approach to sustainability. “Washington is the least sunny state in the United States, and this building is still able to obtain 100 percent solar,” he says. He hopes that the Bullitt Center’s example will help to encourage others to build more enjoyable, sustainable, and affordable buildings around the world.
Samantha Thomas wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Samantha is Project Consultant for DreamChange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a better world for future generations, by building cultural bridges between people, societies and corporations. She is also a freelance writer, green business consultant, and eco-fashion model based in New York City.
- Living Buildings, Living Economies, and a Living Future
David Korten: Two ideas that bring me renewed hope that we can end our isolation from nature and from each other.
- The World’s First Living Buildings
Once deemed too ambitious, the next generation of green building is now a reality.
- Big City Farmers Take to the Rooftops
Space is expensive in Brooklyn, so Gotham Greens built their urban farm on a rooftop.
YES! Magazine is seeking a Local Economies Reporting Fellow to help expand our solutions-based coverage of successful grassroots approaches to building strong, inclusive local economies. This paid, ten-month fellowship begins in June 2013 and requires 20 hours of work per week. Candidates are free to work from a remote location. Some travel to our office near Seattle and to cover stories in various parts of the United States will be required.
The fellow will spotlight efforts around the United States to build local economies characterized by fairness, inclusion, and sustainability. Coverage will focus primarily on communities marginalized from economic growth during the last few decades. Stories that investigate an intersection between access to jobs and topics such as ecological sustainability and social equality are especially relevant. Examples of appropriate topics include community benefit agreements, government subsidies, worker-owned cooperatives that pay living wages, and jobs programs based on environmental restoration.
The fellow will regularly contribute stories to both the print issue of YES! Magazine and yesmagazine.org. You will work in close collaboration with print and online editors, both pitching them stories and accepting assignments from them.
The fellow must make a ten-month commitment. After that, YES! and the fellow will evaluate and determine whether to extend the fellowship. Depending on the candidate's level of experience, a trial period may be agreed upon between the fellow and YES!
The fellowship pays $17,000 over the duration of the ten months.
YES! Magazine is an award-winning, ad-free, nonprofit publication that supports people’s active engagement in solving today’s social, political, and environmental challenges. Online and in print, we offer in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world.
Proposals are due May 20. The fellowship will run from early June 2013 through March 2014.Responsibilities:
- Develop and maintain a solutions-oriented beat covering strong, inclusive local economies.
- Cultivate a wide network of sources, including business leaders, academics, activists, foundation program officers, city planners, and others involved in creating, observing, and analyzing this part of the economy.
- Investigate and report on the effectiveness of various campaigns and innovations by drawing on existing research and doing your own reporting. Some analysis of what innovations and policies are working—or not working—to build fair local economies is required.
- Write 2 to 4 stories per month to be published online, and 2 to 4 stories to be published in print during the fellowship period. Over the course of the year, 2 to 4 of these stories will involve long-term, investigative research (more precise editorial planning will be undertaken in cooperation with YES! editors once the fellowship has begun). Storytelling styles can be a mix of on-the-ground investigative reportage, character-based narrative, and shorter blog posts offering analysis.
- Participate in social media outreach strategies to promote coverage.
- Work in close collaboration with YES! print and web editors.
- Travel in the U.S. as needed for reporting, meetings, and conferences.
- Represent YES! through occasional interviews and media appearances as required.
- A minimum of 2-3 years of professional journalism experience. Demonstrated experience following an in-depth, targeted beat.
- Strong reporting, writing, and analytical skills.
- Demonstrated ability to recognize, pitch, and execute compelling stories, report factually, offer analysis, and synthesize relevant issues (e.g., economic growth and environmental sustainability).
- Ability to develop stories independently as well as accept assignments.
- Commitment to covering stories focused on solutions and congruent with YES!’s mission (click here for more).
- Investigative reporting experience.
- Demonstrated background in blogging and social media.
- Experience reporting on race, class, economics, and social justice movements.
- Experience with data analysis, statistics, and computer-assisted reporting.
- Cross-cultural reporting experience. Spanish language a plus.
- Home base within or in close proximity to a major urban center with a number of community economic development projects underway.
- Skills in photography, video, or graphics.
Applicants must submit the following:
- A brief cover letter explaining why you are interested in this fellowship and the mission of YES!, and explicitly highlighting why your reporting experience makes you a strong candidate.
- A proposal of no more than 500 words outlining how you plan to build this beat. The proposal should include a plan for how you would develop a network of sources and begin your reporting. You are free to use specific examples.
- Three story pitches of no more than 200 words each on the topic of building strong, local economies, that include:
- Two writing samples. These can include newspaper and magazine clips, academic papers, blog posts, and unpublished pieces—anything that demonstrates your writing style and reporting skills.
Please send all materials electronically to: email@example.com with "Local Economies Reporting Fellow" in the subject line. No applications will be accepted after 5:00 pm on May 20, 2013.
No calls, please.
The Positive Futures Network, publisher of YES! Magazine, is an equal opportunity, affirmative action employer. We welcome qualified applicants of any race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
Yesterday, after 21 months in federal custody, climate activist Tim DeChristopher approached the pulpit at his church in Salt Lake City, Utah, as a free man. The First Unitarian congregation rose in uproarious applause, tears streaming down more than a few faces.This Earth Day, we thank Tim DeChristopher for steering our movement toward the path of courage.
“It’s good to be home,” DeChristopher told the crowd.
During his sermon, he said that he had never expected to change the oil and gas industry alone. “But I thought that I could change people like you, and I knew people like you have a lot of power.”
The story of how DeChristopher landed in prison is well known. On December 19, 2008, he walked into an oil and gas auction in Salt Lake City, where the Bureau of Land Management was auctioning off leases to drill on public lands. When asked if he had come to bid, DeChristopher, somewhat startled, said yes. He took a paddle, labeled “Bidder 70,” and without any plan as to what he would do with it, entered the auction. But then, when he saw a friend across the room break down in tears over the potential loss of wild lands, an idea came to him. He began raising his paddle to bid. By the end, he’d amassed a total of 22,500 acres at a price of $1.8 million.
Although the Obama Administration later declared the auction illegal and DeChristopher eventually raised enough money to buy the land he had bid on, two of the felony charges against him stuck. After a trial delayed nine times by the prosecution, he finally received a two-year sentence in July 2011.
But that's the Tim DeChristopher story you already know. What often gets overlooked in this folk hero tale of a man who went to jail for his principles is that DeChristopher didn't want to be the only hero. And so he became one of the most consistent and strongest voices for direct action and civil disobedience in the movement, urging environmental groups to use personal sacrifice as means of becoming more effective.
By showing that people who don’t hold positions of authority can successfully confront injustice, his example helped to build the climate-justice group Peaceful Uprising, changed the tactics of the nation’s most established environmental organizations, and helped shape the mass climate movement, which turned out nearly 50,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in February.The time to act is now
It’s important to remember how much things have changed over the past few years in the climate justice movement, which emphasizes the effects of climate change on human rights—particularly on the world’s most marginalized people. When DeChristopher began speaking publicly about his action, the most popular approach in the movement could be described as “Let’s wait until we’re big enough, and act then.”
DeChristopher saw things differently, and he wasn’t afraid to say so. He thought the movement already had the numbers it needed to succeed, if people would step up and act—with the belief that their actions would propel more people into motion and build the movement’s numbers. He began to argue that groups like 350.org needed to stop waiting and start using civil disobedience now.
"We hold the power right here to create our vision of a healthy and just world, if we are willing to make the sacrifices to make it happen,” he said at the 2011 Power Shift conference in Washington, D.C. “Mountaintop removal, and climate change, and all the other injustices we are experiencing are not being driven solely by the coal industry, solely by lobbyists, or solely by the failure of our politicians. They’re also happening because of the cowardice of the environmental movement.”
Shortly after the Bidder 70 action, DeChristopher founded the climate justice group Peaceful Uprising, or PeaceUp, with his friend from the University of Utah, Ashley Anderson. Their intention was to radicalize the movement by making civil disobedience more the norm than the exception. “Peaceful Uprising realized something was building,” Anderson said, referring to public understanding of climate change. But the group’s members believed that taking full advantage of that was “going to require revolutionary change.”
PeaceUp aimed to push people to sacrifice their own comfort and take bolder action for the sake of a livable future. That may sound a little austere, but the group managed to make it rejuvenating and joyful by cultivating a supportive community.
Before his imprisonment, DeChristopher continued to speak publicly about the need for escalation. While he didn’t berate 350.org or other climate justice groups, his message was clearly aimed at them. He criticized the movement for focusing on mass gatherings that resulted in statements rather than action.A movement transformed
Little by little, DeChristopher’s message was catching on, resulting in a series of actions—each one larger than the last—that used civil disobedience. In April 2011, more than 350 climate justice supporters staged a sit-in at the Department of the Interior, and 21 were arrested. Among the participants was 58-year-old University of Utah librarian Joan Gregory, a founding member of Peaceful Uprising who remains active to this day. It was her first arrest.
The demonstrators stormed the building despite a line of guards attempting to block the entrance. Police threatened them with felony charges, but Joan refused to leave. “I knew I couldn’t get up, no matter what it was,” she said. “I couldn’t not take action at that point.”
According to Peaceful Uprising director Henia Belalia, the Department of the Interior action stemmed from frustration over the movement’s lackluster response to the BP oil spill in 2010, as well as Tim’s impending imprisonment. “People were outraged and heartbroken,” she explained, “and they were going to do something about it, rather than just sit with the pain.”
A few months later, in August 2011, DeChristopher’s message came to life in a monumental way. During two weeks of sit-ins launched by the 350.org-affiliated Tar Sands Action, 1,253 people were arrested while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. It was not only the largest civil disobedience demonstration by the climate movement, but also the largest in decades for any environmental issue in the United States.
“Tim's act helped break civil disobedience out of the domain of radicals and marginal activist culture,” said Tar Sands Action coordinator Matt Leonard. “That openness is a big part of how we mobilized the 1,253 people that were arrested in the Tar Sands Action, and a part of the near-daily actions that have happened on the Keystone pipeline this past year.”
350.org founder Bill McKibben agreed, saying that DeChristopher “was and is a complete inspiration to all of us. His courage permeated everyone's thinking.” While McKibben’s current work does not revolve solely around civil disobedience—350.org has been building a successful divestment campaign over the course of the past year—the mass civil disobedience actions have demonstrated the campaign’s resolve.
In turn, those actions likely provided the inspiration for the Sierra Club’s recent reversal of its 121-year-old ban on civil disobedience. Soon after, club leaders cuffed themselves to the White House gates, again over the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline.Not just peaceful, but joyful
Peaceful Uprising’s emphasis on community-building is another testament to the lasting impact of DeChristopher’s work. The group strives to maintain an attitude of joy and resolve, with the goal of drawing new members and keeping them in the movement for the long haul by fostering a supportive, fun, community-centered culture.
As DeChristopher often said, “We will be a movement when we sing like a movement.” PeaceUp members have taken those words literally. At actions, its members can always be found singing upbeat, folksy songs, from “If I Had a Hammer” to “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” Through song, colorful art like its giant paper mache puppets, and the deep sense of camaraderie its members share, Peaceful Uprising has been successfully building a nurturing culture.
Three Tactics for a Stronger Climate Movement
New Sierra Club policies on civil disobedience present an opening for radical groups to experiment with their tactics.
Maintaining a joyful presence is part of Peaceful Uprising’s strategy of merging resilience and resistance. Instead of getting bogged down in campaigns that do nothing but oppose unwanted things, PeaceUp goes a step further and tries to embody the world its members want to create. For example, group members select a “hot spot” and “cool spot” for every campaign—the hot spot representing an injustice members want to stop, and the cool spot representing a positive change that they want to create or bolster.
Peaceful Uprising also models how a small group of committed people with little background in activism can quickly become a powerful force for change. Members have gained experience in legal observation, media relations, jail support, and other elements of direct action, and now serve as a valuable resource for the local community by providing trainings in nonviolent direct action.
The continued influence of Peaceful Uprising in Utah and within the broader climate justice movement testifies to the significance of Tim’s closing statement at his sentencing in July 2011: "You can steer my commitment to a healthy and just world if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow."
And that is precisely what happened, which is why the celebration yesterday and today is not just about one man's release from prison. It's also his influence on the powerful movement that transpired in his absence.
Already, others are taking his place in prison. As Tim mentioned in his sermon yesterday, biologist and author Sandra Steingraber and two other activists were just imprisoned for 15 days after blocking access to a fracking gas storage site in New York to protect drinking water.
This Earth Day, we thank Tim DeChristopher for steering our movement toward the path of courage. With countless lives on the line, it's the path we need to take.
Melanie Jae Martin wrote this story for a special Earth Day collaboration between YES! Magazine and Waging Nonviolence. Melanie writes on environmental justice and transitioning into a sustainable future. Follow her on Twitter at @MJaeMartin.
Brooklyn may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of gardening. The dense population and high cost of land means there is precious little space for agriculture. But that didn't stop the urban farm company Gotham Greens from creating a hydroponic greenhouse there. They just had to do it on a roof.
Increasing demand for local food sources has created a market for locally grown greens in dense places like New York City. Gotham Greens was started in New York City, and they are the country's first commercial scale rooftop hydroponic greenhouse.
Gotham Greens’ plants are organic, free of genetically modified organisms. and about as local as you can get for nearby restaurants and groceries. The farm is currently working on a partnership with Whole Foods to create a rooftop garden at the store’s new Brooklyn location. Watch the video to find out more.
- Resilient Ideas: Rooftop Beekeeping
Urban hives allow landless city dwellers to create their own honey–and may even provide solutions to colony collapse.
- How a Community Food System Works
It begins with small farms working with natural cycles and ends with fresh food and stronger communities.
- Mobile Slaughterhouses Help Meat Go Local
Scarcity of certified processing facilities is one reason the meat industry is so consolidated—so farmer Bruce Dunlop invented a mobile slaughterhouse.
In his book Violence, psychologist James Gilligan asked a Massachusetts prison inmate, “What do you want so badly that you would sacrifice everything in order to get it?”Could it be that for human animals fear itself has become a danger?
The inmate declared, “Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem … And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.”
Or, as another inmate said, “I’ve got to have my self-respect, and I’ve declared war on the whole world till I get it.”
Pride, dignity, respect, agency—a sense that we matter—these are feelings largely shaped interpersonally. We depend upon the social fabric to get them. But for many, these things are in tatters. Fewer and fewer of us feel a sense of belonging, and we're more and more preoccupied with the desperate scramble for belongings.
We see fear’s face everywhere, whether in a Congress debating assault weapons or in schools introducing lock-down drills. French philosopher Patrick Viveret has called fear the “emotional plague of our planet.”
For most species fear is key to survival. Sensing danger, a healthy animal experiences instantaneous physical changes that enable it to escape; then, once the threat has passed, the impala literally shakes off its fear and runs back to join its group.
But could it be that for human animals fear itself has become a danger? To explore the possibility, a place to start is asking what humans fear most.
It is the loss of standing with others, the fear of being cast out by the tribe. Rather than being hyper-individualists, Homo sapiens are profoundly social creatures—the most social of all species. This sense of standing is inseparable from trust. To thrive, we need to trust that we count in the eyes of others and will, therefore, be treated with respect. In a word, our fear is loss of dignity.
Almost equal is our fear of powerlessness. Human beings need to feel that we make a difference. Social psychologist Erich Fromm argued in The Heart of Man that what characterizes man is that “he is driven to make his imprint on the world.” And later he dismissed Descartes’ axiom about a human essence centered in thought, declaring instead: “I am, because I effect.”
When these essential needs for connection and agency are unmet, we go nuts. We try to get respect by whatever means possible. If peaceful means seem closed off, violence it is.
Inequality has soared to historic levels. In 2010, the top 1 percent garnered 93 percent of all income gains. And in countries and states, “high levels of trust are linked to low levels of inequality,” report British scholars Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level.Our crisis is not that we are too individualistic or selfish. It’s that we’ve lost touch with how deeply social we really are
Trapped in a giant game of musical chairs, we run faster and faster to edge out the guy ahead. With economic rules that increasingly concentrate wealth, we know we could be the next one kicked out, no matter how quick our pace. So we take on debt, juggle three jobs, cheat in school—whatever it takes to stay “in.”
And our children are most sensitive to this fear of exclusion. Those who’ve felt bullied, unable to fit in, misunderstood, without a voice in those most social of places—schools—are more likely to become psychotic and violent, including against themselves.
In a culture of fear of disconnection, those at the bottom feel most dismissed and discounted. Adam Smith, the supposed (but misunderstood) champion of the market more than two centuries ago grasped the devastating power of exclusion: Poverty, he wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “places … [a person] out of the sight of mankind … [T]o feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope … of human nature.”
In this vein, joblessness isn’t just about money. It’s about loss of “membership.” Martin Luther King once said that “in our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. You are in substance saying to that man he has no right to exist.”
And that is exactly how many feel: A rise of 1 percent in joblessness in the United States is accompanied by an increase of roughly 1 percent in the suicide rate.
In our world of increasing inequalities, suicide now claims more lives than homicide and war combined. Americans own more than four in ten of the world’s privately held guns, and two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths are suicides.
And when people feel “dissed,” violence toward the powerless increases, too: The Washington Post reports that each 1 percent increase in unemployment is "associated with at least a 0.50 per 1,000 increase in confirmed child maltreatment reports one year later.” Since the recession began in 2007, the number of U.S. children killed by maltreatment has risen by about 20 percent to more than five children each day. Thus, our culture of fear gets passed down from one generation to another.
So, what can we do to break free from the spiral of fear and worsening violence?
Maybe we begin here: recognizing that our crisis is not that we humans are too individualistic or too selfish. It’s that we’ve lost touch with how deeply social we really are. Easing the fear at the root of so much pain and violence that generates more fear—from suicide to child abuse to school massacres—comes as we embrace the obvious: We are creatures who, in order to thrive individually, depend on inclusive communities in which all can thrive.
Freedom starts there. We build it by standing up for rules on which inclusive, trusting community depends: fair rules, for example, that keep wealth circulating and strictly out of public decision-making, and rules that ensure decent jobs for all.
This pathway out of a violence-soaked culture is no foreign “ism.” It is what’s proven essential to our species’ thriving—communities of trust without which we destroy not just others, but ourselves as well.
Frances Moore Lappé is a contributing editor to YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. This article is adapted from EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want (new in paperback from Nation Books).
- No Papers, No Fear: Risking Deportation at the DNC
Why did ten undocumented immigrants choose to get arrested in Charlotte, even when they knew they could face deportation?
- The City that Ended Hunger
A city in Brazil recruited local farmers to help do something U.S. cities have yet to do: end hunger.
- Teaching Emotions: A Different Approach to Ending School Violence
A growing network of programs is teaching kids how to understand and express their emotions. Among their results: decreased aggression and violence.
Paying taxes, as tens of millions of us in the United States do every April, evokes many emotions—from gratitude for government programs that feed the hungry to disgust over paying for fossil fuel subsidies and unjust wars. But among a growing number of people, it is also evoking anger over an unequal tax system that favors the 1 percent over the 99 percent. More and more of us are saying that corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy should pay their fair share.
The good news is that rising numbers of organizations and people are involved in struggles for a more just tax system. Below we share the contours of three such campaigns, all of them winnable before the next U.S. president is elected.
Corporations: Daily newspaper headlines remind us that corporations are making record profits while their workers’ paychecks have been frozen for decades. These same corporations complain that the corporate tax rate, pegged at a mere 35 percent, is one of the highest in the world. And, corporations are lobbying furiously to cut that rate.
Among the things that these corporations don’t tell you is that, thanks to the thousands of loopholes their lobbyists have peppered throughout the tax code, large numbers of them actually pay little or no taxes at all. Last fall, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) pointed out that 25 of the largest U.S. corporations paid their CEOs more than they paid Uncle Sam. As a result, the corporate share of overall U.S. tax revenue has fallen to near its lowest share in over half a century.
Perhaps the biggest tax advantage that giant globe-girdling corporations enjoy is that the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and several other offshore “tax havens” charge little or no corporate taxes. Thanks to clever accountants, such corporations can declare large portions of their profits in these countries with low tax rates and thereby minimize corporate tax payments to Uncle Sam. In fact, U.S. corporations avoid paying an astounding $90 billion in U.S. taxes a year by taking advantage of these tax havens. Needless to say, this also puts at a relative disadvantage locally rooted small businesses that have no such tax loophole.
The good news: A coalition of groups called the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Network is rallying support behind the Cut Unjustified Tax Loopholes Act. The bill, introduced by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), would significantly close these loopholes.
Wall Street: Occupy Wall Street was right on the money as it lambasted the casino-like financial activities of Wall Street firms, activities that helped crash the economy in 2008. Indeed, a huge share of trades of stocks and derivatives in the United States are handled by so-called “high speed” trading firms whose sole purpose is to make money for corporate and individual clients via purely speculative activity that has nothing to do with a productive Main Street economy.
The good news: A set of groups in the United States has joined allies in Europe and around the world to call for financial speculation taxes to curb speculation while raising hundreds of billions of dollars to fund jobs, climate-saving innovations, public health, and the like. In the United States, groups as far-ranging as National Nurses United, HIV/AIDS activists, and climate justice groups have come together behind such a tax, often called a Robin Hood tax. In early April, activists dressed as polar bears joined others clad in the Robin Hood green to protest a meeting of financial officials in Washington. This is hardly a pipe dream. Citizen pressure has compelled eleven European Union nations to agree to initiate such a tax as early as 2014.
Individuals: The top tax rate on individuals was lowered from 91 percent under President Eisenhower to a mere 35 percent under George W. Bush. With pressure from unions and other groups, the U.S. Congress pushed it back up to 39.6 percent for the top 1 percent in early January 2013. Yet, among the richest U.S. citizens who still make out like bandits are the CEOs of the largest firms. Thanks to yet another outrageous and gaping tax loophole, corporations can deduct CEO pay over $1 million as long as they can claim it is performance-based—something that it turns out is quite easy to do. Hence, there is no real check on today’s staggering pay packages that offer CEOs, on average, more than 380 times their average worker’s pay.
The good news: A number of unions and social justice groups are rallying together to close this tax loophole on CEO pay. Even Senator John McCain favors reducing this perverse ratio. And, there is an important recent precedent for such action: In Obama’s first term, both the bank bailout and the health care reform legislation included a $500,000 cap on pay deductibility with no performance pay exemptions.
Bottom line: Each of these three fights is winnable as public outrage grows, and as other revenue-hungry governments point the way to sensible tax reform. To create decent jobs and thriving Main Streets, our local, state and federal governments need revenue. A fair tax system can deliver that with no cuts in vital government programs. The United States is not broke; its rules and tax system are simply unfair.
John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.
Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books and numerous articles on the global economy, and have been traveling the country and the world for their project Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.
- In EU Parliament, a Landslide Vote for “Robin Hood Tax”
Eleven countries in Europe hope to raise billions of Euros through a tiny tax on financial speculation.
- Nurses Fight for a Dose of Tax Justice
Before there was Occupy, thousands of nurses were already taking on Wall Street to demand a financial transaction tax.
- Do You Pay Your Taxes? Bank of America Doesn’t
The latest from a growing international movement to make corporate tax dodgers pay … so public services don’t have to.
There is a growing global movement to significantly reduce the amount of trash we produce as communities, cities, countries and even regions. It’s called the zero-waste movement, and it received a major boost this week as two of its leaders were awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
Nohra Padilla and Rossano Ercolini are two of the winners of this year’s Goldman Prize, which awards $150,000 to each of six grassroots environmentalists who have achieved great impact, often against great odds. On the surface, Padilla and Ercolini seem to have little in common. Padilla is a grassroots recycler—also known as a waste picker—from the embattled city of Bogotá, Colombia. Ercolini is an elementary school teacher from the rustic farmlands of Capannori, Italy.
Though their experiences are different, they share a common cause: organizing to reduce the amount of trash—everything from cans and bottles to cell phones and apple cores—that ends up buried in landfills or burned in incinerators.What is zero waste?
Here in the United States zero waste is often thought of as a lifestyle choice, if it’s thought of at all. Blogs like Zero Waste Home and The Clean Bin Project attract a readership of thousands through tips on how to buy less, reuse more, and recycle and compost in the home. The popularity of these projects, along with the success of Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, show a growing interest in reducing what we throw into dumpsters.Zero waste systems are designed with the goal of eliminating the practice of sending trash to landfills and incinerators.
Padilla and Ercolini’s stories show that zero waste is not only a personal choice, but also an organized system that works at multiple levels including the community, municipality, nation, and region. Zero waste systems include:
- composting, recycling, reuse, and education on how to separate materials into these categories;
- door-to-door collection of recyclable and compostable stuff; swap meets, flea markets or freecycle websites to exchange reuseable goods and encourage people to buy less;
- policy change, including bans on incineration and single-use plastic bags, and subsidies and incentives for recycling;
- regulation of corporations to require them to buy back and recycle their products once they are used by consumers (glass soda bottles and tires are examples of products subject to this regulation in some countries).
Zero waste systems are designed with the goal of eliminating the practice of sending trash to landfills and incinerators. Not only is this possible, it’s already beginning to happen. Ercolini’s hometown of Capannori, Italy, has already achieved 82 percent recycling and reuse and is on track to bring that figure to 100 percent by 2020.Taking on Europe’s incineration industry
Rossano Ercolini is an elementary school teacher. He began organizing against incinerators in the 1970s, when he learned of a plan to build one in Capannori. Concerned for the health of his students, Ercolini began a campaign to educate his community on the dangers of incineration, including how the burning of garbage releases particulates linked to asthma and other respiratory problems.
Over the course of the next 30 years, Ercolini led a David-versus-Goliath struggle, with education as his slingshot. In the 1990s, waste incineration was embraced by the Italian government as well as by big environmental organizations, all of whom bought into the premise that it was a safe and effective technology. Big business and the mafia also supported incineration because of the 20- to 30-year lucrative contracts and large government investments it involved.
The conjunction of economic and political interests behind incineration left citizens alone, not only to fight against incineration but also to develop sustainable alternatives. Ercolini worked for several years as a grassroots educator, inviting scientists and waste experts to give workshops to residents on the health effects of incineration and potential alternatives.
As a result, when the residents of Capannori succeeded in defeating the incinerator proposal, they also had gained the knowledge necessary to develop a better way of handling garbage. Ercolini himself was tapped to lead a local, publicly owned waste management company and began implementing a door-to-door waste collection system that maximized the quantity and quality of the recyclable materials recovered.
Soon after, Capannori became the first Italian municipality to declare a zero waste goal for 2020. Since then, Ercolini has helped to defeat 50 proposed incinerators and has also helped the zero waste movement to spread across Italy. Thanks to the Italian network Legge Rifiuti Zero, or the Zero Waste Alliance, and with the support of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, there are now 117 zero waste municipalities in Italy, with a population of about 3 million people.
“Incineration is no longer wanted or needed in these areas,” Ercolini says. “Instead, they have established comprehensive recycling and composting systems guided by zero waste goals. This has helped improve community health and has sparked strong collaborations between communities and local governments.”Grassroots recyclers unite
Nohra Padilla is a third generation recycler. For decades her family has survived by salvaging plastic bottles, aluminum cans, paper scraps, and the like from dumps, curbside trash cans, and collection centers. They made a living by reselling these materials to junk shops and also to businesses, which used them as raw material to create new products ranging from blue jeans to paper.
In the 1980s, Padilla began organizing her fellow recycling workers, creating the first grassroots recycler cooperative in Bogotá. Since then she has helped to form the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá, or Bogotá Recyclers Association, where she now serves as executive director. The association includes 24 cooperatives representing 3,000 people. She also played an important role in forming and leading Colombia’s National Recyclers Association.
“Grassroots recycling is a key component of a zero waste system,” Padilla says. Through their network of cooperatives, grassroots recyclers in Bogotá recover 20 to 25 percent of all material thrown away by city residents. This amounts to about 100 times more recyclable material than is collected by the city’s large private recycling companies.Padilla has shown how recycling can incorporate workers into unionized labor, with a clear agenda to reduce trash and carbon emissions.
In March the association won a milestone victory: Grassroots recyclers are now city employees. They will be paid $48 per ton of material they deliver to collection centers, and will be eligible for government pensions and health coverage.
“After years of battling for recognition from the Bogotá government, we will finally be treated as dignified workers and paid just like any large company would be,” Padilla says. “I believe this is a victory that can be replicated across Latin America.”
Padilla has achieved this success in the face of powerful political opponents, a violent environment for worker organizing, and climate subsidies that cut recyclers out of the picture. In 2009, for example, the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism awarded carbon credits to the Doña Juana landfill gas project. This project threatened the livelihoods of Bogotá’s 21,000 informal recyclers by making it more profitable to landfill waste than to recycle it, and by limiting access to recyclable materials.
Padilla and the Grassroots Recyclers Association worked to mitigate the impact of the project, but faced many challenges in making sure that their community benefits agreement was implemented. In contrast to large landfills like Doña Juana, Padilla and the association have created infrastructure to recycle waste instead of bury it. They raised nearly two million dollars, about 75 percent from outside funds and 25 percent co-financed by the association, to build the biggest grassroots-run recycling center in Latin America.A future without landfills
The stories of these two organizers show how zero waste movements from around the world share common problems and goals, as well as a need to confront powerful opponents with a vested interest in the business of trash.
Both stories also demonstrate the potential of zero waste organizing to bring people together across issues and sectors. For example, Ercolini has organized at the intersection of food sovereignty and trash reduction, advocating for a “Zero Miles, Zero Waste” approach to promoting local food. Meanwhile, Padilla has shown how zero waste approaches, and recycling in particular, can incorporate previously excluded workers into unionized labor, with a clear agenda to reduce trash and carbon emissions.
Padilla and Ercolini’s work has created a model for building viable zero waste alternatives to landfills and incinerators. The struggles of the Colombian recyclers’ movement, and the Bogotá Recyclers Association in particular, serve as an inspiration to recyclers throughout Latin America and beyond.
Meanwhile, the example of the Zero Waste network in Italy is being copied in many other places in Europe, decreasing the popularity of and need for incineration and sparking the creation of a continent-wide organization that advocates for zero waste.
- 10 Tips for a Zero-Waste Household
A year’s worth of solid waste from Bea Johnson’s home fits in a quart-sized jar. Here's how you can reduce yours.
- Four Steps to Less Wasteful Communities
The individual actions we take to reduce waste are important. But to stem the avalanche of stuff, we also need system-wide solutions.
- Waste Not: Seattle's Road to Zero Trash
There’s simply no room for waste in a carbon neutral city. Seattle has a plan to cut its contribution to landfills—and it’s working.
Every free spirit probably dreams about it at some point: trading a life of modern cares for the adventure, beauty, and self-sufficiency of the high seas. And it may be more of a possibility than you think.
Wendy Hinman and her husband Garth Wilcox are living proof that escape by sailboat can be affordable—and ecologically sustainable, too—as long as you’re willing to go slowly. As in, at the pace of a brisk walk.
It took them seven years to circumnavigate the Pacific at that speed. They sailed in a great circle around the Pacific Ocean, first down the coast of North America and then across to New Zealand, the Philippines, and Japan. In doing so, they visited 19 countries, and traveled 34,000 miles on little more than wind power and nautical savvy. During the journey, their days were filled with swimming, hiking, whale-watching, tacking the sails, and baking, as well as the occasional argument. They did it all while spending less than $1,000 a month.Hinman describes her life at sea as a distillation of sorts, an existence pared down to the essentials.
It was the realization of a lifelong dream, says Hinman, who chronicles the experience in her book, Tightwads on the Loose: A Seven-Year Pacific Odyssey. She began sailing at age six while living on islands like Guam and Hawai‘i, enjoying the fringe benefits of having a father in the Navy.
“Sailing has always given me this incredible sense of freedom,” she said. “You’re out there on the water, sometimes for days and days and days, navigating under the stars. As a kid I read lots of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on The Prairie and stuff, and I wanted to be self-sufficient like they were.”Finding simplicity
The couple’s 31-foot wooden sailboat, named the “Velella,” was designed to be spartan and spry. Its fuel tank carried only ten gallons of diesel. Electricity was provided by solar panels, a wind turbine, and a propeller-based generator trolled behind the boat. Two 10-pound propane tanks powered a modest galley. There was no refrigerator or hot water. The cabin was so small, Wilcox couldn’t even stand up straight inside it.
But the lack of amenities didn’t diminish the experience. Hinman describes her life at sea as a distillation of sorts, an existence pared down to the essentials. “I would enter this meditative state, with the sky and ocean surrounding me day and night,” she says. “I realized that most of the decisions we were making were pretty important ones: where to find water, where to find food, how to stay on course. On the ocean, there was a different sense of priorities.”
She and Wilcox would sleep in 4-hour shifts, so that one person was always awake. Their longest stretch without coming ashore was 49 days, as they traveled from Japan to British Columbia on only two gallons of diesel. For more than six weeks they saw no other humans, just shipping traffic and the occasional whale.On avoiding mutiny
That isolation was trying at times. “There were days when I felt like it was an endurance test,” Hinman says, “like a period of solitary confinement.”
They found entertainment in reading, snorkeling, preparing food together, and watching for wildlife: whales and dolphins on the open ocean, sea turtles and pelicans along the coast of Mexico. Some days, the water was too rough for cooking, so they ate Powerbars for dinner. They learned to find peace in what Hinman calls “spending alone time together.”
Living in such close quarters, arguments inevitably cropped up. Eventually, a certain shipboard diplomacy took shape. “I would sometimes ask myself, ‘Would you rather be right, or happy?’” Hinman says.They traveled from Japan to British Columbia on only two gallons of diesel.
Informed by this dynamic, she’s become something of an expert on shipboard love. She gives a presentation at boat shows entitled, “How to Keep Your Relationship Off the Rocks.”
“When we stopped in New Zealand, we heard about couples that were selling their boats and buying plane tickets home,” she said. “It was sad, but in some ways this is the ultimate test for a relationship.”
On returning home
Despite the numerous challenges at sea, the most difficult part of the journey was coming home.
“Honestly, it was hard transitioning back into society,” Hinman says. “The consumerism, the fast pace of life, the stress we inflict on ourselves for what are mostly just annoyances.”
The journey opened Hinman’s eyes to alternative, equally valid ways to live: lifestyles not dependent on material goods, nor structured around acquiring wealth. She says that she’s become more conscious of her impact on the environment since returning, and devotes more of her time to growing food, conserving water, and using less fossil fuels.
But Hinman and Wilcox won’t stay land bound for too long. What’s next for these scrimping seafarers?
“We’re thinking about sailing around Cape Horn, maybe go up into the channels around Europe,” she said. “But first Garth wants to build a bigger boat for us, one he can actually stand up in.”
Peter Pearsall wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Peter is an online reporting intern at YES! and a freelance science writer.
- Living Large in a Tiny House
Dee Williams doesn't need a big house to be happy. Instead she found happiness in a 84-square foot house on wheels.
- How to Build Green on a Budget
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- Real Homes: Small, Frugal, and Green
With 5 million houses in foreclosure, we are rediscovering that living sustainably includes living affordably.
- 8:30 a.m.: The doors of Brooklyn Free School open. You might be surprised at how quiet it is in the “big room.” Students are slowly trickling in and are serving themselves breakfast, eating, reading the newspaper, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards, talking about the events of the day before, a magazine article, a YouTube video, anything at all. Four mornings a week we make breakfast: muffins on Mondays, scones on Tuesdays and Thursdays and pancakes on Friday.
- Mid-morning: The hum of activity has built to a crescendo.The big room becomes the center of large group activities like baking, crafting,and sewing projects. Classes are under way in the teen lounge. Lunch is being prepared and onions are frying. Alan Berger and his staff volunteer administrators are bent over laptops.
Outside, kids are playing tag, four square or riding scooters and skateboards. Downstairs, the younger kids might be in rooms building forts, playing with blocks or Legos, doing puzzles, playing dress up, creating plays, having a dance party or putting together a jam session with keyboards and electric guitars. In the classroom, kids gather to do quiet activities or get involved in teacher-led classes like philosophy, math, reading, writing, and science experiments; there’s also a snuggle corner with a feather bed and pillows for curling up to read, and a writing area known as "the office."
- Noon: It’s lunch time! Kids sit down with teachers and interns to eat family style. After lunch, afternoon classes like Intro to Chinese, Black Studies, Art, Spanish and Revolutions happen. Younger kids might take a trip to the park or spend time on the computer playing games, watching videos, or doing research.
At anytime a meeting between kids with or without adults might be going on to solve problems ranging from children being excluded from play to policy around the use of computers and video games. Twice a month we have our all-school democratic meeting where larger school issues are addressed.
- 2:30 p.m. Everyone has a cleaning job before we end the school day. The little kids put games and Legos back in their bins. Others sweep the hallways and wash dishes. When chores are done, we eat a snack of cheese, crackers, and some kind of fruit. Younger students always get a story at the end of the day. Since it’s nearly Halloween, Gia Rae makes up a story about scary ghosts and a lost puppy. If it’s someone’s birthday – and we celebrate all 60 students and staff birthdays – we have an appreciation circle and cake for everyone!
Back to Gia's Story
Gia Rae Winsryg-Ulmer grew up primarily in New York City. She has studied Swahili in Tanzania, Spanish in Guatemala and Mexico, aromatherapy in Morocco, Ayurveda in India and Reiki in Manhattan. In addition to teaching the Dolphin Group (ages 5-7) at Brooklyn Free School, Gia is an amateur videographer, photographer, and a writer. Gia is currently working on a science fiction novel and planning a trip to Tanzania this spring with BFS students and families.
- Visit the Brooklyn Free School website
- Learn more about alternative education from Alternative Education Resource Organization.
This morning, journalist Laura Flanders posted an interview with the artist and hacker Paolo Cirio, whose work is especially appropriate on tax day.
Cirio, a former fellow at a New York-based art and technology center called Eyebeam, is fascinated by the economics of tax havens. More than 83 percent of Fortune 500 companies use offshore tax havens, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.That allows a long list of companies like Coca-Cola, Apple, and Cargill to pay less than 10 percent of their income in taxes. And it's not just U.S. taxpayers that are getting ripped off: a report released in 2012 found that developing countries lost $5.83 trillion to secret and illegal transfers of money that are facilitated by the tax haven system. Tax evasion by the rich contributed the financial crisis in Greece as well, with a recent report finding that more than 10 percent of the country's GDP went unreported in 2009.
Cirio addressed this problem through an art project called Loophole for All, in which he hacked into the websites of companies that offer incorporation in the Cayman Islands, a popular tax haven. After releasing the list of companies that had incorporated there, Cirio dreamed up a way to democratize the loophole previously available only to the powerful. For the price of 99 cents, Cirio's website will provide you with a certificate that makes it easy to steal the identity of a Cayman Islands company and pay taxes like a bankster.
Cirio says that the project is primarily intended as a form of protest and not as a scam. But is it legal? Not exactly.
Then again, “to steal the identity of a Caymans company is illegal only in the Cayman Islands,” Cirio explains, "and Caymans court orders have very little credibility abroad.”
- We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists
Whether you think the cyberactivists of Anonymous are hooligans or heroes, “We Are Legion” is required viewing.
- Occupy Wall Street’s Next Move: Bailing Out the People, One at a Time
The debt resisters of Occupy Wall Street mobilize arts, education, and media for a “People’s Bailout.”
- Remembering Aaron Swartz, “Alpha Geek” and Defender of Online Freedom
Aaron Swartz took his own life at the age of 26, after years of legal trouble over academic articles he downloaded and intended to share. He leaves behind a legacy of thinking about the power of the internet to shape our political lives.
The good people at Toolbox for Education and Social Change believe that co-ops rock and are proud to tell you why. This colorful poster is an engaging teaching tool for your classroom. Spanish language version available, too! Pay what you want prices.
To order your 10 Reasons Co-ops Rock poster, click here
Visit Toolbox for Education and Social Change's official website for more educational tools
The Toolbox for Education and Social Change (TESA) is a worker-owned cooperative that creates imaginative and experiential resources that transform the way people think, learn, teach, work, and act. Its focus is on social movements, immigrant rights, and democracy.
- Curriculum & Resources: Cooperative Teach-In
The Cooperative Teach-in is a nationwide initiative that engages campuses with the cooperative movement through events, programs, and projects.
- 2012: The Year of the Cooperative
How an old business model is finding new relevance all over the world.
- From Housing to Healthcare, 7 Co-ops that are Changing Our Economy
How manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, and others are doing business the cooperative way.
The above resources accompany the April 2013 YES! Education Connection Newsletter
READ NEWSLETTER: Why cooperatives rock :: TEDTalk for the bullied and beautiful
The solar era has begun: the industry is booming, prices are dropping, and solar energy at last seems poised to help topple the climate-altering dominance of fossil fuels. But bringing it to the masses won’t be as simple as just soaking up the sun.Hawaii is solving problems today that other states may encounter tomorrow.
To gain a better picture of the challenges to come—and of some possible solutions—electric companies and solar developers throughout the nation are watching Hawaii, which derives a larger fraction of its electricity from the sun than any other state. Homeowners and businesses have led the charge here, something that distinguishes Hawaii from other states at the forefront of solar, like Nevada and Arizona, which depend more heavily on large-scale installations.
The reasons for Hawaii’s solar boom are many. The Polynesians who inhabited the Hawaiian islands before the arrival of Europeans were entirely self-sufficient. But in 2010 it was a different picture: the state generated 86.1 percent of its electricity from imported petroleum. The high price tag on that energy, along with a heightened awareness of the islands’ isolation, has led the state to set an ambitious goal: to derive 40 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030. It reached 13 percent in 2012.
Hawaii has roughly doubled its solar power capacity every year since 2007, and in 2012 installed more solar than in the last six years combined. It’s not hard to see what’s behind the solar frenzy: With the average electric bill stacking up to roughly $230 per month, Hawaii has the highest electricity rates in the nation by far—nearly twice as high as the second-most expensive state.
Solar has the potential to decrease a homeowner’s electric bill to zero, except for a monthly $18 service charge. Those kinds of savings, combined with federal and local tax credits, mean a Hawaiian homeowner can recoup the cost of a solar investment in just 3.1 years. Even if all the tax credits were removed, it would still take only 8.9 years for a Hawaii solar installation to pay for itself.
But so much solar has also created problems. Each island’s electric grid is isolated from the others, and therefore less stable than a typical mainland grid, particularly when unpredictable solar energy enters the picture. But solutions are beginning to emerge. Better energy storage systems and weather-prediction technology are being developed to stabilize those grids. Meanwhile, the Hawaii legislature is poised to reduce solar tax credits, which some say are too expensive. In short, Hawaii is solving problems today that other states may encounter tomorrow.
Hawaii’s high rate of solar adoption makes it a likely picture of California’s future, according to Elaine Sison-Lebrilla, renewable energy program manager at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The district is collaborating with the Hawaiian Electric Company to develop solutions to many of the obstacles it’s encountered.
“They’ll see these problems much sooner than us,” Sison-Lebrilla said, “and the hope is that there will be lessons learned from them and we’ll be prepared.”Obstacle 1: More power than the grid can handle
“What about cloudy days?” That’s the perennial question for an industry striving to improve the efficiency of solar technology. But it’s too much power, not too little, that’s the problem in Hawaii.
“The system was not designed originally to have energy flowing two ways,” explained Peter Rosegg, spokesman for the Hawaiian Electric Company, or HECO, which provides electricity to 95 percent of the Hawaiian population. “Now all of a sudden you have rooftop solar and most of them are sending power back over these [lines] during much of the day because they’re producing more than they can use.”
Traditionally, a human operator at a centralized system operations center tracks power generation to ensure that it stays exactly equal to demand. But solar power generated by individual homes or businesses is invisible to these operators. This increases the risk of a sudden spike or drop-off in power, which can damage generation or transmission equipment—even home appliances—and cause outages and instability across the grid.Solution: Grid upgrades, meters, and batteries
Ultimately, infrastructure upgrades—probably massive ones—will be essential. HECO and several solar industry and advocacy groups have developed a plan for rolling out these upgrades, which they presented to the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission for review in January. They recommend what they call a “proactive approach,” and advise utilities to prioritize grid upgrades in areas where they anticipate seeing the most demand for solar.
The technologies that will be used to redefine the grid are under development. Among these are “smart meters” that would make solar power generation visible to system operators. The Maui Smart Grid Project will be collecting data from smart meters it’s testing throughout 2013.
Short-term battery storage systems are further along, with experiments using 1-megawatt batteries now underway on three islands. Such batteries could store excess power to smooth out power spikes and lulls.
These batteries are expensive, but if they’re proven to work, Rosegg says it’s reasonable to expect demand to go up and prices to go down. And lower prices for a proven technology could pave the way for other grids around the country.
Hawaii is an ideal place to test these technologies: Unlike on the mainland, where power companies can draw electricity from surrounding areas if they run into problems, each island has its own grid that is unconnected to the others. That’s why Hawaii is in such a precarious situation in the first place, but it also makes the success or failure of any technology that’s being tested immediately visible.
Obstacle 2: The unpredictable politics of solar tax credits
Hawaii is doling out more solar tax credit dollars than ever, and now state legislators are seeking to reduce that spending. But some argue that the expenses have been overestimated, while the benefits have been overlooked.The solar industry now accounts for 26 percent of the state’s construction-related spending.
In September 2012, the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism projected that Hawaii would spend more than $173 million on tax credits for solar by year’s end—five times as much as in 2010.
But one solar industry leader, Mark Duda, contends that those projections were overestimated by more than $56 million, according to actual year-end figures. Duda is principal and founder of Oahu’s top solar company, RevoluSun, and president of the Hawaii PV Coalition.
It’s a staggering difference, and an important one, considering how closely the state legislature is watching these numbers. In the next month, the legislature is expected to vote on a measure that could gradually decrease the state’s 35 percent capped tax credit—which solar adopters receive in addition to a 30 percent federal tax credit.
How the tax credit should be handled is just one piece in a puzzle of controversies. Also on the table is a Department of Taxation administrative rule, effective January 1, which aimed to cut down on the widespread practice of claiming multiple tax credits for a single project.
Nonprofit law organization Earthjustice is now representing the Sierra Club in a lawsuit over the rule, pointing to past releases from the department that defend the practice it’s now trying to eradicate.
Such policy changes create uncertainty that hits the solar industry hard, said Isaac Moriwake, an Earthjustice attorney. “That’s the exact wrong message you want to send the market: ‘We support renewable energy. No, just kidding.’”Solution: A more stable tax policy
Cutting back on the tax credit may look like a sure way to save money in tough economic times, but Moriwake and others in the industry say uncertainty is the problem, not the tax credit.
Hawaii Solar Energy Association’s Executive Director Leslie Cole-Brooks says that when legislators worry about high tax credits, they’re overlooking a wealth of benefits and revenues.
Aside from the environmental benefits of clean energy, increased economic independence means that Hawaii’s energy prices won’t spike when oil prices do—which is what happened after the Japanese tsunami in 2011. Cole-Brooks also points to the increased income and sales tax revenues from local and mainland companies riding the solar wave. After all, the solar industry now lays claim to 26 percent of the state’s construction-related spending.
The economic benefits Hawaii is experiencing are promising for any state, at least according to a January 2013 report from the Blue Planet Foundation, a Hawaii nonprofit.
The report estimates that for every dollar spent in solar tax credits for residential installations, the state receives $1.97 in additional tax revenues. That number bumps to $2.67 for commercial installations. And the benefits don’t end there: over its lifetime, a 5.27-kilowatt residential system creates more than three jobs—and a remarkable 81 jobs are created over the lifetime of a 118-kW commercial system.
Despite these benefits, the Hawaii Solar Energy Association and Duda now support a gradual ramp-down of the tax credit. The association views this support as a compromise, but Duda says that in the context of Hawaii’s high energy prices, the credit is “unnecessarily generous.” His main goal is eliminating uncertainty in the solar industry, and for that Hawaii needs a stable tax policy.Obstacle 3: “The 15 Percent Rule”
Power companies have long been concerned about too much solar energy overloading the grid. Too much can pose a danger by suddenly powering lines which, during a power outage, utility employees don’t expect to be electrified. So for several years, Hawaii adhered to “The 15 Percent Rule,” which prohibits the owners of solar installations from producing more than 15 percent of the maximum energy demand in a given day.
Because of the 15 percent rule, some homeowners who wanted to install solar were required to undergo “interconnection studies” to test whether their installation would overload their part of the grid.
Rosegg says that 29 commercial and residential studies were required in 2012. It doesn’t sound like much, but the studies have raised a lot of controversy about whether the 15 percent rule is too strict—and with the help of that popular pressure, the rules are changing.
Solution: Lift excessively cautious limits
As Moriwake sees it, electric companies arrived at the 15 percent rule somewhat arbitrarily. He believes that percentage can be increased safely, while stimulating the industry along the way.
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That’s just what happened last year: Hawaii raised solar’s maximum allowable contribution to 75 percent of minimum daytime demand, or about 23 percent of maximum daily demand. Actual minimum demand generally occurs in the middle of the night when most people are sleeping, but there’s no risk of too much solar power at night, so minimum “daytime” demand is looked upon as a fairer approach.
The Hawaiian Energy Company also refunded the cost of any studies conducted on systems 10 kW or smaller.
The “proactive approach” proposal recommends increasing the allowance all the way to 100 percent of minimum demand. The Public Utilities Commission will need to review the report’s recommendations, but Moriwake hopes for a decision in the next several months.
California raised its limit to 100 percent of minimum last year without major problems, and if Hawaii, too, can handle that amount, it may encourage other states to skip overly cautious maximums that limit solar potential.Obstacle 4: The unpredictability of the sun’s power
Hawaii’s weather is a lot more complex than the cloudless skies and unblinking sun most of us imagine. And with complex weather comes unpredictable solar power generation. That’s one reason many utilities hesitate to adopt solar.
“If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, their cloud cover comes in much more quickly and goes out and is a lot less predictable,” Sison-Lebrilla said. And it’s not all sunny: parts of Hawaii log some of the highest rainfall averages on Earth.
So to stabilize its grids in the face of unpredictable weather, Hawaii needs better weather prediction technologies—if utilities know when the sun will be shining and when it won’t, they can plan ahead and adjust for spikes or dips in solar power generation.Solution: Better solar prediction
Solar forecasting aims to predict levels of sunlight and the level of solar power generation that will result. This requires predicting the cloud cover in specific areas, which the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research calls “one of the greatest challenges in meteorology.”
Developing solar forecasting tools is one of the primary goals of the collaboration between the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Hawaiian Electric Company, and they’ve already begun testing such technologies.
“We’ve put up a network of sensors in [the District’s] territory, and Hawaii has done that also,” Sison-Lebrilla said.
The Sacramento and Hawaii utilities aren’t the only organizations working on such a project, but Hawaii’s variety of microclimates could make data there more broadly applicable than if the test were conducted in a lower-penetration and more interconnected grid such as Sacramento’s.
Their research is already paying off on a national scale: The two utilities are now partners in a three-year effort, announced in February, to develop 36-hour forecasting for solar energy. The project is headed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Hawaii’s high demand for new solar installations is expected to slow down in 2013, but one thing is certain: solar is here to stay. All eyes are on the Aloha State as it overcomes these obstacles, one by one, to pave the way for solar nationwide.
Erin L. McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical action. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in education, environment, cultural issues, and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @ErinLMcCoy.
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Saoirse was no more than a few weeks old when one of our farm customers approached me about attending a protest in Albany to call legislators’ attention to the problems with genetically modified foods. The organizers were specifically recruiting mothers to attend with children. They wanted moms to put kids and babies in shopping carts and wheel them from office to office to make their point. I wholeheartedly agreed with my customer about the importance of the issue. But I immediately refused.Saoirse and Ula needed to do this for themselves. They needed to know that they took a stand on something that was important to them.
“I’m not using my child as a decoration for a cause she hasn’t chosen,” was the only thing I could think to say.
Later on, upon recounting the experience with Bob, he agreed. Our refusal to use our children for our causes became a household rule for many reasons. But Saoirse and Ula recently informed us that they’ve outgrown that rule.
First, to explain Bob’s and my thinking: We believe that to raise a child who will be a good steward of the earth, she must be allowed to fall in love with it. We felt it was problematic to bombard our kids with information about our causes—how the earth is being poisoned and abused—before they are empowered to take action to protect it. If the natural world were forever depicted to them as fragile, in danger, and in need of protection, they might simply detach from it, since they were powerless to do anything about it.
We wanted our children to grow to trust the earth, to feel nurtured by her, before they were asked to defend her. Rather than barraging them with stories about what others are doing wrong to this planet, we tried to make them aware of the things that must be done to treat her right, whether it is picking up trash on the side of the road, being careful with our water and streams on the farm, choosing local foods in season, assiduously composting and recycling, or minimizing our use of our car. Furthermore, there was the simple matter of our daughters being too young to have opinions on issues. How does an infant or young child have an opinion about GMOs? Organic food policy? The 99 percent? New York State environmental law? Over the course of our family life, Bob and/or I would leave home to speak out for our causes, and the kids would stay home. They never challenged that rule, until last week.Fracking comes up at our local parties and potlucks. My kids hear about it at the firehouse, when we go to the post office, when we go to vote
As the threat of hydraulic fracturing circles about New York State, an unprecedented number of the residents of our town from all backgrounds and across the political spectrum have decided to organize to get a law in place to protect our land. And while it would appear that no one on our town board is truly “pro-fracking,” the speed with which the citizens want to enact the law is deeply troubling for the board members, who are accustomed to taking 6 to 12 months to discuss something as minor as a single dog control incident.
A new law on the books would preferably be a multi-year process in their view. This is one of those towns where nothing is supposed to happen, where the greatest controversy is over tax assessments. But the citizens feel it is imperative to have something in place before the state makes its determination on whether to allow fracking in the coming weeks or months, as home rule is our best chance for protecting ourselves in the future. Thus, while it would seem most folks are in agreement on the issues, there is still controversy.
And Saoirse and Ula hear it. It comes up at our local parties and potlucks. They hear about it at the firehouse, when we go to the post office, when we go to vote, when neighbors drop their kids off for play dates, or when folks come by to purchase meat.
On the day of our public hearing for the new law last week, Saoirse and Ula sat down at lunch while Bob and I were reviewing our talking points. They waited for a lapse in our conversation, then Saoirse spoke up.
“I’d like to talk tonight.”
“Me, too,” chimed in Ula.
I stammered. Saoirse? Speak? This is a kid who can go weeks without seeing any of her buddies and be perfectly happy in her seclusion. She is friendly to everyone she meets, but she’s an introvert to the core. And Ula? She’s usually playing in her fantasy world. What does she know about the issues?
“This isn’t your problem,” I assured them. “Mommy and Daddy will deal with it.”
Saoirse emitted a perfectly excuted pre-adolecent gasp of exasperation (she’s been practicing them a lot lately).
“It is so our problem! We want to be able to live here! We want to be able to drink the water!”
Bob and I stared at each other. What to do?
“I don’t think it’s allowed,” I muttered.
“You’re not of voting age,” he added, then quickly changed the subject. “Ula, make sure you eat your vegetables.”
“Saoirse, can you pass me the butter?” I aided the change of direction.
The afternoon passed with nothing more said on the subject. The girls went about finishing their lessons and playing, and we assumed it was forgotten…until just before supper, when they marched in to where we were having tea.
“You need to help us prepare what we’re going to say,” Saoirse informed us.
Bob and I studdered and stammered some more.
“You’re serious?” I finally asked. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I have to say something,” Saoirse informed me. “I just have to.”
So we booted up the computer, and Saoirse drafted a simple statement in her own words. Ula dictated what she wanted to say. We encouraged her to keep it short, since she wouldn’t be able to read any notes.
When we arrived at the town meeting, their names were added to the list of speakers. They shared slot number 17.
I was sitting behind them when their names were called in that packed room. They stood up. Saoirse held her paper in front of her. Her hands didn’t even shake. Ula stood beside her, staring over her spectacles at each board member at the head of the room, daring them to avert her gaze.
“My name is Saoirse Hayes Hooper,” Saoirse began, “and this is my sister, Ula. We live on Rossman Valley Road, and we work on Sap Bush Hollow Farm with our grandparents. The reason we don’t want fracking is because we have a very happy and healthy family, and we want it to stay that way. We want for our family to be able to drink a glass of water without having to worry about getting sick. So my sister and I are asking you to please ban tracking.”
And then, Ula added her one line “We don’t want Mother Earth to be in pain all the time.”
“Thank you,” they managed to say in unison.
They both collapsed into my lap afterward.
I don’t know what the board members thought. Did they believe that I’d brought my children out as decorations for the cause? Did they feel I had manipulated them to say something to bring more drama to the scene? Just then, Saoirse leaned in and whispered in my ear, “I’m so happy to finally get that off my chest.”
And I realized that my concerns were pointless. It didn’t matter what the board, or any of my neighbors thought about a nine-year-old and a six-year-old standing up and speaking at a public hearing. Or whether or not anyone suspected that I was some kind of manipulative over-bearing mother pushing these girls to do my bidding. Saoirse and Ula needed to do this for themselves. They needed to know that they took a stand on something that was important to them.
I realize now how Bob’s and my job as parents is shifting. It is not necessarily our task any longer to shield our daughters from our grown-up causes and concerns. We still don’t feel it is appropriate to ask them to stand up for issues that don’t resonate with them, nor should they have their joy in this earth stripped away by incessant harping about all the problems we must battle.
But at the same time, we can’t silence them, either. They have grown to love their world, and even at their young age, they have every right to defend it. Our job now is to help them make their voices heard.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmetand The Farmer and the Grill. Her newest book is Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover's Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.
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