Water is Life

Water HearingToday, Margy and I took a break from unpacking at our new house, to join with over one hundred other people who packed the Maine Supreme Judicial Court hearing of oral arguments in an appeal against a 45 year contract for water extraction between Fryeburg Water Company and Nestle (for their Poland Spring bottled water brand.) You can find out more about it at https://www.facebook.com/events/905328636212245/

After the hearing, we stood outside the courthouse with signs, which is when I took this photo. Water is utterly basic to life, and should be treated as sacred, not sold to a corporation that has a horrible track record in so many endeavors around the world. I remember most recently, Nestle was continuing to extract water in California, during the worst drought in its history.  We can’t let these giants trample the common good of the earth, without raising our voices.

It was good to be with other human beings who get it.

Shredding and Thoughts on an Anxious System

Shredding DSC00379As part of our downsizing, simplifying, and search for a greener home, I have been cleaning up old financial records that I had basically just boxed up and kept forever. I checked online sources to figure out which records I actually needed to keep and which ones I could throw away and recycle.

I found out that the IRS has three years from your income tax filing to audit your tax return for miscellaneous errors, and six years if they suspect you of underreporting income, so they suggest you keep all your returns and documentation for seven years. As a minister, this means I must also keep the documentation for all housing expenses, since our housing allowance is treated differently for taxes than regular salary. I have also read that I should keep anything related to purchase or sale of a house, and permanent improvements to the house. (If you think you might want to do some shredding, please do your own research on this, because I am not an accountant or tax expert.)

I have been doing this process for an hour or two at a time, because the shredder gets tired after a bit of time, and I do too. I’ve fed it thousands of old receipts, old bills, old bank statements, old tax returns. I have filled up four huge trash containers with paper for recycling. I am just getting up to the seven-year mark in my papers–starting from many years ago I’m finished up to 2007. What am I learning? It takes almost as much work to eliminate old papers as it did to acquire them. Finances have gotten so complicated that they take more time and energy than I want to give to them. In the financial world “green” does not refer to environmentally sustainable.

It makes me realize that the structure of our society’s economic system is based on fear and anxiety. The IRS is the adversary who might bang at our door and discover we threw away the letter acknowledging a donation. I am not against the idea of taxes or contributions to social security. (I don’t appreciate that so much of the money goes to weapons and war.) Ideally, taxes are the way we support the Common Good, the way we recognize and contribute to shared resources like roads and firefighters and schools and libraries and care for our elders. I wish healthcare for everyone was also included among those shared resources. I deeply value giving energy to the Common Good.

And I wish there were a way to approach it all beyond anxiety and the complicated accumulation of records. I am curious if others have found a way to truly simplify the financial processes in our lives?

Resilience Circles

There are many people who are already hard at work building connections based on partnership and sustainability. In the fall of 2010 I had the opportunity to participate in a facilitator training for “Resilience Circles.” Resilience Circles are groups of ten to twenty people who gather together in regular meetings to support each other through economic and ecological changes.

Resilience Circle Training/ Licensed by Creative Commons

Resilience Circle Training/ Licensed by Creative Commons

Our trainer Chuck Collins wrote:

The dominant messages in the U.S. economy are “you are on your own” and “some people are going to be left behind.” Countering this isn’t easy. For many, talking about their economic anxiety and asking for help is difficult and shaming. But to survive the coming period of uncertainty, we must regain use of our mutual-aid muscles, many of which have atrophied from lack of use.

The three main functions of Resilience Circles are to increase our understanding of the larger economic forces on our lives, to open up opportunities for mutual aid and support for local economic challenges, and finally, to engage in social action to create changes that can bring about a more secure and sustainable future.

We explored questions like: Why is the economy in distress? What is our vision for a healthy, sustainable economy? What are the sources of real security in our lives? What can we do together to increase our economic security at the local level? How can we help our neighbors facing foreclosure or economic insecurity? What public policies would make our communities more secure?

Social scientists say that the stronger our social networks, the more resilient we will be in a crisis. When I was working in direct support of homeless people, I noticed how often someone became homeless because of isolation—they did not have a strong social support system, and so a crisis became a catastrophe.

There are many ways that working together can enhance our economic well-being. The Resilience Circles begin with small mutual aid projects. For example, one idea was a weatherization round robin—a team of five people agree to help each other get ready for the winter. Each host buys materials such as caulk and plastic sheeting, and then the group spends a few weekends getting all their homes ready. Another idea was a babysitting coop, where parents take turns watching each other’s children, keeping track with tokens for hours of childcare. Tool sharing, job swapping, meal exchanges, bartering—the resources we have among us are many, and the options are only limited by our collective creativity.

The underlying principle of Resilience Circles is that our greatest source of security and wealth is in our connection to each other, and our shared stewardship of the earth.

Turning Toward Partnership

A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. … Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning.   Joanna Macy

 

Planting the Seeds

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Joanna Macy believes that the essential adventure of our time is the shift from our industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. She calls it the Great Turning. She says that “the ecological and social crises we face are inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth,” on “how fast materials can be extracted from Earth and turned into consumer products, weapons, and waste.” Based on this analysis, the mainstream arguments about how to revive the economy and the financial markets miss the point. Rather, the trouble in the markets is linked to a deeper trouble—a whole economic system based ultimately on the destruction of our environment.

In 2006, David Korten published a book, called The Great Turning, to further reflect on this transition that Macy had articulated. He describes our work in this time as a shift from the ways of Empire to the ways of Earth Community. He warns that even if we fail to change our ways, the world will change. But it will be known as the Great Unraveling, because “profligate consumption [will lead] to an accelerating wave of collapsing environmental systems, violent competition for what remain[s] of the planet’s resources, a dramatic dieback of the human population, and a fragmentation of those who remain into warring fiefdoms ruled by ruthless local lords.”

The other possibility, the Great Turning, involves unlearning the practices of empire, of systems based on hierarchy, competition, and domination, and adopting systems that support Earth Community: “a life-centered, egalitarian, sustainable way of ordering human society based on democratic principles of partnership.” If we recognize that we are all connected to each other and to the earth, we must embrace this sustainable, partnership path.

Fending for Ourselves?

There are strong pressures in our society to keep us fending for ourselves rather than finding common purpose with our neighbors. Think about some of the beliefs we have been taught about economic success and failure:

Economic struggles are a reason for personal shame.
You are on your own.
Don’t talk about your economic reality with anyone else.
You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Watch out for people less fortunate than yourself—they will want to take your stuff.
Government programs will encourage laziness.

Sound familiar? These beliefs go back a long time. Chip Berlet, author of Right-Wing Populism in America, writes that the anti-collective attitudes currently expressed in the Tea Party movement find their roots in earlier Protestant theologies of America.

“If you read Protestant sermons from the late 1800s, they sound like Glenn Beck on a good day. They’re anti-government, anti-collective, anti-union. The idea is that good Protestants don’t depend on the government. Individualism and hard work and capitalism are seen as a kind of package deal.”

He goes on to describe how our social safety net was not constructed until Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed back against the banks and financial sector during the depression. “That was a real change in how Americans looked at government.” And even then there was “a campaign against Roosevelt, claiming that big government was the road to socialism and fascism.” These fears had a basis in the socialist movements in Germany and Russia that had produced totalitarian governments during the 1930s and 40s.

Individualists propose that we let the market work it out. Give free reign to businesses and corporations with the expectation that, unencumbered, they will restore the economy to prosperity. Then, stock prices and jobs will rebound, and all will be well again.

Unfortunately, the problems with this analysis are extensive. One problem is that it ignores the vital scaffolding of common resources that we share and take for granted. Our economic and personal well-being is directly dependent upon things like good roads, traffic control, public transportation, community fire departments, and public schools; police protection, libraries, and public parks—all of these commonly held resources make our individual and corporate initiative possible. Yet they are not figured into the cost and benefit accounting in the market economy.

House Fire

Photo by dvs Licensed under Creative Commons

If these common resources are not protected, hazards abound. In 2010, a family in Tennessee lost their home to a fire because they had not paid their subscription cost to the local fire company. The fire fighters were under orders to let it burn down. Is that the future we want?

Another even more fundamental problem for the wellbeing of the human community is that we have treated the earth as a limitless resource to be used with no regard for future needs. Clean water, fresh air, thriving forests, and fertile soil are the underpinning of all economic and personal wellbeing, and human beings have been destroying them at an unprecedented speed. An economic model based on using up the water, air, forests, and soil is no longer feasible. An economic model based on continuous growth, as ours has been, is no longer feasible. There is only one earth, and its resources are finite. We cannot deal with this common crisis only as individuals.

Natural environmental limits are beginning to create tensions around the world. In just one of many examples, fierce battles are beginning to be waged over how we will manage increasing shortages of water in many places. While private interests are clamoring to control ownership of these resources, other are asserting that such fundamentals must belong to all Life. They cannot be separated and sold for the profit of a few.

Chip Berlet quotes from an Interview by David Barsamian, published in The Sun, November 2010: “Brewing Up Trouble: Chip Berlet on the Tea Party and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism”

Economic Insecurity

Tree uprootedOur individualistic society has brought us to a time of increasing economic insecurity. In our culture, we are taught to keep our individual economic lives a secret—more than religion or politics or sex—we just don’t talk about our income or debt or other monetary realities. But millions of people have lost jobs, or have family members who cannot find jobs, or are struggling financially. We know that millions of families nationwide have lost their homes. Many people have had to cancel retirement because their savings were decimated by the stock market collapse. It has been a collective crisis.

In my own family, two sisters in Michigan lost their jobs within the last few years. One of them was about to get married, and so had the safety net of her new husband’s income. The other sister moved to my parent’s home in West Virginia, and though she found some part-time work for a while, she was left without income, health insurance, or other resources.

Jacob Hacker has written about how common insecurities have been increasingly shifted to individuals and families as many of our social institutions have been dismantled. For example, in 1980, the majority of employers at medium to large companies paid 100% of family health insurance. Now, less than a quarter do. Medical costs were a factor in as many as 700,000 personal bankruptcies in 2001, and that situation has only gotten worse. Employer pension plans are declining and more and more families are on their own to figure out retirement options.

Fewer workers have long-term employment, and more and more are working in temporary or low-paying underemployment. Wages have been stagnant or falling, and more households have had to rely on two incomes to cover the same needs. Parents with children are most at risk for bankruptcy and foreclosure, and single parents are especially vulnerable. Support systems such as extended families are disrupted by geographic distance.

In the midst of these economic insecurities, there are basically two paths before us—in one, we each hunker down, and try to fend for ourselves as individuals and families. In the other, we turn to our neighbors, and make a common purpose to find a way forward. Ultimately, I believe the path of common purpose is the only one that will help us survive.

Figures from Jacob Hacker, The Great Risk Shift

Compete or Connect?

Monopoly BoardWhen I was ten, my younger sisters and I all got chicken-pox at the same time. My mom helped to keep us entertained at home by playing with us the board game Monopoly. My sister Nita and I were great little capitalists, and played the game to win. We would try to get as many properties and houses and hotels as we could, so we could charge huge rents when the other players landed on our spots. The goal was to bankrupt the other players until one of us was the last player in the game.

But my mom and my sister Vonnie had a totally different approach. They were tenderhearted, and didn’t want anyone to have to leave the game. So if someone was about to lose all their money, my mom and Vonnie would loan them some of their own Monopoly money to keep them in the game.

I remember this now and think—what a picture in miniature of the conflict of values in our larger society! One message we learn, even as children, is to try to get as much as we can, and try to win out over all the other people. Compete and consume. But my mother was bringing us another value, one that many parents want to teach their children, the value of connection and cooperation. She wanted to keep all of us at the table, so that everyone had a good time while we played our games.

What changes when we wake up to the reality that we are all connected to one another?