Oct 082013
 
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Republicans, as has been widely recognized, have painted themselves into a corner on funding the government and raising the debt ceiling.

They’re not going to get any of what they’re demanding. Instead, they’re going to be humiliated after having been revealed as incompetent fanatics. A Continuing Resolution will be approved, the debt ceiling will be raised, and—because, thankfully, even in what has become the Party of Crazy-Stupid there are still enough marginally reality-tethered people to understand that crashing the world economy might be a wee bit bad—the hostage (meaning, all of us, at a global scale) will not be shot.

The result will be the worst possible outcome for them: the Republican Party as a whole has crashed in the polls, and there is now a legitimate possibility that they could lose the House instead of sewing up both houses of Congress as they had hoped. That’s in the swing districts. In the safe ones, members of the Evil Semi-Lunatic Caucus risk primary challenges from the Batshit Caucus, meaning we could see more of this down the road if they do retain the House.

I said this was coming ‘way back, and I am certainly enjoying it now that it is here, despite the fact that I, like everyone else, happen to be sitting atop the powder keg over which these idiots are waving matches.

Today, though, I just want to make one brief observation, which is about True Believers and effectiveness:

They do not go together in the slightest.

Zealotry is about insistence on How The World Should Be. Typically, it is built on axioms about How The World Is. These are generally simplistic, absolutist, and without nuance. If you’re on the right, it’s Jesus the Mean-Spirited Fascist, and Obama the Kenyan Muslim Antichrist, and sociamalism causing Teh Gay and feminazism and science and other Bad Things, and the War on Christmas. Oh, and Tax Cuts Create Wonderland.

When you believe stuff like that, you are incredibly hampered in your ability to get anything done. No effective path—even one that moves things in the direction of your goals—can be charted that doesn’t involve some aspect of soft-pedaling, deferring, or deprioritizing some of your agenda in order to advance some other part of it.

Which is why we have the spectacle of the House sending a ransom note to the White House consisting of a demand that basically every hard-right wet dream that was repudiated by voters in the last Presidential election and could not possibly make its way through Congress be surrendered  before the GOP will agree to fund the government.

Because, to hell with the legislative process in the Constitution, right? What we want is The Right Thing, To Be Had By Any Means Necessary.

It’s a losing strategy, and they’re going to rue the day they decided to let Ted Cruz use them as tools for his imaginary ascent.

My point, though, isn’t so much about that as it is about the zealotry. The noisiest grief I get from friends on the left (supposedly) is rooted in exactly the same kind of black-and-white oversimplification and fanaticism. If it wasn’t single payer health care, it was Obama and the Democrats being corporate stooges and selling out to the insurance industry. If it involved the possibility of killing anybody, it was off the table as a military/diplomacy strategy…even though that’s exactly what it takes to force an enemy to stand down.

You’ve heard something like this from me before, but I’ll say it again: principles are easy. Principles, in fact, are like opinions, which are like…

Well, in any case, everybody has them, of one sort or another.

The hard part is in making something happen in reality that conforms to some degree to your principles. And very frequently, that happens at the cost of something dear.

That’s why great progressive leaders are often criticized in some quarters because of the deals they had to make in order to achieve the strides they did. FDR’s salary cap on Social Security taxation, for example. Or Gandhi’s agreement to allow India to be partitioned in order for both of the resulting parts of it to be independent. Or Brower’s deal on Glen Canyon Dam.

Those actions, painful as they are to examine, weren’t outliers or aberrations. They were the cost of progress.

You cannot solve problems if you start from the standpoint of insisting on only one acceptable outcome and one acceptable path to get there.

100% or nothing really just means “nothing” here on Planet Earth. ”No compromise!” is the motto of someone throwing himself into the wood chipper of history. It ain’t heroic. It’s just dumb. It doesn’t work.

The nutjobs holding the world hostage right now won’t learn the lesson even as they go over the cliff of their own making, because they are mentally ill.

But the lesson holds both for right and left: it isn’t True Believers that make things happen in the world. It’s problem-solvers with values, heart, and creative flexibility.

At publication, the Dragon was STUFFED WITH POPCORN

Feb 282013
 

TimesUpHippies2The environmental movement of the latter half of the 20th century is dying. And as a product and member of that movement, I say, not a minute too soon.

Don’t get me wrong. We have a lot for which to thank the green movement that arose in force during the Sixties. Without towering achievements like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and countless other federal, state and local reinings-in of pollution, waste, and annihilation of habitat supporting biodiversity, our world would be vastly worse off.

Unfortunately, like so much that arose out of the Sixties, the era of environmental activism that is now passing away was based more on romantic notions than on practical and scientific realities. And now that time has moved on and younger generations do not, by and large, share those same romantic notions, we are threatened with a future in which protection and stewardship of the environment will dwindle as public support is lost.

Though there were certainly scientific reasons for the concerns being expressed by such Boomer-era environmental drivers as Rachel Carson and the David Brower-era Sierra Club, their articulated arguments were not couched in those terms. They were emotional appeals. Those coffee-table books featuring magnificent, endangered landscapes and adorable or noble charismatic species struck a chord in a Cold War public increasingly aware of the dark side of advancing technological progress, and painted a Muir-style romantic image of “Nature” as Out There: in the wild lands, far from humans, precious and endangered. As a result, millions of acres were protected as federal and state lands and parks. Nature-lovers flocked to hike, backpack, raft and otherwise enjoy these wild places.

There were those who loved and romanticized Nature prior to the 1960s, of course. But they were few, and viewed as cranks. Their signature, remarkable accomplishment was the invention of the national park, for which we must be ever grateful. But they were not a mass movement until a poetic idea of the Earth as a beloved, unified entity–what some claimed is even a single, intelligent organism–seized the imaginations of young people in reaction against their parents’ technologically enthusiastic, militaristic consumer society in the late 1960s, surging into the public imagination with the first full-Earth pictures relayed back by Apollo 8.

While there is certainly plenty of truth to describing wild lands as magnificent and rich with the fabric of life, it also had the effect of defining “the environment” as Somewhere Out There…rather than here, around us, all the time. By falling in line with the Sixties’ counterculture’s anti-societal ethos and evoking a romantic idea of Simpler Olden Times When Humans Lived More In Harmony With The Earth (particularly, lionizing with grossly oversimplified stereotypes the lifeways of native peoples) the environmental movement that rose to effective power at the end of the 1960s was the age-old-story of Man Against Nature, but rooting for the other team. It was the romantic mentality of the “back-to-the-landers”, rendered as a social movement.

Exacerbating this problem for us today is that one of the primary cultural legacies of the Sixties has been a wholesale cultural turning away from reason and science, suspiciously viewing these as the modalities and tools of authoritarian institutions, corporate greed, and engineered destruction. As a result, we have seen both on the left and right a tremendous surge in superstition, confirmation bias, junk, fringe- and pseudoscience accepted as fact, and paranoid conspiracy theories…be they about President Obama’s birth certificate, or the mortal dangers of water fluoridation.

Now, this is not to say that the modern environmental movement does not include many who are scientifically educated and literate, and who use the best available information in crafting proposed actions and policies. But this group tends to operate within institutions like established wildlife habitat restoration and land conservation organizations, academic institutions and policy think tanks. These informed and careful experts are often out of step, however, and even sometimes attacked by less educated grassroots activists, because they do not provide support for these activists’ more extreme theories.

The True Believers of the Sixties are fading away. Muir/Thoreau/Abbey-style Nature romantics who frame every proposal they don’t like as an environmental disaster belong to a generation now averaging over 60 years old, and their values have not penetrated to the youth of today. If theirs is the modality of operation and the mentality we continue to call “environmentalism”, environmentalism will die as a significant political and social movement.

Today’s generation does not view technology with suspicion. It spends most of its life engaging with it and interacting through it. Whether or not we want to face it, today’s youth feels little motivation to put on a backpack and hit the trail. Attendance at state and national parks has plummeted, and when you look at the number of people going to the back country, it is even lower. Those who do are overwhelmingly older, rather than younger.

The transition isn’t just in relation to technology. It’s demographic: a whole lot more of today’s young people come from backgrounds other than the white middle class suburbia from which most Boomer-generation environmentalists emerged. That’s just a fact.

Rather than beating the dead horse of values the young mostly do not share, if we want advocacy for the environment to persist it will have to become relevant to them. Environmentalism must evolve, or it will die.

Central to that evolution must be heightened emphasis on ecosystem services such as integrity of food webs and biodiversity, carbon sequestration, watershed function and other operations of the natural world which have a direct nexus with human needs, as opposed to wilderness preservation in remote areas. We all need to eat. We all need to breathe. We can still advocate for preserving wilderness from the standpoint of watershed functions, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, etc., but if our talk continues to be rooted in Muir/Brower “glory of Nature” rhetoric and the expectation we can lure popular support with the prospect of wilderness recreation opportunities that fewer and fewer of us are seeking, we’re going nowhere.

And, fellow greenies, we also have to stop indulging or participating in so-called “environmentalism” that is really just self-interested obstructionism. We need to call out the difference when opponents of change (and it is always opponents, not proponents, isn’t it?)  use environmental protection laws as a cudgel. We need to distance ourselves from fringe- and pseudoscience. We need to accept that all actions have impacts, and that this alone is not an argument never to do anything. The question is what will be impacted, and the significance of that impact. If the debate at hand is about which store goes into an already-existing mall, it’s up to us to point out that there may be reasons to oppose the project, but they are not environmental reasons.

Environmental reasons are rooted in air, water and soil quality; biodiversity; minimizing waste; efficient use of resources such as energy and water, and moving toward lower-impact ways of sustaining ourselves. That’s all.  Fighting a multi-family in-fill housing project in your neighborhood when what you really care about is parking convenience and the prospect that (gasp!) some brown people might try to live near you isn’t environmentalism. Opposing a more natural flow regime in managing a dam and claiming your concern is for fish and wildlife–when what you’re really concerned about is tourism-related business downstream–isn’t environmentalism.

In my home town a few years ago, a specific plan–mind you, just a plan, not a project–was proposed which would have set standards for developing mixed-use, higher density, transit and pedestrian-friendly projects in an area adjacent to the downtown, on lands currently occupied by decaying light industrial buildings.

The town went berserk. And self-styled “environmentalists” killed the plan.

Now, by no stretch of the imagination was theirs an effort in defense of or to augment the natural world. The existing policies applying to the area allowed more filling of nearby wetlands than did the proposed ones. Residents of the housing units would have been within walking distance of three grocery stores, a drug store, a farmers market, a post office, a movie theater, shops and restaurants and the town’s hub for regional transit. They would have been able to live a nearly car-free lifestyle. Everything about the plan was the kind of thing environmentalists around here say they support.

But only, apparently, if it is built somewhere else.

We have to stop this, folks. It’s shameful. Because what we’re showing the next generation is an “environmentalism” that lies about its real motivations while claiming to speak for the Earth in romantic, unreasonable, technophobic and often hysterically irrational terms.

There are projects well worth opposing. There are areas that should be protected rather than being allowed to intensify in land use. Zoning, land use, water and transportation planning and enforcement are good things. But they are abused every  bit as much when they are twisted to prevent change out of knee-jerk, reactionary opposition to anything new as they are when policy makers rubber-stamp exceptions to them to allow destructive activities to go forward.

We environmentalists were among the first to recognize the very serious problems homo sapiens was creating by fouling its nest. We bear a responsibility to be problem-solvers rather than reactionaries, to accept that some of our comforts are probably going to have to be let go for the greater good. Environmentalism can no longer be a luxury of the privileged, nor a movement primarily focused on defending that luxury. We have to make caring about the biosphere a practical, common-good ethos that includes a place for those who are never going to go backpacking, couldn’t care less whether there continue to be polar bears, and are not afraid of cell phone towers.

We are in the Earth and of the Earth. Our task is to figure out how to keep the biosphere livable for humanity–all of humanity–and for as rich a diversity of organisms as is practically possible.

Note the “practically”.

We must be thoughtful, well-informed, realistic, and embrace positive change. And we must distance ourselves from those who do not meet that standard but claim our mantle.

We must evolve, before we die.

 At publication, the Dragon was TELLING IT LIKE IT IS

Nov 112012
 

Months ago, when I first launched Green Dragon, I wrote a post about the implications for the future of the Republican Party of the effectiveness of the Obama campaign’s critiques of Bain Capital and its vulture capitalism. I said a civil war within the Republican Party was coming…one that would make the Tea Party split look like a garden picnic.

Well, it’s here.

Each of the GOP’s three major blocs is reeling, trying to make sense of a campaign result it did not anticipate and which flies in the face of its core beliefs. With the reelection of the President, trouncing of anti-abortion candidates and unprecedented approvals both of marriage equality and election of openly gay legislators, Republicans now know that 2008 wasn’t a fluke. It appears finally to be dawning on conservatives that their imagined version of the United States simply is not real.

Take the Christian right, for example, who seem at last to be figuring out that they do not represent the values of most Americans. Their internal narrative has always been that if they can just get out their message, most Americans will agree with them. But this time they turned out more than ever, and issues like women’s rights to contraception and abortion and gay rights were front-and-center in the national campaign narrative. And they got their clocks cleaned.

I think many of them are now realizing that America isn’t what they always thought it was. Some have begun thinking that they don’t want to be Americans any more (though they wouldn’t say it that way)…instead, they want to carve themselves away from the places that aren’t “real” America, and create that imaginary Christian Murikkka they’ve always hoped for.

All three of the major GOP constituencies are in a world of hurt and confusion. The Plutocrats got nothing out of all that Citizens United spending; the Teahaddists saw broad support for a party that put itself squarely behind higher taxes on the rich as well as progressive social issues…and now they’re having to listen to party leadership opining that they must make common cause with a buncha dirty Meskins in order to have a prayer of succeeding.

This is a storm long brewing, and it is definitely here. None of these constituencies has anywhere to turn in a quest for a return to national political viability that doesn’t put a dagger through its most cherished nonnegotiables: backing away from attacks on women’s health rights and civil equality for the Christian conservatives; accepting higher taxation and regulation of industry and markets for the corporatist Plutocrats; abandoning racism and extremist positions on taxation and the role of government for the Tea-Party types.

I don’t see any of them but the Plutocrats being smart or realistic enough to be able to make those moves. Sure enough, today Bill Kristol says that raising taxes on millionaires won’t destroy the country. Not that Kristol is either smart or realistic—in fact, he’s so reliably wrong that when he says this, it give me pause—but he’s a sure indicator of what the Rulers of the Universe are willing to go for.

For 40 years, Republicans have succeeded by feeding voters a steady diet of dog-whistle racism, empty gestures to social conservatives, and anti-government rhetoric, all the while taking a wrecking ball to our national institutions, previously inviolable values, and the very Constitution itself. It was a strategy of division, and now it has come home to roost: increasingly in the minority, Republicans are divided not only from the majority of the country, but from one another.

I wouldn’t say it is what they deserve, because frankly, those who devised and pursued this strategy deserve far worse. But I will say this: it’s about damned time most of the country can see how bloody awful these people really are.

At publication, the Dragon was EATING POPCORN

Sep 262012
 

This is the second installment of a multi-part history of Sonoma County Conservation Action, a political organization I helped to form and lead. The first part is here.

Pitch and Launch

When I returned to San Francisco at the end of 1990, I called Bill Kortum and proposed that we launch what would turn out to be the first county-scale, locally-focused canvass organizing operation in the country. I was 29.

Bill was still interested in the idea. He convened a meeting of local activists at his home—as I recall, it was Bill, Dick Day, Len Swenson, Juliana Doms, and Bob Higham—and I presented my idea to them. While by no means convinced, they were intrigued. They, after all, hadn’t seen what a canvass could do, as Bill and I had. Still, they respected Bill tremendously. Maybe he and the kid were onto something.

Bill began raising seed money while I prepared to move back to Sonoma County. An initial board of directors was convened comprised of Bill, Dick, Juliana, Allen James of Windsor, and Joan Vilms of Santa Rosa. They approved the name I proposed for the organization: Sonoma County Conservation Action.

By April of 1991, I was again living in Santa Rosa, had found office space, had a logo designed, secured workers’ comp and liability insurance, and was busily creating the forms, operating procedures, employee manual, canvassing and training materials, and accounting and information management systems necessary to administer the new organization. Bill and Lucy Kortum donated a computer: a Macintosh 512k that had been upgraded to a Mac Plus; it was already a museum piece by that time. Les and Audrey Ayres donated the first canvass car: a  red 1974 Volvo station wagon. If there had been any doubt that this was a grassroots, bootstrap effort, the car and computer put that to rest.

Then it was just a matter of building a canvass crew. Which, for those who haven’t done it, is a near-Herculean task. Canvassing is stressful, poorly paid, and requires a person who is intelligent, articulate, personable, and able to let a great deal of rejection roll off her or his back. During my tenure, we had 32 canvass applicants for every one who successfully completed the three stages of application and training to become a Conservation Action staff member. That’s a lot of time and energy invested in interviewing and training people who end up falling short, but it’s how you build an effective organizing team.

On September 9, 1991, trainee Lew Brown by my side, I stepped up to a house on the corner of Starburst Ct. and Starr Road in Windsor, knocked, and recruited the first member of Conservation Action.

Walking down the driveway filling out my stats sheet, I remember thinking, that woman just wrote a $25 check to an organization that only exists on paper, with the promise of a newsletter, a report card on local officials, and election endorsements, none of which yet exist. All because she supports a vision of democracy, public participation, and loyalty to what makes this place so special.

…This can work.

Soon, Lew (who had prior canvassing experience) would successfully complete training to become my first field manager. The days were packed: Mornings, I interviewed applicants and scheduled training days; evenings, I took out new trainees to canvass. I kept up with accounting and data entry after our return to the office. We were on our way.

SCCA’s very first campaign opposed the proposed incorporation of Windsor, a suburban-density region of the county between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. The development/Chamber of Commerce crowd were all for it, and with good reason: the transition terms the county was offering to the prospective new city were so meager—and the area’s tax base was so small—that if incorporated, the new city would have been the land use equivalent of a crack baby, dependent on constantly approving more development in order to generate permitting fees to pay its bills.

We campaigned hard with our little crew, built a Windsor membership of hundreds of households, and heard strong support for our slow growth message. But many voters felt that the county had betrayed and ignored them, and believed they would have a better chance with local control. We lost.

Ironically, it turned out that though we couldn’t have known it, we were on the wrong side. The newly incorporated Town of Windsor sued the county over its transition terms, and they won, giving the new Town much more favorable conditions for getting up on its feet. By 1996, when SCCA-backed candidates took a majority on the Town Council, Windsor was on its way to becoming what is arguably the most forward-thinking, environmentally-oriented municipality in Sonoma County from a land use standpoint, with a revitalized “smart growth” downtown, a tightly drawn Urban Growth Boundary, and growth management and design ordinances to make growth orderly, more compact, reasonably paced, and attractive.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite falling short, we could see that our program had frightened and confused the political establishment in Windsor. The press rhetoric of the pro-incorporation campaign about Conservation Action’s canvassing grew increasingly hysterical as what they thought was a slam dunk became a competitive election. We even caught one candidate for the Town Council stealing anti-incorporation lawn signs and stashing them in the pro-incorporation office. We called the cops; she drove away before they could get there.

Those who were accustomed to calling the shots in local politics clearly did not understand the new phenomenon. They believed that if they smeared us in the press and ignored us politically, our public support would dwindle, and we would disappear.

Mobilizing the Grassroots Voice

Following the November 1991 special election in Windsor, Conservation Action launched its first letter-writing campaign, mobilizing hundreds of letters from Petaluma residents to the state Public Utilities Commission in opposition to their city’s plan to privatize its sewer system and wastewater treatment and eliminate public regulation of utility rates. Though Petaluma’s City Council, City Manager and prospective builders and managers of the proposed system had pulled out every political stop, the PUC agreed with the citizens expressing opposition, and denied Petaluma’s application to privatize.

Times were different then: Petaluma didn’t have a single City Council member who voted well on environmental issues, so what we knew about the buzz among political insiders came second-hand. But we understood it was growing. Who are these people, and what can we do about them?

But then, as it turned out, we seemed to go away. Things went back to business as usual for awhile.

Next: A Shocking Result