Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Preserving the spectra

A debate has now come to mean choosing a side created by the line in the sand. It is "us" versus "them". They are "wrong", and we are "right". They are polluting the environment and we are protecting it. They are pro-life and we are pro-choice. They tote guns and we vouch for peace. We are identified by binaries and categories. Our degrees even bestow upon us one, doctor, teacher, accountant. Are we not more than that to our government and its economy?

There are two divisions--one in our being, and one in our actions--and both are convolved with each other. The division in our being replaces collective responsibility and collaboration with personal interest and competition. Thus, our actions subsequently do not recognise the collectives of our communities, regions, and Earth. Us versus them makes togetherness virtually impossible. Where is the hand we reach out?

I have heard time and again that the world is not black and white, but rather, it is gray. That is an astute observation, until we have to describe the gray and we are left using words that still binarise, polarise, and reduce the world into categories. In binning the world, we have binned ourselves. And when it comes to issues that pertain to all of us, all of our homes, all of our watersheds, either you are on "our" side, or on "their" side. It seems as though we don't find it appealing to grapple with complexities of spectra. Grappling with spectra means admitting that, for example, neither Republicans nor Democrats represent the change we need to see in the world.

The power of words come from their ability to distinguish one thing from other things. A table identifies a table precisely because it is not a chair, a rose, a plastic water bottle, a book, a monitor. But there is no binary to a table. Is there an anti-table? I don't think so. Therefore, a table, and the word that associates the object to our understanding of it, is not likely polarising or binarising. Furthermore, something like a table has very little value judgement associated with it. What about words and issues that are ethical-and value-based?

My sense is that issues of the environment and sustainability are being addressed with this us versus them mentality. However, a more powerful ethic, a more meaningful dialogue is one which unfolds given the particularities of space and time, preserving the spectra found in the world. For example, while addressing issues of trash in India may be vastly different than how to address issues of trash in the US, can a common ethic, that of care and respect for the Earth obviate the need to address issues of ecological degradation? How might such an ethic get rid of binaries and boundaries and preserve the spectra?

A spectrum does two things: it not only shows difference, but also shows similarities in great detail. There exists a spectrum of everything, from sexuality to salinity in water to climate variations. Things just aren't one way or the other. That being said then, how can we change our diction to represent and respect the spectra that exist, rather than feeling compelled to differentiate between everything? I am not saying differences do not exist. Of course, the wavelength of green is distinct from the wavelength of violet, which is distinct from the wavelength of red. But merged together, the spectrum represents a wholeness, a fullness.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Some paradoxical juggernauts

Our fast lives are causing slow violence. If we slow our lives down, how do we still quickly spread the word?

Collective and social change is needed, but getting yourself to change can be the most difficult.

If people do want to change, they don't want to do anything.

We need to be intentional about now. Appreciating the present, and making good decisions now will save us much trouble in the future. But this world is already all about now, in the form of instant gratification.

Small, medium, or large coffee? Room for cream? Skim milk, 2%, or heavy? White sugar or demerara? Splenda or Equal? For here or to go? Coozie or not? Choices can be paralysing to those who have too many (not to mention ecologically degrading), but limited choices keep those oppressed from breaking away from their past.

Make things more efficient, and we just use more.

Friday, February 24, 2012

When positivity rests on the ability to degrade

Cut trees, pollute waters, pave prairies. Industrialise, "add value", compete, sell. Increase wealth, move away to the gorgeous mountains. Manage from afar, while sipping a margarita beside your pool. Give charitable donations to groups you support. Feel good about yourself.

I wonder, Why do we have to degrade before we can collaborate and construct? This is the typical argument that is presented by "developed" countries--degradation of the Earth and its effusive offerings must occur to increase our "standard of living", and once we have all of our basic needs met, we will have more time to care about other things (like the Earth, which, ironically, is what provides us our basic needs).

"Development" lends itself to degradation more than it does to construct and sustain, for two reasons that I can think of. The first is that it assumes that our "needs" can be fully met. Unfortunately, this culture has done a tremendous job at conflating our needs with our wants. Think about it. How much have your needs gone down as you've grown up? If our material needs went down, our houses wouldn't look like hoarding units, and landfills and oceans wouldn't be places as thoroughly filled with junk as they are. The second is that if we are to live in an equitable, peaceful world, then the traditional ways of accumulating 'wealth', like mining, warring, etc. cannot be ways in which we continue to seek wealth.

If we look at the countries that give the most foreign "aid" (details here and here), the list is made up of those countries that have monetarily profited most from ecological degradation. Benevolence is not about lending dignity after rape has occurred. The rules of the game are structured so that these countries, and their organisations and institutions, win, every time. They are already powerful under current regimes, with aid being wagged like a carrot or a stick whenever appropriate to do so. If you believe even a shred of what John Perkins says in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, then you can see what I am getting at.

Many times we feel as if the only way to have access to power, to have control over our own lives, to do what we want to do (positively), is to be first subsumed by the system, and then create our own bubble within it when the opportunity lends itself. We must bite our tongues until we are granted permission to let loose. My contention is that the things that we aspire to, the things that we wish to see in the world, can be created by us, right here, right now. Building constructive dialogue, building community, enriching our lives, these things are impossible if we burn the bridges we will need to cross. We must engage in creative, thoughtful, respectful, cherishing ways from the outset, for then we will know with certainty that the outcomes are those that are in the collective and individual good.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What do you call it?

If a problem is "environmental", does that mean the environment needs fixing? That is what it seems to imply to most people. That is what drives the ecomodernism stance of continued technologisation, of continuing down a path of trying to find abundance and infinity in a finite and fragile world. And that is what drives geo-engineering projects...that it is not our behaviour that is at fault, but rather the ways in which the environment around us changes in response to our behaviour that is the real issue. Therefore, we feel that human intervention in the environment is what the solution should look like.

But what fundamentally needs to change? The environment? Or how we behave? I would say the latter, for an environmental problem exists only if we've created it (like pollution in water, like climate change), or if we perceive it (like the threat of hailstorms and tornadoes). Yet, if we call a problem "environmental" without also tagging the word "social" with it, then we fail to address the true causes of the problems.

This goes back to what I was trying to say in my last post. What we call things matters in how we perceive them. Words and names have the capacity to connote, and depending on our backgrounds, words bring to the surface a plethora of emotions, feelings, thoughts, and actions. Consequently, there are associations that I would not make, because they are incommensurable, because the existence of one thing makes the other impossible (or close to impossible). For example, a drastic re-envisioning of the world would be one in which food we eat would not be, as Michael Pollan states, marinated in crude oil. In an ecologically sustainable world, food that travels fifteen hundred miles before it lands on your plate just would not exist. Ecologically sustainable food provided to you graciously by Exxon? No, thank you. More and more "environmentally-friendly" cars that constantly require newer and newer materials and more and more material extraction from the Earth? No, thank you.

Associations matter. If I call something collaborative rather than competitive, that would at least provide some rhetorical force to collaboration. Customs, on an individual scale, and customary international law on a larger scale, are rhetorical forces. They associate practices with social relations, and consequently outcomes. (Of course, many of these customs need to change or be altogether done away with.)

What is required is changes in language and diction. We need a new vocabulary to describe the world around us. It would be nice if that vocabulary wasn't hijacked by those who profit most from keeping things the way they are. But I'm not holding my breath on it. Therefore, we must associate things that are commensurable, and avoid associating things that are not. We are avoiding the issue if we do the latter.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Greenpeace Commons

I might be going out on a limb here, but most of me feels like I am not.

If you walk into the Dana Building on Central Campus, which houses the School of Natural Resources and Environment, you will notice that the student commons area is called the Ford Commons. Ford...the automotive corporation. Cognitive dissonance smacks me in the face so much so that I avoid turning my gaze to that part of the commons when I am there. 

I wonder, what if a school calling itself that of "natural resources and the environment" named its commons something like the Greenpeace Commons. How might that be received? What would that say about the intentions of the school?

To the (supposedly) "neutral" observer, I sense that putting the word "Greenpeace" anywhere sends a repulsive shiver up their spine. I mean, Greenpeace? Those "radical" environmentalists? Those people that claim that corporations are "ruining" the environment not only for us but for every human to come in the future, not to mention the non-human life and elements that make up complex ecology? If they are radical, they are clearly not "objective". And if they are not objective, then they lose all credibility...because we really like the idea of objectivity (when we agree with what the data mean for our lives, and if we don't then we say the "process" is wrong).

But on the same token, naming a gathering spot for students the Ford Commons is not neutral. First, it assumes that symbols are neutral, which they are clearly not. Symbols are representative, just like the Keystone XL pipeline would be a massive symbol of how deeply ingrained ecological and social degradation are in this culture. Second, and more importantly, it assumes that corporations, like Ford, are neutral and beneficent and magnanimous and respectful and fully concerned about ecological issues. It assumes that the F150, or F250, or F350, or any similarly massive vehicle can be owned by anyone, even if they have no recognisable need for something like it. It assumes that their concern for the environment is on par with their concern for money and power. While they may be concerned with the environment, and employ one or two people that try to keep the company in line with the legal regulations that currently exist, their concern for the environment is no where near the concern shown by a group like Greenpeace. What should the School of Natural Resources and Environment be concerned about? Money from corporations? Or what they teach to students?

This speaks to larger cultural and educational issues. Institutions and organisations like the University of Michigan, and its schools and colleges, thrive on corporate funding. A massive chunk of their multi-billion dollar endowments are invested in corporations, and thus, universities might never divest from corporations that profit from war-making and ecological degradation. As David Noble writes about in his tome America by Design, colleges like engineering colleges stemmed from corporate interest, and engineering curricula were determined from the outset by the interest of corporations; universities are their lifeblood.

Greenpeace is repulsive to people because what they advocate for is fundamentally against an ecologically degrading culture. But a small step to cultural change might be to change the name of the commons in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment to something else, to remind students that we are not here to protect Ford, but rather to protect the interests of groups that actually care--a more holistic, thoughtful, and sustaining future.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Some thoughts on technology and utopia through invasion

Any critical words on technology, and one is labeled a neo-Luddite. But being constantly surrounded by technology and taking a class titled Knowledge, Power and Practice in Science, Technology and Medicine (pardon the pretentiousness) has kept critical issues of technology at the forefront of my mind. This is not to mention the constant talk of "green" technologies in the news and in magazines.

I understand that we live in a technological society. Today, our every interaction is mediated through technology, and that without technology, we feel empty. I would go so far as to say that we feel alone. We feel alone not because there is no one around us, but, because, as cyborgs, our identity firmly encompasses our relationship with our technogizmos. Many people would not mind spending days away from people, if only they had their trusty computer or slick iPhone with them. Part of me thinks, to each his own. If technology makes someone happy, then, well, that's great...But part of me thinks, instead, that this is an sad indicator of a lack of community, that as fundamentally social beings, we find solace in experiencing what we want to experience, rather than being open to new experiences through the vulnerabilities of being social. Furthermore, what technology represents and how it is brought into this world is in no way neutral or benign. Rather, there are politics embedded in them that serve very certain purposes. (I can write more about this another time.)

I think that this technocraze stretches further than us as individuals. As a collective, we hope that it is our new technologies that will replace older ones, opening up new routes towards cornucopia and utopia. I have been ambivalent about the prospects of large scale every thing, including wind and solar energy, not only because their production raises important geopolitical and pollution issues, but also because they further stabilise a system, an ethic, of reliance on technology, rather than in our non-cyborgian selves, to address the problems we face.

There is something that I hadn't really thought of, though, that Paul Kingsnorth brings up in his fantastic essay, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist in the recent issue of Orion. He writes about how the "green" technologies, those promoted by eco-modernists, will invade some of the only spaces on this Earth that have been relatively untouched by humans.
...This reductive approach to the human-environmental challenge leads to an obvious conclusion: if carbon is the problem, then “zero-carbon” is the solution. Society needs to go about its business without spewing the stuff out. It needs to do this quickly, and by any means necessary. Build enough of the right kind of energy technologies, quickly enough, to generate the power we “need” without producing greenhouse gases, and there will be no need to ever turn the lights off; no need to ever slow down.

To do this will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet’s ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where this energy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful, and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect.

And so the deserts, perhaps the landscape always most resistant to permanent human conquest, are to be colonized by vast “solar arrays,” glass and steel and aluminum, the size of small countries. The mountains and moors, the wild uplands, are to be staked out like vampires in the sun, their chests pierced with rows of five-hundred-foot wind turbines and associated access roads, masts, pylons, and wires. The open oceans, already swimming in our plastic refuse and emptying of marine life, will be home to enormous offshore turbine ranges and hundreds of wave machines strung around the coastlines like Victorian necklaces. The rivers are to see their estuaries severed and silted by industrial barrages. The croplands and even the rainforests, the richest habitats on this terrestrial Earth, are already highly profitable sites for biofuel plantations designed to provide guilt-free car fuel to the motion-hungry masses of Europe and America.

What this adds up to should be clear enough, yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business-as-usual: the expansive, colonizing, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted, and the nonhuman. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this “environmentalism.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Slowing down fast lives

Until recently, I used to like to always be on the move. I would try to do as many things as possible in a with a friend at eight from nine am to six football from six to eight..shower and dinner until at ABC until eleven...Fleetwood after that...

I would like to think, though, that what I was indulging in was innocent and not materialistic, but rather just because I wanted (and I still do) to spend my time with as many people as possible. But viewed differently, maybe I just wasn't spending enough time with those that really mattered to me. Things have changed over the past couple of years. I feel as if this experiment-turned-way-of-being has made me more aware of everything around me, made me more present, made me happier.

Then again, I see the same sort of attention deficit all around in this culture. But this deficit, this lack of appreciation, is one that has significant negative ramifications on those around us now, and those far away from us, in space and in time. We are leading fast lives, now, as Professor Rob Nixon calls them, fast lives that are "outsourcing the costs" to the "never-will-haves" and future generations.

Over the past couple of days, I was fortunate to talk to, and listen to, Rob Nixon, the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin. (Now that's an honorific title if there ever was one.) He presented the Lora Heberle Lecture of the year (with Amrita winning the Heberle Award for Outstanding Achievement in Critical Writing!), and titled his talk, "Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor"...
In an age that venerates the instant and the spectacular, how can writers turn slow-moving environmental calamities into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment? What are the imaginative and strategic challenges of exposing the forces of slow violence that inflict incremental environmental damage? This talk connects an analysis of slow violence to a vision of sustainable security with a focus on activism in the global South.
I will write more about what Professor Nixon talked about over the next few days, but a particular paradox of time struck me. Our ever quickening lives, filled with minutiae, upward mobility, tweets, and instant Youtube videos on our iPhones are causing large-scale, but slow violence. This is violence and injustice that manifests itself in chemically-caused cancers, climate change, hypoxic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the leaching of toxic material into groundwater and land from landfills. I instantly think of the incinerator at the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant when I hear the word slow. Click on the image below and just look at the eerily slow effluent being emitted from the smokestacks.

Much of my thinking for the past two years has been about time and its dimensions--about legacy, about appreciation of the present, about concern for the future. But, as Professor Nixon pointed out, the atrocities that are being committed suffer from the "drama deficit" of being incremental and slowly evolving. This is in contrast to other events such as bomb blasts and exploding oil rigs, violent and dramatic acts that are bounded in time.

It is time to slow down.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Stepping into nature with Syndallas Baughman and Rowena Conahan

I have written about the complexities of fear a few times. Fear is something we have become culturally accustomed to. We are fearful that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon and nuke our allies in the Middle East, and so, the timing of the "end" of the Iraq invasion couldn't be more perfect. We are fearful that we will be called "anti-American" if we say things we aren't "supposed" to, and we bite our tongues. We are fearful of what a changed humanscape would look like if ecologically degrading capitalism were to end, and so, we build a bigger and bigger house of cards. There is probably also the fear of retribution on the part of those that have committed ecological and social atrocities, making it impossible for those people to come forward in catharsis.

The primal and paralysing nature of fear makes it the perfect human emotion to cater to to maintain the status quo. How might we overcome fear? Is there a way that we can, by ourselves, liberate ourselves from it? Reconnecting with the outdoors, with nature, seems like a powerful way towards this liberation. The opposite of fear is a melange of positivity, hope, courage, and engagement. These are things we need to make meaningful strides towards treading more lightly on this Earth, and moving towards a more cherishing relationships with those we do not agree with.

Syndallas Baughman and Rowena Conahan, founders of the Ann Arbor Nature School, are two of the calmest people I have ever met (listen to their voices below), and they make very compelling cases of how a reconnection with the outdoors and an understanding of ourselves as children of the Earth can lead to more peaceful, healing, and empowering lives. I shared a few words with them at the Ann Arbor Reskilling Festival a few days ago.

A few words with Syndallas

A few words with Rowena

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reskilling and rebuilding community with Laura Smith

There are innumerable ways in which we can frame and slice and dice and address the issues of sustainability and the environment that face us. One of the most important things that must happen, along with the things like an increased personal responsibility and a more holistic moral imagination, is the building of community. It is very clear that while we are constantly "connected" to others through our technology, there is a dearth of close community. Many times, we spend hours and hours conversing with people far away, even when we do not know what our physical neighbours look like. A loss of community has led to a loss of resiliency, and we have continually lost control over our lives and our watersheds. We are now subject to the whims of people and institutions that have no vested stake in where we live.

There is a group of people that is trying to change this reality. They are trying to build community, while at the same time bringing power back into our hands through the teaching of low-energy skills and living--from canning to meditation to quilting to starting a garden.
"The concept of reskilling is about preparing for our low-energy future by acquiring new skills related to what we eat, wear, use and live in...Reskilling means providing for ourselves and our communities by growing, preserving, creating, building, and teaching." 
Last weekend, I walked with Mike to the Rudolph Steiner school to attend the Ann Arbor Reskilling Festival (where I met Madison Vorva). I wanted to find out what reskilling meant to those that attended, as well as to those that organised the festival. Here's what Laura, my good friend and conference organiser (and guest blogger) had to say. (Listen to it. It is only a few minutes.)

What Laura says powerful, particularly because such an ethic reaches people where they are. No matter what political inclinations you may have, no matter how old you are, each and every one of us can engage, learn, share, and work together constructively. As I will write about soon, reskilling is about feeling alive, and about being at peace with yourself and everything around you.

A hands-on gizmo builder sharing with Mike some thoughts on seasonal changes in solar radiation and solar energy generation
Hallway of Steiner school decorated with students' art

Sunlight in the school commons

Learning about vermicompost

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The idealism of youthfulness

There is something innocent yet incredibly observant and extremely powerful in the youth pointing out the flaws in decades-old trends and culture, just like Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen have. It says, "How could you let things get to this point?" It also says, "We are inheriting this Earth after you. Why are you debasing and defiling it?" In that, all the criticisms of this culture, these politics, are crystallised. In it, the idealism of youthfulness is at play.

There are of course things that are seemingly more fundamental and timeless than others, things that don't change. For example, "Be nice to people" seems like something more fundamental than "Marriage is between a man and a woman". It is so because most no one would say that being nice to people is something we should not do. There are no objections. But marriage between two people of the same gender? That becomes murky for many people.

Many of the timeless lessons come just from human experience and time. Things have a way of revealing themselves to you. All you have to do is live, and, well, be observant and a little bit reflective and reflexive. When we are young, we can be petulant, abrasive, and say mean things to people. (I actually know a lot of people of my age, 26, and older that still behave that way. Just check out the Republican primary debates.) But as time goes on, hopefully people become kinder and gentler and thoughtful and more dynamic. At the same time, it is hard not to notice that there is something about the way that we've cultured ourselves, that as we get older and older, we get more and more drawn in to everything that is degrading to this Earth, and the human spirit. It is pretty clear, if you talk to your parents, grandparents, or anyone older than you, that as time progresses, people become more and more wary of change. We become part of "the system". We get jobs, get families, try to feed those families by buying food from box supermarkets in which produce has traveled one thousand five hundred miles. We see no way other than addressing things through bureaucracy. We seem to get mired in the same political debates that have now become so fractious that there is seemingly no way forward.

It is in these circumstances that imagination of the youthful breaks everything down, and creates things anew. Whether it is imaginary friends for children or pie-in-the-sky dreams for those seeking change, it is that idealism that must temper and dismantle the "pragmatism" that is grossly inadequate.

John Paul Lederach, Professor of International Peacebuilding speaks to this from experience. What he says is relevant and accessible to all of us, trying to address the manifold issues we face. His words are positive and constructive. Listen to his beautiful conversation with Krista Tippett (above). Or, read the excerpt below.
Ms. Tippett: You've talked about how you've seen that violence destroys a person's capacity to perceive themselves as an integrated part of a whole, and that makes it difficult for people to see themselves in a web of relationships that has to include their enemies and some imagination about their enemies' grandchildren, right? I mean, it's almost like you're asking the impossible of people.
Mr. Lederach: Well, it's — it's the impossible until you consider the alternative, which we've watched now evolve in so many places across decades, half-centuries. Columbia is a half-century. Middle East can go back centuries. In other words, the notion that it's more realistic to pursue the other avenue, the one that's supposed to be more pragmatic, shows itself over and over again to basically reseed the very things that create the cycles of violence that we're trying to supersede.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guest blog #24 (continued): Claire Whitlinger on amnesty and ecological justice

Yesterday, I ended the post with a few questions that we must grapple with given the critiques of amnesties that have surfaced over the past decades. How might amnesties function when pursuing ecological justice within a (largely) functioning democracy? Furthermore, what can truth commissions teach us about the possibility of granting amnesty for ecological injustice? Here are some initial thoughts on these questions.

First, one must contend with the general public’s distrust of amnesties. Any efforts to pursue amnesties for ecological injustice would have to pursue a massive media campaign to convince the public that allowing an individual or corporation “off the hook” for ecological wrongdoing has some social utility that could not be achieved otherwise.

Second, one must recognize as Martha Minnow does in her book, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness (1999), that “an amnesty is credible only as a humane means to remember, not as a legislation of forgetfulness.” The challenge would be to design an amnesty program that both honors victims, and holds perpetrators morally accountable.

And third, one must take seriously the difference between individual perpetrators of human rights violations and corporate perpetrators of ecological injustice. The greatest difficulty I foresee in applying amnesties towards ecological injustice is getting representatives of corporations to come forward. Even if corporations were protected from repercussions in a court of law, they could still be held accountable in the court of public opinion. Without the legal or political power to compel confessions on the part of corporations, or the ability to protect them from reputational trauma, the potential financial ramifications of confessing seem unlikely.

All this being said, in my research I find that the truth alone – without financial reparations or legal justice – can be restorative for some. For example, when I was in Mississippi studying the attempt to establish a statewide truth commission, I listened to a woman speak about what justice would mean for her family. Her grandfather had been murdered in 1961, shot by a state legislator who falsely claimed self-defense and was never arrested. Despite eyewitness accounts that the victim had not provoked the legislator, this woman’s grandfather was found at fault for his own death. Forty years after the fact, the family merely asked that the state of Mississippi recognize the cause of death as murder and that that be reflected on the death certificate. In my opinion, this seemed a modest request, and one that could bring healing to this particular family.

So, rather than pursuing a uniform program of amnesties or even an ecological “court of justice,” I think it would be most advantageous to work with victims and victims groups individually to figure out what justice would be for them.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Guest blog #24: Claire Whitlinger on amnesty and ecological justice

(Here are some perspectives on forgiveness from Claire, a doctoral student in sociology here at the university, continuing a recent thread of thought.)

What truth commissions can teach us about the possibilities of ecological justice: some thoughts on amnesties

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt makes a provocative and troubling assertion: “that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable.”

This quotation came to mind when thinking about the steps needed to promote a peaceful and ecologically holistic world.

My interest in transitional justice stems from the time I lived in South Africa. I was fascinated by how a country having suffered decades of racial oppression could transition to democracy with relatively little violence. I began to wonder how any society could overcome such systematic oppression and violence. What could (or must) societies do to confront a past ridden with atrocities so deep and vast that no court of justice could possibly adjudicate every claim? Over the past twenty-five years, this question has been central to the emergence and professionalization of the transitional justice field – a field that has institutionalized a number of mechanisms (truth commissions and amnesties, included) to facilitate national transitions from totalitarianism and authoritarianism to democracy.

Having studied transitional justice, in general, and the global proliferation of truth commissions, in particular, my initial response to the possibility of using amnesties to address ecological injustice was one of skepticism.

So what are amnesties? Put simply, amnesties are a form of legal forgiveness. They are generally legislative or executive acts that restore a guilty person to the status of innocent.

Within the transitional justice field, amnesties are most notable for having been utilized by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this instance, amnesty was the result of a political compromise between then-President F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Rather than a blanket amnesty in which all perpetrators would be excused, the Amnesty Committee (one of three institutional bodies making up the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission) granted amnesties on an individual basis. In exchange for confessing their crimes, individual perpetrators could receive amnesty. Setting aside the little known fact that out of over 7,000 applications, only 849 received amnesty (roughly 12%), in the wake of the South African TRC, scholars began to debate the social utility of exchanging “truth” for “justice.” By and large, scholars and human rights practitioners came to the conclusion that amnesties were neither eliciting truth nor justice. They feared that amnesties were at the best, ineffective, and the worst, harmful for a nascent democracy.

In 2009, I attended a workshop at Stanford Law School sponsored by the International Center for Transitional Justice. The majority of participants were human rights practitioners and came from all corners of the world. Many attended to learn how to implement transitional justice mechanisms in their own country. When the issue of amnesties came up, I was surprised by how vehemently anti-amnesty the participants were. Amnesties were associated with amnesia, not truth-telling, as I had been led to believe. In fact, some deemed to be absolutely unacceptable, a threat to rule of law. They argued that democracy could not flourish without holding perpetrators legally accountable.

Given that these mechanisms, and consequently, these critiques emerged in a particular political and historical context, how then might amnesties function when pursuing ecological justice within a (largely) functioning democracy? Furthermore, what can truth commissions teach us about the possibility of granting amnesty for ecological injustice?

More thoughts tomorrow...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Little girls? No. Strong women

I entered a session titled Change starts with a passion at the Ann Arbor Reskilling Festival yesterday and had no idea who I was about to meet.

As we have seen with the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, as well as with the Occupy movement, it is through youth that leadership is exemplified. This is because it is the youth that are most imaginative, the most free in spirit, and most inquisitive and questioning about norms. They are, therefore, the most discerning about the realities of our actions. (More about this soon.) But many times, when we think of "the youth", we think of college students and the recently employed. We tend not to think of middle schoolers and high schoolers. But we ought to...

What started off as an effort to understand why orangutans are endangered has turned into a massive campaign to rid our food of palm oil, the plantations of which are also destroying biologically diverse habitats and releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases through deforestation and peat demolition. This effort started off five years ago, when two Ann Arbor seventh graders, Madison Vorva (on right in picture below) and Rhiannon Tomtishen (on left), took on an advocacy project as girl scouts. They realised that Girl Scouts cookies contain palm oil, and have since been on a mission to rid our foods of palm oil.

Rhiannon and Madison (from
I met Madison, now a junior in high school, yesterday, and was awestruck and inspired by her maturity, her confidence, her passion. It takes a whole lot of all of those things to create a movement and endure the subsequent downs and challenges. Five years in, their movement is really gaining traction.

I am hoping to bring them to speak to students here at the university. There's so much to learn from these strong women. More thoughts soon. For now, check out their TEDxRedmond talk.

Friday, February 3, 2012

How appreciation is activist

It is not hard to see that there is much that is not working around us--everything from government's continuing failures to a lack of community resiliency and a reliance on others to make decisions for our personal lives. Much of these failures arise from our continual cultural want for more. We want better infrastructure, cheaper access to things made around the world, continued materialism. And the providers of our wants can't keep up with our demands. Furthermore, there is a differential access to provisions, further exacerbating inequalities that currently exist. I will be the first to admit that this power dynamic must change, but maybe the way we are going about creating the change is futile. Are there ways in which we don't have to directly feed the system and cause these changes? Might appreciation be activist?

Activism as we currently think about it is about taking a stand for something, generally with political motives and outcomes. That something could be promoting firearms legislation allowing everyone easy access to guns. Activism can also be about taking a stand against something, like trying to block firearms legislation that allows such easy access to guns, again, with political motives and outcomes. But I also think that activism can also be about doing something we are not culturally programmed to do, and to appreciate is one of those things. And that's what turns appreciation from an acceptance of the way things are to something that is political.
This is a system, a culture, that is driven by a decided unappreciation of everything--of our bodies, of the land beneath our feet, the air we breath, and the water we drink. We cherish and respect the things we appreciate. We seem to violently demolish everything that we don't. And because this is a kind of activism, a way of being that this culture does not know, it does not know how to deal with it. If we are to change "the system" fundamentally, I think that we must act in activist ways that don't lend legitimacy to the system, but rather in ways that destabilise it. Appreciate what you have. This appreciation then opens up our lives to more positivity, and more control over ourselves, rather than continually giving proxies to others.