Naomi, Charlie, Bridget, Detroit and Al Gore

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Naomi, Charlie, Bridget, Detroit and Al Gore
Richard Hil

August 2017
 

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Naomi Klein is surely right. As the title of her new book suggests, No is not enough.

It's not enough, she insists, to simply attack Trump and his administration, or to rage against corporate greed, destruction and economic inequality.  We on the progressive side of politics, she says, need to venture beyond critique, complaint, reaction and opposition. Obviously, at some point we have to offer a coherent story of what a different world might look like.

This doesn't mean a rigid formula or grand design but rather a set of guiding principles enmeshed in the pursuit of social justice, peace, environmental sustainability and human rights.

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Klein pins her flag to the mast of the Leap manifesto, a remarkable and inspiring document, which all progressives around the world should consider.

 

It lays the foundations for a different socio-economic and political order, and might save us from climate catastrophe. Although a bit Canadian-centric, the document is something that the Ngara Institute should and will draw upon as we formulate our own humanifesto.

As I read Klein’s book two things made me think harder about its contents: meeting Charlie and Bridget in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and visiting Detroit City. Charlie and Bridget are long time educators and practitioners who devote much of their time, these days, to facilitating workshops on sense of place, self and planetary care, permaculture, radical landscape design, eco-psychology etc. They were kind enough to shout me a ticket for a bus tour around a few of Detroit’s 1500 community gardens. It was two hours of sheer fascination, for reasons I will set out in a moment. 

Before going on the trip Bridget, Charlie and I sat in a pub and chatted about their work, the global environmental justice movement and the nature of social change. We argued, agreed, and agreed to disagree on a range of topics. 

But around one thing we concurred emphatically -something major and life-altering is happening out there, care of intersecting climate, financial and inequality crises.

We also agreed that these crises were entwined, and could be sheeted home to the imperatives of the capitalist system – especially its neoliberal iteration. 

Batad rice terraces, Philippines, Unesco World Heritage site

Batad rice terraces, Philippines, Unesco World Heritage site

As I listened to my friends reflecting on various progressive initiatives underway across the globe – in food production, distribution, land care, design, housing, energy and so forth –  I was reminded of a workshop Charlie (who I've known for years) had facilitated in Bellingen, NSW two years ago. 

 

It was a celebration of sustainability elders, those principled thinkers-doers, many of whom had fled their city lives to eke out an alternative existence based on sustainable practice and community connection. Many had been doing such things for decades, learning as they went along. These were both theorists and practitioners engaged in often unheralded work, but deeply committed to principles they considered core to a better way of life. I listened with great interest to what these elders had to say, the high and lows, the disasters and triumphs.  But above all, I heard them talk with disarming modesty about the wisdom and understanding they had mustered from years of immersion in sustainable, community-based practices.

Why is this relevant to Naomi Klein’s book? Well, because I think that what's missing in what feels like a white knuckled rallying cry for the great Leap, is an appreciation of what has already been achieved across the globe. We need to build on this. The conceptualisation of resistance itself, occasionally feels like the old battering ram approach. 

 

The fact is that resistance and indeed the environmental justice movement takes many forms, from the acres of community gardens and market gardens in Detroit right through to farmers markets and to those who decide to use biodegradable washing-up liquid.

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It's important to remind ourselves that many spaces and places of beauty, virtue and creativity have been formed. This is the practice of making, not reacting. Elements of this counter movement are found in transition towns, intentional communities, social enterprises, cooperatives, and in a swathe of localised initiatives. 

We’re in the middle of a moment of change that includes tens of millions of people – perhaps up to a billion -  who through their daily actions and alternative practices have rendered many aspects of the current system if not entirely obsolete, then at least under serious challenge. 

Klein, of course, is spot on in suggesting the absolute urgency of the climate crisis and the need to ratchet up collective opposition to corporate-inspired ecological suicide. She's also right to say that it's the system based on limitless growth and consumption, with all its destructive tendencies, that needs to be turned on its head. She's further correct about the power matrix involving corporations, governments, the media and military that has led us to the brink. 

Seeing the empty, burnt-out houses in Detroit, the vacant lots, the skeletal factories was both sobering and a great reminder of the vagaries of market capitalism. There were over 70,000 foreclosures in the wake of the GFC – a staggering figure for a single city. 

Remember, these were people's homes, places they grew up in. But Detroit’s decline goes back a long way, from the automation of the car industry, cheaper overseas vehicles to entrenched racism, urban rebellions and rapid depopulation.

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Since its high point in the 1970s, over a million people have left the city. Ludicrously cheap house prices and urban renewal have drawn in new populations, thereby stemming the exodus. But nearly 40 per cent of the city’s population is unemployed, and the majority of its mostly Afro-American residents lives below the poverty line. The only city in a worse state is Flint, just an hour or so to the north. Yet poor old Detroit, once famous for producing those iconic gas-guzzling cars, and home to Tamla Motown and a vibrant blues scene, remains in the grip of economic crisis. 

There are green shoots, in the community gardens, farmers markets, the reinvigorated arts scene and in new educational institutions. Many of the city’s communities are banding together, caring, sharing, and resisting the attempt to re-corporatize the city.

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But sadly, a lot of Detroit’s voters fell for Trump’s vacuous promises, hoping against hope that the errant mogul would bring back jobs and make America great again. For those trapped in the inner urban wastelands, such promises held much appeal. 

In fact, jobs are coming back, across the nation, but they're usually low paid, precarious positions requiring workers to take on additional employment just to make ends meet. It's tough to think about an ‘intersectional’ uprising when you’re trying to cover your rent and feed the kids (deep poverty is a big issue in Detroit and other US cities). And if you still hold to the myth of the American dream, the lure of consumption, and the fading promise of upward mobility, you might not be motivated to Leap. 

That's the challenge of telling a persuasive progressive story. It somehow needs to accord with the everyday, the internalised assumptions of how life should or could be lived. Having sufficient time and preparedness to engage in these sorts of conversations is also part of the package. Joining the dots between subjective experience and prevailing conditions can be achieved through mutual respect, and considerable empathy and understanding. Any sense of being preached at will rightly receive short shrift. Most people, I believe, will engage in conversations around the everyday challenges linked to the issue of inequality, and the stresses and strains of just trying to get by. A lot flows from this. Awareness of the nature and extent of unfairness can then be projected onto other conversations about what a decent, caring, kind and, yes, loving society looks like. Once you start talking about such things you're one step outside the neoliberal paradigm. 

It's certainly what Al Gore should have been talking about in his sequel to The inconvenient truth. Instead, what we got was the Al Gore show in which the saviour-in-chief figured in just about every frame, urging the development of clean energy without any mention of the need to fundamentally change the system that is taking us to the brink of planetary destruction. It's a poor show, a moment lost. We don’t need another male saviour but rather, as Naomi Klein says, an intersectional movement capable of achieving democracy, equity and climate justice – a movement connected to people's everyday lives and aspirations.

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