Posts Tagged ‘civic engagement’
by stuartbramhall in Inspiring Moments in Resistance, Sustainability
(This is the second of two posts about Neptune Network, a group organized by Norwegian business executives, and their campaign to shut down a nuclear reprocessing plant in the UK.)
The MOX reprocessor at Sellafield closed August 3rd, after Japan (following the Fukushima disaster) announced they would cease buying MOX for use in its reactors. The same week the British government brought forward a new proposal to build a new MOX plant at Sellafield, designed to produce fuels for modern MOX state of the art reactors. On December 20, Cameron’s coalition government backtracked and announced they would decommission and close Sellafield down by 2018. This historic decision, like the decision by German government to decommission their nuclear power plants, was clearly the direct result of massive public opposition.
Nevertheless the Neptune Network has no intention of letting up the pressure. According to Frank Hugo Storelv, the battle at Sellafied will continue, to ensure the UK lives up to their international obligations to clean up the massive stockpiles of nuclear wastes. As long these remain stored in open cooling pits, they continue to pose an immense threat to Norway. He predicts the clean-up at Sellafield will take at least 100 years.
What’s Wrong With American CEOs?
So what’s the major difference between American and Norwegian CEOs? Why is so hard to imagine Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the Koch Brothers, George Soros (or any of our elected representatives, for that matter) chaining themselves to a bridge? They have children and grandchildren, just like Norwegian business executives. What’s more they all have adequate educational background to understand that massive wealth won’t protect their offspring from the devastating health consequences of radiation poisoning. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths and deformed babies that have resulted from nuclear accidents and releases, there is still no solution to the question of safely storing or disposing of massive quantities of radioactive waste. Surely they know all this.
A Deficiency of Moral Courage
I can’t think of a single American member of the 1% who has come out against nuclear technology. Other activists blame the inaction of the 1% on greed or opportunism. I don’t share this view. No one can be so callous as to condone policies condemning their own children and grandchildren to unimaginable suffering. In my opinion it comes down to fear, the overriding emotion that seems to drive most private and public decisions in the US. Americans are too afraid to speak out. This includes our millionaires and billionaires. They fear losing the confidence of their boards and stockholders, tarnishing their reputation if the media attacks them, and losing wealth and/or social standing. The more wealth and status they enjoy, the more fearful they are of losing it.
Why is this? What makes Americans so incredibly fearful in contrast to other citizens of the world? Does their spinelessness and lack of moral courage result from some commonly shared character defect? Has decades of material comfort spoiled them and made them too soft? Has the corporate-run media poisoned them with their constant fear-inspiring messages, along with the reminders to consume more and be more competitive and individualistic?
The Link Between Loneliness, Alienation and Fear
After puzzling over this question for many years, I have come to the conclusion that this pervasive fear is probably a natural outcome of current US social conditions. It’s no stretch to see a link between the pervasive loneliness and alienation so many Americans complain of and their general fearfulness. Both former presidential candidate Ralph Nader and Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, have spoken and written at length about alienation and other negative consequences of the collapse of civic engagement in the US. While most industrialized countries have undergone a decline in community and civic involvement, it had been far more extreme in the US. This surely relates to the distinction Americans enjoy as being the most overworked nationality in the industrialized world. Americans work such long hours that they no longer have time for their kids, much less their parents, friends, neighbors or other community members.
A Radical Solution
Theoretically the problem is fairly easy to fix. To avoid turning this into a self-improvement pitch, let me reframe this as a hypothetical:
What if an American –whether from the 1% or the 99% – wanted to somehow find the moral courage to stand up for their beliefs? Exactly how would they overcome their fears and find the strength to do so?
If my hypothesis is correct about moral cowardice stemming from loneliness and social isolation, they would increase their level of family, social and community involvement. This is obviously what happened with the Occupy movement. Hundreds of thousands of activists came together, many for the first time, and found the courage to speak out against corporate rule and capitalism itself.
Let’s say long work hours make it impossible for someone to strengthen their relationships with family, friends and neighbors. What if they come home so burned out at night, they have no energy for anything but a highly processed junk food meal, TV and bed. What do they do then?
This dilemma is more thorny. It leads to other hard questions, starting with the one I asked myself in the mid eighties. Is a life totally devoted to work and devoid of strong family and social relationships worth living? My answer then, as now, is a definite no.
Three decades ago, I, like others in what became known as the voluntary simplicity movement, made a deliberate decision to cut back my work hours, live frugally and make do with less. Our goal was to involve ourselves more deeply with family, friends and community organizations that were important to us. These choices become surprisingly easy when made with the support and encouragement of friends. I consider it the most important decision I ever made.
by stuartbramhall in End of Capitalism, Sustainability, The Global Economic Crisis
Book Reviewers Needed – Free Download
I have just finished my third book Revolutionary Change: an Expatriate Perspective. It’s my first non-fiction work, a collection of essays on change making. Right now it’s only available as an ebook. However it should be out in soft cover by the end of the year.
Until Sept 30, I’m offering a free download to people who agree to review it on Amazon (you don’t need to buy books from Amazon to review them on their site www.stuartbramhall.com). Smashwords offers a 100 page free sample at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/83632
If you decide to read the whole thing and want a free download, let me know (either by messaging me or through the contact form on my website). I will send you a coupon for a free download – provided you agree to do a review on Amazon.
I started the book intending to offer a unique perspective on the US political system after nine years living overseas. It seems to have turned into a book on social class and political change. People tell me this point of view is quite rare in the US progressive movement, which tends to be dominated by upper middle class academics and professionals.
The book focuses attempts to examine why progressives have such difficulty recruiting low income white and minority workers. I have always believed this relates to the failure of many liberals to recognize and acknowledge the distinct cultural differences in blue collar and minority communities. Progressives also have an unfortunate tendency to leap on the lifestyle bandwagon – for example, anti-smoking, anti-obesity, and gun control. This immediately puts them at odds with the low income Americans they seek to recruit.
About half the book focuses on general approaches to organizing that appear to be effective in engaging the working class (comprising 80% of the US population). One example is the sustainability movement has already been quite successful in enlisting activists at all income levels. The reason for this, I believe, is that it offers concrete activities neighborhoods and communities can immediately plug into – as survival planning for economic hard times, natural disasters, or even the collapse of global capitalism.
Civic Engagement and Reclaiming the Commons
Throughout the book, I strongly emphasize civic engagement and reclaiming the commons – which I feel are the two most important areas of focus for working class activists. Engaging with neighbors and other community members comes more naturally to low income and disenfranchised groups (remember, we grew up playing in the street while our middle class peers were at piano, violin, and dancing lessons). At the same time we have a strong instinctive understanding of class privilege, the flip side of reclaiming the commons. From childhood, we are very much aware that people with lots more money than us control everything.
This is the main reason the young looters in London went for the wide screen TVs, rather than for food. From a class perspective, this is called “leveling,” not greed.
by stuartbramhall in Challenging the Corporate Media, End of Capitalism, The Global Economic Crisis
This is the second of two posts on the role of food prices in triggering civil unrest.
One erroneous conclusion some American activists draw from Keiser’s and Zoellick’s “food theory” of revolution (see previous post) is that organizing is unnecessary – that all we have to do is wait until the food bill reaches 35-40% of workers’ income and leaves them no money for rent, clothes, medical care and other necessities. The first problem with this “no nothing” perspective is that it overlooks the years of sustained organizing by Egyptian unions and social justice groups that laid the groundwork for organized rebellion in February 2011 (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/02/23/egypts-invisible-labor-movement/).
The second problem with opting for inaction is that we greatly increase the probability the capitalistic political-economic system will collapse into utter chaos. If we simply wait for global capitalism to self-destruct, we will most likely end up with a violent, fragmented failed state – like Afghanistan, Somalia or post-Soviet Russia – controlled by criminal gangs and sociopathic warlords.
The Destruction of Civil Society
I see many alarming parallels between the US and the USSR of the 1980s. The most prominent is the virtual collapse of civil society. In Russia, this resulted in more than a decade of starvation, illness and early death because there was no community infrastructure in place when the Soviet infrastructure collapsed. For decades, the KGB systematically infiltrated and smashed all community groups, irrespective of their size or purpose, because the Communist Party elite saw them as a threat to state power. The reasons for the disintegration of American civil society are more complex. They include low wages, long work hours and a highly sophisticated public relations industry that continuously bombards Americans with individualistic anti-community and anti-organizing messages (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/03/01/thinking-like-egyptians/).
Addressing Psychological Oppression
The lesson I derive from the food theory of revolution is not that progressives shouldn’t organize – but that they need to focus less on political oppression (low wages, attacks on unions and civil liberties, cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Wall Street criminality, etc) and more on psychological oppression. Wilhelm Reich makes the same argument in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. It’s pointless trying to organize the working class around political and economic injustice without addressing the psychological rigidity that imprisons all of us as products of a profoundly authoritarian social and family structure.
To a large extent, this involves counteracting the steady diet of psychological messages from the mainstream media that shape Americans’ identity and values, as well as pressuring them to consume (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/03/03/overcoming-pro-corporate-messaging/).
Overcoming Psychological Oppression
In my experience, the first step in overcoming this pro-corporate messaging is making a conscious decision to increase our level of civic engagement – even in activities, such as the Girl Scouts, that aren’t overtly political. In getting to know our neighbors and joining community groups, we model (the most powerful teaching tool) and inspire family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers to do the same. The idea is to disrupt Americans’ individualized relationship with their TVs, Computers, Ipods and Androids and get them to interact with each other instead.
The moment they do, they begin to express doubts about the fairness and legitimacy of government authority. These thoughts are surprisingly close to the surface but only become conscious once people have the opportunity to express them.
This, for me explains the phenomenal early success of the Tea Party movement. People immediately identified with the message that the two party system failed to address their needs. They flocked in droves to Tea Party events so long as they believed it was a genuine movement – and quickly abandoned it on realizing the Republican leadership and corporate media were subverting it into a partisan movement.
by stuartbramhall in Challenging the Corporate Media, Mind Control and Disinformation
My last blog was about the five memes or psychological messages that discourage Americans from joining with co-workers, neighbors and other community members to fight the business and corporate interests that negatively impact so many aspects of our lives. These paralyzing messages, which bombard us constantly via TV, movies, newspapers, magazines and billboards, have become so pervasive that many of us unconsciously incorporate them into our belief systems. Moreover, even when we become conscious that we are being “brainwashed,” it requires constant vigilance to keep them from creeping into our thinking. In my own case, I have specific counter messages or mantras I repeat to myself to dispel them, a technique I learned from cognitive behavioral training:
1. The taboo against being “workers” or “working class”
Counter message: Persuading American workers to think of themselves as “middle class” is a trick the government and media play on us to make us think our interests are the same as those of the middle class and ruling elite. No one, except for the power elite and the politicians, managers and professions who look after their interests, is safe in the current economic and political environment. Anyone who works for the government or corporate boss is a “worker.” Because, unless they belong to a union, their employer wields all the power in deciding whether to pay them enough to live on and/or to provide decent working conditions (in 2002, I myself had the privilege of joining the New Zealand union, Association of Salaried Medical Specialists).
2. American workers have it better than workers elsewhere in the world
Counter message: American workers have it far worse than most industrialized countries, including Egypt (only 41 – out of 133 – countries have worse income inequality http://www.blogforarizona.com/blog/2011/02/mouth-dropping-data-on-us-income-inequality-ranking.html ). In the US, the average CEO makes 263 times as much as the average worker (http://www.aflcio.org/corporatewatch/paywatch/pay/). American workers also have far worse quality of life in terms of public services. All other developed countries guarantee all their citizens universal health care and basic education (which is no longer guaranteed in the US), subsidized child care, paid parental leave and a living wage.
3. Protesting and striking hurts our kids.
Counter message: Americans have a higher obligation to leave their kids a planet run by true democracy, in which they still have some chance of providing clean food, water and air (free of toxic pollutants and infectious disease) for their own children and grandchildren.
4. Corporate controlled government and media are too powerful for ordinary people to bring about change.
Counter message: The most powerful antidote to alienation and apathy is the empowerment that comes from engaging (if only with neighbors over a dangerous intersection) in collective political activity.
5. Americans need to leave politics and economics to politicians.
Counter message: No politician in history has sacrificed his own interests or those of his supporters to undertake reforms benefiting ordinary people – without being forced to by the mass mobilization of dedicated, well-organized citizens.
To be continued.
by stuartbramhall in Attacks on the Working Class, Things That Aren't What They Seem
The end of January marked my one year anniversary blogging. I never imagined, in my wildest dreams, that blogging would be the main event of my sixties. When my publisher first suggested it, I thought blogging was something only young people did. That a blog was a public diary that announced to the world what you had for breakfast and what movies and bands you liked. I also had no idea that blogging would lead to on-line relationships with other bloggers of all ages – some even older than I was.
While I still struggle to think of anything earth shattering to blog about, I am coming to recognize the unique perspective I enjoy as one of seven million Americans living overseas. I have recently begun a new book, a collection of essays, about my new life in New Zealand and how it affects my view of my native country. The following is from the introduction, which attempts to describe the mindset that led to my decision to emigrate.
Vietnam, Watergate and My First Attempt to Emigrate
When I finally left the US in October 2002, I had been thinking of emigrating for many years. I had even made a prior attempt to live overseas. In June 1973, I shipped all my belongings to England, intending to start a new life there. Many Americans of my generation left the US in the early seventies, for Canada, Europe and more remote parts of the world. Most were draft-age men afraid of being sent to Vietnam. A few were women involved in illegal abortion clinics that sprang up before the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision officially legalized pregnancy termination. Many were artists and intellectuals like me, disillusioned by the extreme political corruption that was exposed by the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post coverage of Watergate, CIA domestic spying and Nixon’s apparent use of US intelligence for his own political purposes.
In 1973, I myself was totally apolitical, and my decision to leave the US had very little to do with Vietnam or Watergate. My disillusionment stemmed more from watching rampant consumerism overtake the humanist values I had grown up with – the strong family ties, deep friendships and involvement in neighborhood and community life that were so important to my parents’ and grandparents’ generation.
During my eighteen month stay in England, it was deeply gratifying to meet people in London and Birmingham who could care less about owning “stuff” they saw advertised on TV. People who still placed much higher value on extended family, close friendships and the sense of belonging they derived from their local pub, their church or union, or neighborhood sports clubs, hobby groups, and community halls – which had all virtually disappeared in the US.
The Murder that Turned My Life Upside Down
A downturn in the British economy in late 1974 forced me to return to the US to complete my psychiatric training. While I never abandoned my dream of living overseas, my time in Europe had politicized me. I still scanned still scanned the back pages of medical journals for foreign psychiatric vacancies. However in my spare time, I also joined grassroots community organizations seeking to improve political and social conditions in the US.
For many years, believing Nixon was an aberration, I was naively optimistic about the ability of community organizing to thwart the corrupting influence of powerful corporations over federal, state and local government. It never occurred to me the institutions of power themselves were deeply corrupt and had been for many years.
As I in write in The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee, the truth came crashing down on me in 1987, when I became part of a movement to create a Seattle African American museum. Owing to my financial and social standing as a physician, this struck a raw nerve somewhere in the power elite. Suddenly I was barraged with prank and threatening calls at all hours of the day and night, while unsavory looking strangers stalked me and tried to run me down with their vehicles.
Despite the extreme turmoil this systematic harassment and intimidation caused my family, it was the 1989 murder of one of my patients, an African American postal worker and union activist, that turned my world upside down. The brutal murder – the autopsy photos revealing that Oscar was beaten before he was thrown from the fifth floor of the Seattle YMCA – was upsetting enough. However the event that opened my eyes to the total depravity of the American political system was the seizure of the police evidence file – essentially shutting down the homicide investigation – by a little known branch of US intelligence known as the Postal Inspectors.
To be continued
by stuartbramhall in Going Non-Corporate, Sustainability, The Global Economic Crisis
Much of the work that went into the Voluntary Simplicity and Y2K movements (see prior blogs) has been incorporated into Transition Towns and other sustainability-related movements. There are now literally millions of groups worldwide focused on some aspect of bioregional sustainability. The most visible evidence of their success are the blossoming of home veggie gardens, urban community gardens and orchards and farmers’ markets; the 1,040 cities and towns (nearly 1/3 of the US population) which have signed onto the Kyoto accord; and the 125 communities voting to place citizens’ above corporate rights (see http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/jan2011kanner).
One of the most important factors in this success is the ability of the sustainability movement to address apathy and alienation head-on, by reengaging people in neighborhood and community life. For many people, local civic engagement leads on to re-engagement in the political process. I would never argue that progressives should focus on local community building to the exclusion of critically needed government reforms. Corporate lobbies still have the ability to overturn local and state laws in the courts by claiming that they violate alleged constitutional rights. Thus organizing to end so-called constitutional protections for corporations (which clearly run contrary to the intent of the founding fathers) – either through federal legislation or constitutional amendment (www.movetoamed.org) must be an extremely high priority. At the same time, I see the neighborhood and community sustainability networks playing a pivotal role in building strong grassroots lobbies to tackle banking reform, restoring of civil liberties or ending the wars in the Middle East.
The Basics of Sustainability Organizing
Sustainability-related work can be broken down into concrete, achievable steps, which also lends to its appeal. In preparing for the End of the World as We Know it, Y2K activists predicted local communities would need to prepare for breakdowns in the following services:
- Global commerce (food imports being the most crucial)
- Water and energy utilities
- Waste removal systems
- Telecommunications, Internet and mass media
- Financial institutions
- Transportation systems
- Governance and government services
- Health Care
- Institutions and agencies responsible for education, justice, manufacturing and security
In most places, organizers have found it easiest to begin with food, water and energy security – in part because they are most critical to human survival. However the bioregional economic network established as a first step in addressing food, water and energy security can also be used to prepare for breakdowns in other systems. For 99.9% of human existence people have relied on a bioregional economic model in which they have sourced the vast majority of their food and other essentials for life within a 100 mile radius. The process of re-creating this network is very helpful in learning to shift our thinking away from relying on national and multinational corporations to meet our needs.
Although the sustainability movement receives little attention in the mainstream media, it has it has been quietly building for nearly two decades – often with the support of state and local government (it receives the most state support in California). In Europe it receives national and EU support. The following is just a small snapshot of local accomplishments around energy, food and water security.
FOOD AND WATER SECURITY
- Increased local expertise in permaculture and biointensive agriculture techniques, as industrial fertilizers and insecticides (manufactured from fossil fuels) become unavailable and/or prohibitively expensive.
- De-paving – digging up private and public driveways and parking lots and replacing them with backyard veggie gardens and community orchards and gardens. In addition to improving food security, this restores watersheds by reducing run-off, a major threat to water security in the industrial world.
- Lawn liberation – replacing lawns and ornamental trees and shrubs with fruit and nut trees and veggie gardens.
- Support of local farmers through farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture Schemes (in which residents “subscribe” to weekly deliveries of fresh veggies and fruit).
- Neighborhood and municipal systems of rainwater collection and purification and gray water collection
- Adoption of active run-off management plans, in which lost groundwater is measured and minimized in development planning – and replaced, for example via the Blue Alternative (in which groundwater is replaced by digging small catchment pools in open spaces).
- Reduced fossil fuel dependence in transportation:
o Beginning work to create local consumer-farmer/consumer-retailer networks, including state and locally owned banks, credit unions and cooperatives. Given that local businesses struggle to compete (their costs and prices tend to be higher) with national and multinational corporations, this can be facilitated via the creation of local barter systems (example from Greece at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12223068) and/or local currencies, such as Ithaca hours, that can only be spent locally.
o Community and municipal initiatives to increase public and active transport (cycling and walking) through urban planning that incorporates growth management and sprawl reduction, creation of urban villages where residents live closer to essential services, and restricted permiting of malls and big box retailers (Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia are excellent examples).
o Community and neighborhood street reclaiming initiatives to make streets safer for people to use cars less and walk and cycle more.
o Increased uptake of car sharing schemes, employing efficient electric or hybrid vehicles or those run on regionally produced biomass fuels.
- Reduced home/business fossil fuel dependence:
o State, local and power company subsidies for home insulation schemes and solar water heaters.
o Subsidies and reduced permit fees for Green Building (buildings purpose-built to be energy/water/waste self-sufficient).
o State and local regulations and subsidies (as per German model) to increase distributed energy systems based on alternate energy sources (solar, wind, tidal, etc).
o Active promotion of Open Source computer and information technology.
by stuartbramhall in Challenging the Corporate Media, Mind Control and Disinformation, Sustainability
I think Heinberg and Hopkins are right (see previous blog): sustainability activists should focus on resource scarcity, rather than climate change. It’s just too damned hard to persuade large numbers of people to undertake major lifestyle changes around something they can’t directly experience. Except for extreme weather events, it’s virtually impossible for lay people to observe the effects of global warming. The whole notion of CO2, which is invisible, causing a greenhouse effect that paradoxically produces more rain and colder winters, requires an enormous leap of faith (and confidence in the integrity of scientific experts). Especially given 50-100 year time line required before we see the benefit of our energy saving sacrifices.
In fact, it doesn’t surprise me a bit, given the profound distrust of science, technology and educated liberals embedded in working class culture, that a new conspiracy theory has arisen (with a lot of help from Big Coal according to Climate Wars author Gwynne Dyer) about Climategate being a hoax that George Soros, the New World Order and a bunch of liberal yuppies are using to impose new limits on individual freedoms.
Engaging the Working Class
Resource scarcity, on the other hand, is a daily reality – especially for low income workers and the unemployed – as the cost of gasoline, home heating, and food goes through the roof. Moreover fossil fuel depletion will continue to hit the working class harder than the rest of society, given the staggering income inequality found in all industrialized countries.
People already have experience preparing for resource scarcity, with the disaster kits they keep in their garage or basement. There’s already a whole (mainly blue collar) survivalist industry dedicated to the concept. Community and neighborhood focused survival has already had a dry run, through the Voluntary Simplicity Movement started by Vicki Robins’ book, Your Money or Your Life. The Voluntary Simplicity movement subsequently morphed into the Y2K movement, which arose around the concern that our computer-based infrastructure would collapse in the year 2000 because computers would read “00″ as “1900.”
Obviously millions of lines of code got rewritten in time, and civilization didn’t collapse in 2000. However the history of the Y2K movement is well-preserved, owing to the large number of Y2K websites that remain on the Internet. As a brief member of the Phinney Ridge Y2K group in Seattle, I distinctly recall the ah-ha moment when we all recognized the extent to which technology (thanks to cheap fossil fuels) had replaced mutual relationships with neighbors and the national environment.
The Breakdown in Civic Engagement
It was hard not to be dismayed at the wholesale disintegration of social ties that occurred around the time I entered adulthood – with people systematically disengaging from extended family and friends, as well as neighbors and community and civic groups (unions, granges, churches, and neighborhood and community centers and groups) that were central to American life prior to the 1970s. At the time we blamed the problem on our long work hours and the failure of wages to keep up with inflation.
It would be several years before I learned the role the National Association of Manufacturers and their brainchild – the massive American public relations industry – in this enormous social transformation. That transforming Americans’ identity from social involved, interdependent citizens to lonely, isolated, insecure, TV-addicted consumers had been a deliberate aim of US PR strategy – to increase sales of consumer goods (and profits).
It was only after coming to New Zealand in 2002 that I learned about the late Australian-born psychologist Alex Carey. Carey describes quite eloquently the deliberate crafting of a pro-corporate, consumption-driven American psyche – beginning as early as the 1930s with the Mohawk Valley Formula (see Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda vs. Freedom and Liberty - http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/25/006.html).
To be continued, with a discussion of our first major organizing success of the 21st century (the sustainability movement).
by stuartbramhall in Inspiring Moments in Resistance, Sustainability
Street reclaiming is a global, bottom-up movement to reclaim our neighborhoods from the automobile. David Engwicht, inventor of the Walking School Bus and author of Mental Speed Bumps: the Smarter Way to Tame Traffic, views traffic as a social problem, not a design problem. Instead of looking to local government to solve it, we need to see it as a social and community problem we all play some role in creating.
Moving Away from the Culture of Blame
Up until now we have all approached traffic problems with the idea that someone else is to blame for them – either city officials or drivers from other neighborhoods. According to Engwicht, this is typical of the “culture of blame” mentality prevalent in modern society. When people actually sit down and analyze the source of all the cars on their street, they usually discover that the neighborhood is responsible for about one third of the traffic.
Thus his first suggestion for neighborhood traffic calming is for neighbors to commit to reducing their own car use (by walking or cycling for short trips). His second is for people to take steps towards transforming their neighborhood into a “living room” (a shared social space), instead of a “corridor” to get to someplace else.
The “Living Room” Analogy
He stresses this is something neighborhoods can start to do on their own by following two broad principles: 1) deliberately blurring the boundary between private and public space, as many European countries (particularly Holland) do; and 2) using intrigue, uncertainty, and humor as mental speed bumps. As Engwicht has repeatedly observed, the moment drivers note social activity on a street, it introduces intrigue and uncertainty and they automatically drive more slowly.
Engwicht recommends street reclaiming activists follow five basic steps (based on the collective experience of neighborhood activists all over the world):
1. Reclaim your street as a socializing space
- Move some of your normal activities closer to the street (e.g. reading your book in your front yard or on the sidewalk – working on painting, refinishing, and other do-it-yourself projects in your parking space instead of your garage or basement).
- Supervise children playing on the sidewalk or in the roadway
- Walk your kids to school
- Walk to local destinations and greet people you encounter
- Hold a Traffic Taming Street Party
2. Move Gently
- Drive within the speed limit and encourage your neighbors to put Pace Car bumper stickers on their cars (available from www.traffictamers.com).
- Teach your kids to walk or cycle.
- Reduce your own car use to a minimum.
3. Intrigue travelers by engaging them in the social life of the street.
- Wave to motorists.
- Put something intriguing in your front yard or parking space
- Blur the boundary between your private home and the street (take down your front fence and curtains – as Engwicht describes in Mental Speed Bumps, European communities do this commonly to maintain the street as a social space).
4. Create “Linger Nodes” – to facilitate social life in your street, increasing intrigue and uncertainty.
- Create a socializing node on your private land (seating, drinking fountain community notice board, sculpture, etc) or on the sidewalk.
- Encourage local businesses to connect with the street by placing an activity outside their premises.
5. Evolve your street from a Corridor into a Room
- Build the social life of the street.
- Put “furniture” and “art” in your room.
- Work with your city on design elements that make your street feel more like a room (for example a landscaped entryway, a ceiling made of flags or banners, and walls created from furniture or art).
I encourage Street Reclaiming activists to email photos of their efforts. I promise to post them: firstname.lastname@example.org
by stuartbramhall in Inspiring Moments in Resistance, Sustainability
I have recently joined a growing worldwide initiative to reclaim neighborhood streets from the automobile. It’s a movement driven both by climate change activists seeking to reduce carbon emissions – and by social change advocates seeking to reverse the steep drop-off in civic engagement. The alienation stemming from declining involvement in both informal neighborhood activity and formal community organizations has both health and political consequences.
The link with the growing epidemic of depression is obvious (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2010/05/22/civic-engagement-the-effect-on-the-human-brain/). However there is also substantial research evidence that loneliness and alienation also increase a person’s risk of contracting other, more serious conditions, including heart disease, stroke, infectious and autoimmune disease and cancer.
As an activist, I’m even more concerned about the political consequences of the profound apathy stemming from the isolated, compartmentalized lives we lead – a sense that ordinary people are totally powerless to improve the conditions we live and work in. The pervasiveness of these feelings pose a major stumbling block for organizers seeking to build collective opposition to the corporate takeover of government.
Because of its immediate change effect, street reclaiming is extremely effective for inspiring optimism about political change. It encourages ordinary citizens to see themselves as change agents, rather than looking to uncooperative and/or corrupt political leaders to make changes on their behalf. As such it provides an extremely valuable model for other types of social and political change.
An Inspirational Social Change Model
David Engwicht, an Australian social inventor who consults with town planners and social engineers worldwide about traffic calming measures, is the author of a fascinating and inspiring street reclaiming primer called Mental Speed Bumps: A Smarter Way to Tame Traffic. As well as explaining his revolutionary bottom-up approach to to traffic calming, it also suggests dozens of activities people can undertake with their neighbors to reclaim their streets as social and civic spaces.
Disadvantages of Top-Down Traffic Calming
Engwicht feels most city planners and engineers approach traffic calming from the wrong angle. As he observes, they typically install “traffic calming” measures after a pedestrian or cyclist is killed by a motorist who is driving too fast. The most common are speed bumps or devices such curb extensions, chicanes, or traffic circles, which slow traffic by narrowing the street. After observing and advising street reclaiming projects all over the world, he has concluded that the most effective traffic calming measures are those residents of any given street initiate themselves.
In fact Mental Speed Bumps goes back to first principles in approaching street reclaiming and traffic calming. Engwicht points out that pedestrian safety only becomes an issue when city and town officials attempt to artificially divide cities into “traffic worlds” and “social worlds.” A “traffic world” runs smoothly when everything is predictable, uniform and highly governed by rules and regulations. He gives the example of a controlled superhighway, where drivers can safely go 65 miles per hour or faster because they are absolutely confident of not encountering slower moving cyclists or pedestrians.
He then outlines how this level of predictability is virtually impossible in towns and cities, which historically have always been social spaces. In fact, installing more signs and speed bumps and passing more rules and regulations only lures motorists into a false sense of security, leading them to drive at unsafe speeds.
According to Engwicht, it makes far more sense for neighborhoods to redesign their streets as shared space both people and vehicles can safely enjoy. For this type of traffic calming to be fully effective, he stresses that residents themselves must take the initiative, rather than lobbying city officials to do it for them.
To be continued, with examples showing why neighborhood initiated traffic calming is always more effective than official measures.
by stuartbramhall in Sustainability, The Global Economic Crisis
In my last (Oct 27) blog, I discussed a YouTube presentation by Richard Heinberg, based on his book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post Carbon World, about the way the ruling elite is likely to manage the inevitable social upheaval stemming from severe resource scarcity. Option I, which I discussed previously, is a type of feudal fascism involving a strong central government and the forced removal of large numbers of people to prisons and work camps. Heinberg admits that Option I may provoke strong popular opposition, which may make full, long term implementation of Option I impossible (see http://archive.richardheinberg.com/museletter/186).
Option 2 Ecological Keynesianism
As Option 2, Heinberg offers Susan George’s vision of Ecological Keynesianism. (George is an American expatriate, economist and anti-globalization activist living in Paris since 1956). (see http://tinyurl.com/2fbulrr and http://loyno.edu/twomey/bread-world-and-global-network-justice?c_id=313).
Like Option 1, this scenario also envisions a strong central government, but operates more like the New Deal in creating work programs and rebuilding infrastructure. Heinberg gives the example of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a vast New Deal social experiment accompanying the damming of the Tennessee River, in which thousands of Americans were moved into new experimental communities. I think the example is a good one, as this model sounds a lot like what Obama’s good buddy Zbigniew Brzezinski is proposing in terms of benevolent government that improves efficiency by foregoing democratic processes.
People often forget the downside of the TVA – namely that thousands of people were forced to participate in this experiment against their will. And that the creation of a large, somewhat brutal security network was necessary to police it – a network run between 1950-58 by former Nazi war criminal Werner von Braun.
Under this Green New Deal, a strong central government would provide the finance capital to build public transport systems, super-insulate millions of homes and commercial buildings; develop distributed renewable energy systems; and reorganize agriculture on biointensive, organic model – creating millions of jobs along the way.
George proposes to finance this massive capitalization by taxing speculative currency exchange transactions and eliminating tax havens in the Caribbean and elsewhere. She points out that half of all world trade passes through off-shore tax havens – and that their elimination would automatically increase tax revenues by $250 billion dollars.
George states that the only way to bring about a Green New Deal government is to build a very powerful populist movement demanding it – as no western democracy will agree to it voluntarily, so long as they are under the thumb of multinational corporations.
Option 3 Bottoms Up
Option 3, according to Heinberg is a vast expansion of existing grassroots and local government activity to revamp local infrastructure to become more self sufficient in providing for basic food and energy needs. Heinberg believes that some areas of the world will be forced to go for Option 3, as more and more countries become failed states with the deepening economic and resource crisis (maintaining a strong central state requires energy for transportation and communication).
Heinberg’s main argument against adopting Option 3 in large industrialized countries is that in most communities in North America and Europe are ill equipped to provide even the most basic services (food, water, power, security) without the support of complex regional and national systems. A breakdown in these services would likely lead to social unrest, leading whatever central government that remains to implement Option 1.