The Politics of Sustainability

Comments on "The Politics of Sustainability"
Presented at Green Fest, Ithaca, NY, August 10, 2007
Virginia Rasmussen, Program on Corporations, Law and

images.jpgI appreciate the invitation to be with you tonight and, in particular, to have had an opportunity to explore, deliberately, the matter of sustainability politics. Surely, this will be at the root of our capacity to live sustainably. The suggestions I offer tonight are quite grand in sound and vision, yet must become, I believe, a very practical part of our work in the years ahead. If it is our intention:

* to adopt ecological technologies,
* to recognize and live within the limits of a finite planet,
* to bring the fairness, justice, restraint, and community as well as citizen rights, all essential to sustainability, then a new kind of political process is required, one we've barely begun to consider.

Common sense tells us that a systemic, FUNDAMENTAL response is needed to address the ecological and social breakdown enveloping us. Yet many struggling in environmental and social change work continue doing what we have always done:
* dealing with an issue here and an issue there;
* confident we know the nature of the problem, we work hard and yet harder on a playing field we did not build, using rules we did not write -- rules that are solidly stacked against us;
* we've gone on ad nauseum at times, describing in fuller and fuller detail the old problems and then the new problems and then the newest problems...

Not that it's easy getting to these roots! Daily we face forces of denial more brazen, more militant than ever. (1) insidious religious doctrines that foster dangerous ignorance and superstition
(2) ever-growing corporate rule that denies us any access to the power of decision-making and governance. (3) and a virulent patriotic ideology that makes one shudder.

This is a tough reality to try to change. Bill Moyers pointed out that when "ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind." And getting the blind to change directions is even tougher than getting the bad to do so!

So, how might a sustainable politics break into this seemingly vicious downward spiral?

I'm going to suggest four basic aspects of our cultural-political lives that I think require great focus and evolution if this search for a sustainable politics is to reward us. They are, each one, about RELATIONSHIP within the work of GOVERNING OURSELVES. We'll have to address each of them, because the one we do not address will undo any gains in the other three. Each is politically fundamental to the creation of sustainable communities and the sustainable lives of those who dwell in them.

None is new to you. Some effort in each has already begun. But there is great need to bring these basic aspects of political life up front, provoke rethinking and a dedication to these four tightly connected, determining aspects of any sustainable future.

Let me state them briefly at the outset:

First, can we bring up front, include in our work and conversation, the fact of our present dominator, patriarchal, industrial worldview that drives us inevitably toward inequality, violence, war, and earth destruction. Only a tireless commitment to comprehend, counter and change it will stand us a chance.

Second, an alternative world view is inadequate in itself to the task of evolving a sustainable politics. That worldview must find its expression in REAL democratic processes. Is it possible that through our work and conversation, the fraud that is our current so- called "democracy" can be made clear to an entrenched, indifferent middle class, along with a will to build the real thing, a radical democracy?

Third, what good will establishing a radical democracy do us if we can't sustain it through our capacity to DO democracy? Might we bring up front in our work, our teachings, a valuing and learning of the arts and skills of DOING democracy?

And fourth... What good will our capacity to make skillful democratic decisions within a people-centered democracy do us, if we have no AUTHORITY as We the People, to put those decisions into policy, law, governance?

In the time we have, let me elaborate briefly on each of these fundamental aspects of the work ahead.

A sustainable politics calls on us, in the words of Adrienne Rich, "to understand the assumptions in which we are drenched." This is prerequisite to knowing ourselves and being able to change ourselves. The present dominator, patriarchal (industrial, anti- ecological, war-culture, anti-democratic) worldview, too long with us, and too little acknowledged, will block and then annihilate every sustainable measure and attitude we place in its ferocious grip.

We have to pull this conversation into the forefront of most every issue we take on, government and corporate, community and even personal . That wrong-headed worldview defines who we believe WE are, it TELLS us what OUR nature is, who we think we CAN be with one another and the earth. As long as we do not hit head-on this limiting, frankly terminal, dominant worldview, we will continue to see human beings as what that worldview assumes us to be: primarily individualistic, acquisitive, selfish, competitive, and generally quite nasty. Of course, that serves those who want to rule over us; if we're that crummy, we BETTER have strong and powerful rulers to keep everyone sufficiently at bay from everyone else.

I share the resolute view of Anne Scales, in her book "The Emergence of a Feminist Jurisprudence," when she says: "It is insane at the end of the 20th Century to adhere to the belief that people are innately horrid and can do no better. Rather we must recognize that our fears -- of contingency, of dependency, of unimportance -- have put us on a suicidal path." But what good will this nearly opposite worldview and assumptions about ourselves do us in regard to sustainability politics unless we apply it within a very different understanding of democracy. Many minds in this country have been falsely, intentionally colonized with untruths about democracy.

In "The Populist Moment, a work by Lawrence Goodwyn, he claims that "we are culturally confused and cannot even imagine our confusion. ...we are culturally organized by our society not to rebel... not to understand protest..." and most importantly, "not to understand the prerequisites of democracy itself."

Might we be able to help ourselves and others decolonize our minds and promote an understanding of and commitment to radical democracy, which means nothing more than the REAL thing, people REALLY ruling themselves.

Democracy, according to C. Douglas Lummis in his book Radical Democracy, is not a kind of government, but an end of government. It's an ideal, a project, "the art of the possible," a "performance art." He sees radical democracy as "an adventure of human beings creating with their own hands the conditions for their own freedom... it's a way in which people order their lives together, through discussion and common action, on principles of equality and justice."

Democracy is NOT what so many have come to believe in this country: * It is "not handing your power over to people in exchange for promises." Political parties have a role in education, but they do not make the people's decisions.
* it's not "just rulers looking out for people's welfare," it's about people ruling themselves;
* it's not "economic development or a stage of development;" it's a form of political rule
* it's not the "free" market or "free trade," deceptive language for global corporate rights law that divides society into rich and poor and is utterly inappropriate to democracy;
* it's not the U.S. Constitutional system which was opposed by radical democrats of the time as putting too much power at the center and giving too much power to the rich;
* it's not free elections, although that can play a democratic role;
* it's not allowing the people to have their say; the "right to dissent is not power, it is not the right to decide."

Can we bring these wrong, even dangerous perceptions of democracy up front for people, and begin to shape the REAL thing for ourselves?

Establishing radical democracy is not "some leap of consciousness into an uncharted future" assures Lummis. "Rather it only means returning to a natural attitude. Our challenge is to break the ideological bonds that prevent us from assuming that natural attitude of democratic common sense."

Democracy IS in our nature, says Lummis. We CAN be a primarily community-based, cooperative, less material and radically democratic species.

Since a sustainable politics requires that radical democracy be made real, then the skills necessary to DO Democracy, to DO the "art of the possible," must also be made real, become part of our teaching and learning. This rarely happens...

We hear about the value of diversity, the importance of inclusion and participation. But how often do we hear these values presented in the context of doing democracy, of governing ourselves successfully?

When do we learn how to set an agenda and facilitate a meeting that people are glad they attended; are eager to return to in order to continue the conversation and mutual learning that can lead to smart decision-making?

When do we learn the skills of communication necessary to share knowledge and opinion with one another in a way that can be heard, that works for the group and truly adds to the social learning essential to self-governance?

When do we learn the skills of decision-making without losers, where everyone gets to participate and be a part of the outcome? How long will we settle for Robert's Rules of Patriarchal Order????

--And conflicts? We need them. They're natural. Dealing with them usefully teaches us new things and brings us to a better, wiser place. How many people learn conflict resolution as part of the art of conducting our lives, much less governing ourselves? Without an appreciation of conflict and some skills to make the most of conflict, many stifle their voices and others prevail by aggressively filling the void. This disempowers individuals, the group, the society.

Organizing and planning skills -- who learns them? How do we form a group? Set goals? Determine priorities. Hold an event? Address accountability? Learn how to evaluate our work along the way and on its completion? Gain support from others for our efforts? How can we ever do democracy and govern ourselves if we never learn organizing for self-governance 101?

All of this must be learned and practiced and called what it MOST IMPORTANTLY IS -- the art of self and mutual governing. Do some of us have natural gifts in these skills and arts? Of course. Does that mean we hand our power over to the people with "the gifts?" Whose agenda will we then be subject to? Yes, those people get to use their gifts on our behalf. All the more important that we stay involved and participate where and how we can?

Every educational setting -- classrooms, organizations, municipal boards, etc. should be a forum for learning and respecting the art and skills of democracy.

And lastly, a sustainable politics requires that those decisions we make with our democratic skills and mutual work be implemented through a governing system that puts the people in charge. That is, We the People must have the AUTHORITY to govern ourselves.

And let's be clear... from the days of the Constitution on, we have NOT had that authority, despite all the mind control and colonization that sends the message -- that this is a democracy and we people rule. Of course, not everyone continues to fall for the standard "line" about our so-called "democracy:" A friend recently caught sight of a bumpersticker... "Watch Out or We'll Bring Democracy to Your Country!"

Nonetheless, our Constitution hangs on to its unchallenged, unquestioned place of reverence; most people know little about those passages written by its authors to keep democracy OUT of the picture! There is positive content in that Constitution. We must know of it, use it and build on it:--- never before was a nation established on a set of agreements...
--- the system of checks and balances is brilliant and intended to serve vital objectives in a democratic set up, .... CURRENTLY BEING THROWN RIGHT OUT THE WINDOW!
--- every state was guaranteed a Republican form of government...

BUT, where legal authority over economic and political life is concerned, the framers wrote a Constitution that protected the propertied few from the many with ease. the Constitution's principal author, James Madison, saw to it that political and economic structures "would protect the opulent minority against the majority."

So the "Founding Fathers" designed a plan of governance that sanctified the individual and the rights and protections of property; not the community and the rights and protections of persons.

Even though there was no mention of corporations in the C'n, the propertied class used the property bias of the Constitution to hone the corporate form as its vehicle to concentrate wealth and legal power, a scheme generously assisted by judges and courts over the 19th and 20th century. Whatever business wanted, business got; business practice and malpractice simply turned into law.

Property's legal protections turned into all kinds of legal POWER OVER people, communities and the earth.

These rights of property gave to the corporate form control over production, investment, the organization of work and the development and diffusion of technology. This is control over our economic life and whoever controls economic life also controls political life.

Not content with that, corporate boards realized that the designation of the corporation as a person under the law would gain them legal PROTECTIONS FROM the people through the Bill of Rights, intended to protect REAL people from denials of free speech, assembly, search and seizure rights, etc.

So we arrive at today's corporations, able to do most anything they wish, and it's ALL PERFECTLY LEGAL, because they saw to the writing of the law, the shaping of policy, the defining of every debate, the election, in so many instances, of THEIR FAVORITE candidates:

What they do is the stuff of governing, it represents historical takings of powers that belong to people. But here's some good news: because this crisis is systemic, the problems are being driven right down to the local level, where the way is open for the development of NEW approaches.

People in their communities are beginning to take their right to govern themselves seriously. They are waging the struggle to shift the cultures of their communities and rewrite law to serve people and PUBLIC authority, not property and CORPORATE authority.

They are changing the law by challenging existing law, recognizing that democracy is without meaning when corporations have constitutional powers to deny to people the democratic process.

More and more communities are no longer exhausting themselves in the regulatory maze. Instead they are educating themselves, organizing, making decisions together and passing their own laws that ban corporations from owning farmland, from dumping sludge on farmland, from giving money to candidates or referenda within their jurisdictions, from planting GE crops, from placing any more BIG BOX stores in their jurisdictions; communities are extending rights and protections to nature, and denying them to corporations.

These people are reframing their issues in terms of democracy and rights, no longer in terms of regulating corporate harms and haggling over permits to pollute. They are building a movement to drive self- governance into communities all over the country and eventually, into the Constitution itself.

While it's true that sustainable politics requires our possessing the rights and the law to govern ourselves, all the good law in service to people and public authority, should we acquire it, will not survive without attaining a level of success in the other three fundamentals of a sustainable politics: a new partnership or post- patriarchal worldview and accompanying assumptions; a deeper understanding of democracy as radical democracy; and the capacity to DO democracy by respecting, learning and practicing its arts and skills.

It's a tall order, but all of this work is underway. Let's be deliberate in joining it at every opportunity.