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Sunday, 4 September 2011

To Occupy or Not To Occupy? That is the question.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is rippling out of New York City and reaching every corner of the globe tomorrow, hitting a major city near you. Saturday October 15 will mark the beginning of mass demonstrations of people around the world united against corporate greed. More importantly it is the first real sign that America is no longer the world’s utopic society.

So what do you think of it? How could you ignore it? Occupy Wall Street is the probably the largest organized protest in North America since the Vietnam War, and it’s gaining momentum. I hope you, like me, haven’t been a stranger to these proceedings. I also hope that you don’t write this off as a passing phase. To us, mass protest is something we do not associate much with our democratic society. And to some of you, this may seem like a ridiculous thing to protest. However, this is just the beginning.
Allow me to provide a fresh perspective on why this is happening. I will admit the existence of bias in this piece of writing and also the fact that I am putting this together in just a few hours. So bear with me if you can, and if you cannot, noone’s forcing you to read.
The reality is that all societies have gone from one system of Centralized Power to the next. Ever since humans first settled down, following the invention of agriculture, it developed Centralized Power to maintain order to a society with an exploding population. Since then, the majority of states have been defined by two forms of power, its People and its Centralized Power. A state’s Centralized Power moderates its People and pools resources through taxation, and its People ensures the Centralized Power invests back in its People. If the state’s Centralized Power loses its way, its People revolt. The Centralized Power then mobilizes its army to oppress the People. Like a game of tug of war, the rope representing society’s power, they keep eachother in check. This is how society works even today.
Many forms of centralized power have come and gone, from despotism to feudalism to monarchies and so forth. The two most common systems in place today are democracy and communism. However, an interesting thing happened with democracy. Out of democracy spawned capitalism and out of this spawned the corporation, democracy’s right hand to accelerate growth.
The Corporation is a faceless entity, yet not unlike a centralized power. A corporation, after all, takes our money and provides us with that which we need to survive and thrive, not unlike the government’s system of taxation. The problem is the Corporation has largely transformed from a vehicle for innovation, to a blood sucking parasite on society. It has created a chasm between rich and poor, accelerated destruction of our ecological habitat and brainwashed our idea of happiness.
The Corporation (this includes its filthy rich) has turned society into a three player game for power within a society. It has become Corporation vs. Democracy vs. its People, and the Corporation is now winning. It is playing the game like a ruthless psychopath, as quoted from the documentary “The Corporation.” Instead of mobilizing armies and SWAT teams, the Corporation mobilizes lawyers with mighty pens. The Corporation is winning the game of power within nations through media manipulation of its people and policy manipulation of the government.
I don’t see the Occupy Wall Street movement as being different from revolutions of the past, just unique.
In the very recent past, especially, revolutions in the Middle East and northern Africa have toppled governments. This was basically a power struggle between a state’s peoples and its government. Now with corporations entering the fray, who says we can’t protest them? It’s certainly sounds odd to protest corporations. What is it but a faceless entity? But really, when you think about it, it’s no different from governments, and we protest them all the time.
Whether or not there’s a purpose to these protests doesn’t really matter either. Again, the complex way corporations have woven themselves into society’s fabric will make them even more difficult to untangle. You can’t just topple corporations the way you do governments. Or demand a union. Or demand the resignation of the Corporation’s leader. The sad fact is we have come to rely on corporations for almost everything we consume. If corporations fall, our society will fall apart.
No, the answer is not dissolving the corporation altogether. The solution isn’t that black and white. Yet, something must be done. Western capitalism has run its course and society demands change. So what will its people do?
In this case, Occupy Wall Street.
The last major protests in the United States were against the Vietnam War. What started as a small group of pacifist protesters turned large scale. Some Americans even self-immolated (set themselves on fire) to set examples, like the recent Buddhists in China and even the martyr that sparked the Middle Eastern revolutions. Anti-war sentiment became so strong that it led to the U.S. withdrawing their involvement from the Vietnam War. Now Americans have picked a new fight, the battleground on home soil, and in their own trading markets and boardrooms. Who says it can’t be done? Who says we shouldn’t at least try?
This could be just the first step in the escalating power struggle of society vs. corporation. The government is also a major player and it has to fight corruption and divest itself of corporate infiltration within its ranks. Protesters are slowly gaining momentum, as well as allies. Unions are jumping on board (although I question their main motivation); the head of the Bank of Canada supports it; even Ben and Jerry’s is handing out free ice cream to supporters. It is a bittersweet irony to see a corporation supporting the movement. It also is a sign that the people can indeed influence corporations, not just the other way around.
Change has to start with the People. And just because some people at these protests may be proud owners of iPhones, doesn’t mean you can accuse them of being hypocrites. This just underlines how most of us have become enslaved as consumers. Even iPhone users are waking up and realizing changes are needed.
And indeed, changes are coming. It’s only a matter of time.

The Conundrum of Consumption

I recently read an article discussing the following question - are we living in a “culture of despair”? This is the notion that, with the multitude of issues in today's society, the world is “headed for disaster." It sure got my attention. The future of our world is something I ponder. I'm not even sure if I would want my theoretical kids to be born into such a scary place. For an optimistic person I sure do have a pessimistic view of today's world!

Society is plagued with problems encompassing the whole spectrum of economic, environmental and social well-being, threatening the capacity of earth itself to withstand anthropological impact. When one examines the range of world issues, there appears to be a common thread; one human flaw that is threatening to unravel all that humans have achieved in their short history – greed. Gandhi said it well in his famous quote - "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed."
Where greed, defined simply as excessive desire, is the flaw of the individual, and the need for progress is the flaw of the collective of individuals, civilizations. Blinded by progress, civilizations engage in self-destructive practices and unsustainable consumption. They often see the writing on the wall too, yet choose to ignore it. Instead they continue to mortgage their future for the sake of short term gain.
One of the first civilizations rose out of the lush valleys of modern day Iraq. Thousands of years ago Mesopotamia flourished as humans invented agriculture and began settling down into permanent homes and villages. However, intense agricultural practices were destroying the soil, yet farmers, fully aware of this, continued to blissfully pillage their own land. The region was eventually abandoned, its inhabitants in search of new untouched pastures. This once fertile land stands today as a vast desert, a lesson in the dangers of unsustainable progress.
On Easter Island, tribes competed to make bigger and bigger versions of the infamous head statues worshipping their chiefs. In the process they depleted their forests and eventually wiped out almost all of the island's population. The grandness of the heads staring blankly at the sea, outliving their creators, serve as a grave warning.
Yet humans have continued to make the same mistakes, not learning from the past. Today, humans have been thrust into an unsustainable fossil fuel society. Progress is accelerating at an alarming pace, and so are the problems, such as global warming and scarcity of resources.
Distribution of power and wealth is uneven and getting worse. Around 20% of the wealthiest people consume 80% of the world's resources. These resources are often exploited through war and ecological destruction. In these cases the poor become victims and the income funnels into corrupt governments and corporations. But society, misled into an oblivious state of happiness, continues to engage in excess consumption. Meanwhile, the true costs of consumption is hidden from consumers to assuage their guilt.
For example, when we burn gas to drive our cars we don't see the emissions we create coming out of our tailpipes, agents of global warming, rising up to attack the atmosphere. Thus, the connection becomes blurred between our driving and global warming and rising temperatures, intense famines and rising sea levels. We fill our gas tanks, unaware of the intensive refining processes and transportation required to bring that oil conveniently to us at a filling station. Neither can we conjure up images of victims suffering in Nigeria. Here, oil spilled annually is greater than the Gulf oil spill, due to guerrilla factions who break the pipeline and steal the oil. Meanwhile, the ecosystem and the poorest people's habitat is being destroyed and the government sits back collecting cheques from oil corporations, who in turn blame the guerrillas.
There is hope, after all, to reverse the tides of environmental change and social inequality. Humans are also compassionate and believe in moral justice. Compassionate people must stop feigning ignorance and averting their eyes from the consequences of their greed. It's time to confront guilt. Compassionate individuals must end the excuses that they alone cannot make a difference. In politics, every vote counts, and in society, every action evokes an idea that may spread like a wave across an ocean of people.
This is what I'm hoping to do with this blog, spread the tide of grassroots ideas that are gaining traction. Farmers Markets are back in vogue. Not only are foods purchased there healthier, thereby reducing healthcare costs, but it encourages shopping local and for seasonal foods, reducing demand on fossil fuels from shipping desirable foods from halfway across the world.
North Americans have elevated the act of driving to a right instead of a privilege. But there are many who would take sustainable modes if feasible. Unfortunately, the local infrastructure favours driving over transit and cycling. While cycling is gaining popularity in cities like Toronto, the lack of cycling lanes has oppressed cyclists and made it a hot-button issue. In cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, an estimated 30% of commuters cycle to work, compared to 2% in Toronto. Those cities also have wonderful cycling infrastructure. Instead of feeling both dependent on roads and the desire to continue using them, individuals need to vote in politicians who care about transit, not scumbags that claim that cycling and transit advocates are starting a "war on drivers" (the words of Rob Ford).
Forget driving, stepping on a plane means you have agreed to pump carbon emissions to the max. A flight from London to Paris creates 244kg of carbon dioxide per passenger, compared to 22kg/CO2/pass taking the train. Again, we have little choice given our continent's poor rail infrastructure. But consider a road trip. Or if you can avoid the trip all together, the more power to you. Avoiding taking that flight is as difficult a decision as giving up a car or even avoiding drinking bottled water, for convenience and consumption go hand-in-hand, and consumption has become ingrained in our society. Corporations continue to brainwash us into buying more. Recycling may be a good thing, but it has overshadowed its fellow R's, providing consumers with an excuse to keep consuming. There's a reason why "reduce" comes before "reuse" and "recycle."
In order for the earth to continue to be a beautiful and sustainable place to live, humans inevitably need to foresake their current lifestyle which rewards greed and strains progress, in return for a life of simplicity. Grassroots movements need to change the culture and ways people think, which in turn revolutionize political and economic systems to operate around a central tenet of frugality and altruism.
At the beginning of the blog, I mentioned an article regarding the "culture of despair." This was the topic of a live discussion organized by UBC, between David Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous buddhist. Any dialogue between two such respected leaders in their fields is sure to command attention. Thich Nhat Hanh said "we have to educate our children to see happiness does not lie in consumption." However, it all starts with compassionate individuals of all ages who strive to make a humble and honest living. They need first to accept the need to change, then to actually take action.
David Suzuki (L) and Thich Nhat Hanh (R) greet each other at the start of the Open Mind Open Heart conversation at Cecil Green UBC, Vancouver, August 15 2011. 
In my previous blogs I shared my experiences with minimalism and reducing information overload. Much of my motivation lies in self-interest. However, compassion for the earth lies deeply rooted in my conscience and, thus, my actions speak to this, and declare optimism for a better future. My latest forays into lowering my carbon footprint include cycling to work as the weather grows colder, turning off the power bar, not just the electronics, and to make my own worm composter, which will reduce landfill waste and produce healthy soil for plants. I won't make a difference on my own, but hopefully my actions ripple outward and grow as an idea, eventually bringing in tides of noticeable change.
David Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh's discussion can be found here: