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Compassion Is Our New Currency: Notes on 2011’s Preoccupied Hearts and Minds
Posted on Dec 24, 2011
By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch
The Los Angeles City Council passed a measure calling for an end to corporate personhood, the first big city to join the Move to Amend campaign against corporate personhood and against the 2009 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that gave corporations unlimited ability to insert their cash in our political campaigns. Occupy actions across the country are planned for January 20th, the second anniversary of Citizens United. Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s been speaking the truth alone for a long time, introduced a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United and limit corporate power in the Senate, while Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced a similar measure in the House.
Only a few years ago, hardly anyone knew what corporate personhood was. Now, signs denouncing it are common. Similarly, at Occupy events, people make it clear that they know about the New Deal-era financial reform measure known as the Glass-Steagall Act, which was partially repealed in 1999, removing the wall between commercial and investment banks; that they know about the proposed financial transfer tax, nicknamed the Robin Hood Tax, that would raise billions with a tiny levy on every financial transaction; that they understand many of the means by which the 1% were enriched and the rest of us robbed.
This represents a striking learning curve. A new language of truth, debate about what actually matters, an informed citizenry: that’s no small thing. But we need more.
We Are the 99.999%
I was myself so caught up in the Occupy movement that I stopped paying my usual attention to the war over the climate—until I was brought up short by the catastrophic failure of the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. There, earlier this month, the most powerful and carbon-polluting countries managed to avoid taking any timely and substantial measures to keep the climate from heating up and the Earth from slipping into unstoppable chaotic change.
It’s our nature to be more compelled by immediate human suffering than by remote systemic problems. Only this problem isn’t anywhere near as remote as many Americans imagine. It’s already creating human suffering on a large scale and will create far more. Many of the food crises of the past decade are tied to climate change, and in Africa thousands are dying of climate-related chaos. The floods, fires, storms, and heat waves of the past few years are climate change coming to call earlier than expected in the U.S.
In the most immediate sense, Occupy may have weakened the climate movement by focusing many of us on the urgent suffering of our brothers, our neighbors, our democracy. In the end, however, it could strengthen that movement with its new tactics, alliances, spirit, and language of truth. After all, why have we been unable to make the major changes required to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? The answer is a word suddenly in wide circulation: greed. Responding adequately to this crisis would benefit every living thing. When it comes to climate change, after all, we are the 99.999%.
But the international .001% who profit immeasurably from the carbon economy—the oil and coal tycoons, industrialists, and politicians whose strings they pull—are against this change. For decades, they’ve managed to propagandize many Americans, in and out of government, into climate denial, spreading lies about the science and economics of climate change, and undermining any possible legislation and international negotiations to ameliorate it. And if you think the eviction of elderly homeowners is brutal, think of it as a tiny foreshadowing of the displacement and disappearance of people, communities, nations, species, habitats. Climate change threatens to foreclose on all of us.
The groups working on climate change now, notably 350.org and Tar Sands Action, have done astonishing things already. Most recently, with the help of native Canadians, local activists, and alternative media, they very nearly managed to kill the single scariest and biggest North American threat to the climate: the tar sands pipeline that would go from Canada to Texas. It’s been a remarkable show of organizing power and popular will. Occupy the Climate may need to come next.
Maybe Occupy Wall Street and its thousands of spin-offs have built the foundation for it. But perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions—and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters. But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.
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