Sarah Ruth van Gelder

Deepening Democracy

Vandana Shiva is a physicist and an organic farmer, an instigator of India's historic "tree-huggers" movement, and a renowned author. She speaks internationally on the perils of globalization, while mobilizing fellow citizens to reclaim their rights to life itself.

Sarah Ruth van Gelder: Tell me about the Earth Democracy movement. Where did that notion come from, and what form is the movement taking?

Vandana Shiva: The notion comes from a very ancient category in Indian thought. Just like Chief Seattle talked about being in the web of life, in India we talk about vasudhaiva kutumbkam, which means the earth family. Indian cosmology has never separated the human from the non-human -- we are a continuum.

When the issue of the patenting of life emerged, for example, there were two levels of response from those opposing this practice in India. The one level was resistance: "This is immoral. Life is not an invention. Life cannot be a monopoly. You cannot sell us the seeds you stole from us, and you cannot charge us royalties for the product of nature's intelligence and centuries of human innovation."

The second level was the reclaiming of democracy: people claimed the right to look after their biodiversity and use it sustainably. This came out of discussions among the movements we've been building at the grassroots.

I remember one meeting of 200 villagers who had been involved in seed saving and seed sharing with Navdanya, the trust that I founded to save seeds and promote organic agriculture. These 200 villagers gathered on World Environment Day in 1998 and declared sovereignty over their biodiversity -- not sovereignty to rape and destroy, sovereignty to conserve. These 200 villagers, gathered in a high mountain village near a tributary of the Ganges, said, "We've received our medicinal plants, our seeds, our forests from nature through our ancestors; we owe it to them to conserve it for the future. We pledge we will never allow their erosion or their theft. We pledge we will never accept patenting, genetic modification, or allow our biodiversity to be polluted in any form, and we pledge that we will act as the peoples of this biodiversity."

These discussions in villages all over India, in many different languages, led to amazing actions. Some wrote letters to Mike Moore, director-general of the WTO saying, "We noticed you have passed a law called 'Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights.' We also notice that under this law you want to monopolize life forms. Unfortunately, these are resources over which you have no jurisdiction, and you have overstepped your boundaries."

Similar letters went to the prime minister of India: "You are the prime minister of this country, but we are the keepers of biodiversity. This is not your jurisdiction. You cannot sign away these rights. They were not given to you. We never delegated them to you."

But the ones that were the most beautiful were crafted literally under the village trees and addressed to Ricetec, Inc., which patented Basmati rice, and to the Grace Corporation, which patented the name. The letters said, "We've used Basmati for centuries. ... Now we hear you've got a patent number for this, and you claim to have invented it. This kind of piracy and theft we know happens. There are people who steal in our village, and we treat them with understanding. We call them and ask them to explain what is the compulsion that led them to steal. So we invite you to come to our village and explain to us the compulsion that made you steal from us."

These communities started in years past by saving locally bred seeds and saving biodiversity. Now they are seeking self-governance over food systems, water systems, and biodiversity systems.

If you think of the fact that corporate globalization is really about an aggressive privatization of the water, biodiversity, and food systems of the Earth, when these communities declare sovereignty and act on that sovereignty, they have developed a powerful response to globalization. Living democracy then is the democracy that is custodian of the living wealth on which people depend.

Is the same language being used elsewhere to counter corporate globalization?

There is, I think, a spontaneous resurgence of thinking that centers on protection of life, celebrating life, enjoying life as both our highest duty and our most powerful form of resistance against a violent and brutal system that globalizes not just trade, but fascism, and denies civil liberties and freedoms.

There isn't any one coordinated language for this movement, and that's the beauty of it. The WTO-related events in Seattle created the first experience of a rainbow politics -- a successful pluralistic politics, without the working of a master mind, but with the currents and beauty that come out of free thinking. In the new politics, people have different ways of talking, but I feel the core will be living democracy and living economies and that it will include both taking personal responsibility to make change and being part of national and international movements for change.

You've written about four types of insecurities -- ecological, economic, cultural, and political -- and how each results in violence. Could you say something about why you consider each of these forms of insecurity?

The ecological crisis is a severe form of insecurity, especially in conditions of poverty when rivers are polluted and you have no clean drinking water, when groundwater is exhausted and you're forced to migrate. There couldn't be a deeper insecurity than this. Many conflicts within Third World countries are related to the practice of exploiting resources faster than nature can renew them or diverting them away from where people need them. Dams in every society have become major sources of conflict. As water scarcity grows, neighbors, families turn against each other.

Many people assume that scarcity has always been part of the human condition and that scarcity is closely related to population increases.

In my 25 years of work on resource and environmental issues, one thing I have learned is that different parts of the planet are endowed in different ways. There may be little rainfall in the deserts of Rajasthan, but the culture of Rajasthan evolved to manage that amount of rainfall, and they have developed miraculous technologies for harvesting and storing what rain they get. They have sophisticated underground storage systems and water-harvesting systems so that not a drop is wasted. These technologies still sustain cities like Jodhpur and Jaipur. They have enough drinking water because they've developed a conservation culture, and they grow crops that don't need much water. The moment you think the desert of Rajasthan should be growing rice paddy or cotton, you create scarcity.

Scarcity is not a result of uneven endowments -- that is diversity. Scarcity is having a mismatch between a culture and nature's giving. Cultures have evolved cultural diversity to mimic the biological diversity of climates and ecosystems. It's when that relationship is disrupted that you get unsustainable population growth.

There is no society in which you've had so-called population explosions as long as societies have lived within the context of their rights to the resources and the ability to conserve those resources for the future. Just look at two situations. In England, the population explosion started with the enclosures of the commons -- when peasants were uprooted from the land and had to depend on selling their labor. In India, 1800 is the watershed for the consolidation of colonial regimes. For centuries before 1800 our population had been stable. When you depend on the land, you know there are five people who can be supported. You work your society out so you have five. When you are selling your labor power on an uncertain basis, in an unstable wage market, you know that having ten is better than having five. So dispossession from the Earth's natural wealth is at the root of instability and population growth.

So economic insecurity is actually created?

Instead of leaving seeds in the hands of the peasants who co-evolve them in partnership with nature, seeds become a monopoly in the hands of five or six global corporations. Instead of water belonging to millions of local communities, water too is to be controlled by five or six global water giants. These are recipes that use economic systems to appropriate for the few the base of survival of the majority. The 80 percent who are dispossessed of the wealth of nature move into economic insecurity, because their livelihood as peasants, as fishermen, as farmers, as tribals, as forest dwellers, all depend on having the fisheries, the land, the forest, to make a living. When those rights are taken away, they become economic refugees -- they become disposable people.

This economic model rested on the assumption that the favored 20 percent would gain security as a result of these policies. But recent events on Wall Street show us that this model creates economic insecurity both for the 80 percent who rely on natural wealth and for the 20 percent who rely on virtual wealth, because virtual money is a construct, and that construct can disappear as easily as it is created.

Either way, economic insecurity is the legacy of a finance-driven, capital-driven, corporate-driven economic model that is destroying our natural capital and the resilience of local economies.

The third type of insecurity is cultural. You've made a connection between globalization and the rise of nationalist violence and right-wing repression. What kind of evidence have you seen that there are links?

Well I'm a physicist, not a social scientist. But as a citizen of India, I have had to suffer the violence and brutality that comes with rising fundamentalism, and I've asked myself how a society that is the cradle of peace, the land of Gandhi and Buddha, could be reduced to one of the most volatile societies in the world.

One incident that contributed to my understanding of these links was the violence that erupted in the Punjab in the 1980s. As the magic of the Green Revolution started to disappear, as subsidies were removed and an artificial system of prosperity started to decay, the Punjab became the birthplace for anger and discontent. When you look at why people were fighting, you find they were fighting for their rivers, for fair prices, for a say on when dam waters should be released. None of this was decided locally or regionally -- it was all decided from the capital, Delhi. So the discontent was against centralized regimes in which people had no share in shaping their future.

More recently there have been clear indicators of how fundamentalism is growing out of the economic insecurity of globalization. Let me just give you two examples. In the late 1990s, because of the pressures of globalization, onion prices went up from 2 rupees to 100 rupees. The ruling party lost what became known as "the onion elections" of 1998 because they allowed this price increase. The opposition parties used the onion as the symbol of their fight against globalization, and they won in every state. Immediately after that we saw a round of fundamentalist violence.

In Gujarat, we had another set of regional elections, and the WTO, agriculture, and farmers' survival were the major issues. Farmers said they were being destroyed by globalization policies, and they voted the ruling party out of power. Immediately after that the fundamentalist wave erupted, the genocide and warmongering started, and while public attention focused on the violence, the globalization agenda was pushed further.

As decision making is centralized away from local communities to national governments -- and ultimately to corporate board rooms, financial markets, institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and WTO -- representative democracy loses its base in economic democracy. As local and national governments lose control over economic resources and priorities, elected leaders can no longer build a political base by championing programs responsive to family and community needs.

Political demagogues of the far right emerge to fill the void by channeling the anger and insecurity created by empire's program of scarcity, injustice, and exclusion into an us-versus-them politics that blames particular national, racial, culture, or religious groups. The rise of the LePens in France, the Fortuyns in Netherlands, Haiders in Austria, and the Narendra Modis in India is a result. So there is a strong affinity between the forces of empire and a politics of hate that justifies policies of domination and exclusion. So long as people's attention is focused on fear and hatred of foreigners or members of a particular religious group, such as Muslims, they are distracted from organizing to deal with the system of institutional domination and exploitation that is the real source of their insecurity.

That certainly sounds like what is happening in the United States also.

Absolutely. It's a vicious cycle, and we need instead to create virtuous cycles that allow economic democracy to feed political democracy, cultural identities, and cultural diversity.

It comes back to deepening of democracy. What we have at this moment is democracy reduced to the rule of lies -- lies in the way the popular will is being counted, as we saw in Florida in 2000, and lies in the way the people's wealth is being counted, as we see in today's accounting scandals. That false wealth is influencing who will rule -- it's all just too false now.

Our system of food security is being destroyed in the name of economic growth and economic liberalization, and people don't have enough food to eat. Our farmers are being ravished by seed companies, being pushed into debt, and committing suicide. This system is going to cost lives even in the US, where people don't know how they'll pay for their health or retirement.

The way out of this violent cycle is to deepen democracy -- to bring decisions that directly affect people's lives as close as possible to where people are and to where they can take responsibility. If a river is flowing through some communities, those communities should have the power and the responsibility to decide how the water is used and whether it is to be polluted. The state has no business giving to Coca-Cola the groundwater of a valley in Kerala, resulting in rich farmland going totally dry. Communities need to take back sovereignty and delegate trusteeship to the state only as appropriate.

What we have now is a regime of absolute rights in the hands of corporations with zero responsibility for the environmental and social devastation and the political instabilities they are creating. If we want to reactivate and rejuvenate democracy, we have to bring back the economic content.

Let me wrap up with a personal question. Every time I've heard you speak or met you, you've had so much energy, not only intellectual energy, but personal or spiritual energy. I'm just wondering, what keeps you so alive?

Well, it's always a mystery, because you don't know why you get depleted or recharged. But, this much I know. I do not allow myself to be overcome by hopelessness, no matter how tough the situation. I believe that if you just do your little bit without thinking of the bigness of what you stand against, if you turn to the enlargement of your own capacities, just that in itself creates new potential.

And I've learned from the Bhagavad Gita and other teachings of our culture to detach myself from the results of what I do, because those are not in my hands. The context is not in your control, but your commitment is yours to make, and you can make the deepest commitment with a total detachment about where it will take you. You want it to lead to a better world, and you shape your actions and take full responsibility for them, but then you have detachment. And that combination of deep passion and deep detachment allows me always to take on the next challenge because I don't cripple myself, I don't tie myself in knots. I function like a free being. I think getting that freedom is a social duty because I think we owe it to each other not to burden each other with prescription and demands. I think what we owe each other is a celebration of life and to replace fear and hopelessness with fearlessness and joy.

Vandana Shiva's books include "Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit," "Stolen Harvest, the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply," and many others. This interview was reprinted from Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, PO Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. Subscriptions: 800/937-4451.

12 Things to Do Now About Corporations

Americans know that corporate excess is about more than flawed accounting. It corrupts democracy, drives a wedge between rich and poor, degrades the environment, and disrupts communities. So what might we the people do?

1. Give it back
The first step in any rehabilitation is to take responsibility for wrongdoing and make amends. In sentencing corporate executives, judges should consider how much of their ill-gotten gains they voluntarily returned. States should seek to recoup ill-gotten gains on behalf of pensioners, ratepayers, taxpayers, and investors. To set an example of the “new ethic of personal responsibility in the business community” President George W. Bush called for in his July 9 speech, he and Vice President Cheney should give back any gains they have earned through questionable accounting and insider trading. (See “Give it Back, Mr. President,” from Alternet.org.)

2. Three strikes, you’re out
Why not a corporate death penalty; three criminal convictions and your corporate charter is history. The town of Wayne is one of several Pennsylvania towns that prohibit corporations with repeated violations from setting up shop. So far, the law has been used to keep out hog farms that have repeatedly broken the law. (California also has a POCLAD (Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy) is developing a model charter based on that idea; it includes time limitations on corporate charters, incorporation only for specific purposes, charter revocation for violations, prohibitions on one corporation owning another. It would also require that corporations refrain from infringing on the health, dignity, and rights of employees and refrain from damaging such commons as air, water, and wildlife habitat.

The legal fiction giving corporations legal personhood was a result of an interpretation of the 14th amendment by an 1886 Supreme Court decision (Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co.). But there has never been a vote of the people on corporate personhood nor on bestowing on corporations the rights contained in the Constitution. We should be clear: The rights of persons are reserved for real people. (See more at POCLAD)


4. Favor local
From the town council up through the UN, rules, incentives, and subsidies should favor locally owned enterprises that serve local needs. (See the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.)

5. No deals for lawbreakers
Let’s quit rewarding corporate law breakers with lucrative government contracts. White-collar crime is costing America an estimated $200 billion per year, about 50 times the cost of street crime. According to Business Ethics editor Marjorie Kelly, Lockheed Martin has 63 violations and alleged violations, yet its 1999 government contract awards totaled $14 billion. Companies with more than one criminal conviction or civil judgment in three years should face contract suspensions or debarments, says the Project on Government Oversight.

6. Quit exporting Enron
According to the Institute for Policy Studies, Enron-related projects have received more than $4 billion in federal financing since 1992 and $3 billion from the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, and other public sources. Now Enron wants more; the company is after a $125 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to expand a Bolivian gas pipeline through ecologically sensitive areas and the lands of indigenous people. Of course, Enron is not the only one. Public money should not subsidize exploitation.

7. Clue in the public
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. All those with a stake in a corporation -- employees, communities, customers -- should have access to information about its practices and impacts. Here’s one example: Studies by EPA and others show that many corporations under-report environmental liabilities. Get real about costs; report them honestly.

8. Serve all stakeholders
Corporations are required by law to maximize profits for shareholders. Robert Hinkley, a corporate lawyer, is pressing for a law that prohibits making profit at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public safety, the welfare of the communities in which the corporation operates, or the dignity of employees. Groups in several states have taken up this Code for Corporate Citizenship. (Also, see Citizen Works or call 202/265-6164.)

9. Tax the casino
Every day, $1.5–$2 trillion is exchanged on world currency markets; over 95 percent of that is speculative. The Tobin tax, a proposed small tax on currency transactions, would calm financial markets, protect developing countries, and generate billions of dollars to address global poverty. (See War on Want.) A similar tax on stock transactions could slow stock speculation.

10. End corporate welfare
After working hard to get impoverished mothers and children off public assistance, Congress should turn its attention to CEOs. To start, we could help executives learn self-reliance by sunsetting corporate giveaways; eliminating tax breaks for companies that move off shore; and doing rigorous, independent assessments of tax incentives and subsidies to see which, if any, work.

11. Hands off public assets
Those who propose privatization of public assets or services carry the burden of proof to show that long-term public benefits outweigh the costs.

12. Restore democracy
Lord John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum, announced in February a halt to BP political contributions anywhere in the world. “We mustn’t confuse our role,” he said. “We must be particularly careful about the political process—not because it is unimportant—quite the reverse—but because the legitimacy of that process is crucial both for society and for us as a company working in that society.” We can hope that other corporations will follow BP’s example.

Realistically, though, we need to enact clean-election reform of the kind that is helping to restore democracy in Maine, Arizona, and Massachusetts. (See Public Campaign.)

Reprinted from Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, PO Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. Subscriptions: 800/937-4451 Web:

Freedom Sings

Harry Belafonte, singer, recording artist, actor, and producer, has been called “the consummate entertainer.” His album Calypso was the first LP in the history of the music industry to sell more than 1 million copies, and he’s won an Emmy Award and a Tony Award. But his successes as an artist have never eclipsed his passion for justice and civil rights.

He served in the US Navy during World War II and was a close personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and was one of the co-hosts of the 1990 World Summit for Children. He also hosted South African President Nelson Mandela during his US visit. Throughout his life, Belafonte has been a tireless advocate of justice and human rights.

Harry Belafonte’s most recent musical contribution is The Long Road to Freedom, containing 80 tracks on five CDs, including the blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the voices of Belafonte, Joe Williams, Gloria Lynne, and Bessie Jones and singers from the Georgia Sea Islands. The set, which also contains a DVD and a book illustrated by the reknowned American painter Charles White, is a musical narrative of the history of African-Americans.

Sarah Ruth van Gelder: I’m enjoying The Long Road to Freedom very much. Could you tell us the story of how this extraordinary collection came about?

Harry: In the last half of the 1950s when the new stirrings of the civil rights movement were coming into evidence, many of us had to examine what we thought we could contribute to this coming struggle.

I realized that most white Americans knew very little about our history and our struggle, and were having difficulty understanding the basis for our agitation and our resistance and our complaints. I also discovered that while black Americans had a sense of the beauty and tragedy of the journey from the time of slavery until now, we were not rooted in the specifics. I thought one way to familiarize people with that history would be through the voices of the great folk artists.

The more I researched and listened to this music, the more I began to understand that it is one of the very few accurate documentations of the history of our journey. I delighted in the music of Africa, the earliest of the slave plantation songs, the transformation into Christianity and all that Christianity brought to the lives of the Africans who were forced to come here. In this process we also examined the tragic role the church played in the development of slavery and its role in helping develop tools for the resistance to slavery and ultimately its abolition.

Although some of the material is familiar, very few people understand the subtext of a lot of these songs and what the lyrics really say. On the face of it, some of the words appear to be spiritually pure, when in fact much of it is really the language of rebellion, the language of resistance, language calling on the courage to overcome the oppression of slavery and racism.

Sarah: I understand that you grew up in an urban setting, so rural black America was a new discovery.

Harry: Yes, as far as America is concerned, but I grew up in a very rural environment on the island of Jamaica, and had a sense of the experience of slaves through slave descendents who were members of my family, who worked on the banana and the sugarcane plantations of the absentee landlords from England. So my environment as a child prepared me to reflect on what it must have been like for slaves and the slave descendents to work the plantations of America.

Sarah: Who are some of the people you encountered and what was most meaningful about this discovery for you personally?

Harry: Leadbelly, Bessie Jones, Joe Williams and Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee were but a few of the easily identifiable personalities.

When I listen to many of the voices that sang these songs, the soulfulness with which they expressed themselves dimensionalizes for me the sense of how broad my own repertoire of songs could be. As much as I understood about the music of the Caribbean -- which some people view as exclusively my artistic voice -- it is the folk music of the African diaspora, which includes America and the Caribbean and Brazil and all the nations of Africa, that enriches my own work.

The purity of purpose and the kind of passion Miriam Makeba and the great Calypsonian singers and the other artists I mentioned brought to their work is very, very different from the ways artists express themselves in pop culture. Pop culture has none of the vibrancy that you find in the folk culture, where people speak directly to their own experience in the human condition. Pop culture tends to be escapist and to focus on the boy/girl, moon/June, the great influence of Tin Pan Alley. We had to go outside of that arena into places that were not so accessible to find blues artists and chain gang songs and other expressions that spoke to the suffering and the conditions of black people.

Also very central to my own development was Woody Guthrie and the folk art of white America, and the kind of alliances that were made between black and white people who were caught up in the working class struggle of this country, and indeed the world.

Sarah: What have these African-American traditions taught the larger American society?

Harry: I think there’s a lot that the larger society could have been taught or can be taught, but I’m not sure -- given how unyielding the larger society has been -- that much has been learned.

Each time we arrive at a new level in extricating ourselves from economic, social, spiritual domination, we have a moment when we dance in the world of these new experiences, only to find that the music soon stops, the dance ends, and we’re struggling once again to save ourselves from being thrown back into those conditions.

I don’t know what America has really learned. We are too quick to do what’s expedient on behalf of our culture of greed and hedonism. We’re quite prepared to go to conditions of tyranny in order to sustain that culture, and we do it in the name of democracy, when nothing could be more undemocratic. We do it in the name of saving the values of our society, when the way we behave corrupts those values. We do it in the name of God in whom we believe, when in fact we have corrupted our own vision of the Christian journey.

A lot of this paradox expresses itself in The Long Road to Freedom. At the very beginning of the album you hear a sermon given by a white preacher to the slaves on the plantation. He twists the teachings of the Bible to preach subservience to the slave masters. Then, bookending the collection, the philosophy of Christianity appears again, but this time used in a more enlightened, compassionate way that leads towards human freedom, as expressed by Dr. King. It’s important symbolically that the first voice you hear is a white preacher and the last voice is a black voice, Dr. King.

Sarah: You quote Paul Robeson, who said that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but also to show life as it should be. What does this collection tell us about life as it should be?

Harry: That the human spirit is resilient and that truth -- no matter how long you abuse it and how long you try to crush it -- will, as Dr. King would say, rise up again, and in the final analysis will prevail. From the point of view of the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the wretched of the Earth ... there will never be peace until their condition has been alleviated and until their humanity is in full bloom.

Sarah: You survived a period in our history where there was a great suppression of dissident voices and if I’m not mistaken you were one of the people whose voice was silenced during that period.

Harry: Yes, I was on the black list under McCarthyism.

Sarah: What were you saying that caused you to be on that list, and how did you come to be politically active?

Harry: Well, there were things not on that list that should have been included.

In my earliest of years, my mother was a huge force in my life. She was for all intents and purposes, a single parent. My father had abandoned us. He was an alcoholic and a physical abuser. My mother lived through that tyranny and made her living as a domestic worker. She was uneducated but she brought high principles and decent values into our existence, and she set lofty goals for herself and for her children. We were forever inspired by her strength and by her resistance to racism and to fascism. She was very vocal on the issues of the 1930s, in particular on Hitler and those in America who embraced Hitler’s philosophy. And she embraced Marcus Garvey and the struggles against oppression of Africans.

We were instructed to never capitulate, to never yield, to always resist oppression. That always stayed with me, so much so that during World War II, I volunteered and served in the United States Navy. The Navy came as a place of relief for me. It gave me the chance to learn to read and write and to get off the streets of Harlem and the kind of degradation that surrounded me as I grew up. But I was also driven by the belief that Hitler had to be defeated. Although we had a lot of villainy here at home, he was certainly the most visible illustration of what would happen if fascism went unchallenged.

I became an anti-fascist, and the more I saw what was happening to the peoples of Europe, the Jews, the more I saw the deep cruelty and inhumanity of that system and its philosophy of white supremacy.

My commitment sustained itself after the war. Wherever I found resistance to oppression, whether in Africa, in Latin America, certainly here in America in the South, I joined that resistance. I took part in the labor movement, in social movements, in the church community. I felt that it was the honorable thing to do and still do.

Of course when you get into that work, you’ll forever come up against those who find you unacceptable and will do whatever they can to get you out of the way. McCarthyism was an attempt to do that. And I think we’re headed that way now, with the very divisive and cynical way in which leaders of our present government are manipulating the democratic process and the constitutional system to deny us our basic rights, and to extract more control and power for those already in power and who are already corrupted by that power.

Sarah: Having survived McCarthyism, do you have any advice on how to survive this period of political repression we seem to be entering and to keep the movements for positive change alive?

Harry: Do not submit. It is extremely critical that repression be met full head-on and that it be resisted with every fiber in our being. There is just absolutely no compromise that can be made with it. As a matter of fact, compromise is what oppression feeds on.

Without compromise it would be defeated. Just as some cancers feed on hormones, compromise becomes the hormone of oppression.

Sarah: Clearly we’ve encountered a lot of dangers since the 9-11 tragedy -- fears about terrorism, attacks on civil liberties, the threat of widening war. Do you also see opportunities coming out of this tragedy for greater reflection about what this country is about and what this country could be about?

Harry: Not since the early days of the civil rights movement has America been given an opportunity as great as the opportunity we have now. It’s one thing for us to avenge our pain, our anger, and our rage by targeting bin Laden and a handful of men who have wrought this villainy. But one should be wise enough to ask, What fueled all this? What continues to sustain the possibility that this will not go away? I think the answer is poverty.

Dr. King once said that when we reach this kind of crisis, this kind of terror experience, that we should stop long enough to look at ourselves through the eyes of our detractors and find what wisdom we can glean from understanding how we have directly contributed to that tyranny. What have we done to humanity that brings us to this place of inhumanity? Terrorism is in many, many ways the final utterance of voices unheard.

We have the opportunity now to look at the two billion people in the world who suffer from the most abject poverty, hunger, disease, and devastation. Add to that another two billion people who are just plain poor. If you look into the world of those caught in economic oppression, illiteracy, disease, and sexism, then you’ll understand more clearly what we have to do.

The problem has always knocked at the door; we’ve just never been attentive. And I think now, with our technology, our capacity to grow food, our ability to stop raping the Earth and destroying the ecology and killing off fellow creatures, we have a chance to bring a new harmony and a new path to human development.

America can no longer afford to be as arrogant as we’ve been. We can no longer exempt ourselves from the global family of concern. We can no longer exempt ourselves from conferences on racism like the conference in Durban that we walked out on, or concerns about trade, or global warming.

So this is a great opportunity to take a good, hard look at these things. Because now we’re more vulnerable than we’ve ever been. The only thing that can put that to rest forever is to abolish poverty. To eradicate preventable diseases. First and foremost to get rid of ignorance.

Sarah: One last question. What keeps you energized and active in this work?

Harry: Even with all the difficulties and the frustrations that we feel -- those of us who have been consistent in this journey -- what makes it so remarkably attractive and encouraging are the men and women you meet on the way. I have met some glorious human beings: Eleanor Roosevelt, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Dr. King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevarra, and Cesar Chavez and others not quite so famous -- they are the ones who really make the journey rewarding. The work I do with Unicef. The men and women I’ve met in Rwanda, South Africa, working against HIV/AIDS, and the courageous things that simple, wonderful human beings do for each other.

In the face of all the inhumanity, it is their humanity that feeds the capacity to endure and continue to pursue honorable solutions to our pain

Sarah Ruth van Gelderis Executive Editor of YES!

Reprinted from Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, PO Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. Subscriptions: 800/937-4451 Web: www.yesmagazine.org

A Culture Gets Creative

While the media is looking the other way, 50 million Americans are recreating our culture. So say authors Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson, interviewed here by Yes! Magazine editor Sarah van Gelder.

Sarah van Gelder: Maybe you can start by telling me something about what drew you into researching shifts in values and world views, and how your findings changed you.

Paul Ray: I initially started doing market research and opinion polling because I wanted to learn about how values relate to culture. As I got further into my research, I was shocked to see that I was getting information not just about why people give money to good causes, or buy things, or vote a certain way.

I was compiling evidence that pointed to something more fundamental -- a deep shift in the culture. I was seeing the emergence of a group of people whom we're calling Cultural Creatives. This is something new. It doesn't fit the standard categories of activist, or right-thinking church people, or political liberals. These Cultural Creatives are already creating lots of social inventions that are going to make a new world, not just reshuffle old political programs.

For me personally, the biggest thing that changed as a result of this research is that I shifted from being pessimistic -- especially in reaction to the Reagan era -- to being very optimistic about what's possible for our future.

Sherry Anderson: When I was 35, which is 23 years ago, I was the head of a research department in the largest psychiatric teaching hospital in Canada and an associate professor of psychiatry at the medical school at the University of Toronto. At the same time, I was heading a rape crisis center, helping to create a women's counseling and referral service, and heading what became known as the Ontario Zen Center. But I didn't talk about all these projects except when I was with close friends or colleagues.

I remember that we deeply cared about what was happening to the world, but we thought in such small pockets. We thought that when we were protesting the war in Vietnam or when we were meeting in women's consciousness-raising groups, we were doing something that might somehow, in some vague way, affect our society and affect the world. But I never dreamed that we were part of an immense group of people who are changing their minds in their own particular ways, and that we would actually arrive at a powerful common set of values.

I used to think of culture as being about art, literature, and music. I didn't understand that my most personal values and those of my clients and friends could be so profoundly part of a vast cultural movement.

We got a call recently from a journalist doing an article on straw bale houses for The New York Times Magazine. She said "Each time I interview someone who is building a straw bale house, I wonder what's at the core of this? What is going on? And I have finally found the common thread. I realize that they're all Cultural Creatives, and there's this enormous energy behind what they are doing."

And she said "It's not what I thought. There is nothing flaky about this. There is nothing New Age about this. These people are practical. They love the Earth, and they want to live their values." And this is the way I feel -- I never knew that there were so many people like me, who believe this.

Sarah: Where did all these Cultural Creatives come from? You say that prior to World War II there were few, if any, Cultural Creatives. Instead, almost all Americans belonged to one of two other subcultures. Could you describe what those two were?

Paul: The two subcultures are what we call the Traditionals and the Moderns. The Modern culture is the dominant, parent culture of this civilization, and it goes back 500 years to the Renaissance. Then around 1750 to 1800, we started getting a major backlash against the materialistic, urban, industrial, bureaucratic, culture of Modernism from the people who were losing -- the Traditionalists. These people were reacting against the tendencies of the Modern world to undercut the legitimacy of churches, the Bible, the patri-archal family, and so on.

Sarah: So beginning after World War II, this third subculture emerges?

Paul: First of all, we're talking today about a quarter of the adults in the United States, 50 million adults, and probably 80 to 90 million adults in Western Europe. These people take the ideas of ecology very seriously, and they support slowing business growth in order to save the planet. They also take very seriously women's issues and issues of personal growth and relationships.

We found that the typical Cultural Creative cares intensely about the issues raised by post-World War II social movements. These movements include those focused on civil rights, the environment, women's rights, peace, jobs and social justice, gay and lesbian rights, alternative health care, spirituality, personal growth, and now, of course, stopping corporate globalization. All of those concerns are now converging into a strong concern for the whole planet.

Sherry: I used to think of the social movement as the people who were on the rampage -- the people who were demonstrating, writing the newsletters, or carrying the cases forward in court.

Paul: The politicos, in other words.

Sherry: In fact, that's way too narrow. We started thinking instead of a great cloud of sympathetic people who are learning from and listening to the arguments of the various movements. You could think of it as a bull's-eye, with the most active and most visible people at the center, and then whole circles of people surrounding them who are discussing the arguments, donating money, learning, and changing their minds. If you include the people in those larger circles, there are millions and millions of people involved. When you see the ways those circles overlap, you start to be see where the Cultural Creatives come from.

Sarah: What makes these movements different from earlier movements?

Paul: Unlike the social movements of 1880 to 1930 -- the Wobblies, the fascists, the communists, the socialists, and so on -- those involved in the post-1960s movements are not trying to take over the government. Nor are they primarily concerned with "more for us" issues, like wages and benefits, for example.

Rather these movements are reframing issues in a way that changes how people understand the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, didn't say, "It's time the Blacks got theirs." He said, "This is about freedom, and justice, and dignity, and the Constitution, and who we are as an American people." Rachel Carson didn't advocate NIMBYism -- "keep pollution out of my back yard." She said, "This is about the death of nature." Betty Friedan didn't just say, "It's time that women got through the glass ceiling." She asked, "Who are we as human beings?" The alternative health care movement isn't about getting insurance coverage for chiropractic care. It's about the real meaning of health.

What happens when somebody gets involved in a half dozen of these issues and has their world reframed six times? Their entire worldview changes.

Sarah: Of course, many of these movements actually grew out of earlier struggles. What were some of the early influences on these post-war movements?

Paul: Well, you could argue that the Quakers started the whole thing 300 to 500 years ago, along with the early anti-slavery movement, the feminists, and the Mennonites. Those people did the first versions of reframing -- it's just that the rest of the culture didn't pick up on it at the time.

One of the earliest movements was the conservation movement, which has since morphed into the environmental movement, which then morphed again into the ecology movement. In all cases, those involved were asserting the importance of nature over the right to ransack nature's storehouse for wealth. Those involved took the idea of "nature," which at the time was thought of as untamed, chaotic wilderness, and reframed it as beautiful and worthy in its own right.

Today, more people regard a redwood grove as sacred than regard churches as sacred. Surveys everywhere in the world show that 70 to 90 percent of the people regard nature and the environment as having sacred qualities and as under threat. For all practical purposes that's unanimity. It's quite stunning.

Sherry: Another value from the movements that was first articulated in the Black freedom movement is "walking your talk." Authenticity.

Reverend C.T. Vivian, who was a firebrand from the early freedom movement, talks about his days as a minister. He would tell people that they needed to hold on and come to church and that they were fighting the good fight. At what point, he asked himself, do you see their suffering, see people putting their lives on the line, and see that all you're doing is talking? At some point, he decided he had to go out of the church and join the people.

The importance of authenticity carried over into all of the movements, especially the women's movement. Each of the social movements had in effect two arms: one was the political action arm, and the other was a submerged cultural network. People would meet in consciousness-raising groups in each other's homes and in church basements, discovering together what they really cared about, trying to understand what was true. And the evidence that they drew on was their own direct experience, because they couldn't trust what was written in the books or the media.

When I was in such a group I remember wondering, "Isn't there some book where I can look this up?" But there were no books. We had to go into the truth of our own lives. One person would put forward an observation, then somebody else would add a new perspective, and slowly we pieced together a new understanding of what was going on in the world. We were looking for evidence; we were looking for what was real, what was beyond the rhetoric. And that, of course, is the source of the idea that the personal is political. Just as scientific evidence is part of what Cultural Creatives draw from, so too is direct personal experience.

Paul: This seeking for authenticity is part of what links each person's own personal and spiritual growth with a concern for the big picture, including a concern for social justice. What Christopher Lasch says about a culture of narcissism -- that the people who are concerned about personal growth don't care about social justice and vice versa -- is flat out not true. Our research shows that the more a person is engaged in social activism, ecology, and social justice, the more likely they are to be engaged also in developing their spiritual lives and in personal growth.

Sherry: Why is the capacity to examine your conscience, to sit in silence and to listen deeply important in a social movement? In the gay and lesbian liberation movement, people had to learn to speak from the pain and the truth of their own lives in the most genuine way. If they didn't, they didn't have anything!

In the early days of the women's health movement, we didn't know what we wanted; we didn't know what was possible. We had to sit down and talk about what wasn't working for us first. We had to learn to sit with that void, in that place where you don't have the answers, and to start asking questions that no one had asked before.

Out of that honesty, out of that naming of what hadn't been named before, comes something new. The real seeds that can change society come from being present to what's most deeply human in us.

Sarah: So this authenticity and openness allows people to question the assumptions that they have been living with all their lives -- to explore a different worldview with trusted friends.

Sherry: Right. It also allows you to get beyond outer authority to what's most true in yourself and so be open to listening to what's most true in other people. And then you begin to see what isn't working -- what has to be uprooted to allow for the maturing of the human being.

Paul: A process of social learning has been happening in our society since the 1960s as people question the assumptions of the dominant social order that don't fit their actual experience. That questioning is reinforced by each successive movement. Even those who weren't active in a particular movement were exposed to the arguments, and the perspectives influenced an enormous number of people.

We're talking about the creation of a new culture -- about living in a different world. What's in your house is different. Your daily concerns are different. The words you use to describe your own experiences are different. Your life priorities are different.

And in addition to all those up-close and personal changes, you're looking at changes in the role of corporations and government in American life, changes in the relations of humans to nature, changes in our relationship to people in other parts of the world, changes in how women and minorities are treated. We're going through a process of changing our minds at every single level.

Today we regard as totally unacceptable many assumptions that were part of how your average, middle-class, moral person would have thought in the '50s. Then, violence and discrimination against Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics were accepted as normal. Nasty ethnic jokes were the norm. Discrimination against women in the workplace was legal, and violence against women and children at home was perfectly normal.

Today, these attitudes persist in some circles, but they're widely seen as quite unacceptable. So in a span of 40 to 50 years we have reinterpreted the world in fundamental ways, and every last one of those fundamental reinterpretations comes out of the new social movements.

Sarah: Since I discovered your work some years ago, Paul, I've had a chance to talk to a number of people about the concept of the culture shift and the Cultural Creative label. Some are pleased to discover that they are not alone and encouraged to learn that this research indicates real possibilities for change. Some are annoyed at the thought of being pigeonholed. Others, perhaps, are afraid that they're not one of the Cultural Creatives and are excluded from some kind of elite group. Are you finding that there are people who feel either left out or put down by this kind of grouping?

Paul: This term for an emerging subculture is not a stick-on label that goes on somebody's forehead, or a new campaign button that says, "I'm a Cultural Creative. Are You?" We've seen a lot of attempts to create stick-on labels, like Yuppies and Generation-X, that are fictions invented by ad agencies. There are no clearcut boundaries for the phenomenon of Cultural Creatives.

Here's how I see it: There is a core group of Cultural Creatives who are active in living their values and are socially engaged. Simultaneously, members of this group are concerned about consciousness issues and personal growth, and they are very strong on ecology issues and very strong on women's issues. That group is two-to-one women, about 12 percent of the population, roughly 25 million adults. That group shades imperceptibly into a circle you might call the Greens, who don't have as many personal growth concerns. And around the outer periphery is a set of people who are showing signs of being ready to move toward being a Cultural Creative, if only they thought it would be rewarded socially, or if only it were safe.

I would guess that if we included all of these people, we would have perhaps 40 percent of the American population who are Cultural Creatives or potential Cultural Creatives. One of the key things that makes a fuzzy boundary is this: It seems to take about a decade for people to bring their values and beliefs into alignment with the way they live. So there's a huge number of people who are in some kind of life transition, and it's not clear where they're going to wind up in these statistical estimates.

Sarah: If there are so many Cultural Creatives, and if they are having such a big impact, why is that such a well-kept secret? Why aren't they having more of an impact as a political force?

Paul: Oh, because right now they're saying politics is bought. In focus groups we did for the Environmental Protection Agency at the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999, Cultural Creatives were saying, "We're activists at the local community level. We're engaged. We're volunteering. But national politics has been bought. We don't feel that it is worth it. It's dirty. To hell with it, I'm going to make some real differences where I can have some say."

When we talk to audiences of Cultural Creatives, invariably some bright person will say, "Oh my God, 50 million. There's more of us than voted for Clinton. We could win." It's a new thought to the people in the room, because they're convinced that at least when it comes to national politics, they're going to lose.

Sherry: How is it possible that 50 million people who share the same values and the same worldview, imagine that they're almost alone? The answer is that we don't have mirrors in the media that have been able to show us our own face and our own promise, and so we imagine that we're almost alone. And that's why alternative publications are so important to Cultural Creatives. We have to have places where we can have discussions, do this kind of exploring, see what we value, put it all on the table, and see what's possible.

Sarah: Given the protests at the WTO in Seattle, and in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Prague, do you feel Cultural Creatives now have a greater sense of themselves as a political force? The media keeps talking about the many different causes represented at these protests. They dismiss it as sort of a circus -- pick a cause and any malcontent will show up.

Paul: How else are you going to explain away what you're seeing in front of your face? You try to find a derogatory term that doesn't look at the implications or connections. The media lives on fragmentation, when in fact all these causes are coming out of the same worldview.

Few reporters will acknowledge that somebody else has a different set of eyeglasses than theirs. They've got a sense that they know the truth. When you talk to the Asians and Europeans, they instantly get the idea of different cultures and different worldviews. But Americans and the British kind of scratch their heads and have trouble taking it in.

Sarah: Because their worldview is the dominant world view, perhaps?

Paul: Yes, and because part of the defense of one's own worldview is to say: "We see things exactly as they are through a clear pane of glass. No eyeglasses here."

Sarah: What do you think are the implications of all that we've been discussing for our possibilities as a human species?

Sherry: The word that comes up for me is "muting." The Cultural Creative's voices have been muted because they believe that few others want to hear what they have to say or would be willing to act on their ideas.

So the promise that I see is that the mute will be removed and those in this new, creative subculture will find ways to express what's really important to them. The effects will spread out into literature, theater, music, art -- into new ways of meeting together, into an insistence on the right to question the assumptions of the dominant culture. It means people will inspire each other to speak out and, like the women's movement said, "We will hear each other into speech." We will bring the deeper possibilities of our humanity into the social sphere and begin to find ways to bring that shift about.

Paul: What would happen if Cultural Creatives knew that they had lots of company? What if they were aware of themselves? What if they asked themselves what kind of future we want to live in?

The way we'll invent the future is with each other, in conversations about what's possible and what kind of world we want. And we won't just hear each other in speech. We will actually learn to see through the eyes of the other person. We won't get there any other way than by having huge numbers of people engage with each other in creative possibilities. The hallmark of this profound culture shift is going to be reinventing practically every institution of society from the ground up. And that is not only possible, it is rather likely.

Paul H. Ray, PhD, and Sherry Ruth Anderson, PhD, are authors of The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, published this year by Harmony Books.
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