As I type these words, men and women of science are growing meat in a laboratory. That's meat grown independently of any animal. It isn't hatched or born. It doesn't graze, walk or breathe. But it is alive. It sits growing in a room where somebody has called it into existence with a pipette and syringe.
"Cultured meat," it's called, and it is supposed to save us from the execrable pollution and guilt of factory farms while still allowing all 6.5 billion of us to stuff our gullets with ham sandwiches whenever we want to. It already exists in ground or chipped form. What Dutch scientists are working on now is a product that costs a few dollars per pound instead of a few thousand. It could be as little as five years away.
The concept is as simple as it is horrifying. Take some stem cells, or myoblasts, which are the precursors to muscle cells. Set them on "scaffolding" that they can attach to, like a flat sheet of plastic that the cells can later be slid off of. Put them in a "growth medium" -- some kind of fluid supplying the nutrients that blood would ordinarily provide. "Exercise" them regularly by administering electric currents or stretching the sheets of cells mechanically. Wait. Harvest. Eat.
It seems like something out of a chilling sci-fi future, the very epitome of bloodless Matrix-style barbarism. But growing flesh in a petri dish is an old idea from the early 20th century that received a fresh infusion of, how you say, growth medium in 2002. As part of a NASA-funded experiment to find a portable source of animal protein for astronauts, Touro College biology professors Morris Benjaminson and James Gilchriest sliced a bit of muscle from the abdomen of a goldfish and set it in a saline solution enriched with fetal calf serum. Over several weeks the muscle grew about 15 percent. Another muscle growing in a maitake mushroom solution did almost as well.
To determine whether the product was remotely appetizing or would be too repulsive even for space station humanoids to eat, Benjaminson and Gilchriest convened a panel of female employees, chosen for their gender's presumed pickiness and demonstrably superior sense of smell. Gilchriest, who used to be a professional chef ("He makes great calamari," says Benjaminson), breaded the tiny filet and sauteed it in extra virgin olive oil. He finished with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of pecorino cheese.
"And it smelled good to them," Benjaminson says. Understandably, the ladies were not asked to eat the "fish."
Whatever one's response to the idea of meat grown in a petri dish --revulsion seems to be a common one -- there are also some compelling reasons in favor of it.
"It's cleaner, healthier, less polluting and more humane," says Jason Matheny, a doctoral student in agricultural policy at the University of Maryland who sits on the board of New Harvest, a research organization for in vitro meat.
Meat grown in the sterile environment of a laboratory wouldn't harbor zoonotic diseases like avian flu or contribute to antibiotic resistance, Matheny says. As for human health, artery-clogging beef fat could be swapped out in vitro for salmon fat, for example, with its salubrious omega-3 fatty acids. And the squalid misery of factory farms could be bypassed altogether. No river would be fouled with manure and no chicken's beak would be clipped in the making of dinner.
These are important considerations. All the problems associated with modern meat production -- like the 64 million tons of manure excreted each year by factory farmed animals in the United States alone -- are poised to worsen as the earth's population heads toward 9 billion people by 2050. As up-and-coming nations like China and India develop large middle classes that adopt Western habits of consumption, that translates to an exponential rise in meat eaters and factory farms over the next 45 years.
Add it all up, and some people find cultured meat a splendid idea.
Bruce Friedrich, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calls it "the best thing since sliced bread." Friedrich, who energetically denounces the eating of "animal corpses" every chance he gets, says that "anything that takes the cruelty out of meat-eating is good."
There are a couple of serious problems with cultured meat, though, starting with the fact that people seem to find the idea repellent.
"Yeah," Matheny admits. "There's a 'yuck' factor involved with producing any novel food."
Presented with the argument that cultured meat just ain't natural, Matheny gamely counters that wine and cheese are engineered products, too.
"And I would say cultured meat is not inherently more unnatural than producing chicken meat from tens of thousands of animals raised intensively in their own feces and fed antibiotics," he says.
That is a very good point. But then Matheny, who is vegetarian, probably won't be eating much cultured meat, either. Nor will Friedrich, who says he's done just fine without eating animal flesh for 18 years and plans to stick with his program.
As for Benjaminson, when asked if he finds the idea of cultured meat appealing, he answers, "From an esthetic standpoint? No. It would have to taste palatable, and that would require a lot of tissue engineering."
What a lot of trouble to go to for a solution that is frankly nightmarish (especially the "exercising" of the disembodied muscle by means of electrical shocks). All cultivation is a form of enslavement, however benevolent or necessary, but harnessing the manic energy of stem cells takes that dynamic into a realm where the side effects -- the "equal and opposite reaction" promised by Newton -- play out perilously close to the life process itself. If synthetic fertilizer, which seemed like such a great way to boost plant fertility, can create a dead zone the size of Maryland at the Mississippi Delta, wiping out a totally different link in the food chain, who's to say what would come of overexploited RNA or mitochondria?
Fred Kirschenmann of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture just hopes there will be plenty of testing. "I'm not saying some of these new ideas can't be done and they won't work at some level, but every time we mess around with our ecological heritage there are always unintended side effects that come from it," he says. "We have a long history of unintended consequences.
"We've got all these animals out there right now," he adds, "and if we suddenly decide we don't want to raise them, what does that do to the larger ecology?"
Here's an idea: Instead of safeguarding our appetites and engineering our meat, let's safeguard our meat and engineer our appetites. What if real animals were raised humanely and in sustainable numbers, so that their meat cost more -- maybe even a lot more? What if people only ate it on special occasions? What if, instead of deciding that the most important thing was to be able to satisfy every idle hankering for a cheeseburger, humanity assessed the resources and made a rational decision about protein acquisition that did not involve divorcing its food source from the life cycle? What if we took the invisible hand of the market, which has all the self-discipline and foresight of a 14-year-old boy, off the job and put a grown-up in charge?
One of the many people who has already thought of this is Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. Although Lawrence sits on New Harvest's board, he's skeptical about the possibilities for cultured meat.
"I think it's an interesting idea," he says . "I think in some situations it might have real value as an important bioavailable form of quality protein. But there are other more straightforward and readily available solutions."
The most obvious one is moderating intake, both frequency and portion size. The Center for a Livable Future sponsors a Meatless Mondays campaign that has attracted interest from public school systems in New York and Maryland. But as mild a suggestion as Meatless Monday is (Meatless Monday Through Thursday would be a lot closer to the mark) it has provoked what Lawrence calls a "backlash" by the meat industry.
"They called me an environmental extremist," he says with a laugh.
That bit of hysteria reveals volumes. It could be a long time before people smell the legume blossoms and start eating lower on the food chain. Matheny thinks cultured meat can be "a stopgap measure" aiding that process, methadone for meat eaters to ease the transition out of the era of 72-ounce steaks and into the days of dollops of hummus.
Maybe he's right. Maybe in vitro meat can serve that purpose. Or maybe it will work in a different way -- by so thoroughly grossing people out that they'll gladly reduce their meat consumption just so they lessen the risk of accidentally eating a meatri burger. That's how it's working on me.
Nothing affects my mood like sunshine. My years are divided into lightish and darkish, happyish and glummish. The long s-wave undulating across the calendar doesn't follow the schedule of Persephone's well-run express, slipping into the dusky realm on Sept. 23 and reemerging six months later on the vernal equinox. It follows U.S. Daylight Saving Time.
I am part of a disparate tribe, scattered throughout the general populace, who anticipate this rite of spring like anxious kids waiting for Christmas. Everyone is generally pleased about it, but our delight is intense and exultant, thrumming with the thrill of deliverance. Soon we'll walk in the sun again.
"Saving daylight" for the evening hours of summer started in 1918 as a wartime effort to lower domestic electricity use. People hated it (they went to bed earlier back then), and the next year Congress repealed the act. After that Daylight Saving Time was deployed in fits and starts until it was standardized in 1966. Henceforth the nation, except Indiana and a few other maverick states, would spring forward on the last Sunday in April and fall back on the last Sunday in October.
Since then Daylight Saving Time has been tweaked at will by Congress any time that august body wishes to deprive OPEC of the sale of a few hundred thousand barrels of oil. In 1974, in response to the energy crisis, DST started on Jan. 6. In 1987 its advent was permanently moved back to the first Sunday in April.
Next year the happy time will be extended once again. The 2005 energy bill decreed that starting in 2007, Daylight Saving Time will begin the second Sunday in March and end the first Sunday in November. That's 34 weeks of fun in the sun, up from 30 this year. If it had been up to the House it would have been 38 weeks.
"It just makes everyone feel sunnier," said savings-pusher Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachussetts, pressing his case.
You would think this would make me, a victim of Seasonal Affective Disorder if ever there was one, overjoyed. It doesn't. It leaves me ambivalent. Because I've come to believe the problem is not that there's too much darkness in life. It's that we don't revere the darkness we have. And like anything scorned, that makes it mean.
Leaving the lights up
We welcome the season of darkness apprehensively, armed with Christmas lights. Americans bought $823 million worth of them from China last year. Little twinkly lights to banish the darkness, to ease us into winter's darkest depths. On my street, people are leaving the lights up well into January. And I'm right there with them. My new habit of observing Epiphany (Jan. 6, the 12th day of Christmas, the day the wise men arrived in Bethlehem) is mostly an excuse to leave Christmas lights on a little longer.
I get by fine in January, even most of February. The new year has begun, and I'm abuzz with plans for self-improvement. But toward the end of February and into March -- duplicitous, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't March -- I get cranky. By now it's been months since I exercised regularly, and I'm tired of the rain. And this from someone who lives in California. My boyfriend assures me that this time of year in Montana, where he lived for many years, relationships are bursting into flame, lives are ending in suicide and average upstanding citizens are in a muddy slide toward alcoholism.
Maybe that's not the healthiest way to cope with the dark, but I kind of admire it anyway. These people are not struggling to appear chipper, fit and well-groomed, as most of us will feel compelled to once the late sunsets permit evening powerwalks. They are gloomy, slovenly and down in the dumps, squaring off against private demons at pitiful odds. Their good spirits are hibernating with eye masks and ear plugs. The seeds of their joy are fast asleep underground, waiting to go nuts when spring has finally sprung.
Dark nights of the soul
When did everybody get so scared of the dark? When did people decide they needed sunny and 70 and happy and safe all the time? One of the congressmen pushing the Daylight Saving expansion noted that kids everywhere will rejoice come Halloween 2007 because they'll be able to stay out trick-or-treating in their neighborhoods, thanks to Daylight Saving Time. Because now, of course, kids trick or treat in the afternoon at the mall. Where's the thrill in that? How are you going to have a chance encounter with a goblin in front of Hot Dog On A Stick? How do you get to practice facing danger, even the simulated variety provided by dragging your pillowcase of candy across the neighborhoods' darkened lawns, if your whole world is a clean, well-lighted place?
Apparently ordinary, garden-variety darkness is now unbearably creepy. And forget about dark nights of the soul. Those are not to be borne in any form.
Last year I inteviewed Rob Brezsny, the Freewill astrologer. As we trudged along a chalk-dust trail winding up a hot hillside near his house in Marin County, he talked about darkness.
There are two kinds, he said. "One is darkness that is most in play right now -- outright pathology, sickness, misery, cruelty, evil. And the other kind of darkness is mystery, the unknown, difficult challenge. That aspect of our own nature which is unripe and is on the way to growing into something more interesting but at this point is still ineffective and clumsy."
The trick, Brezsny mused, is to form an alliance with the Glenda-the-Good-Witch darkness, engage it so it crowds out the evil twin. "My opinion is to the extent that we ignore our own shadows and unripe qualities we conjure that other kind of darkness," he said.
I think I get what he's talking about. Not long ago my therapist suggested I read through some old journals to identify some patterns. I cringed, knowing it would be exquisitely embarrassing. It was. But it was worthwhile, if for only one reason: I found that each time I had approached the scary truths about the confining relationship of my 20s and my life's suspended trajectory, I had invariably veered away. It was terrifying to peer into those impenetrable depths and see what was probably obvious to my friends and family. Worse, in subsequent entries I would disavow the glimpses of truth. I labelled them mistakes, failures of bonhomie, or my favorite, PMS-induced temporary insanity. Not surprisingly, the whole thing finally blew up in my face, and I got the "opportunity" to face some of those difficult truths.
Moral of the story: Ignore your personal darkness, and it will sneak up later and bite you in the ass. Venture into it, and you might save yourself some misery.
Last fall New York University professor Christina Kotchemidova published an article titled "From Good Cheer to 'Drive-by Smiling': A Social History of Cheerfulness." In it she argued that cheerfulness is no more endemic to human character than bowling -- that in fact our cultural dictum to be perky is a uniquely American phenomenon rooted in the 18th century rise of the middle class, an outgrowth of the young capitalist republic's emphasis on pluck and self-sufficiency.
There are plenty of good things to come of the sunny national disposition, Kotchemidova writes. In the workplace cheerfulness benefits the individual and the group by keeping everyone upbeat and productive, while in the marketplace it stimulates consumerism. It's also nice to be nice and meet other nice people. So cheerfulness is uniquely useful socially and economically. But what are the costs?
One may be a skewed view of normalcy that has a lot of Americans believing they're depressed or otherwise defective. I remember how stung I was when I applied for a job at a Phoenix chiropractor's office only to be told I had in effect flunked the personality test by coming up too melancholic-phlegmatic. The New Age medievalist-huckster-bonecracker himself told me the receptionist really needed to be a sanguine sort. I hope he spends eternity soaking in a pool of black bile and phlegm. Just kidding.
Another cost could actually be higher rates of depression; people may be worn out by "emotion labor," the work of trying to stifle noncompliant, unacceptable emotions like anger or melancoholy or just general pissiness. Kotchemidova notes that Delta Airlines, which institutionalized cheerfulness training for flight attendants in the 1970s, spent $9 million on antidepressants for employees and dependents in 2003.
For all you deductive thinkers out there rolling your eyeballs, I'm not suggesting a causal relationship between Daylight Saving Time and pervasive shallowness leading to depression. But there is a metaphysical correlation. The culture rejects repose. People are supposed to be upbeat all the time. They're supposed to be ever active, happy, hungry for more activity and experience. All that is an exhilarating part of human life, and summertime feeds it naturally, but it's like that's not good enough anymore. Even 30 weeks isn't enough anymore. We've got to be living in some kind of hyperactive state for 65 percent of the year.
A cantankerous writer featured on webexhibits.org weighed in on the subject in 1947: "As an admirer of moonlight, I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier and get them up earlier to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves."
The truth is there are a lot of good reasons for Daylight Saving Time. It does save some oil, about 1 percent a day. It cuts down on car accidents. There's also a public health argument to be made, since overweight America could use more after-dinner walks with the kids.
But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. We should get to know the darkness, the better to understand the light.
Last year the investment bank Goldman Sachs acquired a portfolio of mortgages in default that involved a remarkable piece of land in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. The wild, starkly beautiful island on the far tip of South America is a haven of biodiversity, home to old-growth beech forests and a unique network of peat bogs. So when the bank donated all 680,000 acres of the property -- an area about a third the size of Yellowstone -- to the Wildlife Conservation Society in trust to the people of Chile, it was a boon to ecological preservation.
It was also a source of perplexity in some quarters. While Goldman Sachs explained that it had simply acted on a "rare opportunity for the firm to benefit global conservation," many people found it hard to trust such a gesture of generosity from a financial institution.
But there is reason to think that skeptics can relax their vigilance on this one and maybe even entertain some hope. In November Goldman Sachs, a financial sector leader worth $60 billion, rolled out a new environmental policy that goes further, and is smarter, than any comparable policy in the corporate world.
The unveiling of the framework to address environmental degradation and climate change capped 18 months of consultations with environmental groups. Among them were Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Rainforest Alliance, World Resources Institute and Friends of the Earth.
Only eight pages long, the plan (PDF) contains some fairly typical stuff, such as a vow to use more recycled paper in Goldman's offices. But it also contains a promise to reject projects in environmental no-go zones, and to institute further changes in the way it does business--all with an eye on ethics and the environment.
According to the framework, Goldman Sachs will:
As pizza counter guys go, Willie Perez is unusually cheerful, especially for the middle of a lunch rush that, by all rights, should be tailing off. At half-past one on a spring Tuesday, a line of hungry customers is snaking out The Pizza Collective storefront on Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue, the ovens are gusting heat into the kitchen and flushed workers in aprons and tennis shoes are darting about in what appears to be barely organized bedlam. This is not the best time for an interview, I think, as I make my way to the front. But Perez's face breaks into a huge smile of welcome, he greets me like an honored guest and I am ushered to a table with a delicious slice of organic vegetarian pizza.
Thin and quick, with guileless blue eyes and Tiggerish enthusiasm, the 28-year-old father of two has good reason to be happy. He's making close to $30 an hour, gets medical benefits for his family, enjoys four to five weeks paid time off each year and believes passionately in his work. Not the work of making pizza, particularly, but the work of running, along with 38 other people, a thriving worker-owned cooperative built on the principles of democracy and economic fairness. "I have a personal mission," Perez confesses. "I want to see more cooperatives."
It's easy to see why Perez is a tireless proselytizer who has worked to establish three spin-off coops, the Arizmendi bakeries in Oakland, San Francisco and Emeryville. To anyone who has slogged through a wage-slave job or had a domineering boss, a collectively run cooperative sounds like a workers' paradise. It has no hierarchy and no supervisors because everyone is an owner. Everyone makes the same amount of money and everyone is responsible for making the business work. Everyone does all the jobs. No one gets summarily fired. Decisions are made by consensus. At the end of the year, some money goes to charity and some is invested back into the business. The rest of the profits, instead of enriching one or two individuals, are returned to all the worker-owners -- a rising tide lifting many boats.
This level of emotional and financial investment creates a radically different attitude toward work, Perez says, one emphasizing personal responsibility and flexibility. "If we don't have a boss and I tell you to turn out the lights when you leave, you're going to do it because it means more money for all of us," Perez says. "But if someone is breathing down your neck, you might not."
He says he used to work at a big-box retailer. "Corporate America, okay? They don't treat you like human beings. They treat you like robots. Your opinion is not appreciated."
Terry Baird, 59, a member of the Arizmendi Cooperative on Oakland's Lakeshore Drive since it opened in 1997, jokes (or not) about the effect of this. "If you work here and go somewhere else, you're kind of wrecked for the traditional work environment," he says. "The first time you say to your boss, 'Let's vote on this,' they're gonna look at you funny."
There's something else about cooperatives. In an economy with a lot of coops, the number of well-paid, self-directed workers would mean a larger, wealthier middle class, and therefore a healthier community. The goal is a society in which all people, not only the fittest, enjoy economic security.
The Pizza Collective and its parent coop, the Cheese Board, recently brought in a member in his sixties. "And it was, well, this is physical work. Do we want to bring in an older person?" Perez recalls. "But he helps us, we help him, we help his family -- and that's one less family left to the wolves of Corporate America."
The Miracle of Mondragon
In the United States, some 300 business concerns operate as worker-owned collectives, according to the National Cooperative Business Association. Some are relatively high-profile, like the Eugene, Ore.-based Burley Design Corporation,Ã‚Â which manufactures distinctive yellow-and-blue bike trailers for children. Most, however, are local, and they are few and far between. Here, the worker-owned society is a dream, but in the Basque country of northern Spain it's become a reality.Ã‚Â
The Bay AreaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Arizmendi cooperative bakery/pizzerias take their name from a remarkable young Basque priest who ignited a movement from the rubble of SpainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ruinous civil war. A defeated revolutionary who had entered the priesthood, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta arrived in the Basque town of Mondragon in 1941 and soon set up a technical school where he taught the skills necessary for SpainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reconstruction. There he also taught Catholic Social Doctrine, with its emphasis on human dignity and better conditions for laborers.
In 1956, a handful of Arizmendi's students, determined to put those principles into action, opened a worker-owned stove factory. Three years later, they opened a credit union, and the seeds of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation were born. Today the 500-plus cooperatives that make up the MCC employ 72,000 people (about half are worker-owners, with more in the pipeline as membership catches up to rapid growth). The group posted 15 percent growth in profits last year to reach $612 million. It pours money into education, incubates new cooperatives, and provides worker benefits and collateral so members can buy houses.
When Perez visited Mondragon several years ago, he was stunned by the collective response to a fire that had leveled a refrigerator factory. The refrigerator factory workers were given jobs in other coops, even though that would almost surely mean lower profits for everyone at the other coops. "They're so unselfish in the way they run their business," Perez marvels.
The Cheese Board, which started in 1967, and the Pizza Collective, which opened in 1990, are attempting to replicate the MCC on a very small scale. They have helped establish the three Bay Area Arizmendis through training and recipe sharing, but each coop functions independently. They all, however, shovel four percent of gross profits back into the Arizmendi Association -- seed money to help start other coops and cushion economic blows.
A World Without Bosses
All the Arizmendis have needed help in learning to function as collectives. Not all cooperatives are collectives. Sunkist, for example, is a typical agricultural cooperative; it consists of a number of citrus growers who market their products as a group under the Sunkist label. A collective, on the other hand, is a flat organization with no hierarchy, no fatherly arbiter to say: "You're right, and you're wrong," which means people have to cooperate. Which is hard.
Lisa Bruzoni, who at 50 has been at the Cheese Board for 15 years, acknowledges that the $18 an hour the members make, plus the $9.99-per-hour profit-sharing bonus everyone got last year, is attractive. "Twenty-eight dollars an hour sounds like a great amount of pay, especially for what we're doing," she says. "But there are certain people who would want to work in a cooperative and certain people who wouldn't. It can be very frustrating."
Without exception, all the people interviewed for this story said the hardest thing about their jobs was learning to get along with others in an environment where no one -- or everyone, really -- is the boss.
For one thing, big decisions at these businesses must be made by consensus (that means everyone must agree that they can live with whatever is decided), and the only opportunity to do this is at monthly board meetings. Consequently, it takes a long time to get anything done. "It took us three years to write a book," says Bruzoni, who co-authored The Cheese Board Collective Works along with several other members. "Anywhere else, it would have taken a year and a half, but we kept having to check with the coop."
The gritty problem of personality conflicts is also wearing. Elizabeth Medina, 27, describes joining the Pizza Collective as "the most stressful thing I've ever done in my life." It was during her six-month probation period that some personality conflicts emerged. Knowing that any member could single-handedly block her bid to join, made the pressure that much worse. "It was so tough. I felt like I was totally under a microscope. I remember going home to my husband and crying and saying, 'Oh my God, this person doesn't like me.'"
Since most people join a collective for a long period of time -- the $1,000 buy-in at the Cheese Board and Pizza Collective is meant to foster commitment -- there's a sense that the relationships cannot be escaped. That seems to force people to figure out how to get along. "This place will humble you," says Perez, "because a lot of people aren't willing to say, 'Hey, can you cut pizza for me today?' to someone they had an argument with yesterday."
Then there is the more deeply personal issue of self-motivation. "Everybody thinks they don't want to have a boss," says Baird of the Oakland Arizmendi. "But what they haven't thought about is they don't want to be a boss, either. That is maybe the most revolutionary aspect to what we do here. People have to become in charge of themselves, and not everybody's equipped to do that."
Cooperatives, especially the collectively run variety, are a rarity. Even in the Bay Area, as progressive as it is, there is only a handful. This begs the question of whether they can make a difference.
Baird has given this some thought. "Sometimes I wonder, what is the meaning of all this?" he muses. "I enjoy the work, and I can live on the pay. But is it really gonna change things? And I think it does. When I read biographies about exceptional people, it never comes from nowhere. Rosa Parks wasn't just some lady; she was active in the civil rights movement. So yeah, I think we do good work. We do work we like and in a democratic fashion, and maybe it rubs off on people."
It's official, again. People suck.
You give them free tickets to a concert for a good cause and they try to sell them on eBay for hundreds of dollars. You organize eight kick-ass shows around the world and they complain that the lineup is too white, too commercial, too whatever. You call attention to one of the modern world's deepest sources of shame --a continent pillaged for centuries, now left to fester -- and they criticize you for being negative. They accuse you of grandstanding, of heaving your aging rocker's carcass back into the spotlight for one last pitiful boogie with fame.
If I were Bob Geldof, I'd go live in a cave after all this Live 8 business is over with. July 7 would be a good day to leave. By then, the free concerts that Geldof organized in London, Cornwall, Philadelphia, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Johannesburg, Tokyo and Toronto will be over. The Long Walk to Justice will have come to an end, culminating in hordes of people arriving on July 6 in Edinburgh, 20 miles from Gleneagles, where the leaders of the eight richest countries in the world are gathered for their annual summit July 6-8. The strains of Dido and Travis will have died out in Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium. The headaches will be over. Geldof can listen to results of the G-8 summit, the impetus for it all, on the transistor radio in his cave, absently finger-combing his unruly, sexy-old-rocker locks.
But Sir Bob, knighted in 1985 for his work fighting African poverty, is undoubtedly too tough, egotistical and committed for that, so he'll probably hang around for the end of the G-8 (which gathers the presidents of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States) before going on back home to London. There, he'll most likely continue doing the kind of work that got him named, alongside Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's seventeen-member Commission for Africa.
That's where the real work has been done; Live 8 is just unofficial publicity for it. The Commission's work has driven Blair's agenda of debt forgiveness, increased aid and better trade terms for Africa, with impressive success so far: the G-8 nations have agreed to write off all $40 billion of debt for Africa's poorest 14 nations and four others in Latin America. In response to the Commission's recommendation to double current aid to sub-Saharan Africa to $50 billion by 2010, Europe has agreed to raise its foreign aid spending to .7 percent of GNP, though Washington stubbornly refuses to budge from the .15 percent range.
People like to sneer at rock stars like Geldof and Bono, another crusader for Africa, as dilettantes whose egos have deluded them into thinking they are political forces to be reckoned with. In recent weeks, Geldof's been accused of hubris and megalomania by British politicians, of all people, for inviting Nelson Mandela and the Pope to the concerts. British commentator Peter Hitchens wrote in the Mail that it was in fact Africa's starving children who were rescuing the "sagging reputations" of "balding, clapped-out rock stars." Spiked Online's Mick Hume calls the whole thing "every bit as paternalistic as the old imperialist attitudes."
But from here, it looks like Geldof has rung the bell, musically and politically.
Musically, the nine shows scheduled for July 2 add up to an astounding lineup: the Sex Pistols, Coldplay, Madonna, Scissor Sisters, U2, Green Day, Roxy Music, REM, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, A-ha, The Cure, P. Diddy and Youssou N'Dour are just a few of the luminaries. There were immediate complaints that it was too white an event -- the United Kingdom's Black Information Link called it "hideously white" -- and the fact that most of the big-name African bands are relegated to Cornwall does in fact seem random. Live 8 organizers responded that the goal was simply to get as many big-name stadium-filling acts onstage as possible.
Politically, Live 8 is brilliant. Live Aid, 1985's spectacular charity concert, raised $100 million for Ethiopia, then in the grip of a four-year famine. After that Geldof was done, uninterested in lame follow-ups. But as soon as it became evident that things were conspiring to put Africa on the global stage in 2005, friends wouldn't let Geldof rest. First there was the Commission for Africa, which completed its work in March. Blair planned to use the U.K.'s turn at the head of the G-8, and its shift at the rotating helm of the European Union presidency starting in July, as bully pulpits to promote the Commission's recommendations. This in turn would coincide with United Nations' five-year checkup of the world's progress on meeting the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to end the world's worst poverty in 2015. Politically, it couldn't be a better moment to focus on Africa.
And it also happened that Live Aid's 20th anniversary was coming up. Friends Bono and Richard Curtis (who wrote Notting Hill) hectored Geldof into staging another event -- but Geldof made this one different, and herein lies the genius of Live 8. Twenty years ago, Live Aid was an appeal to individuals to give money, and they did, by purchasing expensive tickets for shows in London and Philadelphia. But this time, the eight concerts are free, the tickets given away by lottery, because Geldof has apparently realized that individual contributions to charity will not haul Africa out of poverty. It's gone way past the point where that can work. Only real political will in the world's richest capitals can do the job. And so Live 8's goal is not to raise cash, though that would help in the short run, but to raise awareness -- political awareness that can translate into political pressure to bring Africa into the family of self-sufficient nations.
"It's about justice, not charity," Geldof says. That represents an awakening on his part, a sophistication that was not in place 20 years ago when he was a conscience-stricken former frontman for the Boomtown Rats who had happened to catch a BBC documentary on Ethiopia on the tube. Band Aid, the group of musicians he gathered to record "Do They Know It's Christmas" in November 1984, was named in humble recognition of the limitations of cash aid. Now Geldof is putting that recognition into action and trying to use his influence to change policy.
That didn't quell his aggravation when Live 8 tickets started turning up on eBay. They were going for as much as $1,800, and Geldof did two things: he encouraged people to bid fake millions for the tickets to stop the bidding, and he bitched at eBay, prompting a firestorm of self-righteous whining after eBay backed down. "[This] may have serious consequences for the long-term shape of the online world," fretted BBC commentator Bill Thompson. "After all, if Geldof can get items removed from aution, who else is going to use this as a tactic in the future?" To which some of us might respond: Who cares?
The standoff had some symbolic import; Geldof refused to accept eBay's offer to donate the auction fees to charity, calling it "filthy money made on the back of the poorest people on the planet -- stick it where it belongs."
Good for him. Anyone who pays attention to what is happening in Africa -- and it's not that easy to keep doing that, because it is awfully depressing -- knows Africa needs it. There are eight U.N. peacekeeping operations in Africa and 15 million people who can't go home because of conflicts. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 300 million people -- about the population of the United States -- live on less than $1 a day. Another 300 million people lack access to clean water. Each year, 1 million African children, one every 30 seconds, die of malaria. Every day, 8,500 Africans contract HIV.
Okay, so this is too negative. There may be good news coming out of Africa about inspiring individuals and the resilience of the human spirit and the incremental victories of stable nations like Botswana and Ghana against AIDS and poverty, but I'm looking at the Human Development Report of the U.N. Development Program, and it tells a different story. The HDR 2004 ranks countries according to a formula that considers life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income. The first African country on the list is Seychelles, number 35, a little-populated tourist mecca and island paradise. The next is Libya, 58 -- oil country. Then there's Mauritius, 64 (island paradise); Algeria, 108 (oil and gas); and so on. Only at 119, South Africa, do you reach one of the continental Sub-Saharan countries that does not enjoy oil wealth -- in other words, a typical African country. And there are only 177 nations on the list. Most of Africa's 54 nations fill the bottom of it.
Live 8 is not going to make Africa whole, but it might start the ball rolling toward a solution. Forgiveness of debt is a start. Increased aid is needed to help get infrastructure, health care, education and agriculture up and running, according to economist and Millennium Goals adviser Jeffrey Sachs. Perhaps most important in the long run, though, is trade. Africa has just 2 percent of the world's trade, and the easing of textile tariffs on China could drain even that small amount by pressuring the infant textiles industry in southern Africa and Uganda. Economists suggest that if Africa could get just 1 percent more of global trade, it would equal $70 billion a year -- almost three times what it gets in annual development aid.
Geldof acknowledges the difficulty of all this, the quixotic nature of believing a handful of rock concerts staged four days before the start of a political summit can change the course of history. But, as he told Reuters, "How do we create domestic heat to pressure them into doing something they don't particularly want to do? We will not get there if we don't do ludicrous circuses like giant concerts ... and stars being rallied."
The last 10 miles of the Imperial Highway lead west from the blighted thirst of the Watts neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles to the glistening sea at El Segundo, where they are crisscrossed by the shadow of planes leaving LAX. For the 35,000 residents of Watts, that stretch of road might as well be a 14,000-foot pass through the Himalayas, so remote are the pleasures of travel and plush beaches from that hope-starved patch of ground.
Aqeela Sherrills has seen the worst Watts has to offer and made the best of it. His work to end gang violence started in 1989, when at 19 he joined former football and movie star Jim Brown on the road for three years, forging truces between gangs in cities across the country. In 1992, he returned home to Watts to help broker, with his brother Daude, a peace treaty between the Crips and the Bloods.
After a few years, the treaty began to fray. In response, in 1999 Aqeela and Daude started the Community Self-Determination Institute (CSDI) for gang prevention and conflict mediation. CSDI won street credibility as well as the confidence of city officials and became a city-wide program. With that came the challenges of running a non-profit: cajoling donors, securing city grants, paying the bills, hiring people. Siblings, cousins, friends, casual acquaintances all wanted jobs. There was trouble with the IRS. The work itself was hard enough, but managing the work was exhausting. Then, two years ago, his wife died of breast cancer. And the worst was yet to come.
It arrived just before midnight on Jan. 10, 2004, with a ring of Sherrills' cell phone. His son Terrell, 18 and home on break after his first semester studying theater arts at Humboldt State University, was being rushed to UCLA Medical Center bleeding profusely from a close-range gunshot wound to the back. A 16-year-old Crips member had mistaken the red Mickey Mouse sweater slung over Terrell's shoulders (in self-deprecating homage to his big ears) for a sign of membership in the Bloods, who wear red. Forty-five minutes later, Terrell was dead.
The cry for retribution went up immediately.
"The neighborhood mounted up, they were ready to roll, and I went and talked to folks and told folks, 'That's not what we're gonna do, and that's not Terrell's legacy,'" Sherrills recalls 14 months later, sitting in a room at CSDI painted sky blue and redolent of incense from a shrine in the corner. "'That's exactly the reaction that society wants from us. And what we're gonna do is this right here: We're gonna forgive that kid, you know? Because we're gonna hold space for the highest possibility of good to show up in him.'"
Sherrills was already something of a community hero. He was an inspiration to thousands of people who had heard him speak about personal and cultural healing and peacemaking. This act of forgiveness launched him to near-guru status. The organizer on the ground in Watts was becoming a man of the spirit: The activist was turning into a mystic.
Sherrills began to step back from the running of CSDI. He started turning over administrative responsibilities to other people and assuming an advisory role, formulating the vision and raising money. He wasn't interested in addressing the symptoms anymore. He wanted to tackle the root of the problem, the broken spirits around him.
As passionately as he speaks about his continuing work, for the last year and a half he has yearned to break free of its physical confines. On March 15, he took a definitive step in that direction when he boarded a plane to Mexico to begin a four-month tour of the world's sacred sites. After Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu and the rest, he plans to come back, but not to stay.
Within three years he hopes to move to Ghana. He says he is drawn to its ease of life, burgeoning African-American community and rich spiritual culture. There, away from frenetic America, he says he hopes to find the peace to live the ideas he has been mulling, ideas about how to shift ways of thinking and cherish human life and start a global outbreak of peace--the linchpins of what he calls "the reverence for human life movement."
Sherrills' hope of sparking a renewed reverence-for-life movement here anchors him to Watts. Talking about it animates him and intensifies the light in his hazel eyes. Tall and normally languorous, he leans forward and gestures excitedly, speaking with a preacher's deliberate enunciation. Now and then his ideas stray into the realm of the fanciful, but he has an undeniable gift for inspired speech.
"Reverence is a beholding--not a judging--of the challenges facing our culture," he says. "It's about the quality of attention you give something, and the practice of love and compassion and talking about your truth.
"The reverence movement is where all the movements of the past intersect, whether it's human rights or civil rights, because all of them are really about restoring vitality to the human spirit. If we as human beings don't have the ability to intuit a positive future, with our so-called enemies playing a different role, then we're almost foolin' ourselves about what is, and where we're going."
Listening to Sherrills in this rapt state, it's hard to reconcile his vegetarian, esoteric text-reading side with certain facts of his life. Sherrills has fathered seven children by six mothers, none of whom he lives with, and at 35 he is a grandfather; Terrell's girlfriend was pregnant when he died.
Sherrills appears to relish his role as a man of the world. In a turtleneck and rich wool peacoat, with his driver's cap, sculpted soul patch and sandalwood scent, taking calls on his cell phone at the wheel of his white BMW and scheduling lunches with donors in Santa Monica, Sherrills cuts a glamorous figure. Having traveled the country and to Russia and Croatia as a speaker and peace facilitator, he laments with a seasoned traveler's dismay about how few Americans travel and how even fewer people in Watts have been on an airplane--or even make the drive to the beach.
It's similarly difficult to determine CSDI's position. Several years ago it had 80 employees and a million-dollar budget; now it has 12 staffers and a swirl of volunteers. Several key individuals stand out as islands of discipline and efficiency in an otherwise chaotic environment--understandable, perhaps, given funding cuts and the monumental task the organization is trying to accomplish.
Three years ago, CSDI launched a 10-year initiative called the Passage to Peace that aims to transform the gangs in Watts from criminal to community organizations by 2012. The CSDI building, a bright, mural-covered ramshackle box on a street less drab than most in Watts, seems an unlikely birthplace for the world's next major peace movement. Nevertheless, that's what Sherrills envisions, and his charisma and willpower have already proven considerable catalysts for action.
Watts, he says, is a nexus for two uncontrollable elements spreading across the country: hip-hop culture and gang violence. Changes in Watts will ripple across the nation. The trick is to work with what already exists.
"The gang is a surrogate family when the nuclear family has been broken," Sherrills reminds us. "We'll never get rid of gangs, in a sense, but we can instill morals and values in that structure and shift their purpose. Let's shift this thing! This is not the ghetto. That's our perception of what it is because we've been told that. We're not gang members. That's something somebody else put on us."
One way to make the shift is through music, specifically through "conscious hip-hop" with a positive message. CSDI has put what Sherrills calls the theme music of the movement on a CD titled "Peace Warriors."
"There's no model for what peace is," he says. "And the image of peace is weak. It's this flimsy thing, like: Peace!" He makes a feckless face and throws a peace sign. "And war is like, powerful, sexy. So we can assign the virtues that have been stolen from peace and given to war back to peace. We can make peace strong and hard: peace warriors."
That's the broad cultural mission. The other, more immediate, task is to transform the purpose of the gangs on the ground in Watts. The way Sherrills plans to do this is by creating "community covenants" and an alternative economy for a neighborhood where annual per capita income is under $7,000--one-third of that for the city of Los Angeles.
The process is laid out in a 27-page document Sherrills has been showing potential funders. It calls for a series of meetings to gather the young people from the neighborhood's four housing projects, who are grouped loosely in cliques professing loyalty to Crips or Bloods. The meetings are to be facilitated by trusted members of the community--Sherrills says there are people in Watts who are respected by members of all of the cliques.
Attendees will draw up and sign a covenant, swearing off violence and laying out principles of community life. These principles will embody his "reverence for life" ideas. The document is to be distributed throughout the neighborhood, with signatures for everyone to see.
Commissioners will then be elected from within the cliques, paid a small stipend and issued business cards. They will hold weekly meetings. The alternative-economy element of the plan involves an unusual idea: A fund is to be established through $10 monthly donations from everyone in the community, and life insurance policies will be taken out on the young men.
If it sounds pie in the sky, well, desperate times call for desperate measures. No one thought it possible to broker a cease-fire between the Crips and the Bloods in 1992, either.
Sherrills believes this will work because CSDI has already brought together the clique leaders and received their endorsement.
"We brought 'em here and we laid it out," he says. "And they were all with it. Totally. So the thing is this: We just don't have the resources to move it forward. We need a million dollars a year for three years. And this is what I'm telling these potential funders: I guarantee we will shift this neighborhood forever."
Sherrills is frustrated by a reluctance of donors to fund his plan. "The progressive-liberal community doesn't take risks," he laments. "There's a lack of real strategic investment taking place from those who actually have the resources to do it, and it has a lot to do with the wounds around money. The thing that keeps a rich person from giving is the same thing that keeps a poor person from making."
There's something else at play, he says: a pernicious culture-wide mindset that Sherrills blames for the death of his son. "How can they talk about seven murders on the news, and there is no uproar, no response?" he asks in disbelief. "Because it's not our child, or our people or our community? That's the killer--our lack of compassion. That's why this movement, this reverence movement, is a movement of the heart. It's the final frontier. I'm like, we done hid behind everything else."
"That's it right there," Sherrills says, not slowing down as he points at the bottom center unit of a bleached two-story building with six apartments. "Number 440. That's where I lived from sixth grade until I graduated high school."
Not a soul is in sight except for a teenage boy sauntering across a parking lot. If not for the trash cartwheeling in the breeze and the immense garbage cans in the street, one might think the Jordan Downs housing projects had been deserted long ago.
Living here with his mother and the youngest of his nine siblings, Sherrills learned to keep a secret that built up enormous energy. A family member had begun sexually abusing him several years earlier. The molestation eventually stopped, but the repercussions echoed through his life for years. When he finally told a girlfriend in college about it, the power of his revelation fueled a radical shift in consciousness.
"I now see it as a gift as opposed to it being a burden in my life," he says. "I've been able to forgive myself and the perpetrator and reconcile all the relationships around me. All these things can be used as a fulcrum to change patterns in life."
Sherrills is breaking another pattern with his gradual withdrawal from CSDI. He is adamant about not wanting to manage the daily operations anymore. He is just as adamant in his desire for the imagined paradise of Ghana, the living compound he sees for himself and his extended family, the garden, the library, the good dinners and wine and conversation, and the business opportunities. And he is equally adamant when asked if he has any misgivings about leaving his work here, despite his recent purchase of a building in Watts intended to serve as a family compound and community center featuring coffee, conversation and a lending library.
"Hm-mmm," he says with a decisive shake of his head. "There's an umbilical cord that needs to be cut. I had to do it not only with my family, the individualization I had to go through with them, but also with the community. People depend on me in a way that's unhealthy. I enable people. Folks need an opportunity to take the movement to the next level without me as a crutch."
Sherrills then tells a startling story he would be well-advised not to share with potential funders: He believes he has been to this crossroads before, in a previous life. He was a priest in Atlantis, he says, who was so committed to his order that he forwent the opportunity to flee the rising tide with his beloved and drowned.
You don't have to believe in the legend of Atlantis to see that Sherrills' tale is a parable about his current life: Duty is wearing him down and a part of him knows it. The clear blue sky at the other end of Imperial Highway is sending its siren song.
"I've been a martyr in many of my lives, and to stay here would be kind of like a martyrdom," Sherrills says. "I feel like I'm learning my lesson."
Jeffrey Mapendere knows peace is hard. A senior associate at the Carter Center in Atlanta and a former liberation fighter in his native Zimbabwe, Mapendere walks with a cane and confesses to a fear of heights that didn't stop him from parachuting into hostile territory as part of his freedom-fighting duties. War demands much of its soldiers, he says, but peace requires more.
"Any idiot can make war," Mapendere told an audience in California last weekend. "A single person can cause chaos. But making peace, that's where you need moral giants, real generals -- and there are very few."
Last weekend, some of the few met on the campus of the Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS) for the inaugural conference of Global Majority, a fledgling organization dedicated to promoting dialogue as an alternative to war. Students and practitioners of the art of negotiation engaged in policy discussions, hands-on mediation workshops and in conference hammering out a declaration of their intention. Those deliberations produced the Monterey Call, the heart of which is the goal "to prioritize the use of non-violent means of conflict resolution as a moral imperative of the 21st century."
It's hard to imagine a more quixotic venture. War is a $1 trillion global industry. Global Majority, on the other hand, has almost no budget and all of 65 members, most of them MIIS students. To attend the conference, panelists flew in from Atlanta, Botswana, Gambia, Tel Aviv and Washington on their own dime, or on the largesse of their home organizations. A boon to the group's funding came in a Friday night benefit concert by the silver-maned anarchist-humorist-folk singer Utah Phillips that raised $1,100. Local media ignored the conference, with the exception of the local alternative weekly and Univision. Even the presence of Colombia's ambassador to the United States, Luis Moreno, could not rouse the mainstream television crews from their weather-and-traffic-induced stupor.
But no venture is more worthwhile, either. In two and a half days of panels and workshops, the audience got an earful: about the 3 million Colombians who have been driven from their homes by the 40-year civil war that the guerrillas, government and paramilitaries just won't put to rest; about the 3,000 refugees at Dukwi Refugee Camp in northern Botswana who, having escaped wars elsewhere, now face the area's 37.7 percent HIV prevalence rate even as their daughters face the necessity of selling sex to local men in exchange for food; about the estimated 10 African civilians who die from war-related causes for every African soldier who meets his death on the battlefield.
It goes without saying that the obstacles are formidable, starting with the fact that the peace movement remains stranded on the banks of the mainstream.
"Who actually has a voice?" asked Joyce Neu, executive director of the Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice in San Diego. "The people who have a voice are the people who have options -- the option of waging war but choosing peace. At conferences like this we're preaching to the choir."
The war on terrorism emerged as a prime culprit. Two years ago on a visit to Washington, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni invoked the U.S.-led war on terrorism as an explanation for his army's harsh crackdown on rebels in northern Uganda. Similarly, Moscow has played the terrorist card against the Chechens, as has Nepal's King Gyanendra against the Maoist rebels and the notorious Uzbek government against Islamic groups. The United States has regularly turned a blind eye to abuses, tacitly endorsing violent suppression over negotiation.
In perhaps the ugliest example of where this kind of cynicism can lead, last month the chief of Sudan's intelligence agency -- a high-ranking member of the same government that is persecuting its own people in Darfur -- was invited to Washington because Sudan has uncovered valuable information about al Qaeda.
"Colin Powell said what is happening in Darfur is genocide," Mapendere said. "What is U.S. policy telling Sudan, though? It's 'If you give us information on terrorism, you are home and dry.'"
If terrorism and the ham-fisted global response to it is one of the chief barriers to promoting dialogue between angry parties, it may paradoxically teach the solution. We know how a small group of people can confront hegemony. They disappear into the structure, form a network, influence other people, and eventually weaken the monolith from the inside. They make ample use of symbolism, and they don't give up. It works for wreaking havoc -- why not good?
Defense analysis professor John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School spelled it out. Arquilla, who touched off a fierce debate in public policy circles last summer when he suggested the U.S. negotiate with al Qaeda, turned on its head the conventional wisdom that networks are the province of terrorists.
"We can put together a strategy by Sept. 11, 2006 whereby the people of the world can stand up -- and they're a network, too; civil society is a network," Arquilla said. "And the first great war between networks and nations can be waged by a network of civil society."
And that is, in fact, Global Majority's strategy: to bypass the seats of power and start a movement in decentralized fashion, forming a worldwide network of experts and activists who can nurture peacemaking in their individual spheres of influence, linking up with other organizations and individuals.
One of the next items on the group's agenda, along with securing enough funding for a staff member and completing work on a logo, is to come up with a symbolic act to commemorate an international day of nonviolent conflict resolution. George Mason University doctoral student Tatsushi Arai proposed one last weekend.
"September 11, 2006 is the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," he said. "Let us remember it is also the anniversary of the Johannesburg declaration of nonviolence by Mahatma Ghandi. What would happen if practitioners, students and teachers could start to have dialogue and talk to policymakers about the need for peaceful resolution of conflict?"
It might not be televised. But that's the way it goes in a peacebuilding network. You move forward, toiling in obscurity, one radical idea at a time.
For a long time I shunned the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year. I had my reasons, which now seem Grinchlike. There was disdain, more or less hypocritical, for crass consumerism; contempt, more or less authentic, for people who practice it; and impatience, possibly premature, for crowded places in general. Let other people fight to the death over some cheap plastic piece of crap, was my attitude toward the day after Thanksgiving. I'm going for a hike.
This year was different. My boyfriend and I took a look at the attractive, contented shoppers streaming through San Francisco's Union Square, looked at each other, and dove in. Surrender was effortless. We joined the crowd hovering around the famous Macy's store windows, where kittens and puppies gazed back from their perches on doll furniture. We rode the escalators at Saks and sat on every sofabed in Crate & Barrel. We beamed at each other. We beamed at strangers. We bought stemware.
There's a simple explanation for this turnaround: we gave over to the pre-rational phenomenon known as the orgiastic ritual.
To paraphrase the philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, the orgiastic ritual is an activity cooked up by the group to scare away the very bad scariness of existential isolation. It's usually something a little racier than holiday shopping, but in this culture holiday shopping is frenzied and ritualistic enough to count. We meet in the marketplace, we all go a little crazy together, we have some fun, we make some mistakes. And in the end we're worn out and full of that good feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves.
The problem for anyone trying to remain sane and responsible during the holidays lies in what the "something larger" is.
Maybe it's nothing more than a consumer-driven economy that requires a massive end-of-year cash infusion just to keep the wheels from coming off. Indeed, the retail sector has come to rely on the holiday season. Analysts predict that one quarter of this year's retail spending, or $220 billion worth, will take place during the 29 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The day that starts it all off is known in the biz as Black Friday for its legendary power to push retailers safely into the profit column for the year. From that point on the experts, like priests reading the entrails of slaughtered beasts, anxiously watch for signs of how big the holiday shopping season – and therefore the year – will be.
The pressure is on to make it very big. Thus, this year's must-have gifts – the digital cameras, flat-screen TVs and iPods. What is absolutely necessary to the smooth running of the machinery is that spending in a given year exceed spending in the previous year. The analysts have predicted that we consumers will do our part and spend 5 to 6 percent more this year than last. The spending orgy will take place as scheduled.
Like all orgies, this one involves lapses in judgment. This year the average American is planning to spend $716 on holiday purchases, according to Myvesta, a Rockville, Md.-based consumer education organization. And that's planned spending. U.S. consumers typically blow their holiday gift-buying budgets by 15 to 30 percent.
So credit card use is up. On Black Friday it was 10 percent higher than last year. An estimated $87 billion of the season's $220 billion in sales will be on major credit cards. It's no secret that debt rises during the holidays. That's good. For somebody.
So is that it? We're here to stoke the engine of the economy and enrich someone else? Is there anything the non-believer can find that's good about Christmas? Any reason at all to feel okay about shrugging off caution and leaping into the shopping, overspending, debt-incurring orgy?
Yes. It's fun to give stuff to people we like. Just as the holidays are perfectly timed to banish winter doldrums – the days get shorter and the nights get longer, so we hang up twinkling lights and start bingeing – so are they perfectly timed to make the exchange of gifts the most meaningful. The world outside is withering, closing, darkening, but we are giving things away, spreading around joy and abundance and positively lighting up with consumer confidence.
In order to give stuff away, we have to go shopping. And as everyone who has ever been on a quest for the perfect gift well knows, this can be a fevered experience in which reason falls by the wayside, bent and trampled. This madness can infect the most well-meaning, progressive sort of person, even one making a conscious effort to eschew the materialism of the season. I know this firsthand. One year, determined to make my own Christmas presents and save a little money while I was at it, I managed to spend $200 on bath salt supplies, because nothing but the finest essential oils of neroli and rose and the best Breton salts and the loveliest-shaped bottles and the most fetching little ribbons would do for my dear friends.
Anyone can get drawn into the orgy of holiday shopping. It's part of the greater feast, a modern ritual within an ancient tradition. The pagans had Yule, the Romans had the Saturnalia, we have Christmas. And with it, extended mall hours and an excuse to go nuts.
In the end, the season is about sharing with family and friends. In the meantime, it's about jumping into the fray, credit cards held aloft, and declaring that no parking lot is too full, no store too crowded, no widget too costly, no credit limit too inflexible to defeat our noble purpose.
So the bill comes in January and we hang our heads. So what? It wouldn't be an an orgy if we didn't do things we later regretted. Otherwise it would just be a party. And we can go to those anytime.
Nobody breastfed in Charlotte, North Carolina in the late 1970s. That was for women who were too backward or poor to take advantage of the modern miracle of infant formula. So when registered nurse and new mother Charlotte Brody decided to nurse her baby, eyebrows went up.
Brody was undeterred. As someone who had worked with striking coal miners and disabled textile workers, many of whom suffered lung ailments, she considered the wellbeing of her newborn son more important than prevailing local mores. So she steered past the formula aisle, learned how to breastfeed by reading books, and ignored the stares and whispers.
Fast forward to 1994. Brody, now a mother of two, had just resigned as the executive director of the local Planned Parenthood affiliate to join Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs' Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste when the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that would change the course of her life. The study found that medical waste incinerators – used to burn everything from soiled bandages to syringes – were the nation's number one source of dioxin, a deadly carcinogenic byproduct of burning materials containing chlorine.
The thought that Planned Parenthood had been poisoning the air sent Brody reeling.
"We thought the more waste we could incinerate, the safer we were making our patients, because incineration burned up all the hepatitis and HIV bugs," she explains in a clear, careful voice that is both sweetly melodic and utterly resolved. Brody was stunned to learn that the waste was coming back into the hospital clinic as dioxin lodged in the breasts of women "whom we were trying so hard to keep healthy until they were ready to become mothers.
"I was particularly floored because I was very attached and proud of my breastfeeding of my sons," Brody recalls. "And the idea that I downloaded 20 years of toxic chemicals into my firstborn was just shocking and outrageous and deeply depressing."
The irony that the health care industry was a major polluter was not lost on Brody. But as a lifelong activist – she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the tender age of 16 – she also spied an opening for change.
In the spring of 1996, Citizens Clearinghouse and similar groups began a series of meetings in Bolinas on the grounds of Commonweal, a nonprofit research institute recognized as a leading force in the environmental health movement. That fall, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) was born. The new coalition had a straightforward mission: make the environment safer for humans by making hospitals safer for humans.
The campaign's starting point? Medical waste.
"Since there were alternatives to incineration, there was a sense that this was a problem we could solve if we just educated people and created an effort to make social change," Brody says. "And we've done it."
By approaching hospitals with information on alternative waste disposal systems just as costly new Clinton-era emissions rules kicked in, HCWH was able to reduce the number of medical incinerators operating nationwide from an estimated 6,000 in 1994 to 100 today.
HCWH has since grown to include more than 400 member organizations in 52 countries. In keeping with an ambitious mission to green the global health care industry, HCWH has launched campaigns to rid hospitals of mercury thermometers and toxics-leaching IV bags. It encourages hospitals to buy ecologically sound medical supplies, cleaners, building materials and organic food – a greening campaign with huge potential impact when you consider that the health care industry accounts for 15 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.
Brody's work, too, has evolved. In addition to her role as HCWH's executive director, she is active in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which strives to get harmful substances out of makeup, lotions, deodorants and toothpaste. Most recently, in January, she took over as executive director of Commonweal. The position puts her at the helm of an eclectic organization with focus areas in cancer, health care, environmental health and juvenile justice.
For Brody, it's about reaching ever further to make a difference and striving to find the greatest leverage point. As she puts it, "I just want to be part of a global community that keeps learning how to keep making bigger, smarter transformational change."
The Right to Be Chemical-Free
The insidious nature of environmental pollutants is a deeply disturbing fact of modern life. Dioxin, for example, spews from smokestacks, drifts through the atmosphere, settles on crop fields, contaminates the meat and milk of cows and eventually shows up in the body tissue of most Americans. It can cause cancer, immune system damage, birth defects and low IQ.
Phthalates are another evil genie. Used to make shower curtains, nail polish, IV bags and countless other items, they leach into the environment like humidity and are present in the tissue of virtually every human being. In July 2002, the Environmental Working Group, a partner in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, released a study that found phthalates present in three-quarters of cosmetics tested. (A later project, Skin Deep, screened 7,500 beauty and body care products for the presence of phthalates and created a searchable online database.) These ubiquitous compounds have been linked to liver, kidney and lung damage and impaired development in fetuses.
This gets to the heart of Brody's philosophy on environmental health: it's about motherhood and the right of children to be born without chemical contamination. She likes to quote Katsi Cook, the Mohawk healer, midwife and environmental health researcher who says, "Women are the first environment."
"The old way was to think of the problem of industrial chemicals as: 'How much of one chemical will give a 50-year-old male worker cancer?' And as long as we all were exposed to less than that amount, we were supposed to be safe.
"I think that what we need to be aiming for is how do we create a society that encourages the birth of healthy children," Brody says. "Women of childbearing age – not just pregnant women – are the canaries in the mine. But the answer isn't to give our canaries a 10-page list of dos and don'ts. The answer is to remake the world so it's safe for them. A world that's safe for young women will also be safe for men and frogs and coral."
Healthy Patients, Healthy Planet
In her quest to remake the world, Brody has emerged as a savvy strategist with solid credentials among activists and CEOs alike. Several years ago, HCWH realized that going to individual hospitals and appealing to them to switch to safer IV bags and non-antibiotic meat was all well and good, but going to the five purchasing collectives that control 70 percent of the market was better. Today, two of the collectives have stopped offering mercury products altogether, and the rest are following suit. Some are also switching from IV bags made with PVC, which leaches phthalate, while the two biggest IV bag manufacturers have abandoned PVC.
"The health care sector is waking up to its purchasing power to drive sustainability and health care goals – healthy patients, healthy workers, healthy communities, healthy planet," says HCWH co-founder Gary Cohen. "The possibilities here are just enormous."
This kind of strategic vision has earned Brody the respect of powerful industry leaders, says Kathy Gerwig, former director of environmental stewardship for Kaiser Permanente and an HCWH board member. She started working with Brody in 1997.
"The CEO then and our CEO now, George Halvorson, have both interacted with Charlotte and Health Care Without Harm and view the organization as extremely credible partners," Gerwig says. "She can sit in a meeting and talk to Housekeeping about chemical cleaners and talk to the CEO of a $22 billion medical organization about how to be a leader in environmentally sustainable health care."
Brody is also a born collaborator, Gerwig says. "In other settings, [with] somebody like Charlotte, an activist, and someone like me on the corporate side, the natural order of things is to be adversaries," she says, "and her natural order of things is to find the nexus. There is no 'across the table' with Charlotte. You're on the same side."
Janet Nudelman, program director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund and a longtime collaborator of Brody's, most recently on the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, says Brody is the same way with fellow activists.
"Anyone that's done social change work has often come out of that work feeling really bruised," she says. "People sometimes give themselves the excuse that the work is so important that relationships don't matter. Charlotte is really the antithesis of that. She really is the personification of the belief that relationships matter."
Asked what discovery has aided her most in her work, Brody takes a minute to consider. "It's that I don't know everything," she says at last. "And that some of the cultural trappings of the left are less than useful. The people who have been the champions of moving Health Care Without Harm issues in their hospitals can't all quote Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg, and I think really creating an organization where you didn't have to fit one cultural mold .... Well, you don't have to be a hiker or a biker or a Billy Bragg fan."
A Holistic View of Change
Commonweal sits on 60 windblown acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, two miles up the road from the hamlet of Bolinas and a remote hour from San Francisco along vertiginous coastal corkscrews. A few buildings huddle among clumps of trees, but otherwise the place seems deserted, a plain of blowing grasses framed against indigo foothills. Rising abruptly from the middle of this scene are dozens of ghostly radio antennas, now-silent transmitters placed there by radio's inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, in 1913. It was here that Commonweal founder Michael Lerner was struck by inspiration one day in 1975.
"I had an image, a strong image that it might be possible to create a center there that we could use for work on both personal and planetary healing," he says. The next year, he and a group of friends started Commonweal with the goal of creating "a safer world for people and all life."
Lerner guided Commonweal for 27 years, fashioning it into a multi-dimensional institute with four areas of focus: helping people with cancer live better lives, reacquainting physicians with the spiritual aspect of healing, reforming the juvenile justice system, and fostering better health for people and the environment. When he suffered a heart attack last year, he began looking for the next generation of leadership to take over Commonweal. In January, he handed his baby to Charlotte Brody.
"Here was a person who had a lifelong commitment to poor people, workers and peace and the environment and justice," Lerner says of his successor. "So it was just a deeply natural fit for the Commonweal community. But on top of that, Charlotte is someone who is more than a good organizer. She is a really capacious thinker and a broad-gauge human being."
Nudelman concurs and observes that Commonweal, with its holistic view of creating change, is a natural home for Brody. "Commonweal is really an organization that understands the interconnectedness of things – public health, women's health, environmental justice," she says, "and it makes sense that Charlotte has arrived there because it's such a clear intellectual practice for her to see how these things relate."
Brody herself pondered the interconnectedness recently. "It's a dangerous myth to believe that you can make yourself into a healthy person on a sick planet," she said. "You can eat wild salmon instead of tuna to reduce your exposure to PCBs and mercury. You can exercise and reduce your risk of heart disease and hypertension. But we can't shop our way or lifestyle our way out of being connected to everything else on our planet."
In "The Motorcycle Diaries," director Walter Salles' tribute to Che Guevara, the hero speeds up the spine of the Andes clinging to his buddy on the back of a wheezing Norton. The year is 1952 and it is dawning on the young Che that the gorgeous vistas of his beloved Latin America conceal a corrosive cancer of greed and oppression. He dedicates himself to fighting for the common people, and the film ends on a hopeful note: change is coming.
The film has been a bright spot in the dark weeks surrounding the U.S. election. But it's just a movie, after all. We know how the real story ends. Che will die in Bolivia before his 40th birthday, betrayed by the peasants he sought to deliver, and right-wing governments throughout the continent will spend the next four decades brutally suppressing liberation movements while transnational corporations plunder the region's wealth unimpeded.
All the more reason to welcome recent real-life developments in Latin America. Chronically ignored by the Bush administration but expected to embrace its free trade proposals, Latin America is pushing back. Over the past weekend, as George W. Bush and other Pacific Rim leaders descended on the Chilean capital of Santiago to press a trade agenda, 30,000 protesters flowed into the streets like lava, chanting against the Iraq war and globalization.
That was a dramatic illustration of anti-American sentiment, but in reality the protest goes much deeper. Citizens throughout Latin America have been steadily turning leftward since the late 1990s, electing leaders in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela with strong social agendas and demonstrated independence from the U.S. Some defied Bush on the Iraq war. Most have displayed deep skepticism of the so-called Washington Consensus, a philosophy originating in the U.S. and upheld by the International Monetary Fund that emphasizes free trade, tightened government spending and the privatization of state-held utilities.
Whether this is a revolution or a momentary spasm is the subject of much speculation. Major media have downplayed the shift, remarking that recently elected leftists are more likely to work within the system than openly challenge it.
Nevertheless, change is afoot. Ariel Perez, a native of Argentina who teaches language at the University of California-Santa Cruz, thinks it's fueled by anger over economic bullying by the global North and the havoc wreaked by a decade and more of globalization.
"There is a pride there," he says. "We can't drop our pants and turn around every time. And that is the attitude of these men, and that is what the people are liking now."
Trading Up for a Leftist
Two days before Americans reelected the most conservative leader ever to sit in the White House, the small country of Uruguay put a leftist president in office for the first time in its 170-year history. Tabare Vazquez, a cancer specialist, ran for office pledging to tackle poverty in the once-prosperous country and to prioritize trade within Brazil's Mercosur trade bloc. This was an implicit jab at the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a Bush project to drop trade barriers throughout the Western Hemisphere (with a key exception that has irritated governments throughout Latin America: Washington wants to keep giving subsidies to American farmers). Vazquez was rewarded with more than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race against the two U.S.-friendly political parties that had run the country for all time.
As if to hammer home their point, voters also rejected a typical piece of advice from the IMF – the privatization of the state water utility – deciding, in the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, that "water, a scarce and finite resource, must be the right of every person and not the privilege of those who can afford it."
Clearly, the connection between their own miseries and the neoliberal reforms advocated by Washington and the IMF was not lost on the Uruguayans. The country suffered an economic crisis culminating in a run on the banks after neighboring Argentina's economy crashed in 2001 under a staggering debt load made worse by U.S. and IMF dictates. The contagious downturn left the relatively affluent and progressive Uruguayans, who identify closely with Europe and led Latin America in adopting a welfare system and women's suffrage, facing a 30 percent poverty rate and watching their young people leave en masse in search of opportunity.
Independence from the IMF
Uruguay, huddled between Brazil and Argentina on the Atlantic coast, is only the latest country to rebuff the free-market charge led by the Bush White House and the IMF. Its two neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, as well as Venezuela, have the region's strongest left-leaning presidents.
Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, a member of the Peronist party, arrived in office in May 2003 and promptly put the IMF on notice: Argentina would not pay back its $100 billion debt at the expense of the Argentinean people. (When a country defaults on an IMF loan, as Argentina had, the fund usually relaxes its repayment schedule and even agrees to keep the monetary spigot turned on – as long as the country agrees to "austerity measures," which means less money for social programs, and other conditions like the privatization of utilities, widely seen as benefiting transnational corporations.) Through a protracted tussle with the IMF Kirchner held his ground.
Brazil has seen pronounced change as well. Two years ago Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, a former union leader, became Brazil's first working-class president. Lula did not default on Brazil's $250 billion debt – centrist forces within his party had prevailed on this issue in the run-up to the election – so he did not take Brazil's new spirit of independence to the IMF arena as Kirchner would six months later. But by promoting his Zero Hunger campaign, restored ties with Cuba and regional trade through Mercosur, Lula made it clear that Brazil, the country with the most inequitable distribution of wealth in the world, would honor its socialist yearnings and conduct trade on its own terms. Like many other Latin American countries, Brazil also now has a blossoming economic relationship with China, another threat to Washington.
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, backed by the clout that comes with having the world's 7th-largest oil reserves, is more brazen. A former guerrilla commander from the impoverished hinterlands, Chavez came into power in 1998 and began firmly regrouping the national oil company under state control after a series of moves by the previous administration to privatize it. Oil company managers and some unions that stood to gain from privatization went ballistic; meanwhile, Venezuela's elites bristled at Chavez's warm relations with Fidel Castro, who supplied Venezuela's guerrillas with arms in the 1960s and now sends doctors to care for Venezuela's poor in exchange for cheap oil. A Chavez opposition sprang up with Washington's support but has failed twice – once in an April 2002 coup and in August at the polls – to oust him. Meanwhile Chavez makes no bones about his contempt for Bush's vision of world trade domination and has even publicly called Bush a pendejo, or asshole.
Signs of unrest are developing elsewhere as well. A year ago, Bolivia's Washington-backed president, Gonzala Sanchez de Lozada, fled to Miami via helicopter after riots broke out over his privatization campaign and plans to sell natural gas abroad. His replacement, Carlos Mesa, has pledged to put the natural gas industry under state control.
In Nicaragua and El Salvador, the political parties that grew out of the guerrilla movements of the 1980s are losing national elections but dominating at the local level – a possible precursor, says University of New Mexico professor Benjamin Goldfrank, to success at the national level.
"My sense is the left has come back based on two things," says Goldfrank. "One is charismatic presidential candidates. And on the other hand, the left has been experimenting with local-level participatory democracy in major cities of the region."
By gaining a foothold in local government and then opening up the doors to the public – not to mention improving services – leftist parties in Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela have established their credibility, Goldfrank says, paving the way to presidential victories.
"So while you have the failure of neoliberal and traditional right-wing policies at the national level, at the local level you also get the idea that the left won't produce chaos, but will govern effectively."
Latin America is hardly a worker's paradise. Colombia stands out as a throwback, its President Alvaro Uribe hewing closely to Washington's dictates on drug eradication and approach to the left-wing rebels that get their money from the narcotics trade. Peru's Alejandro Toledo, that country's first indigenous president, came to office in 2001 promising to create 1 million new jobs, but has been unable to deliver and now has an approval rating of 10 percent.
Meanwhile, in countries with a leftist in office, things are far from rosy. Unemployment in Brazil is 11 percent, and Brazilians grumble that Lula has failed to deliver on his promises – a factor that probably contributed to his Workers Party's loss of the mayoralties of Sao Paolo and even its stronghold of Porto Allegre a month ago. Goldfrank reports that the more radical contingent of the Workers Party has left the building. And the other day some students tried to egg Lula, Goldfrank says, but missed.
This could be a clue to the future. The leftist presidents may have sailed to victory on populist agendas, but the realities of their agreements with the IMF, and of their economies' dependence on foreign investment, limits what they can do.
"All these left-wing governments are doomed to fail again as they did before," says Perez. "When capital doesn't get what it wants, it pulls out, and that means hunger."
So they are caught in a vise. If they don't do enough, the people will fire them. If they do too much, the system will retaliate, precipitating crisis, and the people will fire them.
As a result, they have moderated. Vazquez agreed on the campaign trail to honor IMF austerity measures that accompanied a bailout in the wake of the economic collapse. That may imperil his ability to fulfill the promises that got him elected. In Argentina, a country that privatized its oil company a decade ago, Perez says Kirchner took tentative steps toward returning to that arrangement by setting up a state oil company – 45 percent of which is privately held.
"And that's it," says Perez. "That's as far as he can go. As soon as you start shaking the tree to get some money back, they're going to start doing something to create an unstable situation."
Goldfrank does not see the recent trend as a flash in the pan, nor as mere reactionism. But he does take a wait-and-see attitude.
"The real question is whether they can do anything different from previous regimes," he says. "Chavez has much more leeway to do that because of Venezuela's oil wealth. Vazquez and Lula don't have the extra resources. They have less room to maneuver."
It is the poetic Galeano, writing about Uruguay, who has the most hope to share about the fate of the people 6,000 miles down the road.
"We are now starting to recover that creative energy, which seemed lost in the long night of memory," he writes. "... It won't be easy. Relentless reality will soon remind us of the inevitable distance between what we want and what we can do ... We have limited space to move. But what alone seems difficult, and even impossible, can be imagined, and even attained, if we get together with our neighboring countries like we have been able to get together with our street neighbors."