Making utopia practical

In nearly a half century fighting abuses of power, Ralph Nader has seen the worst in people, from venality in politicians to arrogance in corporate executives. And Nader knows as well as anyone that corporate control of Washington has kept the US from implementing the policy we need to fight climate change and prepare for peak oil.

Now, Nader’s written his first novel, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” which he calls a “practical utopia.”

cover for "Only the Super-rich Can Save Us!"
“Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!”

By Ralph Nader
Seven Stories Press. 733 pp. $27.50.

For people who care about peak oil and climate change, there’s a method to Nader’s madness. He seems to be offering optimism as an antidote to the poisonous cynicism and indulgence in scenarios of doom that together threaten to sideline the sustainability movement and torpedo any chance for American society to deal with our historic energy and pollution challenges in a positive way.

Long on policy, short on politics

After thirty years of earnest tomes exhorting us to create sustainable economies, starting with The Limits to Growthand Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful in the early seventies, we’ve done just the opposite. Now, our globalized consumer economy is bigger and badder than anyone ever imagined, and climate change and peak oil threaten the very basis of industrial civilization worldwide.

Why haven’t we mended our ways?

It’s certainly not for lack of good policy ideas. But it could be for lack of political strategy. And that’s where Ralph Nader comes in.

In the last couple years alone, we’ve seen many guides to creating a sustainable economy from Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy to David Korten’s Agenda for a New Economy, Lester Brown’s Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization and even Pat Murphy’s answer to Brown in Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change.

Each volume overflows with sensible proposals to save energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions and empower local economies. But now that we have all these good ideas, how can we get them passed into law in a Washington where even the Obama White House gives more love to the Chamber of Commerce than to civil society groups? Especially when big corporations might worry that some of the ideas might threaten their profits?

Nader’s answer is that all Americans need to start behaving like good citizens — starting with the very rich.

The dream team

Nader imagines an America where billionaires can be split off from mere millionaires to reinvigorate American democracy and take economic power from Wall Street and give it back to Main Street. The story starts when Warren Buffett gets an idea:

In the cozy den of the large but modest house in Omaha where he has lived since he started on his first billion, Warren Buffett watched the horrors of Hurricane Katrina unfold on television in early September 2005. . . . On the fourth day, he beheld in disbelief the paralysis of local, state, and federal authorities unable to commence basic operations of rescue and sustenance, not just in New Orleans, but in towns and villages all along the Gulf Coast. . . He knew exactly what he had to do. . .

After helping out in Louisiana, Buffett decides to recruit a committee of fellow billionaires, including Phil Donahue, Warren Beatty, Ted Turner, George Soros, Bill Cosby and Yoko Ono to fix America’s biggest problems. Bringing the power of their influence and personal networks along with wheelbarrows of cash, the billionaires pledge themselves to a $15 billion campaign to fix the environment, reduce the gap between rich and poor, clean up elections and help small businesses.

To accomplish this second American revolution, Nader imagines nothing less than the dream activist campaign: never short on funds, staffed by top talent and run with the efficient urgency of a military invasion.

Critics can’t accuse this campaign of trying to turn the country “socialist,” because its sponsors are America’s most respected business leaders.

The campaign also avoids anything that could be perceived as an attack on national pride, such as proposing to cut the defense budget (a lesson that the peak oil community, with its ample citation of military reports on the threat of armed conflict over oil, seems to have learned well already). Indeed, from its PR spokesperson — a parrot named Patriotic Polly — on down, the “Meliorist” campaign waves the Stars and Stripes and serves up a heaping helping of mom and apple pie.

Talk about success. Not only do the billionaires unionize Wal-Mart and get their whole agenda through Congress, both in the space of less than a year. They also found a new political party that sweeps the mid-term elections.

Most interesting of all, the campaign converts political opponents into supporters. The George W. Bush-esque president ends up taking credit for the billionaires’ legislation and Congressional bulls are relieved that they no longer have to grovel for corporate campaign funding. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Can it happen?

Just before the book came out, Nader made courtesy calls to the dozen or so billionaires who served as inspiration for the characters of the same name in Nader’s book. “I feel that if I am going to do that to people, I want to give them all a heads up,” he told the New Yorker. Nader also wanted to try to recruit the real-life billionaires for an effort to make the novel’s fictional campaign into an actual one.

It may have worked. In June 2010 Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates started a campaign of their own calling on their fellow billionaires to donate more than half of their wealth to charities. As of December 2010, the three had convinced 57 families on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans to sign onto their Giving Pledge campaign.

Much of the money pledged is sure to go to relatively uncontroversial medical charities or community service projects rather than political causes that will make big CEOs sweat. But there’s still time for advocacy groups of all sorts to follow Nader’s example and hit up billionaires, both in the US and beyond.

Though it’s fiction, the book can serve as a handbook for activists to get their issues out to a wider public using fun and spectacle.

For example, Buffett’s group mounts Sun God Festivals to promote clean energy. These high-concept stage shows feature acts such as “Beauty and the Brains,” pairing scientists in lab coats making “offerings”of clean energy gadgets to statuesque young women:

One such demonstration featured  a tall, lithe Goddess training an oversized magnifying glass on the wooden logo of one of the big energy companies until the concentrated power of the sun burned it to a crisp. “Who says solar is too diffuse to be practical?” she asked the audience sweetly. Other shows and exhibits provided equally graphic refutations of one canard after another that had been circulating about solar energy for years: that it was too irrevocably costly, that solar photovoltaic took way too much land surface, that it would be decades, if ever, before solar could make a significant contribution to rising energy demands…

Until they’ve tried more Nader-style outreach tactics, it’s too soon for climate and energy activists to write off either Washington or the American people.

Fewer boring technical explanations. Less apocalyptic fear. More fun and hope. It might just be crazy enough to work. And a few billionaires on board might help, too.

— Erik Curren

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