Why I care more about the Koch brothers than heirloom tomatoes

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We like upbeat local stories of Transition. But we don't ignore scary national stories either. Photo: basykes via Flickr.

“Why do you write about politics so much? Why so negative?  Why not more stories on Permaculture?” are questions we sometimes get from readers. Often followed by a statement about what the Transition movement is really about.

Transition, we are told, is really about “positive actions in the local community” such as…

  • Planting community gardens
  • Working with your city council to cut energy use in municipal buildings
  • Printing a local currency

For the record, I’m a fan of all the above. I’m just not ready yet to join Voltaire’s Candide in withdrawing from the world to cultivate my garden.

Gardening in the community

For example, as part of Transition US’s 350 Home and Garden Challenge this month, our local Transition group got involved in a community garden that’s helping to take back a troubled neighborhood from gangs and drugs. In the future, we’d like to work with City Hall on an energy descent action plan. There’s even been talk of starting a local clean-energy utility with lots of solar panels.

And back at Transition Voice, I love to see us publish articles on Permaculture, urban homesteading, the local food movement or other community-based solutions. Could we do more? You bet.

But I don’t live on a farm. I don’t live in an eco-village. I don’t live in a straw-bale house on a commune, or in a co-op or in any kind of experimental green community at all. And I know that most Americans don’t either.

Instead, most of us live in cities, suburbs and towns. Every day, we see more cars than cows. If we’re lucky, we may have a little plot where we can keep a small garden. Otherwise, if we live in a high-rise apartment building, we may have to settle for growing a few herbs in pots on the windowsill.

And most Americans don’t spend much time planting organic seedlings, tending backyard chickens or canning their own rhubarb preserves. Instead, we shlep to shops and offices from 9 to 5 and sit at counters or at computer screens. Maybe that’s our problem. If the shit really hits the fan, then the 99% of us who aren’t yet homesteading (or even urban homesteading) may be out of luck when the delivery trucks stop pulling into the Safeway.

Sometimes that scares me and I think my family should abandon town living for someplace where we can grow more food, chop our own wood for heat and keep safely away from the rioting mobs when the peak-ocalypse comes.

But other times I feel certain that my fate is urban. That I was meant to rise or fall with the majority of my fellow citizens. That even if I could help make my own little town peak oil-proof, no amount of stalls at the farmer’s market or insulation blown into the local high school will protect my community from climate change.

I’m not even sure there’s a way to shield our town — or any place at all — from the economic and political problems of national or state government in the event of an oil crash or climate disaster. What about those armed bands of marauders or hoards of refugees you see in every movie about the end of the world as we know it?

Even if the mutant zombie bikers happen to leave our town unmolested, it seems un-compassionate for me to leave the rest of the nation and the world to its sad fate if I can help, even in a small way, to prevent disaster and all the suffering it would bring.

And I’m sure that many of us working together can prevent disaster. Smart people like Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and James Hansen tell me so.

Economy and ecology: we’re all connected

I don’t need John Donne to tell me that no man is an island. And I don’t need either a Permaculturist or an economist — whether David Holmgren or David Ricardo — to tell me that no community is an island. Heck, these days not even an island is an island, whether it’s Manhattan or Key West.

If the local electric utility wanted to build a nuclear plant next to your community garden, wouldn’t you want to try to get government on your side?

No matter how well prepared we are locally, to a certain extent, all of America will rise or fall together, though some places may fare better than others. And since the US is the world’s biggest polluter and the world’s biggest energy user, other nations are counting on us to finally get energy and climate right.

To save our local communities, we need local action. But we also need our federal and state governments to pass rational energy and climate policy.

So far, Washington has been doing the exact opposite of rational energy policy. Instead, in Bush-lite style, Obama has pushed for more oil drilling despite the Deepwater Horizon. More coal mining despite record melting in the Arctic. And more nukes despite Fukushima. All this while giving only lip-service to clean energy and conservation.

This is not because President Obama, Energy Secretary Chu or anyone else who understands energy in Washington really thinks that fossil fuels and atoms offer a smart energy future. It’s because in today’s plutocracy, they don’t have much choice. The federal government has been captured by corporate special interests who now use the organs of the state to promote their own profits at the expense of the American people and generations yet unborn.

For energy policy to change, ordinary concerned citizens need to dislodge big corporations from the statehouse, the White House and Capitol Hill. And that means getting the Koch brothers out of politics. Getting Big Oil and Big Coal out of politics. And getting climate change deniers out of politics.

From farm to fork in the road

Folks on the farm will make sure that we all don’t starve in the future. Folks in local communities are building valuable social capital for an America that’s more local and resilient. But let’s not forget that activists in Washington are doing crucial Transition work too.

They’re helping to make sure we can preserve anything like an industrial economy beyond peak oil and anything like a liveable climate into the coming century.

So, I’m going to stand with those activists and keep writing about the Koch brothers until ordinary citizens have succeeded in taking back our democracy, as Americans did back in the trust-busting era a century ago. Egypt, Tunisia and Wisconsin show that it can be done today. But to dislodge oligarchs, you need to know who they are, whether Hosni Mubarak or Governor Scott Walker. Even if it’s kind of a bummer to have to talk about them so much — to “go negative.”

But if you prefer to grow heirloom tomatoes and if you like to write about it, why not send us a story?

— Erik Curren

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  1. macrobe says

    Many of us do both: grow tomatoes and are politically active. We don’t have to continue on a binary path: this way or that way, either/or.

    • says

      Very good point, macrobe. We try to take the both/and approach here, and we like to run stories on both Permaculture and politics. We could probably use more pieces on food and local Transition work. So I hope people will help us out!

  2. GS says

    Very timely article.

    So here is where that logic is put to the test.

    Transition assumes that you can bring anyone into the fold, even Koch-brother-loving Glenn Beck watchers. Find a way to seduce them sideways by offering “community” and heirloom tomatoes and they will do the right thing even without accepting limits to growth. Do you support this approach even though it leaves these people voting for candidates who go to Washington to kill the EPA and drill-baby-drill?

    Rob Hopkins wrote recently about whether Transition shouldn’t even emphasize the issues anymore. I was flabbergasted by this. The idea that appealing for community can make dealing with ideological conflict unnecessary is something I find very hard to swallow.

    • says

      GS — Thanks for your comment. We re-posted the piece of Rob’s that you mention (http://transitionvoice.com/2011/05/when-its-time-to-stop-talking-about-peak-oil-and-climate-change/) because we think it brings up a point facing Transitioners in particular and people who care about the environment in general. Rob is so open-minded and thoughtful, I love to see his mental process at work, whether I agree with his conclusions or not. For my part, I tend to follow Bill McKibben or James Hansen, who are straightforward about their ultimate purpose for cutting pollution from fossil fuels — it’s not really to save money or create green jobs. It’s to fight climate change. They think that there’s some power that comes from honestly facing the problem straight on, and I do too.

      • GS says

        “there’s some power that comes from honestly facing the problem straight on, and I do too.”

        Bill McKibben is for public displays of dissent. So when you face the problem straight on, the problem being the BAU paradigm on display in your neighborhood, do you bite your lip and shunt all that vitriol to this blog where it is (let’s face it) preaching to the converted or do you speak up and violate the Transition prime-directive of not pissing off your community?

        Note that history is marching onward. Sociological trends left unchecked have yielded progressively LESS belief in global warming, even as the data keeps getting grimmer, and a new batch of legislators who are pro-business, pro-fossil fuels, anti-science and anti-regulation. And guess who put them there? Your neighbors. And why did they do it? Because the latent culture supports this way of thinking, reinforced by Murdoch and the Koch brothers.

        For instance, I live in the blue-state district that sent Scott Brown to Washington to block the removal of oil subsidies. Those are the neighbors I’m supposed to engage with in a friendly and nonjudgmental way.

        The right wing doesn’t care about hurting people’s feelings. They have engaged in a knock-down-drag-down war against their ideological opponents. I fear that the passive nurturing approach of Transition is seriously out-gunned by forces that frame the world in simplistic us-vs-them scapegoating terms that people naturally want to reach for.

        I’ve been looking for answers to this paradox for the last few years and so far nobody’s been able to provide it. Greer thinks we should give up and tend our gardens, and Hopkins thinks you can make an omelet without breaking eggs. I don’t like Greer’s fatalism and I have a hard time being as wide-eyed idealist as Hopkins.

        This is probably a subject that would make a good full post on your part, as the comments section can hardly do justice to it. But this is the debate that’s been raging for some time in the blogosphere. You know, green wizard vs. transition, “deep transition” vs. transition, or add McKibben’s “classic activist” approach or even Derrick Jensen’s radicalism to the mix of options that are being actively promoted.

        It just seems ever since Climategate/Nopenhagen that everybody’s been doing a lot of refactoring, which I think is really important, because like I said, history is marching on and you have to be aware of what’s working, what isn’t, and what it would really take to make a whit of difference in the end trajectory.

  3. James R. Martin says

    “This is not because President Obama, Energy Secretary Chu or anyone else who understands energy in Washington really thinks that fossil fuels and atoms offer a smart energy future. It’s because in today’s plutocracy, they don’t have much choice. The federal government has been captured by corporate special interests who now use the organs of the state to promote their own profits at the expense of the American people and generations yet unborn.”


    I’ve largely given up hope that the American people will or can create a government of, by, and for the people. It’s the word “largely” in that sentence that keeps me attentive to the voices of those who think otherwise. That said, let me say this.: I think we need to take a page (a chapter, an essay, a book) from the African American Civil Rights Movement (AACRM). (Not “The” Civil Rights Movement, which is identical in purpose but broader in scope.) The AACRM inspired other “hit the streets!” movements of liberation, and — as I see it — showed us what must be risked and done to get America to pay attention to injustice in the face of entrenched power. It is now time to learn from those who did more than to simply write and talk and talk and write about our situation. We should, of course, continue to write and talk; but we should also begin to join hands and enfold non-lethal arms and march, sit-in, … and enact our moment’s version of refusing to go to the back of the bus. We have our version of the Lunch Counter to envision, organize, and enact. Planting a garden is an important part of this — but it’s really time to rock the boat again. I mean, let her rock!

    • says

      I agree that the civil rights movement (especially the African American part) is a good example of bottom up citizen action to force society and the fed govt to take positive action, against the strong feelings of an entrenched minority. I look back to the trust-busting era of Teddy Roosevelt also as a time when Americans fought back against excessive corporate power. Indeed, you can even go back to the Revolution. Much of British rule was conducted through joint-stock companies such as the East India Company, whose tea found its way into Boston Harbor. So could you say that America was born from a revolt against not just aristocrats, but plutocrats and corporations? This gives me hope that if we follow guys like McKibben we could do the same now. Wisconsin was a good start. Something’s got to give — plutocracy has gone too far and more and more people know it.

      • James R. Martin says

        Erik, (and others here),

        Have you any ideas as to the sorts of non-violent direct action which Americans could engage in to address such issues of our time?

        Even a well organized General Strike of a single day would send a strong message to those in power, if it were broadly enacted. The message would be that we could strike for a week, if need be. Or longer, if necessary.

        Unfortunately, the media isn’t so much on the people’s side as it was durintg the African American Civil Rights Movement. But we have the internet! And almost everyone has a video or still digital camera these days. We could document our actions ourselves, since we can’t count on the tv networks to take our side.

        • says

          James — That’s the question, isn’t it?

          –This AlterNet piece, “Ten Steps to Defeat the Corptocracy,” (http://www.alternet.org/story/151018/10_steps_to_defeat_the_corptocracy) has some ideas which are mostly mental reprogramming for activists and longer-term education/coalition building in the larger society.
          –Adbusters recommends culture jamming and the Yes Men support spoof actions like going to meetings and pretending to be the representative of a major company or financial institution.
          –My wife Lindsay, who’s also our editor, DOES like the idea of a general strike. Maybe she’ll chime in on that.
          –And groups including The Other 98% and Common Cause support immediate actions such as pushing to reverse Corporate Personhood in federal law through a constitutional amendment or other legal measures.

          I’d love to hear other ideas!

  4. James R. Martin says

    Some Thoughts About Action

    ~ Those actions are best which are thought about carefully, and discussed openly, before enacted.

    Of course, there are exceptions to this principle. Open discussion is good, but there may need to be limits as to whom is invited to the open discussion. We don’t want to invite our opposition to the table, for example. (Weird to think we have an opposition!)

    Another danger is that the open discussion period could continue ad nauseam, thus …

    ~ Those actions are best which are timely and not overly delayed.


    ~ Those actions are best which are freely chosen …

    … meaning Not Everyone At Any Given Table Need Participate.

    Some may choose to advocate for a general strike, hash that out at “the table,” and ultimately go for it. Others at the same table could find a corner of the room to hash out differing strategies and action agreements. Agreement as to purpose need not amount to agreement about tactics, strategies or actions.

    ~ This list and discussion is open. No one owns or controls it.

    Thus the means and the ends of the discussion and action align and overlap. The end is freedom and the means are freedom. (Or, democracy, if you prefer) The discussion is an action. The action involves and necessitates discussion.

    . . . .

    ~ Theorists and Intellectuals are Helpful, Necessary, But …

    ~ Time is short.

    ~ Good thoughts should lead to good actions.

    thus (and?)

    ~ Good actions open to good new thoughts, which

    … should lead to good actions.

    Theory and Praxis are a Virtuous Cycle. Each needs the other to be whole.

    Move, dance, sit still, but do something. Our best thinking happens on our feet.

    ~ Poetry & Prose Overlap. Be the poem you would read and enact before the world.

  5. says

    Same thought as macrobe…pursue parallel paths and do both. Our blog lists our attempts (some successful, many spectacularly not).


    Enjoy reading your stuff, Erik. Keep the thought-provoking pieces coming!

    • Erik Curren says

      Thanks for your nice comment OptOut! I just looked at your blog. Clean and easy to read. Keep up the good work.

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