Category Archives: Spirituality

Utopian/dystopian novels, part 2

I’ve now created a section under “Resources” in the top menu bar for fiction books, including utopian/dystopian novels. There you’ll find a list of my favorites and notes on Octavia Butler’s two Parable novels, Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, and Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. The notes will give you a flavor of these great fiction works, and are better than nothing if you can’t read them in their entirety, but I hope at some point you will, since they function so well as positive, alternative visions for us as we live into our (currently) dystopian future. Such visions, especially so vividly expressed in fiction, also act as healing balms when we’re discouraged by what’s going on around us – which for me is most of the time.

You will see that Butler’s novels detail what the further extension of our dystopia could be like, that Starhawk’s trilogy, including the prequel Walking to Mercury and sequel, The City of Refuge, is a communal vision, and that Le Guin’s book is both a detailed description of an ideal future agrarian society and the individual story of someone born into that society who also lived in its mirror opposite for a time.

I find it interesting that all of these novels are set in northern California, though they also range a bit further afield. Perhaps the Cascadia of another visionary novelist, Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging) will actually emerge as the seedbed for a better world.

As noted on Wikipedia, “Cascadia is a bioregion and proposed country that would consist of the Canadian province of British Columbia and the US states of Washington and Oregon. At its maximum extent, Cascadia would stretch from coastal Alaska in the north into northern California in the south, and inland to include parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, as far southeast as Colorado, and the Yukon. More conservative advocates propose borders that include the land west of the crest of Cascade Range, and the western side of British Columbia. As measured only by the combination of present Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia statistics, Cascadia would be home to slightly more than 16 million people, and by land area would be the 20th largest country in the world.

There are several reasons why the Cascadia movement aims to foster connections and a sense of place within the Pacific Northwest region and strive toward independence. The main reasons stated by the movement include environmentalism, bioregionalism, privacy, civil liberties, and freedom, increased regional integration, and local food networks and economies. The designer of the Doug flag, Alexander Baretich, claims that Cascadia is not necessarily about secession but is rather about survival of peak oil, global warming, and other pending environmental and socioeconomic problems.

In 1956, groups from Cave Junction, Oregon and Dunsmuir, California threatened to tear southern Oregon and northern California from their respective state rulers to form the State of Jefferson.

Ernest Callenbach’s environmental utopian novel Ecotopia (1975) follows an American reporter, William Weston, on his tour through a secretive republic (the former Washington, Oregon, and northern California) 20 years after their secession from the U.S. Weston is shown a society that has been centrally planned, scaled down, and readapted to fit within the constraints of environmental sustainability.

A research study by the Western Standard in 2005 found that support for exploring secession from Canada was at 35.7% in British Columbia, and 42% in Alberta. While difficult to gauge support specifically in Washington and Oregon, because no research has been done for those states, a nationwide poll by Zogby International in 2008 found that 22% of Americans support a state’s or region’s right to peacefully secede from the United States, the highest rate since the American Civil War. However, none of these studies are specifically about forming an independent Cascadia. The movement saw much discussion in the 1990s, and while the increase in security and American nationalism after the September 11 attacks set back the movement’s momentum for some time, the concept has continued to become more ingrained into society and the public consciousness. In January 2011, Time magazine included Cascadia number eight on a list of ‘Top 10 Aspiring Nations,’ noting it ‘has little chance of ever becoming a reality.’

Also making this list is the Second Vermont Republic, a secessionist group within the U.S. state of Vermont which seeks to restore the formerly independent status of the Vermont Republic (1777–91). It describes itself as ‘a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank opposed to the tyranny of corporate America and the U.S. government, and committed to the peaceful return of Vermont to its status as an independent republic and more broadly the dissolution of the Union.’ The organization was founded in 2003 by Thomas Naylor (1936–2012), a former Duke University economics professor and co-author of the 1997 book Downsizing the U.S.A.”

 

Getting inspiration from utopian/dystopian fiction

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this for a long time, and reading Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (2013) has gotten me to actually do it! Womack says that in 2011 she “attended the Think Galacticon conference. Unlike the typical science fiction conference, its creators hoped to use science fiction as a platform for broader changes in society. Held at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, the conference brought activists, science fiction writers, and fans together to share perspectives on social change and privilege. Panels included talks on classism in fantasy novels (why don’t the paupers ever challenge the prince for power?), the growing black independent comic book scene, and personal growth tools for revolution.

In her workshop, noted activist Adrienne Maree Brown said, ‘It’s amazing to change the world, but it’s heartbreaking, bone-cracking work, and you don’t often see the change in real time. For me as an organizer, what gets me through has been immersing myself in certain sci-fi worlds.’ She uses sci-fi to frame an inspirational perspective for youth that she works with too. ‘Your life is science fiction,’ she tells them. ‘You’re Luke Skywalker, but way cooler; you’re trans and black and you’re surviving the world of Detroit.’

Brown began her activism work in college. She’s a former executive director of the Ruckus Socity, a nonprofit that specializes in environmental activism and guerilla communication, and is heavily involved with the League of Pissed Off Voters. A Detroit resident, she describes herself as an organizational healer, pleasure activist, and artist, obsessed with developing models for action and community transformation.

She’s also a sci-fi fan. After discovering Octavia Butler’s work, she was inspired to develop new work of her own. Brown is using Butler’s pivotal Parables series and its post-apocalyptic tale as a template for change agency in desperate communities. Her workshop at Galacticon was titled ‘Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategies.’ The workshop description read as follows: ‘“All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” These words of Octavia Butler’s have impacted people seriously on a personal level, but how do we apply her wisdom on a political organizing level? How would accepting and coming to love the emergent power of changing conditions affect our strategic planning? This session will be half popular organizational development training and half inquiry into what the future of organizational development and strategic planning will look like.’

As far as Brown is concerned, many abandoned urban communities in New York City, New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, Cincinnati, and Detroit are post-apocalyptic and ripe for community-borne transformation. Seeing supports and humanity in Detroit, her new home town, made Brown look at other cities with blighted communities differently. ‘There are people living in places that we associate with the end of the world, but it’s not the end of the world – it’s the beginning of something else. An economy based on relationships and not the monetary value you can place on someone else.’

Brown now teaches activists how to use strategies from Butler’s books (like community farming, building relationships with neighbors, and essential survival skills) to build communities in areas where resources are scarce. She emphasizes that people in troubled areas need to have self-determination over their food supply, harking back to the Acorn communities in the Parables – intentional communities, ‘places where people come in an intentional way to build a life together. They’re farming with accountability to one another. They have a spiritual community. This is a strategy that could enable people to survive a future where our resources are unsure. Another is door-to-door relationship building that’s nonjudgmental. After the Acorn community is trashed, the main character goes door-to-door and starts to build a community of believers who aren’t rooted in one place, but in a shared ideology. It’s very similar to the Zapatista ideology. They went around for ten years building relationships one by one. Now a lot of organizing is done around the internet and tweeting each other. If we weren’t able to do that, what would we do? We would work with whoever is there with us.’

Brown is also a big advocate of teaching basic survival skills, including gardening, care for the sick and wounded, and midwifery. ‘I’m also looking at building homes and bathrooms. How do you make a bathroom where there is none?’ Her main point is to generate solutions. ‘We shouldn’t spend the majority of our time trying to get someone else to be accountable for what happens in our communities. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you; provide the solutions yourself…

What is the biggest story we can imagine telling ourselves about our future? It can be a utopia or a dystopia, but we want to get a perspective from people who are actually trying to change the world today. What do they think will happen? What’s the best-case scenario? How do we get people to think of themselves as the creators of tomorrow’s story?’”

I’ve been inspired by Butler’s Parable novels too, and many others, including Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy. In the next few days, I’ll put notes on these books and a list of utopian/dystopian fiction in the Resources section (see top menu bar).

Let’s get inspired!

What really matters

David Korten, author of books like “When Corporations Rule the World” and “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,” is one of our wise elders, if anyone is. He has an article in the current “Yes!” magazine that cuts through all the chatter and gets us back to what is perhaps the key question: Why are we knowingly heading toward the extinction of our (and many other) species? The answer is probably that one of the traits of our species is to focus on the short rather than the long term. But, like Korten, I believe we can, if we really want to, make some very important, much saner choices that will enable us to avoid falling off the cliff. As Korten says in his article, “Transformation begins with clarity on the nature of the choice that confronts our species.”

Korten believes we’ll survive only if we answer the following question: “Why does the current system deprive so many of opportunity for a fulfilling life [or life at all] that could and should be everyone’s birthright? Our prevailing cultural choices favor extreme individualistic competition for material goods. Our institutional choices reward the destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life and concentrate control by fewer and fewer people over what remains of that capacity. The many are thus pressed into lives of desperate servitude to the few. The obvious alternative begins with the recognition that individually and collectively, we survive and thrive only as interdependent, sharing, and mutually contributing members of Earth’s community of life. We’re better served by working together to create a world that works for all, than by competing for what remains of a shrinking pool of real [natural] wealth. Our defining cultural value must become cooperation. And we must transfer power from institutions that reward predatory competition to ones that facilitate and reward cooperation in service to the common good.”

Of course, the big question is how to make these changes? I think it’s pretty obvious that we earthlings can only do it by creating grassroots, bottom-up democracies all over the world like the kind the United States has always crushed at home and abroad. Of course, other regimes have and are crushing democracy, too, but I focus on our country because that’s where I live and because the US is so powerful. (Check out other articles on this site for examples of its democracy-crushing — US policy in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America comes to mind — as well as ideas about creating real democracy. One definition of the latter would be a system in which if a decision affects you or your community, you have real input in making it.

These are changes that can only take place in the long term. So take your eyes off most of the short term — like the daily “news” stream — and focus on what makes it all happen: what really matters.

Disposable people

Not only does yesterday’s executive order reversing Trump’s policy of separating families at the border do nothing about the three to four thousand separated children now suffering psychological damage in ICE facilities, it raises the specter of families detained together indefinitely in ICE camps — an equally scary and inhumane policy.

Guatemalans and others are fleeing dangers many of which have been created by past US foreign policy, so, in fact, we owe them a safe refuge.

We need to demand an end to all policies and practices based on the idea that certain large groups of people are dispensable, disposable, and not to be cared about. Look around — there are many — US support for the Saudi war against Yemeni civilians and for the Israeli war against Palestinians being glaring examples.

Oh, yeah — almost all of these “disposable” people are poor and black or brown. And the people creating the policies killing them, at least in this country, are white hypocritical “Christians.” But as the vestments worn by the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign say, “Jesus was a poor man.” His work developed out of similar cruelty and oppression — in this case, by the Roman Empire — against the poor, brown people of Judea. No way would he support the cruelty and oppression perpetrated and supported by the American Empire against “disposable” (because powerless) people today.

Well, you know what? We’re not powerless if we join together and demand something different. Let’s do that. Power to the people!

The land that must be!

Speaking to the crowd of Poor People’s Campaign demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court building 6-13-18, Reverend William Barber II, co-leader of the campaign, said, “I heard a friend of mine. He’s dead, but I heard him in a book. He was gay. He’s a powerful brother. And he said something like this in the 1930s, in the middle of traumatic times, that still has relevancy today to us:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every person is free.
The land that is mine—the poor man’s, the Indian’s, the Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Call me any ugly name you choose—

But the steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America! America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
That America will be!