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U.S. CLIMATE ACTION — 40 years wandering in the desert, 40 years desertification: Untangling the Confusions

The night before Earth Day 2020, filmmaker Michael Moore made a surprise announcement about the release of a new film. The film is Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs, with Moore as Executive Producer and author/scholar, Ozzie Zehner, as Producer. The U.S. climate movement hasn’t been the same since — a good thing, in my opinion.

APRIL 2020:
Recent quotes by three North American climate activists

— NAOMI KLEIN, journalist, author
April 9, 2020
Reflecting on the Passover question as to why Jews, after escaping slavery in Egypt, wandered for 40 years in the desert, Klein observed that Reagan was elected in 1980 and that it’s now 2020. “That’s 40 years of neoliberalism.”  40 years of wandering in the desert.
After Bernie — Amidst Pandemic  a teach-in, 18 – 27 mins

— JEFF GIBBS, filmmaker
April 21, 2020 (release date of film, Planet of the Humans)
In film: “Nothing’s changed” since the first Earth Day (1970).

Interview: “…over time I realized that the illusion we could fix all of this with ‘green’ technology was one of the things distracting us from making a real plan to save ourselves.”

— BILL McKIBBEN, founder
April 24, 2020 (release date of film, Inner Climate Change: The change starts within you
Findhorn Foundation film
In film:
“In 1995 or so, the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change put out its first big report.
It was very clear to the world’s scientists what was going on.
We’d won the argument but we were losing the fight.
Because the fight was not about data and reason.
The fight was about what fights are usually about—money and power

“It is literally business as usual that is doing us in. It’s just all of us getting up every day, doing the same things we did the day before, and continuing down the same path.”


Contrary to all the fuss in the climate movement about potential fractures as a result of Planet of the Humans, it sounds to me like these three climate leaders are in agreement: Nothing’s changed, we’ve spent the last 40 years wandering in the desert, and we’d won the argument but we were losing the fight.

Based on my experience of the last 40-50 years — 43 years in a highly urban Chicago suburb — I’m in agreement with Klein, Gibbs, and McKibben: Despite a lot of conversations, meetings, and policies passed, we in Evanston, Illinois haven’t made much progress–on climate mitigation, on ecology, on social justice, on quality of life.

In fact, from my perspective — as a lifelong grassroots activist (now 69 years old), a professional gardener for 25 years (now retired), and a food-and-farm strategist (largely unpaid) since 2005 — I would say that the City of Evanston has backslid by any basic metric:
—more income inequality
—more homelessness and displacement (long-time Evanston residents no longer able to afford to live here)
—less topsoil
—less democracy
— less knowledge of living systems

I agree with McKibben that the climate action fights have been about money and power, at least here in Evanston. However, I disagree on one point, about “data and reason” not being a source of climate inaction. There is a profound knowledge bias in Evanston, in the U.S., and in all patriarchal systems. In the climate action world, it is playing out between technological knowledge and knowledge of living systems.

Now that we all seem to agree that the last 25, 40, 50 years hasn’t brought much climate progress, how can we start moving forward on climate action? I would suggest that this knowledge bias also plays out in the fights about money and power. Most 21st century Americans, including climate leaders, do not think of money and power as living systems. I would suggest that U.S. climate leaders might make more progress if we engage collectively in untangling some long-standing U.S. confusions:
— The Money Question (what is money, who creates, how does it enter the economy)
— The power question (what is real democracy, as opposed to “representative democracy”, which is an oxymoron)
— The knowledge question (what knowledge is needed for real climate progress — technological, ecological, spiritual; whose knowledge is needed)

I invite anyone to visit Evanston to see how money, power, and knowledge bias have played out over the last 50 years, since the first Earth Day—and to see if any 2020 solutions can be applied directly in one urban suburb on the shores of Lake Michigan, population 75,000.

A case study of money, power, and knowledge bias

I am in the process of documenting the details of all the climate-related events, activities, policies, etc., that have taken place in Evanston since 1970–the first Earth Day. This might take a while.

But here is a short list of milestones that describe the trajectory of our confused progress, from a proactive response to the first oil crisis (1973) to the election of a disaster capitalist businessman with no elected experience (2017) to my realization (following people’s reactions to possible food shortages as a result of the coronavirus pandemic) that, not only have we been wandering in the desert, we have been turning our own land—7.8 square miles—slowly but steadily into a desert.  

1. FACTS: Evanston climate milestones

1973  oil crisis.
Oil shortage caused long lines at U.S. gas stations and a push for energy independence.

1974   Evanston Ecology Center dedicated — “where environmental classes could be conducted for the people of Evanston”.  It is still a major northern Cook County asset.

1976   Evanston Environmental Assn. created, a non-profit intended to support the Ecology Center’s programs.  Some of the first programming and projects were around renewable energy and conservation—passive solar greenhouse, 10 KW wind turbine, weatherizing, etc
EEA history

1999   Evanston Interreligious Sustainability Circle founded, an interfaith climate group.

2000-05 Network for Evanston’s Future formed.
The Circle had spun off so many working groups—energy, transportation, housing, food—that an umbrella group was formed, Network for Evanston’s Future. NEF developed strong working relationships with officials—a State Rep., a City Manager, department staff, etc. We started having annual Earth Day events at the religious institutions, focusing on official speeches, policy workshops, and inclusiveness. 

2007   City of Evanston hires first Sustainability Coordinator. Thanks to our State Rep. Julie Hamos, who found $75,000 through the State of Illinois, we had a dedicated staff person for sustainability issues. The position still exists today, renamed Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer.

2007 Climate Action Plan written.  Led by NEF, the City & citizens drafted our first Climate Action Plan

2008 NEF morphs into Citizens Greener Evanston (CGE)

2008-09 U.S. financial crash causes numerous Evanston activists to lose funding (including myself).

2010-16   Evanston announces reaching various milestones of reducing emissions even though nothing noticeably changes: Retail businesses are suffering, City and State budgets are more & more difficult, more and more long-term Evanston residents are being forced to leave (including many African-Americans), people are more and more stressed. The climate is getting hotter and more erratic.

At the same time, new living systems projects emerged and were adopted by CGE
—Edible Evanston
—Wildlife habitat
—Watershed collective
—Environmental justice
— Go Evanston

2011 Kickoff of Evanston 150 — a celebration of Evanston’s 150th birthday (2013) inviting residents to suggest “Big Ideas”, 10 of which would be implemented by the Evanston Community Foundation. More than 2,000 ideas were submitted, narrowed down to 100 Big Ideas and then to 30 big ideas. At least 3 of the final 10 demonstrated concern about climate and sustainability:
— Shared Streets: make more streets more accessible to bicycles, pedestrians, wheelchair users, etc., more of the time
— Edible Evanston: more food production all over Evanston — parks, community gardens, urban farms, residential)
— Market for all Seasons: year-round farmers market

2012   Community Choice Aggregation referendum approved, “encouraging City to contract for 100 percent renewable electricity for aggregation participations”

2017 City of Evanston elections reflect a big political divide as well as exposing a big confusion about solutions.
— City Clerk. By a very large margin (88% of votes), the City elects a young African-American man (Devon Reid) who runs on a platform of transparency, public service, and participatory democracy.
— Mayor. By a very slim margin, the City elects a white disaster capitalist businessman (Steve Hagerty) with no elected experience who runs on a platform of public-private partnerships.

2018 Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP) written, with a 2050 goal.
Carbon neutral by 2050: “The Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP) calls for ambitious reductions in carbon emissions and, for the first time, establishes goals to ensure Evanston is prepared for the daunting impacts of climate change.” This initiative was billed as “The Mayor’s” working group and the plan is written in consultant-speak language.

2020 Coronavirus pandemic exposes both new concerns and new realizations
— March 2020. Government alone cannot protect us from epidemics op-ed appears in The Hill, written by the Executive Chairman of the company owned by Evanston’s Mayor (Hagerty Consulting), Brock Long. Long was U.S. FEMA chief 2017-19, appointed by President Trump. Long appears on Fox News Tucker Carlson show to discuss.
Evanston COVID Emergency Task Force formed. Meetings are not public, membership is not disclosed, agenda and minutes are not published. Citizens and local media request basic information about task force. In response to complaints about violation of Open Meetings Act, City denies.
— I realized that for 40+ years Evanston has been destroying its own land base.

2. ANALYSIS: Climate action stagnation in Evanston
Like every question in 2020, the question on climate action –in Evanston and elsewhere — is:
Which side are you on?
(1931 song written by Florence Reece,  the wife of Sam Reece, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky)

Let me first answer the question: How does an environmentally conscious, educated, activist, award-winning community destroy its own land base?

a. Desertification in urban and suburban U.S
For 40+ years, Evanston — like most other U.S. urban and suburban communities — has been desertifying its own soil. For the 43 years that I have lived here, I have watched the products of the land — grass clippings, leaves, tree trimmings, logs — get shipped out of town, first to garbage dumps and, since 1990, to yard waste landfills.

On a yearly basis, I estimate that 90% of the organic matter produced by Evanston’s 7.8 square miles gets trucked out of town, one way or another — blown into the streets (to be picked up during street sweeping), bagged up in yard waste bags, thrown into the garbage.  I also estimate, based on my 25 years as a professional gardener and another 13 as an observant retiree, that maybe 1% gets replaced. The replacement usually happens during new or renovated construction projects, by contractors who have compost or woodchips trucked in, for property owners who can afford it. (This replacement has its downside, as more and more invasive species get free rides into Evanston and contaminated soils are sometimes brought in. But that’s another story.)

For the last 20 years, I tried all kinds of things to change that culture of discarding next year’s topsoil. I would talk to my clients, talk to the lawn care companies. I wrote articles for local newspapers and national magazines showing how property owners would actually save money by keeping their leaves, etc. I talked to colleagues, neighbors, friends, and officials. Over and over I repeated: Leave the leaves.

In 2005, I co-founded a grassroots group, the Evanston Food Policy Council. A year later, we founded an urban farm — The Talking Farm — largely, from my point of view, to connect my community to the weather and to the topsoil.

Earlier this year, my proposal for an updated version of Leave the Leaves was accepted by a national outlet (New Farmers Almanac) for 2021 publication. But as soon as the pandemic’s impact on the food chain became apparent and people started buying seeds and supplies to grow their own food, I knew I had to get my latest version out there, even if the New Farmers Almanac ultimately rejected it (because of prior publication). 

For what it’s worth, here’s my latest:
LEAVE THE LEAVES: Urban soils, urban consciousness 

Now I should ask, WHY does an environmentally conscious, educated, activist, award-winning community destroy its own land base? Which side are we on?

b. Confusions about terms (money, power, knowledge), confusions about systems
I have come to realize that the obstacles to reversing climate, ecological, and social collapse are largely a combination of linguistic confusions, contradictions in the U.S. Constitution, and mass media reinforcement of “mainstream” norms and terminology that represent white, land-owning, patriarchal males without any critical thinking. It is not surprising that most Americans — including economists, officials, and climate leaders — don’t even know that we’re collectively confused.

Luckily, even as neoliberalism was in full sway, more and more scholars and activists were questioning those norms. The internet provided for wide dissemination. Social media then provided for even wider dissemination. Finally, thanks to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2017 Women’s March, critical thinking is now mainstream.

Along with the growth of critical thinking during the last 40 years, a parallel growth of creative thinking and innovation has been taking place. Pioneers in communities all over the U.S. have been trying out different techniques and pilot projects for making their communities more democratic and/or more equitable.

Here’s some of the critical thinking that’s been taking place on our three obstacles to climate action — money, power, knowledge. Climate leaders need to become familiar with the unpacking of these terms so as to identify the leverage points with more precision.

Without going into the gory details of how these confusions have played out in Evanston and stymied our climate action, let’s jump to some ways that we can break through these obstacles.

Breaking through the fogs (money, power, knowledge bias)

1. MONEY: The Money Question
It turns out that “the money question” was a common topic of civic discussion in colonial America and early America (through the 1890s). In fact, some historians have described the U.S. as a laboratory for sovereign money and currency. Unfortunately, in 2020, we are still experimenting.  Or, to put it more accurately, we are still being experimented on.

Briefly, my formulation of the money question is:
—What is money — gold, social contract, something else?
—Who creates new U.S. money — commercial banks, U.S. Congress, some other entity?
—How does new U.S. money enter the economy — commercial lending, U.S. Treasury implementing U.S. policy, some other way?

A fourth question — Who has the Constitutional authority to create new U.S. money? — does not, unfortunately, have a clear answer.

Voters, officials, and climate leaders need to understand both the questions and the possible answers because it is through this confusion that many climate-destructive practices occur, including land use and over-production of almost everything.

Action Resources
Alliance for Just Money
Public Banking Institute
— New York State discussion on restarting the state’s economy (post-COVID) with public banking
Hosted by State Sen. James Sanders. Great panel, Q & A with other officials. Applicable to other states.
May 5, 2020
Our Money U.S.: Federal jobs guarantee grounded in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)
Monetary History Calendar. Weekly compendium of notable events, people, policies in the history of money. Easy way to get acquainted with the issues that comprise The Money Question. Free.

2. POWER: The Real Democracy Answer
The best structure that I have found for a REAL democracy is, coincidentally, the precursor to the U.S. Constitution — the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) League. 

Lucky for us, more and more Indigenous scholars are sharing details of the Great Law and how it worked—and still works. Based on my limited research, I have identified five structures that are so breathtakingly different from our own—yet so easy to understand—that I promote them as capable of restoring sanity.  They are:
—Funded sovereignty: a form of basic income for ALL voters for being engaged,, self-governing citizens
—5 year sunset clause: If the law of the land requires renewal every 5 years, the law of the land will be a living document (not become outdated or arcane) and citizens will necessarily be more engaged
—Women’s councils set agenda for men’s councils (often including the preferred options–a multiple choice)
—Women “own” the land: Recognition that the land is a mother
—Clan mothers in charge of distribution

Action Resources
Other details and current Indigenous resources can be found in my 2018 blog, In a Constitutional Crisis, Start Here…The Great Law of Peace.

3.  KNOWLEDGE BIAS: Ignorance of Living Systems
The best description of our current confusion about “data and reason” (to use McKibben’s phrase) or the knowledge on which climate action should be based is from a 2004 video of evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris speaking at a conference titled, The Gift Economy Inside and Outside Capitalism. The video talk is titled Crisis As Opportunity: The Biology of Globalisation.

Sahtouris bemoans the current domination of technological knowledge (STEM) applied to our global problems (e.g., climate chaos) because, by concentrating on the latest technological fix, we forget to meet the needs of living organisms and living systems. She ascribes this confusion about knowledge to the ways that boys and girls have been schooled. Boys, she says, have been schooled in the “dead languages of Latin, non-living languages of math, logic, and engineering.” Girls have been educated in living systems: “growing food, raising children, juggling family economies.”

Action Resources
Food Policy Networks (Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins University): Supports food policy councils (FPCs) at local, state, regional level
Regeneration Midwest — a 12-state coalition founded in 2018 by Organic Consumes Assn. In 2019 received a Health & Climate Solutions grant to identify regenerative agriculture experiments that are positively impacting rural communities in terms of climate, public health, and health equity.

As of April 23, 2020 Evanston is very close to “functional zero homelessness”

Unexpectedly, here’s a hopeful answer, as this April 23, 2020 post by Nina Kavin (Dear Evanston) describes:

As Nia Tavoularis, director of development, Connections for the Homeless, puts it, “We’re very close to what’s called ‘functional zero of homelessness’.” 

In other words, Evanston is very close to having shelter space for everyone in the community who needs it.

“There will always be exceptions,” Tavoularis says, “But this is the closet our community has ever been.”This seemingly incredible feat — sheltering 200 of the approximately 300 people in the Evanston area who don’t have homes—is the result of a successful partnership between Connections and the City that was forged fast, at the intersection of the two challenges of public health and homelessness, soon after the shutdown began.

With funding and support from the City, individual donors and others, Connections has been able to house people at two Evanston hotels.

For the entire post with more details, see Nina Kavin’s article, posted April 23, on the Joining Forces for Affordable Housing Facebook page  

Thanks to Jeff Gibbs, Michael Moore, and Ozzie Zehner for releasing their film early. It may have felt unfinished, it may have felt rushed, and some of the criticisms were legitimate. I think the timing was right and I think the film made its point. Something’s been holding us back. Whatever it was, we have to leap past it (to use the Canadian group’s name).