Belief Is the Least Part of Faith

By T. M. LUHRMANN, New York Times, May 29, 2013

Some Sundays ago, I was part of a sermon in my university’s church. It was the kind of ecumenical church in which I’d grown up. The minister and I sat on the proscenium above the congregation and below the stained-glass windows, and spoke about the ways that evangelical Christians understood God — a subject on which I had written a book. Afterward, there was a lunch open to the community. The questions people asked as we ate our avocado-and-cheese sandwiches circled around the puzzle of belief. Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?

These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.

You could imagine that if you were going to spend an hour or two each week fretting over one or the other, you might opt for the practical. This choice is more real for many evangelicals than most secular liberals imagine. Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God’s realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there.

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

In fact, you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon. As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, “to believe” meant something like “to hold dear.” Smith, who died in 2000, once wrote: “The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’ Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’ ”

To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God,” is a guest columnist.

Get Apocalyptic – The Case for the New Radical

YES! Magazine / By Robert Jensen,, May 28, 2013  |


Feeling anxious about life in a broken-down society on a stressed-out planet? That’s hardly surprising: Life as we know it is almost over. While the dominant culture encourages dysfunctional denial—pop a pill, go shopping, find your bliss—there’s a more sensible approach: Accept the anxiety, embrace the deeper anguish—and then get apocalyptic.

We are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living worldA deep grief over what we are losing—and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered—is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work…The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end… to get apocalyptic means seeing clearly and recommitting to core values…we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability…If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with…Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous…To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm lifeBy avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin

Full text

Feeling anxious about life in a broken-down society on a stressed-out planet? That’s hardly surprising: Life as we know it is almost over. While the dominant culture encourages dysfunctional denial—pop a pill, go shopping, find your bliss—there’s a more sensible approach: Accept the anxiety, embrace the deeper anguish—and then get apocalyptic.

We are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living world. We are intensifying an assault on the ecosystems in which we live, undermining the ability of that living world to sustain a large-scale human presence into the future. When all the world darkens, looking on the bright side is not a virtue but a sign of irrationality.

In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing—and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered—is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work.

Perhaps that sounds odd, since we are routinely advised to overcome our fears and not give in to despair. Endorsing apocalypticism seems even stranger, given associations with “end-timer” religious reactionaries and “doomer” secular survivalists. People with critical sensibilities, those concerned about justice and sustainability, think of ourselves as realistic and less likely to fall for either theological or science-fiction fantasies.

Many associate “apocalypse” with the rapture-ranting that grows out of some interpretations of the Christian Book of Revelation (aka, the Apocalypse of John), but it’s helpful to remember that the word’s original meaning is not “end of the world.” “Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity. Speaking apocalyptically, in this sense, can deepen our understanding of the crises and help us see through the many illusions that powerful people and institutions create.

But there is an ending we have to confront. Once we’ve honestly faced the crises, then we can deal with what is ending—not all the world, but the systems that currently structure our lives. Life as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end.

Let’s start with the illusions: Some stories we have told ourselves—claims by white people, men, or U.S. citizens that domination is natural and appropriate—are relatively easy to debunk (though many cling to them). Other delusional assertions—such as the claim that capitalism is compatible with basic moral principles, meaningful democracy, and ecological sustainability—require more effort to take apart (perhaps because there seems to be no alternative).

But toughest to dislodge may be the central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy: that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.

We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using ever more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction).

Oh, did I forget to mention the undeniable trajectory of global warming/climate change/climate disruption?

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

We do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life. “Apocalypse” need not involve heavenly rescue fantasies or tough-guy survival talk; to get apocalyptic means seeing clearly and recommitting to core values.

First, we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society. We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.”

There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

Here’s another cliché to jettison: Necessity is the mother of invention. During the industrial era, humans exploiting new supplies of concentrated energy have generated unprecedented technological innovation in a brief time. But there is no guarantee that there are technological fixes to all our problems; we live in a system that has physical limits, and the evidence suggests we are close to those limits. Technological fundamentalism—the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always appropriate, and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology—is as empty a promise as other fundamentalisms.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Adopting this apocalyptic framework doesn’t mean separating from mainstream society or giving up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination.

I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution—many revolutions—but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential.

To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.

As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

It’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.

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A ‘money bomb’ for 2016

By Matt Miller, Washington Post, May 2, 2013


…an idea so simple yet subversive that it offers a glorious ray of hope…Lawrence Lessig’s “money bomb.” It’s an ingenious plan to make the drive for small-dollar publicly funded elections a central issue in 2016. With a little luck, the Harvard law professor’s idea could help save the republic…our leaders are groveling half a day every day to just 150,000 out of the 311 million of us. Forget “the 1 percent.” This is the one-twentieth of 1 percent who can afford to give a couple of thousand dollars to campaigns… He’s working to launch “a super PAC to end all super PACs.” He wants 50 patriotic billionaires to pony up $20 million to $40 million dollars each…Toss in contributions from less well-heeled folks who believe in the cause. Presto: You have a $1 billion to $2 billion dollar war chest devoted to making grass-roots public funding of campaigns a viable path to office…If enough high-net-worth patriots from both parties see past the irony to its potential, Lessig’s money bomb might just be the beginning of a cure.

Full text


Just when you were fed up with our petty, craven politics and were ready to write off the next few years as a circus of filibusters, gridlock and investigations, comes an idea so simple yet subversive that it offers a glorious ray of hope.

Call it Lawrence Lessig’s “money bomb.” It’s an ingenious plan to make the drive for small-dollar publicly funded elections a central issue in 2016. With a little luck, the Harvard law professor’s idea could help save the republic.

Here’s why. Everyone knows the ubiquity of big money in politics undermines democracy. But the mechanics of the money chase now warps daily political life so thoroughly that it would seem funny if it weren’t so shocking.

New legislators are told by party leaders to spend no less than four hours a day “dialing for dollars” for reelection. That’s twice the time they’re expected to spend on committee work, floor votes or meeting with constituents. And it doesn’t count the fundraisers they attend in their “free time.”

“Members routinely duck out of the House office buildings, where they are prohibited by law from campaigning,” the Boston Globe recently reported, “and walk across the street to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offices…. There, on the second floor, 30 to 40 legislators and their staffers squeeze into the ‘bullpen’ … a makeshift call center of about two dozen cubicles, each 2½ feet wide and equipped with two land lines.”

The two parties function “basically like telemarketing firms,” Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat who lost in 2010 after serving one term in the House, told the Globe. “’You go down on any given evening and you’ve got 30 members with headsets on dialing and dialing and dialing, trying to close the deal.’”

This is your democracy at work.

“I won’t dispute for one second the problems of a system that demands immense amount of fund-raisers by its legislators,” Rep. Jim Himes (D- Conn.) told the New York Times the other day. “It’s appalling, it’s disgusting, it’s wasteful and it opens the possibility of conflicts of interest and corruption.

“It’s unfortunately the world we live in,” he added.

Well! At least our leaders are ushering in American decline with eyes wide open. As Lessig pointed out in an interview, our leaders are groveling half a day every day to just 150,000 out of the 311 million of us. Forget “the 1 percent.” This is the one-twentieth of 1 percent who can afford to give a couple of thousand dollars to campaigns.

What does this brand of begging do to elected officials? How does it skew what gets on the agenda? What kind of person wants to do this kind of work? How many rhetorical questions are needed to convince you this situation is corrupt and insane?

Enter Lessig’s idea. He’s working to launch “a super PAC to end all super PACs.” He wants 50 patriotic billionaires to pony up $20 million to $40 million dollars each (provided their fellow tycoons do the same). Toss in contributions from less well-heeled folks who believe in the cause. Presto: You have a $1 billion to $2 billion dollar war chest devoted to making grass-roots public funding of campaigns a viable path to office.

The super PAC would champion a short slate of reforms centered around publicly supported small-dollar campaign funding. It would intervene in campaigns to help elect congressional candidates who sign on to this agenda and to defeat candidates who oppose it. Building on recent reforms in Connecticut and New York, the bedrock fix might involve a system of matching grants or tax credits or vouchers that enable average citizens (via public dollars) to be the main source of finance for competitive campaigns.

Politicos are helping Lessig develop a more precise, district-by-district estimate of how much money it would take to win a congressional majority pledged to these reforms, but his guesstimate feels like it is in the ballpark.

What we have here, of course, is a plot through which billionaires lead the charge to get money out of politics. “You have to embrace the irony,” Lessig told me.

I agree. If such folks are willing to invest big sums to reduce their own power, more power to them. Jonathan Soros piloted a miniature version of such a super PAC in the last election, and with just $2.4 million helped defeat seven of eight candidates targeted for caving to special interest cash. Lessig said that if this “money bomb” can be up and running even on a modest basis by 2014, it might put a scare into candidates and raise the odds that in 2016 they’ll commit to reform. (A new group, Fund for the Republic, is helping explore the idea).

When I worked in the Clinton White House, I heard Al Gore say something I’ve never forgotten. It was in an early meeting on health care reform in the Cabinet Room. Gore observed matter-of-factly that “we’ll never do health care reform right unless we do campaign finance reform first.” Twenty years later, his point still rings true for every major plank on the agenda for American renewal.

If enough high-net-worth patriots from both parties see past the irony to its potential, Lessig’s money bomb might just be the beginning of a cure.

Read more about this issue: The Post’s View: Hidden campaign cash Katrina vanden Heuvel: Reversing ‘Citizens United’ Bob Bauer and Trevor Potter: A new recipe for election reform Jennifer Rubin: McConnell vs. McCain on campaign finance reform Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski: Our states vouch for transparent campaign financing

Why We Must Reject the Dogma of Religious Frauds and Find Our Own Truth

by Red Wheel/Weiser, Daniele Bolelli,,  May 16, 2013 

The following is an excerpt from Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book Without Instructions [3].

The whole notion of creating one’s own religion goes against the claim made by many religions that they alone possess the Only Truth revealed to them by the deity of their choosing. In their eyes, religion is to be followed by human beings, but is never created by them. Countless people have been burned at the stake for simply urging others to challenge religious dogma and question beliefs. While this injunction is no longer followed literally, Jewish scriptures sanction the murder of anyone inviting us to change religious outlook. The Inquisition, which lasted over 600 years, fills the history of Christianity with plenty of mass killings of people whose only crime was holding unconventional opinions in matters of religion. Still today, in some Muslim countries, any Muslim who decides to abandon Islam faces the death penalty for apostasy.

Why such venom and brutality? Because many of those claiming to be speaking for God have little patience for people who want to figure out for themselves what life is about. What is so terrible about it? Because you should not search for what is wise and good. You should listen to what we tell you is wise and good.

In light of these attitudes, it should become clear why a call to “create your own religion” is by its very nature quite radical. But it doesn’t have to be that way. OK, since you are a most pleasant reader, I’ll share a secret with you. Lean toward me so that I may whisper it in your ear. . . . Everyone already creates their own reli­gion. Some people just don’t lie about it.

Did I say something offensive or shocking? It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. At the risk of raising the blood pressure of some modern wannabe inquisitors, let’s look at the ugly truth for what it is. Despite their professed devotion to a text or a teacher or a path, even members of established religions don’t observe literally the dictates of their religion of choice. Many believers claim to be strict followers of their traditions, and some actually believe they are. But the reality is that they all are engaged to some degree in a selective reading of their sacred texts, adopting what suits them and rejecting the rest. It’s a simple process, really. Pick up the sacred books of your religion, look for passages supporting your values, and adapt them a little to your liking. Then highlight their importance in the overall balance of the religion, and conveniently forget all those other unsavory passages that either downright contradict your values or support behaviors and attitudes that don’t fit with your inclinations. Rather than having the guts to admit what they are doing and openly defend their right to pick and choose the passages they want to live their lives by, most people prefer hiding under the fable that their particular take on religion is the only correct one. All other people who put the accent on different messages and values contained in the same scriptures, they claim, are heretics who are twisting the essence of the religion. If this strikes you as intellectually dishonest, it’s because it is.

Hey Bolelli, are you really accusing billions of orthodox believers worldwide of being consummate liars? Not necessarily. Some don’t lie consciously. They just happen to be masters at self-delusion, so skilled at lying to themselves that they can do it without ever becom­ing aware of it. Why would they do this? you may ask. Because it would be too scary to take responsibility for choosing which values, among so many, to live by. It’s much more reassuring to go on pre­tending that one’s values are the only true eternal ones that enjoy God’s stamp of approval.

Other believers, on the other hand, don’t lie at all—not even subconsciously. What shields them from facing the contradictions that exist in every religious tradition, including their own, is plain old ignorance. As is the case with many faithful followers, their actual knowledge just doesn’t match their religious passion. Great num­bers of Christians have never read the Bible cover to cover. Many Muslims only know the Koran through the passages their preach­ers decide to share with them. The same goes for the adherents of most religions. In the absence of direct knowledge, most people end up espousing some simplistic fairy tale version of what they believe their religion is about, never bothering to find out that reality is quite a bit more complicated. They are too lazy and unwilling to deal with complexity to want to dig a little deeper. It is easy to avoid facing contradictions if you don’t know about them. And the deal­ers of second-hand religious fairy tales are very careful to feed their audience only coherent, simple stories that will not require them to ask questions and think for themselves. Still mad about the day when they were told that there is no Santa, masses of people swallow up these stories and gladly ask for more.

Even if ignorance were not so widespread, things would not be much simpler. If you care to lean toward me again, I’ll share with you one more secret: most sacred books revered by various religions are filled with internal contradictions. Since the contradictory char­acter of most scriptures leads believers to pick and choose which passages to follow and which to ignore, it should come as no surprise that the very same sacred books have been used to support drastically opposite ideas. During the American Civil War, Abraham Lin­coln noted that, “Both [Southern and Northern soldiers] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.”6 It was in this same time period, after all, that Christians used the Bible to argue for the abolition of slavery while just as many Christians found in the Bible the ideological ammuni­tion to support slavery as a divinely ordained institution.

Other time periods tell the same tale. Early Christians were as divided then as modern Christians are today. For example, Saint Paul advocated celibacy and held a very negative view of any type of physical pleasure, whereas second century CE Christian teacher Carpocrates stirred his followers toward juicy sexual orgies. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian and so were the members of the Ku Klux Klan. Protestants and Catholics have slaughtered each other for a couple of hundred years all in the name of Jesus. Even today, you can find Christians who are gay and Christians who consider homosexuality to be the most horrid of sins; Christian feminists and Christians who abhor feminism; anticapitalist Christians who view the accumulation of wealth as a sin, and Christians who believe wealth to be a sign of divine blessing; Christians who are very liberal, and Christians who are very conservative. Naturally, they all believe God supports their point of view.

This same story could be repeated about pretty much any other religion. Each denomination is usually firmly convinced that it is the only one that is faithful to the original message of its tradition and accuse all others of having strayed away. The simple fact that every religion always gives rise to multiple variations (Christianity, for ex­ample, has over 30,000 different denominations) is enough to tell us that Truth with a capital t is not exactly self-evident.

Trying to figure out who is right is a hopeless undertaking. We are too far removed from the origins of most religions to establish with any degree of certainty what the founders really meant. Most established religions, in fact, are based on shaky sources. Divine rev­elations seem to indulge in the very annoying habit of popping up in semiliterate corners of the world at a point in human history long before accurate, modern means of recording information were invented. What results, then, is an endless chain of revelations be­ing told and retold over decades until somebody finally writes them down. Clearly, this is a process that leaves much room for error.

Did you ever play the game “Telephone” as a kid? Yeah, the game in which you whisper something in someone’s ear who then whispers it in somebody else’s ear, and so on down the line until the last person says out loud what he heard and everyone laughs because it usually has nothing to do with the original message. Imagine do­ing this for a few decades with a few thousand individuals before writing the results down. Then, let a few more decades/centuries go by before a council of “authorities” gets to vote on which versions are accurate and which ones need to be destroyed. As weird as it may sound, this is exactly how the modern versions of most sacred texts were produced. No wonder these texts are littered with contra­dictions. And it is on the authority of these very dubious, very old documents that followers then fight among themselves regarding the essence of the original message.

Far from being an obstacle, this confusion is a gift that most members of organized religions actually cherish. The fact that their prophets are long dead and little information is known about them makes it easier for followers to project their own ideas, values, and expectations onto their favorite authority figure—something that many believe gives more legitimacy to an ideology. This allows peo­ple to create their own religion within a respected, established tradi­tion while keeping the appearance of following the “official” version.

In the midst of these endless arguments, the founders’ original intention is clouded beyond recognition. Organized religions end up killing the insights of the prophets/gods they supposedly revere. Like demented kids hugging a puppy too tight and crushing him to death out of “love,” followers destroy their founders’ teachings with blind devotion. The freshness, beauty, and vital energy of the original message dies a miserable death when the message is turned into dogma. And what followers are left to worship is the dried-up, mummified corpse of what was maybe once a wonderful idea.

What this book invites you to do is to take responsibility for your ideas and, without slavish devotion to dogma, create your own religion. Rather than groping the past to find justification for your values in centuries-old texts, and using revered corpses as a source of authority, it is time to grow the heart and guts to follow your own insights and defend them on their own worth. Don’t believe something because Buddha said it, or Jesus said it, or Muhammad said it. Don’t believe it because I say it. (OK, don’t listen to this last sentence. I just threw it in there to look democratic. Of course if I say it, you should blindly believe it.) Better yet, don’t believe any­thing at all that is not born out of your own experience. Belief is the habit of those too lazy or too scared to trust in themselves. Let’s try a more courageous path: find out for yourself. If we want to stop wiping each other out over religious dogma, this is the healthiest step we can take.

If rejecting dogma and nourishing the courage and creativity required to make our own choices is a good idea in all times and places, it is a talent that is becoming even more essential in today’s world. This, after all, is the age of globalization, choice, and syncre­tism. More people on earth have access to more information now than at any other point in human history. We know more about each other than ever before; ideas circle the globe at a speed our ancestors never even imagined. The most learned intellectual from just a couple of centuries ago had access to far less information than anyone alive today who happens to have Internet access. Being ex­posed to different stimuli and ideas coming to us from every corner of the world means we have more material to play with. It is only natural then that greater numbers of people are mixing the ingredi­ents, making new connections, and revolutionizing traditions.

This explosion in creativity can be seen everywhere. For exam­ple, just about any song born today comes from the union of musi­cal traditions that just a few decades ago had never been introduced to each other. “Fusion” seems to be the operative word at the root of everything, from the types of food we eat to the movies we watch—even the diverse ethnic makeup of many people alive here and now.

With every facet of human culture being touched by this rapid exchange of information, it only makes sense that religion would be affected as well. In the days before our globalized, interconnected world, people practiced whatever religion happened to be the domi­nant one in the country of their birth. Thankfully, the stupidity of the belief that by random luck one is born in the one true religious tradition, while the rest of the world needs to be shown the light, is beginning to become progressively more evident. In the face of increased knowledge and choices, traditional forms of authority are collapsing. Rigid identities—be they national, ideological, or reli­gious—are becoming more obsolete. Prepackaged answers satisfy fewer and fewer people. Solutions and ideas that appeal to a particu­lar place and time reveal themselves to be painfully narrow-minded in a global world. Many of the answers people still turn to were born in a world where one couldn’t see beyond the confines of one’s village—where what existed in the next valley was foreign, exciting, and mysterious. But this will no longer do. Nostalgically holding on to the past is not going to help us face a reality that’s changing at breakneck pace.

Damn, it’s an exciting time to be alive. We are just a few steps away from self-destruction, but we are also a few steps away from creating a better world that could exceed the imagination of the most optimistic prophets from our past. We are dancing on a tight­rope stretched on the abyss, the destiny of the world in our hands. The weapons we take into battle are heart, vision, and creativity. What we need are new solutions that reflect the greater degree of knowledge and the radically different experiences that characterize the modern world.

The availability of a much wider range of choices is transform­ing the face of religion today. Many individuals belonging to sev­eral mainstream religions have responded by dramatically reshaping some of their core beliefs. Increasing numbers of people are opening new paths outside of the confines of mainstream religions altogether. Most traditional religions, in fact, change only under duress; other­wise, they resist change and any challenge to their authority with tooth and nail.

The most conservative, fundamentalist branches see the global world as a threat. To them, more choices mean more opportunity to fall in error and stray from the One True Way. In their worldview, choice is the Devil’s tool to lead us away from the truth. Confronted with a world offering greater chances for choosing one’s own way, their answer is to dig deeper trenches and become even more radi­cally rigid. The more freedoms human history offers us, the more fundamentalists will fight them. Despite their mutual hatred for one another, Jerry Falwell and the Taliban are twins separated at birth—modernity makes both of them recoil in horror.

I see the global world as the greatest opportunity humanity has ever had. In my view, it is healthy for traditions to be challenged. If traditional values lose popularity, it’s either because they are poorly communicated or because they are not relevant anymore. No healthy solution was ever born from whining about the good old days. As Nietzsche puts it, “[The sage] does not acknowledge custom or tradi­tion, but only new questions from life and new answers.”7 While it is not necessarily true that newer is always better, it is certainly true that any theory, religion, or philosophy that was born in the midst of intellectual poverty can only be improved upon today. Whatever was good in it will endure, and whatever fails will do so because it belongs to a darker, more ignorant world.

What we will do here then is take aim at all the central questions debated by different religions in order to see what gifts of wisdom the past has to offer us, and how we can use that to come up with our own answers.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniele Bolelli. Reprinted with permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.


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How to Build a New Labor Movement, One Step at a Time

By Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, posted on,  May 22, 2013

Earlier this month, labor-rights group Working America launched [4]  The text of the site reads a bit like an infomercial: “Tough day at work? Are you feeling overworked, underpaid, unsafe or disrespected by your boss?” But instead of selling a new set of knives, the writers are hawking organizing skills. “Our tool can help you identify problems in your workplace and give you info about what others have done in similar situations.” The famous raised fist of labor is sideways, holding a wrench. The website is yet another attempt by the country’s once-powerful union movement to connect to workers in an increasingly hostile national workplace.

“We also are trying to find new ways for workers to have representation on the job,” writes Working America spokesperson Aruna Jain in an email. “We want to train and educate people on how to self-organize, and to learn collective action—the single most effective way of improving their working conditions. This is one way we can start that process.”

The site, which is being rolled out slowly and in stages, is meant to give workers the resources they need to organize themselves and demand changes—regardless of whether or not an actual union comes together. It tells visitors how to contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for safety issues in the work place. It gives tips and strategies for how best to present a case to the boss or how to convince coworkers to get involved.

“We’re trying something new here—an experiment,” writes Jain. “It’s never been done before. We don’t know what will work and what won’t, but we are trying to provide information, resources to create a fertile environment where organizing can happen.” The website doesn’t charge dues and while the term “organizing” is used extensively, “collective bargaining”—a staple of the labor movement—is nowhere to be found.

Dues-paying members sustained the labor movement for decades, and in return, the unions helped negotiate better pay and better hours. But that relationship has been deteriorating rapidly.  For the last several decades, unions and the tools they offered seem far removed from the vast majority of workplace experiences. Around one-fourth of American workers are “contingent workers”—freelancers, independent contractors, part-timers, and temp workers—people with more tenuous relationships to their employers. Meanwhile conservatives have found ways to exploit weaknesses in the National Labor Relations Act, meaning the main legislative defense for unions is increasingly toothless. Labor conditions have gotten dramatically worse as unions have lost power—real wages have stagnated, wealth is increasingly concentrated—but no one seems to know how to connect the old-style of collective bargaining with the new economy. Some held out hope that the Obama administration—coupled with the worst economic crisis in decades—would help resuscitate things.

So when the Employee Free Choice Act failed in 2010, it seemed like a death knell for the American labor movement. The bill, which would have made it easier for workers to collectively bargain and increased the penalties on employers that fired people for trying to organize, was the number one piece in the labor agenda. Unions had poured resources into the 2008 elections, putting in hundreds of millions of dollars and mobilizing thousands of volunteers, and their efforts helped elect a Democratic president, and Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. But despite the concerted effort from labor leaders to push through this key piece of legislation, they simply didn’t have the power. It never got through the Senate.

Faced with the very real threat of extinction, unions have largely put collective bargaining on the back burner, and instead must try to remind American workers of the basic concept of worker solidarity. “We start from the point of view that, because so few people are in unions these days, very few people have personal experience with collective power,” explains Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The group is the AFL-CIO’s answer to the “labor problem.” Rather than organizing workers into unions, Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate, focuses on engaging non-union workers on a number of policy issues, from unemployment insurance and banking reform to education funding and campaign finance. The group uses the same door-to-door, grassroots strategies that have long been the hallmarks of labor organizers. But rather than emphasize relations between workers and their employers, the group focuses largely on policy changes. Members don’t have to pay dues, instead, at meetings and on sites like FixMyJob, they just have to sign up.

The group’s been able to create significant policy changes; with millions of members nationwide, Working America has been able to help mobilize activists for some successful local campaigns. In Portland, Oregon, workers won a battle for paid sick days. In both Albuquerque and Bernallilo County, New Mexico, the group helped organize and win a campaign for increase to the minimum wage.  Those are major changes for the people living in those areas. However, emphasis is necessarily on policy changes, rather than helping employees negotiate with their employers.

On more national policy issues, unions have taken lead roles in coalitions to effect change—just not on issues of collective bargaining. Nearly all the major unions have worked together to push for immigration reform, and perhaps more interestingly, the Communications Workers of America have helped spearhead a “democratic reform” movement focused on public financing for campaigns and changing the filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate so that 60 votes would not be needed for anything to pass. The group is working with GreenPeace, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and the National Education Association in a coalition that calls itself the Democracy Initiative. The group makes almost no mention of collective bargaining at all. But that’s okay, explains CWA president Larry Cohen.  “If we don’t’ work on democracy issues, “ he says, “the stuff we started out working on is never going to go anywhere.”

In other words, in order to create a future for collective bargaining and increasing the number of dues-paying union members, labor must start by reforming elections and Senate rules. Similarly, Working America’s Nussbaum explains that unions must start engaging the majority of American workers and then find a structure that suits them. It’s unclear if Working America members will ever become union members—or at least the dues-paying kind. “There’s nothing sacrosanct about the form of the union in the United States,” says Nussbaum. But there’s one requirement she does make: “Any new organizational form has to still be based on workers supporting their organization.” And so far, there’s no clear model has emerged.

In implementing these new strategies, the unions are also taking some major risks. The American labor movement was defined by its unique role mediating between workers and their employers. Together, members’ dues created an enormous well of money organizers could draw on for political and organizing purposes. “Going back to 1855, the idea of a union was people at work get together in some fashion and say we want ‘X,’” explains Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “If unions [became] just voluntary associations that are politically active, why are they unions?” He points to groups like Our Wal-Mart, a collection of people who work for the retail giant but who do not collectively bargain; instead they speak about conditions and work with activists to push policy changes for the company, like more regular hours.

Such work could lead to a much bigger project: a workers’ solidarity movement, less concerned with the typical lines drawn between different local chapters and instead invested in creating change through a level of class-consciousness. As Harold Meyerson has reported, [5] we’re already seeing new kinds of organizing, as maids and fast-food workers across a number of industries took part in day-long strikes first in New York and then in Chicago. Last week, there was a similar event [6] in St. Louis.

While it was a long time coming, unions are more flexible than ever before, and willing to change to survive. The Service Employees International Union has aided the day-long strike efforts, while sites like Working America’s FixMyJob may help connect other dissatisfied workers to one another. We may begin to see more powerful policy changes to protect workers rights.

These new efforts carry potential seeds for the destruction of unions as we know them, and collective bargaining may never be the tool it once was. But in its place may be something more powerful that we just haven’t seen yet.

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How Corporations Are Subverting Attempts to Rein in Their Power

By Thomas Mc Donagh AlterNetMay 23, 2013

In 2009, when the government of El Salvador refused to issue an environmental permit to a Canadian mining corporation, community activists in Las Cabañas rejoiced. For years they had been fighting a pitched battle [3] against the efforts of the company, Pacific Rim, to mine for gold in their region – plans that included the dumping of toxic arsenic in their rivers. It was not a campaign without risk. Four Salvadoran anti-mining activists have been assassinated in the course of their courageous efforts. That victory, however, may well prove to carry a high cost for the people of El Salvador. In a legal assault filed in a World Bank trade court, Pacific Rim is now demanding $315 million in compensation payments from the Salvadoran government, an amount equal to one third of the country’s annual education budget.

That is just one example among many where citizens have fought for and won an important policy victory only to find that victory undermined by corporations using the growing web of international investment rules and arbitration courts. There are many others. Public health campaigners in Uruguay won a huge victory in 2010 when the national government passed new health laws to discourage tobacco consumption. Even though those new laws (including aggressive new warnings on cigarette packages) directly mirrored the guidelines of the World Health Organization, the U.S. corporate tobacco giant Philip Morris retaliated with a $2 billion legal action [4] against the government.

Nowhere is this muscle-flexing by multinational corporations a greater threat than on issues related to sustainable development. The result is a little known but enormous legal obstacle planted directly in the policy path toward a sustainable future. The Democracy Center has just documented that threat in an important new report released this week: Unfair, Unsustainable and Under the Radar:  How Corporations Use Global Investment Rules to Undermine a Sustainable Future. [5]

For many this system of corporate-driven investment rules and “dispute resolution” burst into public view a decade ago when Bechtel, the San Francisco-based engineering conglomerate, sued the people of Bolivia for $50 million following the now-famous Cochabamba Water Revolt [6], after investing just $1 million in the country. A global citizen campaign [7] aimed at the corporation ultimately forced Bechtel to drop that case for a token payment of 30 cents [8]. Yet in the years since, the pile of corporate cases has only grown ever higher.

Another typical current case features dangerous exposure to lead in Peru. When the national government there revoked the operating license for a smelter plant in La Oroyo (operated by Doe Run Peru) in July 2010, the health of the local population and the surrounding environment got some badly needed respite [9]. The village, located high in the Peruvian Andes, has been declared one of the most polluted sites on earth [10], and in 2007 99% of the children [11] under seven in the neighborhood closest to the town’s smelter had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. The government deemed that Doe Run Peru’s failure to meet environmental cleanup commitments at the site constituted a breach of the country’s environmental legal standards. However Doe Run’s parent company, the Renco group, has other ideas. The corporation, owned by US billionaire Ira Rennert, has hit back with an $800 million damages claim, enough money to pay the yearly salaries of almost 15,000 Peruvian school teachers (or nearly 6,000 Peruvian health workers).

The world today is covered by an expanding web of over three thousand bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements. These agreements grant rights to corporations and allow them to sue governments for policy initiatives that they claim interfere with their profits. The resulting legal cases, despite their far-reaching local consequences, are settled far away and behind closed doors by a small group of unaccountable private lawyers in international dispute arbitration tribunals. Flying in the face of democratic principles and judicial independence, these tribunals operate with little or no public scrutiny and where the communities directly affected are denied a voice. 

The number of these investment cases has exploded in recent years, with 2012 breaking all records. By far the most popular tribunal system used by global corporations is the World Banks’ infamous International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICISID).  Corporations can use this and other tribunal systems to demand hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from governments – not just for what they have actually invested in a country, but also vast amounts more for the profits they expected to earn into the future. The lawyers at these tribunals move seamlessly from the role of ‘independent’ arbiter to that of corporate attorney.  Some have strong ties to multinational corporations and serious questions have been raised [12] about their independence in an unaccountable system in which they have such a huge vested interest. Although previously used as a court of last resort by aggrieved investors, these tribunals have become the weapon of choice for corporations in their attempts to clear the path for profiting at the expense of public health and the environment.

The proliferation of these investor-state cases has three major impacts. First, in cases where the corporations win (as they often do) the result is a massive transfer of scarce public resources to wealthy private corporations. Second, even if governments are successful in mounting a legal defense, doing that comes at a cost of potentially millions of dollars in legal fees paid to one of the handful of high-priced law firms that specialise in such cases. Third, the net impact is a dangerous chilling effect on the willingness of policy makers to implement policies in the public interest for fear of costly international arbitration cases.

The international investment rules/tribunals system has been used to attack anti-nuclear efforts in Germany, public control of water in Argentina and Bolivia, anti-mining efforts across a host of nations, and today has new targets in its sights.

One new likely battleground is citizen and community efforts against oil and gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. The proposed investment chapter of the Canada-EU free trade agreement, if approved, may give corporations the legal fire-power [13] to challenge government regulation of this highly controversial practice. Efforts to curb the dumping of climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere are also at risk. The South Korean government has shelved a plan to introduce a low-carbon incentive system for the auto industry because of fears that the law would breach a provision in the US-South Korea free trade agreement. If the government were to move ahead with the measure it would risk landing itself before these international trade and investment courts.

Today, just as communities in El Salvador and Peru have taken up the battle to protect their natural resources, a whole global movement is emerging to rethink the relationship between economic development and social and environmental well-being, and is pushing governments to take policy action in that urgent direction. This important shift, however, is in direct conflict with the interests of transnational corporations hard-wired to maximize short-term profit and pass on the environmental and social costs of their operations to others. The Democracy Center’s report [5] puts a spotlight on how global corporations are using the investment rules system to undermine the policies essential to sustainable development and the democratic process essential to such policies.

Long an obscure interest of trade and investment lawyers, the system of international investment rules and tribunals has remained off the radar for most of the groups and communities that it affects. This is slowly beginning to change. As the number of controversial cases rises, the injustice of the current system is becoming increasingly clear. 

Much as the deregulation of financial markets encouraged by the banking sector helped lead to economic collapse, the system of international investment rules works pushed by multinational corporations is leading us toward environmental collapse. As we hurtle towards a number of ominous tipping points in terms of many of the earth’s natural systems, there has never been a more urgent time for activists, academics, development workers and others to understand the legal and political barriers that block us from changing course. This de facto privatized justice system for big business is a massive such barrier that urgently needs to be brought down.  

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Gridlock and Its Causes

by Gary Hart,, 05/27/2013

There is not a lot of honest exploration of the root causes of what is now widely known as political gridlock. Most political journalism simply reiterates the fact that the legislative branch of government is virtually dysfunctional and deplores the fact.

But this did not happen by accident or in a vacuum. And it will not end until voters tire of it and replace those responsible. Throughout most of American history the U.S. government worked more or less the way it is supposed to, with occasional lurches to the left or the right.

Dysfunction in the early 21st century has its causes. A deep recession caused by deregulation of and consequent predictable speculation in the finance and housing sectors. Two extremely prolonged wars with no clear victories. Large budget deficits caused by tax cuts that failed to stimulate growth and revenues and running the wars off-budget.

This cumulative discontent produced predictable anti-government movements ironically directed not at the political forces that created these policies but at those who opposed them. The journalistic fiction of political “equivalence” is simply that — a fiction meant to avoid pinning the tail on the elephant and being accused of liberal bias.

Anyone who believes the administrations of Carter, Clinton, and Obama are liberal, let alone “socialist,” are living in a dream world. In fact, Democratic members of Congress, including many party leaders, voted for the Iraq invasion and the Bush tax cuts. Any fair assessment of both parties’ performance will show that Democrats have supported Reagan and Bush policies vastly more than Republicans now in office have supported Obama policies. In fact, it is the official, publicly-announced policy of the Republican party to oppose every Obama administration initiative, including appointment of cabinet, sub-cabinet, and judicial nominees.

If you are locked into an ideology that government is bad and ineffective, you have a stake in proving that to be the case, despite the election of a president and administration twice by substantial majorities. Whether a gridlock-committed Republican party will pay a price for opposing the will of the people remains to be seen. At the least it is a high-risk political strategy and at the most it is a rejection of majority government and jeopardization of the national interest.

There is mounting evidence that some Republican elected officials are beginning to foresee the cliff over which Tea Party representatives are headed and fear the damage, even destruction, the Republican party might suffer. It is ludicrous in the extreme for new Tea Party members to claim respect for the House and the Senate and then behave in the most disrespectful manner possible. If these radical individuals wish to alter the American form of government, juvenile behavior is hardly the way to achieve it. Anti-government forces must acknowledge that the size and shape of the national government does not change that much when Republicans are in power.

As always, it is up to the American people to decide what they want. But we must make up our minds. We cannot have a government that works by electing those who want it not to work.

Consumerism and Its Discontents

By Charles Derber, Truthout | Op-Ed, 27 May 2013

A quiet revolutionary struggle is brewing in the minds of the US “millennial” generation, those 80 million Americans between ages 16 and 34. They are wrestling with the fundamental edict of capitalism: Buy and you shall be happy. The millennials have not rejected consumerism, but they have also not embraced it fully. They experience its very real downsides – that also afflict millions of older Americans and go to the heart of capitalist sustainability and morality.

Recent polls by marketing firms and the respected Pew Research Center show strong environmental concerns among millennials, but hint at a broader issue: whether consumerism itself makes for a good life and society. Americans, especially the young, love their computers and sleep with their iPhones next to their pillows, but still worry about the negative sides of consumerism.

Technology itself may be contributing to what commentators have called the “death of ownership” culture, since the issue is not owning a book or television set, but having access through the web. Technology is changing the very idea of ownership. But broader factors – including the very availability of so much “stuff” – are contributing to making consumerism less new, exciting and “cool.”

In a recent informal study of Boston-area college students, I asked them how they felt about American consumerism. Almost all said they would prefer to be in a society that was less consumer-oriented, because consumer culture gives them these headaches:

* It creates fierce competitive pressure to have more and newer “stuff.”

* It complicates their lives, always worrying about how to maintain, pay for and use all the things they buy.

* It distracts from a quality life with their family and friends.

* It creates a “dirty” lifestyle that makes them and the planet sick.

* It leads to more inequality, with people seeking more at the expense of others.

* It distracts from political engagement – President Bush told them to go shopping as he was gearing up for war with Iraq after 9/11.

* It imprisons them in a life full of products and empty of meaning.
These negative feelings are reflected in changing purchasing patterns, with recent polls indicating that a growing percentage do not want to buy a house or car. About 25 percent of Millennials do not want a car, compared with 10 percent of their parents at their age. In 1978, sixty-seven percent of 17-year-old Americans had drivers’ licenses, compared with just 45 percent in 2010. Of course, these differences may reflect reduced income, credit or safety issues as well as changes in consumer attitudes.

These attitudes may seem like the self-indulgent whims of affluent, high-consuming young Americans. Or they may seem a reaction to the Great Recession, as they can no longer afford to buy so much. They could also reflect a phase of life since young idealists too often turn to traditional consumerism as they assume the responsibilities of adult life. They certainly do not suggest that young Americans are decisively rejecting consumerism.

But a quick history of American consumerism suggests something very important: that the growing awareness of its real and serious downsides can largely be explained by problems of sustainability and freedom at the core of US capitalism.

Up until the 1920s, most Americans made their own clothes, grew their own food and bought very little. They were producers and not consumers. This changed in the 1920s, when the growth of capitalism had created large corporations that could no longer prosper simply from World War I production. They needed Americans to become consumers.

The corporations hired public relations experts and launched the modern advertising industry. Retailers such as the giant Sears Roebuck sent out millions of catalogs with alluring pictures of clothes, furniture and other commodities. This was the beginning of “coerced consumption.” In the 1950s and 1960s, the new advertising culture mushroomed and became massive and irresistible, with corporations redefining American freedom as the freedom to buy.

Since profits require ever-expanding consumer markets, capitalism has always coerced consumption, typically by seductive advertising but also by harsher means. In the 1920s, Los Angeles had a huge electric trolley system that allowed people to move around the city without cars. General Motors responded by buying the trolley system and tearing up the tracks. By the 1950s, the automakers succeeded in getting the US government to underwrite highways and cars. People began to buy cars because other transportation choices had been ripped away from them, a perfect example of coerced consumption and a form of “un-freedom.”

What is the solution for Americans unhappy with consumerism? Many are beginning to make changes in their personal lives. Students are starting to grow food in gardens at their universities. Many Americans are living closer to work, so they can walk or bike to the job. Some are looking for companies offering the choice of shorter work hours, which liberates them from the work-and-spend treadmill. Some are joining the “share economy,” where they share things – Zip cars and bikes – with others. Many are “downshifting” to a simpler life.

But constraining consumerism requires far larger changes in US capitalism: severely limiting corporate power and rewriting corporate charters and international trade agreements to emphasize worker rights and environmental health. Quality must replace quantity as the measure of economic and cultural success. Government tax and regulatory policy must end extreme inequality and reduce production and consumption of dirty energy, unhealthy food and luxury goods. Large investment in public transit, community-owned enterprises, national parks and other public goods must substantially reduce private consumption.

Such system-wide changes are politically difficult – and they may not limit consumerism fast enough to avert climate catastrophe or reverse dangerous inequality. But in the most optimistic scenario, they could put society on a new path toward a more sustainable, cooperative way of life.

These changes will be on the agenda of people around the world in the 21st century. Europe is already a far less consumerist society than the United States. China, India and Brazil are struggling with environmental justice and inequality that inevitably highlight the issue of global consumerism. It will take a new social economy that rejects American-style consumerism to solve these problems and help save the world.

A Chinese translation of this article was originally published in the People’s Daily News, Beijing, China, on April 25, 2013.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Beware Capitalist Tools

by Robert Reich, Huffington Post, 5/27/2013

Forbes magazine likes to call itself a “capitalist tool,” and routinely offers tool-like justifications for whatever it is that profit-seeking corporations want to do. Recently it has deployed its small army of corporate defenders and apologists in the multi-billion dollar fight to keep the effective tax rates of global corporations low.

One of its contributors, Tim Worstall, recently took me to task for suggesting that a way for citizens to gain some countervailing power over large global corporations is for governments to threaten denial of market access unless corporations act responsibly.

He argues that the benefits to consumers of global corporations are so large that denial of market access would hurt citizens more than it would help them. The “value to U.S. consumers of Apple is they can buy Apple products,” Worstall writes. “Why would you want to punish U.S. consumers, by banning them from buying Apple products, just because Apple obeys the current tax laws?”

Wortstall thereby begs the central question. If global corporations obeyed all national laws — the spirit of the laws as well as the letter of them — and didn’t use their inordinate power to dictate the laws in the first place by otherwise threatening to take their jobs and investments elsewhere, there’d be no issue.

It’s the fact of their power to manipulate laws by playing nations off against one another — determining how much they pay in taxes, as well as how much they get in corporate welfare subsidies, how much regulation they’re subject to, and so on — that raises the question of how citizens can countermand this power.

Consumer benefits may sometimes exceed such costs. But, as we’ve painfully learned over the years (the Wall Street meltdown, the BP oil spill in the Gulf, consumer injuries and deaths from unsafe products, worker injuries and deaths from unsafe working conditions, climate change brought on by carbon dioxide emissions, and, yes, manipulation of the tax laws — need I go on?), the social costs may also exceed consumer benefits.

Why would an economics writer for a seemingly sophisticated national publication such as Forbes deny the existence of corporate power to circumvent or create favorable laws, or dismiss the social costs that corporations bent solely on maximizing profits routinely disregard? I’ll get back to this in a moment.

Worstall then goes on to criticize me for suggesting that governments also condition market access on receiving some of the social benefits that corporations now wield to play countries off against one another, such as good jobs or investments in research and development. In his eyes, I’m committing the mortal sin of denying the economics of comparative advantage.

On what planet have Forbes‘ capitalist tools been living? Many of the world’s most successful economies — among them, China and Singapore — owe their successes in part to their conditioning market access on certain kinds of jobs and investments, including research and development. That’s the way they have come to use global corporations, rather than be used by them. It’s the same approach Alexander Hamilton advocated more than two centuries ago in proposing how the United States develop its manufacturing industries.

Comparative advantage is nice in theory, but in a world where powerful global corporations are using every strategy imaginable to maximize their profits and powerful governments are strategically employing market access to develop their economies, it’s just theory.

Economics writers like those affiliated with Forbes magazine surely are sophisticated enough to know this as well. So why are they so eager to trot out such economic nonsense?

Perhaps because so much profit is at stake that those who pay their salaries — and who have also put many academic economists on retainers — prefer that they mislead the public with simplistic economic theory that appears to justify these profits rather than to tell the truth.

My modest suggestion that governments become the agents of their citizens in bargaining with global capital should hardly raise an eyebrow. But the capitalist tools at Forbes, and elsewhere, must be worried that average citizens may be starting to see what’s really going on, and might therefore take such a suggestion seriously.

ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest is an e-book, “Beyond Outrage,” now available in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.


97% Global Warming Consensus Meets Resistance from Scientific Denialism

The robust climate consensus faces resistance from conspiracy theories, cherry picking, and misrepresentations

by Dana Nuccitelli, The Guardian, May 28, 2013

The Skeptical Science survey finding 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming has drawn an incredible amount of media attention. Hundreds of media stories documented our survey and results. Lead author John Cook and I participated in a number of interviews to discuss the paper, including on Al Jazeera, CNN, and ABC. President Obama even Tweeted about our results to his 31 million followers.

The story has been so popular mainly because our results present a simple but critical message. There is a wide gap between the public awareness and the reality of the expert consensus on human-caused global warming.


Additionally, as John Cook has discussed, research has shown that perception of consensus is linked to support for climate policy. This is true along most of the ideological spectrum – when people are aware of the expert consensus on human-caused global warming, they are more likely to support taking action to solve the problem.

Opponents of climate action have been aware of the powerful influence of the scientific consensus for decades. As far back as 1991, Western Fuels Association launched a $510,000 campaign to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)” in the public perception. A memo from communications strategist Frank Luntz leaked in 2002 advised Republicansto continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

Thus although our results were straightforward and consistent with previous research, we were not surprised when they met with resistance from certain groups, and anticipated the critiques with an FAQ. However, in reviewing the various criticisms of our paper, we noticed some common threads amongst them. A 2009 paper published in the European Journal of Public Health by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee discussed five characteristics common to scientific denialism:

1) Cherry picking;
2) Fake experts;
3) Misrepresentation and logical fallacies.
4) Impossible expectations of what research can deliver; and
5) Conspiracy theories;

These characteristics were present throughout the criticisms of our paper, and in fact we found examples of each of the five characteristics among them.

For example, the author of one blog post contacted a handful of scientists whose papers were included in our survey and claimed that we had ‘falsely classified’ their papers. Climate economist Richard Tol echoed the criticism of our paper in this blog post. This particular criticism manages to check off three of the five characteristics of scientific denialism.

Specifically contacting these few scientists is a classic example of cherry picking. Our survey received responses from 1,200 climate researchers; the author of this post carefully selected a few of them who all just happen to be well-known climate ‘skeptics’. It’s also a variant of the fake expert characteristic, as John Cook explained in his textbook with G. Thomas Farmer, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis.
“A variation of the Fake Expert strategy is to take the handful of remaining dissenting climate scientists and magnify their voices to give the impression of more significant disagreement then there actually is.”

The handful scientists contacted for this blog post are among the less than 3% of climate researchers who dispute human-caused global warming. As a result, the voices of this small minority of ‘skeptics’ are magnified.

Third, this blog post argument is a misrepresentation of our study. The Skeptical Science team categorized the papers based solely on their abstracts, whereas the scientists were asked about the contents of their full papers. We invited the scientific authors to categorize their own papers, so if they responded, their ‘correct’ classifications of the full papers are included in our database. As illustrated in the graphic below, we found the same 97% consensus in both the abstracts-only and author self-rating methods.

Another characteristic of movements that deny a consensus involves impossible expectations. The tobacco industry perfected this approach in the 1970s, demanding ever-more stringent levels of proof that smoking caused cancer in order to delay government regulation of their products. This technique of impossible expectations was illustrated in another blog post claiming that only papers which quantify the human contribution to global warming count as endorsing the consensus. Most climate-related research doesn’t quantify how much global warming humans are causing, especially in the abstract; there’s simply no reason to.

We didn’t expect scientists to go into nitty gritty detail about settled science in the valuable real estate of the abstract (the short summary at the start of the paper). However, we did expect to see it more often in the full paper, and that’s exactly what we observed. When scientists were asked to rate the level of endorsement of their own papers, in the 237 papers that actually specified the proportion of human-caused global warming, over 96% agreed that humans have caused more than half of the recent global warming.

In yet another blog post, Christopher Monckton, whom my colleague John Abraham exposed as habitually misrepresenting climate scientists’ research, has also misrepresented our results. Monckton compared apples to oranges by looking at previous consensus studies in an effort to argue that our results show a ‘collapsing’ consensus. On the contrary, using a consistent apples-to-apples comparison over a two-decade span, we showed that the consensus on human-caused global warming is growing.


In recent years, fewer papers have taken a position on the cause of global warming in the abstract. This was predicted by Naomi Oreskes in 2007, who noted that scientists will move on to focus on questions that are not settled. Some blogs advanced a related logical fallacy by claiming that this shows ‘an increase in uncertainty.’ However, if uncertainty over the cause of global warming were increasing, we would expect to see the percentage of papers rejecting or minimizing human-caused global warming increasing. On the contrary, the percentage of rejecting studies is declining as well. That scientists feel the issue is settled science actually suggests there is more certainty about the causes of global warming.

Finally, a conspiracy theory has been proposed, suggesting that the consensus is simply a result of scientific journals refusing to publish papers that reject human-caused global warming. Our analysis included results from 1,980 journals all around the world. For all of these nearly two thousand international scientific journals to block ‘skeptic’ research would involve a massive conspiracy indeed.

Due to the importance of our results, we fully expect the resistance to continue, and we fully expect those who resist our findings to continue to exhibit the five characteristics of scientific denialism. However, we have used two independent methods and confirmed the same 97% consensus as in previous studies. That overwhelming agreement on human-caused global warming manifests in so many independent ways indicates that the scientific consensus is a robust reality.

© 2013 Guardian News and Media

Dana Nuccitelli is a blogger on He is an environmental scientist and risk assessor, and also contributes to

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