At a time when ecological destruction is more dire than ever, the work of protecting the planet depends on dreamers just as much as of scientists, activists, public officials and business leaders.
Earth Day, when millions of people voice support for environmental causes, is the perfect time to recognize this. While it’s critical to wrestle power away from those who believe that corporate profits are all that matter, we won’t achieve a sustainable, just future without serious attention to imagining a different kind of world. That’s why it’s great to see artists playing an increasingly active role in the climate justice movement today.
What bold blueprints for a green planet will arise if we unleash the full power of our idealism and ingenuity? What visions of new ways to lead our lives would turn the public’s indifference about climate change into enthusiasm for building a society that is more sustainable and fair for all?
The focus for most people’s dreams would be the familiar places they love—neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, villages and countryside. Think what could happen if we declared these places commons, which belong to all of us and need to be improved for future generations. Citizens would stand up, lock arms with their neighbors and demand new political and economic directions for our society. They would open discussions with business leaders, government officials, scientists and design professionals on how to create resilient, equitable, greener communities. But the conversation wouldn’t stop there. We’d plan for less carbon and waste and poverty, but also for more fun and joy and conviviality—which are equally strategic goals.
The chief obstacle to taking action on climate change and global inequality is fear of the economic sacrifices involved for people who are relatively well off today. The decline in the West’s material consumption could be more than compensated for by a richer life filled more human connections and natural splendor. We can look forward to a world with more congenial gathering places like parks, plazas, museums, playing fields, ice cream parlors and cafes—lots and lots of cafes. Millions of acres and hectares of pavement would be torn up and transformed into gardens, performance spaces, amusement parks and affordable housing.
Cities would be greener. Suburbs would be livelier. Rural communities would be more robust. You’d see folks of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities as well as social and political inclinations sharing the same spaces, talking with one another even if not always agreeing. In short, the world would be a lot more interesting for everyone. I can’t think of many folks—from free market zealots to ardent political organizers, religious fundamentalists to confirmed hedonists—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to experience more pizzazz and spirit of community in their lives.
But the biggest change we’d see if the commons became the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life would be felt in our own hearts and imaginations. These days, most of us experience modern life as a fragmented and alienating, which makes us retreat into ourselves as a defensive posture. We feel a growing sense of loneliness—quiet desperation in Thoreau’s phrase—that renders us passive and withdrawn at a time when it’s more important than ever to reach out.
Creating stronger, friendlier, more engaged communities is not a sideshow in the urgent cause of saving the planet. It is a central strategy. Because when people connect, roll up their sleeves and get down to work protecting the places they care about, anything is possible. There’s a whole world of people out there ready to dream big and then put it into action.
Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker who explores how new ideas in urban planning, tourism, community development, sustainability, politics and culture can improve our lives as well as the world.
I just learned that my teacher, mentor, friend and dissertation director has passed. I am deeply saddened by this news. Foster was a kind, gentle man with a brilliant mind and a passion for Renaissance literature.
G. Foster Provost, Jr. — August 16, 1925—April 18, 2015
Western society is not set up to nurture intelligent children and adults, the way it dotes over athletes and sports figures, especially the outstanding ones. While we have the odd notable personality such as Albert Einstein, we also have many extremely intelligent people working in occupations that are considered among the lowliest, as may be attested by a review of the membership lists of Mensa (the club for the top two percent on intelligence scales).
Education systems in countries whose primary interest is in wealth accumulation encourage heroes in movies, war and sports, but not in intellectual development. Super intelligent people manage, but few reach the top of the business or social ladder.
Although it’s definitely a debatable assertion, it’s nonetheless an interesting and controversial idea. What I gather is that the “happiness” the article harps on is grounded on moral values or prioritization that is assigned by society which is implemented and disseminated by the educational system. What society “values” highly: wealth, sports, etc.–are what defines “happiness” or success.
However, is intelligence necessarily antithetical to these values? I think there’s an implicit error here in that the article seems to differentiate or dichotomize between reason (intelligence) and emotion (happiness) when there isn’t necessarily a gap between the two. This is very apparent in thus further excerpt:
Children develop along four streams: intellectual, physical, emotional (psychological) and social. In classrooms, the smartest kids tend to be left out of more activities by other children than they are included in. They are “odd,” they are the geeks, they are social outsiders. In other words, they do not develop socially as well as they may develop intellectually or even physically where opportunities may exist for more progress.
Arguably these four “streams” are really just two: mental and physical. And these two streams are really just one: since the brain is a physical organ, and the mental stream encompasses intellect, emotion, and sociology. However by dividing a person into body and mind and the mental into further compartments, on the one hand it may give insight into human motivations, but on the other hand it may also be an excellent excuse for contradictory behavior.
Consider the following statements:
“Follow your heart instead of your brain.”
“Follow society instead of yourself.”
“Follow the right path, regardless of how you feel.”
“Follow what makes you happy, instead of what makes sense.”
Although these statements imply varying motivations: all these motivations take place in the mind, and are all still the province of reason/rationality. The contradictions and conflicts implied in these statements all exist in the mind.
The heart doesn’t make decisions–it simply pumps blood. It’s the brain that chooses the emotional route instead of the logical one. And arguably, in this case, the emotional route becomes the logical one for the person who chooses it. Society doesn’t choose for an individual, it’s the individual who values society that chooses to follow soceity’s dictates. The social need is still in the mind. Right or moral path vs. emotion is another version of heart vs. brain. In this case by choosing the right path–you are in effect putting morality as part of your logic or reasoning. What was really in conflict are the choices of what morality to value, not a choice between morality and emotion.
So back to happiness–which is an emotion, which is part of the mind. A happy person isn’t happy because he values certain things (e.g. wealth or the body) above intellect. In reality it is his intellect that produces the emotion–his intelligence that values those things. A sad person isn’t unhappy because he chooses intellect above all things–but perhaps those things his intelligence values are lacking in his life.
Maybe the proper question is not a dichotomy between the mind and happiness–but what kind of happiness the mind is looking for.
Finally–this doesn’t touch yet on that other controversial dichotomy: that of the body (which includes the brain and the mind), and the spirit/soul.
OSWIECIM, Poland — To visit Auschwitz is to find an unfathomable but strangely familiar place. After so many photographs and movies, books and personal testimonies, it is tempting to think of it as a movie-set death camp, the product of a gruesome cinematic imagination, and not the real thing.
Alas, it is the real thing.
That is why, since its creation in 2009, the foundation that raises money to maintain the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau has had a guiding philosophy: “To preserve authenticity.” The idea is to keep the place intact, exactly as it was when the Nazis retreated before the Soviet Army arrived in January 1945 to liberate the camp, an event that resonates on Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Thursday.
It is a moral stance with specific curatorial challenges. It means restoring the crumbling brick barracks where Jews and some others were interned without rebuilding those barracks, lest they take on the appearance of a historical replica. It means reinforcing the moss-covered pile of rubble that is the gas chamber at Birkenau, the extermination camp a few miles away, a structure that the Nazis blew up in their retreat. It means protecting that rubble from water seeping in from the adjacent ponds where the ashes of the dead were dumped.
And it means deploying conservators to preserve an inventory that includes more than a ton of human hair; 110,000 shoes; 3,800 suitcases; 470 prostheses and orthopedic braces; more than 88 pounds of eyeglasses; hundreds of empty canisters of Zyklon B poison pellets; patented metal piping and showerheads for the gas chambers; hundreds of hairbrushes and toothbrushes; 379 striped uniforms; 246 prayer shawls; more than 12,000 pots and pans carried by Jews who believed that they were simply bound for resettlement; and some 750 feet of SS documents — hygiene records, telegrams, architectural blueprints and other evidence of the bureaucracy of genocide — as well as thousands of memoirs by survivors.
The job can be harrowing and heartbreaking, but it is often performed out of a sense of responsibility.
“We are doing something against the initial idea of the Nazis who built this camp,” said Anna Lopuska, 31, who is overseeing a long-term master plan for the site’s conservation. “They didn’t want it to last. We’re making it last.”
The strategy, she said, is “minimum intervention.” The point is to preserve the objects and buildings, not beautify them. Every year, as more survivors die, the work becomes more important. “Within 20 years, there will be only these objects speaking for this place,” she said.
The conservators are walking a less-trodden path in restoration. “We have more experience preserving a cathedral than the remains of an extermination camp,” said Piotr Cywinski, 43, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which runs the site. Auschwitz, he said, “is the last place where you can still effectively take the measure of the spatial organization of the progression of the Shoah.”
Last year, a record 1.5 million people visited to take that measure, more than three times the number in 2001, putting even more strain on the aging buildings.
Between 1940 and 1945, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, the largest of the death camps, 90 percent of them Jews. The camp encompasses 500 acres, 155 buildings and 300 ruins.
Over the years, there have been dissenting views about the preservationist approach. “I’m not convinced about the current plans for Auschwitz,” saidJonathan Webber, a former member of the International Auschwitz Council of advisers, who teaches in the European Studies program at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. “If you have a very good memorial, you could achieve that without having to have all this effort on conservation and restoration,” he added.
The preservation lab, with high-end technology, opened in 2003. One afternoon last week, Nel Jastrzebiowska, 37, a paper conservator, was using a rubber eraser to clean a row of papers in files. They were letters on Auschwitz stationery, written in German in rosy prose designed to slip past the censors. “I’m in good health,” one read, adding, “Send me money.”
On a nearby table sat the second horn part to Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien (Op. 45), which had been played by the death camp’s orchestra. Ms. Jastrzebiowska would preserve the page as it was, she said, and keep the smudges showing that the pages had been turned. “The objects must show their own history,” said Jolanta Banas-Maciaszczyk, 36, the leader of the preservation department.
“We can’t stop time,” Ms. Jastrzebiowska said. “But we can slow it down.”
Ms. Jastrzebiowska’s husband, Andrzej Jastrzebiowski, 38, is a metal conservator. He spent three months cleaning all the eyeglasses in a vitrine, preserving their distressed state but trying to prevent them from corroding further. “When I saw the eyeglasses in the exhibition, I saw it as one big pile,” he said. But in the lab, he began to examine them one by one. One had a screw replaced by a bent needle; another had a repaired temple. “And then this enormous mass of glasses started becoming people,” Mr. Jastrzebiowski said. This “search for the individual,” he said, helps ensure that the work does not become too routine.
In 2009, the infamous metal sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work makes you free,” which hangs over the entrance gate, was stolen. It was found several days later elsewhere in Poland, cut into three parts. (A Swede with neo-Nazi ties and two Poles were later charged with the crime.) Mr. Jastrzebiowski helped weld the sign back into one piece. But the scars from the welding told the story of the sign’s theft more than of its long history, and so the museum decided it would be more authentic to replace the damaged sign with a substitute.
The conservators have an easy camaraderie, but sometimes their task can become too much to bear. “Working with shoes probably is one of the most difficult parts of working here,” Ms. Banas-Maciaszczyk said. Everyone here has emotional moments. For her, it was a day when she was cleaning a little girl’s wooden sandal. She could see the small footprint inside. “This is something hard to describe,” she said. From 1940 to 1945, between 150,000 and 200,000 children died here.
Ms. Banas-Maciaszczyk said her mother thought she was crazy to come work at Auschwitz. “There are moments when I think, What am I doing here?” she acknowledged. But then she thinks of the bigger picture. “Everyone who works here must feel this importance,” she said. “If we didn’t feel that, no force would make us stay here.”
Kamil Bedkowski, 33, worked as an art conservator in Britain for eight years, even restoring ceiling frescoes at Windsor Castle. Now he is on the team shoring up the crumbling brick barracks of Birkenau where thousands slept at a time, crammed into decaying three-level wooden bunks. “This is the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on,” he said.
Almost all the conservators here are Polish and studied conservation at Polish universities — this is, after all, a Polish state museum, which employs some 287 people, plus 264 guides who operate in some 18 languages.
Most conservators are under 40, young enough not to feel any sense of responsibility for the Second World War — “It’s not our fault that the camp was built here,” Mr. Jastrzebiowski said — but old enough to have heard stories from their parents and grandparents. Few have any regular contact with Jews who aren’t survivors or visitors.
Despite the spirit of freezing the site in time, some exhibits have been redesigned in recent years — the Russian Federation’s tells the story of Russian political prisoners here; those of the Netherlands and France and Belgium talk about the fate of their Jews; the exhibit dedicated to the Sinti and Roma present the often-neglected story of those peoples murdered here. The Polish exhibit is colored by the country’s Communist past.
The new Jewish pavilion opened in 2013. It was designed by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It shows black-and-white films of Jewish life in Europe before the war, then of Hitler’s rallies. In one room, the Israeli artist Michal Rovner has copied children’s drawings from the camp onto the wall. In another, all the names of the six million Holocaust dead are printed on a long row of pages, their edges yellowing from human touch.
The permanent exhibitions here will be updated over the next decade to include more evidence focusing bearing on the perpetrators, not just their victims. In the collection’s storage is a box with neat rows of red-handled rubber SS stamps conserved in acid-free boxes. These will eventually go on view. This is part of the long-term plan by the museum, aided by the foundation, which has raised nearly 120 million euros, or about $130 million, about half of it donated by Germany, to ensure conservation in perpetuity.
The museum has decided not to conserve one thing: the mass of human hair that fills a vast vitrine. Over the years, the hair has lost its individual colors and has begun to gray. Out of respect for the dead, it cannot be photographed. Several years ago, the International Auschwitz Council of advisers had an agonizing debate about the hair. Some suggested burying it. Others wanted to conserve it. But one adviser raised a point: How can we know if its original owners are dead or alive? Who are we to determine its fate?
It was decided to let the hair decay, on its own, in the vitrine, until it turns to dust.
Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost documents the corrosive effect of money on our political process. Lessig persuasively makes the case that we are witnessing the loss of our republican form of government, as politicians increasingly represent those who fund their campaigns, rather than our citizens.
Anthony Everitt’s Rise of Romeis fascinating history and a great read. It tells the story of ancient Rome, from its founding (circa 750 BCE) to the fall of the Roman Republic (circa 45 BCE).
When read together, striking parallels emerge — between our failings and the failings that destroyed the Roman Republic. As with Rome just before the Republic’s fall, America has seen:
1 — Staggering Increase in the Cost of Elections, with Dubious Campaign Funding Sources: Our 2012 election reportedly cost $3 billion. All of it was raised from private sources – often creating the appearance, or the reality, that our leaders are beholden to special interest groups. During the late Roman Republic, elections became staggeringly expensive, with equally deplorable results. Caesar reportedly borrowed so heavily for one political campaign, he feared he would be ruined, if not elected.
2 — Politics as the Road to Personal Wealth: During the late Roman Republic period, one of the main roads to wealth was holding public office, and exploiting such positions to accumulate personal wealth. As Lessig notes: Congressman, Senators and their staffs leverage their government service to move to private sector positions – that pay three to ten times their government compensation. Given this financial arrangement, “Their focus is therefore not so much on the people who sent them to Washington. Their focus is instead on those who will make them rich.” (Republic Lost)
3 — Continuous War: A national state of security arises, distracting attention from domestic challenges with foreign wars. Similar to the late Roman Republic, the US – for the past 100 years — has either been fighting a war, recovering from a war, or preparing for a new war: WW I (1917-18), WW II (1941-1945), Cold War (1947-1991), Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam (1953-1975), Gulf War (1990-1991), Afghanistan (2001-ongoing), and Iraq (2003-2011). And, this list is far from complete.
4 — Foreign Powers Lavish Money/Attention on the Republic’s Leaders: Foreign wars lead to growing influence, by foreign powers and interests, on the Republic’s political leaders — true for Rome and true for us. In the past century, foreign embassies, agents and lobbyists have proliferated in our nation’s capital. As one specific example: A foreign businessman donated $100 million to Bill Clinton‘s various activities. Clinton “opened doors” for him, and sometimes acted in ways contrary to stated American interests and foreign policy.
5 — Profits Made Overseas Shape the Republic’s Internal Policies: As the fortunes of Rome’s aristocracy increasingly derived from foreign lands, Roman policy was shaped to facilitate these fortunes. American billionaires and corporations increasingly influence our elections. In many cases, they are only nominally American – with interests not aligned with those of the American public. For example, Fox News is part of international media group News Corp., with over $30 billion in revenues worldwide. Is Fox News’ jingoism a product of News Corp.’s non-U.S. interests?
6 — Collapse of the Middle Class: In the period just before the Roman Republic’s fall, the Roman middle class was crushed — destroyed by cheap overseas slave labor. In our own day, we’ve witnessed rising income inequality, a stagnating middle class, and the loss of American jobs to overseas workers who are paid less and have fewer rights.
7 — Gerrymandering: Rome’s late Republic used various methods to reduce the power of common citizens. The GOP has so effectively gerrymandered Congressional districts that, even though House Republican candidates received only about 48 percent of the popular vote in the 2012 election — they ended up with the majority (53 percent) of the seats.
8 — Loss of the Spirit of Compromise: The Roman Republic, like ours, relied on a system of checks and balances. Compromise is needed for this type of system to function. In the end, the Roman Republic lost that spirit of compromise, with politics increasingly polarized between Optimates (the rich, entrenched elites) and Populares (the common people). Sound familiar? Compromise is in noticeably short supply in our own time also. For example, “There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined.”
In December 2014, we visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in what is now South Dakota. We chose to begin our project at the archetypal site of struggle for land, sovereignty and autonomy among natives in the United States. It was the Lakota people, including warriors Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who put up some of the most historic fights against the US military forces in the nation’s expansion westward.
In the 1876-1877 Black Hills War, the US intervened militarily on behalf of settlers searching for gold in the Lakota’s most sacred site, now known as the Wind Cave National Park. It was in this context that the Battle of Little Bighorn took place, when the Lakota famously defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. Pine Ridge was later the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which that same 7th Cavalry killed hundreds of Lakota in its struggle to disarm and forcibly relocate them to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
In 1973, Wounded Knee was the site of a 4-month standoff and occupation organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) against both the federal government and local tribal council. In 1975, two federal agents were killed in a shootout at Pine Ridge, for which AIM member Leonard Peltier remains held as a prisoner at the US Penitentiary Coleman in Florida. To add insult to injury, the presidential monument Mount Rushmore currently stands within what’s called the Black Hills National Forest.
The traditional Lakota territory includes parts of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming. The Lakota historically were a semi-nomadic tribe that would follow herds of buffalo for food. In order to force them onto reservations, the US military encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo in the Great Plains, resulting in their almost complete extinction.
It was through the destruction of their food supply — and not through any victories in battle — that the United States was able to force the Lakota into a position of economic subservience and dependence. Through a series of treaty violations, the borders of “Great Sioux Reservation” declared by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty were reduced to the present situation in which the Lakota are now spread out over a number of non-contiguous reservations including Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock and Crow Creek.*
The current unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is between 80-90%, and life expectancy is 50 years. Despite being one of the poorest areas on the continent, the Lakota refuse to accept a 1980 government settlement now totalling $1.3 billion in compensation for the theft of the Black Hills. They insist that no amount of money can be exchanged for the return of their sacred land to its rightful inhabitants. They are currently leading the resistance against TransCanada’s proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would be built directly through Lakota territory.
The histories and particularities of the Native American and Palestinian struggles are indeed quite different, but what they share is the experience of settlers moving to take over and control their traditional lands, later assisted by a military force which facilitated and justified the resulting displacement. The reservation and the refugee camp then become the essential sites to locate this history, identity, and struggle for land and sovereignty.
We met with veteran members of the American Indian Movement, and Owe Aku,Bring Back the Way to hear about the present situation on Pine Ridge, and to discuss their horizon for autonomy.
We Love Being Lakota is the first in a series of videos and texts from the documentary project ‘The Native and the Refugee’, which connects the struggles taking place on Indian reservations in the United States with those in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East.
In February and March, this video was presented at T Marbouta in Beirut, Lebanon; at the Jordanian Women’s Union in Amman, Jordan; and at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank. It was produced in collaboration with Adam Khalil.
Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny will return to Akwesasne, Pine Ridge and the Navajo Nation this Spring to continue working on The Native and the Refugee. They are based in Ridgewood, New York.
* For an in-depth account of the Lakota’s struggles to maintain control of its land over the last 200 years, read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014, pp. 186-191).