Category Archives: Energy Policy

“It’s Time for All-Out Freedom” A Passover Guest Post by Maya Schenwar

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Remarks delivered by Maya Schenwar (editor of Truthout and author of “Locked Down, Locked Out” and the upcoming “Prison by Any Other Name”) at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 14, 2020. 

A few months ago, which feels like a few centuries ago, Brant and I discussed the idea of me saying something at this seder about the difference between reform and liberation. I’d been writing about how popular prison reforms such as electronic monitoring, drug courts, and psychiatric institutions are actually entrenching the prison-industrial complex. I thought, what better occasion than Passover to talk about how we shouldn’t be pursuing fake liberation, and how we don’t want nicer-looking reforms that are still forms of oppression? What better occasion to affirm that we have to demand all-out freedom and stick with it?

Now, in these terrifying new times, it feels even more imperative to make vast, sweeping demands—demands that rise higher than we might think we can dream. In the midst of a worldwide plague that, in one way or another, engulfs us all, it’s time for that all-out freedom call.

What do I mean by “all-out freedom”? I’m thinking about the refrain that “no one is free while others are oppressed.” I’m thinking about Audre Lorde saying, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” The COVID-19 crisis has deeply and horribly impacted our own communities — and communities everywhere. Marginalized people have, of course, been disproportionately impacted. (Consider that approximately 70% of people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Chicago are Black.)

Right now, we are coming to understand that none of us are healthy while others are sick. As long as anyone is in peril, more will be in peril. And liberation for only some is not liberation.

Yet, in a lot of different arenas, we’ve come to accept small offerings from our political representatives and leaders—a bailout mostly geared toward banks and corporations, a slight reduction in drug prices, a few people freed from prisons, some limits on carbon emissions. We say, “Well, something is better than nothing,” even when the something is far from enough, and when the something leaves many people to die.

Even in the face of coronavirus, the health care plan of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee would leave many millions of Americans uninsured. At this moment in which all of our lives are threatened, it’s time to call for Medicare for All—and much more. We need comprehensive cost-free mental and physical health services, including treatments that go well beyond doctors and hospitals. We need to recognize that plentiful nutritious food, housing, sleep, free time, relaxation, and self-determination are also part of health and survival—and part of liberation. This is the moment to demand universal housing, universal food access, and drastically improved labor practices, which are key to building the kind of freedom that sacrifices no one.

And, at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing and the climate crisis is amplifying the effects of COVID, where is our Green New Deal? Where is our jobs guarantee, our income guarantee for those who don’t work—and our guarantee that our leaders will do everything in their power to confront the climate emergency, which is on track to kill billions? These aren’t far-off dreams or hypotheticals; they are steps that it makes sense to implement now to directly address the public health and economic crises enveloping our country.

At a time when we’re witnessing a shortage of life-saving equipment – ventilators and protective gear – we can issue a pragmatic call for the end of the war industry. In fact, we can challenge the existence of the military-industrial complex as a whole. Has there ever been a clearer moment to say no to the machinery of death, and to demand a mass shift of funds away from the Pentagon and toward public health?

It’s not a time for compromise—not a time to save some and not others.

Moses abided by this philosophy in his dealings with Pharaoh. He said to Pharaoh, “Let us go into the wilderness and worship our own God!” In response, Pharaoh proposed compromises—little reforms, fake liberations.

Pharaoh’s first compromise proposal was for the Jews to stay in Egypt, but worship their own God there. Some people might have said, “Take what you can get! Stop there, Moses! It’s better than nothing.”

But Moses declined the compromise, which was a little better than nothing—but it wasn’t freedom.

So then some plagues happened, as we know, and Moses asked again. Pharaoh scrounged up another compromise: He would let the men go off into the wilderness, but the women and children would have to stay in Egypt. Of course, women and children were groups that were more vulnerable—multiply oppressed, within the oppressed group. And in this compromise, they’d be thrown under the bus.

This compromise reminds me of the “moderate” reforms we see all over the political stage right now, reforms that modestly benefit some people, while throwing other people entirely under the bus:

For example – the proposal that a few more people can have health care, but there will still be millions and millions who are uninsured. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

And there are the proposals to let some people with nonviolent first-time drug offenses out of prison, while millions of others will be left in cages. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

And of course, there’s the compromise that younger people with no criminal record will temporarily not be deported, while older people and people with criminal records are condemned to deportation. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!

These are reforms that throw people away. Liberation refuses to throw anybody away.

Moses said no to the compromise, and we have to say no to the politics of disposability, too.

So then there were more plagues, and Pharaoh issued a final compromise: The Jews, including the women and children, could go into the wilderness – but they’d have to leave their animals behind. Basically, they’d have to be released from captivity with barely any resources.

There’s no freedom without some means to survive, and even thrive. A country where many millions are without health care in the middle of a pandemic is not a free country. A country in which people are starving because they’ve suddenly lost their jobs and have no safety net is not a free country. A country in which a few people are released from jails because of a pandemic, but are released into homelessness, is not a free country. In fact, a country in which people experience homelessness is not a free country.

My longtime pen pal and friend Lacino Hamilton, who is incarcerated in Michigan, wrote me a letter about the experience of the pandemic behind bars. He is hoping to be released soon: After 26 years in prison, his challenge to his conviction appears to be on the verge of being recognized. But, Lacino wrote, “I’m worried that I’ll leave here and materially my life will worsen.” He wrote, “Returning citizens are supposed to be happy with dead-end opportunities, the kind that offer only a ‘piece of a life.’ I want a whole life.”

Everyone should have a whole life. Without that, it’s not real liberation.

So, Moses said “no” to the no-animals compromise, because it was not freedom at all.

Eventually, after the most gruesome and horrifying plague of all, the one we hate to talk about, Pharaoh agreed to the whole package.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. Pharaoh tried to prevent the actual implementation of the plan, necessitating some miracles from God to allow the Jews to truly leave.

Some miracles are probably necessary now, too, because the forces of power are never going to agree to full liberation. But I personally don’t think those miracles will be bestowed by a powerful God (who, to be honest, sometimes comes across in parts of the Torah as another angry dictator). I think we have to make those miracles ourselves.

What would it look like for us to create miracles, in the uniquely brutal time we’re currently living through? A couple of weeks ago, Arundhati Roy wrote a beautiful piece about the COVID-19 crisis, in which she talked about this time as one that forces us into a kind of magic. She wrote,

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

I love that passage, and it speaks to something important. I don’t think the miracle of a full-scale societal transformation that allows for the possibility of liberation will come from above. As far as I know, God cannot unilaterally snap their fingers and provide a universal health care plan or a Green New Deal, or end white supremacy or incarceration, or provide a home for every human being. We will need to grow these things. And I believe that we can, if we remember that no one is safe and healthy until everyone is safe and healthy, and that liberation cannot mean throwing anyone away.

There are many ways to take action right now to pursue liberatory goals, from mutual aid efforts that address urgent needs and build organizing infrastructure for the world we want to live in, to critical housing and labor campaigns, to racial justice movements working to release people from jails and prisons, to environmental campaigns that are drawing connections between this moment and the looming climate emergency, to the ongoing battle for Medicare for All, and much more. Brant is going to share some links in the chat for this Zoom call that will point you toward ways to get involved. These are only a smattering of the many crucial efforts currently underway.

I don’t think we need to drop horrible plagues on our enemies in order to refuse harmful compromises. Instead, we need to unite against horrible plagues – including the plagues of injustice, inequity, and mass violence – and for mass liberation.

I believe that we can enter the portal and fight for that new world, if we are prepared to do it together.

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Action items (National and Chicago-Based):

* The People’s Bailout: a coalitional effort by environmental, economic, racial and health justice groups to advocate a transformative economic package in response to COVID-19. 

#FreeThePeoplea coalition of advocacy organizations who do work to support imprisoned community members across the state of Illinois.

Physicians for a National Health Plan’s COVID-19 and Medicare for All

•  National Nurses United’s broad-based Medicare for All effort. 

Chicago COVID-19 Help & Hardship Page:  a mutual aid effort for direct food and housing assistance.

Rogers Park Food Not Bombs: Saves food from the waste stream while highlighting the inequities of our society.

Brave Space Alliance’s Crisis Food Pantry and Trans Relief Fund.

Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Restore Justice Illinois: to help provide for someone being released from prison.

Help Love & Protect: to make masks for people in women’s prisons:

Autonomous Tenants Union​: an all-volunteer organization committed to organizing for housing justice from below and to the left.

Lift the Ban: to advocate for lifting the ban on rent control in Chicago.

Organized Communities Against Deportations: resistance movement against deportations and the criminalization of immigrants and people of color in Chicago and surrounding areas.

Reclaiming MLK’s Vision of Economic Justice in Chicago!

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It was my great honor to participate yesterday in the profound and important MLK commemoration: “Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality.”  On a cold Sunday afternoon, an SRO crowd of 2,000 participants streamed into St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side to reaffirm King’s unfinished work: the dream of economic equality for all Americans.

While few of us would deny the importance of devoting a National Holiday to the life and work of Dr. King, I believe this day too often sanitizes his legacy into meaninglessness. Even worse is the way corporate America has co-opted his name for its own profit and gain. (This morning, I opened the morning paper and was greeted by ads that invoked King to sell everything from cars to Macy’s merchandise.)

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It’s worse than ironic, when you consider how often King railed against corporate greed in this country – particularly toward the end of his life. Here’s but one example – a pointed MLK quote that was read aloud at yesterday’s gathering:

You can’t talk about solving the problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.

Our keynote speaker, Reverend Dwight Gardner, of Trinity Baptist Church in Gary Indiana, put it very, very well:

Today in this celebration we will not lift up the toothless, scrubbed and anesthetized Dr. King as created by the mainstream media and ruling elite but we will uncover the real Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his radical vision for economic equality.

In 1963 during the March on Washington, Dr. King gave an address that included a short section about a dream, but in the same speech he also declared that America had written the Negro a bad check that had come back stamped insufficient funds.  To paint him with only the hope that we could all just get along does his legacy a disservice and confuses Dr. King with Rodney King.

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And so our event, organized by the People’s Lobby and IIRON, brought together a wide range of citizens to reclaim King’s radical and unfinished legacy of economic equality. And more: to commit to creating a new movement to make it so.

Speaker after speaker spotlighted local Chicago and Illinois legislation that addressed issues ranging from corporate financial accountability, a living wage, public sector jobs, the prison industrial complex and environmental protection. One by one we invited elected officials to the stage and asked them tell us if they would support these legislative initiatives. Then we ended with a pledge to continue organizing to make this dream a reality.

One of our speakers, George Goehl, Executive Director of National People’s Action, correctly pointed out that the unprecedented inequities currently facing our nation are the product of a “masterful forty year plan hatched by CEOs and right wing politicians who were clear that they had to aggregate power to expand profit.”  Goehl noted that those of us who believe in a more equitable system will now have to develop our own long term plan for the “New Economy” with the following core goals:

– Everyday People Controlling the Economy

– An End to Structural Racism

– Corporations Serving the Common Good

– True Democracy – People in, Money Out

– Ecological Sustainability

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The power of these kinds of public meetings resides in their modeling of a system that is generated by people power. Unlike most political events, in which elected leaders or candidates drive the agenda, this gathering was driven forward by the people themselves. The politicians who participated were not allowed to give stump speeches but were rather asked to say aloud to the community whether or not they intended to support these legislative efforts. As King himself taught us, our elected leaders are not change agents – it is rather the popular movements that lay their demands at their door.

I encourage you, this MLK Day, to resist the corporate co-opting of King’s name – and to support efforts in your community to create true economic justice to our nation. Click here to learn about organizing initiatives near you.

Getting Political with Sandy

Lots of pundits are cautioning Obama and Romney against “playing politics” with the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I disagree. I’d say if there was ever a time to play politics, now is it.

As far as I can tell, neither candidate has broken their “climate silence” in relation to Hurricane Sandy – that is, explicitly connect the dots and say in no uncertain terms that Hurricane Sandy was, as George Lakoff so accurately described it, systemically caused by global warming:

Global warming systemically caused the huge and ferocious Hurricane Sandy. And consequently, it systemically caused all the loss of life, material damage, and economic loss of Hurricane Sandy. Global warming heated the water of the Gulf and Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in greatly increased energy and water vapor in the air above the water.  When that happens, extremely energetic and wet storms occur more frequently and ferociously. These systemic effects of global warming came together to produce the ferocity and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy.

The precise details of Hurricane Sandy cannot be predicted in advance, any more than when, or whether, a smoker develops lung cancer, or sex without contraception yields an unwanted pregnancy, or a drunk driver has an accident.  But systemic causation is nonetheless causal.

If we do believe that, in the wake of this devastation we must redouble our efforts to prevent future tragedies such as this from occurring, then the most important thing we can do is to play politics. And the first step is to break climate silence. Even if our leaders are unwilling, it is time for us to speak up and face down the deniers.

Please watch and share the clip above to everyone you know. Then help those who are advocating in no uncertain terms for public policies that will curb carbon emissions and promote alternative energies worldwide.

The Tar Sands Sit-In: Something is Happening!

photo credit: Milan Ilnyckyj

Have you been following the Tar Sands XL Pipeline Sit-In at the White House? This still-ongoing protest is being described as the biggest environmental civil disobedience action in a generation. It began on Saturday, Aug 21 and will continue until September 3. This action has already led to the arrest of almost 600 protesters to date, with crowds increasing every day.

Some background, courtesy of Friends of the Earth:

The Canadian oil and gas company TransCanada hopes to begin building a new oil pipeline that would trek close to 2,000 miles from Alberta, Canada to Texas. If constructed, the pipeline, known as the Keystone XL, will carry one of the world’s dirtiest fuels: tar sands oil. Along its route from Alberta to Texas, this pipeline could devastate ecosystems and pollute water sources, and would jeopardize public health.

Giant oil corporations invested in Canada’s tar sands are counting on the Keystone XL pipeline to make the expansion of oil extraction operations profitable: The pipeline would double imports of dirty tar sands oil into the United States.

Pollution from tar sands oil greatly eclipses that of conventional oil. During tar sands oil production alone, levels of carbon dioxide emissions are three times higher than those of conventional oil, due to more energy-intensive extraction and refining processes. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry 900,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil into the United States daily, doubling our country’s reliance on it and resulting in climate-damaging emissions equal to adding more than six million new cars to U.S. roads.

Before TransCanada can begin construction, the company needs a presidential permit from the Obama administration (no Congressional approval is needed.) Alas, Secretary of State Clinton is already on record as being “inclined” to approve the project and Obama has been ominously silent on the issue. Hence, this incredible, inspiring mobilization in DC.

All honor to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda – one of the leading rabbinical heroes of the environmental movement – who was among those arrested today (see above.) In a subsequent press release, he was quoted thus:

We must turn up the heat in a sustained effort against the scourge of climate change, which harms not just our land and water but people here and now, our human future and all earthly creation.

Please: if you aren’t able to join the action, please consider signing this petition or just contact the White House directly.

Fracking in Illinois? Pass SB 664!

Last January I addressed the serious ecological dangers of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) as a method for extracting natural gas from underground shale. At the end of the post, I noted with some alarm that a Louisiana energy company is currently seeking to lease hundreds of acres of farmland for fracking in Edwards County, IL.

Advocacy time. A important new piece of legislation is now being proposed by Faith in Place, an Illinois interfaith environmental coalition. Sponsored by Sen. Michael Frerichs, it is called SB 664 (or the “Fracturing Chemical Disclosure Act.”) and is modeled after a ruling by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Bottom line, SB 664 would:

• Require companies extracting natural gas from shale in Illinois to disclose their chemical formula to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and to the public.

• Prohibit the injection of volatile organic BTEX compounds into groundwater.

• Outline safeguards for storing and disposing of wastewater.

In other words, SB 664 would require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the drilling process. This way, if any polluted water or natural gas finds its way to a faucet, we will know exactly who put it there. And we can hold them accountable.

Faith in Place is looking for more legislative sponsors—and citizen support—to pass SB 664. If you live in Illinois, please click here to learn what you can do.

Fight Fracking in Illinois!

Those who care deeply for the welfare of the earth have been watching with alarm at the growth of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) throughout the US.

Fracking (yes, fracking) is a means of extracting natural gas that involves drilling deep into the earth, through the aquifer into hard shale deposits. During the process, a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals is injected into the rock, causing a kind of mini-earthquake. Natural gas is then released through the cracks, eventually making its way to the surface, where it is piped to compressor stations.

During the compression process, toxic chemicals are burned off into the air while the used chemical fluid is either sent away or stored in on-site pits where it evaporates. The rest of the chemical fluid, however, remains deep underground.

As you might guess, communities where fracking takes place have reported increasing incidents of water contamination, environmental degradation and serious health problems. State and federal agencies have received thousands of complaints from people all over the country whose lives, homes and communities have been literally poisoned by fracking operations.

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“The Largest Art Project the World Has Ever Seen…”

Here’s a pretty awesome global statement arriving just ahead of UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico: the first global art show on climate change has just opened, launching several huge art projects seen from space designed to highlight the hazards of global warming.

The massive scale of the project is fairly breathtaking. Organized by activist Bill McKibben and his 350 Earth environmental advocacy group, thousands of volunteers ranging from New Mexico to China, Egypt, India and Spain, have gathered for a week long photo-performance project – using human bodies as the main media.

Click here for some amazing pix of the projects. The picture up top was taken of the effort in Santa Fe, in which over one thousand residents held blue posters in a dry riverbed to depict what it would (should) look like if there was actually water flowing through it.

In his email to 350 Earth supporters, McKibben wrote:

We’re not going to solve the climate crisis with art. We know that–we’re deeply based in science and politics. But we’re not going to solve the climate crisis without a movement. And art is one of the ways that movements express themselves, one of the things that reach human beings in powerful and deep ways. So by next week, when the UN climate conference in Cancun opens, we’ll be focused on a new set of ideas and tactics, asking your help for all sorts of practical and political things.

But today–today just know you’re part of the largest art project the world has ever seen.

Evanston in the LEED!

evanstonI’m proud to announce that my hometown of Evanston has just passed an extraordinary environmental ordinance requiring new commercial buildings over 10,00 square feet to meet the LEED Silver standard. This makes our fair city one of a small handful of municipalities in the nation that have mandated LEED building standards for privately-funded commercial buildings.

Evanston has long made environmental concern a top civic priority.  In October 2006, the city unanimously voted to sign the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. The city has also partnered with the Network for Evanston’s Future, a local coalition of citizens’ groups, to jointly develop a climate action plan through a citizen-based process.

Mazel Tov, Evanston – we’re proud our city is leading the way!

Faith in Place

Check out this nice video piece produced by Faith in Place – a coalition of over 400 faith communities throughout Illinois committed to the sacred practice of environmental and economic sustainability. I’m proud to say that JRC (who is featured in the clip) is a longtime member.

From the FIP website:

Our mission is to help people of faith understand that issues of ecology and economy—of care for Creation—are at the forefront of social justice. At Faith in Place we believe in housing the homeless, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. But even if we do all those things, and love our brothers and sisters with our whole heart, it will not matter if we neglect the ecological conditions of our beautiful and fragile planet.

As temperatures rise and fossil fuel supplies fall, the burden of climate change and scarcity will land primarily on the poor, and eventually will come home to us all. We must practice love and justice in the way we use the ecological commons of air, water and soil. We must be willing to make sacrifices for a sustainable economy.

The End of Empire: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah

My sermon for Rosh Hanshanah Day 5769 was something of a sequel to the one I delivered the night before. I’ve reworked it here, based on a version I gave today at Lake St. Church’s World Community Sabbath. (Those of you who read the previous sermon will notice I carried some passages over into this one).

Click below to read:

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