Monday, November 21, 2011

Size matters.

Jumbled thoughts of a tired mind.

Last night, I went to a wonderful potluck at the Cobb Hill cooperative housing trust in Hartland, Vt. (Quick aside: I think every truly great potluck I've ever gone to has been in Vermont. It is a state that excels at potlucks.)

The dinner was thrown for a group of about 30 Occupy Wall Street-ers who came to Vermont to regroup and recharge after being violently evicted from their city-within-a-city at Zuccotti Park. Nancy Theriault opened her home to all of them, and they slept on the floor, gave each other asymmetrical haircuts on the front porch, went swimming in the pond (in November!) and partook in bonfires, sweatlodges, music jams, and the kindness of Nancy's Hartland community, many of whom opened their homes and hearts as well. Many of the protesters had never been here before, and they seemed blown away by not just by the state's beauty but by the people who gave them each a pair of wool socks, who started an instrument donation to replace all the instruments police smashed; who gave them maple syrup and cheese and showers and laundry and even free massages and acupuncture.

In exchange, the Occupy group held a Hartland General Assembly to give Hartland residents a taste of what's been happening every day in the city, to answer questions about the current state of the protest and its future, and to share stories from the front lines of a movement that, love it or hate it, has irreversibly changed the social and political discourse in this country and around the world.

Lying in bed after I got home from the potluck assembly, I thought about a Tea Party meeting I covered for work a few months ago, and how different the Occupy Wall Street protesters were from the Tea Party members I met – and yet, how similar. For occupying such polar ends of the political spectrum, they share the commonalities of movements borne of utter dissatisfaction with government, with social trends and the with overall state of apathetic, wasteful mainstream America.

Obviously, I'm not the first to compare the two, but that's not what I was staying awake thinking about. In two years, the Tea Party rose from from nothingness to a political force playing a notable, if not decisive, role in the current Republican presidential race. Can you imagine OWS doing the same?

In the dark, I thought for just a second that it would be cool to see OWS rally behind a major political candidate – even though that seems highly unlikely at this point. I imagine most wouldn't support any politician. A part of me admires that, while another part of me thinks that to really change anything, having a say in government is vital. But that's all beside the point. Even if some incredible figure were to rise from ashes of discord and make it to office, the chances for crushed hope seem unbearably high. No one person can fix the system. It's too complex. Like all the hopeful people who voted for Obama in 2008 and now criticize him for being too cozy with bankers or abandoning the environmentalists, there is bound to be disappointment. People expect insta-results. I hate to sound pessimistic (or to borrow a hated phrase), but the problem is almost too big to be solved.

The “problem” is not evil people running banks or social inequality or an unfair tax system, though those are all problems. The real problem is just the sheer size of everything. We're too big. How can anyone understand something so huge as the United States, with its giant budgetary and economic issues, social justice issues, education, nutrition, energy policy, foreign policy, prison, agriculture, military and media issues? Tackling a problem you understand is doable. But trying to change something too big to even make sense of is utterly daunting.

And making sense of our own issues doesn't even cut it these days. We apparently need to understand everything going on everywhere else, too. I recently read that the U.S. military announced it's been spending millions on a secret air base in Ethiopia where for months it's launched drones to spy on suspected terrorist operations in Eastern Africa. Are we supposed to applaud this? Who knew we had shit going on in East Africa? We've got our finger in every pie. Apparently, that's one advantage of being a country on our good side: you're given the privilege of letting us develop secret military bases in your borders.

Empires all dissolve. Every empire in history has, and I don't think anyone these days would deny that the United States is an empire and that we, too, will someday reach our zenith and someday after that crumble into decline. Maybe we've already reached that point.

But what do empires have in common before their collapse? They've grown, as my dad would say, too big for their britches. It suddenly seems like all the issues I try to wrap my head around are related to size. Population? Too big to be supported by the way we currently manage natural resources. Why'd the housing crisis happen? Because we built our houses too big. Financial meltdown? Banks that were too big to fail. Homogenization of culture? Blame it on big box stores. Health issues? Big people. CO2 emissions? Big cars. Soil, pesticide and nutrition issues? Big, un-diversified farms.

Maybe our empire has grown so morbidly obese that it's bound to collapse, and maybe that's not a bad thing. But it's always nice, even in the throes of destruction, to have choices. If we start now, maybe we can have a say in what our own little worlds will look like after this colossus slowly, imperceptibly crumbles into something much more manageable – as we transition, as Bill McKibben says, from the era of the big and the few to the era of the small and the many.

As McKibben writes, “we will still have endless problems, but they’ll be more limited. A careless local farmer can still sicken his customers, but he can’t sicken millions of them at once. A corrupt banker can wreak havoc in his community, but not so much havoc that it topples the financial system. Problems will stay problems, instead of ramifying into disasters. If a hailstorm wrecks my solar panels, I’ve got an issue, but it’s not blacking out the East Coast.”

Solving the biggest problems is going to take a sweeping change, across our entire culture and the way we think. But it is not a change that can be made by one big sweep. It'll take each of us wielding our own small brooms. While the size of the problem seems overwhelming, it's good to know that a shift toward the small has to start small, and small is you and me.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent writing, Krista.

    We should publish this at Vermont Commons.


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