Green With Energy

The Green Festival arrives in Austin

Austin hosts its premiere Green Festival this weekend -- Saturday and Sunday at the Convention Center -- to bring together "green enterprises, environmental groups, leading thinkers on the green economy, and thousands of attendees for a two-day party with a very serious objective: strengthening the locally controlled, green economy and expanding popular support for policies aimed at sustainability and social justice."

The festival is a joint project of Global Exchange and Co-op America. Global Exchange is a San Francisco-based human rights organization that focuses on international social justice issues, including fair trade, environmental protection, and sustainable development. Co-op America, based in D.C., emphasizes domestic consumption and business strategies to help organize consumers, investors, business owners, and workers to "rethink consumption practices and shift purchases and investments to socially and environmentally responsible companies."

Local speakers will include Jim Hightower, Tom "Smitty" Smith, Lesley Ramsey, Robin Schneider, Marguerite Jones, Akwasi Evans, and even Mayor Will Wynn ("Austin's Local Living Economy," Sunday, 1pm). Among the big names from out of town are Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now!, author William Greider, Global Exchange Founding Director Medea Benjamin, and BBC reporter Greg Palast (The Best Democracy Money Can Buy).

Tickets are $10 in advance and at the door; a $35 Supporter Pass includes admission, Global Exchange membership, and a subscription to Mother Jones. Arriving by bicycle will get you a discount, and there'll even be valet bicycle parking. Also, attendees can buy discount tickets to the Austin Film Festival, which opens that same weekend. For more info, visit www.greenfestivals.com.

In anticipation of their appearances at the festival, we interviewed Amy Goodman and William Greider.

William Greider
William Greider

Austin Chronicle: Your new book, The Soul of Capitalism, addresses the possibilities of transforming the economic system in a more progressive way.

William Greider: This should be a good audience, because these are people who already believe such a thing is possible, or they wouldn't be doing the things they're doing. What I will lay out for them is that this is about more than the ecological crisis, it's about inequality in the society, about greater respect for society's values as opposed to capitalism's, and a lot of other elements like that. I do try to lay out in the book how these different objectives that many people pursue can have effect within the system, and can find real power to change things.

AC: How do you balance the optimism expressed by your book with the other matters you've been reporting recently, like the tensions in the world economic system or the collapse of the World Trade Organization negotiations?

WG: I guess I separate the present troubles, which are profound, from the possible future that I see on the horizon -- if I squint. That's not dodging the point. I think this country is already in, and is going to go through more, some pretty ugly stuff in the next few years. I hope I'm wrong about that, I sincerely hope I'm wrong, but that's what I see. I think people can find some energy and purpose in their lives if they understand that that's not the end of the story. This country in its whole history has gone through a lot worse than what we will experience, and people often draw their energy from the worst moments, to say, "This can't happen again -- we've got to tackle the system and change it before it does happen again." In my touring I find a lot of different people of many different stripes connecting to that idea. They're eager to get some hope from somewhere, and they find it plausible that you can look five or 10 years ahead, and see that there's a road leading to a very different society. Other people, candidly, just can't buy it -- for reasons I understand. They're either so burdened personally by their circumstances or they can't imagine getting over what we're in now.

There's always somebody who says, "Wait a minute, it doesn't have to be this way." And they go off and try to change things, maybe in a very local, personal way, but also maybe in a grander way. And I know people like that all over this country; I don't know all of them by any means, but I know a lot of them, and that's what I draw my optimism from. History is made by people acting on convictions that seem implausible to the majority at the moment.

AC: Do you find people as willing to address issues of economic justice as they are to defend the environment?

WG: I've been a reporter for a lot of years, and what I have experienced increasingly in the last five to 10 years is environmentalists who are willing to incorporate the idea of economic justice and social conditions in their critique, and there's a lot of that in the book: examples of recognizing that inequality is an ecological issue. In fact, inequality drives a lot of the damage and destruction in our society, that emanates from people either being so desperate enough that they can't take on the larger responsibilities of ecological protection, or people burning up the countryside in sprawl in order to get away from those people who don't have their affluence. There are wheels within wheels here. The new viewpoint, which I've heard articulated from many people who really are ecologists in the experienced sense, is that there are three legs of the stool here: The economy is one point, and economic justice is another point, and society itself, the condition of society is the third point, and that all solutions ultimately have to work for all three of those. Now that's easy to say in the abstract, but it's real hard to do in practice.

We're at the bottom of the mountain, I realize. But look at the relationship between labor unions and environmentalists. They've made tremendous progress in the last few years, because they've realized we're either going to reach our objectives together, or we're both going to wind up bloody on the floor. On a lot of political fronts, they are now working together, post-Seattle. That was a kind of breakthrough moment, when you really did see the Teamsters and the turtles marching together. It's harder to do in a community, because everybody has their own neighborhood perspective.

Consider a place like Austin, which has this group of "creatives" working together, but at the same time is replicating the same wage-and-income inequalities that lead to social pathologies that every new capitalist technology has done over the last 150 years. We'd better deal with that -- if we don't, five, 10, 20 years we will be stuck, as the public taxpayer, trying to clean up the messes left behind by capitalism.

AC: Even if we accept that the movements for social justice are broadening across the country, the possibilities for political change seem narrower and narrower. Do you see any way out of that dilemma?

WG: The political system is paralyzed at best -- in some ways it's worse than paralyzed, it's actually retreating, led by a former Texas governor. Short term, there's nothing to do but keep banging on the political system, and I say that in a bipartisan manner. In the long run, people creating a new social and economic reality, from the ground up, as hard as that seems to me, are what drives politics, in the long run. I've been in Washington for 35-plus years, and a lot of my friends are in government, or they're in organizations like the Sierra Club, or the Natural Resources Defense Council, or labor unions, and so forth. They think I'm committing some kind of heresy in saying government isn't going to do this for people. What I mean by that is that you're not going to get a forward-looking political response until you've created a motive force in society that has that same forward-looking view of what America can become. As opposed to simply bewailing the latest outrage from business and finance or the latest corruption of government -- which I do, that's what I do for a living -- I'm just saying the way to get on offense, in the ecological crisis, and on other fronts, is to develop a better understanding of what we want this country to become. Not right now, or next year, but what do we want America to look like a generation from now.

And if you get a clear, plausible story about that, then I think the politics and economic agitation can follow. If you're just saying, "Oh, please don't do this to working people," you're going to get rolled. That's been the story for the last 20 or 30 years.

AC: So your book is in some ways an attempt to provide a theory for that movement?

WG: It's not even a theory. I stipulate in the book more than once: Mostly these are not new ideas, many of them are old ideas -- I mean 80 or 100 years old, about reforming corporations, about reorganizing work, and especially about reorganizing ownership. People have made this prophecy before, 50 years ago, 75 years ago. What I think what makes me a little different from the past, is I can see and I can try to describe why Americans of almost every rank are equipped to do these things in a way they weren't in earlier generations. Part of that is the affluence in this society, which also throws people -- but it seems to me an obvious fact that we need to incorporate. We are at a level, generally as a nation, that is pretty damn wealthy. Why, then, are we continuing to brutalize people in the workplace; why are we continuing to marginalize a huge sector of the population in a kind "reserve army of the unemployed," as Marx used to say; why are we destroying nature so wantonly -- if we already have abundance? I think that changes the way that people react to these ideas.

I can't say with a guarantee that people will say, okay, "Let's go at these things differently," and build alliances and so forth. I do know people are trying to do it.

AC: The correspondence on your Web site (www.williamgreider.com) suggests that people have connected strongly to your portrait of modern corporations as the descendant of feudalism. It strikes me as odd that people are quick to identify government tyranny, but fail to see it on the job.

WG: Yes, the "master-slave relationship." I've been genuinely excited by that, because I was trying to write that in a way that would be understated, so that I wouldn't send people out the door thinking, well, he's a crank, forget him. So I worked on it pretty hard to get it right. But then when I'm out talking to people or on the radio, they just get it in the snap of a finger, it doesn't take a lot of explanation. I think what's happening there is not by virtue of me, but that I'm simply laying on the table -- "Here's what it's like, folks" -- a reality they already know. People internalize this, and some people have just accepted it -- this is the way things are and this is the way they'll always be -- here comes this guy selling a book and saying, "It doesn't have to be this way, if we can all get together and work on this." For a lot of people, that's a really liberating thought. They may go home and decide "he's a crackpot," but for the moment anyway, it makes them feel really good to talk about it.

The other point I'm trying to make which gets lost in a lot of the public discussion: This is not a condition that's confined to the bottom, or to the working class, or to people who are just sort of in ordinary jobs. It goes way up the ladder of occupations, and when you hear middle managers in big corporations, as I have, talk about this in the same sort of way an assembly-line worker talks about it, it's really striking. Even professionals, lawyers and doctors and others, beginning to see themselves confined by these same terms -- the decisions are handed down to you, and you're supposed to carry them out and go home, and that's the end of your involvement and your responsibility. -- Michael King

An abridged version of this interview appeared in the print edition.

Amy Goodman
Amy Goodman

For Amy Goodman, the concept of the "embedded journalist" is not a new one. But her concept of "embedding" is markedly different from Donald Rumsfeld's. Rather than join the troops, Goodman believes a reporter should plant herself in the midst of the communities on the receiving end of military action.

This is not an ivory-tower theory for the host of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! In 1990 and 1991, Goodman traveled to East Timor to report on Indonesia's brutal (and U.S.-backed) occupation of the tiny island nation; she witnessed the massacre of 270 civilians by Indonesian troops, and was herself beaten by soldiers, but her reporting won numerous awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Prize for International Reporting. In 1996, she founded Democracy Now!, which has become the flagship program for the Pacifica network, and can be heard on over 160 radio stations, as well as on Free Speech TV (Channel 9415 of the DISH Network satellite TV service), access TV, and at www.democracynow.org. On Oct. 1, her hourlong program began airing on Austin cable access Channel 16 every weekday at 6pm.

Goodman says the Green Festival is "all about environmentalism and sustainability. We're all on this planet together, and we have to figure out a way to live together, and I am always committed to being at events where organizations and people gather together to discuss important ideas and support each other."

The Austin Chronicle: Can you give us some hint of what you'll be talking about at the Green Festival?

Amy Goodman: I'll be talking about independent media in a time of war and elections -- the importance of having media that is not embedded, media that is there to hold those in power accountable. I think that is what journalism is all about. Talking about what I think is the lowest point of journalism, which is this year, the coverage of the invasion of Iraq -- the Pentagon's perfecting of the embedding process, and how successful it was for them, and the lack of resistance on the part of the media. You had U.S. reporters who were embedded in the front lines of troops, and you could hardly tell the difference between the troops and the reporters. If you're going to make the argument that "Well, how else would you get that picture from the front line?" -- then why aren't reporters embedded in Iraqi communities? Why weren't reporters embedded in the peace movement all over the world?

It is so critical to shore up public media right now, when the Federal Communications Commission is there to change rules to increase media [ownership] concentration. We are fighting back. We [Pacifica Radio] are part of a media and democracy movement in this country that believes communities need media that they can control. If we don't use these public airwaves, we're going to lose them. I hope we're a good model for people to use the airwaves responsibly and bring out a full diversity of voices.

AC: This festival will focus on building a green economy. How do you intend to tie this democratic media concept to environmentalism, and what role does the media have to play in building a green economy?

AG: It's about sustainability. It's about how we sustain our institutions in a way that makes it possible for community organizations to support themselves. It's about improving the planet, making it safer for all of us, whether it's to do with war, with the environment, with controlling our own media. A lot of people now feel locked out of electoral politics. They feel that their voice doesn't matter, that you've got dirty elections [controlled by] the companies, the corporations, or the individuals with the most money -- often the same entities that pollute our planet and that don't care about sustainability. So I see everything as connected. This is about democratic institutions, which will mean cleaner air, cleaner elections, and a safer world.

AC: Many view your show as filling a number of gaps left open by the mainstream media. Where does the mainstream media fail on environmental issues?

AG: I think that they're not critical of the government. And I mean that in a nonpartisan way. It's not about Democrats or Republicans. It's being extremely skeptical about what the government says. You've got this classic situation, especially around the environment, where right now the Bush administration is not making clear where it stands on issues of global warming, air pollution, nuclear nonproliferation treaties. It's up to us as journalists to get that information to people who don't have time to investigate but who care deeply about the survival of their families and the planet. I think our role is to dig out the truth. As the great reporter I.F. Stone said, governments lie. And we have to get behind those lies, because it really is a matter of life and death. Whether it's war, or whether it's global warming and extreme weather, it matters. And it's our role to be the watchdogs.

AC: So what took so long for your show to come to Austin, a market that would seem to be such a good fit for your politics?

AG: I'm just excited that it came to Austin and that a group of people in the community [including activist Stefan Wray and Iconmedia] have organized to get us there. We're now on public access TV, and I'm hoping that we can also be on public radio, either community radio or NPR. Usually what happens is we come into a town, [first on] either radio or TV, and [then] the other form ... People are very interested in hearing it as well, so they work to get us on there. It's a very good model. It's about grassroots activism. It's not top-down. It's not us coming in and saying "Put us on." It's people hearing about the program, or watching it, or listening to it on the Web, and then somehow organizing with other people to say, "Hey, let's get Democracy Now! on the public airwaves." -- Lee Nichols

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

William Greider, Green Festival, The Soul of Capitalism, economics, human rights, Amy Goodman, Pacifica Radio, Democracy Now!, Stefan Wray, Iconmedia, Green Festival

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