Thursday, July 02, 2009


I live near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is not a particularly large city. It's famous as the Steel City, but iron and steel manufacturing is now so much reduced. Indeed Pittsburgh is part of the Rust Belt, places in the Middle Atlantic region of the USA once the manufacturing hub of the US. The picture was taken from the Spring Hill neighborhood facing more or less in the direction of the city. You can see the hilly terrain. Pittsburgh not a big city, it's also a city of neighborhoods, and the metropolitan area is composed of townships towns and municipalities. There's a small town flavor to the area. And I'm really in love with it.

Pittsburgh will be the setting for a meeting of the G20--Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors--in September. My first reaction was of hometown pride in being selected as the setting for an international event. My second reaction was to think of Seattle 1999. The World Trade Organization held a Ministerial Conference in Seattle. At least 40,000 protesters gathered and it became a watershed moment drawing attention to the issue of globalization.

Pittsburgh is gearing up for its Independence Day celebrations and one of the local papers tells us that the Three Rivers Regatta will be a test of security procedures for the G20 event. Oh joy! Seriously, I want them to get the security right. Partly that desire goes back to my hometown pride--perhaps foolish; I would like Pittsburgh to be seen in a good light. I don't want anyone hurt. But at the same time I believe public voices should have an opportunity to speak and be heard. Peaceful assembly is essential to that, even if I won't be part of it. I probably will avoid the whole Forth of July celebrations downtown too!

I'm not an activist. Saying that doesn't mean that I don't think, nor that I don't understand that in a democracy I have social obligations. It is surely true that the matters discussed at the G20 Meeting have real consequences for me and people all around the Earth. I intend to pay attention as best I can.

If 1999 was a watershed moment for anti-globalization movement, then the 2008 run on the financial markets was a watershed moment too. In 1999 people in developing nations, labor unions, young people and disenfranchised people of all sorts began to deeply question the neo-liberal policies that had dominated world economics since Reagan, Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. Since 2008 even the most dyed-in-the-wool capitalists are raising questions too.

The job numbers for June came out today and nearly a half million more people ;have been forced from their employment; raising the official unemployment rate to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan was president. In 1976 there were about 250,000 people in Allegheny County--where Pittsburgh is--directly engaged in steel manufacture. By 1980 there were less than 5,000. Regionally job numbers have held up better than other areas of the country in this recession. That fact is somewhat tempered by the fact the region has never fully recovered the jobs since the 1980's.

The economy sucks, people are noticing. Even though unemployment is high, there is a perverse situation that the buying power of people who are working actually increased in June. So noticing the economy is a bit more nuanced than we might think. Something working people might notice are things shared in common that are in trouble. The state is cutting arts funding; in the scheme of things a very small budget item, but one which affects many people. This summer the Pennsylvania Governors School was cancelled which for more than 20 years had brought the brightest high school students across the state together to participate in dynamic learning programs during the summer. Regional funds for libraries are being slashed among many other cuts. So even for people working feeling their money goes a little further, they see effects of the poor economy. For most of us the signs are obvious.

What is not so obvious is what to be done. More than ever people are aware of environmental limits. Take the issue of atmospheric carbon. We all know it's a problem and such a big problem that none of us alone can do much about. It's a global issue. But I also think that most Americans look at the promise of "green" jobs suspiciously. We know we take cheap energy for granted so don't know how to think about how to get out of the spin we're in. Building more houses in ever sprawling suburbs doesn't make much sense to us, but neither do all the people who were engaged in construction building them and who are now out of a job. We take it as a given that our economy depends on growth, and to our minds growth is literally fueled by fossil fuels.

In June Jason Bradford put a presentation he made at "The Generation Green Tent" during the Summer Arts and Music Festival at the Benbow Lake State Recreation Area. It's a great presentation that I encourage reading and sharing. One point he made was:
Problems with the environment or natural resources are problems with the economy because human economic systems are a subset of planetary ecological systems. Environmental issues should be the main topics on page 1 of the business section of your local newspaper—assuming you still have one.
He also makes the point that we are about off our rockers because of the cognitive dissonance over what we know and our assumptions about the economy. Perhaps in 1999 there were lots of Americans who interpreted the issues of globalization in familiar frames like: Buy American, or Don't ship our jobs oversees. But now the reality of global climate change has taken hold. The link Bradford makes between economics and environment is very real to us, even if we don't talk together about it much.

The other evening a paid organizer for Repower America called me on telephone. I must have signed a petition or given out my details at some point. My sales resistance isn't so strong, so I try pretty quickly to dispense with such calls. What kept me connected a little longer was the money pitch never began. And that left me with an opportunity to run my mouth, saying I'm not going to do anything if it means my having to go anywhere. This isn't entirely a snot-nosed reaction, transportation is something I have to plan and ration. But Pablo on the other end must have learned well in organizer's school because he came back with an idea for "Green Barbecues." The idea is to invite your friends over to talk about economic/environmental issues. Perhaps together we can do something useful. Then closing the sale, Pablo had me pick a date. The date is July 8, 2009.


In April the G20 met in London. In advance of that meeting I stumbled upon an effort called we20--that's their FaceBook page. The basic idea of we20 is for people all over to create meetings of 20 or so to discuss the dire problems we all face. And the most important part is to try to think of a plan to put actions to our words. The organization is entirely neutral, we20 doesn't take a position. What they have done, however is to create tools so that individual we20 meetings can share with others. That Web site is here. At the time I first discovered we20, I thought how smart that all was, but didn't act on it. Then recently I noticed a Tweet from we20 at Twitter about Pittsburgh and it jogged my memory.

I've committed to try to entice a few friends to my place for a Green Barbecue so that the Repower America organizer can encourage the people who show up to sign their petition. I think that's a good thing.

Almost all of my friends want as little to do with the Internet as possible. We talk about face to face being so important, but I'm not sure how many I can actually attract Wednesday night. Still, I know my friends think they should be doing something about the pickle we're all in. It took Repower America to get me off my duff, but the essential thing for grassroot efforts is for people to get together and share some intention. With these Green Barbecues, Repower America hasn't developed a way to tell the stories online like we20 has. So while my friends might not see anything about it online--including this blog post--I'm still keen on using the Internet to connect. So I've listed the event at the we20 Web site. I'll also try to report on it there and at the FaceBook page.

I maybe missing something essential, but I don't think it matters too much what we call small grassroots efforts to get together to address our challenges. But I do think it important more and more people do get together for that purpose. There are online communication tools, I think they're great and intend to explore them. Still the basic point is to get together and get to work. Our survival and happiness depends on it.

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