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Occupy Wall Street, Sustainability and 'The Unsettling of America'

Drawing on Wendell Berry's 1977 book "The Unsettling of America," I argue that the Occupy Wall Street movement aligns with an urgent need to work toward a more sustainable society.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is now nearing the one-month mark and it's showing no signs of retreat. At first it wasn't exactly clear what the protesters wanted--Guardian columnist Jason Farago calls the movement its own "raison d'etre"--but one message has been pretty consistent: "End corporate greed."

Using a slogan of "We are the 99 percent," an Occupy Wall Street member, Lloyd Hart, posted a list of 13 long-awaited demands on the group's website. White the loosely organized group's General Assembly has noted that the demands were never officially approved, they've nonetheless received some press.

The include the implementation of a living wage, single payer health care, free college education, investing in alternative energies and infrastructure, a $1 trillion investment in ecological restoration, a racial and gender equal rights amendment, open borders, closing all U.S. nuclear power plants, and complete international debt forgiveness.

The list would take quite awhile to deconstruct, but for my purposes, the demands, though unfortunately somewhat unrealistic, outline various ways in which our society fosters inequality instead of fairness.

People like presidential hopefuls and multi-millionaires Mitt Romney and Herman Cain have said they don't agree with the protesters. According to the International Business Times, Romney (in a true display of double-speak,) said the protesters are invoking "class warfare." Cain said that the protesters could have jobs and be rich if they possessed more motivation and moral fortitude.

"Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself," Cain said.

But what about the thousands of Americans who have been laid off and have spent years futilely looking for work? What about the young people graduating college with tens of thousands in student debt? What about those families who lost their homes to the very banks who profited off of betting against their mortgages?

In New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's piece about the protests, he chides the protesters for not having a more eloquent message, but explains, "In effect, the banks socialized risk and privatized profits. Securitizing mortgages, for example, made many bankers wealthy while ultimately leaving governments indebted and citizens homeless."

All of these struggles that our fellow Americans have experienced over the last few years continually point back to the same predictament: our political, economic and social structures continually work, at any cost, to protect the interests of the wealthy while pushing aside the health and welfare of the environment and the "99 percent."

Wendell Berry, a poet, farmer and writer, published in 1977 a book called The Unstelling of America, which I believe is incredibly relevant to our current state of affairs.

"In order to understand our own time and predicament and the work that is to be done, we would do well to shift the terms and say that we are divided between exploitation and nurture," Berry wrote.

This paradigm, he says, is evident in the everyday lack of freedom that Americans experienced then, as now: "By now the [exploitive] revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, even water. Air remains the only necessity that the average user can still get for himself, and the revolution has imposed a heavy tax on that by way of pollution."

"The first casualties of the exploitive revolution are character and community," he writes. Such a culture fosters not cooperation and sustainability, but pitting people at odds with one another while "following one's own interest as far as possible."

But when people only follow their own interests, others inevitably suffer. The "greed is good" mentality doesn't take into consideration the whole, whether that's other human beings, or our environment.

And that's why we're at a tipping point now. Will we continue on this path of unrelenting self-interest, or will we convince the "one percent" to use their resources to foster a more equitable and fair future?

As a farmer, Berry holds the responsible use of land and a sense of place close to his heart. Exploitation of people and natural resources, he says, shows a lack of character and virtue. It's no coincidence that many corporations contribute massively to greenhouse gas emissions, the tons of waste that sit in our landfills, polluted water supplies and to the quality of life issues that the "99 percent" continue to face.

But there's hope, Berry says, and it comes in each of us making more thoughtful decisions in what we buy, what we do for a living and the causes that we support. Ultimately, if you don't agree with how a company treats people and the planet, Berry says to engage in "responsible consumerism" by not buying their products.

Our decisions as consumers have everything to do with the degradation of the planet, and so the Occupy Wall Street message of "End corporate greed" is consequently and strongly correlated to what we choose to buy.

If you're concerned about carbon emissions, it would make sense to buy most of one's food locally, so it's not being shipped to your grocery store from all over the world. It would also make sense to buy clothes second-hand and to invest in a gas-efficient vehicle or to use public transportation.

"We now have more people using the land (that is living from it) and fewer thinking about it than ever before," Berry writes. "We are eating thoughtlessly, as no other entire society has ever been able to do. We are eating--drawing our lives out of the land--thoughtlessly."

A boycott of the very companies that are working to preserve only their self-interests is by far the best way to "end corporate greed" and to achieve some of the measures that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are calling for. We may not agree on everything, but with 502 Occupy Together protests internationally, we're still the "99 percent."

I'll leave you with this last thought from Berry: "The use of the world is finally a personal matter, and the world can be preserved in health only by the forbearance and care of a multitude of persons. That is, the possibilty of the world's health will have to be defined in the characters of persons as clearly and urgently as the possibility of personal 'success' is now so defined."

Jamie Newman October 10, 2011 at 10:04 AM
College students graduating today have bleak prospects for finding jobs. Of the few that do find jobs, most of their income goes to pay back on student loans. These loans are predatory and designed to put the student into default with increasing interest rates. Please see the defaultmovie.com which is a quick documentary on the current student loan situation. The next bubble to burst will be student loan debt as it climbs to nearly 1 trillion. However; 3 states now provide education and are allowing federal funds to go towards illegal immigrants ie the Dream Act. So we are going to educate those that are illegal in the USA but punish Americans born and raised here? I support Occupy Wall Street... and I am almost 60 years old. This is a wake up call to democrats and republicans that the people who VOTE are tired of empty promises and special interests and payoffs.
Yi Peng Yuan October 10, 2011 at 10:08 AM
[ SOS ] Complaint with Human Rights Violations by IBM China on Centennial [ Review ] How Much IBM Can Get Away with is the Responsibility of the Media http://wp.me/p1hDC3-aL Tragedy of Labor Rights Repression in IBM China http://wp.me/p1hDC3-92 Scandal stricken IBM detained mother of ex-employee on the day of centennial http://wp.me/p1hDC3-8I
lynne pope October 10, 2011 at 10:19 AM
My hope is that it grows to our local cities across america, In Los Angeles county we have so many cities that I know people would support something- like a day- a saturday maybe a legal holiday.. Thanksgiving. no turkey this year!
Evelyn Rios October 10, 2011 at 10:33 AM
I am a third generation Mexican American. The difference between my grandparents and so many Mexicans I meet today is they want to work at great paying jobs but pay no taxes by lying on their income tax if they do one, send all their money home to Mexico, have their kids for free here at Americans expense and then apply for welfare as quickly as they are able. I personally have met many. They all say America owes them because it stole Texas. If you try to go to Mexico and take your kids to be educated you have to pay there. Why don't they have to pay to be educated here? My nephews who are American couldn't go to Pre-K unless they didn't speak English. That is disgusting to me and should be considered discrimination in my book.
Timothy Staggs October 10, 2011 at 12:04 PM
The first new rule says you HAVE to have insurance. Both my husband and I have pre-existing conditions, and although the new bill says we can't be denied coverage because of it. So far, the cheapest health insurance we've been able to find is called "Penny Health" search for it online if you are pre-existing conditions.
Hiram Lopez Lugo October 10, 2011 at 12:26 PM
Putting all racism aside would be the first step toward achieving what we all want. If we want Wall street to listen all we have to do is to organize a massive shutdown of the economy. If all americans stop going to work for one day, Wall Street will be forced to lend an ear to listen to americans problems and concerns. It would be the most successful battle victory without bloodshed. I am ready to make that decision because I am not ruled by fear but I am fueled by courage, freedom, and enlightenment.
NY Firefighter October 20, 2011 at 01:31 AM
Evelyn, Thank you so much for bringing to light what so many don't want to talk about. I too am the child of immigrants who sees a difference with the "new" immigrants. I am proud to have you as a fellow citizen.
NY Firefighter October 20, 2011 at 01:35 AM
Please list your demands so we know what you want. Don't speak in generalizations, be specific. I would love to finally know what these people want. Are we still "spreading the wealth"?
Daniel Owen October 23, 2011 at 06:03 PM
As far as sustainability, permaculture has a lot to offer! People are doing great things in Zuccotti already, to try to make OWS more sustainable. http://www.occupy-wallstreet.com/permaculture/ @ NY Firefighter, I think it is clear what "these people" want! To stop being robbed blind! http://www.occupy-wallstreet.com/why-occupy/why-occupy/

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