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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 Web site. While 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 Unsettling 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."

Del Martian October 10, 2011 at 11:57 PM
Yes. Make responsible consumer decisions and leave government out of it. We are all free to be creative, hardworking, productive individuals. Without investors and customers corporations can't be so-called greedy. The only fairness is a free market where one's talents and time can be rewarded with a sustainable lifestyle. I don't have time to go to a protest to watch a crowd of tatooed misfits.complain about hardworking families. I write this from my desk at my business which I created with my sweat and tears. I employ 25 women. I gratefully rent 15,000 square feet of commercial property from a large corporation. I drive a hybrid vehicle, I have raised over $500K for childrens' charities and give $30K in scholarships per year. If my taxes go any higher I may have to sell my home, lay off half of my employees, and give up one of my business locations. Gov't waist and corruption are the problem, not corporations--corporations are owned by their stockholders who are citizens trying to provide for their futures. Leave me alone and let me do my thing. Be the change you want to see!
Billy L October 11, 2011 at 02:17 PM
Very well said.
Suzanne October 12, 2011 at 02:56 PM
1. Apathy is the enemy. No one in this movement is trying to destroy capitalism. This is about calling out a bunch of greedy selfsserving people who take and don't give back. If no one can make a living wage, they cerainly won't be able to consume your products. Wall Street ook the money, is making tons of money again, has little regulation and will do nothing to ease the economy by showing a little thanks -- like lending small businesses loans. They were saved by us. They played the stupid games and sould not have been bailed out.
Suzanne October 12, 2011 at 03:00 PM
2. Of course, there would have a been a great depression and you might be sitting in a Hooverville (cardbaord boxes people were forced to live in during the Great Depression). Which taxes are you talking about? Your property taxes -- quintupled since reaganomics. State income taxes -- raised because of -- Gingrich et. al. Sales taxes -- raised because of debt. States don't make as much because SO MANY people are out of work. Two unpaid for wars, tax breaks for the uber-wealthy and bailing out Wall street have driven us from surplus to debt, so the Federal Gov't can't help the states, who can't help the towns & cities. The symbol for the GOP shouldn't be an elephant -- the have memories , so it makes no sense-- it should be a snake eating itself. They can't learn from history. They consume everything and leave blight and destructionin their wake, while they hide behind religion and dogma, Jesus Christ would be down on Wall Street. I don't think he'd be thrilled with child labor in China & India either.

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