Friday, March 6, 2015

Community & Consciousness

Part 35 of Prisoners of the Real

We can't go back. The only route is through the current crisis and on to the next stage of human evolution. But we can only get there if we know where we want to go.

First and foremost, the impulses toward centralization, rationalization, absolutism, and hierarchy must be rejected as means toward personal liberation and global harmony. This is especially difficult at a time when the need for global control is so strongly asserted and threatens to erase the vision of free communities. Complicating matters further is the confusion between the concept of true community and the State. The more a group of people allows itself to be represented from outside, the less community life is left in it.

Community is the joint and active management of what we hold in common, a primary aspiration of all human beings. Survival itself depends on the use of community structures and institutions to promote genuine freedom and spontaneous social action.

Second, we must recognize that community isn't a rigid idea but instead a living form, shaped by daily experience. It must satisfy the demands of real situations rather than abstractions. Like any realization, community is not reached once and for all time. Every moment presents new challenges and calls for original answers. For the individual, community building requires the inner disposition to pursue a life in common, despite the prospect of adverse circumstances and anxiety, tribulations, and toil. What sustains it is spirit, trust and love.

Community begins when its members see their common purpose and relation to the whole, a living togetherness that is the essence of sister and brotherhood. In that sense, few true communities currently exist in our "post-modern" world. Most of our cities have no real centers, and we devote little time to defining what holds us together. That work has mostly been turned over to elected representatives and appointed bureaucrats. Their "rational collectives" leave little space for warmth or friendship in the press of political and economic reality. Visions of togetherness are usually viewed as romantic fantasy, conceivable at all only in terms of their concrete effects.

Dionysian collectives, in contrast, are the seeds of an organic commonwealth that place true solidarity at the center of social experience. Every act of true friendship, every moment of selfless aid in our rationalized "post-industrial" world, brings social transformation a step nearer. This is true community building, and it occurs whenever autonomous actions create dynamic unity.

The Dionysian path is known by many names – metaphysical reconstruction, holistic epistemology, deep ecology, and new age claptrap, among others. Critics rightly note that attacks on rationalism and "instrumental reason" often extend too far, ending in rejection of all forms of purposeful activity and a retreat into the mystical haze of nature worship and “magical thinking.” Wary of the cult of technique, cultural revolutionaries sometimes confuse technology with practice and reject all human inventiveness as wanton dominance. In truth, however, it is possible to make peace with nature even while acknowledging the separation created by our consciousness. As Christopher Lasch explained, "Nature sets limits to human freedom, but it does not define freedom."

Ecological and systems thinking provide a theoretical foundation for the Dionysian approach. The former encompasses the realization that structures that may appear rigid in nature are actually manifestations of processes in continual flux; the latter has moved beyond analysis of complex machines to an understanding of relationships and integration in living systems. After 2000 years of reducing the world to smaller and smaller building blocks, science has finally turned its attention to principles of organization. Every organism is an integrated whole, a living system. Families and communities exhibit the same characteristics of wholeness as cells and ecosystems.

Yet the metaphysical reconstruction implied by a turn to the Dionysian principle also involves reconciliation of two realms of experience that have long been viewed as separate and irreconcilable – the political and spiritual. Marx's claim that religion is the "opiate of the people" has been as debilitating as the notion that enlightenment is a purely personal pursuit, fundamentally incompatible with the "dirty" world of social action.

The keys to a synthesis have been found in ecological consciousness and the post-modern politics of Gaia. Together they form a new cultural paradigm – planetary consciousness. With roots in myth, Gaia re-emerged as hypothesis, out of research on the auto-regulation of the Earth as a living system. According to James Lovelock, originator of the hypothesis, "the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, can be regarded as a single entity." Studying the nature of Earth's atmosphere, he and other researchers discovered that it is not merely a biological product but instead an active system designed to maintain a chosen environment within the biosphere.

Since this initial research Gaia has developed as a theoretical and artistic context, embraced by social critics, articulated in music, and developed as an eco-social organizing principle. There is talk also of a Gaian mode of consciousness, one acknowledging that science has a myth-making quality. Closely linked to ecological concepts, Gaian consciousness recognizes that opposites can – in fact, must – coexist.

This emerging form of spirituality is politically consistent with certain strains of Green thinking, in particular deep ecology, holistic feminism, community-based populism, and bio-regionalism. All of these incorporate a subtle awareness of the oneness of life, the interdependence of its limitless manifestations, and its cyclical processes of change and transformation. The sense that we are connected to the cosmos as a whole is a spiritual revelation that ties together the disparate expressions of this new consciousness.

In The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics, Charlene Spretnak argued persuasively that Green concepts of inter-relatedness and sustainability open the way toward what she called post-modern spirituality. Human beings, she wrote, are social and interconnected, and the boundaries between us are more illusory than we normally think. Taking account of the nature reverence buried within most religious traditions, she concluded that a spiritual grounding can not only answer a deep hunger in modern experience, but also mesh comfortably with the Green tendrils that have sprouted around the world. Like others who are attempting to describe the next stage of humanity's journey, she found herself in a region where cosmic consciousness and political analysis meet.

William Irwin Thompson defined the current transition as a shift from the cultural ecology of the Atlantic, with its capitalist, industrial approach, to a new Pacific ecology that is more communal and balanced. On the spiritual level, this translates as a move from obedience to symbiosis. Working with a series of paradoxes, he noted that "Good at one level of order becomes evil at another.... In the age of mental understanding of doctrine (the current Atlantic era), obedience to law is evil, for it aborts the development of the mind. In an age of universal compassion (the new Pacific era), understanding of doctrine becomes evil, for it simply sanctifies murder in religious warfare."

The key to a new age, says Thompson, is the acceptance of difference, "the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal." The main danger, on the other hand, is what he has labeled "collectivization through terror," the stamping out of differences. Just as mono-crop agriculture does violence to nature, a mono-crop society – essentially the extreme of an industrial mentality – would be deadly to human nature. Even Green politics, which may yet develop an ecology of consciousness, could instead become a fundamentalist ideology, rejecting flexibility and promoting a Luddite contempt for innovation.

"The real secret of freedom," Thompson once wrote, "seems to lie in the ability to deal with ambiguity, the capacity to tolerate noise and yet hear within its wild, randomizing abandon the possibilities of innovation and transformation."

Next: The Eclipse of Free Expression

To read other chapters, go to
Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Green Mountain Way: Why It Works

From The Vermont Way
Since the 1970s Vermont has been a testing ground for groundbreaking politics. But the many ex-urbanite professionals and members of the counterculture who helped to make that possible were building on a solid foundation. Active dissent began before the American Revolution, as early settlers organized to declare themselves free of British rule and exploitation by land speculators. It continued with the re-election of Matthew Lyon to Congress in defiance of the Alien and Sedition Acts, resistance to an embargo of Britain and the War of 1812, rejection of Masonic secrecy and Town Meeting defeat of the Green Mountain Parkway during the New Deal. This pattern reflects a libertarian streak that has resisted the pull of modern liberalism.

For more: The Vermont Way

Despite relative isolation before the arrival of railroads, telephones, highways and instantaneous global communication, Vermonters have also expressed an egalitarian belief in equality and tolerance that made it fertile ground for revival-era religious experiments and persistent leadership in the fight to end slavery. Although the state was sometimes slow to respond, as with the decision to extend voting rights to women or when handling early union activism, the tradition re-asserted itself in Gov. Ernest Gibson’s expansion of social services in the 1940s, the peaceful assimilation of immigrants and the landmark legislative decision in 2009 to make same-sex marriage the state law.

Public concern has frequently extended beyond the protection and defense of state residents and resources. Ecological consciousness, rooted in Vermont’s rural character and a practical understanding of interdependence, has made it an advocate for reducing pollution, conserving limited resources, protecting endangered habitats, and closing the Yankee Nuclear plant.  Skepticism about wasteful military spending and the logic of war, combined with the symbolic power of Town Meeting, has helped it to spur national reconsideration of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpiles and intentions.

Today Vermont is as identified with liberal social causes and political mavericks like Bernie Sanders as it once was with “rock-ribbed” conservative thinking. But beneath the different labels is a consistent approach to governance and the way it is discussed. Despite a centralized administrative structure, Vermont has emphasized accountability more than most -- through the retention of short terms of office, a citizen legislature, and the tradition of local control.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Steve Goodkind's Unfortunate Positions

This is a statement by Greg Guma on one of Steve Goodkind’s policy positions. Statements will also be released during the mayoral campaign on the Champlain Parkway, Burlington Telecom, Local Initiatives, and Democratic Reform. This one discusses the F-35 debate and Steve’s troubling, compromised stand.  

Wimping Out on the F-35s

Goodkind's Position: Until weeks ago, he didn’t have an opinion. When asked about the F-35 basing issue at the Progressive Caucus in December, he claimed that he wasn’t familiar with the issue, yet also asserted that he would have found a better way to resolve it. Easy enough to say. A few weeks later, when asked about the jets again, he said the fight was over. Here is something on which he and the mayor apparently agree – they both say the matter is settled and we should just move on.

Is Steve wrong? Absolutely, on the facts and the politics.

Greg Guma's Position: Last July a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court to ensure that this basing decision really meets environmental and legal standards. The plaintiffs are hundreds of area residents and the Stop F-35 Coalition. It’s just one of several strategies being pursued. Burlington should join that lawsuit, and as Winooski has considered, allocate modest funding to help with the legal defense. If elected, I will recommend $10,000 to start and ask the City Council to reconsider the issue, with a full and balanced public debate. If residents want to place an advisory vote on the local ballot, I can’t control the City Council, but I will actively try to persuade them. And if they decline, I'll support a petition drive for an advisory vote.

This is not just about money – or even about noise and jobs, important as these are in the overall equation. It’s also about the most expensive boondoggle in US military history.  The F-35 is a prime example of how militarism corrupts the entire political process.

Sen. Patrick Leahy supports the jet because it will create some temporary jobs building an engine. He and others also warn that, if we don’t let the federal government have what it wants, they might close the National Guard base. It’s remotely possible, but very remotely, and there is no evidence. But if that is true, the Pentagon’s decision becomes more like an occupation or a public seizure that will turn parts of South Burlington, Burlington and Winooski into sacrifice areas – virtually uninhabitable neighborhoods sacrificed in the name of national security. In any case, this federal overreach should be resisted.

The fight is far from over. After the federal government built the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, Vermonters didn’t just roll over or walk away. We fought on for decades. And we constantly heard objections about jobs, the economy, how we were unreasonable idealists who wanted us all to live in the dark. We were ridiculed and told we couldn’t win. Today the plant is closed!

Let’s not suffer through decades with another federally-imposed mistake.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Greg Guma for Mayor: Restore NPA Funding

At the Ward 4 / 7 Neighborhood Planning Assembly mayoral forum last night, I announced my support for a resolution passed by the NPA Steering Committee requesting $5,000 a year per NPA to make small grants to community projects.

After the NPA resolution was passed at the group’s quarterly meeting on December 3, 2014, ALL candidates for mayor were asked by the Steering Committee to take a position of the issue. However, when the topic was raised last night, Mayor Weinberger and Steve Goodkind said nothing.
In 1976, as Burlington Youth Coordinator, I worked with the city’s Youth Council and the City Council to look for ways to coordinate programs and services. At that time the Council adopted a resolution that endorsed the concept of neighborhood assemblies. However, it took more than five years and a different mayor to achieve that.

Watch the Debate
At the start each NPA was allocated at least $15,000 to disburse. A large number of initiates were funded, from tree grates to bus shelters and play grounds. But funding gradually declined over the years, and ended completely in 2011. Today each NPA receives just $400, barely enough to cover meeting expenses.
As the NPA Steering Committee noted in its resolution, “de-funding of the NPAs has removed a vital incentive for citizen attendance and participation. When the NPA was a space for the discussion and possible funding of neighborhood improvements, there was a sense that one’s participation could meaningfully shape the future of the neighborhood.”
I agree with the group’s conclusion that small, high-impact grants via NPAs will both improve neighborhoods and revitalize these vital institutions. The amount of funding requested is modest and reasonable, but the impacts would be enormous.
The NPA request concludes by urging each candidate to consider the proposal and respond. Yet the mayor did not comment, and Goodkind focused instead on more administrative consolidation as his priority. I strongly disagree, and noted last night that the Progressive administrations he served centralized too much power in the executive branch, rather that decentralizing power and broadening participation.
Restored funding for NPAs is a small step in the right direction.
During the forum, I also supported two local ballot items – an advisory vote on non-citizen voting and participation on boards and other city bodies – called for raising the local minimum wage, and said zoning for the South End’s industrial/cultural enterprise zone that keeps it affordable for artists and other innovators should not be changed, as is currently being considered.
I again called on the city to become more involved in the future of 33 acres in the North End owned by Burlington College. This is also an issue for the Ward 4 / 7 NPA. At a recent meeting, the NPA asked for more accountability for funds expended to conserve land and open space, and the use of such funds to leverage conservation of the BC/Diocese fields for public use, as well as the other remaining open space, forest, waterfront shoreline, and historical areas on the site.
Mayor Weinberger and Mr. Goodkind also chose to say nothing about that.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Preservation & Change: Finding the Balance

Campaign Announcement: Greg Guma, January 27, 2015
Two months ago, I began to look seriously at the race for mayor – the only public official elected citywide in Burlington -- attending meetings, meeting with community leaders, seeking counsel from friends. Some urged me on, but others wondered why anyone would consider such a thing, or suggested approaching the Progressive Party.

Once upon a time in Burlington, I was part of the movement that put progressives in power here. I ran twice myself for the City Council, as a Progressive and Democrat. But that was decades ago, and things have changed. In any case, Progressive Party leaders united behind Steve Goodkind, so the question became whether to run anyway. I waited, and listened, for about a month – and basically heard nothing.

What I mean is, nothing of consequence about the fast-tracking of various projects developing across the city – from the threat of another commercial center replacing a North End mobile home neighborhood to the looming, intensive development of 33 acres of irreplaceable open space owned by the financially-strapped Burlington College…
Nothing too about troubling, proposed zoning changes and gentrification plans in the South End that will drive out the innovators and artists who make the city special, and certainly nothing about low-key planning for another major hotel, this one right at the water’s edge. That project, hidden under the label “adaptive reuse and infill,” is reluctantly acknowledged on page 108 of a 113-page pitch known as PlanBTV.
Supporters urged me to reconsider, and more than that, they took to the streets and public events to see how others felt and collected enough signatures to place my name on the ballot as an Independent Candidate. In less than two weeks they did it. I am humbled by the support and ready now to give it my all.

During this campaign, I hope to share insights and lessons learned from over 40 years as an organizer, manager, and devoted lover of this place, the Queen City of Vermont. And also what I’m hearing these days – about outrageous housing costs and unmet neighborhood needs, preserving open space and raising local wages, resisting privatization and increasing participation and real accountability.
Why It Matters
One way or the other, this election will be a turning point. In the near future, decisions will be made that change Burlington for generations. I know Mayor Weinberger and appreciate his energy and sincerity. I also know Steve Goodkind and appreciate his service to the city as DPW chief under three progressive mayors. However, at this moment, with a developer in charge, the city is on an express train to gentrification and increased corporate penetration. But that doesn’t mean returning to the past or forgetting the lessons.
There is an alternative: to challenge complacency and question the rush to redevelop, to find sustainable solutions based on community values and balanced priorities, and to open up local debate on the big decisions ahead.
As I’ve been saying, we can’t just build our way out of problems. We need solutions that balance efficiency and growth with democracy and fairness, and create positive outcomes for all of us.
And to find them we need to ask more questions, get more answers and more people involved, to reclaim the right to make informed choices – the essence of democracy. But that means more openness, access, and accountability than we have been seeing.
I’ll also speak plainly about poverty, racism and war. These are also local issues. While I’m as proud as any Burlingtonian that our home is high on numerous best-of lists, that doesn’t mean we are exempt from the problems affecting the rest of the country – things like growing economic inequality, profiling, prejudice and discrimination, climate change, and the impacts of militarism – the latter most evident locally in the expected arrival of F-35s at the airport. Contrary to my opponents, I don’t think it’s too late to stop this boondoggle from making parts of Burlington, South Burlington, and Winooski virtually uninhabitable.
On this and other questions -- whether we can keep Burlington Telecom as a public enterprise comes to mind -- what the mayor says and does can make a huge difference. 
It’s also important to understand that Burlington has seen an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Yet current redevelopment plans will make matters worse. Climate change is real, and so is our basic inter-dependence. What we do matters, here and globally. So, before we give the waterfront or other neighborhoods a gentrified makeover that increases traffic -- and further drives up rents, we need to rethink our infrastructure and transportation system – to anticipate and adapt to the resource and climate-related challenges ahead.
Transparency and Diversity
A new local agenda is taking shape, and with it new priorities and a list of needed policy changes. Yes, this election is about the future. But it is also about understanding the past -- coming to terms with missteps, rediscovering what has worked – and doing things differently. No more rosy forecasts that hide uncomfortable realities, no more ambitious boondoggles and secret deals. When it comes to transparency, talk can be cheap -- at first. But it becomes costly when things turn sour.
In that regard, press conferences don’t equal transparency, and taking questions at a coffee shop isn't actually accountability. Those are media events and photo ops; the mayor is good at both. But we are still waiting for open government.
We're also still waiting for affordable housing and livable wages. Thirty years ago we had a 1 percent vacancy rate and people spent half their income on housing. Unfortunately, those figures haven’t changed. It's time to try something new.
Once Burlington was known as a buttoned up, extremely white business town. Today more than 25 percent of public school students come from other cultures, races, and countries. It's time to look at the city and the world differently. That’s why I strongly support the ballot item on non-citizen voting and service of newcomers on boards and commissions. But the commission system needs more improvements, with an emphasis on fair representation and empowerment.
I’m also excited about the proposals coming from the south end -- defending citizen interests from exploitive development, they want to preserve protective zoning and the district’s cultural/industrial designation. I agree, and will oppose any pending zoning changes that threaten residents and businesses in this dynamic, creative economy district. 
That said, the problem isn’t government. But government is only part of the solution. The community, businesses and independent contractors, students, teachers, artists, and all the 21st century knowledge workers - they need to be heard, and both their success and well-being need to be higher priorities. The goal is engagement – how to cultivate and grow it as well as we attend to the tax base.
Targets and Limits
As a candidate, it’s easy to say that you have a better answer for every issue or problem. I know that I don’t. But I am curious and like to listen, and have enough experience to conclude that there are usually more choices than those in charge -- or those with special interests – like to admit. In the 1970s Burlington residents were told that if the Southern Connector and a waterfront hotel, civic center and condos weren’t built very soon, the economy would go “down the tubes.” It obviously didn’t happen. They also wanted kiosks on Church Street and thought mass transit and bike paths were irrelevant fantasies. 
Now we are told that Burlington Telecom’s troubles and the downgrade by Moody’s mean that all bets are off: there is no alternative to leveraging public assets and infrastructure to spur as much growth as possible. But what kind, how much, and at what cost? Do we really want to look like the eastern version of Vale, Colorado in a few years? A Target in downtown Burlington, as a desirable anchor for the latest makeover of our mall?  That says a lot.
To me, it says the mayor is unnecessarily painting a target on the city’s back – a target for speculators, too-good-to-be true corporate schemes and irresponsible, overheated development. I’m running for mayor to say, not so fast! Let’s take the target off Burlington’s back. Let’s slow down and set some reasonable limits. There’s no need for a fire sale. We can do better than that.
How? To begin, by opening up, redefining what is possible and deciding what we want – and don’t want– including whether we need some basic standards for large private partners, and also by talking frankly – about the values and resources we hope to preserve, and the policies and approaches we need to change.
I’m pleased and honored to take part in the upcoming debates and the March 3 election.