Compassion Is Our New Currency

Excerpt from Compassion Is Our New Currency by Rebecca Solnit

I was myself so caught up in the Occupy movement that I stopped paying my usual attention to the war over the climate — until I was brought up short by the catastrophic failure of the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. There, earlier this month, the most powerful and carbon-polluting countries managed to avoid taking any timely and substantial measures to keep the climate from heating up and the Earth from slipping into unstoppable chaotic change.

It’s our nature to be more compelled by immediate human suffering than by remote systemic problems. Only this problem isn’t anywhere near as remote as many Americans imagine.  It’s already creating human suffering on a large scale and will create far more. Many of the food crises of the past decade are tied to climate change, and in Africa thousands are dying of climate-related chaos. The floods, fires, storms, and heat waves of the past few years are climate change coming to call earlier than expected in the U.S.

In the most immediate sense, Occupy may have weakened the climate movement by focusing many of us on the urgent suffering of our brothers, our neighbors, our democracy. In the end, however, it could strengthen that movement with its new tactics, alliances, spirit, and language of truth. After all, why have we been unable to make the major changes required to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? The answer is a word suddenly in wide circulation: greed. Responding adequately to this crisis would benefit every living thing. When it comes to climate change, after all, we are the 99.999%.

But the international .001% who profit immeasurably from the carbon economy — the oil and coal tycoons, industrialists, and politicians whose strings they pull — are against this change. For decades, they’ve managed to propagandize many Americans, in and out of government, into climate denial, spreading lies about the science and economics of climate change, and undermining any possible legislation and international negotiations to ameliorate it. And if you think the eviction of elderly homeowners is brutal, think of it as a tiny foreshadowing of the displacement and disappearance of people, communities, nations, species, habitats. Climate change threatens to foreclose on all of us.

The groups working on climate change now, notably and Tar Sands Action, have done astonishing things already. Most recently, with the help of native Canadians, local activists, and alternative media, they very nearly managed to kill the single scariest and biggest North American threat to the climate: the tar sands pipeline that would go from Canada to Texas. It’s been a remarkable show of organizing power and popular will. Occupy the Climate may need to come next.

Maybe Occupy Wall Street and its thousands of spin-offs have built the foundation for it. But perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions — and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters.  But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.

Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.

In the spirit of calling things by their true names, let me summon up the description that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King used for the great communities of activists who stood up for civil rights half a century ago: the beloved community. Many who were active then never forgot the deep bonds and deep meaning they found in that struggle. We — and the word “we” encompasses more of us than ever before — have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to something unprecedented, a beloved community that circles the globe.

Rebecca Solnit, a TomDispatch regular, continues occupying the public library, the sidewalks, her deepest hopes, and the armchair in which she writes, supports, and joins Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland in their general assemblies and actions.   

Tags: Africa, beloved community, climate change, , community, compassion, , systemic crisis

Categories: Activism


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7 Comments on “Compassion Is Our New Currency”

  1. Reply
    December 25, 2011 at 1:25 am #

    “why have we been unable to make the major changes required to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? The answer is a word suddenly in wide circulation: greed. Responding adequately to this crisis would benefit every living thing. When it comes to climate change, after all, we are the 99.999%.”

    Changes would not benefit every living thing. If you do your research adequately instead of relying on propaganda, you will know that “responding adequately to this crisis will plunge us all into unimaginable poverty (and you think you are impoverished already) and ironically play into the hands of big oil and the like, (of which you are most certainly a customer by the way), with increased margins and less need to supply.

    In other words, using logic, I can not discern any rationality with your protest.



  2. Reply
    December 25, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    Roger, see my reply here:

  3. Reply
    Anna Betz
    December 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    Roger, I acknowledge the points made by some climate scientists featured in the video about the activity of the sun rather than CO2 being responsible for global warming. It is always helpful to hear well researched counter arguments to the popular belief in order to get a fuller picture of what may really be happening. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. CO2 is not the only environmental concern though. Even if it wasnt CO2 that was leading to the global warming we witness, the environmental pollution and destruction caused by our present way of living is harmful to all life forms and therefore as human beings we have a duty to explore other less harmful ways of development.
    Greed and a belief in limitless economic growth is driving our oil based economy.
    The challenge which the occupy movement is addressing directly and actively is how to move from being a passive consumer to become an active and conscious participant in the shaping of our common future.

  4. Reply
    December 28, 2011 at 5:02 am #

    “Greed and a belief in limitless economic growth is driving our oil based economy”

    Anna, George and Rebecca,

    I still cannot see any logic in your movement.

    Everyone is greedy, and I may venture to say , this includes you. Are you all not one of the people at ?

    The occupy movement is clearly saying that each of the individual wants a bigger cut of the economic pie, and instead of rejoicing in their relative wealth compared with say their great grand parents and that of the common person before the 20th century or those currently trapped under communist or dictatorial regimes, you are by your very nature joining the universal human condition of greed by demanding a greater piece of the economic pie.(and no one should be criticized for being human)

    So can you see the lack of consistancy in what you say? By world and historic standards you are wealthy yet you demand more whilst at the same time condemning those who have more than you, as being greedy, in spite of the hard work, risk and sacrifice that these people have put into businesses, which in turn supply you, either indirectly or directly, with commodities that you need.

    Do you then advocate a collective communist regime so everyone except a few elite will be povert stricken? Would you feel better if that was the case?

    Although I share your concern about the environment, which is incidentally a seperate issue fron the (unproven) “anthropogenic CO2 causes Global Warming” hypothesis and should be discussed as such, taking a vow of poverty will not help the environment, rather the opposite:-

    Unless you are actually promoting a catestrophic human population decrease. I might say that if this is the case, you are not alone.
    Club of Rome, The First Global Revolution, 1991:
    “In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill (this is absolute proof that man made global warming is a fabrication)…. But in designating them as the enemy, we fall into the trap of mistaking symptoms for causes. All these dangers are caused by human intervention and it is only through changed attitudes and behavior that they can be overcome. The real enemy, then, is humanity itself.”

    Mikhail Gorbachev:
    “We must speak more clearly about sexuality, contraception, about abortion, about values that control population, because the ecological crisis, in short, is the population crisis. Cut the population by 90% and there aren’t enough people left to do a great deal of ecological damage.”
    Jacques Cousteau UNESCO Courier 1991:
    “In order to save the planet it would be necessary to kill 350,000 people per day.”

    Jacques Cousteau, Population: Opposing Viewpoints:
    “If we want our precarious endeavor to succeed, we must convince all human beings to participate in our adventure, and we must urgently find solutions to curb the population explosion that has a direct influence on the impoverishment of the less-favoured communities. Otherwise, generalized resentment will beget hatred, and the ugliest genocide imaginable, involving billions of people, will become unavoidable.”
    “Uncontrolled population growth and poverty must not be fought from inside, from Europe, from North America, or any nation or group of nations; it must be attacked from the outside – by international agencies helped in the formidable job by competent and totally non-governmental organizations.”
    Ted Turner “A total population of 250-300 million people, a 95% decline from present levels, would be ideal,”
    The point here is not that I advocate depopulation but if you people do, maybe you should come clean and say so.
    However if you think a vow of poverty, as will be required to meet the IPCC’s recommended CO2 emission reductions, which presumably you believe will do these big “greedy” corporations in, is in order, you are unfortunately absolutely on the wrong foot. First of all see what is happening to Spain because of their efforts to meet IPCC obligations- or the general non misleading opinion on the economic consequences and furthermore, you will be playing directly into the hands of the oil companies who you distrust so much, by manufacturing a decrease in oil production without curbing the demand for energy, thereby creating a situation where energy companies can enjoy high prices with a lot less obligation to supply. A collossal increase in margins of which situation that OPEC has been trying to manufacture for about 40 years. If you don’t understand what that means, just read “Energy companies will get a LOT richer at your expense while you and I starve” .
    The present situation on Wall St with financial institutions being bailed out by the American tax payer is not the fault of capitalism, but rather the fault of socialist policies carried out by your government. Perhaps you should try electing a decent government next time.

    “The challenge which the occupy movement is addressing directly and actively is how to move from being a passive consumer to become an active and conscious participant in the shaping of our common future.”
    Sorry you will have to explain that to me, perhaps it means to become part of the economy and to help shape its future. If thats the case perhaps the answer is to study hard, strive to be the best in your field and basically get a job.



  5. Reply
    Anna Betz
    December 28, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    Thank you Roger for sharing our concern for the environment. Caring for our environment for us includes caring for all life forms including humans, plants, animals and the 1%.

    It is precisely our relationship with nature of which we are an integral part that is the centre of our concern. Natural resources like oil are not unlimited. They belong to all of humanity and should be used in a sustainable and fair way so that future generations can flourish like us. If someone takes more than a fair share, someone else will have to go without.

    As you quite rightly point out: “Energy companies will get a LOT richer at your expense while you and I starve” if we allow greed and selfishness to prevail.

    What makes us human is that we have an element of choice in how we behave, what priorities we have in life and how we act towards others and the natural world. At our best we are compassionate and caring and at our worst we may be greedy, envious or hateful. How we act on our feelings and thoughts is a choice we have at every moment.

    Studying hard and striving to be the best in whatever field we are in is our ideal for everyone. This requires self discipline which in itself prooves that we have an element of choice over our behaviour.

    Therefore how we behave and use the gifts we have, be they strong intellect, physical strength, good health or material wealth, this is our choice. Regarding your example of Oil companies, they are run by people who have the choice just like you and me to behave either caring and compassionate or greedy, uncaring and destructive.

    Greed is a choice that is no more natural than being caring and compassionate. The latter may take more conscious effort but I can assure you is much more rewarding at the end of the day. A vow of poverty would require withdrawing from society which is not at all what we advocate.

    For everyone to reach their highest potential and have work to sustain their life and their communities is what we are striving for. For us the whole world is one large community where everything and everyone is dependent on each other. How we relate to each other in this conversation and how much we care about each other is part of the whole process.

  6. Reply
    December 30, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    “Energy companies will get a LOT richer at your expense while you and I starve if we allow greed and selfishness to prevail.”


    First of all please do not put words in my mouth. I most certainly did not write or imply the above statement. I said “you will be playing directly into the hands of the oil companies who you distrust so much, by manufacturing a decrease in oil production without curbing the demand for energy” should the world take a vow of poverty by carrying out the demands of the IPCC with respect to carbon dioxide emission reductions.

    Its you and your movement that I distrust.
    First of all you all are trying to get material relief without becoming part of and making a contribution to the economy.

    In terms of greed, I find that far more horrendous than most big businesses.

    A question I often ask in this kind of scenario is, “whom you would classify being the most greedy:-

    1. An entrepreneur (in your eyes a capitalist) who risks his own money and resources and works long hours as needed, in order to provide a service to the community, generates employment opportunities and at the end of the day MAY have some net return for his efforts, or

    2:- A woman who through her own decision decides to have children and live at the expense of the state/taxpayer. (In my country we call these people “solo mothers” in order to distinguish them from widows and sickness beneficiaries.)

    Secondly, you should definitely learn to recognise big business for what it is.

    Big businesses are generally public companies, (the oil companies you refer to most certainly are.

    Do you know who owns them? Well many thousands of share holders. Who are these share holders? Well if you have a pension or superannuation plan or you have savings in a managed investment fund or the like, YOU could very likely be a part owner.

    As an investor in one of those funds I mentioned, would you be happy if they paid less or the same rate as your savings bank deposits? Of course not, you would want more because the savings bank deposit is more secure. Are you being greedy? Yes you are. Would you personally be any different? I would think not.

    Thirdly, what is this big business owned by you and people like you doing? Well it is supplying and producing commodities that people demand. Because it is not the only big business, it has to compete and supply and produce very well or else it wont be able to pay that 5 cents for each dollar invested that you and all the other shareholders expect.
    Who use these commodities? Well you and me of course. Even the humble carrot has used oil to get to your table at a reasonable cost! In fact without big business you and I would probably starve.

    “Regarding your example of Oil companies, they are run by people who have the choice just like you and me to behave either caring and compassionate or greedy, uncaring and destructive.”
    Did Shell oil serve its shareholders when it spilt oil into the Gulf? You bet they didn’t! They would have been able to serve their shareholders better if they were more careful right? All the many thousands of little share holders in Shell paid for that one.
    To put it simply, so far I find your movement full of illogicality and unreconcilable contradictions. I am not in the least impressed with your bogus morality.
    If you want a full communist economy of which the world has already seen a fair number, why don’t you come out and say so. Bear in mind of course the the Peoples Republic of China starved an estimated 60 million of its citizens in the year 1960 alone and it was supposed to be a non greedy, equal, caring and fair society.

  7. Reply
    December 31, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Dear Roger

    I am happy to respond to you but feel curious what it is that you think keeps you engaged in this conversation when you have such aversion to what the Occupy stands for.

    I would like to ask you to refrain from personal attacks as this forum serves the larger Whole and adheres to the standard of respectful conversations.
    I am wondering whether you have ever been curious to find out why people who mistrust others and think they are very different from those who they dont like, feel a strong reaction against them. It is always easier to recognise the ‘shadow’ or ‘adversary’ (or whatever you may call this negative reactive force) in others than to recognise it in oneself. In psychological terms it is called projection.

    The occupy movement is not about getting away with not contributing to the welfare of society and behaving irresponsible but quite the opposite.

    There are a lot of truths expressed in these 2 videos that may help you understand better the movement:

    I wish you happiness and contentment

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