Spring is in the air. The youth and working class of Egypt and Tunisia have overthrown their repressive regimes while Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and other Arab nations are experiencing civil unrest. In Europe, a focus on economic austerity at the expense of the youth and working class has led to clashes in France and Greece. Indigenous peoples of Bolivia, Peru and other South American countries have been working to block mining, drilling and transportation across the Andes and Amazon basin.
In these parts of the world, citizens have begun to recognize their collective power, and they are showing their deep distress at the status quo. Political scientists will spend the next several decades deciding what eventually tipped the scales toward popular uprisings around the world. However, for this outside observer, it appears that at its heart were people who had put up with enough. In the Middle East, they were angry about decades of oppressive regimes, and they wanted something new. In Europe it has taken strict EU and IMF imposed economic austerity plans that include the elimination of jobs, and reduction of wages and benefits, to kickstart popular uprisings.
It is a fact, that, regardless of where we look in the world, that our current economic and governmental systems favours an elite few wealthy and powerful people at the expense of the poor, indigenous and working class. This system in turn exploits natural resources with no reflection on the external or ecological costs of such extraction.
So what will it take to bring about a revolution in North America? One focused on social and environmental sustainable and equal opportunity for all (the American dream?). In the United States, unemployment, wage and wealth disparity are all at recent historic highs. Climate change and local environmental degradation are starting to take their toll on our countries, yet our governments continue to block environmental policy in favor of big business at every turn. (Shown once again by Canada’s recent performance at the UN in which it blocked the listing of Chrysotile Asbestosas a hazardous industrial chemical. By the way, this chemical is illegal to use in Canada, but continues to be produced here for export to less scrupulous countries).
The recent economic crisis has given us the US and the world a great opportunity to rethink our economic system and our values. Many in the political elite have taken advantage of this opportunity to cut social programs and workers benefits. But why hasn't this crisis sparked more of a strong response from the middle and working classes who make up the vast majority. How is it that even with the evaporation of billions of dollars in personal wealth and millions of jobs since the beggining of the recession, the worst natural disasters in 3 centuries and civil unrest raging thtoughout the world, apathy and complancency still reign at home?
In the US, people are beginning to notice, as shown by the recent demonstrations in the Wisconsin parliament, the “coming out” events of undocumented immigrants, and direct eco activism such as the work of Tim DeChristopher, who now faces up to 10 years in jail for his “illegal” bidding at a public auction which helped save thousands of acres of land from exploitation.. But these isolated incidents have not sparked a revolution, they barely lit a flame.
Some grassroots movements have begun to spring up in recent years. Movements such as those that promote food activism, security, self production, fare trade. And while these movements have begun to gain momentum, they have yet to drastically change the way food is produce, transported or sold in North America.
So what do we need to do to help America and Canada address these social and environmental concerns? How can we change the paradigm that places economics and the wealth of a few, above the needs of the people and the planet?
Fortunately, Jewish teaching has some helpful insights into this question:
· Nachson, as he walks into the Red Sea entirely on faith, teaches us to live our lives the way we want the world to be, and God (and hopefully others) will help.
· The story of David shows us that the underdog can prevail with good strategy.
· The Maccabees who prove a revolution is possible, even against a much stronger and larger opposition.
· Jewish agricultural law which shows us an economic system that is both environmental and socially sustainable through laws such as peah and leket (leaving the corners of your field and fallen gleaning for the poor), shmittah and Yovel (Sabbatical and jubilee years) and many more.
However while Judaism can be a guide for us, global, national or regional solutions require us to look beyond the Jewish community to form a larger movement. In the US, using our faith based values we can build bridges with the primarily Catholic Latino immigrants, and with the working class, historically protestant and now more and more made up of Hindu, Muslim, and other religious groups. And of course we need to look beyond the religious community to partner with the millions of morally minded individuals with strong secular social and environmental ethics.
If the recent riots in Vancouver taught us anything, it’s that youth and young adults, even in this peaceful city, are looking to make a ruckus. There are real problems in the world larger, much larger than losing a hockey championship, so let’s funnel this frustration in a positive direction, build on this historic moment in time and start a sustainability revolution in North America. Our people will benefit, the planet will benefit, and in the long term the economy will benefit.