Friday, January 27, 2012

20, Well, Maybe 12 Visionaries for 2012 – #s 3 & 4: Winona LaDuke and Stewart Brand

Winona LaDuke and Stewart Brand
I. One of the people most often mentioned as an early visionary of the "global village" concept that developed in the mid-1960s, as a result of Marshall McLuhan's ideas, expounded in his seminal book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, was Stewart Brand, the chief editor of the basic series of Whole Earth catalogs, which began appearing in 1969.  I met Brand at an event held somewhere in Marin County (the fogs of time...) in late 1968.  A bunch of us had gathered at Timothy Leary's dentist's place, as part of organizing for the Autumn Equinox Conference at Harbinger Springs, in Lake County, California.  That conference was supposed to lead to a further 1969 Celestial Synapse Conference there, that never took place, at least at Harbinger.  He was excited about his project - the catalog.  He couldn't find time to participate in ours.

I liked his idea - making it easy for people to have access to tools for independent, sustainable living.  The catalog was filled with entries about stuff one could buy or get for free that could help in a lot of areas.  Brand defined its purpose thusly in the forward of the first edition:
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.
The first edition was subdivided into categories of topics:

  • Understanding Whole Systems
  • Shelter and Land Use
  • Industry and Craft
  • Communications
  • Community
  • Nomadics
  • Learning
Within each section, the best tools and books the editors could find were collected and listed, along with images, reviews and uses, prices, and suppliers. The reader was also able to order some items directly through the catalog.
After the catalog days, Brand continued to have an impact on other iconoclastic thinkers and was sought after time and again as the digital revolution, predicted so well in its impact by McLuhan, began to unfold and expand.  Her's how McLuhan predicted it in his Gutenberg Galaxy:
The next medium, whatever it is - it may be the extension of consciousness - will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual's encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.
Brand has long been noted for his aphorisms.  See "We are as gods and might as well get good at it" above.  He's also adaptive, and recently changed that saying to "We are as gods and HAVE TO get good at it."   Some of his aphorisms have become so embedded in the text and subtext of digital luminaries, people forget where they came from:
Virgin America tried to do a cool thing when the company named an airplane “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.” The name was a tribute to Steve Jobs who used the quote in his renowned 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. It’s a nice gesture, but, unfortunately, it’s not 100% correct.

You see, that quote, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” is attributed to Jobs, but he was not the source. Yes, he used the quote in his Stanford commencement, but it was originally from The Whole Earth Catalog. The catalog was produced by Stewart Brand who used it to educate people and give them the tools to “find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”
Brand was controversial when he was young for seeming to reject so much of what the 60s and 70s establishments stood for.  Recently, he has become controversial for seeming to embrace some of the most questionable practices in use by the large corporate and national structures that are creating huge long-term messes many of us feel are almost beyond human comprehension:  nuclear power, genetically-modified foods and other materials, and herbicides.  His latest book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, is, in part, about his deadly embrace of these ideas.  At the bottom of this essay, I'll post a youtube of him explaining the book's main ideas.

Brand's thinking in this book takes in a lot of important points having to do with how important (in terms of percentage of energy/food consumption) urban life on earth really is, how deadly coal burning for electrical power is to the atmosphere, land and sea, and how important it is to find new ways to feed billions of people who live at the edge of poverty or starvation.

II. Which brings me to  Winona LaDuke.  Unlike Brand, I've never met this amazing woman.  I voted for her, though, in 1996, when she made her first run for the White House as Ralph Nader's Green Party running mate.  Many firedoglake readers will be familiar with her name and accomplishments.  Some might not, though, as she is seldom covered in mainstream media.

Like Brand, LaDuke is good at aphorisms, and terse statements full of impact.  I'll get back to that.  She's also very colloquial.  Young people, especially young women love her talks and lectures, which are warm and direct.  Here's a statement she recently made at Portland State University, while speaking about the Alberta Tar Sands Project:
The longer you fight a project, the more expensive it becomes.  Right?  And the more expensive it becomes in a failing capitalist economy, the better shot you have at winning.  Just telling you - that's the way it is.  Right?  So, keep that it mind.  We don't have the money, but they don't either.  In the long haul, they do not.

And how do you know you've won?  It's when they say "the project is no longer considered economical."  And the New York Times calls you " a ragtag group of activists."  (My transcript.  Again - video posted at the bottom)
Like Brand early on, LaDuke embraces the idea of individuals trying to get more control over their lives.  Why Brand seems to be turning more toward accepting being part of the borg, and LaDuke has become a leader of the rebellion against it may have more than a little bit to do with their early lives.

Brand joined the Army and became a paratrooper:
As a soldier in the U.S. Army, he was a parachutist and taught infantry skills; he was later to express the view that his experience in the military had fostered his competence in organizing.
And allegiance to authority images? Perhaps.

LaDuke, marginalized in her youth as a Native American, reacted against authority and being stereotyped:
Q: You were born in L.A. and educated at Harvard. How did you make your way back to White Earth?

Winona LaDuke: Ever since I was little I wanted to come back and work in the Indian community. My father is from White Earth, and I never felt entirely accepted on the West Coast. As a kid, I was always the one passed over at dances and never picked for sports teams. At that age, it's easy to blame the victim--you're too dark or your hair is funny But that's not what it's really about. It's about learned racism and classism. Eventually, I started to question what's wrong with America.

My family also had a keen sense of social responsibility. I was never told to go out and make money, but to do the right thing. Before my parents split up, they were both active in Indian politics in Los Angeles. Later, I remember my mom taking me out of school for anti-war and civil-rights marches.

Q: What led you to the Ivy League?

LaDuke: I'm not sure. I certainly wanted to escape from my hometown. I also think I went to Harvard because they told me I couldn't. My guidance counselor basically said, "Don't bother. Go to vo-tech."
(Note: As an Alaskan who has worked with many strong Native women here, including Diane E. Benson, and whose wife mentors young teachers in Alaska villages, I can guarantee these prejudices remain alive, well and thriving)

III. Winona LaDuke's trajectory as an advocate for retaining marginalized  and indigenous values clashes with where Stewart Brand now finds himself exactly in the areas I mentioned about him above: nuclear power, GMO products and herbicides.  This is partly due to their upbringing and early impressionable encounters.  And partly, it is perhaps due to the ways their career paths went in different directions:

Brand is a molecular biologist whose income in the 80s through now relied partially on his ability to continue to have an impact on the rapidly growing high tech community around San Francisco Bay.

LaDuke is a community economic development specialist whose jobs and income have always been linked to her efforts as a key player in helping people out of power gain some.

Perhaps the divergence in their views is best epitomized in these two statements:

LaDuke likes to quote her father, a Hollywood stuntman and bit player in cowboy-and-indian films, who later became a shaman known as Sun Bear, telling her "I don't want to hear your philosophy, unless it grows corn."

Brand, defending what he sees as the vital importance of developing GMO crops, citing Pamela Ronald's book, Tomorrow's Table, says:  "[Ronald] has been a major part of developing a flood-proof rice in Bangla Desh.  They lose about a third of their crop every year to flooding.  With genetic engineering, she and her cohorts in the Philippines and elsewhere have developed a rice that can hold its breath underwater for weeks.  This was not accomplished by breeding.  They tried for years to do it with breeding.  Couldn't do it."

LaDuke is actively trying to reclaim Northwestern Minnesota wild rice habitat and the ancestral tribal lands around it.  She even hosts a "whole tribe catalog" (my term, not hers) that offers local seeds, finished products and other stuff.

Here's a good short episode, from the Earth Island Institute, that shows how their viewpoints diverge.  In this case on the alleged neutrality of technology:

Here is Winona LaDuke, speaking at Portland State University last May, about the Alberta Tar Sands development:
[Ed. Note - Video here: unfortunately embeding is disabled. Content note: Speaking at the Native American Center at Portland State University. Winona spoke for about ½ an hour about the Alberta Tar Sands and also about the large oil extraction equipment being shipped from South Korea through Portland and along narrow highways though Idaho and Montana. This transportation has been dubbed the "Heavy Haul."]
And here is Stewart Brand, speaking at Green@Google talks, a year before Fukushima, waxing enthusiastically about nuclear power's green future:

Post-Fukushima, Brand has been - i'll be charitable here -  evasive on what he and we might have learned.

Visionary #3 was to be anti-deforestation pragmatist, Moses Sanga.  Still working on it....

The Series:
Visionary #1 – Paul Stamets

Visionary #2 - Peter Ward

Visionaries #s 5, 6 & 7 will be - Roz Savage, Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman

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