May 25th, 2010

Protecting What We Love: Ideas for Systemic Problem-Solving

By Riki Ott
Riki Ott utiliza “la cívica ultima” para inspirar a estudiantes que tomen acción y efectúe un cambio.  Aquí, ella expone la fundación de su currícula que lleva a los estudiantes fuera del aula y hacia el arena política, con la meta de eliminar nuestra adicción al petróleo.

“No coal! No oil! No compromise!”

The voices of 500 Powershift students filled the university hall in Eugene, Oregon, as they chanted in sync to a video from their March 2009 protest outside Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Power Plant. Their demonstration, which called for the plant’s conversion to natural gas, was the nation’s largest act of civil disobedience against coal power. And it succeeded. By the Eugene rally seven months later, the Capitol Power Plant had converted to natural gas and the students figured it was one coal plant down, 600 more to go in the United States. They had high hopes for a similar success in shifting policy at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Powershift is a consortium of students from more than1,500 universities in all fifty states and they are a sharp bunch. The students know, for example, that the coal and oil industries are spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year in advertising and lobbying to prevent passage of meaningful energy policy—policy that will transition America to a clean energy economy in the timeframe dictated by climate science, not corporate profits. They know that to reach their demands of 25–40 percent carbon dioxide reduction in the United States by 2020, they must cut through the influence of special interests and politics-as-usual. And they certainly know their generation has the most at stake in the climate crisis. This is the eleventh hour—closing rapidly on the twelfth—and yet our political system seems incapable of delivering the real systemic change demanded at this time.

I opened my talk in Eugene with their chant, then asked, “Have you thought about how we’re going to get ‘no compromise’?” There was a stunned silence. This is a teachable moment.

Powershift students asked Riki Ott to be a “Constitutional bearer” in their march. Ott teaches Ultimate Civics, an interdisciplinary, interactive course that offers practical skills for systemic problem-solving. “The best part,” says Ott, “is that it inspires and encourages students to step up, take action, and help make a difference in these critical issues that will shape their lives.” Credit: Evan Erickson. 2009.

What can educators do to seize this clarion opportunity? Thanks to educators, after all, our students are mostly well versed on the problems. But so far the solutions are falling short of the mark. We teach about green buildings, green chemistry, green jobs, clean green energy, recycling, growing vegetable gardens, the economics of full cost accounting, and more—all good and necessary, but still U.S. and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to spiral dangerously higher.

My purpose in writing this article is to share with other educators how I have approached this opportunity with students from fourth grade through university and law schools across the country. I believe the missing link to drive the sustainable future movement into systemic change is civics, the basic operating instructions for our country. Not old-fashioned civics, but Ultimate Civics!

Civics has always connected personal values to the protection of our communities, environment, and local economies. But Ultimate Civics—driven by the unprecedented threats to our communities, environment, and local economies—ties climate science and the urgent need to transition off fossil fuels with practical fixes for our broken political system and polarized nation. Ultimate Civics is interactive, interdisciplinary, and offers practical skills for systemic problem-solving. Best of all, it inspires and encourages students to step up, take action, and help make a difference in these critical issues that will shape their lives.

Ultimate Civics has three parts: Energy and the Environment, Economics, and Political Science. The Energy and Environment section discusses the risks of our oil and coal dependency to human health and the environment. It starts with the example of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the most intensely and comprehensively studied spill in the world, and follows the evolution of a paradigm shift: oil is more toxic to life than thought in the 1970s when the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed. It discusses the impact on human health from these same oil toxins—toxins that the U.S. EPA added to its list of persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic pollutants (along with lead, dioxin, mercury, PCBs, and DDT) in 1999 – over ten years ago!

Environmental medicine doctors know that breathing low levels of ultrafine oil particles found in soot, diesel exhaust (in school buses, for example), urban rush hour traffic, and oil refinery smokestacks has been linked with asthma, hardened arteries, DNA damage, cancer, and premature deaths. But this new science is largely unknown among the general public and our future leaders – the youth. It is rarely discussed among policy-makers who profess to use science and risk/benefit analyses in decisions regarding our energy future ––but don’t.

Being blind to the risks or full costs of fossil fuels leads policy-makers to unwise choices that prolong America’s oil dependency instead of growing new green industries. The world has reached “peak oil”––the cheap, easy-to-access black gold. Now the oil industry wants to literally scrape the bottom of the barrel: to find and develop the harder-to-get offshore oil, Arctic oil, oil shale, and tar sands. The risks of these dead-end choices are discussed in light of potentially astronomical health and environmental costs from climate destabilization and ocean acidification.

The feedback loop in this section is to have students write letters to the President, the Secretary of Interior, and their congressional delegates explaining why they think we should or shouldn’t get off oil. Letter-writing engages youth in our democratic process and empowers them as problem-solvers. The week of Obama’s inauguration I visited Inupiat (Eskimo) villages along the Arctic coast. Three months later in Anchorage during the federal outer continental shelf oil and gas hearings, the Mayor of Barrow testified against oil development and read a passage from a letter that eloquently described a subsistence hunt in the Arctic sea ice. The author, a young hunter and Barrow high school student from a class I had visited, stood bashfully at the mayor’s side.

Students could also work together on a class project to make a presentation urging their city council to sign on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement as more than 1,000 cities have done. Absent meaningful federal action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, city leaders should be encouraged to step into the void and take action.

The youth voice makes a difference, especially on this issue as they have the most at stake in making a safe energy transition to a sustainable future. Youth leaders like Alec Loorz started a nonprofit organization, Kids vs. Global Warming, at age twelve. Now fifteen, Alec educates thousands of his peers about the science of climate change and empowers them to take action.

Powershift students are mostly well versed on problems associated with the climate crisis. But so far the solutions are falling short of the mark. U.S. and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to spiral dangerously higher. Credit: Evan Erickson. 2009.

Shifting off fossil fuels will entail growing new industries and using different measures of economic wealth. The second section of the Ultimate Civics curriculum focuses on Economics and explores how we can grow our businesses into an economy that matches our values.

This is my favorite section to teach, in part because the lesson came at an extremely high personal price. In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the fishing-based economy in Cordova, Alaska, my hometown, collapsed. Years of debt and financial uncertainty spiraled our community downward into social chaos. Who knew drinking, domestic violence, divorces, and worse were linked with financial stress? Cordova became a case study for sociologists as we struggled to rebuild our community. That lesson is now relevant for the rest of America as many people and communities are still reeling from the economic meltdown. The opportunity lies in the rebuilding.

When there is nothing to lose, one is free to imagine what is possible. We created a simple exercise in Cordova to identify shared values, build a common vision, and take collective action. It can be taught from grade nine through university. I’ve shared our “Community Unity” exercise across North America over the last five years—in rural and urban areas, Native villages, inner cities, and private and public schools—with amazing results. The point of the exercise is to articulate what we love, then identify ways to protect our core values. By learning to work together towards a common goal, participants reweave the bonds of trust and relationship that frame healthy, empowered communities.

The exercise is simple. There are three questions: “What do you like about your community?” (value); “What do you want to see different in twenty years?” (vision); and “What steps would you take to make the change?” (action). Each student has three pieces of paper and a pen. Students work in circles of eight to ten and are given three minutes in silence to write their answers to the first question. Then each group picks a scribe and the scribe compiles the answers as students share one idea at a time from their list as they go around the circle. Similar ideas are checked. Usually within ten minutes, each group will have a prioritized set of values. The exercise is repeated for the remaining questions. Students then work in three groups with each group compiling one set of data. Results can be used in different ways.

For example, when I taught to high school seniors at the Thacher School in Ojai, California, we targeted the exercise to collect information about the school’s carbon footprint—what students liked, what could be done differently, and how. For their final, the students facilitated a school-wide exercise, compiled the data, and presented it at a school forum. The information provided a basis for collective action by students, faculty, and staff to begin the shift to “Sustainable Thacher.” University students can facilitate public meetings in their community, particularly if their community is polarized over some development issue (as many are).

For grades four through eight, I use a different approach. Groups of four to six students gather around a piece of butcher paper spread over pushed-together desks. Armed with crayons, marker pens, or such, students are given three minutes to write down what they love—what makes them happy—in silence if possible! Younger students often ask, “Do we have to write in full sentences?” No. “Do we have to spell correctly?” No. Heads bend to the task at hand.

After the allotted time, groups share their values with the class. For example, fifth grade classes at the Open Alternative School in Santa Barbara, California, listed: best friends, mom and dad, my home, my cat or dog, my surfboard, mountains, ocean, peace, trees, hugs, and candy, among other things.

Then comes the teachable moment. I point out: If we go into a grocery store, we find items priced with their value in dollars. Then I ask, “Does your best friend have a sticker on their head with a value?” The question is met with giggles. “Does your mom or dad have a sticker price?” More giggles. Then I warn, “Careful—trick question! Does your home have a price?” Y-e-e-e-s-s-s! “Does your surfboard?” Y-e-e-e-s-s-s! “Does surfing—going out and having fun with your friends?” N-o-o-o-o!

Children value more than money. We all do. The answers for students of all ages are strikingly similar. Gradually values are grouped into economic wealth (things with price stickers like education, homes, jobs, surfboards), social wealth (trust and relationships—things like best friends, mom and dad, peace, surfing, health), and environmental wealth (ocean, mountains, trees). The three types of wealth weave together to create a quality of life.

In Cordova, once we realized we shared core values, we agreed to encourage businesses that increased one or more types of wealth without decreasing the other(s). We decided against clear-cut logging, coal-mining, and more oil development because they flunked our test: these industries decreased environmental and social capital while increasing economic capital. We opted instead for niche marketing Copper River wild salmon to get more value from what we already had (our only fishery untouched by Exxon’s spill) and building an eco-tourism industry.

Encouraging businesses and lifestyles that increase one or two forms of wealth without decreasing the other(s) leads to full cost accounting, the basis for a living economy and a sustainable future. Credit: Riki Ott

Linking values to the economy creates a path to a living economy and a sustainable future. In a university, this is called full cost accounting, but in the younger grades, it just makes sense. This is contrasted with the way America currently measures economic health—through the Gross National Product, which is simply a measure of money exchanging hands with no value attached. By this measure, things like war profiteering, disaster capitalism, high incarceration rates in private prisons, sick people, and oil spills are all good for our economy because each results in money exchanging hands. A suicide economy grows economic wealth by cannibalizing social and environmental wealth—until there is nothing left of the planet.

To return to the Community Unity exercise, the vision shared by participants across America is to pass a livable planet on to our children, to have self-reliant communities, and to have clean safe energy. The key action steps are to create regional banking, regional food, regional energy, and green jobs. At this point, university students often ask, “That all looks good, but how come we can’t get there?”

The answer is found in the third segment of Ultimate Civics: Political Science. This teaching also has its origins in Cordova. Exxon promised initially to make us whole from its tragic spill, but we ended up in court, fighting to defend even our most basic claims. Ultimately, we recovered an estimated seven to ten percent of our losses. As the lawsuit dragged on over two decades, townspeople began to ask, “How did corporations get so big that they can manipulate our legal system, our political system, and our government?” None of us knew, so I decided to find an answer.

After two years of research, I learned an astonishing thing: our democracy has, in fact, been hijacked by Corporate America. In teaching at universities, we dive right into what I call the “democracy crisis”—the merger of democracy and capitalism. But the concepts translate down to fifth grade, at least.

When I asked that class of fifth graders in Santa Barbara if they knew the first three words of the U.S. Constitution, they chorused, “We the People!” When I asked who were the “people,” there was a stunned silence. Finally, one boy jabbed his thumb into his chest and said in an exasperated tone, “WE!”

Surely our Founders had only this WE in mind when they drafted our Constitution and Bill of Rights. After all, WE had just rebelled against the monarchy and moneyed corporations of the time. For the first 100 years of our Republic, corporations had limited privileges and no rights. They were carefully controlled creatures of state legislatures.

But no more. Powerful corporations burst their legal shackles using a backdoor approach through the courts to amend the Constitution by judicial fiat. Thomas Jefferson saw this coming in 1821 when he warned, “Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation of power first, then by corruption, its necessary consequence. The engine of consolidation will be the federal judiciary; the other two branches the corrupting and corrupted instruments.”

Jefferson knew our law recognizes two types of persons: real people—humans—and fake persons or “artificial persons,” including chartered entities like corporations. In 1886, a Ninth Circuit Court conferred the Fourteenth Amendment right of “equal protection of the laws” to an artificial person, a railroad corporation in this case. Since then, the Supreme Court has handed out other human rights to corporations, including a battery of First Amendment rights such as commercial and political speech.

And this is why we have a suicide economy that reflects the corporate value of profit instead of a living economy that reflects the human values of social, environmental, and economic wealth in balance—or sustainability. Our democracy has been hijacked by corporations through illegitimate usurpation of rights intended for human persons.

It makes no sense to fifth graders that fake persons have the same rights as real people—and it shouldn’t make sense to the rest of us either. The United States is no longer a government of, for, and by the real people. As I tell students of all ages, we no longer have a democracy. It’s like Oz where the curtain professes “Democracy!” But behind the curtain other hands pull the levers of our governance.

Students want solutions that fit the scale of the problem. We can’t achieve a sustainable future without a real democracy. The values, vision, and voices of real people need to take precedence over that of artificial persons (like corporations). Credit: Evan Erickson. 2009.

For too long, teachers have taught the Three Rs but left out civics, the basic operating instructions of our country. And when civics is taught, it’s about the illusion of democracy, not what’s behind the curtain. We as teachers do a disservice to our future leaders by not disclosing the story of the evolution of corporate personhood (fake persons with real people’s rights), the demise of our democracy, and, most importantly, what WE can do about it.

The latter is what lights the imagination of students. Our Founders knew that the ultimate defenders of the U.S. Constitution were not the government or the court. The ultimate defenders are WE, the real people. It’s time to change the rules.

WE need to amend the Constitution to affirm that only human beings have constitutional rights, not artificial persons. Corporate personhood is a fundamental threat to our democracy and our planet. A sustainable world is only possible in a real democracy.

Imagine starting this movement in schools and on campuses across the United States! Our students can. I get mobbed after speaking by youth of all ages who ask, “What can I do to help?”

The Powershift students’ take was: “This solution fits the scale of the problem!” They got it. We have to do more than shut down one coal plant after another. WE have to get rid of corporate personhood. That’s how WE get to “No Compromise.”

Imagine what health care reform could have looked like absent Big Pharma and Big Health Insurers using their First Amendment “rights” to lobby.  Imagine what could have happened in Copenhagen without the big moneyed voices of Big Oil and Big Coal drowning out the people’s voice.

Imagine what could happen if schools started teaching Ultimate Civics. I can.

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Comments (1)

  1. Roger M. says:

    One of the most frustrating things about this dilemma of corporate personhood is that it’s been a well understood, much commented upon problem for centuries. Jefferson’s misgivings are a very notable page among volumes of historical prescience on the matter. One would much easier endure such foolishness as the Supreme Court’s recent enhancements to corporate personhood if there were not such clear and resounding admonition from history’s guiding lights.

    Still, one might reasonably hope for change for the reigning in of corporate power and a restoration of something resembling an American democracy were it not for the shocking numbers of Americans — notably among the poor — who have somehow become convinced their own well-being is somehow united with that of large corporations. Any attempt to regulate or reign in big business is immediately condemned by Fox News and its thousand smaller brethren outlets as not less than an attempt at Marxist overthrow, and such nonsense becomes almost as quickly the accepted word on far too many American streets.

    So while I really do applaud Riki Ott’s efforts and devoutly hope for her continued success, it’s hard to shake a deep pessimism with respect to chances for genuine change — short, anyway, of a genuine and ‘undeniable’ climatic catastrophe. Even as the ice caps disappear, the seas overflow with garbage, and all the systems of life are systematically poisoned, an astonishing number of Americans deny any problem exists — except for, of course, the communist takeover Fox News has told them is currently in progress.