I’ve been writing a year-end column for YES! for years. Previously, my aim was to find the strands of hope from the past year that can be woven into new possibilities in the next year.
But as I sat down to write this column, on one of the darkest days of the year, I realized that this year will be different. This column will not be a list of hopeful trends. It’s too late to think we can make incremental tweaks to our current systems and be OK. Corporations and the ultra-wealthy will not share their wealth, and if we continue current practices of extraction and pollution, all life will be threatened.
The 2016 election showcased two destructive political directions: white supremacist nostalgia on the Trump side and coziness with corporate capitalism on the Clinton side. The Trump presidency combines both, and it’s a disaster that we can’t recover from—at least not with a few fixes around the edges.
Instead, it’s time to build something new.
Today, 41 million Americans live in poverty in the wealthiest country in the world. “The persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power,” United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said in a report of his December tour through the United States. “With political will, it could readily be eliminated.” Instead, the Republicans push through a tax bill that will make it far worse.
“The persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power.”
Climate research published in the journal Nature shows that the worst case global-warming scenarios are likely the most accurate. And we’re already seeing the effect. Most recently, fires—whipped up by fierce Santa Ana winds—drove thousands from their homes in Southern California, and many found only ashes when they returned. Earlier in the season, it was Northern California, Washington, Oregon, Montana, and British Columbia feeling the impacts of fires. In Houston, historic flooding after Hurricane Harvey mixed with the toxic products of our petrochemical economy to turn neighborhoods into poisonous stews. In Puerto Rico, the one-two punch of dual hurricanes, coupled with years of federal neglect, left much of the island devastated—now, the vulture investors are circling, while people on the ground are trying to just get the lights back on.
There are so many more signs of moral and political bankruptcy—among the more recent, the FCC dismantled net neutrality, creating yet one more instance of a common good being degraded by profit-motivated manipulation.
Yes, this is a dark place I find myself in as the garish orange street light outside my window and the flashing Christmas lights shine through the icy fog of a Northwest morning.
There is an awakening, though. Elections held in 2017 showed a widespread repudiation of the ultra-right agenda. It showed that people can organize and win, as they did in Alabama, Virginia, and Philadelphia, Pennsyvania.
The rejection of Trump-style politics does not mean an embrace of Clinton-style corporate-friendly policies, though.
It’s in our local communities that we can challenge the culture and institutions of racism and exclusion.
Even under President Obama’s more rational, but still pro-corporate, leadership, inequality was rising; our world was spinning toward climate disaster; Black men and women were being killed by police; immigrants were rounded up and deported; civilians were sacrificed in drone strikes; and our education, health care system, prisons, and public services were subjected to brutal private profit extraction.
So even under an intelligent and benign president, we were rushing toward disaster.
Authentic hope comes when we reject this system built on white supremacy, extractive corporate capitalism, and big money control of government. Leaving behind the illusion that we can fix a broken system frees us to work for genuine change.
There is no guarantee that we can pull off the deep transformation that’s needed. But our chances improve when we are clear-eyed about what we’re up against and what can actually work.
I believe that means we begin where we live—building more equitable economies that are rooted locally, and new relationships of reciprocity with the Earth and of equity and respect with each other.
My travels around the United States that resulted in the book The Revolution Where You Live, and then the book tour that followed, convinced me of the power of place-based communities.
It’s in our local communities that we can challenge the culture and institutions of racism and exclusion, and make sure everyone—of all races, generations, political beliefs, and religions—has a place at the table.
Isolated and afraid, we’re easy to defeat.
It’s by getting to know our bioregion that we can learn to protect the water, food systems, forests, and grasslands that we all depend upon so that all of us can survive climate change and other ecological traumas.
Only together can we reimagine and reinvent our society. None of us alone has a blueprint. Top-down revolutions become corrupt and authoritarian. But together, from the grassroots, we can create diverse and democratic economies and widely distributed power. We can build new norms that can sustain our communities as the old ways fail.
When outside forces threaten our natural and human community, we can be prepared and organized for nonviolent resistance, whether the source of the threat is a new Trump administration policy or a private fracking venture.
Getting grounded in local community also supports emotional and spiritual resilience, which is especially important during times of transition and for those struggling with isolation, stress, and poverty. Where we live, we can offer each other support and, over time, build local solutions.
We need to be in touch. Isolated and afraid, we’re easy to defeat. In each other’s company, we rediscover the joy and strength that can energize us as we create new systems and ways of life.
The place where we live is where we can find our power. Archimedes once said, give me a place to stand and a long lever, and I can move the Earth. We create that place to stand when we begin with the communities where we live.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.