Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Personally, I'm against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big

Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! devoted her hour long show yesterday to Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday, which was celebrated in grand style in Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Seeger whose life has been dedicated to social activism through music is an unusual celebrity. He purposefully avoided the limelight, but it consistently found him.

As she and guests chronicled Seeger’s many achievements—his pivotal, though often understated roles in the labor movement, civil rights, the environment—what struck me was how he slowly and with great determination tackled big issues in very small ways. A case in point: His singing of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers show in January 1968.

Controversial at the time, this unassuming appearance now seems to have accelerated the changing mood in the country. In March, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not seek another term as president, and, on October 31, he announced that the US would cease “all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam.” Such a view substantially rewrites history—Seeger’s act was just another drop in the bucket that, when filled to the brim, eventually changed US policy.

“Too many things can go wrong when they get big,” as Pete Seeger stated. Like banks and other institutions that are “too big to fail?” while smaller banks are allowed to go under. By concentrating on institutions that have acquired disproportionate influence over the country, we have allowed smaller organizations—banks, businesses, entrepreneurial start-ups—to fail. This policy is not only unwise; it also counterproductive in that it strains against the counter-intuitive cultural Zeitgeist of early 21st century America.

This Zeitgeist is counter-intuitive only because most of the ways we have conducted business since the ‘50’s at least are being inverted, subverted, or changed in radically new ways. A few examples: Google and its wiki adherents that offer core products for free and make money through the back or side door. A global economy where local and regional products have found greater favor. Millions of online writers, journalists or hacks with their own blogs, videologs, or websites supplanting large daily newspapers, magazines, and television. More later.

Change is afoot in every aspect of our lives, and it will arrive in the aggregate actions of individuals and small organizations that can now wield enormous power helped in part by new technologies. Small is the new big.

To quote Frances Moore Lappe, who wrote Diet for a Small Planet (cited earlier) and her daughter Anna Lappe’s definition of their Small Planet Institute:
We believe that ideas have enormous power and that humans are capable of changing failing ideas in order to turn our planet toward life. At the Small Planet Institute, we seek to identify the core, often unspoken, assumptions and forces — economic, political, and psychological — now taking our planet in a direction that as individuals none of us would choose. We disseminate this deeper understanding of root causes. With a grasp of root causes, citizens no longer disparage their actions as “mere drops in the bucket.” Once we’re able to see the “bucket,” we realize our drops are quite spectacular; the bucket is actually filling up.

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