presents - Off the Radar

Thom Fowler

September 5, 2003

What are we talking about today?

Thom: We are talking about activism, progressive social and political issues and your involvement with those things.

Peter: Can I give you my first poop on the word “activism?”

Thom: Sure.

Peter: It’s a word that was invented by our enemies so I never use it. If you want to isolate people from the mainstream of humanity you put an “ist” after them. You get “Communist”, “Socialist”, “Environmentalist” and the implication is that most people sit around and do nothing about their beliefs and there are a few hard core people we call “activists” that go out and do something. And it’s turned the whole ethical balance around. If you think about it, people who don’t act on their beliefs are people we call “hypocrites.” I prefer never to use the word “activist.” I prefer people to use the word “engaged” because that’s what you do. You are engaged with your life and you are engaged with things you think about. “Activist” is like someone who calls you a “consumer.” Like the stuff is theirs and you are using it up. So I never use that word.

But I do use “engaged” and I am engaged.

Thom: What does that mean, to be engaged?

Peter: To be engaged means to follow issues that impact your life and to take the assumption that your efforts can impact them in some way and that you have some personal responsibility for trying to make things better.

Thom: What are the important issues that we need to be focusing on?

Peter: I think there are lots of them. But since you can’t do everything, I’ve prioritized them for myself. I think the most critical thing, because it’s the biological common denominator for all life, is the environment and that the idea of forgetting that all human affairs take place in the environment, business is a subset of the environment, not the other way around, should remind us that you can’t have a healthy economy, you can’t have a healthy anything in a degraded environment.

So to me, pure air, pure water, pure food, allowing other species the right to fulfill their evolutionary destinies and to realize that we are inexorably entangled and that we mutually evolved with these other species is the first and foremost overriding principle. Then you have to say, okay, the greatest threat to this is human affairs and human political affairs. So from this, I extrapolate and I say, “Well, nothing that I care about politically will come to pass without campaign finance reform.” Because until the politicians work for the people, until they are fully employed by the people and paid for by the people, they will serve the people who paid them. It’s real simple. They will serve corporate masters.

And it’s not a deep secret. Everyone knows that our current system is kind of like legalized prostitution. The corporate sector completely controls the civic sector. Anything that any of my friends care about, whatever their priorities are, women’s’ rights, human rights, civil liberties, death penalty, whatever it is, health care, pharmaceutical benefits, education – none of those will come to pass, there is not a chance of a snowball in hell until campaign finance reform is enacted – fundamental campaign finance reform. Which would mean full federal funding of elections, free air time for qualified candidates on every network starting six weeks before the election. The obligation for each candidate to appear on each network in unstructured debates to take questions of each other and the audience and there are no handlers and no minders, and to give citizens and 501(c)3s the same tax benefits and write-offs for disseminating information that corporations that are trying to defeat our best interests have.

When corporations run all these educational campaigns for the voters to defeat their best interests, they write them off. And we pay for them. Until that happens, there is not going to be any change.

The next subset under that is the vote itself. That’s voter fraud. It’s a big deal to me that all the voting machines basically are owned by Republicans. Their software is private. It’s not open for investigation by the government. It’s easy to change without showing that it’s been changed. And certainly after the presidential election of 2000, we’ve seen how the system is vulnerable and can be rigged.

Those are my three stacked priorities, in that order. And then there is a host of other stuff. I’m really interested in Native American sovereignty issues and I’m really interested in Buddhism. That’s the pyramid of interlocking importance.

The other one, I left out one - even over the environment, is nuclear radiation and nuclear issues. Because unless we get that under control, there will be no environment. That’s the mega threat to all living systems, everything with reproducing cells. There are still 18,000 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert on the planet. There are tons and tons of waste and dumps all over the United States. We are considering building new Bunker-Busters and low-yield nuclear weapons, which is horseshit. We left 3,000 tons of depleted uranium weaponry in the Balkans and 3 or 4 thousand tons in Iran and Afghanistan turning these places into sacrifice zones that will be irradiated forever.

Unless that gets under control, there will be no environment to protect. That’s the set of all sets in my priorities.

Thom: What motivates people in the world to continue to create things like nuclear weapons and then leave them in other countries. What’s the reasoning behind the trade-off between political power and the environment?

Peter: Buddha suggested that all human kind suffers from three afflictions: Greed, or Attachment; Hatred, which is Anger; and Delusion, which is not seeing things clearly. I’m no more exempt from that than Donald Rumsfeld. So this is the background, the backdrop for all human activity. You can certainly say that people who are making biocides are not looking at the big picture, they are not looking at the reality that science, and physics and transcendental experiences show us, that we live in a vast, interlocking system. You can not be releasing poisons in one part of your body to cure your hand that ends up destroying your liver. The simplest answer to your question is to say that it’s a delusion. It’s a severely restricted thinking that excludes much of what’s important.

The very simplest level is to say that it’s a kind of rigid logic that excludes anything that it doesn’t look at. It’s like old-fashioned science where you isolate everything except what you are studying. But if you look at new physics, modern physics tells you that we change things just by looking at them. That’s how sensitive and interdependent our world actually is. So these guys that are thinking of taking over the oil in Iraq or whatever their game is – increasing corporate profits for shareholders – they are looking at one system, they are looking at an economic system. But they are not looking at the basis of the economic system which is the commons from which all this wealth is drawn.

If for instance, gasoline had to include the cost of the damage it did to the environment, and the damage it did to human beings, we’d be paying fifty dollars a gallon for gasoline. And we’d have very different vehicles on the road. But as long as we can write the costs off and business can pretend that these costs don’t exist and pass them off to the public – pollute the water, cut down the timber, cause topsoil runaway, fuck up the fish – they are always passing the cost on. It comes from a kind of tunnel vision. It’s not that they are bad people, but they’ve excluded all the problems that stand between them and wealth.

Thom: What kinds of steps can everyday people who want to engage with these issues take? What kinds of things can people do without completely stepping outside of their reality and say, chain themselves to a Redwood tree.

Peter: I think the very first thing they can do is start getting on the Internet or start reading and pick an issue and pay attention to it. And let’s say you pick something like chemicals in your food. So the simplest way to begin is don’t bring chemically tainted into your house. This means that maybe you are going to start by finding an organic market near you. And this means that if you pay twenty cents a pound extra for organic rice at the market, you don’t necessarily have to give a hundred dollars to the Sierra Club because you are already, everyday, with your purchase of rice, taking care of the birds and the insects and the land and the soil.

So you take this one issue and you just start looking at the way it impacts your life. I ride a motorcycle everyday because I wanted to get my gas mileage over forty miles to the gallon. I still have a car. I need a car. But I don’t use it anymore than I have to. Stuff like retrofitting your house so you waste less energy. Buying less, using less, recycling. And more than that, writing letters and notes and email and demanding of your legislatures that they pay attention to these things too.

And I think these things can be dealt with within the context of your life. I don’t think everybody has to chain themselves to a tree. I think those people are doing that for the rest of us and we should be grateful for them. But someone has to be out there minding the store and driving the busses and doing the this and doing the that. Everybody has a right to pure water and everybody has a right to pure air and nobody has a right to despoil the commons. That’s not part of the business contract. All this talk about being reasonable – there’s like God’s law and man’s law. God gave us pure water, pure air and pure food. Man can argue, “We can have two parts per million of this and three parts per million of that.” It’s all quibbling. We started off with pure water. Those are my standards.

I think that on those levels, everyone can demand that right where they are. Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have to live in a chemical dump.

Thom: That brings up so many class issues. The cheapest foods in the grocery stores are usually the ones that are the most chemically fortified and the land near and around toxic hazards like smog sinks, waste dumps, oil refineries, agricultural run-off in the water table, de-commissioned military bases, which are some of the most toxic sites in the U.S. have the lowest property values and thus are the places where the poor are forced into. And these people, who have scant or no access to quality of affordable health care, are at a higher risk for many cancers, lung and skin diseases. It’s almost like a kind of economic Nazism – a program to rid the world of so-called undesirables in an invisible, yet equally insidious, way. Which of course, wouldn’t be the case, if we had stricter environmental protection laws that were written for the well-being of people rather than the financial well-being of corporations.

Peter: Sure, because once again, the manufacturers are not called upon to pay the costs. They are not paying the cost to the consumer. They are not paying the cost to the environment. They use the most toxic substance on the planet, methyl bromide, to grow strawberries so people can have strawberries in February. They are not paying the deaths to the farm workers, they are not paying the toxification of the soil and water runoff. They are fouling public waterways to grow farmed salmon while they kill off wild salmon as if it’s an equal trade.

I think the people in those neighborhoods, as they learn, as poor people, will start to make a connection between their health and the food they buy. And we can help them. I don’t think you need to stop your life. I think you do it within you life. You just start saying to people, “You have a right to clean food.”

Thom: I think poor people feel very disenfranchised as if they don’t really have any political power, as if their vote doesn’t count as much because they don’t have as much money.

Peter: It doesn’t. They are right. I feel disenfranchised. My vote doesn’t count because I don’t have as much money. If you look at the disparities between what I can give to a candidate and what a PAC [political action committee] can give, it’s just really clear. We are disenfranchised. That’s the reality. But that doesn’t mean the game’s over. It’s not over until the fat lady sings. Fifty percent of the people don’t even vote. And if those people knew that by not voting, they were being poisoned, children were being sent to substandard schools, their future is being robbed from them because they are ill-prepared to take their place in the world. They are getting sick because they are breathing in foul air and taking in foul stuff into their bodies. It’s basic self-defense.

When they tried to privatize the water in Bolivia there were riots in the streets everyday because people could understand, “Oh yes, water. We shouldn’t have to buy water.” So I’m a big believer in old-fashioned organizing and spreading information. I think that’s the best thing the Internet offers us. I think that’s the best thing we can do with one another.

Thom: Don’t you host a cable access show about these kinds of topics?

Peter: I host a show called "The Active Opposition". It’s on a satellite network called WorldLink TV on every satellite network [Channel 375 on DIRECTV and 9410 on DISH – Thom]. It’s a political talk show where the people don’t interrupt each other. We get the kind of experts you don’t often see on corporate television, we take national phone calls and we discuss issues for an hour and a half in depth. And a lot of the people who hear the show are rural people who are out there in the hinterlands on satellite. It’s something that I love to do. I love the show but we’re always begging for nickels.

Thom: This has been a great interview, by the way, so I thank you. You have a long history of engagement. I was reading that you helped to found the Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the late ‘60s.

Peter: I wrote a book called Sleeping Where I Fall that’s still in print and it will give you the whole back story on that period.


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