Harvey Wasserman on How We'll Survive and Succeed
DAVID SWANSON: Okay, we’re recording, this is David Swanson, I’m speaking with Harvey Wasserman, long time wonderful activist, author, author among other of wonderful books of "Solartopia," and Harvey, you were emailing me yesterday a little bit about success stories. Do you want to elaborate?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Well, when we first started the anti-nuclear movement back in 1973, and we weren’t the only ones, there had been a bit of an anti-nuclear movement. There have been some three successful stories in the U.S. that I know of in the 60s where reactors were stopped or moved. One was in Humboldt County, California where they actually proceeded, they started to build a nuclear plant and discovered it was right on an earthquake fault, so they dug this hole and I guess, I haven’t seen it, but I guess the fault was visible. That’s abandoned, then there was going to be one in eastern Oregon, in the desert part of Oregon and the City of Eugene was a partner, and they pulled out, based on a citizen uprising. Then there was also going to be one in Ravenswood, Queens, right in the middle of New York City! And that one, there was a great man named Larry Bogart who helped fight that, but that one was just moved to Indian Point, it actually became Indian Point.
So, there was some… there were a couple of books around about anti-nuclear stuff, but in ’73 the, I was living on a communal farm in Montague, Massachusetts, which is 90 miles west of Boston and 180 pretty much due north of New York City and the local utility came in and said they were going to build a nuclear plant, two reactors, two big reactors four miles from our house. And we just basically said no, we’re not going to let this happen, we saw they published a picture, an artist’s rendition of the nuclear plant superimposed on the site where they wanted to do it and, you know, it was kind of like an instinctual thing when we saw this, we just said, you know, we’re not gonna do this. It was a communal farm and we never actually sat down and had a meeting! And discussed whether or not we were going to oppose this thing, it was just all instinctual, we just, everybody assumed we were going to fight it, and we just started fighting it.
I did a lot of the writing and so somehow the phrase “no nukes” came through my typewriter and it was a pretty obvious thing to do, pretty obvious thing to say, but that’s how all that happens, and we did defeat them. They never even got the bulldozers in, really, we just preserved the site and things started from there. Technically, I had been pro nuclear since 1959, it was the year of my bar mitzvah and I got a book “Our Friendly Atom” by Walt Disney (David laughs). Then I did a report, I used that for a report in ninth grade, so I knew everything about nuclear power at the time (chuckle). It was really funny karma that that had happened because, if you had asked me between 1959 and 1973 about nuclear power, I would have told you ‘sure, it’s great, it’s wonderful.’ But when confronted with the reality, and it wasn’t something I had thought about all those years, but when confronted with the reality, we just said hey, this is ridiculous. Did a lot of basic research on it and nothing in the past, let’s see, ’73 so what is that, 38 years, nothing in the past 38 years has given me any pause to want to change my mind about nuclear – everything I have seen about it has made it appear worse than we originally thought. (David begins speaking) Yeah, sorry, go ahead.
DAVID SWANSON: So let me play devil’s advocate, Harvey, here’s a success story, you educated yourself, you learned about nukes, here’s several success stories, they tried to put nuke plants in towns where there either existed or there arose good community activism, and they were defeated, but they went and put those plants in other towns.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Not all of them, the one in Oregon wasn’t really placed. Much later we got Trojan, and I guess the one at Humboldt, that really didn’t turn into much of anything, it didn’t really relate to Diablo Canyon. Yes, the one in New York was moved. Well, the point is that in 1974, just after we got started, the Arab oil embargo happened and Richard Nixon got on the news, on the national TV and said there would be a thousand nukes by the year 2000. And we have the footage, it’s in a movie we made. We’ve seen the year 2000, there were 104, so somewhere along the line 896 nukes went missing. The basic fight, actually, and the bigger picture was that the industry needed to get government funding, you know, the basic decision which was made in France, was the government going to fund this or was it going to be done with private money? In France it went to the government, and what you have in France is a national socialist system, and I use the word advisedly. I mean, I do teach Western Civ! National socialism is a form where the corporations run the state and in France the corporations run the nuclear industry, it’s all paid for by the government, the government owns, operates, monitors, regulates and reports on, or doesn’t report on, what happens at these nuclear plants. It’s completely beyond the reach of the people.
Now here in the United States there were various attempts, there was an attempt under Ford to get a major waste situation done, there are a lot of other attempts along the way just to turn this into a national system, a national socialist system, but because there was an anti nuclear movement that didn’t happen. So along the way, all these reactors, or almost all of them met some kind of resistance, as opposed to other places, and that made a huge difference. Now, I will point out, for example, you had Sweden and Denmark. In Sweden the industry proceeded and they built eleven reactors, which for a country of Sweden’s size is a lot. In Denmark the anti-nuclear movement rose up and stopped them, and Denmark never built nuclear plants. Then four farm implement companies went in and went in to the wind business and Denmark wound up being the center of the world wind business for all that time, and they made a fortune, and more than 10,000 people in Denmark work in the wind business today.
So, decisions were made elsewhere along the way, too. I was in Japan in the mid-70’s. My friend and I, we traveled around Japan, we spoke in various locations, we brought the film, we were interviewed. I did a lot of writing in Japan actually in the mid-70s. The Japanese anti nuclear movement did prevent, keep the number down, prevent a number of reactors from being built and this thing at Fukushima was…there’s no surprise in it, this was predicted. Everybody in Japan knew that the reactors were on earthquake faults and that they were vulnerable to tsunamis. Fukushima is not a surprise! I spoke to Kashuazaki which five years, less than five years ago had an earthquake where all seven reactors were forced shut. In Hamaoko, we knew about Hamaoko which is just being shut now, so this is a global movement and it clearly had an impact. But here in the United States we transformed the nature of the business and we forced them to get private money. We cut them off from federal and state funding many, many, many, many times. The list of reactors that were opposed and then prevented from being built is very, very long. When Nixon tried this in the year ’74, we made the announcement. There were about 250, roughly, reactors that were online under construction or on order and from the moment he made that announcement that there would be a thousand, the numbers started going down, it was just the exact opposite of what the industry wanted.
DAVID SWANSON: But let me continue the devil’s advocate role, Nixon wanted a basic income guarantee. Nixon put through the Environmental Protection Agency, which now the Republican party wants to eliminate. In the 1970s there was activism, there was an anti war movement, there was media, there was communications, there was opening for different voices on our airwaves, there was less money in the political system, there was less corruption, there was an understanding of the rule of law that’s been lost in the global war on terrorism. What do you say to people at speaking events who raise their hand with that kind of objection, ‘look, the ‘70s, even the ‘80s was a different world, today we are helpless victims.’ What do you respond?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: No, well, first of all, there’s one other thing, which is Nixon wanted to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam and, you know, if you ever wanted to have justification – I don’t know how old you are! (chuckle) I don’t know if you are old enough to have marched during the war in Vietnam, but …
DAVID SWANSON: I was born at the end of ’69, so I was a little kid, but I’ve seen the tape of Nixon telling Henry ‘you know, we’re just trying to think big.’ He was interested in using nukes.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Yeah, so, I got the crap beat out of me twice during the Vietnam war and we marched, and people said that, no, you guys didn’t really have any impact on the war, it was all the Vietnamese and the government did what it did, and if you ever want to see a justification for the marching and the whole anti war movement, Nixon in his autobiography mentioned that he wanted to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam but he couldn’t do it because he knew that the anti war movement would blow up the country, and so all of our marching and all of our protests were, I think, justified, made, shall we say, tangibly impactful by the fact that we did prevent Nixon from doing that. God forbid, can you imagine if they had used nuclear weapons in Vietnam? My God, what a different world it would be.
So today, yeah, we are at the end of empire, there’s no doubt. This is a classic situation where you’ve had a country that, like Greece and Rome, Babylon and the Persians, and the Brits, and whoever else have had a goal of empire and are now on the tail end of it where you have a government that’s out of control, you have a huge gap between rich and poor, getting worse. Hold on one sec… [pause in tape]. This is a bad time, it’s a tough time, but it’s also, we have accomplished a lot. I think that people have to remember, and this is tough, and Obama is tough, because he’s such a horrific, terrible president, he’s just an empty corporate suit, he did, he is the ultimate bait and switch. He ran a campaign as a progressive, very clearly, made promises to the progressive movement, which he shucked and jived around, but essentially, well maybe you shouldn’t use that phrase, but you know, it’s legitimate. Let’s put it differently, let’s just say that he really portrayed himself as someone who is going to come in, as you call it, and make change and take on the corporations. You can always go back and look at the rhetoric and see that he hedged his bets, but the point is that in 2008 we put together, the world, the country put together one of the greatest grassroots electoral campaigns in the history of the country. It was aimed at very clearly and explicitly at eradicating the horrific legacy of George W. Bush, it was aimed at taking on the corporations and changing the nature of war and of our approach to the environment. You had millions, literally millions of people who came out and worked, not just that came out to vote, but worked, to make sure that the election was not stolen at the polls, which we knew could happen. You look at the 2008 campaign, everything about it was right for a country that had a strong, progressive, grassroots sensibility. The problem is that the guy at the top turned out to be a shyster, essentially. But…[David begins to speak] wait, wait, let me say one more thing though!
Let me just say one more thing about it! It was also aimed at electing and African American, and W.E.B. DuBois said that the issue of the 20th century is the color line. And in many ways it was the color line. Many ways, not entirely of course, there were many other issues, but in the 20th century, race was a huge issue, stating the obvious. It’s now that Obama is tangible, and has turned out to be such a lousy president, we tend to overlook it, but… the election of a black man, of an African American to become President is a huge deal. The one promise that Obama has kept is that he has put an African American in the White House. He’s actually put five, if you count his wife, his kids and his mother-in-law. This is a big deal! Nothing he will do, bad president as he has been, is going to change that. So the rest of it, I understand. I understand what you are saying, but we do have to acknowledge…
DAVID SWANSON: But I haven’t said anything! Harvey, he promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan dramatically, and he kept that promise. He promised to enlarge the military, he kept that promise. He promised to start using drones in a major way, including in Pakistan, and he kept that promise. He was for nukes, he was for clean coal, there’s a lot …
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Well, yes and no, you have to go back and look at what he said about nukes. He hedged his bets on nukes. We followed very closely what he said about nuclear power. He attacked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he made some clear statements about waste, he has sustained the opposition to Yucca Mountain, which is a pretty big deal, actually. If he had turned around and given a green light to Yucca Mountain we’d be in much more difficult shape, actually, than we are. And one thing about Yucca Mountain, by the way, you have to understand that the United States is not the only country that has no solution for handling the nuclear waste problem, there is no country in the world that has a repository, although we refer to them as a ‘suppository’ for high level nuclear waste. He did do that. If you look at his rhetoric on many of these issues, he played a game. Also, there were only two candidates, and unfortunately both of them were, I think the vast majority of people that supported Obama did not want him to escalate the war in Afghanistan. When you hedged it, as our system works, when you are hedged in with two candidates, many people believed he was going to escalate it less than McCain would do, and so that is just the nature of our system – not to excuse it! But I think if you polled the people that voted for him, most of them would have opposed what he was doing in Afghanistan.
So, yeah, you’re right, he did do that but we didn’t have a choice. What can I say, it was one from Column A and one from Column B. They both involved white rice, so what can I say?
DAVID SWANSON: A few weeks ago some activists out in California went to an Obama fundraiser where they contributed something like $76,000 to his next campaign for president in order to sing a song protesting his treatment of Bradley Manning for about two minutes, and then politely leave. Do you think that was, that’s a rational approach that a year and a half out you’re already compelled to this lesser evil choice?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: It’s a terrible situation! It’s a really bad situation and it’s an unfortunate side effect, to use a medical phrase, of the way our system is set up. There are problems with the way our system is set up, and that’s a big part of it. Not that the parliamentary systems work all that much better, but we had a choice of McCain and Obama. People did work and people did, for all the right reasons!
DAVID SWANSON: Right, but it’s not election day, it’s not even election year! There has to be something we do in-between choosing emperors, right?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Yeah, I gotta say, I agree, entirely! Now, I can see it coming, I’m sure you can see it coming, we’re about to enter a phase now where all the people on the left are going to, the airwaves are going to fill with ‘do we work for Obama, do we vote for Obama, or do we sit it out, or do we have a third party’ and everybody’s going to yell at the third party candidate, whoever it’s going to be, like they did with Ralph, and you know, they’re all going to blame… the Republicans who will nominate some ogre, be it Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, or some lunatic, and Obama’s going to start to, you know, he’ll do some head fakes to the left, and do a couple of things, he’s been reasonably sane on gay marriage which of course the corporations don’t care about, and he’ll pick a few other issues that the corporations won’t care about, and he’ll yell about Citizens United and won’t do anything, and he’ll do all the right moves. The strategy is clear! He’s going to raise a billion dollars and he’s going to say and do a couple of things that will divide the left and everybody on the left will fill the airwaves with passionate articles of why we should or shouldn’t vote for him, and it’s going to be incredibly boring and enervating, and then the election will be over and he’ll win or lose.
I think he’s going to lose, by the way, because there’s no way in hell that the Democrats are going to carry Ohio. It’s just not going to happen. The voting machines are rigged, they have eliminated more than a million voters, all of them are Democrats in a state with 5.5 million. The only way he carries Ohio is if he gets over 10 points and they can’t steal it, or if they figure out a way to get around the registration laws. What Republicans are doing all over the country is eliminating people from the registration rolls. It’s hard to say, they’ve got about a million off the voter rolls here, and they’ll do it in all the key mid-western states, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, they all now have Republican governors – Florida, as well. These guys are not kind of your moderate Republicans, these are serious crazies! I just don’t see how the Democrats win, no matter what kind of game they play. The other thing is that, people are going to agonize and probably go into, most will go in, progressives will go in and hold their nose and vote for him, but they won’t work for him. People will not come out and work for him like they did in 2008, and I don’t think a billion dollars is going to make the difference. You cannot replace activists going out and voting, and they will not be there for him in 2012. So the calculation he’s making is, well I’ll get the corporate money. But I don’t think it works that way. I fully expect him to lose in 2012. What we wind up with, God only knows because the Democrats will probably lose the Senate, too, and so then you’ll have Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress, the Court system and the executive, not to mention the media, and then we’re really in deep shit.
DAVID SWANSON: It seems like an additional argument to drop our obsession with who’s the face on the throne and build a movement that gets in the way of whatever individuals are running the machine, and advances our agenda at the local and state levels, and engages in other pursuits than the Presidential competition.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Yeah, well, that’s the argument, and I tend to agree. Like everybody else, like most other people, I was certainly hoping Obama won in 2012, uh, 2008, if for no other reason than the race issue. As a historian, again, it’s immensely important that we’ve had a black president, and it will be immensely important when we have a female president. That’s the next line we’ve got to cross and then we’ll have to have a gay president. Although we’ve already had one, James Buchanan, was pretty clearly gay! Of course, nobody wants to claim James, the gay movement doesn’t want to claim James Buchanan because he was such a miserable president and the conservatives don’t want to admit that he was gay, but it is pretty obvious. I wrote a piece on it called “Our First Gay President” which went around the internet pretty good…
DAVID SWANSON: Yes, it was a wonderful piece, and I’m with you, and this was the first time Virginia voted for the less racist of the two candidates, and it was a black guy. I get it! But if we go through every iteration, if we go through corporate, militarist goons who are female, gay, Latino, etc. etc. through every possible category of minority and abused group, there will be nothing of the planet left by the time we get through the list! Right at some point …
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Well, yes and no, it depends on how much presidential power we cede to the President. As you’ve mentioned, do we build a movement. Well, we have a movement. The movement is basically focused on, it’s an issue-based movement, it’s not a unified movement by any stretch of the imagination. The way it tends to work in this country is that people work on the issues that really, about which they’re passionate. And it’s reasonably effective, I mean, we’re still alive, against all odds, and so I happen to fall into the nuclear issue. I’ve been doing it for 38 years, you know, I’d like to do something else, although I wound up also with the election protection issue and I teach history, so I’m involved in other things too. People who are active tend to gravitate towards the thing that makes them the most passionate, and a lot of people have picked environmental, local environmental issues, and won them. So we have sort of a quilt, a mosaic of people working out on specific issues. I wish people would spend less time agonizing about who is president, but 2008 was a special situation.
And I don’t think that 2012, I am not sure people are going to get so wild and crazy about it; I mean, I have to say if the Republicans nominate Newt Gingrich, which seems to be a high likelihood actually, you know, he is not Sarah Palin, and I think Obama may have trouble getting people as passionate about fighting off Newt Gingrich as some of the others weirdly enough, and Obama has really been so abysmal that I think people will not quite agonize as much over the presidential race as they would in other cases and even when people were doing what they did for Obama they didn’t abandon their specific causes and so, I am not, let’s put it this way, I am an ecologist and an environmentalist and I believe in the organic nature of the survival mechanism.
I believe that our species does react to the stimulus of potential extinction to preserve itself and so, you know, when we fight on these environmental issues we fight our social justice issues. When we fight on issues of race and of sexual preference and financial survivability, these are natural responses to an environment that is trying to kill us, and so, you know, I believe as a species of six or seven billion people operating in concert that we are an intelligent species that does really dumb things and the nature of our system and all these people living together has put forward challenges based on greed and ego and, you know, the violence strain in us that threaten our ability to continue to live here, but we respond to them in that we have managed to survive this long that I think we will continue to have this horrific, you know, agonizing, excruciating process of barely hanging on by our fingernails but that we well, actually, we will continue to do that.
DAVID SWANSON: I wonder what you think the prospects are of some of these movements, peace, financial, environmental in joining forces. Within the peace movement, we’re having conversations about early October, which will be the end of the 10th year in Afghanistan and, you know, we’re clearly going to do something in Washington, DC, whether it’s going to be speechifying and marching around or shutting something down for an hour, and many others are advocating, look, let’s go, let’s stay, let’s not leave, let’s do what they did in Cairo, let’s shut the city down until they stop the wars and move the money where it should be, and so organizations in the peace movement are asking each other, “Well, can we get any environmental groups, can we get any financial justice groups or do we all have to wait until the president is a Republican and then we can have a really substantive resistance movement.”
HARVEY WASSERMAN: So, I think the idea of a mass mobilization in Washington is fine. It sounds great. You know, there’s always a tension between continuing to do local work and coming into Washington for a major event that people have to give each other space; you know, since, you know, I get a couple hundred emails a day, like I’m sure you do and a lot of them are based on local campaigns against nearby nuclear plants and for energy stuff and so whenever we have a national mobilization it’s a balance between doing that kind of working and going to DC. We do need to end these wars. There is no doubt about it, and this is again, not to be too much of a historian here, but it’s a classic end of empire situation where the people in the capitol just can’t let go of the idea, the romance, a financial interest in conquering the rest of the world and we saw it in Rome and in Greece and, you know, it’s especially tragic in Athens where they had a golden age. All they had to do was just stop fucking conquering other countries and they couldn’t do it, and of course the tragic figure was Pericles who was the great leader of the Athenian golden age by just insisted on going to war with Sparta and ruin everything, including himself, and the wound up dying of the plague that he brought on by his inability to just get out and stop sending the troops overseas; I mean, you know, the Athenian gathered all their resources and send this huge expedition to Syracuse and it disappeared and no one ever knew what happened to these people and that’s the situation we’re in now. I mean Afghanistan is ridiculous, Iraq, Libya, the whole thing a nightmare and it’s a military industrial complex that just can’t let go and we have to somehow cut that tie, and how we do it, I don’t know, I mean, marching in Washington, that sounds good. I’m sure there’ll be endless debate about it and lots of people will go and it’ll have its impact, and marches on Washington have had the impact there’s no doubt about it. You know, the bonus army, the Hoovervilles. I was at the mobilization against the war in 1967 when we marched on the Pentagon. All that does have a cumulative effect, there’s no doubt about it. I think that 99.9% of the people in the environmental movement understand that and support it. We understand that the wars are themselves ecologically catastrophic, and an existential reality and that also they make everything else more difficult, so it sounds like a great idea to me and a lot of people will do it. We will also, of course, there will be satellite marches, people who have jobs will come out in Columbus and Madison and Littlerock and wherever else to make it a global event. Sounds fine, so let’s do it.
DAVID SWANSON: But it is…
HARVEY WASSERMAN: But it won’t be the be-all and the end-all, I mean, there will be a day after and then there will be all the questioning about Obama and there are still a lot of people that hold out hope for him.
DAVID SWANSON: (Laughing)
HARVEY WASSERMAN: I don’t see it but I’m sure he will start to angle to the left on certain issues towards the election to try and persuade the people that voted for him in 2008 to vote for him again in 2012 and many will but there’s no way that he will get the activist wing and he doesn’t win without the activist wing, I just don’t see it, so we’ll see what happens.
DAVID SWANSON: The other success story you were emailing about yesterday other than the nukes was solar and the idea of a Solartopia.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Um hmm…
DAVID SWANSON: Can you describe what progress we’ve made?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Well, when we first started fighting nukes back in the seventies, people said well what’s your alternative and we said well it’s renewables; is a wind, solar tile and all these wonderful things, which we knew about in the abstract but they really didn’t exist very much. There was a wind business, there was a solar business but it was nowhere near cost competitive. What we were saying was if we took the money that you’re going to put in the nukes and put it instead into solar we would get a solar industry and that did happen in part and now, almost 40 years later, we have reached a tipping point technologically and economically where it’s no longer an abstract arguments say well if only we wouldn’t build nukes we could someday have solar. Solar this year. It is cost effective. It is at the tipping point. If I’m a Daddy Warbucks capitalist and I’m standing with 10 billion dollars to build a commercial, for-profit facility to provide energy and make me money in the next 20 to 30 years, I’m actually going to do solar because that’s where the money is at the technology has advanced and is clearly moving ahead so rapidly, exponentially actually, that we are now winning in the marketplace. I’m in the odd position on advocating for a free market in energy. I would remove all subsidies, including the subsidies to renewables if we can get rid of the subsidies for nukes and for fossil fuels or what I call in Solartopia King Kong, coal, oil, nukes and gas, so I came up with this idea, why actually what happened was in I think it was 2005 some friends of mine gave me the only grant I have ever gotten in all my activist career to write a book on the hydrogen economy because the hydrogen economy was going to be a really hot, or so we thought, and so I researched it for a month and I had to say Neil, it’s not happening. Hydrogen is no different than electricity in a way. It’s not an energy source, it’s a medium of exchange for energy, but I had taken the grant and so I had to write a book and so I said okay what I’m going to do is I’m going to portray, I’m going to give a visual image of what the world will look like or could look like if we converted to renewables and so we were in an airplane and we looked down on Scandinavia and we see wind and solar and green roofs and would go all across the United States and see basically where all the solar facilities are and it’s set in 2030 and people said all that’s completely unrealistic. You’re never going to have a completely solar, and I’m positive that also fossil and nuclear fuel facilities are gone, that we have eradicated them and it’s nothing but renewables and people said that was not realistic, it’s never going to happen.
Well, Scientific American, the international policy commission on climate change, everybody is now saying hey, 2030 is entirely doable for a completely renewable economy, that the technology is that far along and there is no reason to build any more fossil or nuclear generating stations including coal and so now it’s a ho-hum situation where, all yeah, okay, we’ll have a totally renewable economy by 2030 I picked 2030 because I thought that was kind of the outer limits of where we could survive if we continued with any kind of fossil or nuclear generating stations but now it’s technologically in range and people say we can actually do it quicker and so this is a situation where our wishes came true an anybody looking for a future should go into the solar business. Wind is very hard to do. I love the wind business. I spent about seven years working to try and help make it happen when the company and if you’re not a major corporation don’t think about going in the wind business but photovoltaics that’s where it’s at. I believe that photovoltaics, actually the panels that convert sunlight into electricity will be the largest industry in the history of the human race. They will be bigger than the dot coms, bigger than the Internet, because every structure in the world, every vehicle in the world, every open industrial space like parking lots and brown fields, they will all be covered in solar panels. The technology has just exploded and that’s the way we survive really. That is our survival mechanism and we’re in that transition now, so is it a success story? Absolutely. Would it have happened without the antinuclear movement? No, it would not, because we prevented all those resources from going into all those nuclear plants that didn’t get built and now we have to break the back of the nuclear power industry and make this transition accelerate so that we head off global warming and stop more Fukushimas from happening and we know what we have to do. I think we have the horses to do it frankly at this point in time and Obama is a big, big problem but we just have to make it happen and so a march on Washington against war will also include an aspect against nuclear. You know, I was invited for the first time, there was a big antiwar rally in New York City and it had a very large Muslim base.
DAVID SWANSON: This April 9th, right?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Oh is that what it was? Yeah I think it was April 9th and they invited me to speak. It was the first time that they reached out to the antinuclear movement and it was very successful, very well received and a lot of people there from the movement against Indian Point, the reactor that’s 35 miles north of Manhattan, so this happening and people understand the issue now and of course it’s no accident that our wars are in the Middle East in the heart of the oil country and this has to change. For example, I’ll tell you right now what’s going to happen with transportation, or maybe it’s a bit arrogant of me to make this prediction but I think most people in the business will understand what I’m saying. The entire use of gasoline for automobiles for transportation is going to end and is going to end of a lot more quickly than people think because the technology is very clear. Electric cars are much more efficient than gas-driven automobiles. If you’re driving around in a vehicle that has a cooling system, as do all gas-driven automobiles and you’ve got a tremendous amount of waste just by definition, just like all the nuclear plants that have cooling towers; that’s just a statement that hey we can’t deal with this and we’re wasting a very large percentage of the energy that were creating here. Electric cars are way more efficient. There’s no cooling system. The big problem, of course, is shlepping around a battery, but that’s on par in terms of weight with a cooling system and the radiators and so what’s going to happen with transportation I think that mass transportation will come out much more strongly than it’s been in the next couple decades but with the automobile, all automobiles will go electric. That was the original vision by the way, that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, their vision of the automotive industry was every car would be electric and you would drive around and when you ran out of a charge you would call into a station and just switch out batteries which would take 30 seconds, and you watch Nascar. All the Nascar cars are going to be electric within 15 years and instead of pulling into the pits to refuel with gasoline, they’re just going to switch out the batteries. You watch, that will happen. So with cars, presuming that people still drive cars, and I think there will be fewer because I do see a revival of mass transit, but everybody will have an electric car, your home will have photovoltaics and your parking lot will have photovoltaics and so you will drive the distance from home to wherever you’re going to work at any rate and you’ll be charging the car at home and then you’ll sit in the parking lot and the parking lots will all be covered with photovoltaics. You know the critics of solar say all well you have to cover a land mass the size and Arizona. Well maybe, but, you know, the thousands of square miles of parking lots that we have in this country will all be covered with PV and sell your car will sit there all day, it will charge, and you may have enough charge in your car to come home and charge up your house as opposed to vice versa and that’s how it’ll be. It’s very simple and very few people would disagree with that vision. It will be hugely expensive but imagine how much money we would not be paying and how many wars we would be having for gasoline.
DAVID SWANSON: But it…
HARVEY WASSERMAN: So, you know technologically we have there. All the basic elements are clearly visible for a solartopian totally green powered future. The task we have to do is to make the political transition.
DAVID SWANSON: Well this is the question that’s been in my head since you’ve been describing this. It seems we’re technologically there despite the resistance over the decades of our government, but are we politically there, I mean is it possible for the free market to overcome the corporatocracy of our so-called representative government; do we not have to overcome this regime that hands out the subsidies as well as fighting the wars for the fossil fuel industry if we are to succeed with this vision or are you suggesting that we can achieve this vision despite the resistance of Washington, DC?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: No, Solartopia is different from all the other sort of mechanical market-driven visions of getting to a green-powered earth. It’s very political. We don’t do this without mass movements and we don’t do this without policy change and we don’t do this without rising up the issue by issue and site by site and moment by moment with political action because in Solartopia the vision, there are four sort of mechanical things we do which is we shut down King Kong, we shut down coal, oil, nukes and gas and read the planet of all fossil and nuclear fuels. If we install this beautiful green solar-vision, PV-driven, wind-driven, ocean thermalgeo from all the technological stuff which we know is either there are coming quickly and in Solartopia by the way, I do not posit some magical breakthrough in 2015 or 2020 where everything is possible. This is all with tangible and clearly-evolving real technologies that are on their way and are somewhat market-driven, but its policy-driven too; and then of course, we have to eliminate all waste. People in this country, remarkably, we are technically a capitalist country and people are supposed to only do things for money, but millions and millions and millions of Americans just recycle every day, every week, and they put out their little blue or green bins and they’re not paid to do it. I was on my street and people do it and it’s just part of life now and so the problem is not the rear end. The problem is the front end. It should be illegal to produce anything in this country that can be 100% recycled and actually they do that in Germany and that will spread, and then finally all agriculture has to be organic. No more pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
That has got to stop, so that’s the easy technical fix but the next step is political and there are four basic things that we have to do, and we don’t survive if we don’t do them and this has nothing to do with the market. It has entirely to do with political action and people rising up. The first thing we have to do is change the nature of the corporation. The number one problem, the big blood clot in our system is corporate personhood and the power of corporations, which has been with us essentially since the American civil war, 1870s, 80s and 90s, is when the corporations took hold and they have been in power ever since and it’s a global phenomenon. It certainly started here with Standard Oil of New Jersey but corporations are not people, they don’t have human rights, they must have human responsibilities. At the time of the American revolution there were six corporations in the United States and they were all state chartered and they were very restricted in the business they could do and they had other responsibilities in addition to making a profit.
You cannot run a planet that is survivable where the dominant economic institutions operate only on the profit motive and we have a situation where it’s actually illegal for corporations to do anything but make profit. If a corporation is confronted, the management of a corporation is confronted with a situation where they can do the right thing for the planet that will lose money doing it they can be sued if they do the right thing for the planet and we can’t have that structural situation in place and so the essential corporate charter, and they have to credit Richard Grossman and one of those, they are acronymically challenged, Committee On Corporations, Law And Democracy is sort of what it’s been called, POCLAD, Project on Corporations, Law And Democracy, that’s what it is, and they raise the issue. Richard wrote in a brilliant pamphlet of a couple decades ago I think, raised the issue of corporate charters and we have to look at that. The nature of the corporation is the core problem that we face and people say well, I say you have to start by changing the corporation, they roll their eyes and say it’s not possible. It is possible. It has to be done. We don’t survive if it’s not done. The essential nature of the corporation has to change and that’s the single largest and most important structural problem that we face as a species to survive on this planet. The profit motive will not allow us to continue to exist on this earth, and so that basically has to be done and it’s the biggest and toughest and most important challenge we face and we will just have to do it.
DAVID SWANSON: Well the…
HARVEY WASSERMAN: The second thing…sorry?
DAVID SWANSON: Can we sort of specify how we do it? Educationally, we can do it. We can convince people of it but it seems that we have to either impeach and unelect and persuading judges to start reading the English language as if it’s the English language or we have to go in and amend the constitution of the United States to specify that persons shall be persons and corporations shall be corporations and the two are not identical, which seems obvious but we would have to actually rewrite the constitution.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Yeah, so we’ll have to rewrite the constitution. It’ll take a constitutional amendment probably or something on that scale to do it; although, we could do its state by state. The strategy for changing this is just starting to be worked out. There are people who are proposing various legal remedies that would change the nature of corporations. I don’t know exactly what’s going to work. These next four things, these big political changes people say well how are you going to do that, how are you going to win and one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, Shakespeare In Love, is how they keep asking the ….
DAVID SWANSON: It’s a mystery.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: By Jeffrey Rush, yeah, “How did this happen? I don’t know, it’s a mystery.” It is a bit of a mystery. Were walking into new territory here but clearly the problem is identified. The problem is the legal requirement that corporations do nothing but make money. That is not sustainable and so all these gargantuan mega corporations, General Electric, Westinghouse, General Motors, all these other companies have to have a structural requirement to do something other than make money and we haven’t figured that out yet. It’s going to be an interesting process. It’s going to take a while, but we don’t have an alternative.
DAVID SWANSON: That’s one of four things you said we need?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Yeah, the next one is to eliminate war. There was a discussion there between Chris Hedges and somebody else, I can remember the other person…
DAVID SWANSON: Paul Chappell.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Yes, and people think that war is an inherent part of our nature. I’m not convinced. I think that war is the ultimate ecological destroyer. As Ben Franklin said, there’s never been a good war, there’s never been a bad peace. I tend to agree with that. You look back on the 20th century, you look at the Nazis, look at this and that, you can get into a whole debate and it’s of interest, but we’re in the 21st century now. I don’t see any prospect on this planet for a good war, for a war that makes sense, for war that is sustainable and so these little wars against these evil dictators that all happened to be in the Middle East, you know, come on, what are we talking about, so was Saddam Hussein any worse than 20 other people around the planet who aren’t sitting on oil wells, so war is not sustainable. That’s a basic reality. War is not sustainable. We as a species have got to find a way to eliminate it as phenomenon. I think it’s not only possible but necessary. Again, we’re talking about the survival mechanism here. Our species with six, seven, eight billion people on this planet cannot sustain war as a phenomenon.
David: But that we need to do things to survive and that people work out their performances in Shakespearean plays and they don’t know how I’d call it a mystery doesn’t guarantee that we do the things we need to do and survive, right? It may be that we die and there are people who think it’s already too late. I don’t know at what point you think it will be too late but there’s not some sort of guarantee that we make it is there?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Um, well, as someone who grew up on Disney movies…
DAVID SWANSON: Laughing…
HARVEY WASSERMAN: …I have five kids so I keep having to watch Disney movies and they always have a happy ending so you know, what can I tell you?
DAVID SWANSON: This is the real world!!! This is not a Disney movie.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: … well yes and no, but you have to look at our lives. My life, I guess I’ve just been spoiled rotten. My parents were wonderful people. They were Kennedy liberals. They were actually born, both my parents were born within a mile and a year of John Kennedy in Boston in 1918, so we grew up with the Kennedy idea. In 1962 I was 15. I went to my first demonstration and we tried to desegregate a roller rink here in Columbus, Ohio, and by god we did it. There were three of us and we had a demonstration and we got covered and the roller rink caved in. I’ve been spoiled ever since and I have seen in my lifetime as all of us have social movements that have worked and that have made a huge difference. As a historian, I look at race relations, I look at women, I look at the attitudes toward gays, I look at our successes in the antinuclear movement, I look at the movement against the war in Vietnam, terribly frustrating, full of failures, but in the long run we have a black president. We’re not in Vietnam and things have changed. Things are terrible in many, many, many, many ways, there’s absolutely no doubt about it but where the United States now is is entirely predictable. We are at the end of empire. It’s always ugly. It’s always nasty and the corporations are killing us and the military is killing us and all these terrible things are happening and at the same time we are winning quite a few battles. I think it’s impossible to overstate by the way the impact of the transition to renewable energy. It is a huge deal coming not only ecologically but financially, culturally, spiritually, and it is a tremendous thing, as I also feel about the Internet by the way, and I think the Internet is an immensely positive force in the long term and it has changed things and will continue to, and so am I optimistic? Well, it’s my nature to be optimistic. There are people who are born optimists and born pessimists. Thankfully for me, likely I’m an optimist and I’ve never seen a viable use as an organizer for pessimism. I would be an organizer if I was a pessimist. How can you be an organizer and be a pessimist? It doesn’t make sense.
DAVID SWANSON: I do want to get onto the other two things we need to do but I have a concern with being dependent on optimism because some people are not perpetual optimists by nature. Some people need to see successes and be constantly reminded of successes and be shown that we’re very likely to succeed next month before they’ll be an optimist but unless they are an optimist they won’t do anything, whereas it seems to me you can be morally driven to do the right thing regardless of optimism or pessimism and so I always have concerns about accepting this sort of dependence on small wins and optimism. I don’t know how you…
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Well I agree with that. I think the moral force even for people who are pessimists about the outcome, the moral force is absolutely essential and we could win without the pessimists, there’s no doubt about that and certainly in people who are pessimists are essential to developing a critique. We would and understand how bad things are if it weren’t for the pessimists. I don’t see a rosy present. I see horrible injustice and things that are deeply, deeply, deeply depressing about the way things are going and what’s happened. You can be a Fukushima, you can’t experience a Fukushima knowing what we know and go dancing around the block. These are tough things to digest. I teach the holocaust for god’s sakes, but I have seen victories. I do see victories all the time and listen, you know, I’m a Red Sox fan!! How can you be a Red Sox fan after 86 years and not have suffered tremendous angst…
DAVID SWANSON: Laughing…
HARVEY WASSERMAN:… What can I tell you? And I’m a University of Michigan fan. We always manage to pull defeat from the jaws of victory. There is a balance and I think the essence is in the balance frankly that you have to know how bad things are but also believe you can win and that’s the balance to find. That’s the balance between the optimists and pessimists. We’re not unrealistic about how serious the situation is and how awful things can be, but on the other hand if you didn’t think you could win, why bother unless you just into it for the fun of the game or the need to do the game and that’s fine, but how can I not be an optimist and still believe that the abolition of war is possible? I think it’s possible. I think it’s possible because it’s essential to our survival. It may be in the 20th century there was space enough of this planet for a certain number of wars and they were awful and all that stuff but in the 21st century wars will ultimately be our demise as a species and then I don’t believe we will stand for. I believe that there is a collective consciousness and the collective consciousness is continuing to dictate that we do certain things to survive and among them will be and is now the abolition of this phenomenon called war.
Part of it is the reality of the Internet, that we do have a way of communicating with everybody on earth simultaneously and part of it is the advent of the ability to do things in harmony with nature and so here we have a situation and then let me get to these other two points: How many people do we have on this planet? What’s the solution to population, the population explosion? Do we have too many people? Well, when you say you have too many people, if you want to ask well who is the too manyth person? I don’t like to say there are too many people. It bothers me because that implies that we’re going to eliminate people as a means of survival and I don’t buy that. What I do buy is that we do have the means to limit population growth, to have population growth balance out and the way that’s done, and this was the last thing I did in my book, by the way, I finished Solartopia and I suddenly realized, god you know, I haven’t addressed population. How do you really address population? Do you force people, I mean the one child policy in China has been brutal. It has resulted in the deaths of millions of little girls, forcible whenever, it’s not even worth discussing. The way you control population in the long term is that you empower women. All the countries where women are equally paid, equally educated and have the equal rights, population plummets. Women, generally educated women, women with control of their lives, were not dominated by men and not essentially facing forcible rape and reproduction want to have a couple of kids maybe and that’s it, or none at all and a look at Italy, you looking at ironically catholic countries, Quebec, places where women have risen up and have not quite equal but close to equal rights and I certainly getting there, population drops all over Europe. Now it’s dropping in Russia, but that I think is Chernobyl in part, but it’s very clear and actually it’s become an article almost a faith is that yeah, we control population by empowering women or not empowering them but allowing them to have the power, getting out of the way of letting them have the power they deserve. The line that I think works is that the mothers of the earth will be in harmony with Mother Earth and that they will decide in a natural way the correct, right sustainable number of human beings on this planet. I actually don’t think we’re going to get to 10 billion people. I think that the empowerment of women will proceed and the population will level off and we’ll find the right number of people that the earth can sustain and that’s how it will be done. I don’t see any other method, at any other modicum; I mean certainly, of course, sex education, the availability of contraception, abortion is actually the least of it. The number of abortions is lower in states where it’s legal because those states also tend to have sex education and availability of contraception. It is contraception and education that are the number one ways to avoid abortion. It’s really ironic with the right-wingers that are always got to make abortion illegal; well if you want to avoid abortion, support Planned Parenthood. Margaret Sanger did more to avoid abortions than any other person on earth because she spread birth control, that’s the way you do it and I think that’s going to be common accepted knowledge and that’s how population ultimately will be controlled, not by war, not by forcible population control but by the empowerment of women. That’s how it works. Hopefully women will also be less war-like and more inclined to support the environment. The jury is still out on that but I’m optimistic, especially as a guy with five daughters (laughing), what choice do I have?
That’s actually the last step. The in-between step to fill out the four political sides of Solartopia is democracy and social justice. Inequality, well let’s put it this way: poverty is not sustainable. I don’t mind having people who are rich as long as they behave themselves decently and don’t wreck the planet but people want to be rich, fine, be rich, but nobody should starve. Everybody by virtue of being human has the right in a solartopian world to food, clothing, housing, medical care, education and transportation. These are essential human rights and they are also the key to a sustainable planet. It is not human nature to accept being impoverished for long. People do do it but in the long term people will rise up and so it should be an article of faith as it is for many people around the world that by virtue of being human you are supported and you have a right to dignity, to a decent life and once that is sustained and I think the great spokesman of that is the most famous American that nobody’s ever heard of, who is Eugene V Debbs, a great leader of the socialist movement in this country, who is my personal hero, that once human dignity is assured and once people are supported, then we will have the kind of society that we need to sustain ourselves on this planet and with social justice comes democracy, they are inextricably linked and the current nature of our system in this country demands that we do this little thing which is to get rid of electronic voting machines. I know it sounds like a small, bothersome detail, but the fact is that electronic voting machines are perfectly designed to steal elections and the only sustainable, reliable method of doing democracy in the modern world is to have universal hand-counted paper ballots and automatic voter registration. These voter registration drives are sad. Everybody who turns 18 in the United States should be automatically registered to vote. I don’t wanna go as far as Australia does and require people to vote. If you don’t vote in Australia your find and can actually in some cases go to jail, but I’m not sure I would go that far but everybody who is 18 should automatically be registered to vote and hand-counted paper ballots, I think what we should do is have voting over a weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday so that working people can come then on Tuesday all the kids get out of school and the high school and college students, and count the votes and they can work the polls too, and so I do believe that democracy and social justice are really the major missing links in getting to Solartopia and without that as part of those four major political and cultural steps we don’t get there either.
DAVID SWANSON: Sounds like a good vision to me and of course I love the book; on the other hand, paper ballots is sort of a technology that we’ve been able to achieve for a while now and we aren't getting there.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Well there are few places where we have. Of course in Germany, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, they have paper ballots and in Germany, for example, the vote count is usually within 0.1% of the exit polls, and so is remarkably accurate, but we’re in a bad situation here in this country, especially talking here from Ohio. It’s very, very corrupt and lethal. It’s a major problem that we face. These electronic voting machines, they are the perfect joke for a true cynic is to have people pushing touch screens and expecting their vote to be counted; it’s ridiculous. In Ohio, the secretary of state has the power, the leisure, the privilege on election night of taking about 10 minutes or less and just making the vote count whatever the hell he wants it to be. We have a white male millionaire secretary of state in Ohio and he will decide if he wants to on election night in 2012 who carries Ohio and he can do it in 10 minutes.
DAVID SWANSON: You used to have an African American one and it didn’t help much.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: No, he was worse (laughing). It’s a sad situation and that’s something that we’re going to have to get over and the same thing was social justice. If you cannot sustain a society where you have people walking around like Donald Trump, who may not have any money by the way (laughing) while you also have people sleeping under bridges. It’s very cheap actually. I have seen very low numbers on what it would actually take to feed everybody and to clothe and house everybody. I’m certain there would be a lot of problems getting it done but get is eminently doable. It is nothing like the defense budget in terms of the dollars it would take to accomplish this and that has to be done, so in this day and age with knowing what we now and seeing everybody; people are no longer invisible on this planet. In the age of the Internet, everybody is visible and everybody’s situation is known and in some circumstances like that I just don’t see our species tolerating extreme poverty much longer. I just don’t see it happening.
DAVID SWANSON: With everyone out of poverty you still might have to limit the extreme wealth of trillionaires or see them control the governments….
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Well I think that will happen actually. I think once people are out of poverty, and this sounds like certainly a utopian vision and I suppose that’s why I called it Solartopia because it’s a little more tangible at this point, but people don’t keep coming up with utopian visions unless there’s a reason to keep coming up with them and I think once everybody, and I do think it will happen once everybody’s out of poverty and has some kind of education, the super rich I think become less viable as well and people question extreme, absurd levels of consumption and it becomes less and less acceptable, let’s put it that way.
DAVID SWANSON: Let me ask maybe one more question. I don’t know if you read a new book by Bruce Levine called "Get Up, Stand Up." This is a psychologist who wrote an article about a year ago called “Are We a Broken People” and he diagnoses Americans and activists or potentially activist Americans as ill, as sort of in an abusive relationship with the corporatocracy. If we drug kids who are disobedient and rebellious, we lock people up who would be our best activists before they become Debbs’ and get locked up for the activism, we watched too much television, we’re locked in a political lesser-evilism, we’re trained to believe we have no power and have no role to play and we increasingly don’t play the role that we need. Your view of American activist life seems much more positive. Do you think that there are systemic fixes needed to get people to understand their role as more than voters and consumers or do you think it will come around as needed?
HARVEY WASSERMAN: The answer is yes (laughing)…
DAVID SWANSON: (Laughing)…
HARVEY WASSERMAN: It’s no accident that they’re going after the educational system. An educated people is a dangerous people and so the right wing, the conservatives, although I hate to use that term to describe them, the corporatists understand how important it is that they gut the educational system and not allow people to be taught that they can stand up and make a difference, and so these guys in Texas wanted to take even Thomas Jefferson out of our books for god’s sakes and you being in Charlottesville understand the dual nature of Thomas Jefferson but it is a very, very difficult problem to do this and to keep people understanding that you can make a difference, but in a certain sense I hate to say it, but that’s the beauty of Obama because people did rise up in 2008, and it was the same thing with John Kennedy in 1960.
Kennedy disappointed huge numbers of people. Much of what is said about the corporate nature of Obama was said about John Kennedy and his 1000 days there, that he had sold out his base but the fact is that the people rose up and I remember, I am old enough and you are not, to remember the campaign of 1960. It was a big deal. I caught tremendous flak for wearing at Kennedy button in my high school here in Columbus, a high school that is now all black, but it’s always a difficult situation to sustain the belief among people that you can make a difference when they are confronted with a gargantuan structure that is designed to in every way shape and form say you can’t make a difference, but somehow cheerfulness seeps through. There’s a great line, Leonard Cohen has a wonderful live album, have you heard this Live in London by Leonard Cohen?
DAVID SWANSON: I don’t think so.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Oh its spectacular. You really should get it. It’s a video but is also a CD.
DAVID SWANSON: Okay.
HARVEY WASSERMAN: Here’s Leonard Cohen. He’s 76 years old, right, and he’s been a Zen guy and I guess somebody ran off with all his money, so he has to go out on tourniquet. How many 76-year-olds are out on tourniquet? It’s an incredible piece and he has this one line in there where he says he studied for years and years, he took Prozac and he names Wellbutrin and he names like every antidepressant and he says and he also studied all the major religions but cheerfulness keeps seeping through. And you know, he also has a great line, he says there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. And so my feeling is, OK, these guys are going to be corporate, they're going to do everything they can to gut the educational system, and train us, train us, train us that we can't make a difference, and that everything has to be the profit motive, and look you elected this guy Obama and look what he turned out to be. But, I believe essentially that we're irrepressible as a species, and that sooner or later the survival mechanism breaks through. And the point of Obama is OK, everyone went out worked and we did this, and people believed and maybe deluded ourselves, ut what choice did we have, but we did succeed in finally putting an African-American in the White House. As a historian I look at these charts on the wall and I see all these white guys, and then all of a sudden there's a black guy. Something happened. And then there will be a woman. OK that part of it we are succeeding.
And we also had this movement in 2008, and people did rise up. And so the outcome hasn't been what we wanted, but maybe it's more important that people did rise up. You can't underestimate the power of the movement in 2008 to put him in the White House, and that movement, that momentum, still happens. A lot has been written about Kennedy was a terrible disappointment. But all those people rose up and there was this revolution of rising expectations. So we still have this momentum. . . .
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