Naomi, India and My Home Town

By Heather Hackman

Heather Hackman is the founder and president of Hackman Consulting Group. With a doctorate in Social Justice Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and 12 years of experience as a professor in Human Relations & Multicultural Education, Heather trains and consults nationally on issues of deep diversity, equity and social justice, and her most recent research and conference presentations have focused on climate change and its intersections with issues of race, class and gender.

Author’s disclaimer: Since I have not posted in a while this is a long one, so hang in there. :)

I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was not born there, mind you, but I lived there from the age of 6-18 and so it obviously had a significant influence on me. I often share this at the beginning of trainings to help folks understand that I was not raised in a place where I would be naturally predisposed to social justice work. The tag line for the city does not say “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas…and we are totally committed to race, class and gender justice!” Nothing of the kind. In fact, it is quite the opposite – it is a city that is predicated on taking your money and having you smile while we do it, almost never really knowing what hit you. We alter the lighting in casinos, we make sure you never see the shift changes, and we hide all clocks so you have no sense of time passing. We have endless sources of food and drink so you are always sated. We make sure no real culture expresses itself but will fill the horizon with facsimiles of culture like Venice, Paris, Rome, Egypt and New York. And most of all, we make sure that there is nothing visible that would give pause to hedonism – no homeless, no hungry, no examples of racism, and when we show you women almost completely naked taking your drink order, we make sure they are always smiling so as to offer the impression that working in a thong and pasties for eight hours is enjoyable.

Las Vegas is often a reference for me in my training work when talking about my own gender awareness (I hated the depiction of women in that city), my lack of racial awareness (it was a place representing the most extreme results of colonization and exploitation and so there was simply no mainstream conversation about race at all, at least not one that was connected to racial justice), and my experience regarding class (make it seem like you have money at all costs because that is the only parlance this city understands). Though I had no substantive political consciousness, these gender, race and class dynamics often left me uneasy, confused or on the outside looking in.

But after reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), I can see one more reason why that town never felt like home to me – it is the penultimate example of extractivism over nature, of humanity’s desire for “more” falling in direct conflict with what is and should be possible in the middle of the desert. And that’s the key point – Las Vegas does not sit in the middle of a lush, green landscape with water readily available for its 61 golf courses. Nor does it reside in a temperate climate that does not require constant air conditioning. Nor is it located in an area where food is locally grown in plentiful amounts. No. It is in the middle of the desert. Dry, hot and what does grow there is not what we want in our “world’s biggest buffets”. But that has not stopped the developers from turning Vegas into the most impossible of spaces and forcing it to be green, forcing it to be cool, and flying, trucking and “training” in all manner of foods to assuage the palates of the entire world.

 

As you can imagine, there was very little of the city I liked as I was growing up, but I did have a fondness for its heat, its vast terrain and the challenge its isolation posed. On occasion we would head up to Mt. Charleston or drive out to Red Rock Canyon and each and every time I felt more alive and more grateful and more at home than I ever felt in the city itself. Maybe even as a young person there was something in me that knew that Vegas was ultimately a deeply flawed and likely failed proposition. Building such an edifice in a place where not a single aspect of it should ever be seems to be the ultimate testament to the hubris that has led us to this current climate moment – the mere notion that we can completely, indefinitely, and without any consequence bend nature to our will, no matter how obscene and unnatural it is. Only by connecting to the natural world via those excursions outside of Vegas, was I able to understand how problematic my home town was and is.

 

I know many people who “love Vegas” but not a one of them is engaged in the struggle for climate justice and the creation of a social, political and economic framework that is sustainable. Their love for Vegas might, on its surface, simply be a love for sun and fun. But, in truth the love that members of extraction societies hold for Vegas is likely because of the role it plays in being the ever-present reminder of our dominion over nature and that life can seemingly be abundant and enjoyable in the process. Vegas is an escape, like most vacation destinations, but it is a particular escape into the fantasy that humanity can consume at rates unthinkable (in a rational world) and somehow still be okay.

 

I rarely go back to Vegas, but was there last April for my brother’s wedding and while driving with my mother, I looked around at the mall expansion and the fact that the city has built and built and built right up to its very edges, and I said to her, “there is nothing that would ever have me come back to this place.” So smug, right? So self-righteous. So “above it all” in cool judgment and educated condemnation…except for the fact that you can take the Heather out of Vegas but not the Vegas out of Heather (at least not without some serious work). And so I have had to look at (thanks again to Naomi Klein’s book) the ways I carry the Vegas mentality with me – how I consume in absurdly racist, classist and ultimately imperialist ways. How I engage with the world as if it is made of infinite resources. How I create space and places and ways of being that simply have no business being where they are. And within this where I am truly just ignorant, and where I am willfully choosing not to see.

 

Let me be more specific – I was recently traveling in India for four weeks and the concrete, recurring question bumping up against my inner-Vegas was, “what on earth am I doing traveling for pleasure?” The carbon footprint we laid down as we went from Mumbai to Kathmandu to Varanasi to Bodh Gaya to New Delhi to Hampi to Fort Kochi to Thekkady to Alleppey and then back to Mumbai with me then returning home to Minneapolis was absurd. No other word for it. I was not there for work, I was not there for research, I was not there for any social justice reason at all, I was there because two friends live there and I wanted to see India and so going while they were there seemed like a good idea. Hello Vegas.

 

This past week TED posted a sweet, and if you listen closely, deeply poignant talk by Matthieu Ricard about altruism and climate change where he posited altruism (a path to climate justice) in opposition to selfishness (the path to climate disaster), and I had to face the fact that traveling the way we did (flying, driving, and hotels with such an extensive carbon footprint!) for pleasure is and was simply selfish. This bucks right up against the “but I’ve earned it” and the “I need to relax a bit and unwind, what’s selfish about that?” refrain so often uttered by middle-class U.S.-ers. It even can bump up against those who espouse the “deep growth and change of worldview that travel can bring” argument, and while this learning is often true and has almost always been true for me, it pales against the reality that we are very quickly passing critical planetary boundaries and we must steeply curb, swiftly change and substantially adapt if we are going to have a shot at a sustainable future.

 

And that means that travel for pleasure is likely on the chopping block for me. Notice how I hedged my bet there… “likely”. Even as I write this I cannot quite bring myself to fully commit. And yet, I hope that by being more public it will help me connect with others who are at similar places regarding truly unnecessary consumption, but caught in the throes of a neoliberal, globalized, colonial mindset. The class category I am identifying here is clear, right – U.S. middle, upper-middle and professional middle class folks who have disposable income but who are not the 1%. I see myself as a member of that group and in a nutshell we consume like mad.

 

And even though the bulge in CO2 emissions is shifting to the Global South, do not be fooled by that. Carbon emissions are recorded for the country they are emitted in, not the causality of those emissions. So, China, India and others in the Global South release much of their CO2 in the process of producing goods that we consume in the Global North. Thus, it is our consumption in the Global North that is still driving rising CO2 in a literal sense via what we purchase, consume and throw away. But, it is also driven by the illusion of power, prosperity and “happiness” that we have exported in connection with this level of consumption – the cultural imperialism of consumption. As I was driving the roads all over India I could not help but notice the mark of Western advertising promising happiness if only you eat this (vegetarian) Whopper, drink this Coke, or try this Jolly Rancher (these folks looked particularly happy, actually). This form of ideological colonization, by conflating happiness with consumption, will kill us all if we do not see through it, rigorously critique its impacts, and offer alternatives.

 

One of the most slippery ways “consumption” defends itself, however, is by saying that if we stop consuming, all of the folks in India, China, Mexico and Brazil who are making these products will lose their livelihoods. That is true if the only source of life is the maquiladora. However, what I quickly understood as I was in India is that if I took the money I waste on my useless consumption and instead offer it up as payment for the Global North’s climate debt, I would be making an amend for the havoc my consumption has wrought, I would be supporting green and truly sustainable development, and I would be interrupting the ideology of consumption and extraction and replacing it with a more global vision of stewardship and climate justice in response to the crisis we are in.

 

I’m not talking charity here, I’m talking about wealth redistribution and putting substance to the IPCC’s “equal but differentiated responsibilities” framework. There are truly countless organizations all over the world (many of them indigenous) working locally to replace the extractivist worldview with something much more sustainable. For specifics, go to Naomi’s book and the references in the back. Better yet, read her book and come to understand some of the work these organizations are doing globally.

 

And so that is really why I am writing this – not to do the solipsistic, passive aggressive lefty thing where we cynically criticize ourselves and call ourselves hypocrites in order to actually shame and blame others, nor am I trying to induce guilt and shame and point a finger. Instead, I am openly sharing what has come up for me since I left for India in December and how I intend to apply these lessons to a hopeful and sustainable solution whereby we ALL can live on this planet. By some studies / measures as a middle-class U.S.-er I consume 80% more than is allowable if we are to try and keep planetary warming limited to two degrees centigrade. While many think we have missed that two-degree mark, it is no reason to not then shoot for two-point-five degrees. And while there is no guarantee that any of this will matter or work, it is absolutely certain that if the West does not curb its consumption by somewhere around 80%, and stop exporting this way of life as laudable, we will most surely suffer deeply and badly as a planet for a very, very long time.

 

Please do not hear my words from a place of guilt or shame. Brain research has shown that that is a weak place of motivation and stops learning (see, for example, the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel in The Mindful Brain). Rather, if you are a middle-class U.S.-er, make the changes you can and do this work from the place of altruism. Do it for the love of the natural world. Do it because it truly is the right thing to do. Do it as an amend for the colonization and genocide that created this wealth. Do it for future generations of all life on this planet. Do it as spiritual practice. Do it for a host of possible reasons or combinations therein. Whatever your motive, let us begin to do it now – to dig deep, to cut deeply, and to move quickly to a worldview that is in resonance and not dissonance with this planet.

 

One of Klein’s last points in her book, to light the way perhaps, is an analysis of various social movements that have achieved significant political, social and at times even some economic change – and of course the overarching theme was the word movement. We cannot do this alone, but if we are not practicing it as individuals it becomes difficult to authentically participate in those movements, and almost impossible to keep them alive over the long haul. One of the slogans of the People’s Climate March was, “to change everything, we need everyone” and so please join in climate justice work, please talk to others, please engage politically and socially, and if you are someone with economic access, please dig deep and work to make the changes necessary for this movement to lead us into a sustainable future. I thank you for your partnership on this path and hope to learn from you as we all do our level best.

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