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Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion, and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational.



Running Nature’s Numbers

Jun2

by: on June 2nd, 2014 | 13 Comments »

I love to poke around arguments – my own and others’ – finding all the blindspots, or at least wearing myself out trying.

credit: Creative Commons/Aaron Patterson

I like thinkers who question orthodoxies.When I wrote about Braungart and McDonough back in October, for instance, I was impressed with their questioning of sustainability as a goal (why set the bar so low?). I admired their way of working with manufacturers to create “cradle-to-cradle” products, without toxics and with effective ways to “upcycle” all organic and technological nutrients into something of equal or greater value. Their explanations of how this could be both good business and good environmentalism – and why the punitive, restrictive, more conventional approach was a tough sell – made sense to me.

But just as often, I’m surprised at how little the questioners seem to question their own assumptions.Last week, in the shade of an Ironwood on Anini Beach, my husband read me D.T. Max’s recent New Yorker profile of Mark Tercek, who came from Wall Street to remake The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Tercek’s outlook can be summarized by one of his favorite slogans: “Investing in nature is a great deal.” He believes in numbers, not stories.


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Skin in The Game

May28

by: on May 28th, 2014 | 9 Comments »

I am slow to anger, but it really pisses me off when people prescribe for others some purportedly virtuous (or at least dutiful) behavior they’d never embrace in their own lives.In the financial sector, they call it “skin in the game.” Have you risked some of your own money on the advice you are doling out to others? If not, you have no skin in the game. This sound principle applies to many types of activity: the healthcare or housing programs that politicians approve for low-income families would not be substandard if their own ethics obliged them to accept the same provision for their own families. They would have skin in the game.

The current case in point:when Miya Tokumitsu published “In The Name of Love” in Jacobin early this year, she set off an avalanche of links, reprints, and citations. I was busy, so I ignored all the messages telling me to read and respond. But now, on vacation with time to think, someone sent me Gordon Marino’s exegesis of the same idea, “A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love,’” recently published in The New York Times. My internal barometer hit the roof.

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Racism Stunts Your Growth

May23

by: on May 23rd, 2014 | Comments Off

A new study correlates racism with reduced creative capacity. Those holding strong prejudices, such as beliefs that inferiority is an essential quality of other races, rely on “rigid, categorical thinking” that “might actually cause people to become unimaginative.”

I could have told them that.

Back in the 80s, I was involved in a consulting project with the South Carolina Arts Commission.The brief was to address “burnout” in small-town arts organizers, who’d tended to lose heart and retreat despite the state agency’s willingness to provide more than a modicum of funding and assistance. But “burnout” turned out to be a euphemism for banging one’s head against entrenched and often unacknowledged racism.

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On Being A Sore Winner

May5

by: on May 5th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Before dinner last night, my husband thought the asparagus I was preparing to grill were too wet, that the baste wouldn’t stick.I doubted it, but I dried them off. He then proceeded to add explanations and persuasions to his case for dryness.

“Sometimes I think you’re a sore winner,” I told him. “It’s not enough that I do it your way. You need me to say you were right too.”

“Why stop halfway?” He laughed, and so did I.

I am a person of many aphorisms (which they say is a characteristic of autodidacts; proverbs are mnemonics). Of all that I use, my favorite is that epigram of Voltaire’s which is generally translated into English this way: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

It’s not that I don’t have high standards, or like to be right. Believe me, I know more than a few people who would be willing to testify to my relentlessness in that regard. It’s just that I want to take satisfaction along the ever-upward path to never-attained perfection. If every milestone is merely a sign of incompletion, life lacks spice.

I’ve been thinking about this with respect to the National Basketball Association and Donald Sterling. I don’t follow sports except when a new racism flare-up erupts into the media (as in this past November’s Miami Dolphins brouhaha) – although that happens often enough these days that I’m beginning to get the team names straight. These moments draw my attention because questions of racial justice get raised and debated in all sorts of places they aren’t often heard. The culture at large gets involved, a good thing in a society that sometimes has the temerity to bill itself as “post-racial.”

For my fellow Martians, here’s the scoop: Sterling, a vastly wealthy attorney and real-estate developer, owns the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. He has a long track-record of ethical transgressions, including massive fines for discrimination in housing. He also has a multiracial girlfriend who recorded a remarkably racist conversation between them, then leaked it to the media. Sterling talked about the players on his team in the way a plantation owner might talk about sharecroppers. This set off a firestorm of response, including a condemnation from President Obama. Within a few days, Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, announced that Sterling was banned from the league for life; he was also fined $2.5 million, the maximum allowable. The Los Angeles NAACP withdrew the award they were about to bestow on Sterling; UCLA rejected a $3 million gift from the zillionaire.

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Climate Change & The Human Quandary

Apr30

by: on April 30th, 2014 | 6 Comments »

I’m on my way home from Philadelphia and the annual meeting of The Shalom Center, where I have the privilege of serving as president. The organization has a long history of peace and justice activism, increasingly arcing toward peace and justice for the Earth, which is to say the healing of global scorching (as our beloved director Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls it), which also entails rebuking the broken spirits who profit from the planet’s suffering.

Last month, when Arthur was given the first Lifetime Achievement Award by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, he pointed beyond human rights to The Shalom Center’s crucial work to heal and protect from the climate crisis: not just human rights, but the rights of the web of life on this planet, encompassing human and other living beings.

One of our chief topics at this year’s meeting was how to awaken Jewish activism on this burning issue. To date, The Shalom Center is the only organization grounded in the Jewish community that has taken this on as a central cause. We spent considerable time devising a new national initiative that you’ll be hearing about soon.


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“Realism” and Its Discontents

Mar27

by: on March 27th, 2014 | 10 Comments »

This has been a strange time in my little world: I’ve been traveling for work while my computer stayed home and lost its mind. I’m glad to say that sanity (i.e., memory, software, and general order) has been restored, and while I still have the sort of compulsive desire to tell the tale that afflicts survivors of accidents, I will spare you most of the saga.

What both journeys—mine and the computer’s—have given me is the opportunity to reflect on the workings of human minds, including my own. In particular, I’ve had a close-up look at the desire to believe, especially to believe the reassuring drone of those in authority.

Earlier this month, I gave a talk at Harvard that focused on some of the key ideas in The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future. I focused especially on the way Corporation Nation has consigned artists to a trivial and undernourished social role, instead of understanding artists as an indicator species for social well-being akin to the role oysters play as bio-monitors for marine environments. I pointed out how arts advocacy has steadily failed (e.g., President Obama asked Congress for $146 million for the National Endowment for Arts [NEA] in the next budget, $8 million less than this year, when he should have requested $440 million just to equal the spending power the agency had 35 years ago). Yet advocates keep making the same weak arguments and pretending that losing a little less than anticipated constitutes victory. There’s an Emperor’s New Clothes flavor to the whole enterprise, a tacit agreement to adjust to absurdity and go along with the charade.


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Just Call Me Chief Policy Wonk!

Mar3

by: on March 3rd, 2014 | Comments Off

For a year and a half or so, I’ve been an advisor to a new and exciting project, the US Department of Arts and Culture, which is demonstrating the public cultural presence we need in this country by performing it. Watch Deputy Secretary Norman Beckett explain it in a video clip.

My role is Chief Policy Wonk, a title I love. Today, the USDAC launches a call for 12 Cultural Agents. Here’s how the press release described it: “This move signals an exciting new phase in the growth of the fledgling department. Drawn from a dozen different communities across the country, the twelve new Cultural Agents will embark on a process of training and community-building, culminating in the co-creation of ‘Imaginings.’ These arts-infused events will invite local participants to imagine and enact the world they wish to inhabit in 2034.” More information at the USDAC website: the deadline to apply to be in this first cohort of Cultural Agents is March 24th, and anyone can sign up anytime to join the USDAC mailing list, take the pledge as a Citizen Artist, and take part in other ways.

This locally based work is just part of the USDAC “sandwich.” On one side, grassroots organizing to engage and affect local communities in their own conscious cultural development; on the other side, a national vision of truly democratic cultural policy and intervention, fueling that local development and much more. In between, a vibrant national conversation about culture as the container for national and community renewal, about cultivating the imagination and empathy we need to create a future we want to inhabit.


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Deceleration & Sustainability

Feb21

by: on February 21st, 2014 | Comments Off

In her concluding keynote for Staging Sustainability 2014, Adrienne Goehler exhorted conference attendees to support a “basic income grant” as a universal right. She put it succinctly: the current system forces overproduction in all realms, even art. The current system of grants for artists, inadequate in so many other ways, operates almost exclusively on a project basis, forcing artists who seek support to think in terms of novelty and output rather than allowing adequate time for work to evolve and emerge organically. As Adrienne said, sustainability needs deceleration. All of us need the leisure to rest, ruminate, imagine ways to throw off the chain of overproduction and overconsumption and rediscover a way of living in balance with each other and the life this planet supports.

“Guaranteed annual income,” “basic income grant,” and “guaranteed minimum income” (or six other ways of saying the same thing) describes a stipend available without a means test or other conditions to any and every person. There’s an international coalition – Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), which holds its 15th annual congress in Montreal this summer – organized around three simple principles defining a basic income:

it is being paid to individuals rather than households;
it is paid irrespective of any income from other sources;
it is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered.

The phrase “basic income grant” struck me with a powerful resonance – two, in fact.

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Aesthetics & Sustainability

Feb18

by: on February 18th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

In my keynote for Staging Sustainability 2014, I was asked to define “sustainability.” “The implicit meaning of the term refers to its opposite,” I told the group. “We fear having damaged ecosystems so much that life on Earth will soon be unsustainable, so sustainability names our search for whatever can heal that damage and allow us to carry on.” But I have some problems with the word’s way of setting the bar too low, of putting a supreme value on continuation.

David Buckland of the Cape Farewell Foundation (which I wrote about in my previous blog) said that he preferred “resilience” and so do I, because it encompasses the thing we must now all do, learning from loss. But Adrienne Goehler, a impressive fellow speaker at the conference, wants to rescue “sustainability” from the various forms of abuse and dilution to which the term has been subjected. She understands it as “continuous renewal.” And I’m down with that, understanding that the process of renewal entails leaving behind whatever no longer serves our capacity to thrive as we carry whatever supports our well-being into the future.

In Conceptual Thoughts on Establishing a Fund for Aesthetics and Sustainability, published by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung and downloadable from their site, Adrienne preferences her mission this way:

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Staging Sustainability

Feb13

by: on February 13th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

I spent a chunk of last week in a very cold and snowy Toronto at Staging Sustainability 2014, a conference with the subtitle “People. Planet. Profit. Performance.” It was masterminded by Ian Garrett of the Center for Sustainable Practice in The Arts, who teaches at York University. The University was one of an impressive array of sponsors, reflecting the reality that many scientists took part side-by-side with artists and scholars.

In fact, I began to feel that we are beginning to bridge the gap that C.P. Snow—whose own life braided art and science—wrote about in his important 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures, beginning to achieve a common understanding and discourse. As Snow described the problem more than half a century ago (some of his observations are dated, happily, but sadly not the thrust, I think):

There have been plenty of days when I have spent the working hours with scientists and then gone off at night with some literary colleagues [...] I got occupied with the problem of what, long before I put it on paper, I christened to myself as the ‘two cultures.’ For constantly I felt I was moving among two groups—comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all [...] By and large this is a problem of the entire West.

I’m extremely interested in the way that artists seem to be building—or perhaps the correct word is “living”—the bridge between these realms.

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