Of course right now everyone on the left and among the Democrats is feeling shocked and down because of the horrid 2014 election. There’s been a torrent of analysis and blaming on our side. Although many factors were in play, one stands out. That’s the role of corrupt corporate money in fueling Right wing victories and hamstringing Democratic alternatives. But much more will be needed to repair our election funk than analysis and blame. More even than trying to force Democrats to move off their usual pale red 1% corporate agenda. I’m talking about something for us now, a vision that could serve us as a source of hope and wisdom for the long haul ahead. That something could be the watershed metaphor.
I first heard of the watershed metaphor applied to social change back in the 1990’s. At that time, co-intelligence pioneer Tom Atlee drew my attention to a little book called Shifting: Nature’s Way of Change, by Paul Krapfel. Here’s a very abbreviated version of the watershed metaphor: high up on the mountainside of a watershed there are a lot of tiny little rivulets. When it rains, they fill with water, and then that water creates little streams, then bigger ones, and finally real rivers. At last, they all flow together into one huge river, the one that flows by a great city near the sea. As the water swells that big river more and more, it starts to flood the city. Then the people there say, “Where did that flood come from?” We never saw it coming!”
We all know in our bones that this process of grass roots revolution is really how change comes to America. The question for us is what is in that “water” that suddenly “floods the city,” surprising everyone there. I say it needs to be a growing awareness that what’s wrong with America is the way corrupt corporations rob and poison us all to feed their own bottom lines. Sure, we need campaign finance reform, we need the Democrats to straighten out and fly right, and Republicans to do the same. But none of that will ever happen until this country really understands that corrupt corporations are playing a “let’s you and him fight” game with both parties and the public too. Our problem is a particular mob of corrupt corporations that keeps everyone busy fighting each other while they, the corporate titans, get away with murder behind the scenes. Literally.
How does this agenda fit with a watershed metaphor? How do we put a “corporate wake up” into the “water” Americans drink? Everywhere at once, friends. High up on the mountains in the “rivulets,” in the “streams“ of the foothills, in the “rivers” that run through the plains, and finally, into the big “river” that floods the city.
We need our own Common Good Agenda for America, but we also need to clearly identify who is really trying to stop us from getting it. We the people will need to take a lot of actions everywhere to make that part highly visible. It will have to happen all over the country, in the grass roots, and at every level of our society. That means publicly exposing who is getting what from every Congressional, state-level, and local decision or proposal. What corporate agenda is being served, at the expense of a healthy, prosperous America? Who is getting bought off? As the latest Quaker Action bulletin (Fall 2014) from the American Friends Service Committee puts it, we need to “put people before profits,” and that means “holding corporations accountable,”
Think it can’t be done? Well right after the election Bill Moyers reported about the progressive slate in Richmond, CA, that finally beat the big money campaign by Chevron in what was previously their company town. The progressive message? “Richmond can’t be bought.” Well, that phrase needs to go even more national and then even more local again now, right back down to those little “rivulets” everywhere.
Why back down to the grass roots? Because an anti-American corporate agenda has rooted itself deep down in our own communities everywhere. Another good example of a successful campaign to back them off comes from Albany, CA, where the University of California, Berkeley has long had an experimental farming plot, the Gill Tract. Expert soil analysis shows that the land is the best Class I farm land still undisturbed in the urban Bay Area. The university has long been in bed with big Ag, GMO producers, and pesticide-laden farming, to the detriment of sustainable, organic agriculture, as well as the new urban agriculture trend. Not long ago UC had decided to turn the Gill Tract over to developers to build a supermarket and condos for seniors. But a group of local activists calling themselves Occupy the Farm began a “farm-in” on the land; they were there day and night, planting vegetables, watering them by hand with containers passed over a cyclone fence when U.C. turned off the water supply. After a long struggle, Occupy the Farm won the right of local citizens to keep doing some urban farming at the Gill Tract, and U.C. set aside some of its development plans, for at least ten years. The whole story is well documented in a new film, Occupy the Farm, which is now in selected theaters nationwide. (For more examples of successes like these, check out YES! Magazine, where they focus on the good news.)
These are just a few examples of course, but they are good ones for the way political change really happens. We need to send our message to the corporate dupes of every type in all of our governments, Blue and Red, local and national. Let’s show them they won’t be able to get away with taking payoffs for abusing the American people anymore, because we are going to expose corrupt corporations everywhere we can. We need to show them all that they had better support a Common Good Agenda for America, and run like the wind away from the corrupt anti-American corporate agenda. Let’s make that kind of “river” rise everywhere in America the Beautiful.
Addition on 2.2.15: Letters exchanged between me and Paul Krapfel, author of Shifting, after publication of this piece:
Thank you for your letter to me about the watershed metaphor. I like what you have written about how you see that metaphor and what it means to you—“water wealth.” Of course, I am a grass roots organizer, whose goal is to build activist capacity, especially in the form of mobilizing mass movements of people who can shift the way our whole society works. My use of the watershed metaphor implied “water power,” the way large bodies of water can sometimes create surprisingly quick change.In the long run, you are right that the best possible outcome is to keep that “water wealth” up high in the grass roots. But it is also true that we will need some powerful “water power” to make that dream possible again all across our country. My mistake was going by my memory of reading your book about twenty years ago, instead of double checking to see if I should cite you when I used a watershed metaphor about “water power.”What to do now to honor your distress? I think the best thing is for me to append your letter and my reply here to that Watershed Metaphor post on my website, plus noting the addition in the announcements and on the What’s New page. I hope that will make you more comfortable.
Susan C. Strong
This is Paul Krapfel, author of Shifting, that you credited for the watershed metaphor in your recent article. Like you, I deeply believe in the power of metaphor and, like you, I believe the current direction of our culture towards increasing concentration of wealth and power is dangerous and must be redirected. However, I write you because you are interpreting my watershed metaphor very differently from the way it is intended. I would not want my name associated with the way you are interpreting it. I do not want all the rivulets in the watershed to flood the big city; such a thing would create great erosion throughout the watershed. On the other hand, I would love to explain what the metaphor means to me because I believe it offers a productive perspective on our current dynamics.
Fundamental to my watershed image is something I call The Two Powers of Water. When rain falls, some of it soaks in and some of it runs off. The water that soaks in nourishes plant life. The plants grow roots that help hold the soil, send up leaves that absorb the impact of the pounding rain so that the rain touches the soil more gently, and when the plants die, they decay and add humus to the soil and feed worms that tunnel and aerate the soil. All of this contributes to what I call an upward feedback spiral in which the soil now has greater capacity and volume to absorb even more of the rain that will then nourish even more plant growth. In addition, the plants transpire much of this soil moisture back into the air where it can fall again, nourishing yet more photosynthesis and soil creation. (In the global water cycle, the water that evaporates from the ocean and falls onto land is recycled through transpiration almost two more times before flowing back to the sea. That makes the difference between desert grasslands and forests.)
The rain that can’t be absorbed runs off. As it runs off, it converges. With each convergence, its speed and kinetic energy increases. (It’s like raindrops on windows slowly sliding downward until they connect with other raindrops and then they quickly flow down to the bottom of the window.) As the runoff’s energy grows, it gains the power to erode and carry away soil. This can create a downward feedback spiral. Less soil nourishes less plants so that more of the rain pounds the soil directly, compressing it so that it absorbs less. Less humus feeds less tunneling worms. More of the rain runs off. Erosive power grows, cutting gullies which drain the water table so that there is less soil moisture upon the slopes, reducing creative photosynthesis throughout the growing season.
Water has the power to create soil; water has the power to wash it away. It can go either direction. What happens depends on how much of the rain can be absorbed on the slopes and how much runs off. The work/play that I do (which helped develop this whole metaphor) is going out into the rain and finding ways to lead the runoff onto slower paths so that it will have more time to be absorbed higher in the watershed.
The watershed metaphor for me is that we, the people, that each of us are one square inch of a large landscape and each of us has power coming through us into the world. What do we do with that power? Do we absorb it to nourish creative actions or do we let it flow away to contribute to erosion downstream? A wise culture wants to hold its power (including its wealth) high in the watershed, spread out over the slopes where it can nourish and be recycled many times. Rather than rivulets flooding the city, I want to see the rain absorbed deep into the soil, held high on the slopes. In such a watershed, there are few floods and few droughts. Groundwater smoothly sustains river flows.
The corporatization that troubles us both is like paving over parts of the watershed so that less rain is absorbed so that more of it can be concentrated downslope, in Wall Street if you will. It is easy to curse the downslope 1% and start thinking in terms of us vs. them. But I believe that is one of the little ways in which we let some of our personal power run off to contribute to erosion. One powerful implication of the watershed metaphor is that water does flow downslope. The land does take on the shape of a drainage system. Those parts of the land that are lower in the drainage will have access to more groundwater and will be able to grow taller trees. And that’s OK. Those of us who are adapted to the drier ridges won’t grow as tall but we are just as valuable in our own contribution. It’s not us vs. them. It’s a question of what direction do we want the entire watershed to develop towards. Right now our culture is going in a direction driven by desire for greater wealth than others. But we can alter our course and explore a new direction driven by desire for greater wealth for the entire culture. (For more on that, you can read two piece I wrote. http://krafel.info/a-story-of-two-investments-cairns-59/ and http://krafel.info/the-difference-between-more-wealth-and-more-wealth-than-cairns-78/.)
The second powerful implication of the watershed metaphor (and this, I believe, is part of what drew it to you) is that the “power” flows from the headwaters down to the river. From the people, not from Wall Street. We live within so many top-down organized hierarchies that it is easy to think of oneself at the bottom. No, we are at the top of the drainage. Power comes through us to flow into the watershed. We have more power than we realize. Because power is diffused over millions of people, we don’t realize how much power resides within the slopes. Part of the power of the watershed metaphor is to help us all grow more mindful of this power and that each one of us has responsibilities for our contribution to it. The wise contribution is to help one another absorb ever more of our power so that more possibilities emerge within the diverse watershed. This is very different from water pouring down to flood the city.