I have been thinking about a verse from Leonard Cohen’s oft-recorded country song Bird on a Wire, a lot recently. Written in 1968, this simple, if depressing, song has been covered by artists as varied as Cohen himself, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, The Bobs, Dave Van Ronk, k.d. laing and the Neville Brothers, to name a few – a sure sign that it speaks to many kinds of people.
The verse is the one that says:
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”
We who want a better world have been casting ourselves as the beggars for a long time now by telling ourselves that we should not ask for so much. We are doing ourselves, our causes and our world a disservice by this kind of so-called “realism.”
When the true reality is that our prosperity, and indeed our very existence on this planet, is threatened by global warming, nuclear weapons, corporate greed and theft, endless war, overpopulation, species extinction, pollution, resource depletion, fascism and more, we have to demand what we really need.
We have been letting politicians tell us what is and is not “on the table,” but this can no longer stand. Their corporate donors may want us all to play by rules that hold their bottom lines sacrosanct, but Mother Earth does not care about corporate profits. She cares about sustainable practices and — when all is said and done — playing by her rules is the only game in town.
Ask for What We Need
We can no longer be content to collude with human behaviors that are unsustainable because they will not only take us down individually, but such behaviors will take down our whole species and many others with us. This is too high a price for any type of material reward. Indeed, we have arrived at a point where it constitutes species betrayal – the height of treason.
We have to start insisting that our leaders pay attention to what we actually need. What we need is not just a little less war, a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, a health care system that leaves millions of people out, a “step in the right direction” on environmental problems, a little less injustice in our legal system and a few restraints on corporate greed. We need to move beyond war, eliminate nuclear weapons, provide health care for every person, change our environmental practices so that they clean up and then protect the environment permanently and sustainably, restructure our legal system so that its goal is not lip service to justice, but real justice and we must hold corporations to standards of behavior at least as strict as those we apply to the most disadvantaged person among us. That would be a good beginning.
It is, furthermore, not acceptable to classify these demands as part of a “long-range strategy.” If we don’t start right now working to restructure our entire world, the human race is going to get scratched from the Big Race. In short, we need to think outside the box that domination by corporate interests has put us in. We have to find the patriotic motivation within to stand up for ourselves, our species and our planet. Bumper stickers that display the flag or “God Bless the USA” are simply not enough.
The Good News
The good news is that hundreds of millions – maybe billions – are already working on this restructuring through millions of organizations. What we need now is to understand that we are all working for the same thing: a sustainable worldwide system of cooperation that seeks to dominate neither other people nor other species.
Whatever it takes, we can not let corporate interests motivated by greed, dysfunctional governments, people thinking with their “lizard brains” rather than their higher faculties, or outmoded paradigms hold us back. We need to formulate a comprehensive sustainable vision of the world we want to live in and we need to take personal action every day to bring it into being. We don’t have to all do the same thing – in fact we need to do many many things very quickly – but we do need to hold up our vision all the time. Nothing less will pull us through. Φ
Peter Bergel is editor of The PeaceWorker.