Hightower: High Tide For People Power

swim.jpgThe secret to Jim Hightower’s success lies in a style of political commentary best described as “pleasantly apoplectic;” he’s mad as hell, but in an ultra-affable way. Who else could stoke a fire in the belly with so many belly laughs?

In our climate change crisis, Hightower’s a natural source of alternative energy. He’s got his own brand of windpower, fueled by blowhards and gasbags, of which the right seems to have an endless supply.

And then there’s the wave power he’s helping to generate with his new book, Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow. Swim Against the Current, co-authored by Susan DeMarco, provides heartening proof that citizen activists are turning the tide against the Powers That Be who’ve dragged our democracy through the muck.

If you subscribe to the “Yes-Things-Are-Awful-But-What-Can-I- Do-I’m-Just-One-Person” school of thought, I’m giving you an “F” for fatalism. I’ll change it to an “A” for attitude adjustment after you read this book and get off your apathetic ass and join the ranks of the grassroots greenies and grannies who are the heroes of Hightower’s book.

Hightower profiles people from every region in our country who are working to better our communities and our country. There are success stories about cooperatives formed by everyone from organic dairy farmers to cabbies and strippers, and benign bankers (yes, you read that right) willing to give low-income folks a leg up. Whether urban or rural, religious or secular, these people all share a devout faith in the power of democracy.

The book also highlights the rise of eco-conscious Christians, who’ve helped grow grassroots groups like the Coal River Mountain Watch, a coalition of Appalachian residents who took on the coal mining industry. The industry’s embrace of a practice called mountaintop removal has flattened their mountains, poisoned their water, and flooded their “hollers” with toxic coal slurry, an environmental catastrophe one coal industry official characterized as an “act of God.”

Hightower calls the devastating practice of mountaintop coal removal by its rightful name, “ecocide: the total annihilation of a priceless ecosystem that is older than the Himalayas.” These rural communities are being ravaged while most of us flip on a switch and never think about where that power’s coming from. You can witness the courage of these “average” folks in the face of brutal indifference from the coal industry in the film Burning the Future: Coal in America.

Another movement Hightower gives a shout-out to is the growing revolt against revolting food. We call it the “real food revival,” or the “good food movement,” but Hightower gives it a locution worthy of the Lonestar State: “the upchuck rebellion.” Hightower’s been hurling tomatoes at Agribiz for decades; his first book, Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times, written with DeMarcos in 1972, was an exposé of how industrial agriculture hijacked tax payer-financed agricultural research for its own gain, at the expense of our food chain. As Agriculture Commissioner of Texas from 1982 to 1991, Hightower fought hard to promote organic farming and regulate pesticides, and he sums up succinctly the way that Agribiz has perverted “agriculture production from the high art and science of cooperating with nature into a high-cost, high-tech process of overwhelming nature.”

Our school cafeterias are, as Hightower notes, “that last refuge of awful “mystery meats” and pre-packaged fat bombs,” but that’s changing, too, thanks to the farm-to-cafeteria movement and the efforts of good school food luminaries like Alice Waters and Chef Ann Cooper, along with ordinary folks who are fed up with the stuff they’re serving our kids:

Just as good food springs from well-tended ground, so has this grassroots movement. No one in a position of power—political or economic—made any of these improvements happen. In a remarkably short time, ordinary Americans informed themselves, organized, and acted to assert their own values over those of the corporate structure. Family by family, business by business, they have changed not only the market, but the culture. By taking charge of what goes on their plates, people are beginning to take charge of their lives.

Advocating more mindful consumption, Hightower sounds like an apostle of the Reverend Billy or a fan of No Impact Man as he calls on us to reject rampant consumerism and get a real life:

Consumerism is not a “life,” it’s a substitute for life. To elevate it to the level of a predominant social goal demeans the human spirit, restricts our potential, distorts our society, and endangers our world…

…the basic question is this:

Will we let greedheaded profiteers determine the boundaries of our lives? Or will we take charge, blazing new paths for ourselves and our country?

Beyond a series of uplifting anecdotes of folks who are doing just that, Swim Against the Current offers pages of resources to connect you to all kinds of organizations that are revitalizing our communities and reclaiming our democracy. Dive into this book and start paddling, because while you’re moping around on the sidelines, you’re really sinking. Why sink when you can swim with Jim?

Originally posted on TakePart.com.