Who would have thought that some young people camped out in lower Manhattan with cardboard signs, a few sharpies, some donated pizza, and a bunch of smart phones could change so much?
The viral spread of the Occupy Movement took everyone by surprise. Last summer, politicians and the media were fixated on the debt ceiling, and everyone seemed to forget that we were in the midst of an economic meltdown—everyone except the 99 percent who were experiencing it.
Today, people ranging from Ben Bernake, chair of the Federal Reserve, to filmmaker Michael Moore are expressing sympathy for the Occupy Movement and concern for those losing homes, retirement savings, access to health care, and hope of ever finding a job.
This uprising is the biggest reason for hope in 2012. The following are 12 ways the Occupy Movement and other major trends of 2011 offer a foundation for a transformative 2012.
1. Americans rediscover their political self-respect. In 2011, members of the 99 percent began camping out in New York's Zuccotti Park, launching a movement that quickly spread across the country. Students at U.C. Davis sat nonviolently through a pepper spray assault, Oaklanders shut down the city with a general strike, and Clevelanders saved a family from eviction. Occupiers opened their encampments to all and fed all who showed up, including many homeless people. Thousands moved their accounts from corporate banks to community banks and credit unions, and people everywhere created their own media with smart phones and laptops. The Occupy Movement built on the Arab Spring, occupations in Europe, and on the uprising, early in 2011, in Wisconsin, where people occupied the state capitol in an attempt to block major cuts in public workers' rights and compensation. Police crackdowns couldn't crush the surge of political self-respect experienced by millions of Americans.
After the winter weather subsides, look for the blossoming of an American Spring.
2. Economic myths get debunked. Americans now understand that hard work and playing by the rules don't mean you'll get ahead. They know that Wall Street financiers are not working for their interests. Global capitalism is not lifting all boats. As this mythology crumbled, the reality became inescapable: The United States is not broke. The 1 percent have rigged the system to capture a larger and larger share of the world's wealth and power, while the middle class and poor face unemployment, soaring student debt burdens, homelessness, exclusion from the medical system, and the disappearance of retirement savings. Austerity budgets just sharpen the pain, as the safety net frays and public benefits, from schools to safe bridges, fail. The European debt crisis is front and center today, but other crises will likely follow. Just as the legitimacy of apartheid began to fall apart long before the system actually fell, today, the legitimacy of corporate power and Wall Street dominance is disintegrating.
The new-found clarity about the damage that results from a system dominated by Wall Street will further energize calls for regulation and the rule of law, and fuel the search for economic alternatives
3. Divisions among people are coming down. Middle-class college students camped out alongside homeless occupiers. People of color and white people created new ways to work together. Unions joined with occupiers. In some places, Tea Partiers and occupiers discovered common purposes. Nationwide, anti-immigrant rhetoric backfired.
Tremendous energy is released when isolated people discover one another; look for more unexpected alliances.
4. Alternatives are blossoming. As it becomes clear that neither corporate CEOs nor national political leaders have solutions to today's deep crises, thousands of grassroots-led innovations are taking hold. Community land trusts, farmers markets, local currencies and time banking, micro-energy installations, shared cars and bicycles, cooperatively owned businesses are among the innovations that give people the means to live well on less and build community. And the Occupy Movement, which is often called "leaderless," is actually full of emerging leaders who are building the skills and connections to shake things up for decades to come.
This widespread leadership, coupled with the growing repertoire of grassroots innovations, sets the stage for a renaissance of creative rebuilding.
5. Popular pressure halted the Keystone KL Pipeline — for the moment. Thousands of people stood up to efforts by some of the world's most powerful energy companies and convinced the Obama administration to postpone approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have sped the extraction and export of dirty tar sands oil. James Hansen says, "If the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over" for the planet. Just a year ago, few had heard of this project, much less considered risking arrest to stop it, as thousands did outside the White House in 2011.
With Congress forcing him to act within 60 days, President Obama will be under enormous pressure from both Big Oil and pipeline opponents. It will be among the key tests of his presidency.
6. Climate responses move forward despite federal inaction. Throughout the United States, state and local governments are taking action where the federal government has failed. California's new climate cap-and-trade law will take effect in 2012. College students are pressing campus administrators to quit using coal-fired sources of electricity. Elsewhere, Europe is limiting climate pollution from air travel, Australia has enacted a national carbon tax, and there is a global initiative underway to recognize the rights of Mother Nature. Climate talks in Durban, South African, arrived at a conclusion that, while far short of what is needed, at least keeps the process alive.
Despite corporate-funded climate change deniers, most people know climate change is real and dangerous; expect to see many more protests, legislation, and new businesses focused on reducing carbon emissions in 2012.
7. There's a new focus on cleaning up elections. The Supreme Court's "Citizens United decision," which lifted limits on corporate campaign contributions, is opposed by a large majority of Americans. This year saw a growing national movement to get money out of politics; cities from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles are passing resolutions calling for an end to corporate personhood. Constitutional amendments have been introduced. And efforts are in the works to push back against voter suppression policies that especially discourage voting among people of color, low-income people, and students, all of whom tend to vote Democratic.
Watch for increased questioning of the legal basis of corporations, which "we the people" created, but which now facilitate lawlessness and increasing concentrations of wealth and power.
8. Local government is taking action. City and state governments are moving forward, even as Washington, D.C., remains gridlocked, even as budgets are stretched thin. Towns in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere are seeking to prohibit "fracking" to extract natural gas, and while they're at it, declaring that corporations do not have the constitutional rights of people. Cities are banning plastic bags, linking up local food systems, encouraging bicycling and walking, cleaning up brown fields, and turning garbage and wasted energy into opportunity. In part because of the housing market disaster, people are less able to pick up and move.
Look for increased rootedness, whether voluntary or not, along with increased focus on local efforts to build community solutions.
9. Dams are coming down. Two dams that block passage of salmon up the Elwha River into the pristine Olympic National Park in Washington state are coming down. After decades of campaigning by Native tribes and environmentalists, the removal of the dams began in 2011.
The assumption that progress is built on "taming" and controlling nature is giving way to an understanding that human and ecological well-being are linked.
10. The United States ended the combat mission in Iraq. U.S. troops are home from Iraq at last. What remains is a U.S. embassy compound the size of the Vatican City, along with thousands of private contractors. Iraq and the region remain unstable.
Given the terrible cost in lives and treasure for what most Americans see as an unjustified war, look to greater skepticism of future U.S. invasions.
11. Breakthrough for single-payer health care. The state of Vermont took action to respond to the continuing health care crises, adopting, but not yet funding, a single-payer health care system similar to Canada's.
As soaring costs of health insurance drain the coffers of businesses and governments, other states may join Vermont at the forefront of efforts to establish a public health insurance system like Canada's.
12. Gay couples can get married. In 2011, New York state and the Suquamish Tribe in Washington state (home of the author of this piece) adopted gay marriage laws. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta won a raffle allowing her to be the first to kiss her partner upon return from 80 days at sea, the first such public display of gay affection since Don't Ask Don't Tell was expunged. The video and photos went viral.
2011 may be the year when opposition to gay marriage lost its power as a rallying cry for social conservatives. The tide has turned, and gay people will likely continue to win the same rights as straight people to marry.
With so much in play, 2012 will be an interesting year, even setting aside questions about "end times" and Mayan calendars. As the worldviews and institutions based on the dominance of the 1 percent are challenged, as the global economy frays, and as we run headlong into climate change and other ecological limits, one era is giving way to another. There are too many variable to predict what direction
things will take. But our best hopes can be found in the rise of broad grassroots leadership, through the Occupy Movement, the Wisconsin uprising, the climate justice movement, and others, along with local, but interlinked, efforts to build local solution everywhere. These efforts make it possible that 2012 will be a year of transformation and rebuilding — this time, with the well-being of all life front and center.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful idea with practical actions. Sarah is YES! Magazine's co-founder and executive editor, and editor of the new book: "This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement."