Within Our Reach

John Tarleton and Alina Mogilyanskaya Jun 11, 2013

Can you imagine this? – Living in a world where we all have access to free or low-cost medicine and health care; our energy sources are sustainable and carbon-free; employees own the businesses they work for; corrupt police forces are disbanded and greedy bankers go to jail; all children attend high-quality schools and teachers are treated with respect; the elderly are provided for; marijuana is fully decriminalized and people are permitted to marry whomever they please.

It’s not easy during times like these.

But, it’s worth remembering that the ingredients for the kind of society we want to see aren’t just ideas but exist in the world, scattered all around us waiting to be fought for, emulated and expanded upon.

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Seattle/ San Francisco
In response to a growing national campaign, San Francisco and Seattle have begun to divest their holdings in fossil fuels. Other cities that have signed on to do so include Madison and Bayfield in Wisconsin; Ithaca, New York; Boulder, Colorado; State College, Pennsylvania; Eugene, Oregon; and Richmond and Berkeley in California. Four small colleges in the U.S., all with strong environmental programs, are also divesting (Unity, Hampshire, Sterling and College of the Atlantic).

Last fall voters in Colorado and Washington State approved ballot measures to decriminalize the the possession, sale and cultivation of marijuana. Instead of draining public coffers by throwing pot smokers in jail, governments will now collect tax moneys. In Colorado, a marijuana excise tax is expected to bring in $40 million a year that will be earmarked for school construction.

U.S. wind energy production increased by 28 percent in 2012. Texas led the way, generating more than 12,000 megawatts of wind energy, more than twice that of California, the next closest state.

Guerrero, Mexico
Weary of being terrorized by drug traffickers while corrupt local authorities look the other way, more than 70 towns and villages in the heavily indigenous state of Guerrero in southwestern Mexico have expelled their police forces and replaced them with civilian patrols under popular control. The expulsion of local police forces in Guerrero has been followed by a sharp drop in crime, which may be why communities in several other Mexican states have also adopted this approach.

North Dakota
Founded in 1919 by agrarian populists who distrusted Wall Street, the Bank of North Dakota is the only state-owned bank in the U.S. With $6 billion under its management, the bank is the depository for all state tax collections and fees. It re-invests its funds in the state by providing discounted loans to students, small businesses and others.

Washington, D.C.
Considered the most successful anti-poverty program in U.S. history, Social Security provides monthly benefits to 57 million Americans including the elderly, disabled workers and the widows and underaged children of deceased workers. Overhead for the program is about 1% of its expenditures.

With its system of universal health care, Cuba has one of the highest life expectancy rates in Latin America and the lowest rate of infant mortality. Cuba also provides a free, six-year program for thousands of economically disadvantaged students from all over the world who study to become doctors at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM).

New York City
New York City’s subway system is not pretty or glamorous, but it certainly gets the job done. In fact, because of the subway system New York City is the only city in the U.S. where more than half the population doesn’t drive cars. In Manhattan, that’s 75 percent. Plus, the system has some 4.5 million daily riders.

In 2005, the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez began to champion the idea of worker control as way to reopen factories that were closed or went bankrupt under the watch of the business class. Since then, more and more factories have been occupied and put under various forms of worker control.

Bolivia is one of several South American nations that has moved in recent years to open up the broadcast airwaves to increased public participation. Under a new communications law, social and indigenous groups will be eligible for one third of all broadcast licenses starting in 2017.

Argentina leads Latin America in its progressive stance on LGBT issues. It legalized same-sex marriage and parenting a little under three years ago, becoming the first country on the continent to do so. And last year, it passed a gender identity bill that allows citizens to change their gender status and name on government identification without legal or medical approval.

Since 2003, the Brazilian government has used its own purchasing power to spur the development of computers that run on free open source software instead of proprietary products like Microsoft Windows. This has made it easier for the nation’s poor majority to own computers and has saved the country hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing fees.

Argentina’s worker-controlled factories, or fabricas recuperadas: After an economic collapse in Argentina in 2001, this economic movement emerged as the world’s largest factory reclamation movement. Currently there are some 300 reclaimed factories with more than 15,000 workers. Workers participate in management decisions and share profits equally.

When the 2008 financial crisis hit, U.S. and European taxpayers were forced to make good on the debts owed by failed banks. Iceland (pop. 350,000) took a different approach. Debt-ridden banks were allowed to fail and creditors took the losses. Iceland’s economy bounced back more quickly than its European counterparts. As an added bonus, the Icelandic government recently indicted top execs from the failed banks for their chicanery.

Juggling work and a newborn child isn’t easy for anyone, but for Norwegians, striking the balance got a whole lot easier 20 years ago, when a law created a system of paid parental leave that can total up to 56 weeks. There is time designated for the mother (9 weeks), the father (12 weeks), and the rest is left to the couple to divide as they choose. In comparison, the U.S. is among only a handful of countries that don’t mandate some form of paid leave, among them Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Amsterdam is renowned for its cycling. There are almost 400 kilometers of bike lanes leading to most destinations in the city, an estimated 881,000 bicycles, and a population of 780,000 (more bikes than people!).

Denmark is frequently ranked as the happiest country in the world — and, it’s also the country with the most income equality. Denmark scored a low 24.7 out of 100 on the GINI index, where the lowest scores indicate the greatest equality. Denmark’s citizens, rich and poor, have access to free universal healthcare, education (including college), paid parental and sick leave, and more. The U.S., in comparison, scored 40.8 out of 100 on the GINI.

In Finland, mandatory schooling doesn’t begin until age 7. Students are assigned minimal homework and are not competitively ranked, while teachers are paid well and heavily unionized. The results: Finnish students consistently place at or near the top in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 countries.

France boasts a free and universal health care system that’s often been called the best in the world. It’s distinguished by public health insurance, which covers not only the majority of medical costs for all people but also all medical costs for the sickest people — including the most expensive drugs and experimental therapies for those suffering from one of 30 long-term and expensive illnesses.

Germany hosts a third of the world’s installed solar capacity while getting only roughly the same amount of sunlight as Alaska. The country is a major renewables powerhouse, both in terms of use and manufacturing, and 25 percent of its electricity now comes from solar, wind and biomass. Plus, some 65 percent of the country’s total renewable power capacity is owned by individuals, cooperatives and communities rather than the nation’s biggest energy companies.

Based in the Basque country of Spain, the Mondragon Corporation is a federation of worker-owned cooperatives that employs 83,000 workers who produce a broad array of industrial products. Top managers make an average of five times the lowest paid worker, compared to U.S. CEOs whose pay is 400 times the average worker.

Since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from office in February 2011, some 1,000 new independent unions have spring up in Egypt. There were nearly 1,400 work stoppages and other labor protests in 2011 and more than 3,000 such events in 2012 which saw workers in a number of key industries thwarting government austerity measures.

South Africa
South Africa has become the first country on the African continent to legalize same-sex marriage. Worldwide, 14 countries have done so.

How important are trees for the water supply, and all the aspects of life that dependent on it? In Kenya, hugely. That’s why the Greenbelt Movement, a female-driven environmental organization, has planted 51 million trees in the country since 1977. The project has revitalized the critical watershed that fills Nairobi’s reservoirs and feeds the hydro plant that generates half the country’s electricity, as well as four other major watersheds.

Need a life-saving drug but can’t afford it? India has a solution: Ignore the patents of pharmaceutical companies and mass produce low-cost generics for sale at home and abroad in other poor countries. Big Pharma resents the lost profits, but this policy has saved the lives of thousands
of people.

Rather than judging their country’s success based on GDP, the Buddhist nation of Bhutan has instituted a system of Gross National Happiness (GNH.) This system judges the nation’s success based on the happiness of its citizens. It is evaluated through nine domains, which include psychological well-being, community vitality, good governance and standard of living.

Zen-Noh, the Japanese National Federation of Agricultural Co-operatives, is the world’s largest agricultural co-operative and oversees the agricultural process through from research to sales. Zen-Noh officials have reported that it comprises 957 co-operatives and federations with 4.8 million members that have a combined annual revenue of $60 billion.

Despite its heavy reliance on coal, China surpassed the U.S. in wind energy capacity in 2009. Today it leads the world with a capacity of 75,000 megawatts and is home to at least 80 operational wind farms.

Additional writing and research by Timothy Bidon and Emily Masters.

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