October 6, 2003

Sale '58 Talks Local Politics

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“Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?” quips Officer Lockstock at the conclusion of the Broadway musical Urinetown.

The answer is apparently “yes,” as demonstrated by the sizable crowd of mainly Ithaca residents that gathered at Autumn Leaves Used Books in the Commons on Friday evening to hear speaker Kirkpatrick Sale ’58.

Sponsored by the Paul Glover for Mayor campaign, Sale’s talk discussed the necessity of local politics in a world where “we are ruled by a large number of very large financial and corporate interests,” a statement Sale made early on in his discourse.

Summarizing his ideology with the phrase, “It’s not what they do, but what they are,” Sale grimly predicted that “if [the corporate systems] continue on the course that they are now on, they will be like dinosaurs. They will bring a collapse effectively to western civilization, … certainly by the middle of this century.”

Sale went on to pinpoint specific actions that will contribute to society’s downfall, including the Bush administration’s War on Terrorism which Sale described as “designed to be a never-ending war.”

“But there is an alternative — a solution. It has to do with bringing power down to a scale at which it becomes democratic and people can have some influence in it,” Sale said, although he deemed this unlikely to happen before his predicted collapse of western society.

As part of his plan for solution, Sale advocated a return to small – sized communities of approximately 500 people and noted that small government is the only effective kind of government. He then spoke passionately about the protection and the preserving of the bioregion. “Nature is not there for our sake! You protect the Hudson and the fish because you need to protect the Hudson as a system and the fish as a species, not because they will redound to your advantage. All life is sacred and its not there for our sake.”

He then proceeded to give some advice to his audience. “I would urge not to bother with the reform of the … corporations, financial and industrial, and the reform of the governmental systems that surround us. Focus on the small. Small is the only thing that will keep us alive and will let us survive. Focus on the small, elect Paul [Glover].”

After his lecture, Sale conducted a brief question and answer session in which he discussed America’s education system, or lack thereof. “The large and prestigious universities of our land are tied lockstep with corporations and government in purposes that have nothing to do with scholarship or true learning but have all to do with products that will make money,” Sale said. He noted that the education system has failed particularly regarding environmentalist issues, citing the recent collapse of the Superfund, “one of the principal ways that people put in place to keep them from dying from the corporate poisons.”

An audience member asked, “On a scale of one to 10, your level of optimism for what you’re suggesting is where?” Responding, Sale said that “after the collapse and presuming that the human species survives, my scale is at 10.”

Following the event’s conclusion, Glover, the Green Party candidate for mayor, offered a few words. “We invited Kirkpatrick Sale here because his works provide a foundation for understanding what’s gone wrong with America and how it can be fixed. … The Green Party wants to translate [Sale’s] philosophy about what’s gone wrong and what can be done to fix it into public policy locally.”

The audience received the lecture with great approval. Attendee Mike Bryant, a Cornell tennis instructor, said that “[Mr. Sale] spoke quite accurately in suggesting that any attempt to reform the current situation is a complete waste of energy and that what we need to do is to get completely off of this track, get out of this system and head into a completely different direction.”

Sale is the author of ten books, including Human Scale, Rebels Against the Future and The Bioregional Reader. During his time at the University, Sale served as editor in chief of The Sun and led a famed student protest in May of 1958, which he was briefly suspended for. “The events leading up to it were the administration increasingly making rules for students and for faculty,” Sale recalled.

“Famously they said that ‘there should be no petting or intercourse.’ That was the law of the University. … Basically it was the idea that they would be in loco parentis — they would tell us what to do every moment of the day and we protested against that,” he said.

“It was the kind of protest that said ‘you don’t have any right to rule our lives that way,’ ” Sale continued. “It was a large demonstration and it showed that students wanted change and indeed we got it.” Changes included a new Dean of Students and alterations in the parietal rules.

Socially, Sale has been described as a Neo-Luddite, as derived from the Luddites who broke machinery and burned factories in response to the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century. “A Neo-Luddite is someone who tries to show people that there are serious downsides to the technology that is absorbing our life,” Sale said.

Another well-known Neo-Luddite is Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski wrote a manifesto entitled “Industrial Society and Its Future” which was published in 1995 and contains elements that Sale agrees with. “[The manifesto] is a document that is a Neo-Luddite document and it suggests in its rather strange way that technology is leading us astray and that we ought to be aware of the downsides of that technology,” Sale said.

Sale also provided advice for the current student body of Cornell. “There are about 2,000 weeks before you retire — that’s all. There are serious problems in the world and the time to get to work on those problems is now.”

Archived article by Dan Wolpow