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Real Conversations 1 Excerpt: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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VALE: What do you think are the most pressing problems of today?

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Today, there are two words that absolutely won’t be discussed–or even mentioned–by government functionaries, politicians, or commentators on “straight” radio or commercial television. One is “overpopulation,” and the other is “socialism.”

Probably the one problem behind all the other crises on earth right now is overpopulation. You could take any daily newspaper and probably 60% of the stories could be traced back to some overpopulation cause. For instance, why do loggers want to cut down rain forests? Because people need more houses. Why do they need more houses? Because there’s a huge increase in population worldwide.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti In the Bay Area, why does the traffic commissioner say we need to build another Bay Bridge? Because there’s more cars. Why is there more demand for more cars? Because there’s more population. You can cut right across the newspaper, and in one problem story after another you can come up with temporary solutions, like “Build another Bay Bridge,” but that’ll only be good for ten years. Probably by the time it’s built, it will already be insufficient–

V: Right, and we’ll need a third Bay Bridge, and a fourth. You haven’t talked about “Autogeddon” yet–

LF: Autogeddon was a term invented by a British poet, Heathecote Williams, which is what’s happening as soon as you go out on the freeway. Every morning I listen to the radio and am pretty happy that I don’t have to commute, because it sounds awful out there.

V: In a better world, you wouldn’t own a car, would you? But how else would you get down to Bixby Canyon in Big Sur? And you have to haul your paintings around–

LF: I have a truck. I need it. But I would go for a horse and a carriage if they’d let me keep it in the garage. We may get to that. The automobile is just a passing thing; the horse is here to stay!

From a different point of view, in the ecological battles, every victory is temporary and every defeat is permanent. For instance, when they cut down redwoods, it’s a permanent defeat. It’s shocking that unknown people have cut halfway through the tree that Julia Butterfly was up in for over a year. This huge, ancient redwood–I don’t know how old it is; maybe a thousand years–was cut halfway through. I don’t think anyone knows if it can be saved or not. But this is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

So you have overpopulation, which no politician will dare mention. For instance, two years ago at the Watershed Conference in Berkeley, which has a supposedly very hip audience–a Green audience–I read a long poem called “Overpopulation.” But before I read it, I said that the United States tax code should be revised so that people weren’t rewarded for having babies–right now you get a tax reduction for every child you have. I think the tax code should be revised to say that the first child is free; after that, you pay the government for each child you have–except for low-income families. But even this audience didn’t accept this. Afterwards, people came up and said, “You can’t tell me how many children I can have!” Etc., etc.

Of course, that’s good for the United States, but when you get to Third World countries where the worst overpopulation exists, here you have a really stupid policy of the Bush administration, which is to cancel family counseling that includes birth control information, in other countries. This is really a “cutting its own throat” policy, because–well, of course, they want more people so they’ll have more consumers so they’ll sell more American goods. But that’s a very short-term view.

One of the most effective programs that was tried out used commercial television soap-opera techniques to create a soap opera series to be broadcasted in Third World countries. These had a typical dramatic soap opera plot, but always had it hinge on some kind of birth-control or overpopulation-control message. A pilot program that was tried out was a huge success–in one year the birth rate very decidedly went down in the countries this was tried in.

For instance, in a country such as the Philippines, where my son’s wife comes from, the women would like to have some alternative to having lots of babies and being enslaved for the rest of their life. But they really don’t have any other alternative offered to them. The prevailing social mores from ancient times say that if they can’t have children, then they’re a failure as women. This is the kind of thing that a popular soap opera program can attack and change.

Also, in a Third World country like the Philippines, if the men can’t have children, well, they’re not considered men. Something’s wrong with them; they’re not macho; they’re not really male. So they have to have children or else they’re nowhere. This is a big problem that can be overcome by nothing other than pure education. And even in the poorest huts you’ll quite often find a TV aerial sticking out of the roofs. The people who need to be instructed can be reached very easily; all you have to do is finance the right program. This is much cheaper than a new missile defense system–by far. The powers that be could probably finance a soap opera program of this kind in a Third World country for the cost of a couple of big bombers.

V: Or less, now that we have cheap mini-DV camcorders and Final Cut Pro software. This could be done on a shoestring budget if necessary.

LF: The next forbidden word is “socialism.” That word is anathema; you never see it anywhere these days. It’s strictly taboo, even in Leftist circles. But the actual fact is that, ecologically speaking, the world is in such a dire state that a form of universal socialism is needed. A form of universal social, ecological and economic planning on a worldwide basis–I mean, Paine Weber had a motto for fifteen or twenty years: “Go global.” Well, it’s too bad they don’t mean “Go global with the government.” And I don’t mean American government. It would have to be multi-ethnic.

It sounds like I’m wanting to have a huge super-state government which would be worse than Orwell’s 1984, but that’s not necessarily so, because you could have a form of socialism which is humanitarian socialism, or civil libertarian socialism, which has nothing to do with mind control or thought control, but controls by education such problems as birth control. Universal education on the subject of birth control could be done on a worldwide basis, not just piecemeal.

In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, he’s looking back to around 1887 when the book was first published. But he’s looking backward from what turns out to be today, and they have developed this ideal society I’m talking about. They’re looking backward at the civilization we still have today and are considering it really barbaric and undeveloped, because we’re so consumed with greed and blind stupidity on matters such as ecology.

We haven’t even mentioned global warming, which is a perfect example of willful blindness–

V: Right–literally. Various species of fish and animals at the Arctic are going blind because of the hole in the ozone layer–

LF: They won’t even believe the scientific evidence. There is global warming and there is a huge hole in the ozone layer that’s growing larger, and this is a total ecological crisis which, just out of greed and stupidity, we are choosing to ignore.

The thing is, you could say, “I thought you were an anarchist.” The trouble is, we can’t afford anarchism today–which sounds like a cop-out. But it’s not–we can’t afford capitalism, either. We can’t afford unrestrained capitalism, just like we can’t afford unrestrained anarchism. In fact, unrestrained capitalism is the ideal of the Free Trade movement and the whole Republican policy in this country. Democracy is increasingly defined as successful capitalism . . . which is not necessarily so. Thinking the unthinkable, you could say that unrestrained capitalism is a form of anarchism! [laughs] Or, you could say that it’s anarchism carried to greedy extremes.

As far as George the Second goes–George W. Bush–it’s like the Old Boy Network, the Texas Know-nothing Yahoos have taken over (I’m speaking as of February, 2001). When Henry Miller came back to the United States after many years of living in Europe, he wrote a book called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. He was shocked with what he found: a total consumer culture had taken over America (and that was only the beginning compared with today). He said, “Another breed of men have taken over.”

Two days ago I was at Gasser’s Photographic Supply, and Mr. Gasser himself was there. He’s about ninety years old now, and he comes in on Saturday morning to check on his workers to see how things are going. I just happened to meet him, and I asked, “When did you start Gasser’s?” He said, “1950.” I said, “That makes you three years older than we are; we started City Lights Bookstore in 1953.” He said, “Well, you know, it was a different age then, and it was a different mentality”–which is just what Henry Miller was saying. In fact, I quoted that Henry Miller quote, and he said that when he opened up in the fifties, his neighbor was Brooks Camera, in the same block on Kearny Street. He said he had very good relations with Mr. Brooks, and since they’ve both retired, they’ve become friends. He said that when they were competing, they competed not as friends, but as gentlemen competitors. They didn’t have that mentality of “I’ll do anything to run you out of business, short of cutting your throat”–

V: Right, the Microsoft mentality of today, where I think they would cut your throat.

LF: In those days there was a certain overarching civility which seems to have evaporated today.

So we have the new George the Second, who usurped our democracy for his plutocracy. Plutocracy means rule for the rich and by the rich. What’s getting him by is his charm, a certain Southern civility. It’s on an illiterate level, but nevertheless, there’s a certain Southern charm and civility which he has emphasized in dealing with members of the government and Congress. In fact, there’s always been a tradition of “civility” in Congress–presumably, they treat each other with great politeness. But at the same time they’re knifing each other in the back, so it’s a bit of a hypocrisy.

V: On the topic of socialism and making power public, do you recall that Vladimir Lenin defined socialism as the soviets (i.e., workers’ councils, by which workers owned and ran the factories) plus electricity–

LF: Well, it’s obvious that the state of unrenewable resources in the world cries out for a form of planned economy. Capitalism is the most wasteful ecological system in the world! It’s so obvious that these days what is needed is a form of planned economy on a worldwide scale, with public ownership of natural unrenewable resources. It’s so obvious right now with the present electrical and energy crisis in California, that it’s a perfect opportunity for San Francisco to take over the electrical and gas supplies and the whole Hetch-Hetchy water system and everything that’s been privately farmed out and making lots of private money for people. This is a perfect opportunity for this city to finally reclaim all this for the people. I mean, the people are supposed to own these resources.

I think that under the present Board of Supervisors, it’s quite possible to do this. During the recent elections, across the nation the only bright spot in the whole country was the results of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors race. Finally, there’s a board that’s not beholden to large business interests, that can really be on the side of the people, and that has some really independent thinkers on it.

It seems obvious that the utilities have to be socialized, rather than privatized, across the country, everywhere.

Photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti taken by Massimo Sestini
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