Heroes of Sustainability: Howard Zinn

ImageLike many people who’ve served in the military during wartime, historian, playwright, and activist Howard Zinn was irrevocably changed by his experiences in the armed forces.

The Brooklyn native flew bomber missions during World War II, during which he bombed targets in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, and Hungary. Partly because of his experiences, he became vehemently anti-war and passionately interested in history. He later attended New York University courtesy of the GI Bill, and then went on to get a master’s and a PhD in history from Columbia University.

Civilly Disobedient
Upon graduating, he began teaching at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. There — where he said he learned more from his students than they from him — he became active in the civil rights movement. When he supported student protesters (like Alice Walker, who went on to write The Color Purple, and Marian Wright Edelman, who would later found the Children’s Defense Fund), he was fired and moved on to Boston University, where he taught political science until he retired in 1988.

In his book Failure to Quit, Zinn wrote: “Civil disobedience … is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

Taking a Different Perspective
While Zinn — who died in 2010 at the age of 87 — wrote more than 20 books, lectured at countless universities, and was influential in the civil rights movement and anti-war efforts, he is perhaps best known for his textbook A People’s History of the United States. Instead of espousing the traditional view from the people in power throughout history, this book tackles a range of perspectives, from the Native Americans who struggled as men from other continents came and took over their land to unionists standing up against their employers to women and African-Americans fighting for equal rights. The textbook was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1981 and is still widely used in high schools and colleges to provide an alternative point of view compared with so many other history textbooks.

Novelist Howard Fast called A People’s History of the United States “one of the most important books I have ever read in a long life of reading. … It’s a wonderful, splendid book — a book that should be read by every American, student or otherwise, who wants to understand his country, its true history, and its hope for the future.”

For more on Zinn, visit www.howardzinn.org.


Heroes of Sustainability: Harvey Lacey

Harvey Lacey. Photo by Beccalyn Photography.

Harvey Lacey, a grandfatherly looking Texas inventor in his 60s, has found a simple and elegant solution to a problem that others have found to be completely unsolvable — housing the most desperately poor people on earth. Lacey teaches Haitians how to build dry, well-insulated, and sturdy dwellings made from trash. The basic element of construction is what Lacey calls Ubuntu-Blox. (“Ubuntu” means “humanity to others.”)

Trash to Treasure
Ubuntu-Blox are building blocks made from recycled plastic and Styrofoam. The plastic and Styrofoam are cleaned and then compressed. Later, dwellings arise when the blocks are layered and reinforced with wire and rebar to form walls. Roofing can be done with scrap lumber. Finally, the walls are sealed with a coating of mud or stucco.

Surprisingly, dwellings constructed from Ubuntu-Blox have been shown in tests to be capable of withstanding hurricane-speed winds and a level of shaking found during strong earthquakes.

More about building with Ubuntu-Blox can be seen in a video from the Memnosyne Foundation and a recent article by Gail Bennison published in the Collin County Business Press.

In Haiti, Lacey teaches Haitians (generally women) how to make Ubuntu-Blox and how to use them in construction. One woman described her motivation to become a student of Lacey by saying that she simply did not want to have to stand in water when it rained. Lacey’s students can use the skills they learn in constructing a dwelling for themselves to earn income that will take them out of extreme poverty. They can make and sell Ubuntu-Blox and sell their labor to construct buildings for others.

A Humanitarian
Lacey is supported in his travels by a small grant from Memnosyne Foundation. Lacey’s reward for his work is helping people who desperately need help. He does not want royalties from those who choose to build with Ubuntu-Blox. He conceives of what he is doing as going beyond the familiar parable about teaching a hungry man to fish. He teaches a more advanced technology — a technology that is more like teaching a hungry man how to use a fishing net, not just a fishing pole.

Lacey is now getting calls from all over the world from people who want to find out more about how trash can be used to provide well-constructed dwellings for almost no money. He is very happy to take those calls and to offer his help and encouragement.

Lacey’s work is beginning to have a worldwide impact. That is important in light of a struggle that more and more poor people now have to stay out of extreme poverty. Turning recycled trash into decent housing is an exceptional advance in both humanitarian action and sustainability. If you like what Lacey is doing, you can let him know by sending a message to ubuntublox(at)gmail.com. You could also send a contribution to Memnosyne Foundation, 2902 Maple Avenue, Dallas, TX 75201, and let them know you appreciate their support of Harvey Lacey.