“Climate change has become an existential crisis for the human species. The only historical precedent for a crisis of this depth and scale was the Cold War fear that we were heading toward nuclear holocaust, which would have made much of the planet uninhabitable. But that was (and remains) a threat; a slim possibility, should geopolitics spiral out of control. The vast majority of nuclear scientists never told us that we were almost certainly going to put our civilization in peril if we kept going about our daily lives as usual, doing exactly what we were already doing, which is what the climate scientists have been telling us for years.
Power from renewable sources like wind and water predates the use of fossil fuels and is becoming cheaper, more efficient, and easier to store every year. The past two decades have seen an explosion of ingenious zero-waste design, as well as green urban planning. Not only do we have the technical tools to get off fossil fuels, we also have no end of small pockets where these low carbon lifestyles have been tested with tremendous success. And yet the kind of large-scale transition that would give us a collective chance of averting catastrophe eludes us.
My mind keeps coming back to the question: what is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.
We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets. That problem might not have been insurmountable had it presented itself at another point in our history. But it is our great collective misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate threat at the precise moment when those elites were enjoying more unfettered political, cultural, and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s.
Indeed, governments and scientists began talking seriously about radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in 1988 — the exact year that marked the dawning of what came to be called “globalization,” with the signing of the agreement representing the world’s largest bilateral trade relationship between Canada and the United States, later to be expanded into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the inclusion of Mexico.
When historians look back on the past quarter century of international negotiations, two defining processes will stand out. There will be the climate process: struggling, sputtering, failing utterly to achieve its goals. And there will be the corporate globalization process, zooming from victory to victory: from that first free trade deal to the creation of the World Trade Organization to the mass privatization of the former Soviet economies to the transformation of large parts of Asia into sprawling free-trade zones to the “structural adjusting” of Africa.
The three policy pillars of this new era are familiar to us all: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Much has been written about the real-world costs of these policies—the instability of financial markets, the excesses of the super-rich, and the desperation of the increasingly disposable poor, as well as the failing state of public infrastructure and services.
Very little, however, has been written about how market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.
The core problem was that the stranglehold that market logic secured over public life in this period made the most direct and obvious climate responses seem politically heretical. How, for instance, could societies invest massively in zero-carbon public services and infrastructure at a time when the public sphere was being systematically dismantled and auctioned off? How could governments heavily regulate, tax, and penalize fossil fuel companies when all such measures were being dismissed as relics of “command and control” communism? And how could the renewable energy sector receive the supports and protections it needed to replace fossil fuels when “protectionism” had been made a dirty word?
A different kind of climate movement would have tried to challenge the extreme ideology that was blocking so much sensible action, joining with other sectors to show how unfettered corporate power posed a grave threat to the habitability of the planet. Instead, large parts of the climate movement wasted precious decades attempting to make the square peg of the climate crisis fit into the round hole of deregulated capitalism, forever touting ways for the problem to be solved by the market itself.
But blocking strong climate action wasn’t the only way that the triumph of market fundamentalism acted to deepen the crisis in this period. Even more directly, the policies that so successfully freed multinational corporations from virtually all constraints also contributed significantly to the underlying cause of global warming—rising greenhouse gas emissions. The numbers are striking: in the 1990s, as the market integration project ramped up, global emissions were going up an average of 1 percent a year; by the 2000s, with “emerging markets” like China now fully integrated into the world economy, emissions growth had sped up disastrously, with the annual rate of increase reaching 3.4 percent a year for much of the decade. That rapid growth rate continues to this day, interrupted only briefly in 2009 by the world financial crisis.
With hindsight, it’s hard to see how it could have turned out otherwise. The twin signatures of this era have been the mass export of products across vast distances (relentlessly burning carbon all the way), and the import of a uniquely wasteful model of production, consumption, and agriculture to every corner of the world (also based on the profligate burning of fossil fuels). Put differently, the liberation of world markets, a process powered by the liberation of unprecedented amounts of fossil fuels from the earth, has dramatically sped up the same process that is liberating Arctic ice from existence.
As a result, we now find ourselves in a very difficult and slighty ironic position. Because of those decades of hardcore emitting exactly when we were supposed to be cutting back, the things we must do to avoid catastrophic warming are no longer just in conflict with the particular strain of deregulated capitalism that triumphed in the 1980s. They are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die. Once carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere, it sticks around for hundreds of years, some of it even longer, trapping heat. The effects are cumulative, growing more severe with time.
Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion.
By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know. The battle is already under way, but right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for economic growth is used as the excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or for breaking emission reduction commitments already made. It wins when Greeks are told that their only path out of economic crisis is to open up their beautiful seas to high-risk oil and gas drilling. It wins when Canadians are told our only hope of not ending up like Greece is to allow our boreal forests to be flayed so we can access the semisolid bitumen from the Alberta tar sands. It wins when a park in Istanbul is slotted for demolition to make way for yet another shopping mall. It wins when parents in Beijing are told that sending their wheezing kids to school in pollution masks decorated to look like cute cartoon characters is an acceptable price for economic progress. It wins every time we accept that we have only bad choices available to us: austerity or extraction, poisoning or poverty.
The challenge, then, is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it’s that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now, the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change.
Climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions—telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.
It’s too late to stop climate change from coming; it is already here, and increasingly brutal disasters are headed our way no matter what we do. But it’s not too late to avert the worst, and there is still time to change ourselves so that we are far less brutal to one another when those disasters strike. And that, it seems to me, is worth a great deal. Because the thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything.”
This Changes Everything
He was the first African-American to get a PhD in philosophy at Princeton.
He went on to write more than 20 books, receive more than 20 honourary degrees, to teach at Harvard and Yale, and hold classes at universities from Paris to Addis Abeba.
With his latest hip hop CD he was named “MTV’s artist of the week”, and he has provided futuristic philosophical commentary on all three Matrix movies.
In a famous spat with the then president of Harvard University he called Lawrence Summers “the Ariel Sharon of higher education.”
Avi Lewis talks to Cornel West, a professor of African American Studies at Princeton, hip hop artist, and one of the most controversial academics in the US, about the state of democracy for African-Americans today, the Obama administration, and his dispute with Lawrence Summers.
He also shares his views on US foreign policy, the war in Afghanistan, global recession, and the growing pressure on Barack Obama.
Synopsis: In the past decade, grassroots social movements played major roles in electing left-leaning governments throughout Latin America, but subsequent relations between the streets and the states remain uneasy. In Dancing with Dynamite, award-winning journalist Benjamin Dangl explores the complex ways these movements have worked with, against, and independently of national governments. From dynamite-wielding miners in Bolivia to the struggles of landless farmers in Brazil and Paraguay, Dangl discusses the dance between movements and states in seven different Latin American countries. Using original research, lively prose, and extensive interviews with workers, farmers, and politicians, he suggests how Latin American social movement strategies could be applied internationally to build a better world now.
By Benjamin Dangl
“Throughout much of the 1970s and early 1980s, South America saw a wave of military dictatorships come to power that crushed labor unions, political dissidents, students and regular citizens. Tens of thousands of people were tortured, murdered, or disappeared by regimes in a coordinated effort between dictatorships spanning the continent. This Washington-supported nightmare officially ended for many countries in the 1980s. Though the dictatorships were gone, their economic policies remained.
While dissidents at the time condemned the overt violence of the regimes, many protested the equally torturous effects of pro-corporate economic policies. In a letter investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh sent to the Argentine junta immediately before his murder in 1977, he condemned the dictatorship’s violence against Argentines. After describing the crimes of the dictatorship – including murder, torture and disappearances – he said “the greater atrocity” was the regime’s economic policy, which “punishes millions of human beings through planned misery.” He was referring to neoliberalism.
Neoliberal economic recommendations involve slashing government spending on public works and services, such as education, healthcare, and transportation, and advocating for the privatization of public-owned services and businesses. (…) This ideology spread with the help of willing elites and leaders in South American governments, as well as pressure from international lenders such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which played a vital role in using debt to force crippling neo-liberal austerity measures on governments.
Therefore, many of the South American presidents’ actions, today and in the past, against social movements were due in part to the constraints they found themselves in as leaders of states enmeshed in global capitalism and beholden to Washington, the financial market, military powers, corporate interests, corrupt officials, bureaucracy, and the stranglehold of debt, among other factors.
While neoliberalism appealed to some South American policy-makers, the results for most people were disastrous. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, nascent neoliberal economists (like Milton Friedmann) used South America as their laboratory. In recent years, South Americans have lived the results. Instead of promised jobs, economic mobility, and expanded freedoms, neoliberalism has increasingly concentrated wealth in the hands of a few and impoverished millions. The region’s shift to the left in the recent decade is largely a response to this devastating economic ideology: voters sought an alternative, and presidential candidates promised to provide such alternative.”
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“Utopia is on the horizon. I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.” – GALEANO
McDonaldization Of World Food
“Globalization has created the McDonaldization of world food, resulting in the destruction of sustainable food systems. It attempts to create a uniform food culture of hamburgers. The mad-cow-disease epidemic tells us something of the costs hidden in this food culture and food economy. In 1994, Pepsi Food Ltd. was given permission to start 60 restaurants in India: 30 each of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Pizza Hut. The processed meats and chicken offered at these restaurants have been identified by the U.S. Senate as sources of the cancers that one American contracts every seven seconds. (…) Junk-food chains, including KFC and Pizza Hut, are under attack from major environmental groups in the United States and other developed countries because of their negative environmental impact. Intensive breeding of livestock and poultry for such restaurants leads to deforestation, land degradation, and contamination of water sources and other natural resources. For example: the water necessary for meat breeding comes to about 190 gallons per animal per day, or 10 times what a normal Indian family is supposed to use in one day, if it gets water at all.” (p. 71)
TRANSFORMING VEGETARIANS INTO BEEF-EATERS
“At a time when meat consumption is declining in Western countries, India’s trade-liberalization program is trying to convert a predominantly vegetarian society into a beef-eating one. This program is based on the false equation that the only source of protein is animal protein, and that higher animal consumption equals a higher quality of life. (…) The 3 most important diseases of the affluent countries – cancer, stroke, and heart disease – are linked conclusively to consumption of beef and other animal products. International studies comparing diets in different countries have shown that diets high in meat result in more death from intestinal cancer per capita. Japanese people in the USA eating a high-meat diet are 3 times as likely to contract colon cancer as those eating the Japanese low-meat diet. Modern, intensive systems of meat production have exacerbated the health hazards posed by meat consumption. Modern meats have 7 times more fat than non-industrial meats, as well as drug and antibiotic residues.” (66)
SACRED COWS AND MAD COWS
“In India, cows have been treated as sacred for centuries. Ecologically, the cow has been central to Indian civilization. Both materially and conceptually the world of Indian agriculture has built its sustainability on the integrity of the cow, considering her inviolable and sacred, seeing her as the mother of the prosperity of food systems. (…) Indian cattle provide more food than they consume, in contrast to those of the U.S. cattle industry, in which cattle consume 6 times more food than they provide. In addition, every year, Indian cattle excrete 700 million tons of recoverable manure: half of this is used as fuel, liberating the thermal equivalent of 27 million tons of kerosene, 35 million tons of coal, or 68 million tons of wood, all of which are scarce resources in India. The remaining half is used as fertilizer. Two thirds of the power requirements of Indian villages are met by cattle-dung fuel from some 80 million cattle. Yet this highly efficient food system, based on multiple uses of cattle, has been dismantled in the name of efficiency and development… Worse, trade-liberalization policies in India are leading to the slaughter of cattle for meat exports.
A cow is not merely a milk machine or a meat machine, even if industry treats it in such a way. That is why cows are hurt by the industrial treatment they are subjected to. When forced to become carnivores instead of herbivores, they become infected with BSE (Mad Cow Disease). When injected with growth hormones, they become diseased. To deny subjecthood to cows and other animals, to treat them as mere raw material, is to converge with the approach of capitalist patriarchy. Sacred cows are the symbols and constructions of a culture that sees the entire cosmos in a cow. (…) Mad cows are symbols of a worldview that perceives no difference between machines and living beings. (…) Sacred cows are a metaphor of ecological civilization. Mad cows are a metaphor for an anti-ecological, industrial civilization. Liberation strategies have to ensure that human freedom is not gained at the cost of other species, that freedom for one race or gender is not based on increased subjugation of other races and genders. In each of these strivings for freedom, the challenge is to include the Other.” (pg. 59-73)
MONOCULTURES AND MONOPOLIES
“Industrial agriculture promotes the use of monocultures because of its need for centralized control over the production and distribution of food. In this way, monocultures and corporate monopolies reinforce each other. Today, 3 processes are intensifying monopoly control over seed, the first link in the food chain: economic concentration, patents and intellectual property rights, and genetic engineering. Monsanto, which was earlier recognized primarily through its association with Agent Orange, today controls a large section of the seed industry. (…) The perverse intellectual-property-rights system that treats plants and seeds as corporate inventions is transforming farmers’ highest duties – to save seed and exchange seed with neighbors – into crimes. (81-90)
RECLAIMING THE STOLEN HARVEST
The failure of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 was a historic watershed. The rebellion on the streets and the rebellion within the WTO negotiations launched a new democracy movement, with citizens from across the world and the governments of the South refusing to be bullied and excluded from decisions in which they have a rightful share. In Seattle, 50.000 citizens from all walks of life and all parts of the world protested peacefully on the streets for 4 days to ensure that there would be no new round of trade negotiations for accelerating and expanding the process of globalization.
The WTO has earned itself names such as the World Tyranny Organization because it enforces tyrannical, anti-people, anti-nature decisions to enable corporations to steal the world’s harvest through secretive, undemocratic structures and processes. The WTO tyranny was apparent in Seattle both on the streets and inside the Washington State Convention Center. Intolerance of democratic dissent, a hallmark of dictatorship, was unleashed in full force. While the trees and stores were lit up for Christmas festivity, the streets were barricaded and blocked by the police, turning the city into a war zone. Non-violent protestors, including young people and old women, labor and environmental activists, and even local residents, were brutally beaten, sprayed with tear gas, and arrested by the hundreds.
But the thousands of youth, farmers, workers, and environmentalists who marched the streets of Seattle in peace and solidarity were not acting out of ignorance and fear; they were outraged because they know how undemocratic the WTO is, how destructive its social and ecological impacts are, and how the rules of the WTO are driven by the objectives of establishing corporate control over every dimension of our lives – our food, our health, our environment, our work, our future.
The post-Seattle challenge is to change the global trade rules and national food and agricultural policies so that ecological practises, which protects small farms and peasant livelihoods, and produces safe food, is not marginalized and criminalized. The times has come to reclaim the stolen harvest and celebrate the growing and giving of good food as the highest gift and the most revolutionary act.” (pg. 127)
All quotes in this post are excerpts from Stolen Harvest – The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, by Vandana Shiva (South End Press, 1999). Comic strips by Dan Piraro at Bizarro. Some recommended documentaries you might enjoy seeing and spreading:
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