Monthly Archives: April 2010

A Not-So-Natural Disaster

In a powerful essay on the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the geographer Neil Smith argues that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”

Sometimes the social construction of disasters is hard to see.  Take the recent earthquake in Haiti, for instance.  There’s nothing anthropogenic about the shifts in tectonic plates that produce earthquakes.  But there is a clear social calculus to the historical changes that put people in harm’s way when the earth begins to move.

Haiti is 99% deforested, and has experienced massive soil erosion.  Many mountains in Haiti are now bare, leaving the limestone beneath the soil bare.  The destruction of Haiti’s landscape is a product of the collapse of Haiti’s agricultural sector, which has led to the vertiginous decline of the country’s peasantry.

Why did this collapse happen? In the 1980s, under Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, one-third of Haiti’s cultivated land was shifted to export crops.  U.S.-promoted agricultural policies that forced Haitian rice farmers to compete against subsidized agribusiness in North America cost an estimated 830,000 rural jobs according to Oxfam, while exacerbating malnutrition.  The decimation of Haiti’s peasantry through such neoliberal policies led to mass displacement into urban areas.  Along with the promise of abundant jobs of US-supported export processing zones, the decline of Haiti’s agricultural sector fueled rural migration into flimsy shantytowns in cities such as Port-au-Prince.

Sometimes, though, the social construction of disasters is easy to see.  As I write this, the first waves of oil from the massive British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico are beginning to wash up onto the fragile marshes of the Mississippi delta in Louisiana.  This promises to be a disaster of massive proportions, in an area that has already suffered grievously from man-made disasters, such as the flooding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  Let’s hope that something good comes of this catastrophe, beginning with massive reparations for the people of the area from BP and other fossil fuel companies, building to a decisive challenge to the Obama administration’s plans to open coastal waters to oil drilling, and concluding with a massive, Apollo-style project to shift the U.S. to renewable energy sources .

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Smackdown on Wall Street

Today I attended a march on Wall Street organized by National People’s Action to protest the stranglehold big banks have over the U.S. economy.  Lots of really terrible stories about people turfed out of their houses and apartments by banks after years of having lived there.  Lots of anger about the massive bonuses being awarded to bankers who just recently had to come hat in hand to the U.S. public after they screwed up their own businesses and took the world economy down in flames.

The Showdown in America website contains a really impressive series of drop down discussions of problems created by corporate and banking power as well as solutions for those problems.  Most specifically, the organizations that are part of the campaign that organized today’s march are calling for big banks to stop targeting l0w-income and ethnic-minority communities, and to donate their obscenely large bonuses to fix state budget crises, create jobs, and keep thousand of people in their homes.

The groups also call for modernized financial regulation, including breaking up “too big to fail banks” by instituting asset caps and firewalls between banking and investment services.

Perhaps most importantly for the hardest hit by the current crisis, the organizing groups call for a moratorium on foreclosures.  No one should be thrown out of their homes by banks that themselves had to be bailed out by the public.

It was really inspiring to be part of this protest on a beautiful clear spring day.  I wish though that the protest had been more large and more militant.  I’ve been on countless demos since 2001 in NYC and the drill is now almost always exactly the same.  The cops set up steel barricades that pen crowds in to small cellular groups.  Movement from one cell to the next is tightly controlled by the police.  The streets are kept completely open for the free flow of traffic – nothing can impinge on the sacred space of the automobile!  When marches eventually start, they are completely contained in exactly the same way as the pre-march demo.  Unfortunately I’m very skeptical about how much this approach can accomplish.

During the demo I had an interesting conversation with Jonathan Tasini, a candidate for NY State Senate with whom I was imprisoned a couple of years back when we both did civil disobedience on Fifth Avenue in support of the grad employees unionization efforts at NYU.  Tasini suggested that what we really need to do to get Wall Street’s attention is to break down those damn steel barricades and sit down en masse in the middle of Broadway.  If several thousand people did this, they’d gum up the police works for days.  He pointed out that we were only about 30 people getting arrested at the NYU demo and it took them hours to process us.  He’s got a good point.  Why are there no mass non-violent direct action campaigns going on at the moment given all the calamitous events taking place?  Why are there no leaders willing to advocate tactics such as those pioneered by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Surely the times call for such courageous leadership and behavior.

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Lesson in Darkness

Following up on my last post, things have gotten even more nightmarish in the Gulf of Mexico.  BP is now trying to contain the oil belching out into the Gulf of Mexico at the (approximate) rate of 42,000 gallons per day by burning it off.

What a horrible disaster – as if we needed more evidence of the need to shift to renewable energy sources.  Reminds me of Werner Herzog’s infernal film Lessons in Darkness, which focuses on the burning oil wells in Iraq after the Gulf War.

In some more hopeful news, I read in the New York Times that the federal government has, after a nine year review, finally given the green light to the U.S. first extensive wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod.  Now we just need to shift people’s mentalities towards less consumption…

Speaking of which, one of the best, most concise discussions of the illness of consumer culture is Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff.  This brief and witty video is something that all U.S. residents should see, since we are the ones who, above all others on the planet, suffer from this malaise.

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Advanced Subsea Technology

I arrived back in the U.S. still filled with elation from the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  Unfortunately, I was quickly reminded of the odds that we face in challenging the fossil fuel industrial complex.

In the news as I flew back, in fact, was the story of a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.  According to an article in the New York Times, at least 42,000 gallons of oil are leaking into the ocean from a ruptured pipeline 5,000 feet below the surface.  This right on the heels of the disaster at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.

The article says that robots are working to seal off the leaking oil well, and quotes government officials who say that the oil spill does not appear to contain crude but only a “thin sheen of oil-water mix.”  But this mix is 600 miles in circumference and, as the photo above shows, is clearly visible from the air.  In addition, apparently planes (government?) are dropping chemicals that are toxic to marine life onto the spill in order to break it up.

This spiral of toxicity seems typical of the way we behave in reaction to the environmental contradictions of contemporary capitalist society.  We create a massive problem through our unsustainable exploitation of the planet and then we make things worse as we try to rectify the problem.  As John McPhee brilliantly shows in his book The Control of Nature, we tend to view natural systems in linear, isolated, and mechanistic, when in fact they are complex, extended, and organic.  The result is that our interventions to control nature always catalyze unforeseen complications.

By the way, the banner ad above the Times article promotes “advanced deep sea technology” (i.e. oil rigs) for an unidentified interest called “”  If you click on the banner, you get taken to a website that allows you to lobby Congress to “allow expanded access to oil and natural gas” resources.  Talk about tone deafness!


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Pachamama o muerte!

Before everything else, the Cochabamba conference was remarkable for bringing together a large group of radical activists from all around the world.  The social connections and sense of possibility that resulted from the exchanges that unfolded in this setting were immensely valuable.  For an overview of the conference that includes many interviews as well as the official publications of the various different working groups, check out the conference website.

These social connections will be hugely important in building the movement for climate justice on a local, national, and international plane in the coming months and years.  Based on my interviews with activists on the trip back to the U.S., being in Cochabamba made North Americans particularly aware of the responsibility they have as citizens of the most affluent and most powerful (but also most energy-consuming) nation on the planet.  What kinds of accountability can we articulate in response to the experience of meeting activists, intellectuals, and campesin@s from the global South?  More importantly, what specific actions can we say that we are engaged in in order to challenge the U.S.’s disproportionate carbon footprint and regressive politics on climate change?

One of the most immediate steps on people’s minds seems to be to continue organizing and networking efforts.  Activists who were at Cochabamba are already planning to link up again at the U.S. Social Forum, creating a special stream within the forum in order to continue to develop strategies for organizing.  The goal will be to develop a consistent position to take to the Cancún meeting of the UNFCC in late 2010.

In addition, activists will continue to pressure the Obama administration to adopt a more progressive position regarding climate negotiations.  One of the concrete outcomes of the Cochabamba conference was a series of proposals that are intended to place pressure on the UNFCC process.  Apparently at least 7 of the Working Groups were designed to produce proposals to influence the UNFCC.  The deadline to submit these proposals is this coming Monday – hopefully the Bolivian government and activists working with them will submit them in time.  These proposals will then be used to pressure the Obama administration.

I personally am not particularly sanguine about any significant shift happening in the Obama administration.  And even if Obama were to adopt more progressive positions and, say, to pledge to cut U.S. emissions to a point where global carbon dioxide levels could be reduced to 350ppm, he’s stuck with a Congress that is virtually guaranteed not to go along with such pledges.  But one has to work at rolling this stone up the hill, even if it threatens to roll back down on top of one.

Given this political reality, though, it makes sense to adopt a two- or three-track approach that involves using the modicum of access that activists have to Obama in tandem with campaigns to transform and to green urban and regional economies.  Involvement on organizations such as the Regional Plan Association, Urban Agenda, and the Apollo Project will be important in this regard.

I also think it’s essential to engage in direct action.  There’s been relatively little discussion of this at the conference, but this is largely because Evo was seen as an ally.  Direct action is likely to figure far more prominently in Cancún.  But I don’t think that protests should be limited to the mega-conferences.  Local action is obviously important as well in order to continue to challenge fossil fuel industries.

In the meantime, hopefully the Bolivian government’s relatively progressive position will also begin to turn the tide internationally, forging a block of developing nations interested in green alternatives to the established path of development while also prodding big polluters like the U.S. and China to begin changing their policies.

But all of this feels like reading tea leaves in very murky waters.  Whatever may come, participating in the conference has been quite transformative for me on a personal level.  I came into the conference with a very pessimistic analysis.  Basically, looking at the failure of the Copenhagen conference as a result of the growing conflict between the U.S. and China, I felt that we’re leaving a moment of super-imperialism in which the U.S. dominated the globe, in combination with a series of regional subsidiary proxy powers, and entering a moment of increasingly strident inter-imperial competition.  We’re returning, in other words, to similar conditions to those analyzed by Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.  This time, however, the theme should be more along the lines of Imperialism: The Final Stage of Capitalism since the eco-imperialist component of current capitalist culture is pushing the world’s ecosystems to the breaking point.  Given this rising eco-imperialism, I think it’s unlikely that either the U.S. as global hegemon or rising powers such as India or China are going to sign on to any climate accords.

I still don’t think that this analysis is incorrect.  This is the big picture we’ll have to cope with in coming years.  Nonetheless, the Cochabamba conference showed that it’s possible to at least formulate and advocate for a rational alternative to such suicidal policies.  By getting involved in policy formulation and social movement politics, in other words, it’s possible to overcome the sense of apocalyptic despair that the status quo inspires.  It’s also important to note that while attending the conference I was fortunate to meet many truly extraordinary people.  This too inspires great hope.

Perhaps most importantly, what I witnessed and participated in while in Bolivia was the birth of a global counter-force to the eco-imperialist juggernaut that seems so unstoppable in North America.  The odds are stacked very high against this global movement for climate justice, but that should not and cannot stop us from giving our all to this movement.  After all, what alternative is there?  Pachamama o muerte! [Mother Earth or Death]

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People’s Conference on Climate Change, Analysis of Day 2

Pache mama o muerte! (Mother Earth or Death)

Evo’s rallying cry at the beginning and end of his speech confirmed everything that I’d hoped to find in Bolivia.  Here is a leader who really understands the stakes of the epic struggle that we face in climate change and articulates that struggle to potent revolutionary traditions.  Before coming on stage, Evo sang the Bolivian national anthem, which ends in an assertion of loyalty to the nation something along the lines of patria o muerte.  So, when Evo says pache mama o muerte (Mother Nature or Death), he’s linking the struggle for climate justice to Bolivarian traditions of battle against Spanish colonialism and U.S. imperialism.

It’s one thing to understand the stakes and science of climate change in a relatively dry analytical way.  This is obviously an important issue, one that Bill McKibben and Jim Hansen both commented on in their panel today on the politics of climate science.  The climate change denialists continue to gain ridiculous amounts of traction through their control of the media and their ability to play on people’s fears of the federal government in the U.S.  So we nee to read Hansen and McKibben and understand their explanations of the science as well as their well thought-out calls for radical shifts in contemporary U.S. culture in order to avert climate chaos.

But such calls pale in comparison with the resonant anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist stance of Evo.  And this is the kind of leadership we need now.  All day I was thinking about what it means to be in this present moment in history.  Being here at the conference certainly makes one feel aware of participating in a truly epochal moment.  Some people I’ve talked to here have referred to it as “our Woodstock,” perhaps because of the rock concert quality of the inaugural ceremony.  But I would compare it much more to the so-called greatest generation, the men and women who fought against fascism and Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s, or to anti-colonial nationalist militants in the decades that followed.  These people truly remade world history.  But today, we face a struggle that goes way beyond those great battles for liberation –  we’re literally fighting for the survival of the human species, and of most other species on the planet as well.  I don’t think the gravity of this challenge, as well as the intoxicating sense of mobilization and possibility that come with such world-defining moments, have sunk in with most people yet.  But this conference is a blast from the future, a clarion call to make the world anew.

With the People’s Conference on Climate Change, Evo has occupied the high moral and political ground, and he’s standing there alone.  Just to hear him to through the climate science honestly in his speech and urge the adoption of measures to reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations to 350ppm is to hear words that virtually no other world leader is willing to pronounce.  Certainly not Obama, and not even any of the other progressive leaders of Latin America such as Lula or Chavez.  In addition, Evo has very cannily created a virtually bulletproof set of alliances for himself with social movements from other parts of the world.  It’s going to be very hard to marginalize or even depose him given the alliances gestated at this conference.

Not that Evo doesn’t have feet of clay.  His homophobic reference to GMO chicken leading to effeminancy among men suggested that he’s not in touch with progressives working on gender and sexual orientation issues domestically or internationally.  In addition, apparently during the meetings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the water wars that preceded the conference, many Bolivian activists criticized him for not developing a real environmental agenda for Bolivia.  For example, he continues to rely on natural gas exports to Brazil to produce significant revenues for the country rather than shifting to renewable energy.  Perhaps there’s an element of hypocrisy then in his strident call to save pache mama, but it’s also true that he needs to maintaining regional alliances, including those with Brazil, the regional super-power where most of Bolivia’s gas goes.  But obviously the social movements within Bolivia need to keep the pressure on him for progressive change.

And it is these social movements that give one real hope.  There’s an amazing alliance of indigenous leaders, leftists, women’s groups, etc. evident here on the ground.  This alliance is leading to fascinating cross-fertilization and transformation.  And now the international social movements fighting for climate justice are tapping into and helping build these movements.  The world is being made anew.  Pache mama o muerte!

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People’s Conference on Climate Change, Coverage

My second day at the conference, including a massive inauguration ceremony.  All documented over at Social Text.

I should add that there is, of course, lots and lots of media coverage here.  Not enough international though.  But Democracy Now, beating mainstream coverage by a mile as usual, is covering the events.  Check out their coverage here.  It’s going on all week.

Also, some of the NYC delegation who are media workers have already begun posting their material online.  The photographer Alexandra Corazza has some up here – check them out for a different angle on the conference.

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People’s Conference on Climate Change, Analysis of Day 1

Many of the pronouncements and plans advanced during the Action Strategies Working Group on day one were important, perhaps even essential, but did not strike me as particular original.  The need for better networking and better education around climate change, the importance of building organizations on both a local and a transnational level, the crucial role of coordinated days of direct action around the world, the ongoing symbolic importance of global summits – these are all fairly familiar issues within the radical green movement (and, in fact, within the global justice movement in general).

What was more significant for me and I should imagine most other people was simply to be surrounded by so many activists from different walks of life.  Despite the growing importance of networked technologies, I think that people remain hugely influenced by face-to-face connections.  This morning I was woken up around 4am by a cacophony of dogs barking, cats mewling, and roosters crowing at the place where I’m staying for the conference.  I tried listening to the BBC to go back to sleep, and happened on a broadcast about the role of book fairs.  Seems that personal encounters of the type that unfold at the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs are essential, ironically, to the success of the written word.  The same thing, to a certain extent, seems to me to be true among environmental activists.  Simply feeling power in numbers is one thing.  Drawing on the wisdom of people from completely different places (in class, race, gender, as well as geographic terms) is even more important.  Just walking around the grounds of the university where the People’s Conference on Climate Change is held was an incredible experience.  As one of my friends in the delegation, Byron Silva from Ecuador, pointed out, as recently as ten years ago, none of the bowler-hatted women and various other indigenous people who were ubiquitous in the university grounds and in the university lecture halls where the conference working groups were held would have been allowed onto the property.  They were seen as marginal to the political life of the nation.  What a massive transformation in Bolivia we are witnessing, then, as we participate in this conference.

In addition, the People’s Conference on Climate Change is also the culmination of a decade of global organizing in forums such as the World Social Forum (which began in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 2001).  Indeed, many of the forms of dialogue that this conference uses, such as the speak-out format of the working group I attended yesterday, draw on this history of non-hierarchical organizing.  I’ll include more reflections on the forms of organizing I see unfolding as the conference continues.

It’s also surely no coincidence that this conference is being held in Cochabamba, site of the water wars in 2000.  Here, popular movements mobilized to reject the privatization of municipal water supplies by multi-national corporations such as Bechtel.  The location of this conference in Cochabamba should help ensure that the voices and needs of the people of the global South are heard prominently.  Of course, this is precisely the opposite of what happened in the Copenhagen conference, where backroom deals between super-powers such as the US, EU, and China excluded the populations who are already being impacted most severely by climate change.

So, being at this conference is an immense privilege and an incredibly uplifting experience.  But of course that’s not enough.  I tend to see social change in terms of a model of punctuated equilibrium, with grassroots organizing and popular discontent bubbling away mostly unseen until moments of revolutionary upheaval.  Previous social movements such as the abolition movement, the women’s movement, anti-colonial nationalist movements, and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. took decades to achieve their goals (and, one might even argue, they still are engaged in struggle for equal rights).  But the world simply does not have decades to deal with climate change.  The longer we dally and procrastinate, the worse the effects of climate chaos are likely to be.

In addition, this is the mother of all crises, one that draws together all the threads of inequality and crisis that have characterized this planet over the previous three centuries or so of capitalist, imperialist development, expansion, and exploitation.  So thinking about and being active around issues of climate change means being engaged with all previous progressive social movements as well as staying attentive to the many different voices that are all too frequently silenced today.

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Live Blogging from Bolivia

I’m currently in Bolivia attending the World People’s Congress on Climate Change and Respect for Mother Earth.  You can check out my live blog of this extraordinary event on the Social Text website.

To give you a taste of my experience, check out this video of the opening ceremony of the conference:

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Zero Growth

I’m about to set off for Bolivia, where I’ll be live blogging the World People’s Conference on Climate Change.  Before leaving, though, I wanted to put up a post on a report by the UK-based New Economics Foundation that I came across last night.  This report, Growth Isn’t Possible, argues that current notions of lifting the majority of the world’s poor out of poverty through incessant economic growth simply won’t work.  We live on a finite planet, and our ballooning rate of consumption is completely unsustainable.

The report begins with a highly arresting image: according to the authors, hamsters double their weight from birth to puberty each week.  If such behavior continued instead of leveling off in maturity, the average hamster would weigh nine billion tonnes on its first birthday.  Its daily intake would be greater than the total amount of annual maize production worldwide.  There is a reason, the authors conclude, that things do not grow indefinitely in nature.

The NEF report is worth checking out because it not only argues against incessant growth, but also advances a series of cogent propositions for how we might achieve zero growth.  This argument, around at least since the time of Herman Daly’s work on steady-state economics, is more important than ever.

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