Monthly Archives: September 2010

Bitter/Sweet

Last week I attended a talk given by Bolivian president Evo Morales in a church in Manhattan.  The president’s speech was so inspiring; indeed, he lived up to his designation earlier in the week by Father Miguel D’Escoto at an event I co-organized as perhaps the greatest prophetic voice on the world stage today.  Here is a brief transcription of his comments:

Growing up in an indigenous community in the highlands of Bolivia, we didn’t know anything about private property.  For me as a child, all land was common land.  We viewed the Earth as our mother.

Now, if the Earth is our mother, we have to defend her.  After all, you can’t sell your mother.  We cannot exist without our mothers, but they can certainly exist without us.  So we need to respect and protect our mother Earth.  This is why we need to deal with climate change.

We know what the system is that’s causing climate change.  But when we challenge this system, we are called terrorists, narco-traffickers, communists, and dictators.  History is simply repeating itself here.  When indigenous peoples rose up around the huge colonial Spanish silver mines in Potosi, they were called terrorists.  Then when miners organized earlier in this century, they were called communists.  When indigenous groups protested against the privatization of water in Cochabamba at the beginning of this new millennium, they were called terrorists.  In fact, despite being elected with a strong majority, after 9/11, members of my government were compared to the Taliban.

Those who represent the capitalist system keep accusing us, but the people keep organizing in the name of life, peace, and justice.

Unlike in the U.S., the effects of climate change are already evident to everyone.  In recent years, we’ve experienced severe droughts and sudden temperature changes.  We’ve had to search for water for the people by drilling deep wells, but the water table just keeps getting lower.

The origins of this crisis lie in unbridled industrialism and in the capitalist system itself.  Because of this system, there’s always money for arms and for warfare, but not to save lives.

We have no alternative but to save the world.

Yet governments only make changes when strong social movements press them to do so.  If the 2oth century was the century of the struggle for human rights, the 21st century is the century of struggle for the rights of Mother Earth.

We cannot have liberty without equality and justice.  Yet all around us we see capitalism creating increasing inequality and destroying Mother Earth.

We held a World People’s Conference in Cochabamba last spring so that some movements could meet and discuss with each other how to address the environmental and social crisis we all face.  Out of this conference emerged a set of proposals that include calling for keeping greenhouse gases at 350 parts per million, the abolition of the capitalist system, rejection of the phony Copenhagen climate Accord, and the establishment of a World Climate Justice Tribunal.

At the upcoming U.N. summit in Cancun, Mexico, we will see whether the developed nations respect the decisions reached in Cochabamba.  If they fail to do so, they will be confessing to their lack of respect for Mother Earth.

We are strong when we organize together.  We can change government policies.  U.S. citizens don’t need visas to go to Cancun, so we are urging the members of U.S. social movements to organize climate justice caravans to travel to Cancun this December to pressure their government to do the right thing.

You know, many years ago I didn’t understand the comments of Fidel Castro when he said that he didn’t want the foreign debt paid, he wanted the ecological debt paid.  Now I do.  Now I see he was right.

We need to continue to hold alternative summits to spread this consciousness.

My school was the indigenous movements, peasant unions, and popular uprisings against neoliberalism.  I continue to believe that such movements can change the world.

Hearing Evo was, as always, immensely uplifting.  Doing so in a church in NYC was, however, very different from hearing him speak in a massive amphitheater in Cochabamba.  His faith in popular social movements is very powerful, but it’s no news that  the movements in the U.S. and E.U. with most media traction are further and further to the right.  Evo’s faith in popular power and in social movements is thus comes across to me as both sweet and bitter.

There’s nothing for it but to keep writing and organizing, hoping that more and more voices will begin echoing Evo’s prophetic message in the months and years to come.

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Resources of Hope

Last Saturday was a remarkable day of NYC-based, globe-spanning eco-activism for me.  The day began with a trip up to the South Bronx, where friends of mine were involved in various local environmental justice initiatives.  The organization Sustainable South Bronx sponsored a street fair at which I talked to my friend Julian Terrell, Director of Community Organizing for Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ).  Julian explained to me that his organization is leading a drive to build green roofs and green streets in the south Bronx in order to minimize rainwater runoff.  This is a hugely important step because New York City’s sewer system is quite antique and outmoded; when it rains heavily, water flows through the same underground tunnels as sewage, backs up in sewage treatment plants, and then overflows, sending raw sewage into local rivers.  So if this brown water can be caught on green roofs and streets, there will be far less shit flowing through local waterways.

After checking out the street fair, I accompanied a group of activists to Brook Park.  This garden and green haven in the Mott Haven section of the south Bronx was, until quite recently, a disused concrete parking lot.  Then, on one winter night, a group of activists broke open the chains that kept the space abandoned and began smashing up the concrete.  Now, only a year or so later, there is a garden that produces hundreds of pounds of organic produce that is distributed for free through local churches, providing local residents (who live just near the second biggest produce market in the United States, but have very little access to fresh fruits and vegetables through their local supermarkets since most of the good produce goes to south to trendy shops in Manhattan) with much-needed healthy fresh food.  In addition, Brook Park serves as a community organizing space, and includes a sweat lodge where indigenous activists hold rituals.  We were given a tour of the park by a local activist who not only explained the role of the park in local politics, but also made connections with Haiti, where, he argued, international trade regimes forced farmers off the land and into the capital city, making them vulnerable to the earthquake.  The level of consciousness and activism that’s fermenting up through Brook Park – evident in the videos and other postings on their website – is truly impressive.

From Brook Park I caught the 6 train down to Brecht Forum for the People’s Council on Climate Justice whose poster I attached above.  This was something of a reunion for many of the folks who attended the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia last spring.  It was great to see people again, and to see many new faces from the New York Climate Justice community.

The evening began with Pablo Solon, the Bolivian ambassador to the US and important voice in U.N. negotiations over climate change, explaining the technicalities of the science and international diplomacy following the failure of the Copenhagen summit last December.  His point was that the U.S. and other polluting countries have to act now, and that their action, or lack thereof, will be judged based on the points set out in the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba.  We have very little time left, Solon insisted, to reach agreement over how to save the planet.

Solon was followed by Father Miguel D’Escoto, former foreign secretary of Nicaragua and President of the U.N. General Assembly.  Father Miguel talked about the need to establish an international Climate Justice Tribunal that would put polluting countries and companies in the dock, making them responsible for their crimes against Mother Nature in the same way that war criminals can be indicted by the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal.  He made many good points, but probably the strongest was his argument that the elites of the world seem to be doing nothing while having full knowledge of the imminent catastrophe, leading to the conclusion that they are counting on the catastrophe to wipe out millions of people, thereby taking care of the “problem” of “overpopulation” in the global South.  Pretty bleak words, but not that much different from the scenario spun out in Susan George’s chilling satire The Lugano Report.

Father Miguel was followed by Monique Harden, an activist and environmental justice lawyer from New Orleans.  Her presentation was particularly powerful because of how emotionally moved she was as she spoke of the way in which entire communities in the Gulf region had had their futures taken away from them.  Monique heads up the organization Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, which works to challenge not just individual cases of environmental injustice, but the entire system that is responsible for making communities vulnerable to disaster and displacement.  Monique explained in powerful terms the way in which she discovered that her assumptions about the protections afforded to vulnerable communities by federal legislation did not hold true, that there are no laws which provide adequately for such communities.  Most chillingly, Monique discussed the Stafford Act which explicitly states that the U.S. government has no responsibility for assisting those affected by anthropogenic environmental disasters.

The evening closed with a powerful talk by Tanya Fields of Mothers on the Move, Sustainable South Bronx, and the BLK ProjeK Tanya explained that the community she comes from is one affected by multiple forms of environmental degradation, as well as racialized economic inequality.  How, she asked, do you get people who can barely afford to put the next meal on the table to think about a seemingly distant issue such as climate change?  Answering her own question, she explained that you make issues of climate justice seem important, and thereby mobilize communities, by explaining that pollution has a direct impact on people’s kids, making them far more susceptible to problems such as asthma and ADHD, which then leads them to get inadequate education and to end up in some of the disproportionately populated prisons in New York state.  The point is to connect the dots for people through education.  Tanya also advocated direct action along the lines of Brook Park activists: cutting the locks on abandoned lots and setting up gardens to feed the people.

CJ activists face overwhelming odds as the planet careens towards climate catastrophe, but this day showed that the struggle goes on, led by some truly remarkable people!

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Imperial Ecologies

Hot off the press: the special issue of seminal British cultural studies journal new formations I edited on “Imperial Ecologies.”

Here’s the blurb from the journal: new formations 69 offers a timely and urgent set of contributions towards the development of what is ‘political ecology.’  Despite a history of sporadic engagements, cultural theory and cultural studies has rarely dealt thoroughly with ecological issues, tending to retreat into its habitual skepticism regarding anything that might smell of naturalism.  The fact that ecological questions frame all of the urgent political debates of our epoch, as well as animating some of the most dynamic areas of critical thought, surely means that this situation cannot continue.  As we see from this collection, it is only through a radical interdisciplinarity which can accommodate insights from geography, economics, cultural studies, anthropology, philosophy, and the natural sciences that the questions our current predicaments pose can be properly addressed; and it is precisely the remit of new formations to make just such engagements possible.

Contributors include Crystal Bartolovich, George Caffentzis, Ashley Dawson, Ben Dibbley, Jeremy Gilbert, Peter Hitchcock, Leerom Medovoi, Brett Neilsen, Rob Nixon, Sian Sullivan, Morten Tonnessen, Nicholas Thoburn, Tony Venezia.

For more info, check the journal website or the listing on Amazon.

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House Proud

As anyone not living in deep denial now knows, the near future holds tremendous challenges for civilization as cheap and plentiful sources of energy, water, and land begin to disappear.  We are faced with the huge challenge of transforming our high-consumption lifestyles in a relatively brief span of time if we are to avert run-away, catastrophic climate change.  Faced with these odds and the apparent gridlock of liberal democratic regimes in the U.S. and E.U., it’s easy to give in to dark currents of despair, apathy, and cynicism.

Faced with the apparent inability of the political system to catalyze change, it’s a huge shot in the arm to see specific examples of sustainable living being created today.  There are lots of low-tech ways to achieve sustainable living.  A good guide to such methods is Scott Kellogg and Stacey Pettigrew’s Toolbox for Sustainable Urban Living, which discusses everything from composting and keeping urban chickens to reclaiming land and generating energy.  Kellogg and Pettigrew’s approach is incredibly important because it’s low tech, and consequently is relatively accessible to ordinary people.

Every now and then, however, it’s useful to speculate about how advanced technology might render life more sustainable.  In this regard, the Lumenhaus, which just won the 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe, is quite inspiring.  As this film shows, the Lumenhaus incorporates many cutting-edge elements of sustainable design into an extremely elegant and simple form.  The house features solar panels linked to a smart grid, meaning that the house can generate its own electricity and even feed excess power back into the grid.  The house also features stainless steel screens and insulated windows that ensure that the house is cool in the hottest summer and warm in the coldest winter.  In addition, water is purified and recycled through landscaped filtration systems.  And the entire house is wired and smart, making it possible for householders to get real-time updates on conditions in the house and easily change those conditions at will.

People with enough money to afford this sort of house – and there obviously are far fewer after the crash of the housing market in the U.S. – should be building themselves something along these lines rather than the ridiculous McMansions that have been popping up in suburbs around the land like malign mushrooms.

The problem I have with this otherwise inspiring design is that it’s both literally and metaphorically set in the middle of nowhere.  The design seems to assume that only the house needs to be changed, rather than the entire fossil fuel-based mode of living in the U.S.  After all, how will people get to this house?  In today’s gas-guzzling jalopies or in solar-powered electric cars?  Even if we get a viable infrastructure for electric cars in the next couple of decades, where will the highways come from?  Where will the food come from? Who will control the land where that food is grown?

What this laudable design underlines, in other words, is the need to transform our entire civilization.  We need to be living in far more compact cities rather than in the sprawling suburban- and exurban megalopolises of today.  We need public transportation and sustainable agriculture.  And we need a far less inegalitarian society.  Unfortunately, the only way we’re really going to get these things is through significant political change.  Design alone will never solve our problems, although such concrete action inspires hope in an otherwise bleak moment.

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