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Learning How to Count to 350

Can we summon the people power of Berlin in 1989 and Seattle in 1999 to Copenhagen in 2009?

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 6:24 PM EST

Straying Far from the Blueprint for Our Era

In the twenty-first century, free-trade agreements came down with their own version of swine flu, a disease likely generated on a gigantic Smithfield Farms hog-raising operation in Veracruz, Mexico, and nicknamed the NAFTA flu. NAFTA itself has been widely reviled.  Presidential candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador campaigned in Mexico’s 2006 election on promises to renegotiate it; Hillary disowned it. The plan for a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was met with massive opposition in Miami in 2003. It crashed and burned in Argentina in 2005 and has since been abandoned.

Latin America went its own way while the Bush Administration locked its attention on the Middle East. Indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Bolivia had a particularly rousing set of victories, while the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, astonishingly, defeated US-based Bechtel Corporation's privatization of their water, and Ecuadorans are suing Chevron for environmental devastation in what could be the biggest corporate settlement in history—$27 billion.

Meanwhile, the WTO lurched from one meeting to another, safe in the Doha round from pesky protesters, if not from the dissent of developing nations.  It was again besieged by activists in 2003 in Cancún, Mexico—in scale and impact another Seattle—and then further battered in 2005 in Hong Kong. The next ministerial conference of the WTO actually convenes in Geneva on November 30th, a decade to the day since the Seattle shutdown, still attempting to resolve issues that arose in Doha. Of course, in the meantime, sneakier bilateral trade agreements have taken the place of big multilateral ones, but this has hardly been the triumphant era predicted a decade earlier.  Even Iraq hardly proved the hog trough the big oil and contracting corporations had anticipated.

In fact, for the corporations nothing much has turned out as planned. Capitalism itself failed a little more than a year ago. Or rather the bizarrely rigged corporate-run market economies that determine at least some portion of nearly everyone’s life on Earth imploded in a frenzy of deregulated fecklessness and weirdly disassociative procedures. Then, they were propped up by governments in a way that made the phrase “socialism for the rich” truer than ever. For a while, the same business newspapers that had celebrated capitalism’s triumph in 1999 were proclaiming “the end of American capitalism as we knew it” and the “collapse of finance.”

It was as though the world economy had been a car driven by a drunk.  Even if we have now let that drunk back behind the wheel, at least his credibility and the logic of what he claimed to be doing have been irreparably harmed. On the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Time Magazine’s cover story was: “Why Main Street Hates Wall Street” and it told readers in its opening passage that they should be furious.  The fall of Wall Street, you could call it, if you want to hear the echo from Berlin.

Oil-price hikes, the misadventures in turning food into biofuels, and economic meltdowns have had other consequences. Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times more than a year ago:

"In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. Nations that opened their markets to the global flood of cheap grain (under pressure from previous administrations as well as the World Bank and the I.M.F.) lost so many farmers that they now find their ability to feed their own populations hinges on decisions made in Washington... and on Wall Street. They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Not only the Doha round, but the whole cause of free trade in agriculture is probably dead..."

Another death knell for the sunny corporate vision of globalization had nothing to do with ideology; it was about oil, since the more it cost to ship things around the world the less financial sense it made to do so. As the New York Times put it this August:

“Cheap oil, the lubricant of quick, inexpensive transportation links across the world, may not return anytime soon, upsetting the logic of diffuse global supply chains that treat geography as a footnote in the pursuit of lower wages. Rising concern about global warming, the reaction against lost jobs in rich countries, worries about food safety and security, and the collapse of world trade talks in Geneva last week also signal that political and environmental concerns may make the calculus of globalization far more complex.”

The passages cited above came from the New York Times, not the Nation or Mother Jones. Which is to say that if communism failed 20 years ago, then capitalism staggered 10 years ago in Seattle, and fell to its knees a year ago. The crises of petroleum and food costs only augment this reality. But the crisis of climate change matters more than all the rest.

Futures that Work

There are endless questions and conundrums about the largely unforeseen situation in which we now find ourselves, all six billion of us. One of them is: if capitalism and communism both failed, what’s the alternative? The big tent of subversions and traditions called the left hasn’t, in recent times, done a very good job of providing pictures of the possibilities available to us. Still, perhaps the answer to what the political and social alternatives might be will prove very close to what a sustainable world in the face of climate change might look like:  small, local, smart, flexible economies and technologies, democracy as direct as possible, an elimination of excess wealth as part of a leveling that might also eliminate dire poverty.

Some of our hope for the future has to be that, one day, the ecological and the economic can be aligned so that, among other things, petroleum and coal become increasingly expensive, as well as increasingly offensive, ways to run our machines. Will we be creative enough to embrace change before crashing systems and wild weather force change on us in the form of an unbearable crisis? Decisions about the nature of that change to come must be made by the citizenry, which seems to be fairly willing to face change when it gets its facts straight, rather than by wealthier nation-states and their leaders who seem, at this juncture, more interested in protecting business than life on Earth.

To survive the coming era, we need to re-imagine what constitutes wealth and well-being and what constitutes poverty. This doesn’t mean telling the destitute not to hope for decent housing, adequate food, and some chance at education, as well as some pleasures and power. It means paring back on the mad consumption machine that has been the engine of the global economy, even though what it produces is often enough entirely distinct from what’s actually needed. American life as it is now lived is poor in security, confidence, connectedness, agency, contemplation, calm, leisure, and other things that you aren’t going to buy at Wal-Mart, or at Neiman Marcus for that matter. If we can see what’s poor about the way we are, we can see what would be enriching rather than impoverishing about change.  

Anniversaries of a whole host of revolutions seem to fall in years ending in nine—from 1789 in France to 1959 in Cuba and 1979 in Nicaragua. And then, in our calendar of nines, there was the fall of the Wall and the Battle of Seattle.  The “revolution” that got us into this era of climate change, however, can’t be dated that way.  It was the industrial revolution, a gradual shift to an era of mechanization made possible by, and paralleled by, the rise of fossil-fuel consumption. We can’t, and shouldn’t, undo this revolution, but we need to reject some of its premises and recognize some of its costs, including alienation, degradation, and commodification. 

We need a postindustrial revolution of appropriate technologies, both in the developed world and in the developing one, so that, for example, kerosene lanterns and wood-burning stoves will be replaced not by conventional appliances but by elegant solar technologies.

There needs to be another revolution in addition to these, one that finishes decolonizing the world so that Europe and the United States are no longer using the lion’s share of resources and emitting the lion’s share of carbon per capita. The WTO, the IMF, and other instruments of neoliberalism existed to keep that world-as-it-was going; the revolt in Seattle was against their ideology as well as their impact, and the decade-old graffiti that said, “We are winning,” had a point.

The “we” that could win and needs to win in the climate change wars isn’t the United States itself.  As Bill McKibben recently wrote of President Obama, “The announcement yesterday from the APEC meeting in Singapore that next month’s Copenhagen climate talks will be nothing more than a glorified talking session makes it clear that he has, at least for now, punted on the hard questions around climate. The world won’t be able to get started on solving our climate problem, and the obstacle is—as it has been for the last two decades—the United States.”  The citizens of the US need to revolt, again, against their nation’s failure of vision and responsibility, in solidarity with the rest of the people of the world, and the animals, and the plants, and the coral reefs, and the coastlines, and the rivers, the glaciers, the ice caps, and the weather as we now know it, or once knew it.  That's why November 30th is going to be a global day of action.  

Everything is going to change either as runaway climate change takes hold, with its concomitant destruction and suffering, or because a set of programs will be embraced that forestall the worst and return our planet to an atmospheric carbon level of 350 parts per million, now considered the necessary standard to avoid environmental catastrophe.  We’re already at 390 parts per million.  Unfortunately, a lot of the nations in the key Copenhagen negotiations have fixed on an outdated notion that the world as we know it can survive at 450 parts per million, which would conveniently mean that relatively moderate adjustments are needed.

Remembering how dramatically—and unexpectedly—things have changed in the recent past is part of the toolbox for making a deeper, far more necessary change possible. Surely, the extraordinary power of ordinary people in Berlin and Seattle provides us with the kinds of history lessons, the riches we need, to start learning to count.

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