The Great Gray Whale: Or, This Story Has No Moral

On the difficulty of measuring change — and of recognizing success.

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While we were looking at humpbacked whales a few months ago, my companion asked me if I ever thought about how Moby Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, survived — by floating away from the destroyed ship Pequod in his friend Queequeg’s coffin. Whales themselves survived into the twenty-first century in part because of petroleum, the black stuff seeping out of the Pennsylvania earth that made the Rockefellers rich and whale oil unnecessary for lighting lamps (and because of the first international whaling treaty in 1949). Of course, petroleum went on to create the climate change that threatens habitat for whales and trashes their world in other ways. Typically, there isn’t an easy moral to this, any more than there is to Ishmael floating away safely because his friend had terrible premonitions of death. And that’s part of the richness of Herman Melville’s telling.

The world is full of tales in which morals are hard to extract from facts. There is the delightful fact that Viagra has been good for endangered species like elk whose antlers now are less at risk of being ground up for Chinese aphrodisiacs, surely the greatest inadvertent contribution of big pharmaceuticals in our time. Casinos have provided many Native American tribes with revenue and clout, though gambling is another kind of social problem and outside groups are the principal profiteers from some of the casinos. McDonald’s has (under intense pressure from animal rights activists) led the way in reforming how meat animals are raised and slaughtered. Many military sites have become de facto wildlife refuges, saving huge swathes of land from civilian development (even if bombing endangered species is part of the drill).

Then there are those interesting moments when otherwise appalling politicians do something decent for whatever reason or when the principled and the sinister are weirdly mixed — like anti-abortion, pro-death-penalty Arizona Senator John McCain’s passion for addressing climate change or the recently deceased Pope John Paul II’s condemnation of neoliberalism. To say nothing of our one great environmental president, Richard Nixon (and, yes, it wasn’t out of purity of heart that Nixon got us the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air and Water Acts, but purity of water and air matter more).

Sometimes, though, I think my compatriots are looking for the real world to provide stories as simple as Sunday school and sports, not as complex as Moby Dick. I would like those victories too. I would have liked it a lot if, after returning from the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, earlier this month, George W. Bush had — in a live global telecast like the Oscars — fallen to his knees, apologized profusely to everyone for everything, condemned capitalism, violence and himself, promised to dismantle the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, stop the war in Iraq immediately, and dedicate some of the billions thus saved to African poverty. And that’s just for starters. But let’s look instead at what we got.

The Baby or the Baby-killer?

Bush, as ever, refused to deal with climate change and was dragged along only grudgingly on aid and debt-relief measures for Africa. Even so, in the lead-up to the summit, 18 of the world’s poorest nations, including Bolivia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nicaragua, Rwanda, and Uganda, received 100% debt cancellation — a $40 billion write-off from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank. Nine more countries will receive debt cancellation in the next 18 months. Of course there were strings attached — preexisting policies obliging those nations to play by some of the rules that made them destitute to begin with. A lot of radicals excoriated the whole business of the G8 taking up debt relief and African poverty. John Pilger wrote in the New Statesman:

“It is a fraud — actually a setback to reducing poverty in Africa. Entirely conditional on vicious, discredited economic programmes imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, the ‘package’ will ensure that the ‘chosen’ countries slip deeper into poverty. Is it any surprise that this is backed by Blair and his treasurer, Gordon Brown, and George Bush; even the White House calls it a ‘milestone.'”

Others disagreed. Foreign Policy in Focus analyst Mark Engler wrote:

“Those progressives who have attacked the debt deal emphasize that, even in announcing the cancellation, G8 finance ministers explicitly reaffirm a neoliberal economic paradigm. Under the new G8 agreement, 18 countries do receive full debt cancellation from the IMF and World Bank, and nine other countries may be granted similar relief at a later date.”

He went on to discuss the “conditionalities,” or terms, that the countries granted debt cancellation under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries program, or HIPC, are required to accept, including various measures increasing privatization and corporate access to their resources. Engler concluded:

“Obviously, this is a problem. That said, it is clearly better for poor countries that have already suffered HIPC conditions to receive full cancellation, rather than inadequate, partial relief. Full, 100 percent cancellation has been one of the foundational demands of the debt relief movement. It is something that has been resisted by wealthy nations through years of mass protests and persistent lobbying. By affirming the legitimacy of this long-denied demand, the G8 agreement sets a landmark precedent. This breakthrough represents a significant victory…. In one example, some 2.2 million people in Uganda gained access to water as a result of a post-1997 debt cancellation.”

The debate seems to be over whether this is capitulation or incremental victory. The majority of victories we win are likely to be muddled, compromised, incomplete, and uncredited. It is no surprise that Blair and Bush failed to excoriate themselves or the system that creates poverty. Of course, they avoided systemic analysis while claiming to have always been on the side of the angels.

Radicals often want a victory that is sudden, dramatic, and full of moral illumination, that belongs clearly to them and to them alone, the kind where the other side loudly repents and credits you with dramatically reversing their course, or better yet simply surrenders and leaves the arena. This is not even victory, but vindication, since the focus shifts from alleviating suffering to acknowledging its cause and your virtue.

I remember when some portion of California’s Headwaters Forest was saved after a long struggle on the part of Earth First! and other environmental radicals. That there was outrage over the inadequate protection offered was one thing; that so many were focused on the fact that junk-bond king Charles Hurwitz, owner of Pacific Lumber, had profited handsomely from selling the land represented a real slip in focus from saving trees to thwarting opponents. It would have been nice to see Hurwitz penniless and in jail, and there were good reasons why he should have been both — but the forest was more important and saving it had been the point all along.

Was the issue in Scotland then debt relief, or destruction of the system that created that debt and dire poverty, or acknowledgment of the evils of neoliberalism, or the capitulation of Bush and Blair? It is easier, and in some ways more likely, to achieve something colossal like debt cancellation that will affect millions of the planet’s poorest than to get those in power to admit that they or their system are wrong.

Activists often have a real distaste for hailing anything that comes from those regarded as the enemy, and the distaste is understandable; but the refusal, or inability, to recognize the messy ways in which change for the better comes is another thing altogether. There aren’t a lot of saints in politics, and you can wait forever for change to come only from them. You can always argue that what we need is systemic change and nothing less, but humanitarianism often means accepting lesser steps along the way, and sometimes those steps lead toward something more revolutionary. A friend pointed out to me that when your client is facing the death penalty, you might like to abolish capital punishment and reform the system, but your courtroom victory will consist, first of all, of keeping him off death row.

The alternative position is caught well by a story I heard fifteen years ago from an activist just out of jail. She had been convicted for destroying nuclear missile guidance systems. She related a parable about a group of washerwomen on a riverbank who see a baby floating by, rescue it, and then find themselves plunging into the river regularly to grab babies. Finally one washerwoman walks away. Her comrades ask her if she doesn’t care about babies. She replies, “I’m going to go upstream to find the guy who’s throwing them in.” She is the revolutionary ideologue who will take on the system, but in the meantime there’s something to be said for pulling out the babies who will drown before — in the case of debt relief — the end of neoliberalism. Both positions are needed and they can be symbiotic rather than competitive. There are a lot of babies at stake. And a lot of slimy politicians kissing babies and then throwing them in the river.

Full-fledged debt cancellation, rather than, say, debt restructuring, may be an ideological change that acknowledges the profound suffering indebtedness creates and the failure of the system that created it. (After all, those loans were officially supposed to fund prosperity.) It seems to open the door for further transformations — and the stubborn Jubilee activists who have been working on the issue for a decade have not gone home and not been satisfied. In June, the organization declared:

“The announcement that a deal to cancel the debts of some of the world’s poorest countries had been reached at Saturday’s G7 Finance Ministers’ meeting must be welcomed as the first step on the road towards writing off the debt burdens that are preventing developing countries from attaining their Millennium Development Goals. Nonetheless it remains a wholly inadequate response to the demands made by NGOs and civil society debt campaigners for a total cancellation of unsustainable debt at the G8 Summit in July. It has been clear for 20 years that many indebted countries were effectively insolvent and required their debts to be written off, and that the debt problem itself was part of a systemic failure of the present economic system. Until a fundamental reform of international finance and trade is undertaken, debt cancellation — though necessary in the short term — can only address the symptoms and not the cause of chronic poverty in the developing world. In the absence of such comprehensive changes, the high hopes of debt campaigners will ultimately be disappointed.”

The question then is whether the measures taken this summer are steps along the way to more substantive change.

In honor of Tony Blair, I have revised Gandhi’s famous dictum to read: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they co-opt your issue and pretend it was always theirs, and then if you don’t get all muddled, you still might win.” But here’s the catch: it won’t look like victory. It won’t satisfy the way victory is supposed to satisfy. It will come in dribbles rather than in a glorious burst; it will arrive in the hands of those you loathe; it will appear in some unanticipated form hard to recognize. Changes come sneakily, like the thieves they are, stealing the familiar world. By the time you win, your victory no longer belongs to you; it belongs first to the annoying former adversaries who have taken it up and now espouse it as though it had always been their own, and then it belongs to history.

Maybe we have team sports so that every once in a blue moon something will look like victory. And every once in a while the real world has its watersheds — Mandela’s inauguration, say — rather than just its trickles. (In Mexico, the seventy-year dictatorship of the PRI ended not with a Mandela, but with that ex-Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox assuming the presidency — though this may yet open the way for left-wing Mexico City Mayor Lopez Obrador to become that country’s president next year in what would be, twenty years on from the first loosening of the PRI’s stranglehold, a real watershed victory after muddled, incremental changes that may have made it possible.)

The real debate is over perception: Radicals fear that the acceptance of limited changes undermines the profound change they seek, and the less radical are indeed often willing to accept palliative measures instead. But limited change undermines that larger goal only if it is perceived as final and adequate; perhaps what is needed from all of us is an ability to hail achievements without regarding them as occasions to quit and to recognize that change will shuffle more often than leap. Of course when it comes to who demands what and who decides what comes next, it’s more complicated; and limited changes can be how politicians disarm popular outcry rather than truly address what’s at stake.

Blunting the Swords Small Bodies Are Impaled On

I was in England and Scotland in late May and early June, and it was like entering a parallel universe. The proliferation of fear mongering and fast-food outlets was as familiar as the ubiquitous preoccupation with climate change and African poverty was not. (Of course, the latter issue was dominated by wizened rock stars with Lady Bountiful politics and a nauseating enthusiasm for giving absolution to heads of state.) Tony Blair had taken up these two causes in what appeared to be a blatant bait-and-switch on the war in Iraq he had gotten his country into, and it had worked — that war was a minor news story by comparison and a relatively minor issue in the G8 protests. (This was, of course, before the London bombings brought the question of Iraq back onto the front pages.)

A searching national conversation on the real causes of African poverty was going on — with various conclusions. To explain that disaster spread over most of a continent, some pointed to a half-millennium of European colonization and genocide and its political and psychological aftermath; some to widespread support for corrupt and undemocratic regimes that milk their countries dry; others to the role pillaging multinational corporations play in draining Africa of its natural wealth. All are causes, of course, as are the policies of the IMF and the World Bank. But the question that fascinated me was: What had caused African poverty to move to the center of British national consciousness and G8 negotiations?

Seven years earlier, I had been at the demonstrations against the 1998 G8 Summit in Birmingham, England. This was 17 months before the epochal shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle fittingly exiled the unloved leaders of the more or less free world to meeting in self-created super-militarized zones. (Security for this summit in rural Scotland cost hundreds of millions of pounds. One Scottish local commented that they should have met on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean — in the cheaper and more honest armed isolation that would best represent their relationship to the public. Certainly, the extraordinary sums spent on security could have done a lot for Africa’s destitute.)

In ’98, I had gone to Birmingham to hang out with Reclaim the Streets (RTS), the raucous, wildly creative British movement that shifted the tone and tactics of direct action in many parts of the world and demonstrated early the power of the Internet for creating simultaneous demonstrations in many countries. At the same moment, Jubilee 2000 (now Jubilee Research) formed a vast human chain around the G8 and much of central Birmingham. RTS condemned the G8’s very existence; Jubilee 2000 asked it for something specific. At the time, I have to admit, the jubilee group made little impression on me, and their “Cancel the Debt” message seemed hopeful but remote.

Remote then, it has arrived now, as both a transnational awareness of the causes and costs of the loans forced on poor nations and as the recent debt cancellations. It is impressive to measure the migration of the idea of debt cancellation (and so, of the rich world’s role in creating poverty) as it traveled from outside the walls of Birmingham into Gleneagles to become the unavoidable topic. No less impressive is the way the early champions of debt relief took up such a complex, unglamorous idea and stuck with it for so long — long enough to matter, long enough to change the world. For debt relief exemplifies the often murky issues of much contemporary activism. Everyone agrees that children shouldn’t be murdered, but it’s hard to show people how arcane and intricate international financial rules can become the swords upon which small bodies are impaled. Zambia has already announced that cancellation of its debt will immediately translate into anti-retrovirals for some of its 100,000 AIDS sufferers (which exemplifies, as well, how debt translates into death; think of all those people who have not been getting medication).

Win or lose, the question of what was achieved begs a larger question: Is it useful to hail less-than-perfect, less-than-complete achievements? There is a real danger of complacency if the assessment is simplified into “we won,” since winning in this culture is usually followed by going home, as if life on earth was a game that ended when your team had the higher score. But there is also danger in never acknowledging our role in the murky victories that do occur on this strange planet. For then you leave bystanders, newcomers, sometimes even old-timers with the impression that we never win, that nothing we do works, that we have no effect.

Toughness, critique, dissatisfaction always have an important place in reminding people that the game isn’t up and suffering continues; so does recognizing that real change is possible and that activists have real power. It’s not black or white, not cause for resting on laurels or for despair, just for continuing on with the endless project of a better world. Moby Dick was white; the humpback whales I saw spouting and leaping in the Pacific were nearly black; but truth and history are larger, and grayer.

Rebecca Solnit lives in San Francisco, where she writes Tomdispatches and books. Her newest book is A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

Copyright 2005 Rebecca Solnit

This piece first appeared, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at


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