Ebola & Islamic Extremism: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

airport Ebola screening

Airport Ebola screening

Although American officials are making lots of reassuring noises about screening passengers coming from West Africa for signs of the dreaded Ebola virus, the truth is that the only way to totally safeguard against the spread of the disease is to close our borders entirely. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Talk about an unexpected side effect of globalization. Goods and services spread around the globe at the stroke of a keyboard or the roar of a jet engine, but the same mechanisms we celebrate as having pumped up the global economy also, potentially, have a darker side.

What was it Marx said about the bourgeoisie digging its own grave?

I keep hearing the undertone, in the media reporting on Ebola, of the “blame-the-victim” complaint, “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they living in such poverty? Why don’t they have doctors, nurses, hospitals? Look how their squalor is putting us all at risk?!”

There is truth to this. The poor folks in Liberia, Guinea and Sierre Leone, former colonies of the U.S., France and Great Britain, respectively, have not managed to modernize their societies. This is due to a number of factors, including corrupt leadership (strongmen often propped up by the Western powers), violent civil wars (armed by Western weapons manufacturers and distributors), and banana republic-style economies where Western corporations rule by extraction, extortion and exploitation, without giving anything back in taxes, infrastructure or education for the local people.

This is where the West has made its big mistake. How could we in the so-called developed world be so naïve as to think that we could ignore the poverty and suffering of other parts of the globe without that poverty and suffering coming back to haunt us?

Liberian child soldier

Liberian child soldier

If we had invested in schools, medical facilities and housing in Liberia, instead of sending endless supplies of assault rifles and ammunition, we would not be worrying about Ebola now.

Likewise, if we had invested in education and economic development in the Middle East, instead of relying corrupt warlords to keep the population in line, we would not be dealing with a seemingly endless morphing insurgency of Taliban-Al Quaeda-Islamic State terrorists.

It really is true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In a globalized society, pretending that vast disparities of wealth don’t matter is just plain stupid. Imagining that a vicious virus can be contained by airport thermometer checks is as ridiculous as imagining that an international terrorist network can be stopped by a few fly-by bombings.

The world’s leaders need to take a lesson from Malala Yousefzai, the 17-year-old girl who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her steadfast insistence, even after nearly having her head blown off by the Taliban, that girls should be educated.

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Study after study has shown that when a society educates and empowers women, it becomes more economically successful and more politically stable.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

This week, in my African Women Writing Resistance class, I’ve been reading and discussing the autobiography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and first woman head of state in modern Africa.

Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, has been in the news a lot lately, begging for help in containing the spread of Ebola and warning grimly of the consequences of international inaction.

She came to office vowing to take her country back from the warlords and reintegrate child soldiers, to educate girls and boys and build a sustainable economy. She’s made great strides, but the stark pictures of the pathetic state of the nation’s health care infrastructure make it clear how far Liberia, like other poor African nations, still has to go.

The bottom line is this: if we want safety, we have to build towards it, step by step, from the ground up. We can’t ignore poverty and then get mad when impoverished sick people dare to infect us, or when desperate people turn to radical Islam as a way out of their misery.

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

There is no excuse, in our globalized world, for the dramatic disparities of wealth and poverty that exist today. Those of us lucky enough to live comfortably in the U.S. or Europe should be using our privilege to advocate for those less fortunate.

Not just out of altruism. Out of self-preservation, too.

If we had been helping Liberia and other West African nations build good social infrastructure, instead of extracting profits from diamonds, rubber and gun sales, we would not be worrying about the spread of Ebola today.

If we had been educating children in Syria, Yemen and Iraq instead of supporting corrupt dictators and ignoring the plight of ordinary people, we would not be facing the spread of Islamic extremism today.

How many innocent humans will have to die before we begin to understand that simple adage? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Nobel Peace Prize honorees: why not Vandana Shiva?

How can I complain when the Nobel committee saw fit to grace not one but three women, two from Liberia and one from Yemen, with the annual Peace prize?

After all, I’ve been working for years now to help the women of the two-thirds world gain more power and recognition, and these three women–the towering elder and current President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist familiar to many from the portrait of her in the powerful documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”; and the young Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkol Karman– are certainly very deserving.

In fact, for our anthology African Women Writing Resistance: Contemporary Voices, my co-editors and I chose a quote from President Johnson Sirleaf as one of our epigraphs.  “Listening to the hopes and dreams of our people,” she said in a speech to the American Congress in 2006, “I recall the words of a Mozambican poet, who said ‘Our dream has the size of freedom.’ My people, like your people, believe deeply in freedom–and, in their dreams, they reach for the heavens.”

All three of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners have been channels for the hopes and dreams of their people, seeking political empowerment, social stability and security, and a sustainable path forward out of chaos (in Liberia’s case) and stagnation (in Yemen).  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has done a lot of good things for her people in her tenure as President, including many development programs aimed specifically at empowering women.  She has succeeded in gaining major debt relief from Liberia’s creditors, as well as brokering deals with big transnational energy companies to extract Liberia’s oil.

The other two Nobel Peace Prize honorees are equally deserving.

But I wish the Nobel Committee had been a bit more forward-thinking, and seen fit to honor another woman from the two-thirds world, Vandana Shiva of India.  A Ph.D. in particle physics, Shiva has been way ahead of her time for most of her life.

Instead of taking her place comfortably in the ranks of the Indian elite, Shiva became aware as a young woman of the danger of the industrialization of agriculture in India. She founded an organization, Navdanya, dedicated to saving heirloom seeds and preserving the knowledge of how to farm using ancient, local, sustainable methods.

When Monsanto began moving aggressively into the Indian market, luring in farmers with fertilizers and GMO seed on credit, Vandana Shiva was just about the only one who seemed to perceive the huge risk they were taking.  When these same farmers began committing suicide in droves as their reliance on foreign seed, fertilizer and pesticide drove them inexorably into debt, Vandana Shiva was the one who went to court to defend their lands and the rights of their widows.

She has been a veritable David fighting the Goliath of Monsanto for the past twenty years or so.  And in many cases, she has won!

While I also honor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her younger co-awardees this year, I have to say that I would like to see them follow more in Vandana Shiva’s footsteps in the future.

Take Liberia, for instance, which in 2010 ranked 162 out of 169 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is busy signing agreements with Chevron to extract the country’s oil, and hoping that some of the oil wealth will trickle down to ordinary Liberians, who are still hungry and poor today.

I’d like to respectfully suggest that instead of selling her soul to Big Oil, President Sirleaf follow the example of Vandana Shiva, and look to local, sustainable agriculture and manufacturing to build her country’s economy.

In a time of rapid climate change, it’s the countries and regions that are most self-sufficient and least plugged into the fossil-fuel-driven global economy that are going to be able to ride out the coming maelstrom.

It is clear that the corporate and political leaders of the world have no intention of acting decisively to stop global warming.  Last week’s major climate change story was about a report issued by a Washington D.C. think tank calling for more research into bioengineering of the climate, or “climate remediation.”  Specifically, they’re interested in getting the federal government to fund research into two major approaches:

  • Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR): CDR strategies aim to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, thereby addressing the root causes of climate change.
  • Solar Radiation Management (SRM): SRM strategies aim to counteract or mask the effect of rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere by increasing the amount of solar energy that is reflected back into space.
The first method involves working with plants that will absorb more carbon dioxide, or finding ways to sequester the CO2 we produce back underground.  One could hardly argue with an aggressive tree-planting and conservation campaign, particularly in light of the appalling reality of deforestation across the world today (see this very cool interactive map for the gruesome details).
The second method is the environmental equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s infamous Star Wars missile defense system: a sci-fi-esque plan to install giant mirrors in space, or to seed the atmosphere with reflective particles that will deflect solar rays from Earth.  One can just imagine the military industrial complex salivating at the thought of such a project, particularly at a time when there is so little support for continuing the wars that are this industry’s usual diet.
The problem, of course, is that both of these approaches miss the central most important fact about climate change, which is that nothing will stop it other than aggressive changes to our carbon-based lifestyle.
Will that happen?  Can it happen in time?  Maybe the Occupy Wall Street movement can bring the necessary energy to this fight, and I certainly hope they do.  Recently Bill McKibben’s 350.org, a leader in climate change activism, became one of the many larger national organizations seeking to ally themselves with this young juggernaut of political action.

Meanwhile, so-called “less developed nations” like Liberia and Yemen and all the rest should seriously re-evaluate their acceptance of this designation, which means rethinking the whole rationale behind Western-style “development.”  Development, Western-imperialist style, has benefited a few people mightily but brought suffering to the vast majority of people on Earth, especially those in the areas of greatest resource extraction, which are, paradoxically, the “less-developed” nations.

Now the time has come for us here in the heart of Empire to feel the blowback from our aggressive policies of development.  Climate change is upon us.  And in this new era, it is precisely those with the least reliance on oil, electricity and industrial agriculture that will have the best chance of adapting to the new realities of life on Earth.

President Johnson Sirleaf and all the other leaders of “less-developed nations” should stop and reconsider their friendships with the global corporate elite.  The urgent task now is to build resilient communities and economies based on the exchange and consumption of local resources–just like it was for the tens of thousands of years of human existence before the industrial revolution started us off on a different path.

It is people like Vandana Shiva, who are still in touch with older ways of living in harmony with the Earth, who may be able to lead us through the current crisis into a sustainable future.  Let us take heed while there’s still time.

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