Scheherezades of the 21st Century

I have been following the progress of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development from a distance, feeling jaded about the process and the possibility of positive outcomes resulting from this gathering of diplomats and social engineers.  It’s good to see the lively and vibrant displays of people passion outside the gates of the conference, but the real question is, when will those gates come down?

Gar Alperovitz

At the Strategies for a New Economy conference earlier this month, veteran progressive economist Gar Alperovitz pointed to our time as the moment when enough people wake up and notice that something is wrong.

“This is a critical moment in history,” he said; “the moment when people realize something is gravely wrong and are willing to think outside the box to find solutions.”

Alperovitz suggested that we are currently in “the prehistory of a major shift,” and that now is the time for those of us who are aware of what’s happening to “lay the foundations for new institutions and new systems” that are tailored to meet the coming challenges.

Who would have thought, a decade ago, that the cell phone would take Africa by storm, Alperovitz reminded us.  In the same way, it could be that distributed solar-generated power—each home and business hosting its own power generator on the roof–will become the standard in the decade to come, particularly if the real costs of fossil fuels are brought home to industries and consumers.

Yesterday in the course of a desultory lunchtime conversation about changing weather patterns, one of the people around the table, a bigtime financial executive, mentioned that he’d heard the Arctic ice was melting at an unprecedented rate.

I took his comment to be about the negative impact of climate change on the environment, and began talking about the methane bubbles that have been rising up out of the deepwater beneath the ice pack, suddenly and disastrously finding access to the open air.

But no—his point was quite different. To him, what was interesting about the melting of the ice was that it put previously inaccessible oil beds suddenly within range of development.

Groan.

What difference will all the UN treaties in the world make to the health of our planet if the power brokers sitting in their comfortable climate-controlled glass towers in New York don’t understand the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels?  My financier friend was actually planning to fly down to Rio this week on business, but it was news to him that the Rio+20 conference was going on at all.

Gar Alperovitz described our current economic system as “stalemated, stagnating and in decay—neither reforming nor collapsing,” and this sounds like an accurate description to me of our tightly intertwined political, financial and industrial sectors.

All of us ordinary people are held like flies in the sticky web of corporate capitalism, which is squeezing us ever more tightly in the bonds of rising prices, scarce jobs and inescapable debt.

Where will it end?  Alperovitz called on the conference attendees to become the historical change agents within our communities—to go home and seize every opportunity to develop the frameworks for the transition to a different kind of future.

To me, as a writer and teacher of literature, it was interesting to hear him calling in particular for an emphasis on new kinds of narrative.  In order to imagine new solutions to what seem like insurmountable problems, he said, “we need to tell new stories.”

Maybe 350.org’s Twitterstorm yesterday, in which hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world besieged Twitter with messages in support of ending the fossil fuel subsidies, is the start of a new story—a global story, authored collectively by kindred spirits worldwide.

It remains to be seen whether we will be able to figure out a way to preserve and extend our current technological sophistication while moving into a sustainable, harmonious relation with our planetary home.  Many who are currently trying to read the future predict a violent collapse of our human civilization, with a dramatic loss of human population and a return to a much simpler, low-tech kind of life for those who survive.

The only way the latter scenario will be avoided is if the technocrats and the bureaucrats and the financiers start listening to the ordinary people outside the gates, and understanding the full implications of their dependence on a capitalist economic system of endless growth fueled by destructive fossil fuels and the despoiling of the environment.

So yes, let’s start telling those new stories by every means possible—by Twitter, by blog, by radio, TV and film—around the lunch table and across the backyard fence.

Tell new stories as though your life depended on it. As in fact, it does.

Rio+20: Fiddling While Earth Burns

I am having trouble summoning any enthusiasm over the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference, which will begin on June 20.

When you go to the conference website, everything sounds so benign, forward-looking and responsible.  For example, talking about food security, the conference framers call for the promulgation of sustainable agriculture, meaning “the capacity of agriculture over time to contribute to overall welfare by providing sufficient food and other goods and services in ways that are economically efficient and profitable, socially responsible, and environmentally sound.”

It sounds marvelous.  But we all know that during the last 20 years, since the first Earth Summit in 1992, industrial agriculture has only gotten bigger and badder, more focused on profit at the expense of social responsibility or environmental stewardship.

Food security for the majority of people on the planet has become a pipe dream, and even the most privileged of us are growing increasingly vulnerable to disruptions in food supplies caused by climate change, monoculture and the superweeds and superbugs that have developed resistance to our chemicals.

I was not surprised to find in my inbox this morning an eloquent position paper from La Via Campesina, seeing right through the rosy language of the “sustainable development” engineers to recognize that “beneath the deceptive and badly intentioned term “green economy”, new forms of environmental contamination and destruction are now rolled out along with new waves of privatization, monopolization, and expulsion from our lands and territories.”

Here is how La Via Campesina, which represents indigenous and peasant farmers worldwide, but particularly in South America, sees the “green economy”:

“The green economy does not seek to reduce climate change or environmental deterioration, but to generalize the principle that those who have money can continue polluting. Up to now, they have used the farce of purchasing carbon bonds to continue emitting greenhouse gases. They are now inventing biodiversity bonds. This is to say, businesses can continue destroying forests and ecosystems, as long as they pay someone to supposedly conserve biodiversity somewhere else. Tomorrow they may invent bonds for water, natural “views”, or clean air.”

I am afraid that this analysis is right on target.  The whole premise of the REDD agreements, under which communities were to be paid for conserving their forests, has only resulted in a land rush to purchase the forests so as to collect the international funding.  And to add insult to injury, REDD has allowed the destruction of virgin forests and replanting of, say, palm oil plantations, to “count” as forest conservation.

So the international capitalists make out like bandits, and the local people who have lived peacefully and harmoniously in the forests for thousands of years suddenly find themselves given the boot.

In the first anthology I edited, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean (South End Press, 2004), I included an essay by Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala, who has become a major voice for global indigenous rights and environmental stewardship.  The essay describes Menchu’s unofficial visit to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum

“I had gone to find out what their idea of the earth, plants and nature might be, and what I found was a commercial version of ecology,” she said.  “There were T-shirts with tigers, lions and parrots painted on them, and plastic bags with animals’ faces.  It was a case of businessmen making money out of the environment.”

Although Menchu ended on a more hopeful note back in the ‘90s when this essay was first published, I have no doubt that today she is less optimistic, given the way events have played out over the past 20 years.  It is no exaggeration to say that the capitalist assault on the natural world combined with the human population overload of the planet has brought us to the brink of civilization collapse.

The calm, rationalist language of the Rio+20 architects reveals no sign of awareness of the dire state of the planet.  They seem to have constructed their conference materials in an air-conditioned bubble, through which the voices of the billions of ordinary people on the ground cannot penetrate.

La Via Campesina is calling for a return to small-scale agriculture as the solution to the Earth’s problems. They argue that a relocalization of agriculture is necessary, with indigenous and peasant farmers given cooperative control over their lands, as it was for the thousands of years preceding our own unfortunate era.

We will never get the diplomats, technocrats and financial oligarchs in the air-conditioned conference halls to agree to such a simple, unprofitable solution to food security.

But the feedback loops that have made our planet stable since the last Ice Age are now becoming severely disrupted, and so Earth may take matters into her own hands, forcing a relocalization in which only those who still remember how to subsist in small groups close to the land will be able to survive.

Is this the great transition prophesied by the Mayans long ago?  The end of the age of technocratic capitalism, and the return to a simpler way of life?

Global meetings such as Rio+20 should be occasions for making plans, together with the small-scale farmers on the ground all over the world, for intelligent transitions to truly sustainable communities. There is still time to prepare for the coming ecological shocks so as to prevent mass misery.

Instead, governments are using this precious time to build up armies and police forces to ensure the control of ever-shrinking resources by the wealthy, and selling small-scale arms to local gangs to encourage violence and terror outside of the gated communities of the rich nations.

This is a strategy that keeps us all in line—we in the wealthy nations are terrified of the violence we see outside our borders, and so we docilely do as we are told, which is to say, continue to participate in the aggressive policies that are bringing us all to ruin.

I see the twin monsters of the weapons and the chemical industries as the most destructive forces on our planet today.  If these two industries could be stopped, and their destructive products destroyed, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.

We may not be able to put those evil genies back into the bottle ourselves.  But the planet will take care of it, sooner or later.

Right now, it’s looking like it’s going to be soon.

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