Posted by: standing_baba | May 3, 2010

Out with a Bang

“Until recently, anyone who suggested nationalising the banks would have been derided as a ‘quack’ and a ‘crank,’ as lacking the most basic understanding of the functioning of a ‘complex, globalised world’…And yet, in this time of intersecting crises, when it seems like everything could, and should, have changed, it paradoxically feels as though very little has. Individuals and companies have hunkered down to try and ride out the crisis. Nationalisations and government spending have been used to prevent change, not initiate it.”

Stadium before the crowds

FOREWORD: This post began as an attempt to explain everything I observed during the World People’s Conference for Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (PWCCC). When I sat down to write though I found myself before an impossible task and drove myself crazy trying to put so much information—at times contradictory and hypocritical—into a single blog post. I’ve abandoned that approach in favor of writing less instead of nothing at all. Below I’ve posted about the closing ceremony that concluded the five days of big ideas about how to save the world. Everyone, including myself, cheered and danced and felt part of an unprecedented good, but I remained level-headed throughout the politically-charged rally in order to sift through the hysteria for some sign that the event was actually a springboard for change, complete with detailed strategies, and not, as I had begun to realize listening to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rile the crowd with his practiced political stylings, just another event to further polarize people into black and white ways of thinking. The entire week was upbeat, informative, beautifully synergistic; the closing ceremony left much to be desired in the form of hope. Since I’ve written next to nothing about the actual conference feel free to read here and here for some background information.

Felix Capriles stadium began to fill up around 2:00pm. Badge-wearing foreigners and camera men with telescope lenses like third arms strolled the grassy area below the three massive stages that showcased Bolivian musical acts, a bilingual Spanish-Quecha hostess in traditional dress, and heads of state that observed the crowd with an exhausted satisfaction close to what God must have felt on the Seventh Day. They created this conference and it was good, seemed to beam through their military uniforms and creased suits.

Presidents Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez

After five days of discussion this ceremony marked the final day of the PWCCC. Though the organizers knew this event was an unofficial and premature celebration—the event having ratified nothing and being unrelated to the United Nations Climate Change talks—a certain urgency to mobile the masses was in the air, as if this were the night before an important election and any key phrase loaded with the right amount of passion and common-man-plight could swing the vote.

National bands strummed patriotic songs into the nose bleed section where mostly indigenous Bolivians, for lack of badges were restricted access to the more comfortable grassy area (and lack of badges for lack of information about how to register), sat listening in quiet resignation to the barrage of songs and speeches that called them first-class citizens, sons and daughters of Pachamama, the blood behind the imminent socialist revolution that would save the world from the evils of capitalism.

Bolivian President Evo Morales

An enlarged face of president Evo Morales illuminated the enormous Viva-sponsored telescreen that scrolled live feed of his every twitch, creating the illusion of an intimate conversation despite the symbolic distance between he and his loyal followers. Small Bolivian and Venezuelan flags were dispersed to the most energetic attendees—but only those between the main stage and the TV cameras that transmitted the image of this unified front to the Association Press, which within seconds would blip the same image to satellites and livingrooms around the world. Plastic bags of coca leaves, complete with a nutritional insert and a smiling photo of the president, fell like foul balls upon the unsuspecting who were at first upset by the surprise surprise, then reacted quickly like parade children collecting candy from the streets.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

Quickly it became apparent to me that this closing ceremony, where fiery speeches by leftist leaders were anticipated like guitar solos, was just as much about political ideology as saving the planet. Listening to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez weave war rhetoric into a speech that highlighted the need for solidarity, much to the delight of his flag-waving supporters whose airfare to the conference had been subsidized by his government, was strangely reminiscent of another place, another time, a similar gathering with different characters.

I had seen this all before.

C-SPAN broadcasts, Democratic conventions, Republican rallies, Oval Office presidential speeches, and White House press conferences—my life had been painted some shade of patriotism since the day I was born.

Even this left-leaning conference in the name of Pachamama was just a different color on the same messy palate. It’s all the same game, I realized as flags waved and music crescendo-ed, where psychologists and marketing experts are consulted about which words to emphasize, how long to hold dramatic pauses for greatest effect. The entire Felix Capriles stadium chanted for change just as Obama supporters had chanted for change a continent away. President Chavez ranted about the enemy’s destructive ways much like Reagan before him, just interchange the word “capitalism” and “socialism” when appropriate. The event was blanketed in patriotism to dilute dissenting ideas; the mob-like mentality rewarded its participants with instant friends, an instant family, pre-packaged hope, a renewed purpose in a seemingly hopeless and purposeless world. None of this was new.

The closing ceremony’s political propaganda left me disillusioned, as if the whole conference had been staged for the gain of those few leaders smiling smugly over their creation. I was sickened by the fact that smart, educated attendees let the atmosphere seduce them into cheering for blanket statements and half-truths that divided instead of unified people in a common cause (the power of free elections and Cuba’s human rights record were applauded, for example). The atmosphere was not one of understanding—as is the usually the case with government events—, it was one of indoctrination. The supporters in the stadium felt their cheers fiercely correct, right beyond all doubt, not realizing in the midst of so many like-minded people that opposite and equally valid opinions also existed, that these different ideas are held by the very people with whom they’d have to work to create change, and that Chavez and Morales were leading them into peace talks with a war-like attitude that history has shown to be ineffective for building consensus, let alone for solving the world’s ecological mess.

Two important lessons were reinforced at the closing ceremony. I had understood these concepts before entering the stadium, but the day’s activities confirmed beyond doubt what before was just riding on a hunch. One, any solution to the world’s pollution problems will inevitably be linked to politics. Two, the capitalist system is unsustainable.

Solutions to the world’s pollution problems cannot be separated from politics. Big industry pollutes so disproportionately more compared to individuals that it should be obvious that the guilty must reform their unsustainable practices. We all contribute to the ecological degradation by the fact we participate in a consumerist society, but an individual’s share is nothing relative to big industry’s 24/7 pillowing smoke clouds and rivers of toxic waste that flow into water supplies.

During the conference I learned, for example, that one coal-burning utilities plant in London emits annually nine times more harmful chemicals into the air that the entire country of Uganda. How many utilities plants are there in England? In the world? Don’t litter by all means, but put in perspective that your individual share is tiny compared to the massive industrial system that produces the products we all consume. This is realization is key to understanding just how large our world’s pollution problem has become and to whom the fight should be brought.

If you analyze the capitalist economic model it’s also obvious that the largest polluters have strong connections to world governments. The United Nations, the G8, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund are fine examples of the countries who pollute the most controlling the only international institutions that could potentially hold them accountable. In the United States interest groups spent $17.4 million on lobbying for every day Congress was in session. If the money didn’t buy interest groups certain privileges—the same privileges that put profit before environment—they wouldn’t spend it.

The environment in the capitalist system is viewed as just another commodity, bought and sold like any other. Since property rights control access to raw materials, governments tend to become the resources’ gatekeepers. Endless examples could be cited about governments handing their rivers, forests, mines, and oil-rich lands to the highest bidder, only to have them exhausted in unsustainable ways before the (usually) multinational returns home. Therefore, protection of the planet’s most precious resources—and ultimately the level of production—is many times in governments’ hands. If any change is to take place voters must once again make environmental issues a priority, vote for “green” candidates with few connections to big industry that has a record of environmental neglect, and pressure them to fulfill their promises once in office, whether their position be at a local or national level.

I offer the power of the vote as a possible solution because I’m interested in action, not just words. However, I must also be honest: the pollution problem is so deeply rooted in capitalism that I believe a few honest politicians restrained within a political system, with paling financial resources compared to big industry, can have little effect on the bigger picture. It saddens me to admit that I don’t believe even democracy can win this battle.

[The above video explains the unsustainable practices inherent in the capitalist system]

The real problem is the capitalist economic system itself. It’s undeniably unsustainable. Infinite growth is impossible with finite resources. If you were to ask a kindergartner to paint an entire room with one jar of finger paint, he might try but would soon learn that it cannot be done. If you were to ask again, he’d call you an idiot. In this respect a kindergartner is more intelligent than our world leaders—he learns from his mistakes. Every day economic and government policies are created under the assumption that resources are infinite, that growth must be constant, that the bank account must bulge bigger and bigger. It’s illogical, and this very way of thinking has caused our planet’s greatest ills.

My international posse

Many people at the Cochabamba conference were calling for a complete redesign of the world’s economical and political systems. Out with capitalism, in with socialism, or any number of other do-over alternatives. Though I agree the current capitalist system has skewed priorities that endanger life on this planet and the exhaustion of resources will not slow but accelerate as they become scarcer, I don’t think the conference attendees’ vision can be realistically applied.

Luckily, just as the mathematics that show infinite growth is impossible are simple, so is the solution to conserve our finite resources, at least on a personal level. Consume less. Purchase conscientiously. Learn about the “Bright Green Movement” and incorporate its strategies into your life. Realize happiness will never arise from material things. If everyone consumed less and purchased more conscientiously, the industry’s largest polluters would be forced to adapt to meet these new consumers’ needs.

Times Square, New York

Do I believe this is the ultimate solution? Unfortunately, no. It’s just a minuscule piece in a very complicated, enormous puzzle. Turn on the radio, look at the TV, read the billboards, walk downtown. The advertisements don’t want you to consume less; buying less, not more, goes against our culture. In fact, if everyone were to spend less, our economy would fail—causing an entirely new set of problems. The entire capitalist system is based on an ever-increasing consumption where sophisticated marketing techniques and large sums of money are used to, quite literally, make you believe your ultimate goal in life should be to consume better than others.

I have little faith that the general public will miraculously wake to find they’re being sold marketing ideas, not products; that it’s self-destructive to desire so blindly; that our way of life is endangering the health and happiness of our children. The “consume less” solution is an individual one, with potential yes, but with few chances of minimizing the larger pollution problems due to its small number of participants.

So I sign off with few solutions, sorry. I began this post by outlining ideas, strategies, and solutions until my draft was a cut-and-paste mash of useless rhetoric. That’s when I realized the scope of saving the world from our own ingrained system is exactly as ambitious and difficult as it sounds. The whole conference was much of the same: everyone agrees a serious problem exists but competing interests keep any real solution from attacking the big polluted question mark.

I’d like to open up the comment section to anyone who wants to offer practical solutions that readers can implement in their own lives as well as use to change the bigger system that is responsible for so much destruction. This is not an easy task.


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