Big Plans: Scientists, indigenous people urge new frameworks for development

Last week, a group of scientists and development experts and the Colombian indigenous confederation each urged a fundamental rethinking of the priorities for planning “development”* in the twenty-first century. The technical experts published their perspective in a commentary in the prestigious journal Nature,Sustainable development goals for people and planet,” while the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia published a report called Another Vision, Indigenous Peoples and the Millennium Development Goals. (coverage from Intercontinental Cry). Both texts are intervening in the global discussion on the next version of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Outside of the United States (where this kind of international planning is treated as purely a foreign policy matter that won’t affect our future), the MDGs are taken as a general yardstick for directing aid and setting policy objectives, with goals like achieving universal access to primary school and eliminating extreme poverty that may change hundreds of millions of lives. Since I write from the USA, however, let’s pretend that this is just an intellectual discussion for how to think about the world. Even from that perspective, the scientists and the indigenous people raise some really important questions.

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The most powerful forms of worker action, illegal in the USA

The worst active anti-union law in the United States was not Scott Walker’s recently passed assault on collective bargaining by state employees, but a law that makes many of the most powerful ways for workers to fight back against such a law illegal: the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (wikipedia). That law makes many practical collective responses used by unions around the world illegal acts (technically “unfair labor practices”) in the United States. Nearly all of these are recognized as part of the fundamental right of freedom of organizing, recognized by international conventions to which the United States is a signatory. Among these actions are:

  • Jurisdictional strikes—A strike to demand that work be performed by members of the union
  • Wildcat strikes—Strikes called from the workplace floor, for new demands or in direct response to events
  • Solidarity strikes—A strike by one workplace in solidarity with a strike at another
  • Political strikes—Strikes in support of demands that extend beyond a single workplace, such as the minimum wage, overtime rights, or national health care
  • Secondary boycotts—The refusal of workers at one company to handle goods from another company during a strike there
  • Secondary picketing—Picketing (say be striking workers at one workplace) intended to get workers at a second shop to engage in a secondary boycott

If you haven’t worked for union or gone out on strike, you probably have never heard this list, and the first items that are illegal probably sound like basic elements of free speech. Harry Truman, whose veto of the Act was overriden, would agree with you. He called the law a “dangerous intrusion on free speech.”

Today, as union members, people who believe in the right of workers to represent themselves, and people who hope for a better life for themselves and their communities debate how to respond to Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Wisconsin, far too many effective forms of nonviolent collective action require formally breaking the law. Increasing numbers of union activists have brought up the general strike, a coordinated work stoppage by multiple unions, and ideally the public at large, as a means of exerting pressure. General strikes are in fact ideal ways for workers to press demands on a government: Spanish and Italian workers have repeatedly pressed for wage increases through general strikes; Bolivians have used general strikes for a broad range of goals; the French used them to oppose raising the retirement age; and most of Western Europe established the worker protections they enjoy under threat of general strikes. It is indeed an exciting time now in Wisconsin because this extremely powerful tool is being broadly considered. However, incorporated unions have to consider the legal risks in not just calling a general strike, but in taking steps beyond wearing a common color in solidarity (one of the other proposals being planned right now). Meanwhile, right-wing opponents are covering this debate under the headline, “Socialists, Unions Plotting Illegal Strike in Wisconsin.”

We should remember that illegal does not mean immoral, or wrong-headed. Like the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike and the right to strike together to press common demands are basic forms of democracy; they are rights that everyone has, as even our government has recognized at the international level. Rolling back laws that turn rights into crimes should be on our agenda, whether those laws are from 2011 or 1947.

CMPCC: Root Causes of Climate Change are Capitalism and Culture

Big conference, bigger questions

Tuesday at the CMPCC was the first day of truly massive events, besides the 17 (+1) Working Groups (Mesas de Trabajo) which themselves reached up to 500 people each. Yesterday morning was devoted exclusively to a massive opening ceremony held at Tiquipaya’s stadium. The New Bolivia has a combination of faces: the grassroots movements gathered in a stadium face, the indigenous tradition face, and the we’re running the state face. All three were on display in the pageantry of yesterday morning: dozens of banners and hundreds of wiphalas (indigenous flag of the Andes whose rainbow colors symbolize inclusion) marked the first side; the ceremony was inaugurated with requests for permission from Mother Earth and Father Cosmos; and Evo’s entrance began with a massive salute from hundreds of red-coated soldiers.

The content of the speeches was more interesting (Evo’s personal content was extended and rambling, but had its good moments which are already beginning to be overshadowed by tactless and factless comments about male sexuality and European baldness), and led into the afternoon session on “The Root Causes of Climate Change.”

The morning speeches were marked first by representatives of five continents (no one from Australia or Antarctica) addressing the summit: Faith Gemill (a Gwich’in from Alaska) spoke about a shared need to decolonize indigenous peoples; a member of the European Parliament’s left-green alliance said that the summit has allies on the European left willing to challenge the Copenhagen Accord; Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth-Nigeria/International called for an end to fossil fuels (“Keep the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, and the tar sands in the lands”) and a rejection of false solutions; Suma Dutra argued that more than 90% of her native India has not been part of the new fossil-fuel-dependent economy and that this majority is waking up to the issue; and Eveldina Mazioli (Brazil) spoke to the systemic change towards small-scale agriculture advocated by Via Campesina, one of the world’s largest and most dynamic transnational alliances.

This brought us to Evo, who addressed with props differences between the capitalist and indigenous way of life. What I found striking was the personal animus involved on the part of people wanting show they are “better than” indigenous people, by using commodities. Contrasting a ceramic, fancy china, and plastic plates, Evo pointed out that capitalism/consumerism encouraged people to leave behind the plates that return to being earth when they break, in favor of modern versions that contaminate the world around them.

The massively attended afternoon session on “Root causes of Climate Change” kept its focus more exclusively on capitalism, with activists, a sociologist, an ethicist, and a vice president all framing the issue. Real aspects of capitalism are driving factors in the global ecological crisis: the quest for expansion, relentless incorporation of resources into the economy, an inability to settle for sufficiency, the promotion of consumerism as an economic strategy, treating environmental costs as externalities, and on and on.

Of course, however reasonable it is to put capitalism at the center of the ecological crisis, doing so raises more questions than it answers. Let me put this another way for people who aren’t as skeptical of capitalism as I am: suppose we accept that the dynamics of capitalism are provoking a crisis in the liveability of the planet; and that those same dynamics make any kind of solutions extremely difficult. What other questions does that raise?

First, what kind of economic and social systems might substitute for endless growth? How will they provide incentives for a “people-centered economy”? Unlike when I was growing up, the other possible are less unified, but far more diverse. The plural left here in Bolivia is one example of the kind of diversified solutions: nationally direct industries function alongside communal indigenous economies, and small and massive cooperatives. What is not capitalism is many things.

Second, how in the world does the political groundswell needed for real transformations get built? Third, what alternatives? (This is the easy one, actually: There’s a ton of movement, planning, and visioning work done on this question.)

Fourth, and most complicated, given that capitalism isn’t going anywhere in most of the world for at least a few decades, how much inside-capitalism response to the climate crisis is necessary? This may be the hardest question, since capitalism and its critics will have to work together to solve one of the most difficult technical and social problems ever, even as the critics remain skeptical that an end to the crisis is possible through such cooperation.

Beyond our economic system (as if that were a small matter), I think we have to ask real questions about the other issues raised by our five continental representatives.

Culture: We are talking about a real ethical transformation, built atop many cultures that have got used to relentless consuming more as a chief measure of personal status. And we’re also talking about internalizing all the consequences of our decisions for other people and the planet in our economic and social choices. What in the world will that look like.

Colonialism: The power states exercise over indigenous peoples, and that a powerful few countries exercise over the rest ends up being a key factor in climate change. The oil and mining industries operate through inequality between regions of production and consumption. Simply put, the kind of people who drive SUVs wouldn’t put a conventional oil pit in their backyard to do so. Instead they rely on less fortunate communities to supply the fuel, and pay the price. The one nice thing about this arrangement is that confronting it creates a virtuous cycle. To the degree that drillsite and fence line communities demand respect or gain in power, the whole system gets an incentive to switch to green ways of being. The difficult part is that very real systems of power have to be challenged in the process.

False solutions: In the short term, there are both real and false solutions to climate change. Some things will in fact slow, and one day reverse, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Others won’t. How do we tell the difference? And how do we stop the false solutions from being implemented? This is extremely important in a “flexible” climate change regime like the one that exists since the Kyoto Protocol: any country can pay another to implement a cheaper false solution, and avoid real emissions cuts in return.

Finally, in writing this I feel torn geographically. Half of these questions may seem un-askable in the United States. They are daily matters of discussion in movements here. And from the looks of the conference not just here. The thing about the global climate crisis is that it makes asking difficult questions a necessity. Since the 1990s, the small island states of the world have regarded these kinds of global discussion as life or death matters, because they are: they might be literally underwater without comprehensive solutions. In recent years, much of Africa (facing desertification and major food production loss) and countries like the low-lying, very-dense Bangladesh (not as low-lying or dense as the Netherlands, but money works wonders) have been added to the list. In circumstances like these, you must move very quickly along a chain of logic like this: “If capitalism is the problem, what might be the solution.” Or along a different chain of logic: “If the global economy can’t feed over one billion people, what good is it?” Part of seeing this week’s conference for what it is, is to recognize that thousands of people from movements across the global South, and some of the North as well, are here asking themselves just these kinds of questions. It may be a while before such questions seem reasonable to North Americans, and longer before they seem practical. This post hopes to make that possible.

And here we go… (How we got here)

The inauguration of the climate summit is happening right now. This summit comes 115 years since ahead-of-his-time scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could change the climate.By 1970, an observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, had over a decade of observations showing that Co2 in the atmosphere was steadily rising (the annual cycle comes as the seasons change and plants take in and release carbon dioxide, like a global breath). The cause? Burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

By 1988, the global importance of rising CO2 was clear, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded to coordinate scientific work on the subject and explain the results to policymakers. The IPCC, and its regular reports are one of the most comprehensive joint science projects ever. Listen to grad student Rachel Pike explain how it works. In 1992,at the Rio Earth Summit, a treaty making process called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change started to make international agreements to avert dangerous levels of climate change. The industrialized countries pledged to stabilize their emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Most lied.

By 1995, the IPCC was ready to conclude that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” This cautious statement reflects the extreme complexity of the the many factors involved in human impact on the climate, (summarized in this graph). In fact, scientists thought they might not have definitive certainty until 2000, but detailed regional modelling, and the fact that 1970s-era pollution laws reduced the masking effect of soot and other pollution (which briefly cool the Earth before they fall to the ground, leaving the warming greenhouse gases to linger in the atmosphere for centuries) made the issue apparent by the mid-1990s. A continuing series of record-breaking temperature years helped to make the case:

Global temperature record since the 19th century

In 1997, the Clinton-Gore administration pushed hard for a range of “flexibility mechanisms” to be included in the Kyoto Protocol, most of which allowed rich countries to pay poor ones to make reductions for them. Greenpeace and other international NGOs calculated that loopholes in the Kyoto treaty, such as military bunker fuels, transnational plane flights, and “Russian hot air” (the right of Eastern European countries to claim credit for the emissions they weren’t making after the post-Soviet collapse, and sell it to others who were emitting more), amounted to more CO2 than would be reduced in the first place. Despite this weakening, the US failed to ratify Kyoto, saddling the rest of the world with a weaker treaty not accepted by the world’s largest polluter.

Efforts to extend and fix Kyoto continued through annual meetings of the UNFCCC conference of parties (COP), and US efforts to weaken the accord continued even as it ignored the Protocol. Finally, last year, a deadline loomed at COP15 in Copenhagen. The US opted for a second track of negotiations with a handful of highly polluting countries and produced the Copenhagen Accord. The COP as a whole merely “acknowledged” the Accord, and the word “failure” hung in the air. If the UNFCCC process is to be resuscitated, the next chance will be at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico this December.

Bolivia, which played a key role from the environmental side in Copenhagen is hosting this week’s World Peoples’ Summit to give the process a push, and create a space for planning both inside and outside strategies on global environmental issues. I’ll be spending a lot of time in the Strategies for Action working group seeing what participants think might be a Plan B if the international impasse continues.

Bailout fails in Congress; Dow falls; Wall Street eerily silent. Now what?

I paid a second, shorter visit to Wall Street today, in the midst of the sharp crash that followed the House of Representative’s surprise rejection of the financial bailout bill. It was just plain quiet. Only two, fairly sectarian-looking representatives of public protest stood at Wall and Broadway, amid a tableau of tourists and television cameras, slack-jawed business people and an unearthly calm.

It’s hard to believe that the alarms of emergency sounded by both parties and much of the media didn’t push the package through, but they didn’t. The House roll call shows that this wasn’t a resistance of the left, but of the bottom, of people across the country and the political spectrum who didn’t want to be pushed into a massive government buyout of junk debt. Oponents included people I respect like antiwar maverick Barbara Lee and former Black Panther Bobby Rush and people I disdain like Cuba hawk Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and anti-immigrant zealot James Sensenbrenner.

Meanwhile some people on the supporting side, including Nancy “Does she really represent San Francisco” Pelosi, have been inspired by the crisis to speak of principles if not act on them, saying this before the vote:

They claim to be free market advocates when it’s really an anything-goes mentality: No regulation, no supervision, no discipline. And if you fail, you will have a golden parachute and the taxpayer will bail you out. Those days are over. The party is over.

With the express train to a quick bailout now derailed, we may have time to do some collective thinking about the future of our economy. A list of big ideas begins here:

  • Economist Dean Baker (who among other things, called the housing bubble back in 2004) argues things aren’t so urgent after all: “the worst case scenario is that we have an extremely scary day in which the markets freeze for a few hours. Then the Fed steps in and takes over the major banks. The system of payments continues to operate exactly as before, but the bank executives are out of their jobs and the bank shareholders have likely lost most of their money.” (“Why Bail?,” Huffington Post)
  • Bailout Main Street is compiling a list of counter-proposals.
  • Former CIA analyst turned critic of empire Chalmers Johnson notes the government’s long term financial crisis (read potential bankruptcy) boils down to war. (“We Have the Bailout Money–We’re Spending It on WarThe Nation)
  • Katrina vanden Heuvel & Eric Schlosser echo protesters’ call for a “New Deal for Main Street” (America Needs a New New Deal, The Nation, op-ed in Wall Street Journal)
  • Jeremy Jacquot asks “What About the Climate Crisis?