Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
The Iron Lady just opened in London where, let’s hope, it generates some serious critique. The critical silence in the United States has been astounding, only made worse by the praise, not just for the film but for its subject, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played in the movie by Meryl Streep.
Newsweek’s holiday double issue slapped Streep as Thatcher on its cover, hailing “The New Thatcher Era.” The feature story in summary reads: “Margaret Thatcher was the infamous Iron Lady the Brits love to hate. This month’s bio starring Meryl Streep proves she was right all along.”
Streep’s already winning awards and accolades, and Oscars are probably on the way. People are saying the film’s no whitewash because it shows the former Prime Minister in her dotage, fighting dementia—three decades after she came to power. Director Phyllida Lloyd has described the treatment as operatic. Streep’s called it revealing. The two collaborated before on the musical Mamma Mia! The truth is, in Lloyd’s hands Thatcher’s iron isn’t just rusty, it’s melted down and depoliticized, made feminist enough to root for and ultimately sad enough for some to sniffle at. The Iron Lady is Thatcher—The ABBA Version. It’s the last thing we need, ever, and especially at this point.
Think of Thatcher and I think of hungry people. Irish hunger strikers, first of all, ten of whom starved to death for status as political prisoners on her watch. Thatcher insisted anti-government rebels in Afghanistan were “resistance fighters,” not terrorists, but it was a different story for the Irish. Indeed, in Thatcher’s time, there was to be no story, no effort to understand the reasons for the conflict in Northern Ireland; certainly there was to be no discussion or consideration in public of why anyone might pick up a gun, or place a bomb or starve themselves to death.
Long before the USA Patriot Act and the 9/11 demonization of asking “why,” Britons were starved of information about the so-called “troubles.” Under an ever-expanding Prevention of Terrorism Act, British journalists were forced to report to police any contact with any “known or suspected terrorist.” Irish parties to the conflict were banned from speaking on radio and TV, yet Thatcher’s government could tell the public any lie it liked. When British secret service snipers shot and killed three unarmed IRA members (two men and a woman, Mairead Farrell) on the island of Gibraltar in 1988, Thatcher’s government released an official story about crossfire and a gun fight and a bomb planted near an old people’s home. Video footage of an impressive little military robot supposedly defusing an incendiary device played on the evening news. It was all a crock. Lloyd’s film shows the IRA’s bombings and bloodshed but not the denial and the deadly government tactics, which likely delayed peace talks for a decade.
Think of Thatcher and I think of the hungry people who started showing up in villages in Yorkshire and Scotland and Wales where work was scarce because Thatcher’s experts decided nuclear power was a better energy source than unionized coalfields. Miners went on strike—for a year. Their wives and children collected soup-kitchen money from their churches and their neighbors and when they ran out, they went down to London where they tried to tell their story of helmeted horsemen charging the ranks of union strikers and police bashing men’s heads in. But Londoners didn’t believe them. They’d heard the miners were greedy and dangerous and a threat to their jobs. After all, “trade union power is the true cause of unemployment,” said Thatcher. The 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers gets a couple of seconds on screen in Lloyd’s film, but there’s no explanation, no follow-up and no consideration: does anyone wish now that they’d listened to the miners then?
“There is no such thing as society. Only individuals,” Thatcher also said. With more spending by successive Thatcher governments on police (so-called “law and order”) and less on just about everything else, “no society” became true soon enough. The Iron Lady shows Prime Minister Thatcher overruling her “wet” male colleagues over waging war with Argentina. A few hundred far-off Falkland Islanders were worth fighting for, she famously decided. A take-control feminist? The film ignores the families in Toxteth (inner-city Liverpool) and Brixton (a largely black neighborhood in London) whom Thatcher found it quite acceptable to sacrifice. Cabinet papers released by the National Archives just now under a thirty-year rule reveal Thatcher’s closest advisers told her that the “concentration of hopelessness” on Merseyside was “very largely self-inflicted” and not worth government repair.
Thatcher didn’t—actually—evacuate Liverpool in the aftermath of the 1981 inner-city riots. She led something more insidious. With her professionally crafted “grocer’s daughter” image, Thatcher gave class-conscious Britons permission to dismiss real human difficulties with a blow-dried bourgeois smirk: Unemployed? Get on yer bike! Said her administration. Got a problem? You’re the problem! In Maggie’s world, deprivation is your own damn fault.
Nor did Thatcher give people permission only to look away. Under Thatcher and egged on by her, those who could leave troubled towns and troubled people did, and so did government. We’d “mind the gap” (between the train and the platform) on the London Underground, but we came not to mind the gap between the rich and the rest, the north and the south; the possibilities people had if they needed things to be public and the possibilities they had if they could pay for the private stuff—the private healthcare, the private school, the private house. Today, in a new time of budget wars, The Iron Lady’s depiction of draconian cuts as feminist guts is chilling. What Thatcher called “harsh medicine” meant one thing for the poor and another for the very powerful then, and it still does. In both instances, there is hell to pay in social fabric.
I don’t remember if Lloyd’s Lady quotes the real lady’s most famous phrase: “There is No Alternative.” Certainly TINA deserves star billing. Thatcher’s quip about globalized capitalism has defined our epoch. People can debate the successes and failures of “the Thatcher era” all they like. One thing’s for certain: we don’t need a new one, because the old one’s still here. The consequences of the politicies Thatcher pioneered and made respectable—deregulation, privatization and globalization—can be measured in public costs and private profits on both sides of the Atlantic. More damning, even, is the enduring cultural habit of denial (looking away) and the political practice of silence—shutting the problem people up.
Grow the gap between government and the governed and you get what we have: a burnt-out world driven by the super-super-rich where some are stealing others blind and billions are alienated or angry, sure that government has nothing to offer but a bash on the head.
Lloyd’s soft-pop version deals with none of this. Ironically, the “deeds matter” Thatcher herself would probably be the first to dislike this shrunken, personal-over-political fantasy of her inner life. Lucky for us, we don’t need to worry about her. We need to worry about us. We are not demented. There are alternatives. There always have been. What we need (among other things) are more movies about the women—and maybe a few of the men—bringing those to life.
Occupy is planning to "occupy the dream" by occupying offices of the Federal Reserve across the United States on January 16. Over at Studio Occupy, they’re inviting people to record and share a dream for their community. Here’s a video from Studio Occupy. Honestly, I’m of two minds about all this. Tell me what you think in the comments and I’ll come back to it.
Will Occupy Wall Street alter anything about the way money media cover movements?
Even among those who ignored the occupations at the start, it’s hard to find any media outlet that has not now dedicated significant time to Occupy. The notion that the protests might change the public discussion of poverty and wealth went from romantic conjecture to conventional wisdom in less time than it took the pundits to wipe the egg off their faces.
Whatever happens electorally next year, OWS will have played some part in it, but if OWS gets written into the media accounts it’ll be a victory in itself, because generally the money media cover change as if it’s a mysterious process in which pretty much only presidents deserve real credit, not movements. Its no wonder regular Americans have a rather skewed picture of history, politics and our potential part in any of it.
Take a rule change that would improve life for millions of home care workers. In 1974, when the Labor Department extended federal labor protections to in-home workers, they created an exemption for “companion services,” understood at the time to mean mostly casual babysitters or relatives. Since then, under various definitions, home care has mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar business dominated by large for-profit agencies—one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy. In-home work is slated to grow by 50 percent between 2008 and 2018 and yet much of the workforce still exists in an unprotected legal murk where their work is “expected, but not respected,” as Tracy Dudzinski a home care worker and advocate for home care workers put it in a conference call for reporters.
Evelyn Coke a home care aide in New York who often worked seventy hours a week, brought a suit that resulted in a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that she was not entitled to overtime pay under existing regulations. The Court said it was up to Congress or the Labor Department to change the rules.
On December 15, President Obama announced that proposed rule change.
“Something akin to justice may finally be at hand for the nation’s nearly two million home care aides,” editorialized the New York Times, November 25. The paper championed the proposed changes again in an editorial December 26, “Fairness for Home Care Aides.”
Twice in as many weeks the editors praised the good proposals, while ignoring the good people who have made the change if not inevitable, then at least more likely than it’s been in decades.
Republican lawmakers, large home care agencies and business groups have always opposed the change. For decades theirs have been the only voices loud enough—and rich enough—to make them selves heard on the issue. “Caring Across Generations,” an extraordinary coalition of community, labor, immigrant and women’s groups has changed that equation. Working individually and as a group, they’ve met with Secretary Solis, lobbied lawmakers, gathered signatures and organized locally and nationally to turn up the heat on the home aide exemption. Last summer they held their first national Care Congress in DC, which Secretary Solis attended. More are planned in other cities in 2012.
“These changes could and should have been made years ago. What created the context, in my belief, for the president and Secretary Solis to make this move is the work of thousands who’ve made an invisible workforce visible,” said Stephen Edelstein, policy director of PHI Policy Works, a group that works on behalf of home health workers and belongs to the Caring Across Generations initiative.
More than 90 percent of home care workers are women, and nearly 50 percent are minorities. About four in ten rely on public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps.
Once published, the plan will be open for public comment for sixty days at www.regulations.gov. The US Chamber and its members will certainly be commenting, as will Caring Across Generations members. You can comment at the federal rulemaking website: www.regulations.gov.
Ah, but that would require you knowing you could play a part in the process.
Solidarity singers faced down a new set of state policies intended to regulate and put a price on assembly and free speech at the Wisconsin state capitol, Monday.
Solidarity sing-alongs began at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on March 11, 2011, and they’ve continued at noon every weekday since. Last Friday, the Capitol supposedly set up new rules for access to state buildings, the new policy requires permits for gatherings of 100 or more outside the Capitol, while permits are needed for gatherings inside of four or more people. Both need to be applied for seventy-two hours in advance of the event and there's a $50 charge per hour, per police officer deployed. Solidarity Sing-Along participants say the policy is directed specifically at their singing, but at noon Monday the singers were there—in unusually large numbers and high spirits—encouraged by news that in just one month, more than half a million signatures have been gathered to recall Governor Scott Walker. Enjoy the live stream.
You can find the Solidarity Singers here. Want to sing along? Here's the holiday songbook. Definitely check back in at noon -central time (1 pm Eastern) tomorrow. Got a tree near you that needs a sing-in?
“Depression and Democracy”—Paul Krugman’s Monday column took on a key topic. Amazingly, having seized the critical question, he let it squirm away. Insurgent neo-Nazi extremists may pose a threat, but right now mainstream governments are doing the real damage to democracy. They are suspending accountability on both sides of the Atlantic, and they’re doing it before our eyes, even to applause, in the name of emergency financial management.
Starting in Europe, Krugman focuses on Hungary’s governing far-right Fidesz party, whose plans, he writes, “amount to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule under a paper-thin veneer of democracy.” The Fidesz sound like a nasty lot, but how authoritarian is last week’s Eurozone deal? Led by Germany, the agreement requires individual nations to shrink pensions, scale back health insurance, cut services, privatize public enterprises and de-unionize public jobs—no matter what their voters say. It’s all so as not to default to the large banks and financial institutions.
Over at Counterpunch, economist Michael Hudson is calling it the “deadly transition from social democracy to oligarchy.” Ulrich Beck, writing in the Guardian, describes it as a power shift that imposes on an entire continent a take-it-or-leave-it “German culture of stability.”
“The basic rules of European democracy are being suspended or even inverted, bypassing parliaments, governments and EU institutions,” wrote Beck shortly before the Deutschmark deal was done. “Multilateralism is turning into unilateralism, equality into hegemony, sovereignty into the deprivation of sovereignty, and recognition into disrespect for the democratic dignity of other nations. Even France, which long dominated European unification, must submit to Berlin’s strictures now that it must fear for its international credit rating.”
European heads of state have already toppled, from Ireland to Portugal, Italy and Greece. No doubt there’s more to come. As far as international credit raters are concerned, it’s end-of-history time: there’s no going back on austerity plans, and there are no alternatives—no matter how poorly they perform.
In a country review, the IMF said Tuesday that the Greek economy is forecast to contract by up to 6 percent in 2011: “The economy is trending notably lower than what was expected. Investor sentiments have not improved as hoped.”
But there’s only one solution as far as the IMF’s concerned: more of the same. Greece has reached its taxation limit and needs to refocus on austerity, said IMF mission chief in Greece, Poul M. Thomsen. The structural changes Greece has made thus far, he said, have fallen “well short” of expectations.
So screw you, Greek economists, or for that matter, Greek, or Italian, or Irish voters who conclude from the numbers that a shrunken economy plus bloated unemployment plus impossible debt payments and a rigidly European-controlled currency don’t add up—or add up to a disaster for everyone but the banksters.
In the United States, “German stability culture” looks mild to some living in Michigan. In the name of fiscal responsibility, Governor Rick Snyder has taken the power to appoint unelected “financial managers” to take over cities that are struggling with deficits and debts. Four Michigan cities are already controlled by Snyder’s overseers. The have the power to fire city councils, nullify union contracts, end collective bargaining and privatize whatever’s left to be privatized.
Governor Snyder has already announced his intention to review the city of Detroit for possible “emergency management.” That would put 49.7 percent of the state’s African-American residents under leaders cirtics are comparing to plantation overlords. And just today, Michigan’s state Senate passed a bill that would help the process along. For a summary of the bill, visit the invaluable Chris Savage at Eclectabog.
Suffice to say, it doesn’t take a Hungarian neo-Nazi to establish authoritarian rule under a paper-thin veneer of democracy. It doesn’t even require a veneer.
It was never a genuine question. Money media prattled on about Occupy Wall Street’s supposedly ineffable demands the same way they batted aside the end capitalism signs to wonder what the Seattle protesters had on their minds. That said, the Occupy movement has always been more about doing than demanding and this week, OWS stepped it up another notch.
On December 6, OccupyYourHomes joined with local community organizers to take on the housing crisis. In twenty-five cities, protesters interrupted house auctions, blocked evictions and occupied foreclosed homes. In East New York they moved Alfredo Carrasquillo, Tasha Glasgow and their two children into a foreclosed home that had stood empty for three years. I attended the action Tuesday and couldn’t drag myself away. Even as the rain drizzled and the temperature sank, I watched the numbers of protesters grow and thought of the many, many members of underfunded community groups I’ve spoken to over the years. Among those, Community Voices Heard, New York Communities for Change, Picture the Homeless, Organize for Occupation, VOCAL-NY and Reclaim the Land. They talked on GRITtv about toxic loans and targeted neighborhoods, forced foreclosures, fear and the general lack of national interest.
This Tuesday, I saw members of those same groups again, among them, GRITtv regular Rob Robinson. An end-homelessness activist who lived on the streets for a while after losing his job at a data processing company, Robinson has worked for years with Picture the Homeless, and now Reclaim the Land. East New York has one of the city’s greatest concentrations of single-family homes, and one of the country’s highest rates of eviction and foreclosures. “For two years, we’ve been going block to block, knocking on these doors,” said Robinson. This Tuesday, he was walking those blocks again, this time, with 500 people—and a slew of cameras—at his back. Smiled Robinson, “It makes a world of difference.”
Malik Rhasaan is a 28-year-old man from South Jamaica, Queens, who’s been one of of the organizers behind Occupy The Hood. Rhassan, with colleagues in Detroit and Atlanta, started pushing Occupy Wall Street to team up with communities in need ever since the protest began in Zuccotti Park. “You want to feed people, do it in the South Bronx” he’d say. “You want to fight eviction? Fight it in the South Bronx.” To Rhassan, December 6 was a jump in the right direction. “Now we’ll see how long the ball rolls.” In the twenty-four hours that followed, Occupy The Hood received “about a hundred e-mails” from people Rhassaan had never heard of before, asking OWS to come to their block.
On Thursday afternoon, as a tweet went out that more OWS support was needed at 702 Vermont Avenue, the occupied house in East New York, Rhasaan said, “I just hope the people who participated [in the December 6 action] realize how serious this is. That father [Alfredo] is trusting the community to be there for him…” In fact, that’s been the question for the movement from the start: can it sustain all that to which it’s given birth? First it was about confidence. Robinson says he was skeptical until he saw the occupation survive long enough to make mistakes—and ask for help. “They reached out. And I was impressed with that.” Then it was about a place: offer food and shelter for long enough and soon you’ll attract people who have no place of their own and need to eat. Says Rhasaan: “Homeless kids gave OWS its numbers.… OWS gave those kids a second chance to have a life.” Now it’s communities.
As Boots Riley, of Occupy Oakland (and the Coup) told me a few weeks back. “What we’re thinking about now is how OWS can become a tool in the hands of communities.” Which is to say, where can 500, 1,000, 2,000 people, make a difference? At an eviction, a housing auction, a school board hearing, in a congressman’s office—OWS have shown they can make an impact in all those places. American employers have a nasty habit of picking off lone-labor organizers.
Will that be next? “It’s certainly harder to fire a Walmart union organizer in front of a crowd, in public,” says Riley. Knowing OWS, we’ll probably see a bit of all of the above. It’s a lot to bite off and chew.
“The way to get community support,” says Rhasaan “is to work in the community. Offer change people can measure.” Note, he didn’t say “believe in.” Been there, done that. What’s being asked of OWS now is not what the movement can demand but what they can deliver, for people who feel their lives, not just their hopes, hang in the balance.
Occupy Princeton students mic-checked a JP Morgan-Chase Treasury Services info session on December 7, 2011. The first direct action taken up by Occupy Princeton—they promise “more to come.” Here's the video:
“Your predatory practices helped crash our economy,” the students chant. “We protest a campus culture that whitewashes the crooked dealings of Wall St as a prestigious career path…” (Be sure to watch to the end where the beleaguered JP Morgan rep attempts to keep the interest of some—any—potential recruits.)
It was Glass war, not class war, at Lincoln Center Thursday night, and Glass won, composer Philip Glass. It should come as no surprise that the maestro of mesmeric repetition has a knack for the “human mic.”
Occupy Museums, a group of roughly two hundred OWS-inspired protesters showed up outside the last performance of Glass’s Satyagraha Thursday. Satyagraha the opera tells the story of M.K. Gandhi’s early struggle against colonialism and segregation in South Africa. “Satyagraha” the word means “truth force.” Said the protesters to the opera-goers: “Mic Check. Mic Check: Let’s tell the truth… let’s tell the truth. Join US!”
It’s a pretty elite OWS spin-off for sure, but there was a precise policy target. In their call to action, organizers pointed up the irony of Satyagraha being performed at Lincoln Center, where in recent weeks people have been arrested and forcibly removed when they attempted to protest colonization of the arts by .001 percenter David Koch. (One of the theaters now bears his name.)
Koch’s money is not “generous philanthropy” they said, it’s a means of control. I’ve called it “philanthro-feudalism.” Out of one side of his wallet, the billionaire Koch fuels anti-tax thuggery (the worst of the Tea Party)—and then he and his brother drop cash on the influential elite to keep them at the trough. Typically, it works because with tax revenues slashed, the arts, like hospitals and schools, are desperate.
Occupy Museums also has a righteous beef with Lincoln Center’s leading corporate sponsor—Bloomberg LLC: “The juxtaposition is stark: while Bloomberg funds the representation of Gandhi’s pioneering tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience in the Metropolitan Opera House, he simultaneously orders a paramilitary-style raid of the peaceful public occupation of Liberty Park, blacking out the media, while protesters are beaten, tear-gassed, and violently arrested," they wrote.
The targets were clear, but as usual with Occupy thus far, the process, not the politics, packed the punch.
Long before Satyagraha let out, police erected a line of metal barricades, cutting “Occupy Museums” off from the opera-goers, and cordoning them off the swanky plaza, down on the “people’s” street. When they emerged at last, opera-goers stood awkwardly at a distance (some belligerent, most befuddled), warned by police not to approach.
It wasn’t until Glass popped up on the “Occupy” side that the power of police intimidation wore off. Celebrity trumped class angst. Also, allies of the occupiers among the performance-goers reached for their neighbors and invited them to close the gap. In a wave, they did. Suddenly, while Glass was mic-checking passages of the Bhagavad Gita, a “Granny for Peace” started breaking up the barricades, surrounded by a thicker—and warmer—crowd of the 100 percent.
After Glass’s mic check, others spoke, among them, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, but also an opera singer who’d just lost his job after thirty-plus years at the city opera; a tap dancer; artists who talked about their working conditions, their debts, about the art they’d like to share with their kids as it was shared with them but they can’t afford it, or have too many jobs. Someone reminded the crowd that seven thousand low-income, people, mostly of color, were evicted in order for Lincoln Center to be built. (What art might they have made?)
It’s not the last we’ll see of Occupy Museums, I bet. (Full disclosure—I know these folks!) The OWS movement is keenly aware of the role high-visibility artists played in the civil rights struggle, the anti-apartheid movement, ACT Up, the Women’s Action Coalition. In New York, the arts have some special potential agency: they are awfully close to the man in the middle of the OWS struggle: Mayor Bloomberg.
Bloomberg’s family foundation is to distribute $32 million to arts organizations around New York City over the next two years. Over the last decade, the Carnegie Corporation funneled $200 million of his personal fortune to arts and social service groups. Mayor Bloomberg is a personal fan as well as a patron, and a man who knows how to make friends and influence people. He’s also a leader among city mayors. When he approves the busting up of free libraries and kitchens, other would be park-busters take note. It would make for an interesting moment if high-level artists started demanding change (along with their grants). Or started getting arrested in Bloomberg’s streets.
What happens next? The next big day of OWS action is December 6. A handful of new initiatives around “Shelter & Sanctuary”—for occupiers, people facing foreclosure, immigrants—are in the works. Will the Radio City Rockettes high-kick their way to the human mic? Who knows?
“Beat us and we come back stronger. Erect a barricade and a hundred will pop up on the other side to join us,” cheered music producer and activist attorney Roma Baran, later. “Feel the power. Feel the hope.”
For Mayor Bloomberg, she could have added, just possibly, “Feel the heat.”
As the seventeenth United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, popularly known as COP-17, takes place in Durban, South Africa, November 28–December 9, I think of this man: Dr. Mohammed Waheed Hassan, with whom I had a chance to speak this September in New York. Waheed, as he prefers to be called, is vice president of the Republic of the Maldives, the lowest country on the planet. An archipelago of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives have seen the sea waters around their low-level homeland rise almost eight inches in the last 100 years, and accelerating rates of warming threaten their nation’s existence.
“Climate change is making a huge difference for our lives right now,” said Hassan. “About a third of our islands are under severe erosion and many people are losing their homes.” We were both speakers at Moving Planet—an event organized by NYPIRG outside the United Nations General Assembly on a global day of action coordinated by the group 350.org.
The Maldives are already spending a good part of their annual budget on coastal erosion and water desalination, Hassan explained. Island water is increasingly brackish and if clean water supplies continue to diminish, fossil fuel imports (for desalination) will have to grow. “We’re spending 17 percent of our GDP on fossil fuel imports now” says Hassan. “For the Maldives, global climate change is a problem “environmentally, economically and security-wise.”
And they can’t solve it alone.
“Everyone else has to understand that our lives are interconnected. It’s not enough for just us to change our lifestyles,” says Hassan in this short interview.
As for the future? Says Hassan: “My ancestors have lived in the Maldives for 3,000 years. When you talk about 100 or 150 years, that’s not very much. When and if the eventuality comes, where do we go? What happens to us as a nation? We’ve been a separate nation, a separate culture separate people, with our own unique contribution to human diversity for so long. When we’re gone, what does that mean?”
It’s a question the people of the Maldives will be raising at COP17 in Durban. But as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol gets set to expire next year and the world’s top emitters, the United States and China, face off over who will agree to which types of emissions targets first, the fear is that Durban, like Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancún in 2010, will produce little in the way of progress.
That’s not acceptable to the people of the Maldives. And they’re not the only ones. “Climate change is a matter of justice,” Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu of the global Council of Elders declared on the eve of the Durban meeting.
“The richest countries caused the problem, but it is the world’s poorest who are already suffering from its effects. In Durban, the international community must commit to righting that wrong.”
Fed up with government foot-dragging and backstabbing of what they believe are possible agreements, civil society groups have convened an “Occupy COP17,” which is holding daily people’s assemblies, outside the UN one. According to the posted transcript, the first people’s GA kicked off like this:
• Inside the UN are talking about the climate change
• May [sic] of us can’t get in, so we’re here to talk about climate justice and • What we think each of us should do to solve climate change and make sure we live in a world
• Where every person is treated equally
• And gets an equal share of what we have.”
You can get more information at Occupy COP17.
Wangari Maathai died September 25 of cancer, age 71. She was the first female African Nobel Peace Prize winner and the first woman to receive a doctorate in Central or Eastern Africa. The organization she founded, the Green Belt Movement, is responsible for the planting of millions of trees. But Maathai planted more than trees. She planted ideas, specifically the idea that conflict and climate change are linked, that climate action will come from the bottom, and the notion that women must be in leadership of the necessary next transformation.
In this interview, conducted in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit on climate in 2009, I asked Maathai for her “advice for the West.” Resource wars loom here, too. In fact, they’re already breaking out. Equity matters. That’s just part of her empassioned response.
In the two years since we spoke, Maathai battled cancer. Her country and its neighbors were ravaged by severe drought, crop failure, armed conflict and desperate famine, and the United States, just one among industrialized nations, slowed, rather than sped, its progress towards a sustainable economy.
Maathai died as the US government deadlocked over threatened cuts to spending on “green” energy programs, but as activists around the world marked “Moving Planet” (a global day of mobilization spearheaded by Bill McKibben’s 350.Org). The next chance I get, I am going to plant a tree for Maathai. How about you? I’ll post a picture of mine on the GRITtv Facebook page. You are welcome to do likewise.
What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation, which took place September 23, 2009, in New York on GRITtv. Maathai was in town for the UN General Assembly, looking ahead to Copenhagen:
Laura Flanders: You made a very strong pitch to the world leaders gathered at UN this week. What did you call for?
Wangari Maathai: We wanted first and foremost to let them know that it is a matter of life and death, and it is happening as we speak and that it is they, as leaders and heads of state, who can make a difference.… On behalf of civil society of the world…we wanted the leaders to know that they should go personally to Copenhagen, and be willing to commit to a very serious, a very ambitious affair and make an abiding commitment.
You talk, in your country, about 10 million lives at stake. Tell us about those lives.
These are ordinary people, farmers, pastoral communities. Those who know Africa know a large number of our populations are pastoral. They depend on rainfall and grasses, they move about with their animals. Today, on the landscape you can literally see carcasses of animals both domestic and wild, dying of thirst of hunger, and people migrating to where they think they might be able to find food and water.
The government has announced that we have an emergency in the country. It’s not as if climate change has come today and caused all this. This is partly because for years—for decades—we have been calling governments to prioritize the environment…
So what have you made of the response of government leaders? [Reading from President Hu of China:] They have made a pledge to “reduce [carbon emissions] by a notable margin”—what is that?
I think that was very encouraging, because we have been seeing that even governments like China —emerging markets which can claim that they should be given the right to develop like other industrialized countries, using fossil fuels—l am very happy to see them committing [to reduce] because we just can’t do business as usual anymore.
But committing to what?
[Laughing] I am quite sure this is politics. They probably don’t want to put any figures on table just yet. But I’m really hoping that when they get to Copenhagen they have to put those commitments to real numbers.
Here’s President Obama speaking September 22 at the UN: “The security and stability of each nation and all peoples; our prosperity, our health and our safety are in jeopardy and the time we have to reverse this tide is running out. And yet we can reverse it. JFK once observed that our problems are man made therefore they may be solved by man…” That link he makes, between climate, prosperity, health and security—that’s thanks to you.
As you know, one of the reasons we got the Nobel Peace Prize was that we were able to bring in the matter of resources and competition over those resources. We said we live on a planet that is seeing diminishing resources.… The population is rising and the water does not increase, the land does not increase. And we said as these resources diminish, and as we compete over these resources, we will fight over them. And so to pre-empt a lot of conflict in the future (including for resources that are extremely essential for life like water), we need to develop new global mechanisms that will help us to live in peace with each other despite the fact that we can only use the resources we have. We are not going to expand the water or the land.
I think one of the most important things that President Obama brought to the table is the commitment of the USA. As you know, for almost ten years we have been mourning the fact that USA did not sign Kyoto Protocol. The fact that they are on board, they are engaged, and they will be there with a positive attitude that something has to be done [that’s important]. Even at the meeting, there are skeptics—[who don’t believe] that we are dealing with human-induced greenhouse gases. And I have to say, if 4,000 scientists around the world on this are wrong, I’ll be with them…
What is wrong with making our societies more sustainable, regardless? Talk about how this is playing out in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the relationship between trees and war.
As you know, I am the good will ambassador of the Congo forest.… I’ve been trying to raise awareness among deforesting partners…. Now it has been established by the scientists that 20 percent of greenhouse gases (especially carbon) is coming from deforestation and forest degradation. We can’t afford to ignore the forest. In Africa, the Congo is the second-largest forest in world. The largest is in the Amazon. The third, in Southeast Asia. These three are often referred to as “the lungs of the planet.” Which is why we want forests integrated into whatever mechanism comes out of Copenhagen.
In Congo biggest threat is lack of peace. The wars—are largely over resources, worked out in terms of political competition.… Unfortunately, as you saw when Secretary of State Clinton was recently in the eastern part of Congo, she was horrified, especially by issues that are affecting women. Although we are trying to save the forest, we know that without peace it will be very difficult.
In this country, when it comes to Africa, we often hear tribal language used. The problem is warring people, we’re told, competing over resources. When you look at the threats to the forest—I’m thinking especially of Brazil—it seems that corporate competition for resources is what’s responsible for overwhelming majority of deforestation.
Talk about the role of companies, like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, who are expanding their investments in biofuel and ethanol, and carving up territory in Brazil. They are also the people who sponsor our news, even our public TV.
They are so important. They also sponsor politics! The sad thing is, usually when we talk about the destruction of forest, we talk about local people, but I can tell you, I’ve been to the Congo forest. It’s not the pygmies who are destroying those forests; it’s those companies.
I visited one of those companies—a supposedly conscious one—and I witnessed how they are selectively harvesting those trees. One of the most devastating experiences I had was when they pulled down a tree that is 200 years old. In about ten minutes it was down. It came down with so much force it seemed to me as if the entire content of Africa was coming down. When I shed tears for that tree (because I really couldn’t take it), the man there told me “Don’t worry—there are millions of them out there.”
And that’s the attitude. But there are not really millions of trees we can dispense of. Then I asked him how much will you use? He told me 35 percent. Thirty-five percent because they do not want to seek the technology that is available to use more of that wood. Many companies want to do what they can do without being beaten by the competition. So for governments, I’m sure it is very difficult to make these companies uphold a code of conduct so that they use that wood sustainably and most efficiently.
Rain Forest Action says we are losing 1.5 acres of forest every second of every day.
Can you imagine?
The Kenyan economy has transformed in your lifetime. I’d love you to talk about that. You were the first woman in your country to receive a doctorate.… Now you’re a world leader in a country that is relatively developed. Yet you are asking your people to think again about the track that they’re on. As we have to do that here in the US too, I’d like to learn from you. Your people are excited about the new opportunities they have and the new products they have access to, and that are being advertised. What have you found works as you talk to them about choices?
Well, it is not easy because we get used to a comfortable life and as we saw here in America, we can even get to the point where we spend what we don’t have and somebody says give it back and we don’t have it. So first and foremost we need to learn how to live within our means, and not only in America, which is very rich country and most of us are trying to live the American dream, but from this country’s crisis, we learned that we have to learn to live within our means and that the resources out there are limited.
In our part of the world, the message is usually that you have to learn to live within your means so that you do not destroy the environment; so that you do not, for example privatize what is public, [namely] the forest, public areas, or break the bank or the treasury in order to live a lifestyle that you cannot afford.
It’s also important for citizens to hold leaders accountable, to participate in elections. People say I don’t want to get involved in politics because I’m not a politician. I say politicians are making decisions about your life. If you’re not “a politician,” there’s something wrong with you…
Here in the US we had people who spent outside their means because their means could not sustain their lives. At the same time we have a national economy where the means of a very small group are equal to all the means of everybody else. Do you think we will we see wars over resources in this country?
Equity is extremely important. I know people don’t like to hear the word equity (there is a big difference between equality and equity…). It is very important, like in a forest, that everybody get some light to thrive and grow. So even the mushrooms at the very bottom [of the forest] get their part as well as the tree whose canopy is covering the forest. [Likewise] the rich and the powerful have to realize that they cannot have it all.
We’re not talking about socialism. We’re talking about justice. We’re talking about equitable distribution of resources. Even as we go to Copenhagen we are saying there must be some responsibility on those who have caused the problem and [who have] become extremely wealthy using a system that has destroyed the planet. They must be willing so spend some of their resources to heal the planet. Equitable distribution is extremely important to all of us. Because if we don’t, those we marginalize, those we set aside, eventually become a burden.… Sometimes they become violent, or [otherwise] make it very difficult for the rest to enjoy our wealth. That’s why it is in all our interest to promote justice equity and to promote respect for human rights.
You often use the word “Mottainai” What is it?
Mottainai is a concept I learned in Japan.… I was trying to talk to them about recycling, reducing, reusing. But there, in the second-most-powerful economy in the world, people are used to spending. They told me they are embarrassed to reuse, because they have so much. But some of the resources they are using because they can, come from resources they should be concerned about. For example, throw-away chopsticks. Are they coming from Japanese forest? No. Probably from Congo, Brazil—or SE Asia—and [I said] you need those forests for your own survival…. So can you learn to reuse reduce, recycle as you used to before you became so rich? And they said traditionally we had this concept “mottainai.” It embraces the concepts of respect (which we don’t have too much of), gratitude (which we don’t have too much of), and an effort not to waste (and in many countries, wastage is the number one thing to be avoided).
I hear from you not only about an eco-system in balance, but also an economy in balance. Can we have a healthy planet without changing our financial and economic eco-system?
I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. They have to go side by side because our economy is based on our environment. Unless we have a healthy environment we cannot have a health economy. What we need to understand is that we may sit here in middle of New York or London and think everything is perfect. But guess what? If everything is perfect where you are because you are damaging the environment in other parts of the world, sooner or later, that damage—down there, or east or west—that damage is going to come knocking on your door—sooner or later.