“… the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and secure while we create hell for the poor.” - Martin Luther King Jr. (April4, 1967)
The COP15 was a total failure, so brother President Evo Morales has decided to call for this climate change conference to do something about it. We the people are the ones that should take the lead on how to tackle the climate crisis.” -Rafael Quispe (Aymara leader)(April2010)
The recent climate change summit in Cochabamba Bolivia, which was hardly covered by the mainstream North-American press, was extraordinary in giving voice to the poor and youth on social implications of climate change.1 No more closed-door meetings, no more secret discussions by special envoys, no agendas tied to the corporate interests of affluent nations, and no self-appointed corporate Western NGO’s. Just the dis-possessed, the marginalized poor and youth and some scientists working on ways to bring us out of a mess created by the globalized economy of endless growth.
This is ordinary people working on real sustainability.
This meeting was born out of the Third World frustration at the political games played at Copenhagen, by China , the USA and Europe. This conference lays down the ground for the largest ever world-referendum (over 2 billion people) voting on ways to address climate change – bottom-up. It prepares the way for the coming COP16 (Conferences of the Parties) in Mexico, the creation of a new United Nations Charter of Environmental Rights and the creation of an international climate justice tribunal.
Cochabamba is a global call for social and environmental justice and accountability. This is a call for real democratic reform by the Third World. It is to be universally applauded, because its concerns go to the root of the problem in ways that the official United Nations channels have failed to do.
Progressive thinking in Cochabamba stands in stark contrast to what passes for “progressive” at the Board and
offices of the Sunshine Coast Regional District. Progressive thinking requires that we heed the people who are most
adversely affected by policies that benefit the dominant social group.
Whereas, the third World countries are moving to enact real sustainable reforms and accountability through the
democratic exercise of a 2 billion people referendum, in the name of “sustainability” the SCRD uses institutional
roadblocks to deny Area A residents a referendum, and engages in a process guided by hand-picked acolytes that
excludes the majority of the people in Area A, apparently without any accountability.
Climate Change Adaptation and Sustainability
Climate change is not just a technical problem as a kind of pollution, as the EPA frames it.2 Nor is it simply a problem of geographical distribution of impacts, which has been the media focus. There is a very important social element both in the sources and production of climate change and in the technical means to address it. The social element constrains our current ability to begin to control the problem.
Climate change is the product of a socio-economic system, which shifts the environmental costs of Western-style affluence onto an increasingly growing number of economically poor and exploited people. It is largely a product of the practice of privatizing profits and socializing costs – on a global scale , which has become painfully evident even to North Americans – at home.3
As I have pointed out before,4 “sustainable development” is not a science-based ecological concept. It is not inherently concerned with the ecological problems posed by climate change. It is only recently, mainly in the last two years that it has been linked to climate change, at the Bali COP 13, (December 2007)5 though it has been a UNFCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) concern since about 2001. Climate change adaptation introduces social dimensions that put into question “soft” approaches to sustainability.
The social dimension of climate change is possibly the least discussed, and least understood. It may prove to be the most embarrassing and intractable. This is why, to my mind, the Cochabamba conference is so important.
Socio-economic problems and the way they relate to physical atmospheric processes are key concerns for the Third World where their impacts are, in principle, magnified and most strongly felt throughout the social and cultural fabric.
The social problems of adaptation and sustainability are best understood from the perspective of the modellers. Both economic and climate models can only be large-grained. The data are based on regional averages. They cannot tell us about the fine-grained ranges of economic disparity or about fine grained climatic impact and response. They are not intended to deal with ranges of uneven economic distribution and how that will affect climate change responses.
Middle-class assumptions of North-American or Western sustainability, appear meaningless to the Third World if the models’ assumption is “business-as-usual.” Climate change and sustainability mean nothing to exploited people, if the central assumption is that they are to continue to be exploited.
Climate Change, Poverty, Human Slavery, Prostitution and Youth
A North-South dialogue is not a matter of “Starbucks sustainability” for middle class comfort. Social disparities and dysfunctionalities within our own society, compel us to look at how middle class “sustainability” advocated by our governments actually continues to prey on the poor, on children and on women, while sanctimoniously repeating the Brundtland mantra: “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”6
Data show that locally and globally, economic trends over the last thirty years have resulted in the growing affluence of a shrinking minority .7 With the collapse of the middle class, America’s wealthiest 1% now have more wealth and political clout than the collective bottom 90%.8 Globally the average North American’s impact on the planet is about 5 times that of a Third World inhabitant.9
However,that “average” is heavily skewed by that 1% which controls wealth and creates the larger environmental footprint. That 1% actually lies outside the real average and merely confirms the inequalities of local “mal-distribution” 10 which reflects global mal-distribution.
These comparisons can be extended almost infinitely to confirm the extent of North American wealth. They also show the disproportionate impact that North Americans have in CO2 output and fuel consumption etc. However, they can be misleading if we do not bear in mind that the range of disparities is also internal, or local. The Third World exists at home, within our borders and in our back yard. There are ranges of extremes of poverty across the social spectrum both in North America and in the Third World.
What is more important is that the disparity of wealth distribution also reflects a range of disparities within the total environmental impact and social dislocation process. These disparities will only be accentuated as climate change increases social dislocation, unless issues of social justice are incorporated within the models of sustainability we develop now.
Currently, most government sustainability models imply that in North America, the bottom 90% will carry the burden for the top 1%, and that the Third World will carry the North-American consumer footprint. This is simply socializing the ecological and environmental bank debt and placing the burden on ordinary people.
While it is still true that what is considered to be poverty in North America is very different from poverty in India, that difference is narrowing as extreme forms of poverty and human exploitation increase in North America.
The best indicator of the social dislocation brought about by a globalized neo-liberal economy is the renewed growth and rise of “modern slavery,” over the past thirty years, in America. Affluent countries such as Canada and the United States are primary destinations, and are primary economic beneficiaries of this lucrative, if illicit, part of the economy .11
Human bondage and trafficking are an annual $33 billion dollar industry. The U.S. State Department figures show that at least 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. annually, this does not account for internally produced “slavery,” from economically marginalized youth. This sub-population is held in various forms of bondage and unpaid labour in the farm industry, in “sweat shops”, in prostitution and in the pornography industries. From these figures the State Department estimate that between half to one million people are trafficked annually and held in modern forms of slavery in the United States alone. Of these 70% are women and 50% of these are younger than 18. The U.N. estimate is that some 27 million people – a population the size of Canada – are in forms of slavery across the globe.12
This is not an economic or social accident. Socio-economic disparity and environmental impact remain closely related properties of the economic system that is currently shaping the planet. Contrary to what most economists suggest, it is not an anomaly. 13 The system is not geared to increasing people’s affluence and well-being. The system is stacked against the poor and youth.
The context for this is well known to sociologists. The return of slavery as a norm in our society has been made possible by the practice of turning people into commodities as part of the Market ideology that has dominated social and economic thinking over the past thirty years. As Henri Giroux and others have argued the corporate state wages a double war on youth through commercializing every aspect childrens’ lives, and subsequently denying social and educational support.14 The “hard war” is the systematic criminalization of minority youth whose own poverty makes them social misfits, “waste products of a society that no longer considers them of any value.”15
This is the social and economic filter within which further social dislocation is to be expected to take place as climate change impacts develop. It raises this simple question concerning the Brundtland definition of sustainability which we should all ask of ourselves:
How can we meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations if the current sustainability paradigms do not meet the needs of an increasingly significant number of young people of this generation both at home and in the Third World?
The answer to that important question was not in Copenhagen, or at Bali, or at any of the previous global conferences. I think it is, however, at Cochabamba.
It does not begin to be answered by the wisest and best heads of state who take positions to protect their GDP and the corporate interests that elected them, while at the same time, trying to mitigate climate impacts. It does not even begin to be answered top-down.
It begins by listening and empowering the people who are most affected by poverty, social marginalization and developing climate change impacts: the dispossessed and exploited who stand the least to gain from the current economic system. It begins to be answered bottom-up.
Sustainability begins in two ways that have long been advocated in the scientific reviews of how to address problems associated with limits to growth.16
The first is economic reform to assure an equitable global distribution of goods and services that can enable populations to meet the demands and stresses of climate change.
The second is anathema to politicians and civil servants: “Truth-telling, ” which is linked to “accountability.”
The element of Truth-telling at Cochabamba lies in a simple point known to experts in sustainability, such as Huey Johnson who developed California’s Green Plans and had a hand in similar plans for The Netherlands and New Zealand which now form the basis of European Union policy. Democracy is fundamental to sustainability, therefore: “Sustainability cannot be left to government or any particular administration alone.”17 Sustainability in the hands of government becomes an adjunct to the lies of particular political and economic ideologies and interests.
Sustainability is a bottom-up concern of the people most affected. It is an environmental problem. Environmental problems are not piecemeal problems, they are complexes that link the natural or physical environment with the cultural or human environment. Therefore, “you have to solve the whole problem, not selected parts.”18 One cannot consider the question of sustainability without weighing its role in the current evolution of climate change and how climate change is linked to the economy. It is all one.
Our regional government is fond of talking about its sustainability plans. Contrary to what is known to make sustainability possible, the SCRD’s sustainability plans are centralized around Sechelt, the seat of our local government. These are sustainability plans that do not look at whole problems, but only at selected parts, and represent only certain local interests.
Having denied the taxpayers of Area A a referendum, the SCRD continues to marginalize the 82% of Pender residents who did not support its plans. With no effort to promote inclusiveness after a shameful anti-democratic vote, the SCRD now works only with representatives of the 17% of residents who support its “sustainability” plans, with a planned trip to Whistler, which will cost possibly as much as the denied referendum would have.
This is not sustainability, but very expensive brownwash. The costs could have been put in youth education programs. It is short-sightedness that does not even begin to look at “the whole problem”. It is dysfunctionality that merely furthers the aims of an elitist “green costume party,” that taxpayers are subsidizing. And more to the point, given the well-documented and well-known social plight of Third World workers who handle and process First World waste, this merely closes the loop and furthers the ongoing social exploitation.
This is the dirty secret reality of our progressive politicians. They do their best to promote pretty regressive unsustainable economics in the name of sustainability.
¡Viva Cochabamba! – because Cochabamba has the right idea: People, Truth-telling and Accountability.
1. Andres Schipani and John Vidal. “Bolivia climate change talks to give poor a voice.” The Guardian. 18 April 2010; access to the conference, and the People’s Agreement that has resulted can be found at http://pwccc.wordpress.com/
3. Thomas L. Friedman (2009). Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How it Can Renew America. (release 2.0). Douglas and McIntyre,516 pages.
4. L. Maingon (2010). “350.org” and Site C” Sustainablecoast.ca April 19 2010.
6. The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, p. 8.
8. Bob Herbert. (November 8, 2009). “Stacking the Deck Against Kids.” New York Times
9. assets.panda.org/downloads/living_planet_report_2008.pdf –
10. Vandana Shiva (1998) Stolen Harvest, South End Press, 148pages.
11. See amongst many others, Megan McAdams (21 December 2009). “Modern-Day Slavery in Mexico and the United States. Truthout.org.; Paul Harris (22 November 2009). “Forced labour and rape, the new face of slavery in America.” The Observer. ; Chris Hedges (2009). Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Alfred Knopf, 232 pages.
12. Megan McAdams. Op.cit
13. Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows (2004) Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green, 258.
14. Henri Giroux (2009). Youth in a Suspect Society:Democracy or Disposability? Palgrave MacMillan, 256 pages; Loic Waquant (2009). Punishing the Poor:The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, Duke University Press, 291 pages.
15. Henri Giroux (05 April 2010). “A Society Consumed by Locusts: Youth in the Age of Moral and Political Plagues. Truthout.org.
16. Limits to Growth 265-284.
17. Huey D. Johnson (2008). Green Plans: Blueprint for a Sustainable Earth. University of Nebrask Press. 56.
18. Huey D. Johnson, xii.