Monday, April 26, 2010

The Corollary of Helplessness

Naomi Klein has filed a report for The Nation from Cochabamba in Bolivia, the site of the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. However, there is one path that her logical analysis does not follow; and I think it is important, because it addresses a line of reasoning far more general than current environmental problems. Let me begin with how she sets the stage with her opening paragraphs:

It was 11 am and Evo Morales had turned a football stadium into a giant classroom, marshaling an array of props: paper plates, plastic cups, disposable raincoats, handcrafted gourds, wooden plates and multicolored ponchos. All came into play to make his main point: to fight climate change, "we need to recover the values of the indigenous people."

Yet wealthy countries have little interest in learning these lessons and are instead pushing through a plan that at its best would raise average global temperatures 2 degrees Celsius. "That would mean the melting of the Andean and Himalayan glaciers," Morales told the thousands gathered in the stadium, part of the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. What he didn't have to say is that the Bolivian people, no matter how sustainably they choose to live, have no power to save their glaciers.

Bolivia's climate summit has had moments of joy, levity and absurdity. Yet underneath it all, you can feel the emotion that provoked this gathering: rage against helplessness.

It's little wonder. Bolivia is in the midst of a dramatic political transformation, one that has nationalized key industries and elevated the voices of indigenous peoples as never before. But when it comes to Bolivia's most pressing, existential crisis--the fact that its glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, threatening the water supply in two major cities--Bolivians are powerless to do anything to change their fate on their own.

That's because the actions causing the melting are taking place not in Bolivia but on the highways and in the industrial zones of heavily industrialized countries. In Copenhagen, leaders of endangered nations like Bolivia and Tuvalu argued passionately for the kind of deep emissions cuts that could avert catastrophe. They were politely told that the political will in the North just wasn't there. More than that, the United States made clear that it didn't need small countries like Bolivia to be part of a climate solution. It would negotiate a deal with other heavy emitters behind closed doors, and the rest of the world would be informed of the results and invited to sign on, which is precisely what happened with the Copenhagen Accord. When Bolivia and Ecuador refused to rubber-stamp the accord, the US government cut their climate aid by $3 million and $2.5 million, respectively. "It's not a free-rider process," explained US climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing. (Anyone wondering why activists from the global South reject the idea of "climate aid" and are instead demanding repayment of "climate debts" has their answer here.) Pershing's message was chilling: if you are poor, you don't have the right to prioritize your own survival.

The concept that deserves more attention than Klein allotted lies in the center of this excerpt, subsequently reinforced by the following two paragraphs. The heart of the problem is the helplessness of those who try to act and the recognition that the only reaction to that helplessness is rage, rather than logic.

I found myself dwelling on this proposition because last week I happened to see Leila Khaled, Hijacker on the Sundance Channel. Much of this documentary amounts to an account of the making of a terrorist, and the fundamental argument is that one resorts to terrorism to get the attention of those who have willfully chosen to ignore one's plight. In other words, when one is helpless, whether as a Palestinian refugee, a disgruntled American citizen living on (or over) the economic brink, or a resident of a country facing "existential crisis" as a result of current climate conditions, there is little one can do but rage. That rage can be localized, but that amounts to banging one's head against the wall. The alternative is to warp that old motto of the Sixties into a more sinister proposition:

If you are not part of the problem, make the problem so bad that someone will have to do something about it.

The consequent of that conditional is basically a prescription for terrorism.

In the wake of 9/11, we experienced the better part of a decade immersed in rhetoric about a Global War on Terror that was as passionate as it was misconceived. After he took office, Barack Obama tried to undo those misconceptions with a concerted effort to establish better communication between the White House and the rest of the world on both national and international scales. From his speeches we felt that he appreciated the nature of helplessness in the face of abusive practices; and we all hoped that he would deal with the helpless with more substance than the I-feel-your-pain platitudes of Bill Clinton. What we probably did not anticipate is that Obama's own strategy would basically follow the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah (Jerusalem Bible version):

"Take your wrong-doing out of my sight.
Cease to do evil.
Learn to do good,
search for justice,
help the oppressed,
be just to the orphan,
plead for the widow.

"Come now, let us talk this over,
says Yahweh.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
thought they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.

"If you are willing to obey,
you shall eat the good things of the earth.
But if you persist in rebellion,
the sword shall eat you instead."
The mouth of Yahweh has spoken.

For those who have resorted to terrorism in the face of helplessness, an invitation to "talk this over" just does not cut it, not when it involves conversations with the likes of someone like Pershing who will not even grant you the priority of your own survival.

After 9/11 Tony Judt invoked considerable wrath with an article in The New York Review that presumed that there were deeper motives behind those acts of destruction in New York and Washington. His position was that it was more important to address those motives through meaningful actions than to presume that one could wage war on terrorism the way the Allied powers had waged war on the Nazis. It would be fair to say that there are any number of reasons why the Bush Administration did not want to get Judt's message, but now it seems as if the Obama Administration is not getting it either.

If we are defuse the rage against helplessness, we need to turn not to Isaiah but to Oliver Cromwell:

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

Let us not presume that the objective of talking things over is to get others to obey. Rather, let us "think it possible" that, in the eyes of the helpless around the world (including in our own country), we are the ones perceived stereotypically as terrorists. Even if we do little more than entertain the premise, talking things over might then lead to productive actions, rather than meaningless circumlocutions that can only provoke further rage.

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