Friday, January 15, 2010


On Wednesday I lined up in the cold with about 800 other people to take in a symposium at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (co-sponsored by the Indypendent) with authors Naomi Klein and Raj Patel, moderated by Amy Goodman, on the subject "how we can work for change in the current political and economic climate." As I looked around for a seat with decent sight lines it seemed the packed auditorium was teeming with energy. A man who'd been holding a seat for a no-show friend let me take their spot and I expressed my astonishment at the full house. He looked dreamily at the crowd and speculated, "I guess about half are here for Amy and half are here for Naomi." I wondered if he thought anyone was there for Raj Patel who a day before had made an impressive guest on Democracy Now!, the show Goodman hosts weekday mornings via the Pacifica network. "Well I don't really know him," he said. The response from the crowd when he was introduced made it obvious that many in attendance did know him and were ready to receive.

Patel's book is The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, and as Goodman announced during opening remarks it had just made the NY Times Bestseller list. Goodman made a point of underscoring the potential meaning of this fact, saying, "There is hope, and people do care." Klein's fame began ten years ago with her highly influential book "No Logo,", now freshly revised and reissued, and is currently the rage for her more recent The Shock Doctrine.

Naturally, the conversation began on the subject of Haiti, which had dominated the news the previous 24 hours, as it continues to today with report after report on the terrible devastation and loss of life, as the people wait for aid that seems to be coming, but coming later than those on the ground can bear. The speakers attempted to put the situation in context, beginning at the beginning, the slave rebellion that was the genesis of Haiti, the various ways that debt had been used to dominate and discipline the country, and its environmental degradation that makes a natural event like this earthquake have impact that would not be so severe in a country with more self-sustaining wealth, power, and infrastructure. The U.S. has intervened over and over in Haiti, all to its detriment, whether it was decimating their rice industry or arming the Duvaliers or ousting Aristede. Meanwhile, the U.S. government scoffs at socialism but gives the U.S. rice industry a billion dollars a year in subsidies. You may ask yourself, how is subsidy different from socialization? The difference is where the profits go, obviously. Anyway, the speakers revealed other means by which haiti and countries like it are manipulated for corporate greed--um, I mean globalization--by the IMF and others, forcing them to privatize utilities and allow trans-nationals in as a condition for loans.

Patel tended to illustrate as many of his points as possible in the context of what he calls "the food crisis," and in doing so spent time introducing the audience to the concept of "food sovereignty." The term has been around since the mind 1990s and I'm sad to say it was completely new to me. Patel said that the Wikipedia entry explaining it was actually quite good, so I will send you there too.

Most of the rest of the evening was spent talking about climate change and climate debt, a Klein specialty, and she made many strong arguments about the responsibility of the developed world to the developing world with regard to this pressing issue. I thought I had caught her in a slight gaffe as she was rightly outlining ways that the climate crisis exacerbates the suffering people go through in the developing world when natural disasters occur, like hurricanes and so on, and the increase in such phenomenon due to the effects of emissions. She used Haiti as an example saying that more of these kinds of things are going to happen and I scribbled a note to myself: "is N.K. saying earthquakes are caused by climate change??" I hadn't heard of this being suspected before. Well, one quick Google search later I see page after page of data. We don't know if this particular quake was related, but her point was quite valid and I am psyched to have learned something.

From Patel I learned about the Tragedy of the Commons, the article and concept by Garrett Hardin that advances the idea that individuals acting their own self-interest will naturally deplete their shared, limited, natural resources even when it is clear that it's not in anyone's long-term interest. This doctrine turns out to have been used time and again since the late 60s to appropriate and privatize the resources of indigenous people for supposed preservation, but ends up alienating already poor populations and managing the commons in far worse ways, sometimes by under-utilizing it.

Towards the end of the idea-packed two hours the talk turned to president Obama. Klein provided sober analysis in pointing out how Obama was "a mirror held up to us," reflecting back what we believe without promising much of anything and at this point not delivering much. Patel called him the "pizza delivery guy of change."

There was so much more I am not getting to...a great discussion of the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen and the Seattle WTO protests, Patel's insistence that shopping green isn't close to enough and that the situation demands radical political change as well, as well as Klein and Goodman's reassuring words about community and the hope that we-the-many can affect the actions of the powerful few. The capacity crowd gave its resounding approval in the form of a standing ovation.

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