Photo by Marco Di Lauro

 G L O B A L

Planet Waves | August 2001

By Eric Francis

WHAT DOES IT MEAN that every time the leaders of industrialized nations gather to discuss business, they must be sequestered inside fortresses of concrete and barbed wire, guarded by thousands of riot police?.....

.......Page one of The New York Times from Sunday, July 22 is instructive on this particular question. The color photo across three columns depicts a crowd in the streets of Genoa, salami capital of the world, and lesser known as the home port of Christopher Columbus. At the front of a large crowd, a few men dressed in black throw rocks into a smog of teargas, through which the obscured images of masked, helmeted riot police can be seen.

.......Nearby, a man waves a bright red flag.

.......The Times' lead story on the G8 summit is to the right of the photo, at the top of the page. The headline reads, ALLIES TELL BUSH THEY'LL ACT ALONE ON CLIMATE ACCORD. A sub-headline to the same article reads, MORE PROTESTS AT GENOA.

.......Despite its many pro-corporate biases, its history of scandalous environmental coverage and its mushy liberal rhetoric, the Times nailed the story in a photo and thirteen words.

.......We are, at this time in history, seeing something develop that has been pondered, dreamed of and wished for by scholars and activists for a long time: protests against corporate greed. In Seattle, Washington, DC, Quebec City and elsewhere, banking and world trade leaders, arriving for their routine and previously un-noticed conferences, have been met by stunning opposition from regular people who turn out not for a concert, but knowing they may get shot and teargassed for expressing their opposition to world destruction. Every time these corporate leaders and representatives of the oligarchy -- a word we need to see more of, meaning government by the rich and powerful -- arrive in a new city, they are met by the same scene.

.......And while many people criticize the violence and destruction that comes along with even with nonviolent protests -- usually in the form of police who arrive with batons, shields, gas and guns, no matter how peaceful the protest -- we might well ask: What is the proper response to the threatened end of the world? We might well ask: Does this warrant our anger? Do we even know how to get angry?

.......The dark wizards who make our decisions for us have unlimited resources, daunting military power and the full throttle of Madison Avenue to sell their wares, but a great many people ain't buying.

.......We are not buying because we know we're being lied to. Yes, we need to eat, and yes, I need to type on a manufactured, plastic computer to get you this message, but we're not buying the ideology. The association between capitalism and environmental devastation, once fogged over by claims of better living through chemistry, is now plainly obvious. The climate accord spoken of by the Times headline above is an agreement on global warming, a problem which has been responsible for devastating Earth changes in the past 20 years, including news published last August that the ice cap at the North Pole had melted completely.

.......While fossil fuel producers "have worked relentlessly to convince the American public that global warming is a Chicken Little fantasy," in the words of Rachel's Health &Environment newsletter, the insurance industry knows the problem is real because "hurricanes, cyclones and floods between 1990 and 1995 have cost the industry about fifteen times as much as such events had cost in the 1980s."

Photo by Dylan Martinez

.......Though the Genoa protests were said by the media to have "marred" the summit and distracted leaders from the important issues at hand, actually, they appear to have been helpful. Participants -- including the presidents of the eight most powerful industrial nations -- knew that the world spotlight was on them. This was, principally, thanks to the Carabiniere riot officer who shot Carlo Giuliani twice from inside a police jeep, after which the jeep's driver rolled over him and drove off. As images of his crushed and bleeding body, captured by Reuters photographer Dylan Martinez, spread across the Internet and appeared in newspapers around the world, crowds in Genoa grew, by some official estimates, to 150,000. Pressure on G8 leaders to do their job increased.

.......The protests, and in particular shock of Mr. Giuliani's death, forced the global warming question to the center of the summit, specifically, the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 treaty developed by the G8 at a summit in Japan. At the Genoa summit's opening, it appeared, thanks to US maneuvering, like the treaty was headed for the garbage, which would have turned back the clock on half a decade of progress on global warming. Last December, negotiators left a collapsed follow-up meeting to Kyoto in the Netherlands after two weeks with no agreement, largely due to the US opposition to the plan. The US, the world's largest producer of greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide), wanted exemptions that would make its contribution to the international effort amount to nothing.

.......Then in Genoa, President Bush, whose family and administration have strong, long-time involvement with the oil business, persisted in this arrogant position, claiming that curbing CO2 emissions would cripple the US economy, a claim that's become something of a stock-in-trade of the polluter's bag of lies. (PCB producers such as Monsanto and GE claimed the same thing for many years before their products were banned in 1976.) Bush added that protesters who "claim to represent the voices of the poor aren't doing so. Those protesters who try to shut down our talks on trade and aid don't represent the poor, as far as I am concerned."

.......Like he does?

.......French President Jacques Chirac, telling reporters that G8 leaders were "traumatized" by the protests, offered a different view: "The elected leaders of our countries have to consider the problems that have brought tens of thousands of our compatriots, mainly from European countries, to demonstrate their concern, to demonstrate their wish to change."

.......The result was a G8 game of Survivor where George was voted off the island. In Bonn, Germany, while the summit and protests unfolded in Genoa, environmental ministers of the G8 met to hash out the details of Kyoto. Monday morning, after an all-night session that teetered on failure, leaders came to an agreement on the treaty, which is expected to have full legal force by next year. Though its provisions were watered down, the real victory seems to be that European countries and even Japan and Canada, with the backing of thousands of people storming the streets and demanding environmental justice in city after city, finally stood up to the US, and stood it down.

.......Perhaps this has something to do with Mr. Bush's lack of credibility and legitimacy as president. Not everyone has forgotten that he was elected by the US Supreme Court and not the people. Well, next time he can have his own meeting, in Bologna.

Photo: Reuters

.......Yet despite this beautiful moment, I think the joy is somewhat lost on most people, as is a sense of participation. Genoa and even global warming remain something of virtual events. We don't even really talk about them. In America, we read about this stuff on the Internet and watch the images flash by on television. Yet thanks to these media, something can happen in one city and the news is available instantly, everywhere. But you can't really get involved, or claim victory.

.......Unless, of course, you can relate. Maybe you've been involved in protest movements in the past, and remember the power of a human snake, 10,000 strong, roaring through the canyons of Wall Street to fight tuition hikes. Maybe you've worked for Greenpeace, or baked in the Sun tabling at a music festival, raising money and awareness for the death penalty. Maybe you've been to some of those amazing demonstrations to free Mumia in Philadelphia. Maybe you took a few snorts of CS gas at the A-16 demonstrations.

.......Maybe you've worked to get toxic mold out of your high school. Maybe you live in El Salvador or Nicaragua and have been involved in Madrés. Maybe you create a radical e-zine and raise awareness on the Internet. Maybe you stand up to your boss and demand better recycling facilities in the office. Maybe you're a lawyer who takes pro bono cases. Maybe, as I was fortunate enough to do, you got to write a cover story for Sierra magazine.

.......Maybe you just pay attention.

.......Or maybe you have skin cancer, or maybe your city was flooded, or ravaged by wildfire or a few hurricanes, and you have some personal reference points for ozone or global warming.

.......After the Battle in Seattle, where the first domino in this particular movement fell over, and after A-16 in Washington, DC, and after Quebec, and as the smoke clears in Genoa, we still need to go to work in our communities. We have learned to think globally; we now need to act locally.

.......There is no place with no problems, and since everywhere in the world is in the world, then all global problems affect everyone everywhere. This is more a spiritual problem than a political or environmental one, since involvement requires so much awareness. But some people don't get riled up until someone wants to put a nuclear power plant or a toxic dump in their neighborhood. Check out your neighborhood and you'll find some very serious problems that demand attention.

.......Efforts are (as ever) underway to manipulate our minds, for example, by those who say that there are two sides to the argument, and then dictate what both sides are. We may not really believe such lies, but we may be lulled into a form of sleep known as confusion, or another known as fear, or the most deadly one, boredom. But these are not excuses.

.......We who are alive now would do well to view our moment from the imagined perspective of the distant future, when the benefits of our actions or -- alternately -- the devastating effects of our apathy have had their pronounced results.

.......We can describe, from that perspective of the future, in plain talk, what we face today: The dangers of a rapidly degrading global ecology; the rapid overheating of the planet; the thinning of the ozone that filters out the light that is dangerous to our skin; breathing poisoned air; eating poisoned food; and thinking in a contaminated mental environment: living amongst a population that often yields to corporate powers pushing their seductive agenda aggressively. How did we respond? How are you responding? What will your legacy be?

.......You can be present for your own life, and you can be sure that there is plenty to do, right now, right where you are. And you can be certain that your contribution counts, not just for the world and for those you touch, but to improve your inner life in a way that nothing you can buy is capable of doing. Yet to do anything requires effort and, since the options are not being handed to you, a measure of creativity. So, since you can't throw rocks at riot police in Italy, why not think of something?

.......The world is waiting for you.++

-- With Sean Springer