Monthly Archives: September 2011

Climate, poverty, utopia

The inner crisis in environmental politics today is precisely the lack of bold concepts that address the challenges of poverty, energy, biodiversity and climate change within an integrated vision of human progress. At a micro-level, of course, there have been enormous strides in developing alternative technologies and passive-energy housing, but demonstration projects in wealthy communities and rich countries will not save the world. The more affluent, to be sure, can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living, but what is the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets, pediatric clinics and mass transit to poor urban communities?

          Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”[i]

The advent of the modern city deserves particular attention on the timeline of anthropogenic climate change. The forms which the city has taken during the last two hundred years of human existence have made it an increasingly noteworthy contributor to the building climate crisis. Today up to 45 percent of global carbon emissions can be attributed to heating and cooling the urban environment, and as much as a further 40 percent are the result of urban industries and transportation.[ii]

Along with the novel problem of climate change, the age-old issue of poverty also finds itself attached to the idea of the city. The manifestation of poverty in urban centres is quite unlike rural poverty in that it often appears alongside terrific amounts of wealth. While rural poverty, which is often deeper, can at least in part be attributed to scarcity and isolation, urban poverty is more starkly a product of injustice. Families nest inside hovels built in the shadows of skyscrapers. Children suffer from treatable diseases in close vicinity to hospitals. The homeless stand shivering in the cold while standing next to stores full of countless articles of warm clothing. Currently one billion people live in urban slums that dot the planet. This number is forecasted to triple by 2030.

Finding itself at the confluence of the climate crisis and intense inequality the city may yet realize redemption. Inherent within the idea of the city is a feature which makes it a solution, rather than a contributor, to climate change. The concentrated population density of the city seems essential to a societal low-carbon footprint recipe. As for the issue of inequality, bridging the gap between the rich and poor may not only be complementary to a solution to climate change, but it will likely also be essential to it.

The paradox of the accumulating climate crisis is that it will affect most harshly those who had the least part in creating it. Changing weather patterns will affect the South much more severely than the North. The latter, in fact, may gain in some ways as a result of warming temperatures: for example, while annual agricultural output for a number of Southern countries is expected to fall by 20 percent or more, it is anticipated to increase for the North by an average of 8 percent.[iii]

This incongruity puts an intractable obstacle in the path of the current means to address the problem. Negotiations on climate change hold as their hope for success a triumph of global solidarity in the face of a common challenge. Unfortunately, however, the challenge is not as universal as it is often portrayed. Even if the impact was not going to be as disproportionate as it will be, the North has considerably more resources to protect itself against it. And the history of global relations has shown that it would hardly feel inclined under any circumstance to appropriately compensate the victims of its crimes.

The trends, in fact, have already been set in this direction. Rich countries will continue to derail negotiations to come up with meaningful measures to counteract global warming. Individuals and communities that can afford it and have a “liberal” disposition will set about changing their lifestyles to be more environmentally friendly, patting themselves on the back as they do so. The poor and the marginalized – whether in New Orleans or in the villages of Sindh – will be left to face the brunt of the impact. More self-back-patting opportunities will routinely arise for the rich in the form of extreme weather events, such as the ongoing drought in East Africa, giving them reason to dole out some charity for some of those suffering most acutely.

The international, and the various national, political arrangements under which we live are obviously leading us in the wrong direction. A similar realization needs to be made about the reigning economic system. The reasons were many for believing such a thing before the onset of the climate crisis. Now it should seem all the more obvious. In The Enigma of Capital social theorist David Harvey explains that

The current consensus among economists and within the financial press is that a ‘healthy’ capitalist economy, in which most capitalists make a reasonable profit, expands [in terms of the total output of goods and services] at 3 per cent per annum. Grow less than that and the economy is deemed sluggish. Get below 1 per cent and the language of recession and crisis erupts (many capitalists make no profit).[iv]

Harvey goes on to write that following the recession if “normal” growth were to return to the world economy from 2011 onward “there will be over $100 trillion in the global economy by 2030. Profitable outlets would then have to be found for an extra $3 trillion investment. That is a very tall order.”[v] Indeed, especially when one considers the environmental consequences.

There is no forthcoming technological quick-fix for climate change. The solution will require addressing the causes at the root level. Measures relating to technology will be ultimately unsuccessful unless they are adopted within an arrangement that is itself compliant with the idea of sustainability. A system under which production is controlled privately for the basis of maximizing profit does not have room within it to reform to the degree necessary to offset the climate crisis that it has created.

“The bold thought first,” observed the twentieth century anarchist-philosopher Peter Kropotkin, “and the bold deed will not fail to follow.”[vi] The solution to the climate crisis will, first of all, require a bold reimagining of our current social arrangement. The city can serve as a centrepiece and starting point of such a reimagining. Mike Davis contends that “the egalitarian aspects of city life consistently provide the best sociological and physical supports for resource conservation and carbon mitigation.”[vii] With equitable distribution of wealth and political power, and minimal amounts of coercion, individual liberty can reign. Moreover, with democratic (worker) control of production we can organize society in a way that does not require infinitely-increasing levels of consumption and investment to sustain. Having removed the basis under which human beings seek to exploit and compete against one another, we can reconstitute power relations within, and in between, our societies in a way that allows solidarity to triumph over narrow self-interest.

All this likely sounds impractical, perhaps even utopian. Be that as it may, that which is deemed practical is not getting us anywhere good. It’s high time we stopped sticking to it.


[i] Mike Davis, “Who Will Build the Ark?”, New Left Review, 61:1, p. 44

[ii] Ibid., p. 41

[iii] Ibid., p. 40

[iv] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital : and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 26

[v] Ibid., p. 27

[vi] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

[vii] Ibid. 1, p. 45


Famines and knives

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

–          Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden

A July 20 editorial in the Vancouver Sun urged Canadians to give donations in support of victims of the ongoing famine in East Africa. In a concessionary tone, the editorial pointed out that Canadians “are… wary of appeals from a region where aid often appears to be poured into a bottomless pit and people seem no better off for it.”

It immediately went on to offer a response to the concession: “We must not let this weariness blind us to the human crisis that is now unfolding in a region that has known more than its share of misery. We must not let our disgust for leaders who create hardships for their own citizens or our attention to the pressing concerns of our daily lives distract us from the opportunity we now have to help.”

Apparently there’s a “bottomless pit” into which our thankless mercy is being poured “and people seem no better off for it.” We’ve been trying in earnest to help, but it’s all been for nought. The blame for this is handed to disgusting “leaders who create hardships for their own citizens”. I suppose that’s a bit of a step up from Kipling’s “sloth and heathen”. The sentiment, however, is much the same.

There is almost never an attempt by the media to honestly take history into account. Doing so, in this case as well as in many others, would show that the causes of suffering are not all contained within the countries or regions which experience the suffering. Much of the fault should be ascribed to outsiders.

There certainly are internal problems, including the incompetence and corruption of local leaders. However, as important as those problems may be, what we need to be concerned with most of all is our contribution to the creation of suffering. Our contribution is what we can work to amend.

It fact, it is apparent that the contribution of outsiders to the corruption of local leaders is quite significant (we’ll certainly find this to be the case for Somalia, as we review its post-colonial history below). In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Walter Rodney writes that

The presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment. Any diagnosis of underdevelopment in Africa will reveal not just low per capita income and protein deficiencies, but also the gentlemen who dance in Abidjan, Accra and Kinshasa when music is played in Paris, London and New York.[1]

Though perhaps Rodney would not have agreed, I would add Moscow to the list of city’s in which music is played, or at least such was the case historically. I would also be remiss, as a Canadian citizen, to not add Ottawa to the list.

Europe ain’t my rope to swing on / Can’t learn a thing from it[2]

Behold how the Infidel lays traps for you [Somalis] as you become less wary. The coins he dispenses so freely now will prove your undoing.

–          Sayiid Mohamed Abdille Hassan (The Mad Mullah), 1920[3]

The state of Somalia came into being on July 1, 1960 when British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland gained independence and combined to become one country. The newly-founded country found itself fettered by the chains of poverty and as the first independent years unfolded it also became increasingly politically unstable. The end of the decade saw a military coup take place in the country, through which Siyaad Barre came to power. This set the stage for Somalia to become part of successive neo-colonial arrangements, first in the service of one coldwar superpower and then the other.

Barre’s Somalia first came under the wing of the Soviet Union, obtaining arms and aid to shore up against neighbouring Ethiopia, a US ally. In 1974 the pro-US government in Ethiopia was overthrown. Following the subsequent conflict, a leftist government came to power in 1977. The US then ended its military and economic aid from Ethiopia.

By 1980, after a war between Somalia and Ethiopia over the disputed Ogaden region, the US and Soviet backing of the two countries had flipped – Somalia was now a US ally and Ethiopia was a Soviet ally. A refugee crisis and multiple rebel groups who stood up to challenge the rule of the Barre regime emerged from the ruins of the Ogaden war.

Give ‘em guns, step back, and watch ‘em kill each other[5]

In order to maintain military bases in Somalia that could monitor affairs in the [Persian] Gulf, the United States government provided $163.5 million in military technology and four times that much in economic aid during 1980-88. By the late 1980s, Somalia was receiving 20 percent of U.S. aid to Africa. . . . The value of arms alone imported by Somalia [from the West] during the two decades of Barre’s rule totaled nearly two billion dollars. . . . By the early 1980s, the Somali state was one of the most militarized in Africa. . . .

–          Catherine Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery[6]

Barre became increasingly tyrannical throughout the ‘80s as opposition against him grew and rebels began to gain ground. The decade was witness to tens of thousands of Somali deaths at the hands of his regime, with hundreds of thousands fleeing across the Ethiopian border.

The ruthless US-backed dictator was finally ousted from power in early 1991. The next two years saw rival factions fight for control of the government. A famine gripped the south of the country in 1992 but began to subside with the help of rain by the end of the year. Around the same time conflict between rival factions had also began to subside.

Looking for an easy public relations boost for his country, US President George Bush decided to conduct a military intervention in Somalia which would assist the UN deliver food to the victims of the famine. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it as a “paid political advertisement”.[7] A US-led UN Security Council-sanctioned task force (UNITAF) comprised of several countries, including Canada, was created and arrived in Somalia in December 1992.

The PR stunt didn’t go as planned. The presence of foreign troops exasperated the situation. The population quickly turned openly hostile against the task force as a result of cruel treatment received from the troops:

There were times when [U.S. troops] shot at everything that moved, took hostages, gunned their way through crowds of men and women, finished off any wounded who were showing signs of life. Many people died in their homes, their tin roofs ripped to shreds by high-velocity bullets and rockets. Accounts of the fighting frequently contain such statements as this: “One moment there was a crowd, and the next instant it was just a bleeding heap of dead and injured.” (Alex De Waal, New Left Review, “US War Crimes in Somalia”)[8]

Yves Engler details similarly disturbing conduct carried out by Canadian troops in Somalia:

A sixteen year old, Shidane Abukar Arone, was tortured to death while dozens of other members of the Airborne Regiment knew what was happening. As many as 80 soldiers heard Arone’s screams, which lasted for hours.[9]

Thousands of Somalis lost their lives as a result of the violence created by UNITAF. The operation was called off in March 1993 and a much smaller UN force was left behind in Somalia. Two years later, in March 1995, all UN forces pulled out of Somalia. The Security Council declared that “the people of Somalia bear the ultimate responsibility for achieving national reconciliation and restoring peace to Somalia.”[10]

Since then Somalia has been a country without a central government and remained rife with chaos. It periodically appears in the news. Always something tragic, always without proper context: child soldiers, US-backed Ethiopian intervention, Al Qaeda inspired Al Shabbab militants, pirates, and now famine.

Turn on the radio / Nah, fuck it, turn it off[11]

If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven’t even begun to pull the knife out much less try and heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.

–          Malcolm X[4]

When important pieces of information – namely, information about crimes that we have committed and continue to commit – are absent in the news we consume, it has an effect on the public mind. The belief held by most of the citizens of the North, which underpins our foreign policy towards the South, is the following: We’re trying to help, though sometimes we may falter in carrying out this pursuit and/or they don’t know how to receive our help. That’s the same basis on which the British Empire, and every other tyranny of the kind, was justified. We need to wake up to reality. If we sincerely mean to help ease the suffering of others, we need to first move beyond the idea of charity and work to identify and remove our country’s contribution, and the contribution of our country’s allies, to the suffering. From there we can provide reparations, not aid, to make progress in repairing the damage we caused.


[1] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (Dar Es-Salaam: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications), 1973

[2] Rage Against the Machine, Take The Power Back

[3] Quoted in Michael Maren, The Road to Hell (New York: The Free Press), 1997

[5] Tupac Shakur, Changes

[6] Quoted in Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (New York, The New Press), 2002, Chapter 5: footnote 82

[7] Ibid, Chapter 5: footnote 83

[8] Ibid, Chapter 5: footnote 85

[9] Yves Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (Vancouver: Fernwood Publishing), 2009, p. 198

[10] Michael Maren, The Road to Hell (New York: The Free Press), 1997, p. 287

[11] Rage Against the Machine, Vietnow