Category Archives: Climate change

Contextualizing the failure at Copenhagen

5 Jan 2010
Ever since the beginning of the so-called “Financial” Crisis and, especially, because of how it was resolved, it was obvious that the Climate crisis was going to follow the same pattern, i.e. those most responsible for the climatic crisis would be absolved and they would end up dictating what they consider to be the solution.

There is a deep reluctance, especially among the countries which have most benefited from the history of capitalism, to come to terms with the fact that the system has come to its useful end, if it ever had one. Some of the reasons are obvious, others less so. From the perspective of African history ever since slavery, what happened and what did not happen in Copenhagen was predictable. From the abolition of slavery to the end of colonial rule, the scenario has been the same. Make a lot of noise around cosmetic changes and make sure that the structural relations are maintained, at every necessary transition.

When it is not in the interest of the big powers (whether enslaving, colonizing or globalizing) to resolve any given issue, the tendency will be to either look away, or to offer solutions which do not lead to a critical examination of the responsibility of these big powers. One of the most recent cases was the Rwanda genocide. From 1990, it was known that a genocide was being prepared. Nothing was done and even when it began to unfold, the little which could have been done was not done. The calculations of the big powers at the Conference in Copenhagen were that doing the least (economically and financially) would also be the best political solution. In the process, the unfolding predictable failure has had at least one positive result, as Bolivian President Evo Morales pointed out. The rich countries failed to carry out what they had been accustomed to do over the centuries, i.e. let the least industrialized countries bear the burden of the necessary changes.

Economically and politically, the calculations were framed by an understanding of economics and politics belonging to the histories of imperial triumphs going back to Atlantic slavery. From that history and the various transitions (from slavery to colonial occupation, to colonialism, to neo-colonialism, to apartheid to post-apartheid, to globalization), the most economically advanced countries have learned to survive the transitions by organizing themselves so as to continue to be the beneficiaries of the political and economic system which must continue under their control. These countries have learned to be accountable only to themselves, with impunity.

In the few cases where people sought to do the transition on their terms, e.g. Santo Domingo/Haiti, the punishment was as severe as possible, with the intention of making sure that no one would be tempted to follow the same kind of road. For more than 200 years, Haitians have paid the price for that daring victory over the slave masters. Between the French revolution of 1789 and the Haitian one in 1791-1804, the most radical one was the latter. One might even think that such a revolution might be considered worth preserving as one of the things Humanity can be most be proud of. But the twin syndromes of discovery and abolition continue to dictate that the “discovered” (Africans, Native Americans, the poor, immigrants, unemployed) can never ever discover anything, let alone, freedom, equality, solidarity. For the Africans who had been enslaved, freeing themselves without any outside assistance and, on top of it, defeating the three biggest military powers of the time, constituted a punishable offence of the highest degree.

Looking at Copenhagen with the eyes of those who have been most predated upon, the lessons, at least since the end of WWII are explicit and clear. The context in which the world finds itself today is one of great danger of extinction of large segments of, if not all of, humanity. Concerning humanity, the ruling clique of the US reads its own history from the perspective of what it has managed to get away with. To this day, it has managed to do so with impunity. It is possible to look at the US refusal to sign international Agreements from its own history of signing, and then, not respecting such agreements, as it has done with its Indian populations. The lesson from that experience has been that it is better not to sign, rather than pedal back and be accused of perfidy (or be called “forked tongues” as the Native Americans did). It has refused to be part of the ICC. It has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The list is long. The US, especially since WWII, would like to see the price of its participation as one which puts it above any other power. It must only be accountable to itself.

Metaphorically speaking, the behavior of the US ruling clique is no different from that of a criminal who manages to get away with murder. The retained lesson will be to engage in the same, or worse, practice since such behavior has yielded high returns. For example, there are at least two ways to read the manner in which WWII ended: the American way or Humanity’s way. From the former, America saved the world from evil. The political disappearance of the Soviet Union has facilitated the erasure of the fact that 22 million Soviets (today’s Russians) died in the process of fighting Germany, Japan and Italy. From Humanity’s standpoint, what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9 1945) cannot be erased and explained away as a “faster way of ending the war, and saving lives”. If Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not a Crime Against Humanity, they certainly were a War Crime. But, as is well known, history gets to be written by the victors. For the sake of maintaining the memory of the life principle alive and well, it is worth quoting from Jennifer Scarlott’s review of Kai Bird’s and Lawrence Lifschultz’s edited book (Hiroshima’s Shadow):
In a perspicacious article for the September 1945 issue of politics, a mere month following the bombings, Dwight Macdonald wrote, “… the Bomb produced two widespread and, from the standpoint of the Authorities, undesirable emotional reactions in this country: a feeling of guilt at ‘our’ having done this to ‘them’ and anxiety lest some future ‘they’ do this to ‘us’… The Authorities have therefore made valiant attempts to reduce the thing to a human context, where such concepts as Justice, Reason, Progress could be employed. Such moral defenses are offered as: the war was shortened and many lives, Japanese as well as American, saved, etc…. The flimsiness of these justifications is apparent: any atrocious action, absolutely any one, could be excused on such grounds.” (p. 264-5)
Another voice heard from is Mary McCarthy’s. In a withering critique of John Hersey’s famous 1946 New Yorker piece on the atom bomb, McCarthy declared, “…what it (the Hersey piece) did was to minimize the atom bomb by treating it as though it belonged to the familiar order of catastrophes — fires, flood, earthquakes — which we have always had with us… The interview with the survivors, is the classic technique for reporting such events — it serves well enough to give some sense, slightly absurd but nonetheless correct, of the continuity of life. But with Hiroshima, where the continuity of life was, for the first time, put into question, and by man, the existence of any survivors is an irrelevancy; and the interview with the survivors is an insipid falsification of the truth of atomic warfare. To have done the atom bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead.” (p. 303)

From the victor’s corners (which is part of humanity) there will arise voices which do justice to humanity. Coming back to Copenhagen, though, will the victors ask themselves which kind of victory are they looking for. What is the point of winning a race to dig humanity’s grave?

In order not to be part of the Kyoto Protocol, George Bush stated that the American Way of Life (AWoL) is non negotiable. But, again and for the record, how, from humanity’s sake should one assess the AWoL? The path of satisfying, first and above all, this AWoL, was initiated with a twin genocide, of Native Americans and Africans. Since there has been no accountability for this and since, especially from the end of WWII, the US has been able to present itself successfully as the unblemished defender of Western “values”, it becomes difficult if not impossible to bring the US to look at its AWoL as a road paved with good intentions, creating hells wherever it has been asserted militarily, and or, through pliant dictators.

The voices which have been raised “to save the Planet” are, generally, coming from the same corners (not all) which, in all the transitions from slavery to today, have been ignored. There is a conviction, from the previous transitions, that the same behavior will yield positive results. This time, however, there is a difference, even if members of the ruling clique refuse to acknowledge it. The progressive voices present in Copenhagen must have felt that the financial crisis and the manner in which it was “resolved” might temper those who brought about the financial crisis, in the first place.

But the so-called solution to the financial crisis had the exact opposite effect: it provided confirmation to those who caused the crisis and then profited from it, that the only way to organize the economy across the world was their way, and not by listening to “prophets of gloom and doom”. As some prominent members of the US delegation kept insisting, it was important to “look forward”, i.e. the AWoL.

To summarize. The AWoL has been achieved through a way of organizing the economy, its own and the world, as if the Planet is not finite. Spreading death does not matter as long as lives are saved within the US geographical borders. The parameters which were forged through the twin genocide of earlier periods of US history have continued to assert themselves, and have now become the gospel of the so-called health industry in the US. Some writers have pointed out that there is a close connection between the financial crisis and the health crisis, but, again, such “discoveries” must be kept out of order because the order of business is to make profit.

There is a way out, but it will have to come out through the firm and uncompromising assertion that life is sacred, whether it is the life of a poor, homeless person or that of the most powerful CEO. Will sanity prevail so Humanity may prevail and save itself from between the rock and the hard place so well captured by Aimé Césaire in the following two lines:

We have arrived in a tower of silence
Where we have become prey and vulture