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Global Power Project: Bilderberg Group and the Cult of Austerity
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
26 December 2014
Originally posted at Occupy.com
This is the sixth installment in a series examining the activities and individuals behind the Bilderberg Group. Read the first part, second part, third part, fourth part, and fifth part in the series.
It could almost be a slogan: Bilderberg brings people together. Specifically, every year, the Bilderberg Group holds secret, “private” meetings at four star hotels around the world, bringing together nearly 150 of the world’s most influential bankers, corporate executives, dynasties, heads-of-state, foreign policy strategists, central bankers and finance ministers. It also invites the heads of international organizations, think tanks, foundations, universities, military and intelligence officials, media barons, journalists and academics.
Participants at Bilderberg appreciate having a closed-door forum where they can speak openly and directly to one other – and of course, not to us. But perhaps we, the people, would also like to hear what they have to say. For the past four years, Bilderbergers have been running around the world preaching the gospel of “austerity” and “structural reform” – very important terms. If you don’t know what they mean, Bilderbergers are working their day jobs to make sure you will learn.
What is Austerity?
If you’ve been to Bilderberg, chances are you’re a fan of austerity: promoting it, demanding it, implementing it and profiting from it.
Austerity has several names and phrases, including “fiscal consolidation” and “balancing the budget.” There are so many things to call it – but in the end you know it’s austerity because the policies are the same and the effects of those policies are, too. There is a reason why political and technocratic language is made to sound so vague and dull: because behind the words lie brutal actions and devastating consequences. If we understood their true meaning, their use would very often be shocking and unacceptable. Instead, their use has become common and seemingly inconsequential.
Here, however, are the consequences:
Austerity is a set of policies which are, in theory, designed to help a nation or government reduce its “budget deficit,” balance its books and, in time, even produce a yearly “surplus,” or profit. Thus, “austerity measures” are designed to do one thing: cut spending on almost everything, except, of course, the really important things like military and police, subsidies to large banks and corporations, and debt repayments. Otherwise it’s like at a clearance sale for countries, where everything must go. This is how the story generally works:
A country is in the midst of a “fiscal crisis.” It must make a very large interest payment on a debt it owes to some very large banks. These banks individually control more wealth and assets than most of the countries they deal with. Collectively, the banks hold more wealth and assets than any other single group in the world, and they always want their pound of flesh. When a country needs money, banks are there to help. Then the country is in their debt, with regular interest payments at a premium. A country can borrow an enormous sum of money by doing this, and not just from banks but from an array of financial institutions.
Apart from direct loans, this money is often borrowed in a very specific way. A country is in need of financing its budget over the coming year, so it plans what is called a “bond sale.” Bonds are financial instruments (aka, numbers on screens) that represent government or corporate debt. Governments sell their bonds in the “open market,” and when a government sells its bonds, the buyers are typically other nations, banks, asset management firms, sovereign wealth funds, international organizations and rich people. These parties “purchase” the bond at a set price, providing cash which that government puts in its treasury or finance ministry. In return, the newly purchased bond is a promise of future profits. It comes with a set interest rate and agreed upon dates for future payments. The government gets to fund its budget and manage its ministries and policies, while the banks earn interest – and influence.
The arrangement suits both parties, so long as it keeps going forever. But of course, it doesn’t. Eventually, the country builds up a substantial overall debt. Its interest payments become much larger and more frequent. Its need to borrow becomes much greater, and in ever greater amounts. On top of managing its budget, the government now has to pay huge sums of money to the global financial cartel. If the government can’t fund its budget, provide services and pay employees, it’s a government that is likely to collapse. But if it doesn’t pay its interest to the banks, then the government will almost certainly collapse. This is because it has entered the world of global financial warfare.
If a nation looks like it’s facing such a situation (which we call a “fiscal crisis”), financial markets tend to lose confidence in that country’s ability to repay its debts, and the downward spiral proceeds. They now begin to see the country as a “risk,” and suddenly institutions like credit ratings agencies are downgrading the country’s rating, just like a credit card company downgrades your individual rating. There are only three ratings agencies that dominate almost the entire global market for rating credit, so when they declare a downgrade, it becomes the gospel. This means that once a country is officially a risk, the financial institutions that continue to purchase its bonds (ie. debt) can demand a much higher interest rate on future payments, since those institutions are taking a greater risk.
At this point, one of two things happens. Either financial markets continue to purchase the country’s bonds with higher interest rates, or they decide that the country is too much of a risk and they refuse to fund it further. If they continue funding, the country continues to make its payments, though it remains unable to fund its regular functions. The country is left in a perpetual fiscal crisis whereby the interest payments get larger and the crisis gets deeper. This continues until financial markets stop purchasing debt.
The country is now in a major crisis. This is when rich, powerful governments and international organizations come to the “rescue” with money to lend – specifically, the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But their money comes with strict conditions. These conditions have been defined and demanded beforehand by the major banks and financial institutions, and by the plethora of economists, central banks and finance ministries that support them. These are the “experts” and technocrats of global economic governance.
Such conditions require a country to “fix the problem” that created its fiscal crisis. But the main problem facing countries, according to bankers, economists, technocrats and politicians, is that they spend far too much money on social services that benefit their populations. Therefore, in order for a country to be able to borrow, it must implement “correct” policies designed to balance its budget and restore public finances. These policies are collectively described as “austerity measures,” and the process of implementing them is frequently referred to as “fiscal consolidation.” Long story short: governments must cut spending.
This means that healthcare, education, pensions, welfare and social services must be drastically gutted, masses of public sector employees must be fired, and taxes must be increased. Thus, austerity creates a new class of unemployed, pushed into poverty and deprived of all the resources that are meant to help the poor and disadvantaged, let alone everyone else. The economy goes into a deep depression as people stop spending and businesses collapse, unemployment and poverty soar, suicide and mortality rates increase, and racial and ethnic conflicts erupt. All of this is done so that a country is able to get a large loan (sometimes called a national bailout) from institutions like the IMF, European Union and the central banks of powerful U.S., Japanese and European nations. This loan is provided in order to pay the interest the country owes to the global financial cartel.
Populations are impoverished and societies are devastated in order to pay interest to global banks. All of this happens as a result of numbers on screens. This is “austerity,” or “fiscal consolidation,” as we know it.
Time to Reform
Either coupled with or following from austerity measures, lenders and bankers demand that the conditions of the loans include not only “necessary” austerity measures, but also important “structural reforms.” This bland term hides policies and objectives behind it that have the effect of radically altering the entire structure of the economy over a period of several years or even decades. These “reforms” will make the economy strong and “competitive” again, and bring the country out of its austerity-induced depression.
Typical structural reforms include privatizing all state-owned companies, assets and resources, which allow foreign companies, states and banks to purchase important national assets cheaply (and provide a short cash infusion in the process). Countries then have to further “liberalize” markets by reducing any and all government protections and regulations over specific sectors of the economy, allowing foreign banks and corporations to “compete” on an “even playing field.” This forces local and national industries, businesses and communities to compete against some of the largest transnational corporations in the world, many with more wealth and assets than their entire country is worth. As a result, foreign investors can afford to out-compete the local economy by providing cheaper products and services while maintaining global profits. Local businesses cannot compete, so they fail or are bought up. This often contributes to growing unemployment.
One of the key “structural reforms” demanded is “labor flexibility.” In countries with unions, workers rights, pensions and protections, where the labor force has institutional power, the labor market is often considered “rigid.” It does not bend to the wishes and demands of corporations and financial markets that want labor to be “flexible” to their demands. What do they demand? Cheap, exploitable labor. Implementing “labor flexibility” means it’s necessary to dismantle labor protections, regulations and benefits. Essentially, it’s a war on the working class.
“Structural reforms,” in essence, open up a nation, its resources and its population to be controlled, exploited and plundered by the world’s largest banks and corporations. These would be hard policies to sell if those who sold them spoke plainly. Instead, they describe a world in which nations need to “increase competitiveness” and implement the necessary “structural reforms” to create “economic growth.” The point is that it’s all so technical, you’re not supposed to understand it. But actually, it’s pretty simple. Which is why, every day, more and more of us are getting the message.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a freelance researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada.
From Ferguson to Freedom, Part 2: Institutional Racism in America
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
16 December 2014
The primary issue of race in America, as elsewhere in the world, is less about the overt acceptance and propagation of racism on the individual level, and more about the realities of institutional racism. A racist society is established and sustained not simply by racist individuals, but by racist institutions and ideologies. If racism were simply an individual experience, education and interaction between racial groups would seemingly be enough to eradicate the scourge of racism in modern society. After all, most white Americans would likely not identify as racists, and in a society where a black man can become president, many may be tempted to proclaim that America is a “post-racial society.”
Viewing racism simply from an individual level is misleading, embracing the notion that because I am not a racist, we no longer live in a racist society; because the president is black, we have moved beyond racism; because there are black people who have succeeded in society and risen to top political and economic positions of power, there are no longer issues of racial segregation and oppression. These views present a mythology of ‘equal opportunity’ and ‘individual initiative.’ In other words, segregation and other overt forms of political and legal racism have been largely dismantled, and therefore, the rates of poverty, crime, imprisonment and death in black communities are no longer the result of a racist society, but rather, a lack of “individual responsibility” and failure to take advantage of the equal opportunities afforded.
Institutional racism, however, takes a view of society, of the relations between power and people, beyond the myopic and misleading focus of ‘the individual’ alone. Society is institutionally structured to support the rich and powerful at the expense of the vast majority of the population, which is evident through the structures, policies, and effects of institutions like the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, Wall Street banks, the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, etc. The ideologies and actions of these institutions effectively protect the powerful, bail them out, promote policies which benefit them, punish the poor, impoverish the rest, and support a top-down power structure of the national (and global) economy.
There may be individual policymakers, executives or economists who advocate more economic equality, who criticize bailouts and austerity, who oppose the parasitic nature of the modern economy. However, when sitting in positions of power and influence, these individuals must succumb to the institutional demands of those positions. An executive at a bank may individually oppose the actions of banks in creating financial crises and then needing bailouts and profiting from them as millions lose homes, go hungry and are pushed into poverty. However, that executive cannot change the operations of the bank or realities of the industry alone, he must be concerned with the institutional realities, which focus on short-term quarterly profits for shareholders, which in turn would require him to follow and mimic the actions and initiatives of all the other big banks. If such an executive did not follow the path as designed by the institutional structure of the bank and financial markets, such an executive would be fired. Institutional inequality and economic exploitation are realities of the economic system, regardless of whether or not there are individuals within the system who oppose many of the policies and effects of that system.
The same logic applies to racism. This has been true for as long as racism has been a reality. In the United States, racism was institutionalized from the beginning, as the U.S. was founded as a Slave State. Racism was a legal reality, and it was reflected in the institutional structure of the economy, labour system, education, health care, politics, geography, demography, the criminal justice system, city planning, foreign policy and empire. Over the course of decades and centuries, there have been many tangible improvements, with reform to various institutions, legal changes and social transformations: the end of formal slavery, Civil Rights Movement, voting registration, etc. Yet, despite these various improvements and changes over the course of centuries, the realities of institutional racism remain in many facets, old and new. Institutional racism is embedded in the original and evolving structure of society as a whole, and to effectively challenge and remove racism from society, most of society’s dominant institutions must also be challenged, changed or made obsolete.
The institutional structure of society largely serves the same purpose, to protect and support the rich and powerful as the expense of the vast majority of the population. This is true, regardless of race. However, those same institutions enforce segregation, exploitation, domination and exclusion not only in terms of class, but also race. This has the effect of dividing the population among themselves, pitting white against black, promoting and maintaining social divides and conflicts between the population to ensure that they do not unite (through experience or action) against the true ruling groups and structures of society. Racism thus allows for more effective control of society by the few who rule it.
Stokely Carmichael helped to popularize the term ‘Black Power’ in the late 1960s, having risen to acclaim as a young leader in the Civil Rights movement. In 1966, Carmichael published an essay in The Massachusetts Review entitled, ‘Toward Black Liberation,’ in which he wrote that, “The history of every institution of this society indicates that a major concern in the ordering and structuring of the society has been the maintaining of the Negro community in its condition of dependence and oppression… that racist assumptions of white superiority have been so deeply ingrained in the structure of the society that it infuses its entire functioning, and is so much a part of the national subconscious that it is taken for granted and is frequently not even recognized.”
Carmichael provides an example to differentiate between individual and institutional racism: “When unidentified white terrorists bomb a Negro Church and kill five children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city, Birmingham, Alabama, not five but 500 Negro babies die each year because of a lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and deprivation in the ghetto, that is a function of institutionalized racism. But the society either pretends it doesn’t know of this situation, or is incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”
Carmichael described the ‘Negro community in America’ as being subjected to the realities of “white imperialism and colonial exploitation.” With more than 20 million black Americans accounting for roughly 10% of the national population (in 1966), they lived primarily in poor areas of the South, shanty-towns, and the urban slums and ghettos of northern and westerns industrial cities. Regardless of location in the country, if one were to go into any of these black communities, Carmichael wrote, “one will find that the same combination of political, economic, and social forces are at work. The people in the Negro community do not control the resources of that community, its political decisions, its law enforcement, its housing standards; and even the physical ownership of the land, houses, and stores lie outside that community.” Instead, white power “makes the laws, and it is violent white power in the form of armed white cops that enforces those laws with guns and nightsticks. The vast majority of Negroes in this country live in these captive communities and must endure these conditions of oppression because, and only because, they are black and powerless.”
The realities of institutional racism can be seen in the case of Ferguson. An analysis by Keith Boag of CBC News looked at the legal structure of St. Louis County, where two-thirds of the population, approximately 650,000 people, live within “incorporated municipalities.” There are roughly 90 of these municipalities, Ferguson being one such area, with a population of roughly 21,000 people. Fourteen of these areas have populations less than 500 people, and 58 of them have their own police forces. Boag describes the origins of this structure as dating back several decades to before the Civil Rights movement, when white people in the city of St. Louis fled to the suburbs as poor blacks moved to the inner city. As whites moved out of the city, they sought more autonomy and local power, establishing the system of ‘incorporated municipalities’, allowing the local populace to control their own development, writing legal ‘covenants’ which imposed restrictions on “who could buy or lease property within its boundaries.”
In 1970, Ferguson was 99% white, with their covenant enshrining in law that blacks could not sell, rent own property in any way. Over the decades, the covenants were eroded due to their overt racist forms, and they became “unenforceable.” Thus, black people from the city were able to move out to the suburbs, but had to inherit the plethora of jurisdictions left behind by the white population who continued to flee the movement of the black population. In many of these small jurisdictions, there are too few people to provide for a necessary tax base to afford the services and functions of the local administrative structure. The result was that many communities became increasingly dependent upon “aggressive policing” to raise revenue through ticketing and traffic fines.
Boag describes this as a “tax on the poor,” since they are the most susceptible to such practices: “It’s they who have trouble finding the money to pay fines. It’s they who may have to choose between driving illegally to work or not working. It’s they who may be struggling just to feed a family.” The main preoccupation of police becomes issuing traffic fines and tickets, and then arresting people for not paying those fines. As a result, people do not view the police as being there to ‘protect and serve’, but, rather, “to pinch and squeeze every nickel out of you in any way they can.” This system is rampant in the town of Ferguson, as confirmed in an investigation by the Washington Post.
In effect, the poor black population of Ferguson is thus made to pay for their own oppression, stuck in a cycle of poverty which forces them to pay fines (or go to prison) in order to pay the salaries of the police who fine them, arrest them, beat them and kill them.
Thus, racism in Ferguson, itself a product of the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, is institutionalized in the very legal structure, tax and revenue structures, city planning and law enforcement institutions. Such circumstances do not require an overt articulation of racism, nor for it to be enforced by individual white racists (though both of these realities also occur and are encouraged by such a system).
The same logic also applies to the official system of slavery that existed in the United States prior to the Civil War. The slave system was an inherently and obviously racist system. However, there were (on occasion) slave owners who would treat their “property” with kindness, even those who criticized and opposed the system of slavery, but would still participate within that system. The realities of the institutional system of slavery meant that despite an individual’s personal views and preferences, they operated within a system which was racially structured, and thus, were made active participants and supporters of a racist system of domination and exploitation.
If one white slave owner were to free his slaves and promote equality and justice, he would lose his entire economic, social and political base of power within the society, be ostracized and made irrelevant and ineffective. Further, the newly-freed slaves would likely be captured and sold to other slave owners, with ‘freedom’ a short-lived and largely symbolic experience. The actions of a moral individual within an immoral institutional structure cannot change anything alone.
What is required is the collective action of many thousands and hundreds of thousands of individuals, working together to make the costs of such a system greater than its perceived benefits, forcing institutional change. Collective and large-scale actions will, in time and struggle, force reform and gradual change from the top-down. Alternatively, collective action and radical struggle will add to this same pressure, but also propose, organize and initiate alternative methods and visions for social organization and objectives, promoting more revolutionary alternatives.
The events and reactions in Ferguson, New York and increasingly across much of the country and even internationally represent the emergence of a powerful new and resurgent force in society, the reactivation of people power. From urban rebellions and ‘riots’ in Ferguson and Berkeley, to mass arrests and protests in New York and Los Angeles, to the civil disobedience in Miami, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and beyond, America is witnessing the first few weeks and months of a powerful new social movement which promises not to go away quietly. Nor should it.
With chants of “shut it down!” the demonstrators recognize that their power comes in the form of being able to disrupt the normal functioning of society. Institutional racism has led to immense injustice, segregation, exploitation and domination over life in America. The realities of present-day America are the modern manifestations of an institutional system of racism which pre-dates the formation of the United States itself. The current unrest is a reflection of the fact that solutions must go to the core of the problem, within the founding and functions of the institutions themselves.
America may have a black president, but he still has to live in the White House. Black Americans may have more political freedoms and opportunities than in previous decades and centuries, but they still have to live in a society shaped and dominated by institutional racism.
The black population has been kept at the bottom of the social order in the United States since the U.S. was founded as a country (and in fact, long before then). This has been unchanged over the course of several centuries. If progress is defined as one black man being able to rise to a position over which he exerts immense power over a society that continues to subject the majority black population to institutional racism, then ‘progress’ needs to be redefined. An individual, alone, cannot alter the institutional structure of society. Obama is not a symbol of a “post-racial” America, he is a symbol of the continued existence of an “institutionally racist” America, where one can have a black president overseeing a white empire, at home and abroad.
Obama is the exception, not the rule. The rule is Ferguson; the rule is Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The rules need to change. The rules need to be broken and replaced. The rule of racist and imperialist institutions and ideologies must be smashed and made obsolete. The rule of the people must become the law of the land. The road to justice runs through Ferguson, driven by the collective action of thousands of individuals, taking the struggle into the streets with the very real threat that if true liberation is not achieved, the system has lost any sense of legitimacy. When the cost of subservience to the status quo is greater than the cost of changing it, the people will “Shut It Down.”
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a freelance researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada.
A Teaser to ‘The Empire of Poverty’: The First Volume of The People’s Book Project
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
The following is a little teaser to some of the ideas, approach and perspective being pursued through the research and writing of the first volume of The People’s Book Project, ‘The Empire of Poverty.’ Please consider donating to the Project to help these efforts come to fruition.
It’s important to try to understand the global economic and financial system – the banks, corporations, central banks, economic policies (and effects) of governments, trade agreements, the creation and value of currencies, the function of the oft-heard ‘markets’ – as daunting as the task may seem. One might think that they need a degree in Economics in order to understand the complexities of the global economy, to comprehend the correct choices and policies which achieve the desired results. One might think that this is true, but it isn’t. The truth is that if most economists understood the global economy, and knew the ‘correct’ choices to make, we wouldn’t be where we currently are.
Economics – both theory and practice – is an illusion. There are no concrete rules on which to base economic thought; there is no ‘gravity’ to its physics. Economics is not science, it’s sophistry; the sleight of hand, the quick and slick tongue, the wave of the wand, the theatrics of the stage set for all to see, and the effects – as destructive as they may be to the real world and all life within it – are largely hidden from view; the illusion keeps the population enraptured in awe, aspiration, and fear.
This is not to say that there cannot be anything real produced or given growth by what we call ‘economics’: there are of course exchanges made, resources used, products created, lives benefitted, and entire societies and peoples changed. The effects are very real. However, they have a disproportionately destructive, oppressive, and dehumanizing effect upon the vast majority of humanity: they bestow upon a tiny fraction unparalleled power, and thus, dehumanization in another form; while creating a comparably minimal buffer of generally satiated and malleable middle classes, educated well-enough to work and survive the horror show that is the global economic order, but consumed by a culture lacking in substance and meaning, and thus, left morally, psychologically, and intellectually lobotomized, physically paralyzed, and thus, once again, dehumanized.
So our global economic order has the effect of generally dehumanizing all who are subject to its whims and whammies; which is to say, almost everyone, everywhere. Those peoples and societies that are not integrated into the global economy tend to be bombed, invaded, overthrown or droned. Those who remain are doomed to slow death: one in seven people on earth live in urban slums – more than the combined populations of Canada, the United States, and the European Union – while the majority of humanity lives in deep poverty, in hunger, and malnutrition; with 18 million people being killed from poverty-related causes every year, including over 9 million children. Every year.
During the Holocaust, approximately six million Jews were killed. Take that number, add 50% to make 9 million, and just think: this is how many children die every year from poverty. Every year a new Holocaust.
These deaths are preventable. Truly. It has been estimated that less than the yearly Pentagon budget would lift the poorest 3 billion people of the world out of extreme poverty. In fact, in the twenty years following the end of the Cold War in 1991, there were roughly 360 million preventable deaths caused by poverty-related issues, more than the combined deaths of all of the wars of the 20th century.
But this is not our priority. Our priority is that banks and corporations make as much profits as possible, because this – by some unknown and unseen magic – will (it is said) benefit everyone else. It is propagated and believed that this system, as it exists, or even with the proper tinkering and toiling, can represent the totality of life and being on this world; to be humanizing, and to represent ‘human nature’ at its best. But if this system were ‘human nature,’ why would it be so dehumanizing? How many organisms grow by destroying that which their existence depends upon? Parasites, cancers and various diseases can kill the host before transferring to another.
We have no other host to go to. Those who sit atop the global structure know this, which is why they express such an interest in finding new planets to escape to (and presumably, plunder and destroy). The billionaires have given up pretending to care for the world’s billions of people suffering, which is why they are looking to space travel, mining asteroids, and searching for hospitable environments elsewhere. Their long-term ‘exit strategy’ is to abandon ship, not to change the direction we currently traverse.
Are we – as a species – a cancer upon the earth? Looking at the big picture, it may often seem that way. But it is in the small moments, the single acts, exchanged emotions, interacting individuals, in the every day life – those moments of joy, love, wonder – in which we find our own personal meaning, in which we discover that humanity – and human nature – can be so much more than destructive, petty, and pestilent behaviour. We are told we are a society of ‘individuals’ – that we are free, democratic and equal. If that were the case: why are we so isolated? We are individuals, yes, in the physical sense: but we are disconnected from the collective, separated from the species as a whole.
We think and act individually, but do so ignorantly, and arrogantly. Our thoughts and feelings are collected and collated by our commanding culture of irrelevance. The immense gift of a human mind – with all of its possibilities and capabilities, both known and unknown – is largely squandered on pop culture, sports, celebrities, consumer items and entertainment. So long as we remain distracted by the ‘celebration of irrelevance’, we are lobotomized of our meaning.
Is this how you see yourself as an individual? As the world you live in? It’s not an appealing thought. So why, then, do we live in a world in which as individuals we may act morally, purposefully, passionately, and proudly; though as a collective species, we are petty, parasitic, power-mad, pathological, and pretty much evil?
Is it ‘human nature’ that our personal values and priorities are not reflected in the collective – institutionalized – expression of humanity? Or, is it that the way in which our society is constructed, the institutions and ideologies, the policies, programs, priorities and effects of the way in which our world is ordered and altered, is inherently counter to ‘human nature’? In other words: is human nature inherently self-destructive; or, is our constructed human ‘society’ (our global social, political and economic order) inherently destructive to human nature? Does human nature pervert the effects we have upon the world, or do the structures of world order – and power – pervert human nature?
It is this vast disconnect between our personal values and the form they take at the global – collective – level of the species, which is ultimately so dehumanizing. Because power is centralized at the top, and for such a tiny fraction of the species – so much so that there has never been a more unequal and vast ‘Empire of Poverty’ in all of human history, the ‘great inequality’ is not of wealth, but of power.
Wealth is an illusion: a manufactured means to power, a collective delusion. Power is central to human nature. Every person needs power: they need autonomy over their own lives, thoughts, feelings, and decisions. It is central to maturity, it is central to leaving adolescence and becoming an adult, and it is central to finding a sense of self-worth. Understanding oneself is to empower oneself. Power is about possibility, personal fulfillment, passion and purpose. It has individual and social representations. It can be seen – or not – in your own life, but also in the world around us.
A pre-requisite for power is freedom. The process of achieving freedom is, itself, empowering. Once (and if) achieved, it is of immense responsibility to use your new power of freedom wisely, for the effects that it may have upon others and the rest of the world are endless. Power is freedom, quite simply, because slavery is the opposite of both freedom and power: it is the most un-free and the most disempowering personal position to be in.
Freedom is power; power is freedom. If we were actually free, we would have significantly more power. But we don’t. We barely have any control over our own individual lives, let alone the world around us. We leave all that to the others, to those with the proper degrees, the ‘expertise,’ the politicians, the pundits, the ‘right’ people… because they’ve obviously done such a great job of it so far. We remain – as a species, and very often as individuals – neutered from the necessities of individual empowerment, subjected instead to the very-often-arbitrary abuses of power over others.
So if we are not free, what are we? Certainly, we are not slaves, for we have no shackles, bear the brunt of no whips, serve no visible masters. We are, perhaps, slaves of another kind. We are financially, reflexively, intellectually, emotionally and hopelessly and very often spiritually enslaved to the system, as it exists. We are slaves to money. We serve the masters of money, with our time, with our labour and efforts, with our interactions, exchanges, interests, intelligence and aspirations. We are slaves to money.
Our society is built and sustained upon it; and our species is being driven to extinction because of it. The cause and effect of money – or more aptly, debt – slavery, is the distribution of power among the species: too few have too much, and too many have too little. This imbalance of power within the species is leading to our self-destruction, our inevitable extinction if we continue along this path.
Money is both the means and very often – the reason – for continuing down this path, for maintaining this imbalance. While very few have all the money, everyone – and everywhere else – has all the debt. This is not the wondrous ‘free market’ capitalist utopia which is incessantly babbled about, but the very real global feudal dystopia, both cause and effect of the power imbalance and money-system. In feudalism, there is no freedom, only serfdom.
Welcome to our global economic order, serf!
Welcome to the Empire of Poverty.
But it’s not hopeless. The truth is both painful, but also full of possibilities. The truth is that we do have the ability to understand the world we live in, to comprehend our global economic order. We don’t need a degree; we just need honesty.
The illusion that is our economic system is built not upon technical knowledge, but rather, technical language, a highly political language, “designed to make lies sound truthful, murder respectable, and to give a feeling of solidity to pure wind,” as George Orwell defined the term. Our inability to communicate honesty, and thus effectively, about our economic – and indeed, political and social – system is an essential mechanism in maintaining that system.
To speak and ‘understand’ this language, at least at a superficial level, usually does require some ‘education’: economists must be trained, so too must political and other social scientists. The artificial separations in their knowledge – (as in, the notion that the economic world exists separate from the political and social world, and thus, must be studied separately) ensures that none who receive a ‘proper education’ achieve a profound understanding of the world. Some may, but they are few and far between, and usually weeded out or co-opted.
Such a ‘proper education’ will allow one to gain enough basic knowledge related to the sector of society in which they aim to explore and advance, and they are given just enough knowledge to do so, but not enough to honestly look at – let alone have the capacity to communicate – the reality of how our global political, social and economic order functions and evolves. They may see problems, make recommendations, propose policies, and they may even do some good, but ultimately – as we still remain on the path toward extinction – they have not, and cannot – do enough.
Few possibilities – few ‘solutions’ – or opportunities, are communicated to the populations that are effected under and by these societies, and by the decisions the few at the top make. People are generally given a small set of options from which to choose, like guessing what’s behind door number one or two, when both are ultimately terrible, and ineffectual (in a positive sense). We put ‘faith’ – however empty – into the hands of politicians, we consume the crap spewed in the media, or we lose ourselves in the vast vacancy that is the ‘substance’ of our culture; a culture of mythology, lies, fantasy, persuasion, punishment, entertainment and manipulation.
Our hope is first in honesty. We can – and must – look honestly at the world for what it is, not what we want or imagine it to be, but what it is. Then, we can – and must – communicate this message, and to do so honestly and directly. This is a human reality, and it must become a part of a collective human knowledge, a shift in understanding, and thus, a change in direction; away from the current-inevitably of extinction, and toward survival. What comes after is for future generations to determine. For now, we must aim to simply survive.
Our goal must first be to begin charting a new path toward survival; this must be the duty of our present living and younger generations, as challenging, demanding and terrifying a responsibility that may be, it is either that, or extinction. And this is not a matter of hundreds or thousands of years away; it could be as soon as decades. If you – like me – are between 18 and 45 – the coming few decades of the world in which you currently live and hope to survive will become increasingly dreadful, destructive, oppressive, and disempowering. We cannot afford to continue kicking the can down the road, delaying – and exacerbating – the inevitable.
There is always hope, not in myths and fantasy, but hidden in reality. In our actions, ideas, in us – as individuals – connecting, interacting, sharing, working and creating together, as collectives, as part of a larger human organism; beginning to act as if we don’t want to self-destruct as a species, creating a new society – a new order – to make the current one obsolete. This is our great challenge. How do we navigate through living within the present existing order, while simultaneously seeking to create a new and alternative order? Moreover, how do we achieve this if it takes nearly all our effort, time and energy to simply survive the present order? To put it as crudely (and honestly) as possible: how the fuck are we supposed to change the world?!
I don’t know the answers. But I think that the best way to get them is to ask honest questions, seek an honest understanding, and to communicate honestly – about ourselves and the world – personally, and globally. This book is my attempt to understand and speak honestly about the world, not to speak in a language that only economists and political scientists or other so-called ‘experts’ can understand, but to speak plainly and directly. This will require me to dedicate some focus in attempting to translate political language into English. I don’t have a degree, and you won’t need one to read this, or to understand it.
The hope, then, that I hold for this book – and the wider book project of which it is apart – is that it presents an accessible and usable collection of knowledge. It is not the book that asks every question, or has ever answer (no books do!), but it is an attempt at taking a different approach to asking and seeking answers to some rather important questions about our world: what is the true nature of our society? How did we get here? Where are we going? Why? And, what can we do to change it?
This is but an introduction to our world, by no means comprehensive or conclusive, simply accessible, honest, and (hopefully) useful.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 26-year old researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and the World of Resistance (WoR) Report, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
 Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (Verso: London, 2007), pages 151-173.
 Thomas Pogge, “Keynote Address: Poverty, Climate Change, and Overpopulation,” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law (Vol. 38, 2010), pages 526-534.
 Dan Vergano, “Billionaires back ambitious space projects,” USA Today, 13 May 2012:
An Anarchistic Understanding of the Social Order: Environmental Degradation, Indigenous Resistance, and a Place for the Sciences
An Anarchistic Understanding of the Social Order: Environmental Degradation, Indigenous Resistance, and a Place for the Sciences
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
FOR ROUGHLY FIVE HUNDRED YEARS, INDIGENOUS peoples have been struggling against the dominant institutions of society, against imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, impoverishment, segregation, racism, and genocide. The struggle continues today under the present world social order and against the dominant institutions of ‘neoliberalism’ and globalization: the state, corporations, financial institutions and international organizations. Indigenous communities continue to struggle to preserve their cultural identities, languages, histories, and the continuing theft and exploitation of their land. Indigenous resistance against environmental degradation and resource extraction represents the most direct source of resistance against a global environmental crisis which threatens to lead the species to extinction. It is here that many in the scientific community have also taken up the cause of resistance against the destruction of the global environment. While Indigenous and scientific activism share similar objectives in relation to environmental issues, there is a serious lack of convergence between the two groups in terms of sharing knowledge, organization, and activism.
Indigenous groups are often on the front lines of the global environmental crisis – at the point of interaction (or extraction) – they resist against the immediate process of resource extraction and the environmental devastation it causes to their communities and society as a whole. The continued repression, exploitation and discrimination against Indigenous peoples have made the struggle – and the potential consequences of failure – significantly more problematic. This struggle has been ongoing for centuries, and as the species heads toward extinction – as it is along our current trajectory – Indigenous peoples will be on the front lines of that process. Many in the scientific community have been struggling for decades to address major environmental issues. Here, the focus is largely on the issue of climate change, and the approach has largely been to work through institutions in order to create enough pressure to reform. Yet, after decades of organizing through academic and environmental organizations, lobbying governments, corporations and international organizations, progress has been slow and often ineffectual, with major international conferences being hyped up but with little concrete results. Indigenous peoples continue to struggle against the dominant institutions while many in the scientific community continue to struggle within the dominant institutions, though their objectives remain similar.
A major problem and disparity becomes clear: Indigenous peoples – among the most repressed and exploited in the world – are left to struggle directly against the most powerful institutions in the world (states and transnational corporations), while many in the sciences – an area of knowledge which has and continues to hold enormous potential to advance the species – attempt to convince those powerful institutions to profit less at exactly the point in history when they have never profited more. Indigenous communities remain largely impoverished, and the scientific community remains largely dependent for funding upon the very institutions which are destroying the environment: states, corporations and international organizations. Major barriers to scientific inquiry and research can thus be established if the institutions feel threatened, if they choose to steer the sciences into areas exclusively designed to produce ‘profitable’ forms of knowledge and technology. As humanity enters a critical stage – perhaps the most critical we have ever faced as a species – it is important to begin to acknowledge, question, and change the institutional contradictions and constraints of our society.
It seems only logical that a convergence between Indigenous and scientific activism, organization, and the sharing of knowledge should be encouraged and facilitated. Indeed, the future of the species may depend upon it. This paper aims to encourage such a convergence by applying an anarchistic analysis of the social order as it relates to environmental degradation, specifically at the point of interaction with the environment (the source of extraction). In classifying this as an anarchistic analysis, I simply mean that it employs a highly critical perspective of hierarchically organized institutions. This paper does not intend to discuss in any detail the issue of climate change, since that issue is largely a symptom of the problem, which at its source is how the human social order interacts directly with the environment: extraction, pollution, degradation, exploitation and destruction at the point of interaction.
This analysis will seek to critically assess the actions and functions of states, corporations, international organizations, financial institutions, trade agreements and markets in how they affect the environment, primarily at the point of interaction. It is also at this point where Indigenous peoples are taking up the struggle against environmental degradation and human extinction. Through an anarchistic analysis of Indigenous repression and resistance at the point of interaction between the modern social order and the environment (focusing primarily on examples from Canada), this paper hopes to provide encouragement to those in the scientific community seeking to address environmental issues to increase their efforts in working with and for the direct benefit of Indigenous peoples. There exists a historical injustice which can and must be rectified: the most oppressed and exploited peoples over the past five hundred years of a Western-dominated world are on the front lines of struggling for the survival of the species as a whole. Modern science – which has done so much to advance Western ‘civilization’ – can and should make Indigenous issues a priority, not only for their sake, but for the species as a whole. Indeed, it is a matter of survival for the sciences themselves, for they will perish with the species. An anarchistic analysis of the social order hopes to encourage a convergence between Indigenous and scientific knowledge and activism as it relates to resolving the global environmental crisis we now face.
GLOBAL CORPORATE POWER
Corporations are among the most powerful institutions in the world. Of the top 150 economies in 2010, 58% were corporations, with companies like Wal-Mart, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP topping the charts. According to Fortune’s Global 500 list published in 2012, the top ten corporations in the world were: Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, BP, Sinopec Group, China National Petroleum, State Grid, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Toyota Motor. The Global 500 corporations posted record revenues for 2011 at USD 29.5 trillion, up 13.2% from the previous year. Eight of the top ten conglomerates were in the energy sector, with the oil industry alone generating USD 5 trillion in sales, approximately 17% of the total sales of the Global 500. The second largest sector represented in the Global 500 was commercial banks, followed by the auto industry.
A scientific study conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich analyzed the ‘network of control’ wielded through 43,000 transnational corporations (TNCs), identifying “a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.” The researchers identified a ‘core’ of 1,318 companies which owned roughly 80% of the global revenues for the entire network of 43,000 TNCs. Above the core, the researchers identified a ‘super-entity’ of 147 tightly-knit corporations – primarily banks and financial institutions – collectively owning each other’s shares and 40% of the wealth in the total network. One researcher commented, “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 percent of the entire network.”
Writing in the Financial Times, a former US Treasury Department official, Robert Altman, referred to financial markets as “a global supra-government,” explaining:
They oust entrenched regimes where normal political processes could not do so. They force austerity, banking bail-outs and other major policy changes. Their influence dwarfs multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Indeed, leaving aside unusable nuclear weapons, they have become the most powerful force on earth.
The “global supra-government” of financial markets push countries around the world into imposing austerity measures and structural reforms, which have the result of benefiting the “super-entity” of global corporate power. The power and wealth of these institutions have rapidly accelerated in the past three decades of neoliberal ‘reforms’ promoting austerity, liberalization, deregulation, privatization and financialization. Neoliberal ideology was politically championed by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, but was largely imposed upon the so-called ‘Third World’ (Latin America, Asia, and Africa) through major international organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. The results of this massive transfer of wealth and power to an increasingly connected and small fraction of the world’s population have been devastating for humanity and the world as a whole. This process guided by neoliberal dogma has been most often referred to as ‘globalization.’
As the 1980s debt crisis gripped the ‘Third World,’ the IMF and World Bank came to the ‘rescue’ with newly designed loan agreements called ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs). In return for a loan from these institutions, countries would have to adhere to a set of rigid conditions and reforms, including austerity measures (cutting public spending), the liberalization of trade, privatization, deregulation, and currency devaluation. The United States controls the majority shares of both the World Bank and IMF, while the US Treasury Department and Federal Reserve work very closely with the IMF and its staff. If countries did not adhere to IMF and World Bank ‘conditions,’ they would be cut off from international markets, since this process was facilitated by “unprecedented co-operation between banks from various countries under the aegis of the IMF.” The conditions essentially opened up the borrowing countries to economic imperialism by the IMF, World Bank, and transnational corporations and financial institutions, which were able to gain access and control over the resources and labour markets of poor countries. Thus, the 1980s has been known as the “lost decade of development,” as many ‘Third World’ countries became poorer between 1980 and 1990. Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank, wrote that, “such conditions were seen as the intrusion by the new colonial power on the country’s own sovereignty.”
The structural adjustment programs imposed upon the Third World devastated the poor and middle classes of the borrowing countries, often resulting in mass protests against austerity. In fact, between 1976 and 1992, there were 146 protests against IMF- sponsored austerity measures in 39 different countries, including demonstrations, strikes and riots. The governments, in response, would often violently repress protests. The government elites were often more integrated with and allied to the powerful institutions of the global economy, and would often act as domestic enforcers for the demands of international banks and corporations. For many countries imposing structural adjustment programs around the world, authoritarian governments were common. The IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs also led to the massive growth of slums around the world, to the point where there are now over a billion people living in urban slums (approximately one out of every seven people on earth).
Further, the nations of the Third World became increasingly indebted to the powerful financial institutions and states of the industrial world with the more loans they took. The wealthy elites within the Third World plunder the domestic wealth of their countries in cooperation with global elites, and send their money into Western banking institutions (as ‘capital flight’) as their domestic populations suffer in poverty. The IMF and World Bank programs helped facilitate capital flight through the deregulation and ‘liberalization’ of markets, as well as through the opening up of the economies to unhindered exploitation. Some researchers recently compared the amount of money in the form of aid and loans going into Africa compared to that coming leaving Africa in the form of capital flight, and found that “sub-Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the rest of the world by a substantial margin.” The external debt owed by 33 sub-Saharan African countries to the rest of the world in 2008 stood at USD 177 billion. Between 1970 and 2008, capital flight from those same 33 African countries amounted to USD 944 billion. Thus, “the rest of the world owes more to these African countries than they owe to the rest of the world.”
The neoliberal ideology of ‘profit before people’ – enforced by the dominant states, corporations, banks and international organizations – has led to a world of extreme inequality, previously established by centuries of empire and colonialism, and rapidly accelerated in the past three decades. As of 2004, one in every three human deaths was due to poverty-related causes. In the twenty years following the end of the Cold War, there were approximately 360 million preventable deaths caused by poverty-related issues. Billions of people go hungry, lack access to safe drinking water, adequate shelter, medicine, and electricity. Nearly half of humanity – approximately 3.1 billion people as of 2010 – live below the USD 2.50/day poverty line. It would take roughly USD 500 billion – approximately 1.13% of world income (or two-thirds of the US military budget) – to lift these 3.1 billion people out of extreme poverty. The top 1% own 40% of the world’s wealth, while the bottom 60% hold less than 2% of the world’s wealth. As Thomas Pogge wrote, “we are now at the point where the world is easily rich enough in aggregate to abolish all poverty,” but we are “choosing to prioritize other ends instead.” Roughly 18 million people die from poverty-related causes every year, half of whom are children under the age of five. Pogge places significant blame for these circumstances upon the “global institutional arrangements that foreseeably and avoidably increase the socioeconomic inequalities that cause poverty to persist […] [policies which] are designed by the more powerful governments for the benefit of their most powerful industries, corporations, and citizens.”
In 2013, Oxfam reported that the fortunes made by the richest 100 people in the world over the course of 2012 (USD 240 billion) would have been enough to lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty four times over. An Oxfam executive, Barbara Stocking, noted that this type of extreme wealth – which saw the world’s richest 1% increase their income by 60% in the previous twenty years – is “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive […] We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true.” A study by the Tax Justice Network in 2012 found that the world’s superrich had hidden between USD 21 and 32 trillion in offshore tax havens, meaning that inequality was “much, much worse than official statistic show,” and that “for three decades extraordinary wealth has been cascading into the offshore accounts of a tiny number of superrich,” with the top 92,000 of the world’s superrich holding at least USD 10 trillion in offshore accounts.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF INEQUALITY
The human social order – dominated by states, corporations, banks and international organizations – has facilitated and maintained enormous inequality and poverty around the world, allowing so few to control so much, while the many are left with little. This global social and economic crisis is exacerbated by the global environmental crisis, in which the same institutions that dominate the global social order are simultaneously devastating the global environment to the point where the future of the species hangs in the balance.
Just as the dominant institutions put ‘profit before people,’ so too do they put profit before the environment, predicating human social interaction with the environment on the ideology of ‘markets’: that what is good for corporations will ultimately be good for the environment. Thus, the pursuit of ‘economic growth’ can continue unhindered – and in fact, should be accelerated – even though it results in massive environmental degradation through the processes of resource extraction, transportation, production and consumption.
Trading arrangements between the powerful rich nations and the ‘periphery’ poor nations allow for the dominant institutions to exploit their economic and political influence over weaker states, taking much more than they give. These trading relationships effectively allow the rich countries to offshore (or export) their environmental degradation to poor countries, treating them as exploitable resource extraction sources. As the resources of poor nations are extracted and exported to the rich nations, the countries are kept in poverty (with the exception of their elites who collude with the powerful countries and corporations), and the environmental costs associated with the high consumption societies of the industrial world are ultimately off-shored to the poor countries, at the point of interaction. Thus, international trade separates the societies of consumption from the effects of extraction and production, while the poor nations are dependent upon exports and exploiting their cheap labour forces. This process has been termed ecological unequal exchange.
Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, the majority of the world’s non-renewable resources were transferred from poor to rich nations, accelerating in volume over time (due to technological advancements), while decreasing in costs (to the powerful nations). Thus, between 1980 and 2002, the costs of resource extraction declined by 25% while the volume of resource extraction increased by more than 30%. Environmentally destructive processes of resource extraction in mining and energy sectors have rapidly accelerated over the past few decades, resulting in increased contamination of soils, watersheds and the atmosphere. Negative health effects for local populations accelerate, primarily affecting Indigenous, poor and/or migrant populations, who are subjected to excessive pollutants and industrial waste at nearly every part of the process of extraction, production and transportation of resources and goods.
In an examination of 65 countries between 1960 and 2003, researchers found that the rich countries “externalized” the environmentally destructive consequences of resource over-use to poor, periphery nations and populations, thus “assimilating” the environments of the less-developed nations into the economies of the powerful states, disempowering local populations from having a say in how their resources and environments are treated. Rich societies consume more than can be sustained from their own internal resource wealth, and thus, they must “appropriate” resource wealth from abroad by ‘withdrawing’ the resources in environmentally destructive (and thus, more economically ‘efficient’) ways. Apart from ecologically destructive ‘withdrawals,’ the rich nations also facilitate ecologically destructive ‘additions,’ in the form of pollution and waste which cause environmental and health hazards for the poor societies. This is facilitated through various trading arrangements (such as the development of Export Processing Zones), consisting of minimal to no environmental regulations, cheap labour and minimal restrictions on corporate activities.
While Japan and Western Europe were able to reduce the amount of pollutants and ‘environmental additions’ they made within their own societies between 1976 and 1994, they accelerated their ‘additions’ in waste and pollutants to the poor countries with which they traded, “suggesting a progressive off-shoring over the period onto those peripheral countries” not only of labour exploitation, but of environmental degradation. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by transnational corporations has been linked to extensive environmental hazards within the countries in which they are ‘investing,’ including growth in water pollution, infant mortality, pesticide use, and the use of chemicals which are often banned in the rich nations due to high toxicity levels and dangers to health and the environment, and greater levels of carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, between 1980 and 2000, the total anthropogenic CO2 emissions from the rich countries increased by 21%, while over the same period of time in the poor countries it more than doubled. While forested areas in the rich nations increased by less than 1% between 1990 and 2005, they declined by 6% over the same period of time in poor countries, contributing to soil erosion, desertification, climate change and the destruction of local and regional ecosystems.
According to an analysis of 268 case studies of tropical forest change between 1970 and 2000, researchers found that deforestation had shifted from being directed by states to being directed and implemented by corporations and ‘economic’ interests across much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This was largely facilitated by the IMF and World Bank agreements which forced countries to reduce their public spending, and allowed for private economic interests to obtain unprecedented access to resources and markets. The rate of deforestation continued, it simply shifted from being state-led to “enterprise driven.”
Using a sample of some sixty nations, researchers found that IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) were associated with higher levels of deforestation than in countries which did not sign the SAP agreements, as they allowed rich nations and corporations to “externalize their forest loss” to poor nations. Further, “economic growth” as defined by the World Bank and IMF was related to increased levels of deforestation, leading the researchers to acknowledge that, “economic growth adversely impacts the natural environment.” World Bank development loans to countries (as separate from structural adjustment loans) have also been linked to increased rates of deforestation in poor nations, notably higher rates than those which exist in countries not receiving World Bank loans.
Military institutions and armed warfare also have significant environmental impacts, not simply by engaging in wars, but simply by the energy and resources required for the maintenance of large military structures. As one US military official stated in the early 1990s, “We are in the business of protecting the nation, not the environment.” While the United States is the largest consumer of energy among nations in the world, the Pentagon is “the world’s largest [institutional] consumer of energy.” The combination of US tanks, planes and ships consume roughly 340,000 barrels of oil per day (as of 2007). Most of the oil is consumed by the Air Force, as jet fuel accounted for roughly 71% of the entire military’s oil consumption.
Nations with large militaries also use their violent capabilities “to gain disproportionate access to natural resources.” Thus, while the US military may be the largest single purchaser and consumer of energy in the world, one of its primary functions is to secure access to and control over energy resources. In an interview with two McKinsey & Company consultants, the Pentagon’s first-ever assistant secretary of defense for operational energy and programs, Sharon E. Burke, stated bluntly that, “My role is to promote the energy security of our military operations,” including by increasing the “security of supply.”
In a study of natural resource extraction and armed violence, researchers found that, “armed violence is associated with the extraction of many critical and noncritical natural resources, suggesting quite strongly that the natural resource base upon which industrial societies stand is constructed in large part through the use and threatened use of armed violence.” Further, when such armed violence is used in relation to gaining access to and control over natural resources, “it is often employed in response to popular protest or rebellion against these activities.” Most of this violence is carried out by the governments of poor nations, or by mercenaries or rebels, which allows for distancing between the rich nations and corporations which profit from the plundering of resources from the violent means of gaining access to them. After all, the researcher noted, “other key drivers of natural resource exploitation, such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and global marketplace, cannot, on their own, guarantee core nation access to and control over vital natural resources.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the United States – and other powerful nations – and the major arms companies within them are the largest arms dealers in the world.
It is clear that for scientists – and anyone else – interested in addressing major environmental issues, the source of the problem lies in the very structure and function of our dominant modern institutions, at the point of interaction. In short: through states, armed violence, banks and corporations, international organizations, trade agreements and global ‘markets,’ the environment has become a primary target of exploitation and destruction. Resources fuel the wealth and power of the very institutions that dominate the world, and to maintain that power, they engage in incredibly destructive activities with negative consequences for the environment and the human species as a whole. The global environmental crisis is intimately related to the global social and economic crises of wealth inequality and poverty, labour exploitation, and ‘economic growth.’ To address the environmental crisis in a meaningful way, this reality must first be acknowledged. This is how an anarchistic understanding of the environmental crisis facing the world and humanity can contribute to advancing how we deal with these profound issues. For the sciences, the implications are grave: their sources of funding and direction for research are dependent upon the very institutions which are destroying the environment and leading humanity to inevitable extinction (if we do not change course). Advancing an anarchistic approach to understanding issues related to Indigenous repression and resistance to environmental degradation can help provide a framework through which those in the scientific community – and elsewhere – can find new avenues for achieving similar goals: the preservation of the environment and the species.
INDIGENOUS REPRESSION AND RESISTANCE
Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been struggling against colonialism, exploitation, segregation, repression and even genocide for over 500 years. While the age of formal colonial empires has passed, the struggle has not. Today, Indigenous peoples struggle against far more powerful states than ever before existed, transnational corporations and financial institutions, international organizations, so-called “free trade” agreements and the global ‘marketplace.’ In an increasingly interconnected and globalized world, the struggle for Indigenous peoples to maintain their identity and indeed, even their existence itself, has been increasingly globalizing, but has also been driven by localized actions and movements.
Focusing upon Indigenous peoples in Canada, I hope to briefly analyze how Indigenous groups are repressed, segregated and exploited by the dominant institutions of an incredibly wealthy, developed, resource-rich and ‘democratic’ nation with a comparably ‘good’ international reputation. Further, by examining Indigenous resistance within Canada to the destruction of the natural environment, I hope to encourage scientists and other activists and segments of society who are interested in environmental protection to reach out to Indigenous communities, to share knowledge, organizing, activism, and objectives.
A LEGACY OF COLONIALISM
Historically, the Canadian government pursued a policy of ‘assimilation’ of Indigenous peoples for over a century through ‘Indian residential schools,’ in what ultimately amounted to an effective policy of “cultural genocide.” In 1920, Canada’s Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott bluntly explained: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem […] Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politics and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”
The segregation, repression and exploitation of Indigenous communities within Canada is not a mere historical reality, it continues to present day. Part of the institutional repression of Indigenous peoples is the prevalence of what could be described as ‘Third World’ conditions within a ‘First World’ nation. Indigenous communities within Canada lack access to safe drinking water at a much higher rate than the general population. Indigenous people and communities in Canada also face much higher levels of food insecurity, poverty, unemployment, poor housing and infant mortality than the rest of the population. Accounting for roughly 4% of the population of Canada (approximately 1.2 million people as of 2006), Indigenous peoples also face higher rates of substance abuse, addiction, and suicide.
Indigenous people – and especially women – make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. Further, as Amnesty International noted, “Indigenous women [in Canada] are five to seven times more likely than other women to die as a result of violence.” The Native Women’s Association of Canada has documented roughly 600 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada, more than half of which have occurred since 2000, while Human Rights Watch reported that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in northern British Columbia had “failed to properly investigate the disappearance and apparent murders of [indigenous] women and girls in their jurisdiction.”
RESOURCE EXTRACTION, ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION, AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
Industries seeking to develop land and extract resources are increasingly turning to Indigenous territories to develop and seek profits on the land and environment upon which such communities are so often dependent for survival. At the point of interaction with the environment, Indigenous peoples are left to struggle with the damaging environmental and health consequences caused by state and corporate interests extracting resources and wealth from the land and environment.
The Alberta tar sands (or oil sands) is a primary example of this process. Many environmental, indigenous and human rights organizations consider the tar sands development as perhaps “the most destructive industrial project on earth.” The United Nations Environmental Programme identified the project as “one of the world’s top 100 hotspots of environmental degradation.” The dense oil in the tar sands (diluted bitumen) has to be extracted through strip mining, and requires enormous amounts of resources and energy simply to extract the reserves. It has been documented that for every one barrel of oil processed, three barrels of water are used, resulting in the creation of small lakes (called ‘tailing ponds’), where “over 480 million gallons of contaminated toxic waste water are dumped daily.” These lakes collectively “cover more than 50 square kilometres (12,000 acres) and are so extensive that they can be seen from space.” The processing of the oil sands creates 37% more greenhouse gas emissions than the extraction and processing of conventional oil.
While the United States consumes more oil than anywhere else on earth, Canada is the main supplier of foreign oil to the United States, exporting roughly 1.5 million barrels per day to the US (in 2005), approximately 7% of the daily consumption of oil in the US. The crude bitumen contained in the tar sands has been estimated at 1.7 trillion barrels, lying underneath an area within Alberta which is larger than the entire state of Florida and contains over 140,000 square km of boreal forest. In 2003, the United States Department of Energy officially acknowledged the reserves of crude bitumen in the Alberta tar sands, and elevated Canada’s standing in world oil markets from the 21st most oil-rich nation on earth to the 2nd, with only Saudi Arabia surpassing.
Alberta’s tar sands have attracted the largest oil companies on earth, including Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Total S.A. Local indigenous communities thus not only have to struggle against the devastating environmental, health and social consequences caused by the tar sands development, but they also have to struggle against the federal and provincial governments, and the largest corporations on earth. The Athabasca River (located near the tar sands development) has been depleted and polluted to significant degrees, transforming the region “from a pristine environment rich in cultural and biological diversity to a landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-foot-deep pits and thousands of acres of destroyed boreal forests.” Indigenous peoples have been raising concerns over this project for years.
Disproportionate levels of cancers and other deadly diseases have been discovered among a local Indigenous band, the Fort Chipewyan in Athabasca. These high levels of cancers and diseases are largely the result of the enormous amounts of land, air, and water pollution caused by the tar sands mining. One Indigenous leader in Fort Chipewyan has referred to the tar sands development as a “slow industrial genocide.” As pipelines are planned to be expanded across Canada and the United States to carry tar sands oil, this will have devastating impacts for “indigenous communities not only in Canada, but across the continent.”
Between 2002 and 2010, the pipeline network through Alberta experienced a rate of oil spills roughly sixteen times higher than in the United States, likely the result of transporting diluted bitumen (DilBit), which has not been commonly transported through the pipelines until recent years. In spite of the greater risks associated with transporting DilBit, the US agency responsible for overseeing the country’s pipelines decided – in October of 2009 – to relax safety regulations regarding the strength of pipelines. In July of 2010, a ruptured Enbridge pipeline in Michigan spilled 800,000 gallons of DilBit, devastating the local communities in what the government referred to as the “worst oil spill in Midwestern history.” In July of 2011, an Exxon pipeline spilled 42,000 gallons of DilBit into the Yellowstone River in Montana.
IDLE NO MORE: THE RISE OF INDIGENOUS RESISTANCE
In 2009, the Canadian Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development announced the Federal Framework for Aboriginal Economic Development which sought to “improve the participation” of Indigenous people “in the Canadian economy,” primarily by seeking “to unlock the full economic potential of Aboriginal Canadians, their communities, and their businesses.” An updated report on the Framework in 2012 reaffirmed the intent “to modernize the lands and resource management regimes on reserve land in order to increase and unlock the value of Aboriginal assets.” As John Ibbitson wrote in the Globe and Mail, “businesses that want to unlock the potential of reserves, from real estate development to forestry and mining, need the legal certainty that a property regime makes possible.”
In late 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party introduced an omnibus Budget Bill (C-45) which amended several aspects of the Indian Act (without proper consultations with Indigenous groups). Bill C-45 also moved forward to “unlock” barriers to resource extraction, environmental degradation, and corporate profits with an amendment to the Navigable Waters Act, which dramatically reduced the number of protected lakes and rivers in Canada from 40,000 to 97 lakes, and from 2.5 million to 63 rivers.
Following the introduction of Bill C-45 to the Canadian Parliament, a group of four Indigenous women in the province of Saskatchewan held a “teach-in” to help increase awareness about the Bill, quickly followed by a series of rallies, protests and flash mobs where Indigenous activists and supporters engaged in ‘round dances’ in shopping malls, organized through social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. This sparked what became known as the ‘Idle No More’ movement, and on December 10, 2012, a National Day of Action took place, holding multiple rallies across the country. The immediate objectives of the Idle No More movement were to have the government “repeal all legislation that violates treaties [with Indigenous peoples], including those that affect environmental regulations,” such as Bill C-45 and the previous omnibus Bill C-38. The longer-term objectives of the movement were to “educate and revitalize aboriginal peoples, empower them and regain sovereignty and independence.”
Pamela Palmater, a spokesperson for Idle No More and a Ryerson University professor noted that Indigenous people in Canada were opposing Bill C-45 “not just because it impacts their rights, but also because we know that it impacts the future generations of both treaty partners,” referring to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. “The question,” she added, “really should be whether Canadians will rise to protect their children’s futures alongside First Nations.”
Theresa Spence, an Indigenous chief from a northern Ontario community (Attawapiskat) went on a hunger strike for 44 days to support Idle No More and raise awareness about a serious housing crisis in her community. Spence only ended her hunger strike upon being hospitalized and placed on an IV drip. Her community of Attawapiskat had been experiencing a major housing crisis for a number of years, and in 2011, a state of emergency was declared in response to the fact that for over two years, many of the community’s 1,800 residents were “living in makeshift tents and shacks without heat, electricity or indoor plumbing.” James Anaya, a United Nations human rights expert expressed his “deep concern about the dire social and economic condition” of the Attawapiskat community to the Canadian government, which reflected a situation “akin to third world conditions.” The Conservative government of Stephen Harper (which came to power in 2006) blamed the crisis on the internal handling of funds within Attawapiskat, claiming that the government provided CAD 90 million in funding for the community since 2006. However, analysis of the funds revealed that only CAD 5.8 million in funding had gone toward housing over the course of five years. Meanwhile, estimates put the necessary funds to resolve the housing crisis alone at CAD 84 million. The former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs acknowledged that the government had known about the housing crisis for years, saying that it “has been a slow-moving train wreck for a long time.”
In 2005, the community of Attawapiskat had signed a contract with the international mining conglomerate De Beers to develop a diamond mine 90 km near their community. The mine officially opened in 2008, projecting a 12-year contribution to the Ontario economy of CAD 6.7 billion. In 2005, De Beers dumped its sewage sludge into the Attawapiskat community’s lift station, causing a sewage backup which flooded many homes and exacerbated an already-developing housing crisis, followed by another sewage backup potentially caused by De Beers in 2008. Afterward, the company donated trailers to the community to serve as “short-term emergency shelters,” yet they remained in place even four years later.
As the Idle No More movement took off in late 2012 and early 2013, members of the Attawapiskat community undertook road blockades leading to the De Beers mine. The company sought a legal injunction against the protesters, and the blockade was ended just as a large number of police were headed to the community to “remove the barricades.” After successfully blocking the mine from properly functioning for nearly twenty days, the company announced that it was considering taking legal action against the protesters.
The Idle No More mission statement called “on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water […] Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth.” The movement’s manifesto further declared that, “the state of Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities (such as Attawapiskat) have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit.” As Pamela Palmater noted, Idle No More was unique, “because it is purposefully distances from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can and can’t do […] This movement is inclusive of all our peoples.”
The Athabasca Chipewyan Indigenous band which had been struggling for years against the tar sands development were further mobilized with the eruption of Idle No More onto the national scene, including by establishing a blockade on Highway 63 leading to the tar sands development. As Chipewyan chief Allan Adam noted, “The way I look at it, the First Nations people are going to cripple this country if things don’t turn out […] Industry is going to be the target.” He also added: “We know for a fact that industry was the one that lobbied government to make this regulatory reform.” Indeed, this was no hyperbole.
THE STATE IN SERVICE TO CORPORATIONS
Greenpeace obtained – through access to information laws – a letter sent to the Canadian government’s Environment minister and Natural Resources minister dated December of 2011, written by a group called the Energy Framework Initiative (EFI), representing the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Canadian Fuels Association, and the Canadian Gas Association. The letter sought “to address regulatory reform for major energy industries in Canada” in order to advance “both economic growth and environmental performance.” It specifically referenced six laws that it wanted amended, including the National Energy Board Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Referring to many of these laws as “outdated,” the letter criticized environmental legislation as “almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.”
Less than a month after receiving the letter, the Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver lashed out at activists opposing the construction of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline shipping oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the B.C. coast for shipment to Asia, stating, “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade… Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.” Oliver went on, saying that such “radical groups” were threatening “to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda,” and accused them of using funding from “foreign special interest groups.”
Documents from the energy industry revealed that big corporations advised the Harper government not to amend the many environmentally related acts separately, but to employ “a more strategic omnibus legislative approach,” which resulted in the two omnibus bills over 2012, Bills C-38 and C-45, which included “hundreds of pages of changes to environmental protection laws […] weakening rules that protect water and species at risk, introducing new tools to authorize water pollution, as well as restricting public participation in environmental hearings and eliminating thousands of reviews to examine and mitigate environmental impacts of industrial projects.” The energy industry got virtually everything it asked for in the two omnibus bills, including – as their letter to the Harper government suggested – reforming “issues associated with Aboriginal consultation.”
Documents from Environment Canada showed how the minister informed a group of energy industry representatives that the development of pipelines were “top-of-mind” as the government pursued “the modernization of our regulatory system.” When the new legislation passed, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency announced that it has cancelled roughly 3,000 environmental assessments, including 250 reviews related to pipeline projects. Other documents showed that at the same time the minister was informing energy corporations that he was serving their interests, he was to inform Indigenous leaders that any “changes to the government’s environmental assessment or project approvals regime” were “speculative at this point” and that they would “respect our duties toward Aboriginal peoples.”
As the Harper government became the primary lobbyist for the Alberta tar sands, documents showed how the government compiled a list of “allies” and “adversaries” in its public relations campaign, referring to energy companies, Environment Canada and the National Energy Board as “allies,” and the media, environmental and Indigenous groups as “adversaries.” The Canadian government even ran an “outreach program” where diplomats would attempt to secure support among American journalists for the Keystone XL pipeline project – taking oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast in the United States.
As the Canadian government revised its anti-terrorism strategy in early 2012, it listed “eco-extremists” alongside white supremacists as a threat to national security. A review of Canadian security documents from the national police force (RCMP) and the Canadian intelligence agency (CSIS) revealed that the government saw environmental activism such as blockades of roads or buildings as “forms of attack” and “national security threats.” Greenpeace was identified as “potentially violent,” as it had become “the new normal now for Canada’s security agencies to watch the activities of environmental organizations,” noted one analyst.
IDLE NO MORE AND OIL PIPELINES
The government of Canada acknowledged in early 2013 that it expected – over the following decade – that there would be “a huge boom in Canadian natural resource projects,” potentially worth CAD 600 billion, which is foreseen to be taking place “on or near” Indigenous lands. One Indigenous chief in Manitoba warned that the Idle No More movement “can stop Prime Minister Harper’s resource development plan and his billion-dollar plan to develop resources on our ancestral territory. We have the warriors that are standing up now, that are willing to go that far.”
In an official meeting between the Harper government and the Assembly of First Nations in January of 2013, Indigenous ‘leaders’ presented a list of demands which included ensuring there was a school in every indigenous community, a public inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as several other very ‘moderate’ reforms. For the government, the objectives were much more specific, as internal documents revealed, written in preparation for Harper’s meeting with Indigenous leaders. As one briefing memo stated, the government was working towards “removing obstacles to major economic development opportunities.”
For the Idle No More movement, which does not consider itself to be ‘represented’ by the Assembly of First Nations leaders, the objective is largely “to put more obstacles up,” as Martin Lukacs wrote in the Guardian. Indigenous peoples, he noted, “are the best and last defense against this fossil fuel scramble,” specifically in mobilizing opposition to “the three-fold expansion of one of the world’s most carbon-intensive projects, the Alberta tar sands.”
In March of 2013, an alliance of Indigenous leaders from across Canada and the United States announced that they were “preparing to fight proposed new pipelines in the courts and through unspecified direct action,” specifically referring to the Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects. One Indigenous leader at the formation of the alliance warned, “We’re going to stop these pipelines one way or another.” Another Indigenous leader commented: “We, as a nation, have to wake up […] We have to wake up to the crazy decision that this government’s making to change the world in a negative way.”
The territories of the ten allied Indigenous groups “are either in the crude-rich tar sands or on the proposed pipeline routes.” One Indigenous leader from northern British Columbia referred to the Canadian government, stating, “They’ve been stealing from us for the last 200 years […] now they’re going to destroy our land? We’re not going to let that happen […] If we have to go to court, if we have to stand in front of any of their machines that are going to take the oil through, we are going to do that. We’re up against a wall here. We have nowhere else to go.”
Roughly one week after the Indigenous alliance was formed, an ExxonMobil pipeline carrying Alberta tar sands oil through the United States ruptured in the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, spilling thousands of barrels of oil into residential neighbourhoods and the surrounding environment. Exxon quickly moved in with roughly 600 workers to manage the cleanup and sign checks “to try to win over the townsfolk and seek to limit the fallout.” The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put in place a “no fly zone” over Mayflower, Arkansas, within days following the oil spill. The ‘no fly zone’ was being overseen by ExxonMobil itself, thus, as Steven Horn commented, “any media or independent observers who want to witness the tar sands spill disaster have to ask Exxon’s permission.”
Between March 11 and April 9 of 2013 (in a span of roughly thirty days), there were 13 reported oil spills on three separate continents, with more than a million gallons of oil and other toxic chemicals spilled in North and South America alone. The oil spills included an Enbridge pipeline leak in the Northwest Territories in Canada (March 19), a tar sands ‘tailing pond’ belonging to Suncor leaking into the Athabasca River in Alberta (March 25), a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailment spilling tar sands oil in Minnesota (March 27), the Exxon spill in Mayflower (March 29), oil-based hydraulic fluid spilling into the Grand River from a power plant in Michigan (March 31), a CN Rail train derailment in Ontario (April 3), a drilling leak in Newfoundland (April 3), the Shell pipeline leak in Texas (April 3), a condensate spill at an Exxon refinery in Louisiana (April 4), and a pump station ‘error’ in Alaska (April 9). Another spill took place in June on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia, one of the pipeline extensions being opposed by Indigenous groups.
Meanwhile, Stephen Harper was in New York in May, speaking to the highly influential US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, where he explained that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline “absolutely needs to go ahead,” adding that it was “an enormous benefit to the US in terms of long-term energy security.” TransCanada, the company aiming to build the Keystone XL pipeline, along with the government of Alberta, hired a team of lobbyists with connections to the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry in particular to pressure the US government to approve the pipeline. In late April, the president of the American Petroleum Institute confidently declared, “When it’s all said and done, the president will approve the pipeline.” In late May, the CEO of TransCanada said, “I remain extremely confident that we’ll get the green light to build this pipeline.”
Leaders from 11 different Indigenous bands in the United States “stormed out” of a meeting in May being held with federal government officials in South Dakota in protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. The leaders criticized both the project and the Obama administration, with one leader commenting, “We find ourselves victims of another form of genocide, and it’s environmental genocide, and it’s caused by extractive industries.” Another Indigenous leader who walked out of the meeting warned, “What the State Department, what President Obama needs to hear from us, is that we are going to be taking direct action.” TransCanada has even been supplying US police agencies with information about environmental activists and recommendations to pursue charges of “terrorism” against them, noting that the company feared such “potential security concerns” as protests, blockades, court challenges, and even “public meetings.”
While Indigenous communities in Canada and elsewhere are among the most repressed and exploited within our society, they are also on the front lines of resistance against environmentally destructive practices undertaken by the most powerful institutions in the world. As such, Indigenous groups are not only standing up for environmental issues, but for the future of the species as a whole. With the rapidly accelerating ‘development’ of the tar sands, and the increasing environmental danger of huge new pipelines projects, resistance to how our modern society treats the environment is reaching new heights. Indigenous organizing – much of which is done along anarchistic ideas (such as with the Idle No More movement) – is presenting an unprecedented challenge to institutional power structures. Thus, there is an increased need for environmentalists, scientists, and others who are interested in joining forces with Indigenous groups in the struggle against environmental degradation and the potential extinction of the species. In Canada, there is an even greater impetus for scientists to join forces with Indigenous communities, for there is a state-sponsored assault upon environmental sciences that threaten to devastate the scientific community in the very near term.
THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT’S ATTACK ON ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE
Since Stephen Harper’s Conservative government came to power in 2006, there has been a steady attack upon the sciences, particularly those related to environmental issues, as the government cut funding for major programs and implemented layoffs. One major facet of this attack has been the ‘muzzling’ of Canadian scientists at international conferences, discussions with the media, and the publication of research. At one conference hosted in Canada, scientists working for Environment Canada were forced to direct all media inquiries through the public relations department in an effort “to intimidate government scientists.” Under new government guidelines, scientists working for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) cannot publish material until it is reviewed by the department “for any concerns/impacts to DFO policy.” The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) expressed in a letter to Stephen Harper their “deep dismay and anger at your government’s attack on the independence, integrity and academic freedom of scientific researchers.” Hundreds of Canadian scientists marched on Parliament Hill in July of 2012 in what they called a “funeral procession” against the government’s “systematic attack on science.”
One of the world’s leading science journals, Nature, published an editorial in March of 2012 calling on the Canadian government to stop muzzling and “set its scientists free.” Journalists requesting interviews with Canadian government scientists on issues related to the Arctic or climate change have had to go through public relations officials, provide questions in advance, adhere to “boundaries for what subjects the interview could touch upon,” and have a PR staffer “listen in on the interviews.”
Dozens of government agencies and programs related to environmental sciences have had their budgets slashed, scientists fired, or were discontinued altogether. The Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria lodged a formal complaint with Canada’s Federal Information Commissioner about the muzzling of scientists, outlining multiple examples “of taxpayer-funded science being suppressed or limited to prepackaged media lines across six different government departments and agencies.” Natural Resources Canada now requires “pre-approval” from the government before any scientists give interviews on topics such as “climate change” or the “oilsands.”
The attack upon the sciences is part of the Harper government’s 2007 strategy, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage, which directed “a major shift away from scientific goals to economic and labour-market priorities,” aiming to focus on science and research which would be directly useful to industry and for commercial purposes. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has been steered by the government “toward industry-related research and away from environmental science.” The government’s minister of state for science and technology noted that the focus for research was to be on “getting those ideas out to our factory floors, if you will, making the product or process or somehow putting that into the marketplace and creating jobs.” Further, the National Research Council (NRC) was “to focus more on practical, commercial science and less on fundamental science” which wouldn’t be as beneficial to corporate interests. The minister of state for science and technology, Gary Goodyear, announced it as “an exciting, new journey – a re-direction that will strengthen Canada’s research and innovation ecosystem for many years to come.” The president of the NRC noted that, “We have shifted the primary focus of our work at NRC from the traditional emphasis of basic research and discovery science in favour of a more targeted approach to research and development.”
As Stephen Harper said, “Science powers commerce,” but apparently to Harper, that is all it should do, even though many scientists and academics disagree. The implications should be obvious: just as society’s interaction with the environment is unsustainable, so too is the dependency of the sciences upon those institutions which are destroying the environment.
Regardless of one’s position in society – as a member of an Indigenous group, an activist group, or within the scientific community – all of human society is facing the threat of extinction, accelerated by our destruction of the environment sourced at the point of interaction (the location of extraction) between the dominant institutions of our world and the natural world itself. Roughly half the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, with billions living in hunger, with poor access to safe drinking water, medicine and shelter, monumental disparities in wealth and inequality, the production and maintenance of unprecedented weapons of death and destruction, we are witnessing an exponentially accelerating plundering of resources and destruction of the environment upon which all life on Earth depends. If there has ever been a time in human history to begin asking big questions about the nature of our society and the legitimacy of the institutions and ideologies which dominate it, this is it.
An anarchistic understanding of the institutions and ideologies which control the world order reveals a society blinded by apathy as it nears extinction. The institutions which dictate the political, economic and social direction of our world are the very same ones destroying the environment to such an extent that the fate of the species is put at extreme risk. To not only continue – but to accelerate – down this path is no longer an acceptable course of action for humanity. It is time that socially segregated populations begin reaching out and working together, to share knowledge, organizational capacity, and engage in mutual action for shared objectives. With that in mind, it would appear to be beneficial not only for those involved – but for humanity as a whole – if Indigenous peoples and segments of the scientific community pursued the objective of protecting the environment together. Acknowledging this is easy enough, the hard part is figuring out the means and methods of turning that acknowledgement into action.
This is again where anarchist principles can become useful, emphasizing the creative capacity of many to contribute new ideas and undertake new initiatives working together as free individuals in collective organizations to achieve shared objectives. This is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. The very future of humanity may depend upon it.
For notes and sources, download the paper here.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 26-year old researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com‘s Global Power Pro-ject, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
The Financialization of Food and the Profitability of Poverty
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
The following is a brief excerpt from a chapter of The People’s Book Project, covering issues related to food, water, land grabs, environmental destruction, hunger and poverty. This excerpt examines the global food crisis.
There are a few things upon which humanity is entirely dependent for survival: food, water, land and the environment. One of the central questions with which humanity currently has to address its part, past and present, is the ways in which we, as a species, interact with our environment. When it comes to environmental issues, the primary focus is placed upon the issue of climate change, and while this is indeed an important issue, it could be said that this focus almost misses the forest for the trees. Climatic change is here to stay, it is an inevitability, and it is a requirement for humanity to begin the process of adaptation. However, climate change is not “the problem,” it is a symptom of the problems associated with the environment. The source of the problem is how human society – specifically Western state-capitalist society – interacts with the environment at the local and global level. When examining this question, the issues and concerns raised go far beyond climatic changes, though they all interact.
One cannot separate our interaction with the environment from the interaction between power structures and people, whether we are discussing large states, banks, corporations, international organizations, etc. In a global system in which people are themselves treated as commodities, where more than half the world’s population lives in abject poverty, with hunger and starvation increasing, with imperial powers destabilizing countries, bombing communities, supporting coups and waging wars, oppressing, impoverishing, and destroying, environmental issues are inseparable from social, political, and economic issues.
One need only look at the issue of militarization and war to see a clear relationship between these issues: wars are mostly waged by large states – whether directly or indirectly through proxies – against poor populations in weak ‘Third World’ states. Aside from the obvious destruction the physical war takes – through bombs and bullets – a nation’s infrastructure is destroyed, its people impoverished and oppressed. The American military system – by far the largest in the world – through the maintenance of aircraft carriers, ships, jets, equipment, transportation, weapons, with roughly one thousand military bases around the world, foreign occupations and operations, make this single institution known as the Pentagon “the largest institutional user of petroleum products and energy” in the world. The United States wages wars to secure resources around the world, to dominate and oppress populations, and in doing so, exploits and plunders those very same resources, destroys the environment, spreads poverty, death, and destruction. Its purpose is to serve minute – yet powerful – interests. Yet, it is devastating for the world’s people and the environment.
If we are truly interested with answering the question of how we move forward as a species in dealing with environmental issues, we must ask the parallel questions of how we deal with issues of poverty, hunger, land, exploitation, oppression, war, empire, and power. It seemingly makes the task harder, but it also makes the answers more plausible, and, indeed, possible.
Again, looking at the issue of climate change, we have seen countless international conferences held by global plutocrats, governments, international organizations, banks and corporations and global NGOs and environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, whose boards of directors are dominated by individuals from banks, corporations and oil conglomerates. And we phase surprise that nothing productive is done. The ‘solutions’ we are given for complex problems are based around ideas of carbon credits, carbon trading, carbon caps and carbon markets, effectively commodifying the entire atmosphere, turning pollution itself into a profitable enterprise, and thus, making the problems that much worse. We are told that there are ways to simply ‘Green’ the economy, to promote the interests of state-capitalism and the environment simultaneously. But in a system which has always subjugated the environment and the population at large to the powerful interests which dominate, we are fools to assume they have changed their interests.
A great deal of press was given to the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, and the fact that it ended in failure. The focus was on “who” screwed it up: it was China, it was America, it was Canada! Everyone was pointing the finger at one another. The reality, however, was far more revealing, not only of the failure of Copenhagen, but of the true intent and the result of pursuing environmental issues through the institutions of power which have created the environmental problems in the first place.
The Copenhagen conference was viewed by elites as a means to advancing their institutional power to a more global level, as internal UN documents revealed that the focus was on a “green economy,” noting: “moving towards a green economy would also provide an opportunity to re-examine national and global governance structures.” The document stated that “linkages between environmental sustainability and the economy will emerge as a key focus for public policymaking and a determinant of future market opportunities,” and one top official stated that the environmental, food, and economic “crises provide a unique opportunity for fundamental restructuring of economies so that they encourage and sustain green energy, green growth and green jobs.”
It sounds well enough, but its focus on “market opportunities” for the “green economy” ignores entirely the nature of “market opportunities” being one of the most significant factors in creating environmental crises in the first place. With a focus on advancing issues of “global governance” in order to address environmental issues, the role of dominant institutions in creating the environmental crisis is overlooked, and thus, the ‘solution’ is to enhance the power of those very same institutions to global levels, further removing power from populations and communities (where the real solutions to environmental issues lie). In short, if the issue of ‘power’ – and the global distribution of power between institutions and populations – is not addressed, the ‘solutions’ offered are, at best, little more than band-aids on broken arms.
China received a great deal of the blame for the failure of the Copenhagen talks, but there is more to this story. Perhaps the most significant factor was due to what was called the ‘Danish Text,’ a leaked Danish government document written in secret between the rich and powerful nations to serve as a framework for their actions and intentions at the conference. The agreement would have handed more power to the rich nations, and sideline the UN in any final agreement, as well as “setting unequal limits on per capita carbon emissions for developed and developing countries in 2050; meaning that people in rich countries would be permitted to emit nearly twice as much under the proposals.” In other words, with true Western cultural state-capitalist logic: find the problem, acknowledge the problem, then double the problem! The text was drafted by a select coterie of representatives from Denmark, the U.K. and the United States, and the draft “hands effective control of climate change finance to the World Bank; would abandon the Kyoto protocol – the only legally binding treaty that the world has on emissions reductions; and would make any money to help poor countries adapt to climate change dependent on them taking a range of actions.”
Thus, one of the central institutions of world power – the World Bank – which has advanced the interests of Western banks and corporations across the ‘developing’ world, promoting privatization, deregulation, exploitation, resource extraction, and ultimately, environmental degradation, would then be given the responsibility of ‘solving’ the environmental crisis. And how would it do this? The World Bank would be given control over the dispersal of funds in the same way that it has handled the dispersal of loans in the past. Here’s a hint: it comes with “strings attached.”
A senior diplomat at the talks described the Danish Text as “a very dangerous document for developing countries.” Among the many points in the document were to “force developing countries to agree to specific emissions cuts and measures that were not part of the original UN agreement” and to “weaken the UN’s role in handling climate finance,” as well as aiming to “divide poor countries further.” Allowing for the rich countries to increase their emissions, while poor countries face severe restraints, overlooks the fact that the countries with most emissions already are those very same rich countries. Preventing poor countries from producing emissions would prevent them from developing their own resources as they see fit, instead allowing for the rich countries to move in and further dictate policies in their own interests. Ultimately, it was a draft agreement to advance imperial domination of the rich world over the poor world, using the issue of “climate change” as the excuse.
When the Danish text was leaked, representatives of poor nations were “furious that it is being promoted by rich countries without their knowledge and without discussion in the negotiations.” One diplomat noted: “It is being done in secret. Clearly the intention is to get Obama and the leaders of other rich countries to muscle it through when they arrive next week. It effectively is the end of the UN process.” Further, “It proposes a green fund to be run by a board but the big risk is that it will be run by the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility,” a partnership of ten agencies including the World Bank and UN Environment Programme, thus bypassing more democratically accountable and representative institutions, such as the UN itself. This, stated one diplomat, “would be a step backwards, and it tries to put constraints on developing countries when none were negotiated in earlier UN climate talks.” Since poor countries already suffer the greatest burden, not only of poverty, but of environmental devastation and climatic change (not to mention, war, imperialism, and oppression), the notion of the powerful countries exporting their responsibility to the poor and oppressed does not only fail to address the issues, but would inevitably make the problems much worse. We tend to call this “market logic.”
The release of the Danish text prompted the developing nations, represented by the G-77 (the vast majority of the world’s population) to suspend their participation in the negotiations. Days following the conclusion of the Copenhagen conference, the UN’s climate chief wrote in a confidential internal memo that it was the ‘Danish Text’ that led to the ultimate failure of the talks, stating that, “the text was clearly advantageous to the US and the west, would have steamrollered the developing countries, and was presented to a few countries a week before the meeting officially started.” Within days of the leaking of the ‘Danish Text’, developing nations were accusing the rich countries of engaging in “climate colonialism.” The Sudanese diplomat to the conference stated, “This is all based on the dominance and supremacy of developed countries. One could say the Empire has been doing this since the 16th Century, the Empire has always ruthlessly grabbed natural resources – the new resource is the global atmospheric space and carbon space.” One activist and participant called the deal an act of “carbon colonialism.”
The British delegation at Copenhagen further inflamed tensions and calls of colonialism when it suggested the creation of a “climate fund” by diverting western aid budgets from poverty reduction funds into climate change “adaptation.” Thus, “money earmarked for education or health would be diverted into projects such as solar panels and wind farms,” incurring anger from several developing nations. As one commentator with the Guardian explained, Copenhagen was “a disaster for Africa,” the continent that contributes the least amount of carbon emissions in the world, and will disproportionately suffer the consequences more than any other. Several African nations were coerced into signing the final deal, even though they had walked out of negotiations following the Danish Text, with industrial rich nations threatening to withdraw foreign aid if the deal was not signed.
Again, this is but one of many examples of how environmental issues are intimately related to those of poverty, economics, imperialism, and power, more generally. To address one with any substance, we must address all with perseverance. Or, we could just continue to push for international conferences met with the self-congratulations of global elites who pride themselves on having flown around the world on taxpayers’ dollars to stay in five-star hotels and eat gourmet meals while they discuss issues of poverty and environmental protection, amounting to little more than “agreements to agree” at some point in the future, while globally, business as usual, and more accurately, accelerated rates of exploitation and devastation, dominate the decisions and actions of the powerful.
The Financialization of Food and the Profitability of Poverty
The global food crisis hit international headlines in 2008, with “food riots” erupting in dozens of countries around the world, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By May of 2008, it was reported that food riots had hit roughly 37 countries, with some of the more dramatic taking place in Cameroon, Niger, Egypt, and Haiti. At that time, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) warned: “Food is no longer the cheap commodity that it once was. Rising food prices are bound to worsen he already unacceptable level of food deprivation suffered by 854 million people… We are facing the risk that the number of hungry will increase by many more millions of people.”
Governments and repressive regimes around the world were under threat from the rising tide of food price rebellions (commonly referred to as “food riots”), with the rapidly accelerating costs of life’s necessities driving people to desperation, and even pushing governments to the brink of collapse. A UN adviser and economist, Jeffrey Sachs, noted, “It’s the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years… It’s a big deal and it’s obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there’s more political fallout to come.” El Salvador’s president, Elias Antonio Saca, told the World Economic Forum that it “is a perfect storm… How long can we withstand the situation? We have to feed our people, and commodities are becoming scarce. This scandalous storm might become a hurricane that could upset not only our economies but also the stability of our countries.” A former adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture in Indonesia added that “[t]he biggest concern is food riots… It has happened in the past and can happen again.” In Haiti, where roughly 75% of the population earn less than $2 per day, with one in five children chronically malnourished, hunger had become so extreme that one “booming” commodity had become “the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically consumed only by the most destitute.”
In Haiti, as protesters approached the presidential palace, United Nations “peacekeepers” fired rubber bullets on the hungry and starving, as well as using tear gas, and several protesters were reported to have been killed in the chaos. Food prices rose by an average of 40% since the middle of 2007, and with the price increases, came increased instability and social unrest. An adviser to the Haitian president commented: “I compare this situation to having a bucket full of gasoline and having some people around with a box of matches… As long as the two have a possibility to meet, you’re going to have trouble.”
The American government scrambled to increase “food aid” to countries around the world, fearful for the stability of its protectorates and puppet governments. A U.S. Senator, Richard Durbin, noted: “This is the worst global food crisis in more than 30 years… It threatens not only the health and survival of millions of people around the world, many of them children, but it also is a threat to global security,” with over 36 countries “now facing food crises [and] requiring help from abroad.”
An analyst at a major risk management agency told the Financial Times in November of 2008 that there had been “food protests in 25 countries in the past year,” adding: “In Indonesia the price of rice is directly correlated to the number of strikes or riots… A sharp increase in prices could cause production problems if there are strikes by workers and civil unrest could damage vital infrastructure like roads or telecoms or the government could impose a political crackdown.” The analyst provided advice for global corporations: “What global companies need to do is to avoid being seen as contributing to or being complicit with an issue. Some governments will blame rising food prices on the west, for example.” An analyst at an insurance conglomerate agreed: “Companies need to be aware of how they are perceived and seek to win hearts and minds.” In other words, what is needed is an excellent public relations campaign to ensure that western corporations do not get their deserved share of the blame for rising food prices. The advice was not to avoid contributing to the crisis, but to “avoid being seen as contributing,” after all.
In the span of a year between 2007 and 2008, the global price of wheat rose by 130%, the price of rice – the staple food for the majority of the world’s population – rose by 74%, going up by more than 10% in one day alone. While rising food prices were causing riots, social unrest, and the instability of governments across the ‘Third World,’ the prices were noticeably increasing within the industrial nations themselves, though by no means to the same degree, or with the same dramatic and devastating effects. The FAO estimated that food prices were likely to remain high for at least a decade. Global droughts, climate change, environmental destruction, massive farm subsidies in the west, population growth, and the development of biofuels (food for fuel), have all contributed to the rising costs of food. Of course, a number of other important factors were involved, such as the liberalization of food production and global markets, largely a staple of the neoliberal era, from the mid-1970s onward, and of enormous importance, the role of financial speculation, with banks, hedge funds, and investors speculating on food costs increasing, and thus, driving up the costs of food.
According to a confidential report by the World Bank in 2008 which was leaked to the Guardian, biofuels forced global food prices up by roughly 75%, contradicting the claims of the U.S. government, the main promoter and developer of biofuels, that their production led to a 3% price rise in the cost of food. Robert Bailey, a policy adviser at Oxfam stated: “Political leaders seem intent on suppressing and ignoring the strong evidence that biofuels are a major factor in recent food price rises… It is imperative that we have the full picture. While politicians concentrate on keeping industry lobbies happy, people in poor countries cannot afford enough to eat.” The World Bank estimated that the rising food prices pushed 100 million people worldwide below the poverty line, with government ministers at the G8 conference in Japan describing the food crisis as “the first real economic crisis of globalization.”
The World Bank report contested that: “Rapid income growth in developing countries has not led to large increases in global grain consumption and was not a major factor responsible for the large price increases.” The major droughts in Australia and elsewhere, according to the World Bank report, did not have a significant impact on food prices, with the biggest cause being the US and European drive for biofuels. The report noted: “Without the increase in biofuels, global wheat and maize stocks would not have declined appreciably and price increases due to other factors would have been moderate,” adding that the higher costs of energy and fertilizer contributed to a 15% increase of food costs. Use of biofuels has diverted grain production away from food and toward fuel, with over one-third of U.S. corn used to produce ethanol, and roughly half of vegetable oils in the European Union used to produce biodiesel. Further, farmers have been encouraged to put aside land for use in the production of biofuels instead of food. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the production of biofuels has encouraged financial speculation in food markets, as prices were expected to increase, and thus speculators were set to make enormous amounts of money if and when prices go up. Speculation, of course, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as speculators betting that prices will go up inevitably pushes the prices up.
The production of biofuels has been a major strategy by North American and European governments in order to reduce dependency on foreign oil and address climate change and environmental issues. A secret report conducted by the British government – the Gallagher Report – released in 2008, reported that the development of biofuels played a “significant” role in the food price increases. All petrol and diesel in Britain had to contain 2.5% of biofuels by 2008, and was aimed to meet a target of 5% by 2010, while the EU was itself contemplating a 10% target for 2020. Naturally, this would increase food prices accordingly, creating much larger and deeper food crises.
For all the contributory factors, not least of which was the development of biofuels, which collectively account for moderate increases in the cost of food, the primary driver of the food prices was financial speculation. This has been made exceedingly evident as the food crisis was not ended in 2008, but has continued to reach new heights, and the crisis has become almost permanent.
At an emergency meeting on food price inflation in 2010, the UN’s special rapporteur on food, Olivier De Schutter, released a paper in which the increase of food prices was blamed on a “speculative bubble” created by pension funds, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, and big banks that speculate on commodity markets. The paper noted that beginning in 2001, “food commodities derivatives markets, and commodities indexes began to see an influx of non-traditional investors… The reason for this was because other markets dried up one by one: the dotcoms vanished at the end of 2001, the stock market soon after, and the US housing market in August 2007. As each bubble burst, these large institutional investors moved into other markets, each traditionally considered more stable than the last. Strong similarities can be seen between the price behaviour of food commodities and other refuge values, such as gold.” De Schutter further wrote: “A significant contributory cause of the price spike [was] speculation by institutional investors who did not have any expertise or interest in agricultural commodities, and who invested in commodities index funds or in order to hedge speculative bets.”
As prices nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008, riots erupted in over 30 countries and 150 million more people were pushed into hunger, the majority of commodity prices in 2010 remained well over 50% of their pre-2007 figures, and were set to continue upwards: “Once again we find ourselves in a situation where basic food commodities are undergoing supply shocks. World wheat futures and spot prices climbed steadily until the beginning of August 2010, when Russia – faced with massive wildfires that destroyed its wheat harvest – imposed an export ban on that commodity. In addition, other markets such as sugar and oilseeds [were] witnessing significant price increases.” Gregory Barrow of the UN World Food Program noted: “What we have seen over the past few weeks is a period of volatility driven partly by the announcement from Russia of an export ban on grain food until next year, and this has driven prices up. They have fallen back again, but this has had an impact.” Food prices were rising by roughly 15% per year in India, Nepal, Latin America and China. A British Green Party MP stated: “Food has become a commodity to be traded. The only thing that matters under the current system is profit. Trading in food must not be treated as simply another form of business as usual: for many people it is a matter of life and death. We must insist on the complete removal of agriculture from the remit of the World Trade Organization.”
In December of 2010, food prices reached a new record high, surpassing the 2008 levels, entering what an FAO economist referred to as “a danger territory,” adding that there was “still room for prices to go up much higher.” As John Vidal wrote in the Guardian, “[t]he same banks, hedge funds and financiers whose speculation on the global money markets caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis are thought to be causing food prices to yo-yo and inflate,” as they have taken “advantage of the deregulation of global commodity markets” and are thus “making billions from speculating on food and causing misery around the world.” Food prices were even rising 10% per year in Britain and Europe, with the UN reporting that prices could be expected to rise at least another 40% within the following decade.
In the mid-1990s, “following heavy lobbying by banks, hedge funds and free market politicians in the US and Britain, the regulations on commodity markets were steadily abolished.” What had previously been “contracts” between farmers and traders turned into “derivatives” which were to be bought and sold on international markets between global investors, “who had nothing to do with agriculture.” Thus, a global market of “food speculation” had been born, noted Vidal: “Cocoa, fruit juices, sugar, staples, meat and coffee are all now global commodities, along with oil, gold and metals.” The same institutions which were responsible for creating the massive housing bubble which resulted in the economic crisis, with foreclosures on millions of homes, reacted to the bursting of that bubble by creating a new one in commodity markets, notably food. Except with this bubble, people don’t have to wait for it to burst in order to suffer, as people are driven deeper into poverty and hunger as it inflates, all the while the institutional “investors” make a killing, quite literally.
When banks and investors began moving billions out of the housing market and into new markets, food speculation became especially attractive. Mike Masters, the fund manager at Masters Capital Management testified in the US Senate in 2008 that, “We first became aware of this [food speculation] in 2006. It didn’t seem like a big factor then. But in 2007/08 it really spiked up… When you looked at the flows there was strong evidence. I know a lot of traders and they confirmed what was happening. Most of the business is now speculation – I would say 70-80%.” In other words, roughly 70-80% of the food price increases were determined by speculation, compared to the plethora of other given reasons, combined. Masters warned the Senate: “Let’s say news comes about bad crops and rain somewhere. Normally the price would rise about $1 [per bushel]. [However] when you have a 70-80% speculative market it goes up $2-3 to account for the extra costs. It adds to the volatility. It will end badly as all Wall Street fads do. It’s going to blow up.”
The president of Strategic Investment Group in New York warned that this speculative market has only increased in size, and that “speculative demand for commodity futures has increased since 2008 by 40-80% in agriculture futures.” In 2010, one London-based hedge fund purchased more than 7% of the world’s stocks of cocoa beans, which drove the price of chocolate to its highest price in 33 years. The UN rapporteur on food, Olivier De Schutter agreed: “Prices of wheat, maize and rice have increased very significantly but this is not linked to low stock levels or harvests, but rather to traders reacting to information and speculating on the markets.” Deborah Doane of the World Development Movement noted: “People die from hunger while the banks make a killing from betting on food.”
The World Development Movement (WDM) issued a report in the Summer of 2010 blaming the rising food prices on investors and speculators, just as cocoa spiked to its 33-year high after a London hedge fund purchased massive amounts of cocoa stock. The report noted that “risky and secretive” speculative bets on food prices were exacerbating the conditions of the world’s poor, as well as sparking social unrest. Deborah Doane, director of the WDM, noted: “Investment banks, like Goldman Sachs, are making huge profits by gambling on the price of everyday foods. But this is leaving people in the UK out of pocket, and risks the poorest people in the world starving.” She added: “Nobody benefits from this kind of reckless gambling except a few City [of London] wheeler-dealers. British consumers suffer because it pushes up inflation, because of unpredictable oil and raw material prices, and the world’s poorest people suffer because basic foods become unaffordable.” The WDM estimated that Goldman Sachs likely made a profit of $1 billion in 2009 through speculating on food prices, though Goldman Sachs stated that these profits from poverty and hunger were “ludicrously overstated.”
Even in the establishment journal, Foreign Policy, ever an apologist and advocate for American imperialism and global hegemony, the food price increases were blamed on “Wall Street greed.” Perhaps not surprisingly, it was bankers at Goldman Sachs in 1991 that developed a derivative (speculative bet) based upon 24 raw materials, from metals and energy, to coffee, cocoa, cattle, corn, wheat and soy, known as the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI). In 1999, when futures markets were deregulated, “bankers could take as large a position on grains as they liked, an opportunity which had, since the Great Depression, only been available to those who actually had something to do with the production of our food.” Other banks followed the lead of Goldman Sachs, and found that they too could reap enormous profits from speculating on food prices (and thereby causing mass poverty, hunger, and starvation), including Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Pimco, JP Morgan Chase, AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers. As Frederick Kaufman wrote: “The result of Wall Street’s venture into grain and feed and livestock has been a shock to the global food production and delivery system. Not only does the world’s food supply have to contend with constricted supply and increased demand for real grain, but investment bankers have engineered an artificial upward pull on the price of grain futures.” Speculation thus resulted in a situation where “imaginary wheat dominates the price of real wheat,” as “bankers and traders sit at the top of the food chain – the carnivores of the system, devouring everyone and everything below.”
Alan Knuckman is an analyst with Agora Financials, a consulting firm specializing in commodity investments, which has Knuckman spending his time on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), the world’s largest commodity futures exchange. Knuckman stated: “This is capitalism in its purest form… This is where millionaires are made.” One might add, however, that it’s also where millions more people in hunger are “made.” Knuckman explained: “I trade in anything you can get in and out of quickly… I’m here to make money.” And that’s what he does, and he does it well. Knuckman reflected the view of many in his field, stating: “I don’t believe in politics… I believe in the market, and the market is always right.” When asked if the soaring food prices were the result of financial speculation, something in which he is directly engaged, Knuckman replied: “I don’t see it.”
One is reminded of a bad joke: two fish meet, one asks the other, “how’s the water today?” to which the other replies, “what’s water?” When one is entirely submerged in a specific universe, it requires a great deal of effort to remove one’s perspective to see a wider world view, and their place within it. Alan Knuckman is quite obviously far removed from the everyday struggles of most people, in his own country, let alone the rest of the world. When questioned by Der Spiegel about the high cost of food, he explained: “The age of cheap food is over… Most Americans eat too much, anyway.” While Americans spend roughly 13% of their disposable income, on average, on food, the world’s poor spend roughly 70% of their budget on food, and thus, high food prices for this population, with one billion people on earth classified as living in hunger, and with food prices hitting new record highs almost every passing year, pushing tens of millions more into poverty and hunger, these price-hikes are “life-threatening.” So what did Knuckman have to say about this? He contended that it amounted to “undesirable side effects of the market,” but of course, as he earlier stated, “the market is always right,” and thus, with that logic of thinking, there is nothing “wrong” with one billion people going hungry, nor with more being pushed into poverty and hunger, which are amounted to mere “undesirable side effects.” As he earlier explained, “I’m here to make money,” and obviously, everything else is incidental.
The international food market, which “is always right,” is also incidentally dominated by major banking houses, and the speculative trade in food securities was created and inflated by the very same banks that created, inflated, and profited off of the housing boom in the United States, such as Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan Chase. These banks, hedge funds, and other speculators are able to reap enormous profits as millions are pushed into hunger and poverty, and the brilliance of this scheme is that the investors don’t have to produce a single thing, and never even come into contact with the real food market, whether production or distribution. They trade in “futures,” betting that prices will go up (or possibly down) in the future, and the real prices of food follow the speculative increases and decreases, and when prices go up, the speculators make money. The World Bank estimated that an increase of 10% in worldwide food prices pushes roughly 10 million more people into poverty, and that while there is enough food to feed the world, “many die of hunger simply because they can no longer afford to pay for it.”
In 2011, the annual meeting for Barclays faced protests by anti-poverty campaigners who were raising awareness about the role of Barclays in driving up food prices and profiting off of hunger, as the UK’s largest participant in food commodity trading, and one of the top three banks involved globally, according to information from the World Development Movement (WDM). The other top two banks in global commodity trading are Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Deborah Doane of the WDM noted: “First, it was sub-prime mortgages, now it’s food commodities… The lack of transparency in these markets bears worrying resemblance to the behaviour that led to the 2008 financial crash. Like any irrational asset bubble, the investors pile their money in for short-term profits, in spite of the consequences.” Estimates from WDM put the profits Barclays accumulated from food speculation at 340 million pounds in 2010.
By 2012, it was reported that Barclays had made as much as half a billion pounds in two years from food speculation. An official at Oxfam noted: “The food market is becoming a playground for investors rather than a market place for farmers. The trend of big investors betting on food prices is transforming food into a financial asset while exacerbating the risk of price spikes that hit the poor hardest.”
In an early 2012 interview with Der Spiegel, the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, stated that, “speculation is indeed an important cause of the heavily fluctuating and very high prices” of food, and “only benefits banks and hedge funds, but not producers, processors and buyers – and certainly not consumers.” Apart from placing “regulations” on food speculation, da Silva suggested that the rich industrial countries should end their agricultural subsidies, noting that when the U.S. ended its subsidies for corn-based biofuels in the summer of 2011, global prices of corn immediately dropped, which “had a direct and positive effect on the food situation.” The FAO is hardly a radical organization, firmly entrenched within global power structures, it continues to promote “market solutions” to problems of hunger and food, though is critical of market “excesses.” Da Silva noted, however, that “there is enough food for everybody, but for many people, especially the poor, it’s simply too expensive. They are going hungry, even with full shelves of food.” Thus, when asked if the food crisis was “really a financial problem,” da Silva replied, “Of course.”
In 2011, speculative investment in agricultural commodities amounted to 20 times the amount of money spent by all countries of the world on food and agricultural “aid.” The three biggest players in agricultural commodity speculation – Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Barclays, respectively – have reaped hundreds of millions and billions in profits in this speculative assault against the world’s poorest billion people suffering from hunger. The UN rapporteur on food, Olivier De Schutter, noted: “What we are seeing now is that these financial markets have developed massively with the arrival of these new financial investors, who are purely interested in the short-term monetary gain and are not really interested in the physical thing – they never actually buy the ton of wheat or maize; they only buy a promise to buy or sell. The result of this financialisation of the commodities market is that the prices of the products respond increasingly to a purely speculative logic. That explains why in very short periods of time we see prices spiking or bubbles exploding, because prices are less and less determined by the real match between supply and demand.”
The UN World Food Programme referred to the 2008-2011 global spike in food prices as a “silent tsunami of hunger,” pushing 115 million more people into hunger and poverty since 2008. This, explained De Schutter, is “an absolute catastrophe” for the world’s poor. In Kenya, an unemployed single-mother looking after her eight-year-old daughter and 83-year old father explained that since the massive food price hikes: “We stopped eating lunch, and saved the little we had to eat for supper. We drank tea without sugar and sometimes we also missed breakfast. I had to travel so much to wash clothes to get money for food, but sometimes I was so weak I fell down. For supper, we had one or two cups of flour mixed with water and salt. Our life was so hard.” It is worth remembering – and reminding yourself continuously – that there is more than enough food in the world to feed the population of the world, yet, stories like this single mother’s are becoming increasingly common among billions of people. If ever there was a clear sign that something is fundamentally wrong with the global system – and “market solutions” – this is it.
In the summer of 2012, the United States experienced the worst draught in decades, contributing to increased speculation in food markets, driving prices up higher and inducing warnings of another major global food crisis on the brink. Chris Mahoney, the head of agriculture at Glencore, a major global commodity trader, let slip some industry honesty when he stated: “The U.S. weather starting mid-May… has been among the worst three or four years of the century, comparable to the dust bowl years of the mid-1930s… In terms of the outlook for the balance [profits] of the year, the environment is a good one. High prices, lots of volatility, a lot of dislocation, tightness, a lot of arbitrage opportunities… I think we will both be able to provide the world with solutions, getting stuff to where it’s needed quickly and timely, and that should also be good for Glencore.” The CEO of Glencore, Ivan Glasenberg, referred to the volatile food market as “a time when industry fundamentals are the most positive they have been for some time.” Put simply, increased food prices, and thus, increased hunger, is “good for Glencore.” Tens of millions more people pushed into abject poverty and hunger? No need to be concerned, that only means that “industry fundamentals are the most positive they have been for some time.”
What can we conclude, therefore, from a global system of ‘markets’ in which poverty and starvation create massive profits for a few select institutions and individuals, at the expense of literally billions of human beings, and entire nations and societies? Does this really reflect, as one trader stated that, “the market is always right”? Or does it reveal a market which benefits few at the expense of many? The answer is, of course, self-evident: so then why is the issue not framed in such a manner? Instead of acknowledging global markets as inherently and structurally (not to mention ideologically) immoral and wrong, we talk about “reforming” and “regulating” these markets as if minor changes would rectify the fundamental problems. The truth – as hard as it may be for many to accept – is that global markets are fundamentally wrong and immoral.
We acknowledge this type of immorality on an individual level, say with the literary character of Ebenezer Scrooge who profited from the misery of others, but when it reaches global institutional and ideological proportions, we often justify and excuse it, or possibly acknowledge that it is “not perfect” and there are “undesirable side effects,” possibly warranting ‘reform.’ Perhaps the institutional ideology could be best summarized by Ebenezer Scrooge when he was asked to donate to a charity to help the poor and hungry who were at risk of dying, to which Scrooge replied, “If they would rather die… they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
At what point is it acceptable to suggest that humanity is in need of an entirely new way of organization and function? In a world of seven billion people, when billions live in poverty, in slums, and with hunger, at what point do we begin to acknowledge that this system simply does not work? Sadly, it seems that people only often recognize this when they are among the poor, within the slums, and starving. By that point, however, their concerns become those of daily survival, not issues of reform or even activism and revolution. Their days are spent toiling and struggling for a meager dollar or two so that they could afford a meager meal, or if lucky, two meals. Looking after other family members, they do not have the luxury of education, information, and the ready capacity for organization and activism that we – who do not live in hunger and absolute poverty – have. If we continue to uphold a world system which has created and sustains and exacerbates the conditions and prevalence of global poverty, slums, and hunger, we doom others – and indeed ourselves – to that same fate.
Future samples from this chapter will focus on environmental degradation, poverty, and the global land grabs. If you found this excerpt of interest, please consider making a donation to The People’s Book Project to help the research and writing continue.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, with a focus on studying the ideas, institutions, and individuals of power and resistance across a wide spectrum of social, political, economic, and historical spheres. He has been published in AlterNet, CounterPunch, Occupy.com, Truth-Out, RoarMag, and a number of other alternative media groups, and regularly does radio, Internet, and television interviews with both alternative and mainstream news outlets. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project and has a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
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Corporate Culture and Global Empire: Food Crisis, Land Grabs, Poverty, Slums, Environmental Devastation and Resistance
Corporate Culture and Global Empire: Food Crisis, Land Grabs, Poverty, Slums, Environmental Devastation and Resistance
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
Corporate power is immense. The world’s largest corporation is Royal Dutch Shell, surpassed in wealth only by the 24 largest countries on earth. Of the 150 largest economic entities in the world, 58% are corporations. Corporations are institutionally totalitarian, the result of power’s resistance to the democratic revolution, which was begrudgingly accepted in the political sphere, but denied the economic sphere, and thus was denied a truly democratic society. They are driven by a religion called “short-term profits.” Corporate society – a state-capitalist society – flourished in the United States, and managed the transition of American society in the early 20th century, just as Fascists and Communists were managing transitions across Europe. With each World War, American society – its political and economic power – grew in global influence, and with the end of World War II, that corporate society was exported globally.
This is empire. The American military, intelligence agencies, and national security apparatus operate with the intention of serving U.S. – and now increasingly global – state and corporate interests. Wars, coups, destabilization campaigns, support for dictators, tyrants, genocides and oppression are the products of Western interaction with the rest of the world.
In the same sense that “God made man in his own image,” corporations remade society in their own interest; and with equal arrogance. Corporations and banks created or took over think tanks, foundations, educational institutions, media, public relations, advertising, and other sectors of society. Through their control of other institutions, they extend their ideologies of power – and the variances between them – to the population, to other elites, the ‘educated’ class, middle class, the poor and working class. So long as the ideas expressed support power, it’s ‘acceptable.’ It can extend critiques, but institutional analysis is not permitted. Ideas which oppose institutional power are ‘ideological’, ‘idealist’, ‘utopian’, and ultimately, unacceptable.
Corporate culture dominates our society in the West. Being inherently totalitarian institutions, the culture – and its institutions – become increasingly totalitarian. This is the response by private economic power to undo the achievements in human history which came through increased democracy in the political sphere. Corporations and banks seek to control and consume all things, to dominate without end.
The only reason corporations were and are able to be the defining cultural institution of the 20th and now 21st century, is because of their economic power. This is derived from exploitation: of resources, the environment, labour, and consumers. It is enforced with repression: the job of the state in the state-capitalist society, along with massive subsidies and protectionist measures for corporate and financial interests. As corporate power extended around the world, the rapid destruction of the environment and resources accelerated, and Western powers ‘outsourced’ the environmental devastation our consumer societies ‘require’ to the so-called Third World. We consume, and they suffer; a marriage of inconvenience that we call “civilization.” Corporations and our state keep the rest of the world in a state of poverty and repression, eternally attempting to block the inevitable global revolution to create a human society that acts… humanely. We were busy buying things. Couldn’t be bothered.
Now what our societies have done to the people on whose land we now live, or everyone else in the world, is being done internally, to us. Everything is up for sale! Corporations make record profits, hoard billions and trillions in cash reserves, NOT being invested, but likely waiting until your standard of living is significantly reduced so that your labour and resources are cheaper, and thus, ultimately more profitable. This is called ‘austerity’ and ‘structural reform,’ political euphemisms for impoverishment and exploitation.
Corporations, banks and states have in recent years caused a massive global food crisis, driving food costs to record highs almost every subsequent year from 2007 onward. With billions of people in the world living on less than $2 per day, the majority of humanity spends most of their income on food. Price increases in food, caused primarily by financial speculation (big players include Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Barclays), push tens of millions more people into poverty and hunger. Roughly one billion – 1/7th of the world’s population – live in slums. And they are growing rapidly. Massive urban slums were developed out of the imperialism Western states and corporations imposed upon the rest of the world, pushing people off the land and into the cities, whether induced by poverty or coerced by bombs and guns. All billed to the imperial Western state sponsors of terrorism. We supported (and support) ruthless and tiny elites in the countries we dominate[d] around the world, and now we are just beginning to realize the ruthless and tiny elite which rules over our own domestic lives. Their social function is that of a parasite: to suck the life blood out of all global society.
Food price increases have helped spur a massive global land grab, with Western (as well as Gulf and Asian powers) grabbing vast tracts of land – and water – around the world, for pennies on the dollar. This grab is most extensive in Africa, where in the past several years, mostly Western investors have grabbed land which amounts to an area roughly the size of Western Europe. The land not only contains extensive resource wealth, most importantly water (the Nile is up for sale!), but it is home to hundreds of millions of people, and globally, there are 2.5 billion poor people engaged in small-scale farming. This is primarily done through communal land ownership, something which Western society – with its ‘divine right’ of private property – does not understand. Thus, in international, state, and corporate law – which we designed – we deem communally owned and used land to be legally owned by the state. Our ‘investors’ – banks, hedge funds, pension funds, corporations and states – strike deals with corrupt states across the world to give us 40-100 year contracts for vast tracts of land, paying little or sometimes no rent. Then the “empty land” – as we call it – is cleared (of it’s “emptiness”, no doubt), evicting peoples who have been there for generations and beyond, who depend upon the land and the food it produces for their very lives. These people are being driven to cities, and ultimately, slums.
This is what we call “productive” use of land. So naturally, we then destroy it, eviscerate its environment, poison and pollute, extract, exploit, plunder and profit. Or we simply hold onto the land, not using it at all, just waiting until it goes up in profit. Even major American universities like Harvard are getting involved in the massive land grabs across Africa and elsewhere. This is the largest land grab in history since the late 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’ where Europeans colonized almost the entire continent. When we do use the land for ‘productive use’, we say it will “help the climate” and “reduce hunger.” How? Because we will produce food and biofuels. And in doing so, we will use massive amounts of chemicals, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, deforestation, biodiversity destruction, highly mechanized and heavy fuel-use farming techniques. The food we produce – which is not much, we have more interest in things like biofuels, lumber, minerals, oil, cash-crops, etc. – is then exported to our countries, and away from the poor ones where hunger and poverty are so prevalent. They lose their land, gain more poverty, with the added bonus of extensive food insecurity, hunger, starvation, slum growth, increased mortality rates, disease, and violence. Poverty is violence.
This is how Western states, banks, corporations and international organizations address the issue of “hunger”: by creating more of it. And in a deeply disturbing irony, we call this moving towards “sustainability.” Little did we know that power interests have a different definition of “sustainability” than most people: they simply combined the words sustained and profitability, and called it “sustainability.” And coincidentally, that word already has a meaning to most people, so we simply misinterpreted the meaning. But there are people who take that concept seriously, those who experience the major costs of an unsustainable society.
We are witnessing a massive global resistance to these processes, largely driven by indigenous peoples – in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and now in North America. In Canada, the ‘Idle No More‘ movement began with four indigenous women in Saskatchewan deciding to meet up and discuss their concerns about Steven Harper’s “budget bill,” which, among other things, had reduced the amount of Canada’s protected rivers, lakes, and streams from roughly 2.5 million (as of Dec. 4, 2012) to somewhere around 62 (as of Dec. 5, 2012). Now a large, expanding, and increasingly international social movement led by indigenous peoples is taking place. Less than two months ago, it began with four women having a discussion.
Canada’s Indigenous peoples are showing Canadians – and others around the world – how to stand up against power. And they’ve had practice. For over 500 years, our societies have been oppressing and often eradicating indigenous populations at ‘home’ and abroad. Indigenous peoples, like other oppressed peoples, are at the front lines of the most oppressive nature of our society: they experience and have experienced exploitation, environmental devastation, domination and decimation. With the world’s Indigenous peoples speaking – not only in Canada, but across Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere – it is time that we in the West begin to listen. It is always important to listen to those who are most oppressed; the histories of our ‘victims’ are rarely written or known, at least not to us. Victims remember. And it matters that we begin to listen.
How can we expect to change – or know what and how to change – our societies if we do not listen and learn from those who have experienced the worst of our society? Indigenous people are now giving us a lesson in democratic struggle. If we continue on our current path, Indigenous communities will be completely wiped out; the powers that rule our society will have completed a 500-year genocide.
So we have to ask ourselves the question: should we now listen to, learn from, and join with these people in common struggle for justice and the idea of a humane society, or… are we still too busy buying things?
Perhaps it is time we all should be ‘Idle No More’.
The above was a short summary of roughly three separate chapters currently being researched and written as part of The People’s Book Project. To help the Project continue, please consider spreading the word, sharing articles, or donating.