From Copenhagen to Port-au-Prince

The planet's fate balances on a knife edge, two cities on either side. Which offers hope? You may be surprised.

By Michael M'Gonigle, 9 Feb 2010,

This is the story of two very different cities. One is a city whose past is steeped in historic achievement, and recent failure. The other is a city whose horrific past has gotten desperately worse, but whose future... well, who knows? Though world's apart, these places embody a common metaphor for an elusive global possibility.

City of the past: Copenhagen

Copenhagen -- the very name is now shorthand for failure. In light of the horrific events in Haiti over these past few weeks, the tragi-comic venture of the climate change conference in December seems so yesterday. But Copenhagen offers enduring lessons.

As I wrote in The Tyee as the conference was getting started, it was doomed from the start, its fate sealed by the competitive statist logic of the "lowest common denominator." In global negotiations, self-interested governments protect their home advantage, seemingly unable even to conceive of a collective global future.

And so Copenhagen became a theatre of outdated statecraft swirling in the thrall of a vampire global economy. It was the scene of a slow-mo planetary crime, grey and bureaucratic in its execution, but criminal nonetheless.

In the frenzied, last ditch, head-of-state negotiations that produced the pathetic Copenhagen Accord, those "inside the room" point the finger of failure at China. What happened there forebodes a dangerous future. China wanted no targets, and no constraints on its future growth. In the words of one observer, China "didn't need a deal."

After all, with Western consumers hooked on cheap Chinese goods and Western banks propped up by China's boundless investments, and with the dissenting voices of China's own citizens blanketed by suppression, China had the best of both worlds -- authoritarian capitalism. Western governments were more committed to a deal, but the real difference was marginal.

My opposition was to the diversions that an inevitably half-baked (no, quarter-baked) treaty would produce: more years of trying to get parties to sign on and ratify an empty agreement, more bargaining over paper goals, more arguments over the implications (and legitimacy) of the science, more demands for meaningful targets, and increasing frustration as flawed carbon-trading schemes funneled billions of dollars into the stock market and small change for the planet.

Instead, I argued for shifting our energies from mandating ineffective treaty constraints to addressing the urgent and real imperative of getting on with the task of "eco-conversion." For our trajectory of economic growth has generated a host of problems besides climate change, from biodiversity loss to fisheries collapse. We have a "system failure" here. But as to how we might co-operatively put our shoulders to the wheel of real historical change, there is silence.

More instructive than the battle of Copenhagen was the venue. Here is a richly livable city whose carbon emissions since 1990 went down by some 25 per cent while the rest of the world's went up by 29 per cent. There are some 350 kilometres of bicycle tracks; 55 per cent of its residents cycling to work and school. It was one of the first cities in the world to launch the free public "city bike," and it has 110 racks around the city. It holds the world record in level of organic food consumption. Ninety per cent of construction waste is recycled. The list goes on.

These are unimaginable "targets" (let alone realities) for the rest of us even for 2020. And these achievements were a specific response in a specific place. But they could only happen where a citizenry could actually debate its future, and act.

I am reminded of a metaphor coined by the French philosopher Michel Serres. In his book The Natural Contract, Serres describes a clash of two giants, their swords flashing in combat, spectators all around, everyone urging on their champion. Combatants and spectators alike, however, pay no attention to the ground on which they are standing. It is quicksand, and all are sinking out of sight.

Serres' ecological metaphor characterizes the fractious, decades-long, global negotiation process. For the spectator/activists, it is time (to use another metaphor) to change the channel. The energies being expended in spectacular swordplay are needed elsewhere, in doing the real work. To talk about that entails a much bigger conversation, and much greater possibilities.

City of the future

Within weeks of the din subsiding in Copenhagen, catastrophe struck across the Atlantic in Port-au-Prince. As hundreds of thousands of residents struggle to survive, Copenhagen seems like a distant indulgence.

And unlike Copenhagen, where the rest of the world snoozed, the stories and images from Port-au-Prince mobilized the world in an outpouring of global sympathy (in its true meaning of feeling as one with the other) and collective action. And now there is talk of re-building -- but not as if any sympathetic soul could want to "re-build" what was there before.

But if not that, what? And who will say?

Haiti is an infinitely complex place and it is dangerous for outsiders to wade in with easy generalizations. But Haiti does not exist in some other universe; it exists in its relationships, and the shape of Haiti's future will depend on how the world thinks about, and acts on, these relationships.

For a privileged society like ours, the historical horrors inflicted on Haiti from the outside through centuries of enslavement, military conquest, mass murder, social and environmental exploitation, and political oppression are literally incomprehensible. Haiti's centuries long plight follows from its grand acts of refusal to colonial enslavement, beginning with its initially successful ousting of its French colonizers in 1794. (For an eye-opening historical perspective of what Haitians have endured, and what they face in their rebuilding, read Andrew Floods short People's History of Haiti.

In recent years, the names of Haiti's U.S.-supported dictators, Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier, and that of its murderous death squad, the Tonton Macoutes, are synonymous with vicious power.

This past is cause for concern as the very governments whose vision failed the globe in Copenhagen in December are the ones long implicated in Haiti's historical plight, from Spain and France to, most recently, the United States. Past colonial states are now positioning themselves as the "Friends of Haiti" who will manage its future.

And, admirably, many have agreed to cancel Haiti's foreign debt. But in looking to the future, their vision will undoubtedly be more about the "re" than about the "building." It is all that they know. Copenahagen redux.

And the future is...

Stuck in the quicksand, it is not easy to recognize the "false necessity" that has ensnared our planetary future in the supposedly intractable dictates of the past. To liberate Haiti from its life as a forgotten orphan of exploitation and oppression, and now disaster, will be a Heruclean task. So too will it be to get the industrialized world to pull back the throttle of planetary destruction.

But what if we, ironically, put the two problems together (and they are in fact bred of common parentage) to embrace in Haiti (and beyond) not a "re-building" but a new project of construction that reflects the needs of the future and not the dictates of the past? Could there be promise for Port-au-Prince? Such an effort would be a meaningful legacy, a veritable phoenix out of the ashes of unfathomable loss.

But it would demand that today's sympathy evolve into a global solidarity for a creative future that completely eluded the world at Copenhagen.

Social activists and eco-visionaries are repeatedly warned of the need to go slow, to make incremental steps, to work within the totalizing frame of our economic mythos, to make sure that proposals can safely bring industry and government and the middle class along. With resource conflicts increasingly central to future growth, the impulse of this false necessity now works overtime in colonizing the world's environmental groups (it certainly pervades ours at home) and social justice movements. It has already long colonized our political process, and its media.

But the people of Port-au-Prince aren't trapped by such middle class caution. They understand fully the false promises of a one-sided economic ideology, and the oppressions it brings. That city is home to a huge diversity of active (and persecuted) grassroots social movements. And with its physical infrastructure crushed, the whole place must start anew in any event.

Just the other day, it was reported that out of the rubble of an education system, the talk is not just to rebuild but to "begin over again" and create a revolution (The Globe and Mail, Feb. 3, A12).

Of course, one hesitates to prescribe a future for someone and some place far away, lest the inheritance of colonialism reappear in a green new garb. But others aren't waiting. A lot of tailors are already at work, and history tells us that the clothing that the "friends" of Haiti will provide will be obediently stitched from old fabric and tracing the only pattern they know -- one-size-fits-all. If they follow what Naomi Klein calls the "shock doctrine," they will impose once again the same old neo-liberal institutions and processes that were on trial in Copenhagen, and failed.

For Haiti to escape this fate, it needs allies in a new approach, and eco-conversion that is built from the bottom up at ground zero. And it would only be the start.

Michael M'Gonigle is the EcoResearch Professor of Environmental Law and Politics at the University of Victoria. First published in THE TYEE 9 February 2010: read part 2 - Rebuild Haiti, This Time Green

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