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The other America?

Barack Obama's election victory could well be a defining moment for the earth, says Ashish Kothari. For if he works to rescue what he calls "a planet in peril", we could see America responding to the biodiversity crisis, adopting clean technologies and embracing ecological economic models that put the environment and ordinary people -- rather than profits -- at the centre of planning

Barack Obama's election victory

This could just be a defining moment for the earth. Of the many striking lines in Barack Obama's acceptance speech as president-elect of America, on the night of November 4, this one stood out for me: "For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century." The wars and the financial crisis were predictable; perhaps any candidate for the American presidency would have mentioned those. But it was heartening that a man soon to be one of the most powerful in the world was also prioritising the environmental crisis.

"A planet in peril": If these words remain strong in Obama's mind in the next four years, we could begin to see the reversal of some of the disastrous policies that President Bush and his coterie of cowboys in the White House imposed on the world. He has, during his campaign, promised to restore many environmental protection measures that Bush got rid of. And if these words of his, in a 2007 speech to an interfaith forum are an indication, there is indeed hope: "We are not acting as good stewards of God's Earth when our bottom line puts the size of our profits before the future of the planet."

If, on top of this, Obama's team seizes the financial crisis to be an opportunity to think of an alternative economic order, we may well see a remarkable revolution away from the shameful way in which his country, and indeed humanity as a whole, has dealt with the very earth that sustains us all.

To complete the trio of challenges, one key to resolving the ecological crisis and moving towards economic sustainability is to move away from a dependence on fossil fuels. And that could be the most long-lasting solution to the wars in which the USA has got itself embroiled, for the superpowers' interest in the Gulf countries would suddenly plummet if oil lost its value as the lubricant of the global economy.

The three challenges Obama mentioned are inter-related, and his government could well facilitate the move to finding an integrated solution to them.

Maybe I am getting carried away by the sense of the moment. I hope I am forgiven; not often does one witness such an outpouring of interest, emotion, and hope from whites and blacks, young and old, women and men, Hispanics and Asians, academics and activists, taxi-drivers and barbers, as I've seen in the last few weeks in the USA. It's been a heady time, and hope is thick in the air.

But hope has always to be tempered with a sense of realism. Though he won with a convincing majority, a very substantial part of the electorate obviously remains wedded to conservative ideologies. And the three challenges mentioned by Obama are, to put it mildly, daunting. Nor are they the only ones. Nowhere in his acceptance speech did the president-elect mention poverty and hunger, or their opposites, over-consumption and waste, as problems facing humanity. As much as climate change and ecological collapse, or as much as the addiction to fossil fuels, these are problems that America has helped create or magnify over the last few decades. It therefore has the responsibility to help resolve them. Not an easy job, considering that hardly anyone before Obama has even begun the undertaking in any meaningful way.

Notice that I have used words like 'facilitate' and 'help', in describing what Obama and his country can do vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Amongst all the clear differences between the two candidates for the American presidency, there were some similarities, one of them being the belief (or the rhetoric) that the USA is the "greatest country on earth" and that somehow it has the god-given task of fixing the world. It is not, and it does not. Through the election campaign there seemed to be much greater humility in Obama than in McCain, and I fervently hope that he adopts the path of learning from other countries and cultures as much as giving to them. For all peoples have bits and pieces of the jigsaw puzzle we have to put together, not only those who currently dominate global politics and economy.

Not only would Obama do well to look outside the USA for answers, he would do well to look within too. But not at the tired old techno-fixes -- band-aids like greener brands of cars and a greener capitalism with the gentle promotion of 'corporate social responsibility'. There is a terrific and growing 'alternative' movement within the USA, which is boldly exploring entirely new ways of living with nature and each other, that Obama could productively embrace.

A month back, I was fortunate to glimpse a slice of this alternative America. An America we rarely hear of, one that cares for the environment, fights for social justice, and is humble enough to learn from other countries and cultures. I was amidst 30,000 people who had come to enjoy the Common Ground Country Fair at a small town called Unity in the northeastern state of Maine. Sprawled over several acres of fields, the fair consisted of a wide variety of everything that could be considered 'alternative' to the mainstream of American society: from organic foods to ecologically sensitive housing and energy, from traditional livestock diversity to home-made crafts and soaps... and most importantly, a sense of camaraderie amidst a respect for diversity. Stalls of women's rights groups jostled with small enterprises offering ethical investment, wolf protection groups with those struggling for Native American rights, and even a Community Party of Maine (Obama's opponents repeatedly tried to defame him by calling him a 'socialist'!). One exhibit was about the movement to allow drying of clothes out in the sun, for, apparently, many counties prohibit this for fear of reducing property values, thereby forcing people to use power-guzzling clothes' driers! There were daily talks on subjects like the fight against genetically modified organisms and the movement for 'slow food' (the rejection of junk fast food and revival of local, diverse, wholesome meals). Most refreshing was the absence of the brands that accost you everywhere else in this country: the McDonalds and the Dunkin' Doughnuts and the Coca-Colas. Local was the operative word.

The Common Ground Fair is organised annually by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, apparently the largest such organisation in the US. And it's not new -- this was the 32nd year of the fair. Over these decades, the event has grown bigger and more diverse, and way more popular with the public; this year, 59,000 people visited it. And there are more and more such events across the country, a visibly growing demand for organic and alternative materials, voluntary carbon emission caps by a network of universities and institutions, promotion of cycling and public transport, and much else.

The small town of Brunswick, where I am temporarily residing, has a farmers' market with organic food twice a week, a big store with safe alternatives for everything one needs in the house, and a college that emphasises sustainability at every corner.

It would of course be foolish to extrapolate from these that the US is well on its way to transforming its wasteful, destructive ways. The dominant reality is still dismal. One of the supreme ironies of the Common Ground Fair was the traffic jams leading to and away from it... with private car after private car stacked bumper-to-bumper trying to get to the parking lots that seemed bigger than the fair itself. This is probably a combination of the terrible public transport system in this part of the US, and the fact that driving around in a car seems to most Americans to be as normal a part of daily life as brushing one's teeth in the morning. With only 5% of the world's population, the USA accounts for 25% of its consumption, has the largest per capita production of garbage, and is responsible for 25% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. These are lifestyles that will have to be challenged by anyone serious about a 'planet in peril'... moving miles away from George Bush senior's infamous line 'the American way of life is not negotiable', uttered at the 1992 Earth Summit.

And yet, even if dominant American lifestyles remain hopelessly out of sync with any notion of sustainability, events like the Common Ground Fair represent the beginning of the change. The alternatives displayed there would spread much faster if American policies facilitated rather than hampered them, and if the American government was willing to learn from similar movements around the world.

Obama and vice-president-elect Biden have promised 'new energy for America', which could be just the push that non-conventional, non-fossil-fuel sources have long needed (see Unfortunately they include nuclear energy, with the qualifier that there will be no expansion before issues of nuclear waste storage and security are sorted out. The plan also mentions a big expansion of 'sustainably produced' second-generation biofuels, which has evoked concern amongst many environmental groups. Overall, however, the plan could be one big step towards greater climate responsibility. Obama has spoken about cutting US carbon-dioxide emissions to 80% below 1990 levels, by 2050, and generating at least 25% of US electricity from renewable sources, by 2025.

But there is much more that he needs to do: join the world in responding to the biodiversity crisis (America is the only big country that has not ratified the Biodiversity Convention), help spread clean technologies, embrace ecological economic models that put the environment and ordinary people rather than profits at the centre of planning, give ordinary citizens a much greater say in decision-making, and so on.

One of the biggest challenges will be to rein in the totally out-of-control corporations that his country harbours. At least some of what he has said in the last two years points to his desire to do this: "Businesses don't own the sky, the public does, and if we want them to stop polluting it, we have to put a price on all pollution," or "the auto industry is on a path that is unacceptable and unsustainable... and America must take action to make it right". He has also consistently stated his intention of increasing taxes on oil companies (while cutting them for 95% of Americans who fall below a certain income level). On the other hand, he has been somewhat soft on mining companies in the past, for instance opposing a proposal for legal reforms which would have required companies to pay royalties for mining on public lands.

The challenge of saving the planet is big. But not necessarily one that is bigger than dreaming (as an ordinary black boy in an ordinary school) that he would like to be the President of the United States... and then achieving it. Nor bigger than a people so badly let down by its leadership for eight painful years standing up to send it packing and replacing it with a person no one would have given a chance to just a couple of years ago.

Who dares say that Obama and the American people, in partnership with the rest of the world, will be up to the challenge of rescuing a 'planet in peril'? Perhaps no one, with complete confidence. But there is hope. For the sake of the world, this hope must be transformed into living his constant campaign refrain: YES WE CAN!

InfoChange News & Features, November 2008