Return to Magazine Features

 
THE GREAT DIVIDE
By Shawn Blore
 


Photos by Lorne Bridgman

TAKING ON THE WTO

Among those covering the protests was Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. In his angry denunciation of the "circus in Seattle" Friedman described the anti-WTO protesters as "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix." They would not, he predicted, succeed in shutting down the world's trading system.

It would be easy to write off Friedman as a apologist for the status quo. After all, in a recent book-length elegy to globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman suggests that globalization is akin to the rising of the sun, a process both benign and utterly unstoppable.

But then what to make of Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and one of America's leading boomer-age opponents of globalization? In an essay passed to me via e-mail, Hawken referred to the largely young crowd thronging the streets of Seattle as "a network of non-violent protesters totally committed to one task - shutting down the WTO."

That was hardly what I saw. I arrived on the morning of November 30, listened to the speeches from labor and environment leaders in Memorial Stadium, then walked with the protesters into downtown. Over the course of the day and evening I spoke with more than 50 people (out of a crowd of perhaps 50,000), few of whom exhibited the categorical antipathy to the WTO castigated by Friedman and celebrated by Hawken.

More typical was a 27-year-old walking sea turtle I met amid the throng. He (a human in a foam costume) was there to protest the WTO's overruling of a US measure to protect endangered sea turtles. And in place of empty slogans, he had the facts and figures at his paddle-tips. In the name of free trade, he explained, the WTO had struck down a US measure to ban the importation of shrimp from fishing fleets with an excessive 'bycatch' of turtles. As a result, more than 150,000 turtles continue to be drowned every year.

Later, I met a 22-year-old who was acting as an informal medic, using saline solution to wash the tear gas from protesters' eyes. He too was a font of knowledge, sprinkling me with information, including the fact that every last one of the advisors to the US delegation of forestry issues was actually a forestry company executive, and that in the 15 times a complaint has been lodged under the WTO against an environmental protection measure, the environment has always lost.

Neither of these protesters was after anything as grand and simple as an end to the World Trade Organization. True, they were definitely trying to shut down the Seattle ministerial. But that was a short-term tactic, an overt display of political muscle. In the longer term, what both wanted was access. They were impressed by the WTO's ability to exert control over multinational corporations, something even government now finds a challenge. Rather than abolish such a structure, they wanted its rules re-written to include protection of the environment and human rights, its deliberations opened up to public scrutiny. Most importantly, they want appointments to the all-important trade panels opened up to representatives from outside the cozy world of Davos summit attendees. It's an ambitious undertaking. But it's a goal that's also narrow and focused enough to be achievable, with the help of the Internet and a great deal of luck and determination.

Provided of course, Xer activists can get past those who see every protest as a simple redux of the simplistic '6os, every protester another Mario Savio at Berkeley, "throwing his body upon the gears and upon the levers" in order to shut the whole machine down.


PRAGMATISM VS, PERSONAL GROWTH

Admittedly, the differences between old and new style activism can sometimes be subtle. In 1997, I was lucky enough to sail to the mid-coast of British Columbia with a crew of activists working to protect the Great Bear Rainforest -one of the last intact temperate rainforests on earth - from clear-cut logging. The cruise was sponsored by two of the groups working to save the Great Bear - the Raincoast Conservation Society and Greenpeace - and lead by 28-year-old Ian McAllister. At first, I had McAllister pegged as a latter-day back-to-the-lander, a throwback to those middle-class '60s kids who escaped the evil city for the purity of the commune, only to rush back to the city when they discovered how tough it was to make a living on the land. But the more I questioned, the more I began to suspect that under McAllister's backwoods exterior there lurked the mental circuitry of a bona fide ecoGeek. For one thing, there was the sophistication of the campaign he was helping to wage. Companies making use of mid-coast timber such as 3M and Home Depot were being systematically identified, approached and threatened with a consumer boycott. Often that was enough to convince many companies to cancel contracts for mid-coast wood.

More importantly, McAllister had a plan for what he wanted to see happen in the rainforest, a plan that went well beyond the naive ideas of the '6os back-to-the-landers. Using sophisticated GIS mapping tools, McAllister is developing a detailed multi-layer inventory of the resources on the mid-coast - the trees, the soils, the wildlife, the salmon, oolichan and herring, and the sites traditionally inhabited or exploited by native tribes. The idea is that once clear-cuffing has been stopped, the mapping inventory can be used to direct economic activity - fishing, ecotourism, limited cuffing combined with value-added processing - to the areas where it will achieve maximum gain at minimum environmental cost. Much more work needs to be done, but the approach itself just might work. And given the effectiveness of the market boycott campaign, they just might get a chance to implement it.

McAllister himself typifies another interesting ecoGeek characteristic. Though he clearly has a deep and very personal relationship with the rainforest of the BC coast, it's not something he frequently talks about. Not that he's some backwoods silent type. Get him on the topic of what's going on in the bush, or the ins and outs of the campaign to save the area and he's tough to shut up. But his personal reasons for wanting the area saved aren't something he'll often bring up.

...Whether subverting the dominate paradigm, or getting in touch with inner children, turning on, tuning in and dropping out, or even Culture Jamming, the post-war babies have had a lifelong obsession with what lies inside their own heads... The Xer reluctance to engage in long-winded semi-public examinations of their own motivation is symptomatic of another key difference between the old activism and the new. For Xers, and particularly for ecoGeeks, the solution to the current ecological crisis lies in the material world, in reducing material through output and increasing energy efficiency; ecoGeeks have a correspondingly limited interest in personal spiritual development. But for the generation that came of age in the '6os, the mental and the spiritual are key.

Whether subverting the dominate paradigm, or getting in touch with inner children, turning on, tuning in and dropping out, or even Culture Jamming, the post-war babies have had a lifelong obsession with what lies inside their own heads. It's what hovers behind the growth of crystals and Zen, Rolphing and the Utne Reader. It's at the root of the phrase 'the personal is political.' It's the guiding ideology of organizations like the Evergreen Foundation, which gets people out planting trees together in order to get them to care about nature. It's also, it must be said, the philosophy underlying much of what happens in Adbusters.

The common thread is the belief that personal growth is the necessary precursor to action, environmental or otherwise. That making the mental shift is simultaneously the hardest and the most important step on the road to a more sustainable planet


The problem with that argument, at least as far as Adbusters is concerned, is that deconstruction of the advertising business is hardly new. In addition to an epiphany, you also need a plan. In Adbusters, exactly what is supposed to follow from Culture Jamming is seldom if ever discussed, and certainly never acted upon.

Thus, while Xers and ecoGeeks do read Adbusters for inspiration, they look for serious information in other sources - obscure little journals like Home Power, or The Urban Ecologist, or quasi-samizdat publications such as ReNew, the newsletter of the Alternative Technology Association.

Of course, there are Boomer activists with a pragmatic technological focus; names like Lovins, Daley and Cobb spring immediately to mind. But within their generation they are the exceptions, the poor country cousins to the glittering court of personal growth that sits at the heart of the Boomer realm.

The more cynical among Xers see the disconnection between loudly trumpeted aims and next-to-nonexistent on-the-ground physical accomplishment as evidence of hypocrisy, but that's to misunderstand the Boomer mindset. To their generation, the mental shift is the first and critical threshold. Once that's been crossed, on-the-ground physical accomplishments will flow naturally as water from an unblocked well.

To which the jaded ecoGeek responds: show me the numbers. The Boomer mum driving her kids back from a tree-planting in the family SUV may feel a greater connection with the oneness of nature, but she's also putting carbon oxides into the air that no amount of goodwill can retrieve. Nor do good intentions show up on the monitoring devices. Indeed, it's the distrust of the warm and fuzzy world of intentions and that lies behind the ecoGeek fetish for indicators, benchmarks, measuring tools, and anything else that gives a concrete measure of environmental progress. The best known of these is likely the ecological footprint, developed by Swiss ecoGeek Dr. Mathias Wackernagel.


See MEASURING OUR FOOTPRINTS next

<< Back|Continue >>