New Internationalist

The Altered Landscape

Issue 342

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THIS MONTH'S THEME
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Another world is possible / THE STARTING POINT

The altered landscape

The crisis that enveloped the world in the wake of 11 September 2001 seemed to blast away dreams of a better, saner world. But as Jordi Pigem explains, the altered landscape after the fall of the Twin Towers is symbolic of the end of an era. Closing the door on an unsustainable paradigm, we begin to walk forwards, and in walking, create new pathways into another possible world.

Paul Quayle / Panos Pictures

The end of an era
1973 It’s the year when Picasso and Neruda pass away. The year when the last US combat troops leave Vietnam and Watergate begins to engulf Nixon. The year of the oil crisis: the exporting countries turn the tap off - in protest at the First World’s backing of Israel’s expansionism - and the breathless modern economy, so reliant on oil, starts to gasp. It’s the year of the Wounded Knee uprising: at the site of a callous massacre of their ancestors, a group of Native Americans resist US forces for 10 weeks. It’s the year when, precisely on 11 September, night falls over Chile, the heartless night of the coup orchestrated by Kissinger and the CIA. In that same year, the jury of an upside-down world condemns Kissinger to the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1973 EF Schumacher publishes Small is Beautiful, the first great manifesto for ecological economics, ‘economics as if people mattered’. The architect Minoru Yamasaki proclaims the opposite. He is the father of the Twin Towers, which were baptized on 4 April that same year. Supported by 192,000 tonnes of steel, they were born to be the sturdiest and most impressive buildings in the world. From their sky-high windows, ‘people looked very small’. That is: they did not matter. Those Towers (not the victims who perished with them) symbolized our contemporary economy: awesome concentration of power, striking efficacy, global reach - and, as a corollary of that, lofty indifference, the cherished illusion of being above the land and the breathing beings that walk upon it.

Some of his colleagues called Yamasaki ‘the architect of terror’, given his taste for bewildering structures that defied common sense. In the 1950s he designed in St Louis the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, which also resembled the contemporary economy: so rational, homogeneous and decontextualized that it fostered anomie and crime, to the point that it was dynamited as uninhabitable. The moment of its demolition, 3.32pm, 15 July 1972, is referred to as the birth of postmodernity.

Almost three decades later, Saturn returns to the celestial point it occupied as the Towers were baptized, and now it is exactly opposed by Pluto (symbol of the underworld, of primordial destruction and regeneration). It is 2001, the year of the Human Genome Project, of the Zapatista march to Mexico City, of the brutal repression in Genoa. In September, in Manhattan, the streets of finance and glamour get covered with the ashes of the innocent.

Rediscovering ‘America’
As far as one can tell, no Muslim has any problem with America. Or does America mean the US? America stretches from Ellesmere Island to Tierra del Fuego. Brazilians, Patagonians and Canadians are as American as any Californian. Its pretension to monopolize the word ‘America’ was the momentous first colonial act of the nascent United States: you start by colonizing a word and you end up trying to control earth and heavens (Star Wars) and even life’s fertility (Monsanto).

[image, unknown] The bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas - a North American tropical city in the Zapatista heartland - condemns the ghastly deaths in the Towers but acknowledges that the policies of the neighbouring country ‘reap what they had sown’. Many voices, mostly quietly, say the same in the US: ‘Does anybody think that we can send the USS New Jersey to lob Volkswagen-sized shells into Lebanese villages - Reagan, 1983 - or set loose “smart bombs” on civilians seeking shelter in a Baghdad bunker - Bush, 1991 - or fire cruise missiles on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory - Clinton, 1998 - and not receive, some day, our share in kind?’ (M Sifry). Back in 1967 Martin Luther King said: ‘my government is the world’s leading purveyor of violence.’ Noam Chomsky has long been remarking that the industrial-banking-political-military conglomerate that rules the US is the most powerful terrorist organization in world history. But, needless to say, one kind of terrorism doesn’t justify another.

In 1996 US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked on television how she felt about the 500,000 children that had died in Iraq, replied that ‘all things considered, we think the price is worth it’. If you could add and subtract human lives, half a million children would weigh more than 3,000 adults, although those reckonings would be as heartless as the acts of 11 September or the embargo on Iraq. The point is that those children were not US citizens - and in the Secretary of State’s parlance ‘justice’ sounds like ‘just us’.

The problem, though, is not the US, nor even its government: the problem is a system of which we all partake. Only fanatics can rage at whole countries or peoples. To mistake US citizens for their government (most of them didn’t vote for Bush, and the great majority know very little about foreign policy) is as senseless as mistaking poor Afghani people for the Taliban.

Dreams and reality
Before 11 September, the foreign world as seen from the US didn’t seem to be fully real - it looked rather blurry and intangible, like a dreamland that one could visit but was lacking real substance. No wonder its élite refused to sign (let alone fulfil) international treaties on climate change, arms control and chemical or biological weapons. No wonder they spurned the UN Summit on Racism in early September and in spite of their wealth ran up the biggest debt with the UN. They were aloof, asleep in the ‘American dream’, with little or no awareness that this daydream was a nightmare for people and ecosystems outside (and inside) their borders. The American dream: a somnambulating giant fantasizing it was God in the plastic promised land of technology and consumerism. A reverie as beautiful as it was unsustainable.

Loaded with fuel and fanaticism, the planes crash into the Towers and create hell (temperatures that would melt steel, one hundred floors pulverizing the firefighters), and that hell bursts the bubble in which the great somnambulist was floating. Reality, buried for so long, emerges among the rubble and the tears. For the first time, many US citizens start to wake up and realize that they are as much citizens of the world as anyone else, and that their opulence is built with the blood of others - many of whom are aware of it, some of whom won’t forgive it.

But the American dream was also the European and Australian and Japanese dream; it was the dream of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, the dream of a mentality that longs to be above the earth and life and death. These latest dreams of immortality (biotechnology, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology) can self-replicate and evict the dreamer from the earth - not to mention from the dream.

Illustration: Ian Moore Pacifying the economy
According to Buddhist philosophy, three poisons undermine our lives: greed, ill-will and delusion. These poisons today reach unprecedented levels while colonizing the very fabric of our world: structural greed in our economic system; structural ill-will in the policies of many states and in the arms trade (thriving as the world sinks into suffering); and structural delusions propagated by the ‘infotainment’ industry.

Year after year, economic globalization helps to enrich the rich (mainly corporations and people from the North) while impoverishing the poor (mostly countries and people from the South): the richest 20 per cent of humanity is already 80 times richer than the poorest 20 per cent. Mind the gap. Meanwhile the structural greed of the system results, per day, in 24,000 deaths from malnutrition and the extinction of 140 species.

The violence of our economic system is the source of many other forms of violence. The pacification of our world calls for the pacification of our economy and the abolition of the obscene inequalities it creates. It calls for the economy to be brought down to earth by prioritizing ecological and social concerns over the ‘freedom’ of corporations. Cancelling Third World debt, taxing capital flows, creating an ecotax for transport: these are steps towards a world of true democracy, with justice and freedom available for all people - rather than for economic abstractions.

Awakening
The unsustainability of our world is becoming more and more blatant, and the system would do anything rather than acknowledge that, starting by criminalizing dissent and writing off liberties. But crisis also means opportunity. The further we are into the night, the closer is the dawn. Our current predicament is a call to wake up from our personal and collective delusions and to realize who we are, where we are going and how we are living.

If we look deeply, we know that a lot of what we dislike in others is a projection of what we fail to acknowledge in ourselves, that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and that violence, even if victorious, never leads to peace. We know that only fanatics can believe that whoever is not with them is against them, that only fanatics demonize their antagonists and instigate crusades to rid the world of evil (Bush and bin Laden share more than they suspect).

We know that a world which is bewitched by symptoms and ignores the context, seeing life in terms of genes and freedom in terms of money, is a sick and ill-fated world. We know that a world that worships Progress, with its trinity of Science (inscrutable and omniscient Father), Technology (Son bringing us closer to deliverance) and the Market (Holy Ghost that blows where it wills) is a world as deluded as it is unsustainable.

Albert Schweitzer, a true Nobel Peace Prize recipient, emphasized that we must rediscover a sense of awe in the presence of life, and gratefully revel in its mystery. We need a new vision enabling us to overcome dualisms and to see in every person and every culture a valid source of self-understanding, without renouncing our convictions nor the actions that are born from them. We know we must provide for others what we wish for ourselves, and that integrity is our best protection. As Gandhi taught, the practice of satyagraha, clinging to the truths that are born in each of us, will open the paths we must travel.

All this we know. Is it not enough?

[image, unknown]  is lecturer in philosophy at
Schumacher College in Devon, England.


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