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The U.S. is bracing for President-elect Donald Trump. All initial indications are that the U.S. is in for a dramatic change of leadership, more like some of the authoritarian regimes we are used to reading about in other parts of the world. Over the last decade, I have worked as an environmental and human-rights philanthropist trying to protect people and the planet, some of that inside oppressive and authoritarian regimes.

Here's six lessons I've learned:

1. Small is better. Smaller organizations are more nimble, move more swiftly to take action, and are often more aggressive in their work and tactics. Authoritarian regimes often move swiftly and with little public process, and so the reaction from environmental and humanitarian groups needs to be similar.

2. Grassroots and local groups can be more effective. When environmental harm happens, it almost always happens on a local scale—an oil spill, a dam proposal, a timber sale, a power-plant polluter, etc. Local people are harmed, and so local groups are often the best and most effective voice that need to be supported to combat that harm.

3. Women, indigenous people, and people of color are excellent activists and spokespersons. Authoritarian oppression knows no boundaries, but it often undermines already oppressed people the worst. People who have been systemically oppressed are often grating to speak out, are excellent spokespersons, and have the most to fight for because they're poised to lose even more.

4. Structural change is needed, not just a win in the next election. Authoritarian regimes often get swept in under the guise of working-class nationalism, but when in power the same regimes often collude with multinational corporate capitalism to further undermine human and environmental rights. The fight is a battle against the regime of the day, and a war against multinational corporate capitalism over the long term.

5. Resource rights protectors need protection. Authoritarians often speak out against groups and individual people, take away groups' money, put people in jail, threaten their lives or worse. The activists and ordinary people who are defending the environment and human rights also need to be protected.

6. It's a marathon, not a sprint. The forces that sweep authoritarian regimes into power have been working to do so for decades or longer, and so the forces that fight against that power need to be funded and prepared for a protracted response.

The U.S. may now find itself in a similar position as countries like the China, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Philippines, Russia, Venezuela and many others where authoritarians have been swept into power over the last decade. As a public citizen who wants to take action, should you join a national environmental organization or should you join a local group fighting a dam or fracking? As a donor, should you give to a big environmental group lobbying in DC or to a local minority-action group trying to force their city council to clean up their drinking water? We will definitely need mass national mobilizations and we'll also need numerous local actions.

Environmental and human-rights activists and donors in the U.S. need to brace themselves, learn from other countries and dig in.

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Driving home from work last week, listening to NPR, I learned that the United Nations report on the progress the world is making toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had just been released. The original MDGs were a set of eight goals crafted in 2000 to attack global poverty by 2015. Targets were established which required countries to gather consistent data on a range of issues, but are they always the right issues?

Worldwide, the poor, particularly those in the global south, are already suffering from the ravages of corporate exploitation and climate chaos. Photo credit: Global Greengrants Fund

For 15 years, we have all been hearing about the MDGs, now touted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, as the “most successful anti-poverty movement in history.”

I was shocked to learn from NPR’s Nurith Aizenman that the method for establishing the goals and targets was “so casual they almost forgot something.” Aizenman was interviewing Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, who explained how the goals were set: “It’s brilliantly simple. It was myself with some chums in a room kind of thing.” And then Malloch-Brown admits, that just before they went to press, “Oh goodness me, we’ve forgotten the environment goal.”

The Right Honorable Lord Malloch-Brown has had a distinguished career as a journalist for The Economist, a consultant on communications and development, an employee of the World Bank, the Administrator of the UN Development Programme and other UN jobs, a UK government minister, and the Minister of State in Britain. I appreciate his honesty about the process, but wonder who his other chums might have been and if the room he mentions was smoked-filled. (I’m almost certain they didn’t include those most affected by poverty in the poorest parts of the world).

Why is the environment so often an afterthought for the world’s leaders, elite policy makers and the media? The New York Times, in covering the report, mentions climate change just once, in a paragraph on contentious issues to tackle in the “next set of development goals,” the so-called Sustainable Development Goals.

The main problem here, is the very emphasis on “development” as the answer to the world’s most pressing problems. As anthropologist Arturo Escobar has eloquently argued in Encountering Development, international development is akin to colonialism or “cultural imperialism” because poor countries have little means of declining politely.

According to Escobar, development has largely failed. Why? Because it is a problem even when it succeeds, in that it so strongly sets the terms for how people in poor countries must live, as explained in The Guardian.

I would challenge the notion that environmental concerns are necessarily compatible with development, especially for the communities and poor countries most affected. Sustainable development projects almost always discount local knowledge and often better serve the interests of elites (both within and outside the country), foreign donors, NGOs, international financial institutions, transnational corporations, and other international players.

Read page 1

Too often, the most important facts are buried, as I found when reading through the Report. In the overview (the only section most people will peruse) and the mere ten pages  dedicated to the environmental sustainability goal, the finding that “98 percent of ozone-depleting substances” have been “eliminated since 1990” is aptly heralded, as is the statistic that “1.9 billion people have gained access to piped drinking water.” I’m not sure piped drinking water is actually an environmental issue, but won’t quibble.

The fact that global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by more than 50 percent since 1990 gets four paragraphs and a chart much later in the report on page 53.

The Mooi River Trash Pickers, South Africa. Photo credit: Hilary Byerly

Let’s deep six the really bad news.

It seems that worldwide “deforestation has slowed”… "but remains alarmingly high in many countries.” The report highlights the “overexploitation of marine fisheries,” a huge problem that is increasingly becoming better understood. It projects a rise in water scarcity, which currently affects 40 percent of the global population, but doesn’t cite climate change as a reason for “water stress.”

Booms in natural resource exploitation always lead to inequality. This is what I know: There may be less dire poverty in the world than 15 years ago, but never in history has there been such inequality (as explained in two Oxfam reports, here and here).

Worldwide, the poor, particularly those in the global south, are already suffering from the ravages of corporate exploitation and climate chaos. The top 1 percent of wealth holders may be enjoying their misbegotten gains, but they too are doomed if we don’t reverse or at least slow down the course of climate change.

I suspect the MDGs are actually helping the rich to get richer at the expense of the environment.

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