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Protests Everywhere

Journalists don’t just travel in packs; they write in packs too. And what they’re writing this week is endless pipe-sucking ruminations about what’s driving the seemingly synchronised outbreak of protests in a large number of very different countries around the world. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

You will doubtless have seen a few examples of this fashion recently. If you lived in the belly of the media beast, like I do, you’d be seeing dozens a day, as journos try to explain the phenomenon with varying degrees of success. Varying from zero to about 1.5 out of ten, in my opinion, but there is clearly something trans-national going on.

A group of young Catalan nationalists, walking out the highway to occupy Barcelona airport two weeks ago, were chanting “We’re going to do a Hong Kong” as if they shared the same cause.

They don’t, actually. You could even say that the protesters in Hong Kong are anti-nationalists, in the sense that they are defending their freedoms against a regime in Beijing that wants to smother them under a blanket of conformist Chinese nationalism. But the tactics are the same in Catalonia and Hong Kong, and the emotions are too.

A striking thing about the tactics, by the way, is that they have moved on from the strict non-violence that characterised would-be democratic revolutions from the mid-1980s until the early days of the Arab Spring nine years ago.

From the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow-jackets) in France who began their protests almost exactly a year ago, down to the protesters in the streets of Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong today, the majority are still non-violent. However, they cannot control (or maybe just don’t want to control) the minority who throw bricks and flaming bottles at the police.

The police, of course, use violence too: tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes guns. People have been killed – in small numbers in most places, but in the hundreds in Iraq and in Sudan. Even bigger blood-baths are possible in Hong Kong (if the regime in Beijing loses its nerve) and in Egypt (if September’s protesters return to the streets).

Another common denominator is that the trigger that sets the protests off is usually something small. The bread price went up in Sudan; metro tickets got more expensive in Chile; a new tax was put on What’s App calls in Lebanon; the price of gasoline rose not very dramatically in France a year ago and in Ecuador last month – and the next thing you know, masses of people are out on the street.

Moreover, when the government backs down and cancels the offending law or charge, as has generally been the case after a few days or weeks, the protesters don’t quit and go home. By then their demands have expanded to include things like full democratic rights (Hong Kong, Algeria and Egypt) or an end to a corrupt system (Iraq and Lebanon) or action on huge and growing inequalities between rich and poor (Chile, France, and Ecuador).

But all this is just taxonomy, not really analysis. It doesn’t explain why this phenomenon is happening at the same time in such different countries. It doesn’t explain why it’s happening now, not last year or in 2022. And it certainly doesn’t tell us where it’s going next.

Nor do I have answers to these questions, and I can’t bring myself to make the usual trite remarks about global media and imitation, or the lingering and unresolved legacy of the 2008 crash, or the fact that 41% of the world’s population is under 25. However, these events are showing us one important thing: we really do have a global society now

You could see it taking shape even three decades ago, in the way non-violent revolutions flashed between countries, bringing some form of democracy to the Philippines, then South Korea, Thailand and Bangladesh, and on to Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, all in the five years 1986-1991. But the target then was just crude dictatorships; now it’s much broader.

It’s about economic and social inequality as well as political oppression, and increasingly it’s also about generational inequality. Obviously the injustices are more blatant and extreme in Egypt than they are in France, but they are not really very different and the young know it.

Never mind the nationalists and the populists, who are just playing the same divisive old tunes as always. What we have here, despite the multiplicity of languages, religions and histories, is an emerging global society with shared values and ambitions, especially among the young.

There are millions of angry dissenters from this evolving consensus, but for the first time ever we really are becoming one people. That is a comforting thought as we head into the millennial storm of climate change. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“You…on”; and “A striking…ago”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Another Defeat for the Environment (and for us)

21 August 2013

Another Defeat for the Environment (and for us)

By Gwynne Dyer

“The world has failed us,” said Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. “I have signed the executive decree for the liquidation of the Yasuni-ITT trust fund and with this, ended the initiative.” What might have been a model for a system that helps poor countries avoid the need to ruin their environment in order to make ends meet has failed, because the rich countries would not support it.

In 2007, oil drillers found a reservoir of an estimated 846 million barrels of heavy crude in Yasuni National Park, in Ecuador’s part of the Amazon. But the park is home to two indigenous tribes that have so far succeeded in living in voluntary isolation – and it is listed by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve. A single hectare of Yasuni contains more species of trees than all of North America.

Ecuador, which cannot access finance on international markets, desperately needs money, and the oil meant money: an estimated $7.2 billion over the next decade. Nevertheless, Ecuadorians were horrified by the pollution, deforestation, and cultural destruction that the drilling would cause: a large majority of them opposed drilling in the park. And then Energy Minister Alberto Acosta had an idea.

What if Ecuador just left the oil in the ground? In return, Acosta hoped the rest of the world would come up with $3.6 billion (half of the forecast income from oil revenues) over the next decade, to be spent on non-polluting energy generation like hydroelectric and solar power schemes and on social programmes to help Ecuador’s many poor.

The pay-off for the foreign contributors to this fund would come mainly from the fact that the oil under Yasuni would never be burned, thereby preventing more than 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere. Only a drop in the bucket, perhaps, but if the model worked it could be applied widely elsewhere, offering the poor countries an alternative to selling everything they can dig up or cut down.

The idea won the support of the United Nations Development Programme, which agreed to administer the Yasuni-ITT trust fund. It was set up in 2009, and the money started to come in. But it didn’t flood in; it just trickled.

Chile, Colombia, Turkey and Georgia donated token amounts. Brazil and Indonesia (which would certainly benefit from the same sort of arrangement) promised donations eventually but didn’t actually put any money up. Among the developed countries, Spain, Belgium and France also promised donations, Italy wrote off $51 million of Ecuadorian debt, and Germany offered $50 million worth of technical assistance to the park.

And that was it. Not a penny from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands or Scandinavia. Individuals put in what they could afford (including high-profile donors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore). But four years later, the pledges only amounted to $116 million. Actual cash deposits were only $13 million. So last week, Correa pulled the plug.

“It was not charity we sought from the international community,” Correa said, “but co-responsibility in the face of climate change.” Maybe Correa could have waited a bit longer, but the idea was always Acosta’s baby, and Acosta ran for president against Correa last February and lost.

It was also Acosta who led the successful drive to make Ecuador the first country to include the “rights of nature” in its new constitution. This is a radical break from traditional environmental regulatory systems, which regard nature as property. Ecuadorian law now recognizes the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish. It gives people the right to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, and requires the government to take these rights seriously.

Like the trust fund, this is an idea that may ultimately bear much fruit. For the moment, however, it’s just too great an intellectual and political leap to demote the property rights of actual voters (and campaign contributors) to a status below the right to survive and thrive of mere ecosystems – even though we all depend on these ecosystems to survive ourselves.

So we continue on our merry way to a global meltdown – and this just in from London! Fracking is now more important than wind power!

When the Conservatives came into office three years ago they pledged to be the “greenest government ever”, but they have fallen in love with shale gas, CO2 emissions and all. The British government has announced a new tax regime for fracking described by the Chancellor, George Osborne, as “the most generous for shale (gas) in the world.”

Not only that, but there will be “no standard minimum separation distance” between a fracking rig and people’s houses. Planners considering drilling applications “should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy.” In practice, that means that they can drill wherever they want, including your front garden.

Whereas local people will now have a veto on the construction of any wind turbines in their neighbourhood. Prime Minister David Cameron’s office explained that “it is very important that local voters are taken into account when it comes to wind farms … if people don’t want wind farms in their local areas they will be able to stop them.”

It’s okay to ruin the planet, but God forbid that you should ruin the view.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“It was…ourselves”)