Reading Theme: Foreign Country; Conclusion: Yikes!

Klein bookAfter I finished No Ordinary Time, the 700+ page tome by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for some crazy reason I picked up another large tome (500+ pages) the next day. Oh, truth be told, I picked it up because I couldn’t wait to read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It has made for an extremely interesting read alongside some of the books for October’s reading theme: foreign country.

The first book it paired with in a creepy futuristic way was The Windup Girl,Windup by Paulo Bacigalupi. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, in a post-petroleum world, the U.S. is holding much of the world hostage through developing and dispersing plagues (affecting primarily crops, but animals are often fallout), and then offering genetically engineered foods and seeds which resist the plague. Does this sound scarily like Monsanto to you? Not to worry, the company is Agri-Gen (with Pur-Cal as a strong competitor). Shades of General Mills, Cargill, and ADM. NOT a future very difficult to imagine. In fact, we are already halfway there, with our round-up pesticides and our round-up-pesticide-resistant seeds. Oh, and of course the seeds are sterile. The greatest abomination against nature I can think of—to deny seeds reproduction. It is the very essence of seeds to grow and provide more seeds.

Next, capitalism. I’ve only just started Lost and Found in Russia, but as Russia moved away from Communism they applied “Shock Therapy”—the approach favored by the World Bank and grounded in Western economic theory (think Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics). As a result of this recommended approach, prices shot up, with inflation reaching 2000%. Within a year, over 40% of Russians were living in poverty (compared to 1.5% before the “economic revolution”). The seriously dark side of capitalism.

L PerdidaEven the graphic novel I’m reading, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, brings up issues of capitalistic dominance. A Mexican says to a visitor from the States, “You grow up with the dollar who rides on the backs of the poor people of the world, and guns in every closet, and Hollywood that tell you you are right! . . . I am also upset at the government of the United States and el NAFTA! They do not leave me alone! . . . [Y]ou represent the invasion of American Hollywood and imperialism of cultural and economics.”

Eula Biss, in Notes from No Man’s Land, also mentions NAFTA. (I meant to read this for theBiss award-winning books theme for last month—it won the National Book Critics Circle Award—but I didn’t finish it until early October. An excellent book focusing on racial issues, and the best book on race by a white person that I’ve read yet.) After a trip to Mexico, Biss reflects on the American-owned power plants and maquiladoras on the U.S-Mexican border, and the opposition of the Zapatistas and the Indian peasants in Chiapas to NAFTA.

While Clinton was promising that NAFTA would “lift all boats,” the Zapatistas warned that NAFTA would bring falling prices for corn, falling wages for workers, and the loss of land to foreign investors. That is exactly what happened. Because Iowa corn imported into Mexico is heavily subsidized by the United States government, the price of corn in Mexico fell by half during the first ten years of NAFTA. More than a million farmers were displaced from their land and forced to migrate to the cities or the United States, where they became day laborers, picking U.S. crops.

So wouldn’t you think that Mexico would just give preference to local corn? Well it turns out that they can’t. It’s illegal. I have learned from Klein’s book that under the rules of the World Trade Organization, supports for local industry are considered protectionist. In fact, favoring local industry constitutes illegal discrimination. Whoa. Yes! “[T]he most basic rule of trade law is that you can’t privilege domestic over foreign.” Have you ever heard such a cockamamie law? Not to mention destructive—to our local workers, our local economies, our environment, and the world.

We always (at least I always) want to blame the Republicans for these huge agreements thatclinton 2
benefit the rich at the expense of pretty much everyone else but most especially the poor and even more especially, poor farmers. But no, this time it was the Democrats—Bill Clinton, specifically, with the support of the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, National Audubon Society (that just breaks my heart), Natural Resources Defense Council (they used to be my #1 national charity), and the World Wildlife Fund. (In case you want to know who didn’t cave to Al Gore and big business, that would include Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and a lot of small organizations.)

We have a very serious uphill climb ahead of us. It’s not all doom and gloom. Naomi Klein is even cautiously optimistic. If we act now, in a very serious, concerted way, actually privileging the planet over the economy, we could avoid the tipping point. We don’t have to return to the neanderthal stage. Though if we don’t do anything, we probably will. I haven’t gotten to the optimistic part of the book yet. I’ll get back to you.

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