Another World is Possible If...

28 May 2005
Article
In collaboration with

Susan George, a tireless campaigner against the tyranny and inequity of globalisation, has just written a book called Another world is possible if.... Lyn Gallacher talks to her about that "if", and find out that it's all about the way power is deployed.


Lyn Gallacher: "Henry Kissinger brags that power is an aphrodisiac. Well, giving up power is an antidepressant." Those are the words of Bob Hunter, an environmental activist and co-founder of Greenpeace, who died earlier this month in Toronto of prostate cancer. He was 63.

Hello, and welcome to Book Talk, I'm Lyn Gallacher. Like Bob Hunter, today's guest also has a connection with environmental activism. From 1990 to 1995 Susan George served on the board of Greenpeace and is known for her tireless campaigning against the tyranny and inequity of globalisation. And, like Bob Hunter, she sees a connection between world poverty and the environment. It all has to do with power. Susan George says of herself, "Ive always dealt with subjects such as transnational corporations and third world debt." And she's been dealing with those subjects for over 30 years.

As well as being a former member of the Greenpeace board, Susan George is currently the associate director of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. She's also vice-president of ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), and has written 11 books. Her latest one is called Another World is Possible if...

I caught up with Susan George at the Sydney Writers' Festival, where she's one of the special guests. I began our conversation by asking her about the word "if" in her title, and what's the significance of structuring the book as a ten-step program? Is she trying to whip the true believers into shape?

SG: Well, first the "if". Yes, that is the operative word because "another world is possible" is something that everybody in the alter-globalisation movement says. So I thought, let's look at this a little more closely and see if it's actually the case and, if so, how? So that's for the title. And ten-step program... well, I did want to write it for people who are in the movement, possibly because where I live there're tens of thousands of them. A lot of them want to join... it seems to be the thing now that young people are getting back into politics with, and I thought if they could just avoid all of the anguish that I went through, trying to learn everything as it came along as I was getting acclimated into this sort of work, that that might be a good thing. Also, there's people coming in who've never done any politics at all, who've never been in a trade union, they've never been in a political party, they've never done anything, but they do feel a kind of urgency. So it is, in many ways, a kind of primer—here's what we're against, here's what we're for and why, and these are some of the things that you might want to work for and with, with other people.

I'll just have my beef about the chapter on how to organise a meeting because...

SG: Okay, go ahead. You're not the only one.

...it did occur to me that what you're talking about is restructuring the world economy, and then when we got to the chapter on how to organise a meeting, it almost felt like we were trying to restructure the world economy with a cake stall, you know? It was almost ridiculous in its microscopic detail.

SG: I think you're right, but I've been to so many badly organised ones that I think, you know, why are they allowing all these people who are showing interest in a particular topic...because I'm not there talking about Mars and Venus, I'm talking about something relatively complicated when I go out and give speeches... and why are they letting them all get away, so that they may never have another opportunity in some small town in the provinces, you know, to come back and join something. So I felt that I just had to say something, which I say regularly to organisers of things, but then often it is too late. So I agree with you, it probably is too microscopic and many people have picked that out. It was just something where I felt that I could help because I had had an awful lot of experience in that particular area of seeing things badly done.

The other thing that was tragically depressing about your book was the failure of aid organisations, or even aid to third world countries, to remedy the imbalance between rich and poor...the fact that a country can pay more back in its third world debt than it receives in aid was staggering to me.

SG: Well, they are doing that and we are not aiding them, they are aiding us, because the net figure that comes back to the north (and I put Australia in the north, let's call it the global north) is on the order of $200 billion every year. Who does do aid? Well, countries contribute now about $60 billion, it's gone up slightly. Then it's the workers who come and work in our countries and who send back remittances to their home villages and families, and the UN calls that about $93 billion. So, you see, it's already 50% more than the aid that is being officially given, and they also say that it's probably on the order of 200 to 300 billion dollars, the remittances, but we can't really account for all of that but we know that there is at least $93 billion as of last year. So the money is really flowing from workers from the south back to their homes, and that's the main factor that's coming from north to south.

Then, for instance, the African countries are still paying back $28,000 every minute in debt service. This is not just Africa, this is the 52 poorest countries on Earth...are remitting $28,000 every minute, and I did the calculations that way, just dividing the total sum. It's almost incomprehensible what that means, and so when you start thinking in terms of how many schools could we put up? How many clinics could one build for $28,000 a minute? And you start to think that you could educate a good many children and save a good many women from dying in childbirth. But the debt is such a powerful tool, it is such a useful tool, it's much better than colonialism ever was because you can keep control without having an army, without having a whole administration, you don't need to spend money on it, all the money comes to you, and it's the World Bank and the IMF that do the work of the policing. So it's ideal for the northern countries, and that is why, 25 years after the debt crisis began, we're still talking about it.

And the debt crisis is obviously worse than it was, even though I remember in 2000 that churches and other aid organisations had a big celebration—Jubilee 2000, cancel world debt—and they were saying that they were reasonably successful in having cancelled some of that.

SG: They thought they were reasonably successful. What they got was something like $30 billion cancelled, which was a drop in the ocean, frankly, and that is one of the tragic stories that I tell. But Jubilee did exactly what its name said, which was "2000", so it stopped in 2000 before the pressure was really enough to make the countries of the north change their policies. So they did give some token relief, but they also demanded that the indebted countries practice another three years, and then another three years on top of that, so six years total, of more austerity programs, structural adjustment, and more suffering for ordinary people, before they would get relief.

There have been really very few countries that have come totally through this process and have become eligible for relief, but what one sees is that when they do, they do good things with the money. For example, Tanzania has now increased its school enrolments hugely; almost all the children are in school because they've stopped school fees... terribly simple. The World Bank said you've got to do cost recovery. Cost recovery is the polite way of saying ‘make families pay to educate their children'. So, of course, sometimes they could educate one, but not two or three, and it was always the girls who were not put in school because you try to educate the boy because he might be more valuable to the family in the future. I mean, people have to make this sort of calculation. So it was automatic; as soon as they could stop school fees, the enrolments shot up. It's so simple. But Jubilee was a valiant effort, and it was something to be celebrated but it should have gone on because until you can force the powerful actually to do what they have said they will do... well, there is a long road and many a slip.

For me, it's very conceptually difficult to think of something like dismantling the world economy because it's been an economy that's been around my entire lifetime. How do you image something that's almost outside your imagination? It's very difficult, and I was just wondering if that's what you're suggesting.

SG: Dismantling is perhaps too strong a word. I think that the market is always going to be around. The goal is not to say, let's get rid of the market, because the market does render a huge number of services, and I don't want to have a fight about the price of something every time I buy a book or a bottle of water or whatever. The real fight is about what should be in the market place and what should not. Should education be a marketable commodity? Should healthcare? Should culture be subsidised by governments or others, or should it be entirely a matter of 'can you afford it or not'? Public services, same question. So if I were obliged to classify myself, I would say that if we had a Keynesian taxation and redistribution system in which a certain number of activities were classed outside the marketplace and became only the province of the government and the people, then I would be happy with that.

I think we can perfectly well continue to live with the marketplace, and in any future society we're going to have production. But what is not fair now is that corporations pay less and less tax, which means that you and I pay more because we're rooted somewhere, they've got our address, right? And so they know where we can be taxed. Corporations much less so; they use off-shore havens, they have all kinds of loop-holes, ruses... look at the statistics of any country of the OECD, of the rich country club, and you will see that the corporations are paying gradually lower and lower taxes and that this has been happening for 20 years. That's the real meaning of globalisation; you can take your activities off-shore when it suits you and, as a man I quote in the book says, "For my group of companies, globalisation is being able to produce where I want, when I want, what I want, and to buy and sell wherever I want with the least restrictions possible coming from labour laws and social conventions." Well, he knows exactly what he wants, and that's how globalisation has been used up to now. If we could get a people's globalisation I would be perfectly happy. I think if it were fairer, if it were genuinely an opportunity to include everyone, that would be great. I am a globalist, I am an internationalist, but this kind of globalisation is about exclusion, it's not about all holding hands and marching towards the promised land, not at all.

So you're not a dismantler, you're a reformist.

SG: I'm a radical reformist, yes, a radical reformist because between where we are and where I want to go there's a great deal of work, and I won't see the end of this. But I would just like to add, if it were only the politics, I would feel quite secure that at my age I can go off happily and I know that, if it were only the politics, I think that the pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way. What I do worry about is the environment. There I'm not at all sure we have time.

There are a few signs of hope, but not a lot, in environmental awareness, in that we've now got cleaner bays in Australia than we used to. I know that in Port Phillip Bay, in Melbourne, penguins have arrived back, and the science means that we've got a better understanding at least of what we're doing, so we're more aware of the environmental degradation. So, a few signs of hope on the environment — or not enough?

SG: I think so, and I'm delighted to hear about the penguins, I didn't know that, but what I worry about is climate change, because that would have untold effects that we can't even measure yet. Here I believe that countries outside of the United States must take the lead, because if we wait for the US to do something, we will be waiting for a very long time. Tony Blair is right now going around the world trying to drum up support in the G8 for a real climate crash program. George Bush is naturally digging in his heels and saying ‘nothing doing', and so here it's Europe, it's Australia, it's the other developed and middle developing countries that have got to do the job.

I think we have a great deal to gain from this also. Let's look at it in terms of interests; a country which is cleaner, a country which is running on less expensive energy, is a country which is saving money for its citizens, and clean production and clean technologies are technologies which have been shown to be exportable, to be advantageous to business. The problem is that at the outset it takes a certain amount of investment which really only public entities can do... another reason to be a Keynesian; invest publicly so that the prices go down for everyone, and such solutions become economically feasible.

So subsidise solar energy?

SG: Subsidise solar, but subsidise wind power, subsidise...or lend. That's how certain Asian countries very rapidly became what we then called "the Tigers"; they targeted government investment or tax credits or whatever, but they knew which sector they wanted to favour, and they did it very effectively. The problem is also that with the doctrine of the World Bank, the fund and what I call the neo-liberals (I hope people understand that that means, in America, neo-conservative, so it's a bit confusing) but the people with the right-wing ideas, they refuse that sort of government investment. They think that, you know, allow capitalism to get on with it and it will. Well, it won't in this case, because the initial costs are too high, so that requires public money, or it doesn't get done.

And the market economy doesn't seem to factor the cost of the forest into the price of a piece of paper.

SG: We have to most crude accounting tools. It's tragic because our accounts and our national arithmetic doesn't tell us the things that we need to know... exactly what you were saying; if you cut down a forest, it doesn't matter how many sawmills you have if there are no more trees. It doesn't matter how many trawlers you have if there are no more fish. This has been pointed out for many years, that the natural capital is not income, but we spend our natural capital as if it were revenue, as if it were going to come back next year without any problems, whereas these renewals in nature can take hundreds of years. So when you say the penguins are coming back, I think that's wonderful because that shows that it's not just the penguins, that shows that the whole food chain is being renewed, and that shows a healthier economy, that shows that you are also allowing the fish to live, that you're also increasing the marine habitat. Now, if you would just tell me that the coral reefs were coming back, there I would really be enchanted. I saw those several years ago and it was one of the most marvellous experiences of my life.

I guess I can't tell you about the coral reefs coming back, I'm sorry. But it seems to me that what you're really trying to do is change human thinking so that there isn't this short-term view. It's almost like, if we're driven by a market economy and driven by those kinds of conceptual frameworks, what we're doing is we're unable to factor the things that are a generation away into the equation.

SG: Yes, but humans are capable of doing this given the right framework. We did it for years. The post-war period and up to about the mid-1970s was one of investment, it was one of forward thinking... I mean, I'm not saying things were ideal then, but certainly human beings are able to think about their children and their grandchildren. That's what we do at the private...

Are markets able to think about the children and the grandchildren?

SG: Markets can't think about anything beyond about three months. This is very long-term for markets, which is why the important things in life have got to be taken outside of the marketplace. Let me take the question of automobiles... this isn't in the book but I was recently looking at what they can actually do to reduce consumption of petrol. Well, it would be quite possible to build automobiles out of carbon fibre that would be just as strong, weigh ten times less and consume ten times less petrol. Why doesn't that happen, when the materials exist, the technology exists, even the mechanics to put the cars together exist? Because it would be much simpler, much less costly. Well, there are very powerful interests that sit in the way of that. The petroleum companies do not want to go to a hydrogen economy or one that sells ten times less petrol for automobiles. The technologies exist. We are almost fully capable of producing fuel cells economically — which run on hydrogen and the only residue is water. This is known. They are already in buses in Los Angeles. So we don't have to say, "Yes, but it will take years for the science to kick in". No, the science is there. So what it takes is investment, what it takes is the willingness to say "no" to certain powerful interests, and to say that the economy has to evolve for the good of everyone.

But what it missing, I think, is this notion of the common good. This was common... the notion of the common good was a common good for many years, and more and more it's every person for him or herself, you're all in competition, you've all got to fight each other. This is so simplistic. Nature doesn't work that way. Nature is not tooth and claw only. Nature is also cooperative. This is what scientists know; that species cooperate intra species and between different species because otherwise they wouldn't survive. Humans have got to do that too. We're trying to run a 21st century society and economy with 19th century Darwinian, competitive, crude ideas. So let's become a little more sophisticated, let's use the brains we're equipped with because we are entirely able to think these things through, and they have already been thought through.

The problem (once more, we always come back to it) is the problem of power, the problem of forcing change, of pushing it through, of making sure that enough people demand it, and that it seeps through the system, through the political parties, up to the government, and brings about real change.

Susan George, thank you for that, and I'm wondering, just because your book is optimistic, it's called and you end on a note of optimism, perhaps you could read a little bit from the end of the book.

SG: Well, in Porto Alegre, where the movement meets or has met four times now, there was a huge event which took place in a place called the Gigantino, so it is giant, it's gigantic, it holds about 15,000 people, and this is the beginning of the speech that I gave there.

Dear Friends and Comrades: Look around you. It's a miracle that we should be together here at all. Even five years ago, no one, not even the most optimistic among us, could have imagined the size and scope of this movement. In historical terms, the four years since Seattle, the three gatherings here in Porto Alegre are nothing, a mere blink of an eye. What we have all accomplished in this brief moment is breathtaking. So we should see our presence here and the very existence of this movement and of the World Social Forum as a great victory.

Susan George, whose latest book is called Another World is Possible if..., and it's published by Verso. That's all for this week. I'm Lyn Gallacher, and Jill Kitson will be back in the saddle next week.