Friday, February 27, 2015

Postcards from Peru, Part Last: The Roar of the Crowd

During the UN’s COP 20 meeting in Lima about climate change last December, our Presbyterian group took part in a people’s march in Lima’s streets, joining the rallying cry, “Cambiemos el sistema, no el clima”: “Let’s change the system, not the climate!” And when we came back, participants from Peru, Bolivia, and the U.S. together wrote a Statement on Climate Justice expressing commitments to work for change.

The connections among mineral and human exploitation, consumerism, corporate greed, world economics, and climate change have been on my mind for years. But confronting this death-dealing web in Peru, and hearing it described by people whose lives are caught in such powerful, senseless realities, convinced me that audacious calls to change the system—and to change it fundamentally—may not be as mad as they sound.

They sound like pipedreams. Change a system that’s been in place as long as anyone living can remember? Let’s protest the law of gravity and levitate our way to the moon while we are at it.

However. Other worlds are not just imaginable—they have existed. Some persist today, though not here. Our living memories lack the scope of human history, and all that we are used to is not all that’s possible. It’s not as if God said on the eighth day, “And let there be an economic system that thrives on exploitation, suffering, and the degradation of land and life.”

In fact, according to Sinai law, God’s universe is founded instead on fairness, on sharing, and thriving. Deuteronomy’s “Choose life!” means just that. Violence against humans and against the earth is not endemic to an otherwise good cosmos. It’s merely most of what our generation has ever known.

I was raised with a few democratic values intact. I understood voting as the primary duty of citizenship. I thought we were electing proxies whom we could trust to do their utmost to represent the common good, taking “common good” to mean the good of the commons, the commoners, regular folks.

I don’t have, and don’t think I should have, expertise to second-guess professionals whom I hire to work for me—car mechanics, electricians, teachers, doctors, for instance. Thankfully, most people perform their work with pride and professionalism. No adult who gets a paycheck should do any less.

But if most people perform their work with pride and professionalism, we should be wondering why citizens are forced to bird dog our own public servants, hired with tax money to serve us.

I was raised to think elected office was a high calling to be taken to heart, treated with respect, and expertly carried out. But now, we who weren’t trained in politics must oversee many public servants who forget who their bosses are. That’s what’s mad—or would be, if we weren’t so inured to it.

People I met in Haiti several years ago kept asking me to convey messages to President Bush as if I could drop by the White House for coffee. Even in Peru, I had the humiliating feeling, as I’ve often had in Palestine, that those explaining their plight gave me far more credit to amplify their concerns than I could ever earn. It makes me feel incompetent, untrustworthy, ashamed to hear such pleas while enjoying another country’s hospitality.

Then I remember that public policy for the common good is a job I’m paying officials to do, not one I’ve been trained, paid, and commissioned to carry out myself. Perhaps it’s to American democracy that Haitians, Palestinians, and Peruvians are giving more credit than it’s currently earning.

If a Target employee weren’t doing his job, would his manager have to sign petitions, write letters, and take to the street with placards and costumes to convince him to work? So why do we?

Nevertheless, we do. And it strengthens our walking, carrying, shouting muscles.

Even if it’s a system of failed politicians, corporate greed, and numb consumption that we have to change, still I believe there is hope. Sometimes we can see effects. Not always, but lately, it seems, perhaps more often.  

The climate march in December in Lima involved tens of thousands of Peruvians and hundreds of foreigners like us. While not as visible here as September’s New York City climate march, the Peruvian march was just as imaginative, multicultural, and musical, and far more exuberant, far more colorful.

Did it make a difference? I think so. The lines of influence are hardly traceable, but they do exist. We can’t know who was changed, and who they changed, and who they talked to, and who went to the White House for coffee.

But in January we heard a state of the union address that not only mentioned climate change but declared it a priority. That’s a change. A new pope is also declaring it a priority. That too is a change in the system.

Last week in Indianapolis, dozens of people of faith, rallied by my colleague Mike Oles at Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light and others, attended a statehouse hearing to state their objections to a proposed House bill that was evidently ghostwritten by Indiana’s for-profit utility companies. The fact that they showed up is a change.

From what I heard, these citizens were treated rudely and given little time to speak. Yet within 24 hours the bill was dead. Evidently it was seen as unpropitious even by its sponsors. People who took time from work and family to travel to the statehouse to bird dog their public servants actually succeeded in averting a threat to dismantle distributed rooftop solar. This is a change, at least for now, a change that will inspire further activism, because it works.

On the same day, President Obama announced that the U.S. legislature’s bill supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline had earned his veto. Two years ago, few people had heard of KXL, but thanks to activism across the U.S. and the world, it is now a rallying point for people who object to climate change.

And just as I was writing this, news arrived of a Reuters poll revealing that two-thirds of Americans now hold world leaders morally accountable to take action against CO2 emissions. The poll also indicates that some public servants are beginning to seek “new messaging” about climate change. I’d frankly prefer they seek facts over messaging, but I guess you can’t change a whole system in one step.

What’s behind these changes? Could it actually work to tell our public employees what we expect of them? How many citizens does it take to change the lights our elected leaders live by? 

To cite another rallying roar: "Tell me what democracy looks like--THIS is what democracy looks like." I'd rather democracy looked less like a Rube Goldberg machine. But whatever gets the job done. 

Thank you, friends in Peru, for your persistence, grace, and abiding hope. Thank you for all you have taught us! 

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