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Power, Privilege, and Climate Change: A Tale of Two Presidents

Comparing Obama to President José Mujica of Uruguay gives you two vastly different views on how we tackle our environmental problems.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

As I watched a video of Barack Obama delivering his second inaugural address last month, and listened to his call to “respond to the threat of climate change” lest we “betray our children and future generations,” I could not help but think of another president.

Indeed, the very holding of the event at which Obama spoke is one indication why it is not to the occupant of the White House that those concerned with global warming should look for inspiration, but to someone else. After all, there is something disconcerting about hearing about the need to fight climate change—to reduce the gargantuan greenhouse gas-related footprint of the United States in other words—at a huge event that was both unnecessary and expensive. Obama was already president of the United States, so why another inauguration?

No doubt, the answer illustrates how the nation-state relies to a significant degree on performances to reproduce itself. This is especially the case in countries such as the United States where the benefits that the state actually delivers to its citizenry are increasingly meaningless in terms of everyday wellbeing. In a country in which more than 20 percent of its children live below the official poverty line, for example, approximately half of discretionary U.S. government spending is dedicated to its enormous, global military apparatus and what is called “homeland security.” (Under a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, U.S. military spending rivals that of all the rest of the world’s countries combined.)

But the event is also a manifestation of U.S. wealth and power. As one historian stated in endorsing Obama’s decision to hold the inauguration, to “let it roll,” a U.S. president “is part of the most elite club in the world,” and a second-term president “the most elite within the most-elite club.”

Such elitism is costly: while the final price tag of the inauguration won’t be known for months, it will certainly be many tens of millions of dollars. According to The Economist, security alone for what it called “the three days of revelry” totaled around $100 million.

It is also ecologically expensive. With an estimated 800,000 people in attendance, for instance, large numbers of the celebrants traveled long distances by ground transport and airplane—adding tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases to the Earth’s atmosphere in the process.

Compare such consumption and priorities to another head of state, one profiled late last year in The New York Times: President José Mujica of Uruguay. Mujica, reports the Times, “lives in a run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts with no servants at all. His security detail: two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road.” He hangs his laundry on a clothesline outside his home.

As part of Mr. Mujica’s effort, he says, to make his country’s presidency “less venerated,” he sold off a presidential residence in a resort city on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast. He also refuses to live in Uruguay’s presidential mansion, one with a staff of 42. Instead, he has offered the opulent abode as a shelter for homeless families during the coldest months.

The leftist president sees such practices as necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy, a goal which requires, reports the Times in paraphrasing him, that “elected leaders . . . be taken down a notch.” He also explains his austere life style by drawing on the words of Seneca, the Roman court-philosopher: “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”

 
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