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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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José Mujica’s net worth when he took office in 2010 was $1,800. While his official presidential salary is about $108,000 per year, he donates 90 percent of it, mostly to a program for expanding housing for the poor. This leaves him with a monthly income comparable to a typical Uruguayan. As Mujica is quick to say, “I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less.”

Barack Obama, by contrast, lives in luxury—in the White House—and also takes in $400,000 annually as president. That, combined with his royalties from book sales, gave him and his wife an income of $1.7 million in 2010. The Obamas, as they typically do, also donated a portion of their income—about 14 percent—but kept enough to maintain their position among the “one percent” nationally, and by easy extension, globally.

Given these differences, it is hardly surprising that Obama embraces the interlocking interests of U.S. capital, empire, and militarism (how else can one credibly explain, for example, the many hundreds of U.S. military bases that litter the planet?), and the rampant consumption they entail. With less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuels. The Pentagon, which devours more than 300,000 barrels of oil per day, an amount greater than that consumed by any of the vast majority of the world’s countries, is the planet’s single biggest consumer.

Such factors might explain why Obama’s soaring rhetoric about global warming in his inauguration speech only very indirectly and weakly, at best, indicates, why human-induced climate destabilization might be happening. If one employs a very generous interpretation of his words, his invocation of the need for “sustainable energy sources” would seem to suggest the fossil fuel use is to blame. But he offers nothing beyond this. There is no indication of who is responsible for its use, thus implying, by default, that all the planet’s denizens are equally culpable, not the small slice of the Earth’s population that consumes the lion’s share.

Mujica has much more of substance than his U.S. counterpart to say on this front. Uruguay’s president laments that so many societies consider economic growth a priority, calling it “a problem for our civilization” because of the demands on the planet’s resources. Hyper-consumption, he says, “is harming our planet.” He is also highly doubtful that the world has enough resources to allow all its inhabitants to consume and produce waste at the level of Western societies. Were such levels to be reached, it would probably lead to "the end of the world,” he guesses.

In a speech to UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last June, the man who many in the media dub “the poorest president in the world,” insisted that “the challenge ahead of us . . . is not an ecological crisis, but rather a political one.” Pointing to a “model of development and consumption, which is shaped after that of affluent societies,” ruled by the dictates of the capitalist market, Mujica said it was “time to start fighting for a different culture.” Arguing that the assault on the environment was a symptom of a larger disease, he asserted that “the cause is the model of civilization that we have created. And the thing we have to re-examine is our way of life.”

Given the position he occupies, and the interests he serves, it is almost impossible even to imagine Barack Obama—or any U.S. president of today—uttering these words, advocating living simply, or doing with a lot less in the name of equity. And the interests he serves are a big part of the problem.

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