Protests Erupt in the US and Bolivia Targeting 'Progressive' Presidents Who Are Failing to Protect the Environment
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The fights in Washington and Bolivia are taking on the climate crisis where we will most need to wage the fight, at the national and local level, policy-by-policy, project-by-project. Shifting our best efforts from global summitry to decisions closer to home also links the climate debate to more immediate concerns like oil spills and forest destruction that might draw broader support.
Those taking to the streets in these two battles have already accomplished a good deal. They have used brave direct action to do what sometimes only direct action can do, force an issue onto the public agenda. The indigenous march is now front-page news across Bolivia every day, gathering moral weight and larger numbers as it winds its way to the capital, building increasing political pressure on President Morales. The White House protests, particularly the arrests, have now put a bright green spotlight on Mr. Obama's choice. The New York Times report on the State Department finding was accompanied by a photo of the environmentalists at the President's gate.
But a final lesson that emerges from both actions is about the difficult politics of stiff economic headwinds.
If President Obama approves the Tar Sands pipeline his explanation will find solid political support across a wide swath of the country: In the world as it is the U.S. can't afford to say 'no' to a reliable source of energy from a reliable source or a project that might generate real jobs. In the face of a second recession or something close to it, economics trumps environment (and don't worry, we'll build in safeguards).
If Morales continues to press his highway through the rainforest, he will find strong support in Bolivia for parallel reasons. In the face of deep, historic poverty (Bolivia still sits as the most impoverished nation in South America) most people are willing to gamble on anything that might offer "movimiento economico."
Altering the entrenched political chemistry that drives both projects and others like them will require something more, a clear and real alternative on the economics. In Bolivia, how can millions be lifted out of poverty without destroying the environment as a down payment? In the U.S., how can the conversion to clean energy and a greener future become a viable way out of the current economic crisis? And just as important as crafting the plan will be winning a broad public belief in it. Absent that, the political headwinds in the opposite direction will not cease.
These two brave defences of the planet, underway in two very different places, are each inspiring examples of how we begin. How we convert that into strategies for winning is still unwritten.
Jim Shultz is executive director of the Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia and San Francisco. Maria Eugenia Flores Castro contributed to this report from Bolivia.