When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit on Sustainable Development can save the world—the question is whether the summit can even save itself.
"This conference is not like other conferences."
That's what all the speakers at "Re-Imagining Politics and Society" were told before we arrived at New York's Riverside Church. When we addressed the delegates (there were about 1,000, over three days in May), we were to try to solve a very specific problem: the lack of "unity of vision and strategy" guiding the movement against global corporatism.
This was a very serious problem, we were advised. The young activists who went to Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization and to Washington, DC, to protest the World Bank and the IMF had been getting hammered in the press as tree-wearing, lamb-costumed, drumbeating bubble brains. Our mission, according to the conference organizers at the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning, was to whip that chaos on the streets into some kind of structured, media-friendly shape. This wasn't just another talk shop. We were going to "give birth to a unified movement for holistic social, economic and political change."
In the aisles of Loblaws, between bottles of President’s Choice Memories of Kobe Sauce and Memories of Singapore noodles, there is a new in-store special: blacked out labels on organic foods. These boxes used to say “Free of Genetically Modified Organisms” but then Canada’s largest grocery chain sent down an edict that such labels were no longer permitted.
At first glance, Loblaws’ decision doesn't seem to make market sense. When the first frankenfoods protests came to Europe, chains like Tesco and Safeway scrambled to satisfy consumer demand by labeling their own lines “GMO-Free.” And when Loblaws entered the health food market with its line of President's Choice Organics, it seemed to be going the same route. In advertisements, the company proudly pointed out that certified organic products “must be free of genetically modified organisms.”
Then, the about-face, made public last week: not only won't Loblaws make the GM-free claim on its own packages, it won't allow anyone else to make the claim either. Company executives claim there is just no way of knowing what is genuinely GM free – apparently, it’s too confusing.
I've never joined a political party, never even been to a political convention. Last election, after being dragged by the hair to the ballot box, I was overcome by a wave of ennui more acute than the pain suffered by my friends who simply ingested their ballots.
Does this mean I'm a no-brain, knee-jerk anarchist, as many a Globe letter writer has claimed? Perhaps. But then why do I find myself agreeing that we need a new left political alliance, maybe even a new party?
What's clear is that the left as it is currently constituted—a weakened NDP, and an endless series of street protests—is a recipe for fighting like crazy to make things not quite as bad as they would be otherwise. A revolutionary goal for the left would be to actually make things better.
Is the New Politics Initiative the answer? It could be.
A woman with long brown hair and a cigarette scratched voice has a question. "What does this place look like to you," she asks, with the help of an interpreter. "An ugly ghetto, or something maybe beautiful?"
It was a trick question. We were sitting in a ramshackle squat in one of the least picturesque suburbs of Rome. The walls of the stumpy building were covered in graffiti, the ground was muddy, and all around us were bulky, menacing housing projects. If any of the 20-million tourists who flocked to Rome last year had taken a wrong turn and ended up here, they would have immediately dived for their Fodor's and fled for somewhere with vaulted ceilings, fountains and frescoes.
But while the remains of one of the most powerful and centralised empires in history are impeccably preserved in downtown Rome, it is here, in the city's poor outskirts, where I caught a glimpse of a new, living politics. And it is as far away from Roman emperors and Caesar's armies as you can possibly get.