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Q&A: ‘Need For a New Social Alliance’

Interview with political economist Susan George

FLORENCE, Jun 3 2008 (IPS) - A global alliance of human rights activists, environmentalists and ethically run small enterprises is needed to save the planet from self-destruction, says Susan George, chair of the Planning Board of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. The institute works “to contribute to social justice.”

Susan George Credit:

Susan George Credit:

Susan George, author of several books on development, now focuses on neo-liberal globalisation mirrored in the World Trade Organisation talks, international financial institutions and in North-South relations.

“Even if committed to the social and environmental challenges, none of these groups individually will be able to save our future, which is dominated by powerful economic forces that have a short-term view and, if allowed, will continue exploiting and destroying the planet,” George says.

We must recognise, she says, that change does not happen at an individual level. “Yes, I can change my light bulbs or reduce my carbon footprint, but we need a radical revolution that cannot be achieved individually.”

IPS Italy correspondent Sabina Zaccaro spoke with Susan George at Terra Futura, an exhibition of ‘good practices’ in social, economic and environmental sustainability held yearly in Florence. In its fifth year, Terra Futura was dedicated to strengthening social alliances – and trying some audacious ones such as alliances among private citizens and financial institutions.

IPS: Will the political-economic system really allow these alliances to happen?

Susan George: The market ideology works to separate people, it is a model that separates people on a competition basis. Social contact is the only response to economy that works all the time to prevent this.

People do not have to abandon their own field and commitment, but become used to working together. We are free agents, and if we understand that there’s an interest, that the vast majority of people can often no longer see where their interests lie – and that is part of the political fight that we have – then it is possible.

If you show to people that they have an interest in alliances, and this is true for farmers, trade unionists, small medium enterprises…then yes, I think it possible to make those alliances.

IPS: And who sets the rules?

SG: It is hard to get binding rules, it could be easier at the level of the regions. In many places this is not possible because of corruption, or because the will of the government is to prevent this kind of thing and allow transnational corporations to do whatever they like. I would say that that’s what the European Commission is there for – to allow finance capitals and transnational capitals to operate as freely as possible.

IPS: Can the ethical argument alone convince business?

SG: No, not at all. They say how green they are, how caring they are, but it’s rubbish to believe it…Corporations and transnational organisations preach self-green regulation; ‘we will bring the proper solution’, they say, but it is totally illusive.

IPS: So, what can be a convincing argument?

SG: The right arguments are the arguments of force you cannot argue with, you don’t discuss; you don’t say ‘please’. When you are in a position where you are able to dictate.

IPS: How?

SG: Well, through alliances! At a much larger scale, at a big scale…the problem is scale. Alliances must be as broad as possible. Economic power is way ahead of us, so to me the problem is, can we go fast enough, become important enough in order to put a stop to that, to escape the current impasse.

IPS: Does politics have a role in that?

SG: If it would be just politics, I would not be that worried, since things due over centuries sort themselves out; but with the environment we don’t have that kind of time. I don’t say it often in public, because I don’t want people be in despair, but I am often in despair.

IPS: Are you totally pessimistic?

SG: I am hopeful; the only thing you can work on is hope. Generally, politicians are the last to move, but we need to make alliance with them.

When politicians have an interest in something, they show that they are able to listen. Look at what happens with prices…and scarcity. Politicians and business do listen to that, they listen to the price of oil – they bring the wrong solutions, but they listen to price signals.

IPS: Can oil be replaced with agro-fuels?

SG: It’s criminal. There’s a lot of talk about using plants that are bio – but any plant is bio. I’ve just read that some of the species they’re intending to use are invasive species, they take over, and then will spread all over and take all the water out of the ground, and so on.

So, it’s always the same thing – you cannot have just a techno solution because there’s the entire environment that you have to consider. I am not an agronomist, but I would refuse any introduction, any crop until the impact of that crop on the rest of the environment has been studied. You cannot just say ‘Ok, this is good, we will harvest it, and we will do ethanol out of it’, because you don’t know.

That’s also what’s wrong with GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds. They only look at the plant and what that plant is supposed to do, to repulse insects or whatever, but they don’t look at the whole of the environment, it’s not their task.

Scientists are perfectly able to make a plant that can repulse insects, but they have no knowledge at all of how the birds, the butterflies, the worms, the bacteria, will react.

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