Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Australia's floods: the wave of the future?

Within a few weeks of the global climate summit at Cancun--where governments refused to commit to the deep reductions in emissions required to stop climate change--floods “of biblical proportions” in Australia have revealed the costs of continuing the status quo. Far from being a "natural disaster", the floods are a result of climate change driven by an economy addicted to oil and coal, and highlight the urgent need to shift to a green economy. 

     Massive floods the size of France and Germany have submerged the Queensland area of Australia affecting 200,000 people, and raising concerns of water-born disease and encounters with rodents and poisonous snakes looking for shelter. By immersing a major portion of Australia’s production, the floods will also ripple through the world economy. According to the Financial Times:
“Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coking coal used for steel-making and accounts for about two-thirds of global trade. It is also the second-biggest exporter of thermal coal used for power generation. Queensland also accounts for nearly all of the country’s sugar production and export… Australia is also the world’s fourth-largest wheat exporter. Although Queensland provides only a small fraction of the total harvest, floods could cause as much as half the crop – 10m tonnes – to be downgraded to less than milling quality.”  
     The floods are being called a “natural disaster”, blamed on cyclones intensified by La Nina. But while these are weather phenomenon that occur periodically, what is happening now in Australia is unprecedented.  According to state premier Anna Bligh ,
“This is a disaster on an unprecedented scale and it is going to take an unprecedented, sustained effort to rebuild regional Queensland…we’ve had big floods before. We’re a tropical state. But we’ve never had them over so many towns, so many cities and had so much public infrastructure at risk because of the size of the area.”  
     These floods come just a year after historic bushfires near Melbourne, and are the last act of the devastating climate-related disasters of 2010 , the hottest year on record, which produced historic floods in Nashville and Pakistan, fires in Russia, and drought in the Amazon.
     While Australia, Canada, the US and others recently refused to tackle climate change at Cancun, they did agree to continue the oil-driven occupation of Afghanistan, which Autralian Prime Minister Julia Gillard promised would continue “through this decade at least ”. Meanwhile Australia continues unsustainable coal production that contributes to global warming, while Canada is killing the planet with tar sands. The oil and coal addicted economy is producing escalating unnatural disasters, with the floods in Australia just a taste of what’s to come unless global warming can be stopped.

     Neither the floods nor their impact are purely natural. While Australia and other major powers have done the most to produce global warming, their economic development shields them somewhat from the human costs. Despite the volume of water, there has been relatively few casualties compared to the floods in Pakistan—where poverty, continual US drone attacks, and governmental allegiance to the “war on terror” including intentional flooding of civilian areas to save a US military base —combined to magnify disaster. 
     Similarly Western-backed militarism, poverty and deforestation in Haiti created a context for a 7.0 earthquake to kill 250,000 people, when the same or greater intensity quakes in New Zealand and Chile produced a fraction of the death toll. But this economic advantage is like having a better seat on the Titanic.

     States and corporations are locked in competition for profit at any cost, that prevents them from collaborating to combat climate change. The inundation of a part of Australia, while threatening to cause a food crisis, has been celebrated in other quarters, from Alberta wheat producers to American coal companies. According to the Globe and Mail  
“Rising coal prices are set to spike at least 20 per cent higher because of supply shortages due to severe flooding in Australia...The severe supply disruption has been a boon for Canadian producers. Shares of three major Canadian coal companies hit all-time highs on Tuesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.” 
     Reconstruction of Queensland should include an unprecedented and sustained investment in green jobs, shifting from coal to solar and wind power, and diverting military spending into paying the climate debt owned to the Global South that is threatened with worse disasters. This could provide an alternative green and peaceful wave of the future, to save us all from the rising waters of climate change. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Victory and contradictions of repealing "Don't ask, don't tell"

Many have greeted the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy banning gays and lesbians from openly serving in the US military as a historic victory for human rights, while others are dismissing it as a cynical move to enhance US imperialism. How do we interpret the repeal of DADT?

     While many celebrated the repeal of DADT—signed by Obama on December 15 and taking effect 60 days later, pending a review—as a historic victory, leading US anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan—mother of a US soldier killed in Iraq—has dismissed the repeal. In her article “Don’t go, don't kill”, she points out the repeal does nothing to stop US imperialism, nothing to stop the harassment of gays in the military, and nothing to stop PTSD, suicides or meager benefits of veterans in general. This is all true and was never the intention of the repeal, but she dismisses it as only serving the elites, while duping the rest of us:
“We live in a world governed by binaries, straight of gay, them or us, freedom or tyranny…we should embrace complication, appreciate difference and most of all not be duped into accepting ‘victories’ that clearly benefit an elite… the capacity for increased carnage should not be celebrated as a victory!”
     This interpretation itself is based on a binary that the DADT repeal must either be a complete victory over imperialism, or a defeat. While Sheehan’s arguments help to highlight the contradictions of the DADT repeal, they dismiss the importance of reforms, and dichotomize the gay rights and anti-war movements.

     The truth is that the repeal of DADT is both highly limited and a historic victory. For more than two centuries gays and lesbians have been banned from openly serving in the US military, initially under “sodomy laws”, then under labels of “psychiatric illness” and for the past 17 years under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since Bill Clinton instituted the policy in 1993, more than 13,000 servicemembers have been discharged, the equivalent of two people every day, while an estimated 65,000 gays and lesbians remain in active duty under official discrimination. Homophobia from the top of the military has fueled unknown counts of harassments and threats, like those against war resister Skyler James who now lives in Canada.
     US elites like Defense Secretary Robert Gates certainly have their own reasons for repealing DADT—like increasing the recruitments numbers for a military overstretched in two quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, while giving a progressive face to the US military and the bloody occupations it carries out—and of course repealing DADT does nothing to alter the effects of US militarism on occupied people. Nor does it end homophobia in the military, from harassment to discriminatory policies. As Chris Patti, navy serviceperson wrote in the Washington Post, repealing DADT 
“does not mean that gay and lesbian service members have equality. The Pentagon must be clear about treating all members of the U.S. military equally, which means that it must recognize gay marriage as legal and a right of every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. These rights also must extend to their spouses, just as they do to the spouses of straight servicemen and women, to include health care, retirement benefits, GI Bill eligibility and commissary privileges.”
National Equality March, October 11, 2009
     But the repeal of DADT is an important first step towards achieving equality in the armed forces, which would not have happened without gay rights organizing. There has been sustained activism against DADT, alongside other demands. Last year 200,000 people joined the National Equality March in Washington, demanding  equal marriage and an end to DADT, hate crimes, and discrimination in the workplace. 
     Dismissing all those who organized and participated as dupes of the war machine ignores how much a fight it was to win the repeal, and creates a false dichotomy between reforms and ultimate victories. Striking down official discrimination in an institution does not mean supporting the institution or stopping demands at limited reforms. Should we dismiss the historic election of Obama and the movement that elected him because racism did not disappear over night? Should we dismiss campaigns for pay equity until the world of exploitative labour is ended, and leave women under economic discrimination? We want a world of peace and equality, but until we get there are gays and lesbians in the military supposed to endure official discrimination? Surely striking down DADT is a step towards the ultimate goal, not away from it. 
demanding an integrated military
     That was the perspective the last time the military was challenged on civil rights. During and after WWII, blacks who had fought "for freedom and democracy" overseas demanded those rights at home, and one of the first gains in the Civil Rights Movement was the integration of the armed forces. Decades before the famous March of Washington and the Civil Rights Act that followed, African-American activists raised the idea of a march on Washington to pressure Roosevelt and then Truman to end the Jim Crow army. The main organizers included socialist labour organizer A Philip Randolph and future War Resisters League organizer Bayard Rustin, who saw the integration of the armed forces as a chance to strike down bigotry in one of the country's dominant institutions, which would have a ripple effect across society. There was no false dichotomy between fighting discrimination in reactionary institutions and demanding a world of peace and freedom. In 1948 these mobilizations forced Truman to integrate the armed forces, the momentum continued into a broader Civil Rights Movement, and this in turn helped build the biggest anti-war movement in US history against the Vietnam War. 
     We must keep our eye on the prize, of a world of peace and equality, but in this long journey the repeal of DADT is a small but important step.