Tinfoil Lungs and Adobe Bricks
Deconstructing our failing systems in pursuit of sustainability
The day of my arrival into La Paz, a massive protest in the streets prevented me from sliding into a taxi and zipping off to my hostel for a much-anticipated, post-30-hour-journey nap. The protest was in response to a new tax imposed by Evo Morales, leader of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party and Bolivia’s current record-holder for longest unbroken term in office. We took the gondola down instead, descending from the edge of the canyon into the brick-and-mortar sprawl of one of the world’s poorest capitals, observing the defiance from above.
A fitting introduction.
My name is Maddy and I’m concerned about the future of the human race
Thanks to some very generous people, I recently had the chance to travel to Bolivia with Canadian backpacking company Operation Groundswell. The goal of my trip was to gain first-hand experience with sustainable development initiatives outside of a western context, and see for myself the other side of the consumer-society coin: those countries whose extreme poverty grants us our superfluous wealth.
At the head of this venture is a project I’ve been working on with Pat Capozzi titled “Fringe In.” Like many other inhabitants of planet earth, we have been trying to make sense of the world amidst mass income disparity and unprecedented ecological decline. Of particular interest to us is how systems of power intersect with social and environmental issues. By studying the connections between ecology, economics, politics, and social change, we’re aiming to understand what is needed to escape the pitfalls of modernity and imagine something new.
Maybe the idea of a radical restructuring of society appeals to you, too. You may have heard of the sixth great extinction, an ongoing genocide of millions of years of biodiversity brought on by human activity. Perhaps it’s the looming threat of climate change that’s got you up at night. Less popular (but still relevant) is the ethical dilemma involved with allowing so many of our fellow humans across the world to languish in poverty while we in the west keep on partying. Or maybe you saw Mad Max in theatres and felt it hit a little too close to home. Stack your plate — there’s an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of modern concerns to choose from.
For me personally, an introduction to the environmental crisis brought with it an additional challenge: coming to terms with the inescapable tsunami of questions, newfound distrust for authorities, and existential angst crashing over me in turn. The breadth of inquiry involved with solving this crisis is, quite simply, terrifying. How are we going to put a stop to the rapid deterioration of our finite earthly home? When people are free to do as they choose independent of what’s right for future generations — indeed, are lavishly rewarded for it — how do we even begin to tackle a problem as widespread and insidious as the sixth great extinction?
The first few steps are the hardest. Environmentalism repels. Our problems seem to extend into the sky like insurmountable peaks, hard as ice and utterly uninviting. But once you start growing your awareness of potential solutions — vast and varied though they may be — it gets easier. Inspiring, even. What if altering a system to curtail pollution has the unforeseen benefit of reducing social inequalities, or making cities more livable? These connections exist, and they reveal themselves more and more the deeper one digs.
So that’s me: terrified but motivated. And you? Maybe you’re scared. Maybe you’re restless. Maybe you’re knee-deep in this stuff already. Regardless, you’re here, so I hope this essay serves you on your journey in some way.
True alternatives won’t come from within
Thinking outside the box sometimes requires one to literally leave the box. It’s possible that our endlessly-expanding bureaucratic empires will eventually get their acts together long enough to enact widespread systematic reform. However, it seems more likely to me that they won’t. Those in possession of power do not want to jeopardize that power, simple fact.
We thought it would make a good research trip to go to a less “developed” nation and see what they were doing where things aren’t quite so entrenched. Herein you will find the central idea behind our vision: rather than working our way out from the center, we start on the outskirts. And if all goes well, we rebuild our systems… from the fringe in.
Con Evo Si
Everywhere, over and over again: Con Evo Si. Si. Si. Si. No. Si. No. Si. What does it mean?
Stepping into the gondola for the first time, I caught sight of a face set against the bright red paint of the Linea Roja. Evo Morales has stamped his image onto each individual cable car; chin raised, eyes looking proudly off into a distant, welcoming future.
“Bit much, painting his face onto every car,” I commented, though at this point I was still under the impression that Evo Morales was a well-loved fixture in Latin American politics.
“Probably doesn’t want anyone forgetting who set this up,” a fellow traveler replied.
Mr. Morales has a lot going for him. He wears the badge of being Bolivia’s first indigenous president, transcending his humble campesino beginnings and gaining early popularity as leader of a coca-growers union. Most of what I’d read about his presidency was overwhelmingly positive, if a little dated. Rising to power in 2006 against a backdrop of great civil unrest, Evo’s socialist agenda represented a welcome change from decades of military dictatorships and discrete imperial rule. His political activism placed him in sharp contrast with opponent and predecessor Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the American-raised former gas executive whose controversial shock therapy of the Bolivian economy resulted in the privatization of many previously state-owned industries. (Mr. Sánchez de Lozada is currently facing extradition from the United States for his role in the 2003 Bolivian gas conflict, which government forces turned into a civilian massacre.)
It’s the type of David-and-Goliath story that left-leaning people like myself eat up with a spoon. One of the first things Mr. Morales did upon assuming office was nationalize the hydrocarbon industry, funneling the resulting influx of tax money straight into expanded social programs. Nice going, Evo! Take that, bourgeois scum! Evo’s socialism looked to me like a huge win in the battle for Bolivia’s natural abundance to benefit its people.
Why, then… I wondered as our cable car bobbed its way down into the city, are these people protesting?
Estrangement from reality does tend to make us feel better
In 1825, Bolivia declared sovereignty from Spanish rule. Sixteen years of war won them their political freedom following centuries of brutal enslavement. We often hear colonialism talked about in abstract, non-partisan terms, perhaps owing to a well-intentioned tradition of attempting to record history from an unbiased standpoint. But we all know history is written by the victors, who will always find quaint justifications for their crimes.
It was the early sixteenth century when Francisco Pizarro invaded the Inca empire. There he met an army of 100,000 Indians with 180 soldiers and 37 horses. Foreign bacteria, superstition, and superior technology played major roles in the Inca’s defeat. Perched on “deer as high as rooftops,” the Spaniards also utilized to their full advantage cannons, gunfire, and a barbaric disregard for human life. Pizarro demanded a hefty ransom from the Incan ruler Atahualpa in exchange for his freedom; when Atahualpa presented him with a room full of gold and two of silver, Pizarro responded by strangling and decapitating him.
Naturally, the Catholic faith found its purpose in providing colonizers with a convenient excuse for their savagery; from that point onward there marched a steady flow of human sacrifices into South America’s torturous gold and silver mines, funding the opulence of Europe for centuries to come. History unfolded similarly in the Antilles, with many natives anticipating the fates imposed by their European oppressors: they killed their children and committed mass suicide, choosing death over a lifetime in chains.
It’s worth asking whether this holocaust was truly the price of “progress,” as the Western canon so loves to claim, or something more sinister.
La Paz means peace
During a walking tour of La Paz, our guide brought us to Plaza Murillo, the city’s central plaza and political apex. He explained the significance of the Congress building’s backwards clock. “A symbol of critical thinking and indigenous pride.” He gave us a bit of history on the Metropolitan Cathedral. “It took 150 years to build.” Then he led us over to a lamp post with a bust in front of it. “Do you see the bullet holes?”
This was one hell of a lamp post. The bust was in commemoration of Gualberto Villarroel, a Bolivian president lynched in the Palace of Government faster than he could resign.
“They strung his body up on this very lamp post,” our guide cheerfully recalled. “Made a few too many enemies among the rich while trying to improve conditions for the poor.” Demonized in his day, the population had since declared him a hero and a martyr — hence the bust.
The infamous lamp post wasn’t the only landmark riddled with bullets. Closer inspection brought to light pockmarked trails in scores of hard-to-reach places, visually echoing Bolivia’s bloody legacy of political and social strife.
“Of course things today are Better Than Ever under our Great Leader, Mr. Evo Morales,” our guide’s false-cheer persisted, exaggerated and saccharine. Behind him, armed forces stood guard outside congress, assault rifles hanging off their shoulders. Clearing his throat, he raised his voice to add, “I Wouldn’t Dream of Saying A Thing Against Him!”
We were laughing, I was laughing.
But was he kidding?
Dictatorships are a response
Colonialism always relies on a combination of war, coercion, and co-opting local leaders. The latter is by far the most cost-effective approach. If external powers can cut deals with leadership in return for their cooperation, the population will remain subdued, making it far easier to siphon resources out of that region. Corruption 101.
Crucial to one’s understanding of our current world order is an acknowledgement of the central role natural resources play in the big picture: all economic fluctuation, political revolts, and social progress can be traced back to ecological factors. Colonialism began as a response to over-exploited local resources, and it continues today in service of the infinite-growth model of capitalism. Economies require a constant throughput of physical matter to continue churning out those dollar signs we’re so fond of. The more dollar signs, the less physical matter. It’s like that old Taoist proverb: “The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” If we were as addicted to candles as we are money, we’d be stealing those from our neighbors, too.
Everything we do connects back to the struggle for resources, because resources are money and money is power. Democracy fits snugly into this equation. When it first developed in sixth century BC, it was during the rapid expansion of the Greek empire, a large-scale plundering of foreign resources that gave rise to an economically-empowered mercantile class. Money elevated these merchants’ position in society. It gave them power which they quickly sought to exercise. Thus, the expansion of civil rights in Greece was not the triumph of social innovation. It was the byproduct of wealth distribution and a necessity for the growth of commerce, largely powered by colonial thievery.
Centuries later and the song remains the same. We in the first world enjoy disproportionate freedoms primarily because we are so stupidly wealthy, and we are only so stupidly wealthy because our countries’ coercive relationships with economic slave nations like Bolivia ensure a stable influx of cheap raw goods into the global market. Why are they cheap? Because the producers aren’t paid fairly. That’s why they live in poverty. It’s really that simple.
If you’re a somewhat moral person, you might be thinking to yourself, that’s pretty fucked up, and also, isn’t that theft? and maybe even, why do we let this happen? Certainly these are the thoughts that have crossed my mind. We’ll come back to that. First I want to talk about how these pressures impact the political process in countries like Bolivia.
The tendency for leaders in so-called developing nations to let themselves be bought off is best understood in lieu of the alternative — ie., the violent and untimely demise of our good friend Gualberto Villarroel. Pinned by the relentless force of richer nations, leaders in the Global South are overwhelmingly stuck between a rock and a hard place. Is there a third option?
History shows that a common defense to this type of unwinnable situation is a strong nationalist movement with centralized leadership. In the lawless landscape of impoverished nations, only very powerful leaders are able to reign in the corrupt oligarchs who would offer their cooperation to imperial forces. It is therefore in the interest of the common people to support nationalist movements with strong leaders who can at least keep colonizers at bay.
As mentioned earlier, Evo Morales currently holds Bolivia’s record for longest unbroken term in office. By the time his third term ends in 2019, he will have been in power for 13 years. So compelling was the sense of “Evo-exceptionalism” that in 2016, the government held a referendum to decide if Evo ought to be able to run for a fourth term, rewriting their constitution to do so.
The amendment lost by a narrow margin. Anti-reelection forces prevailed on the coattails of scandal, with corruption allegations bruising Evo’s squeaky-clean image and an increasingly-militant MAS supporter base casting shadows over the proposed benefits of the yes vote.
The choice between a potentially-beneficial dictatorship or the gamble of a new leader who may or may not sell out to free-trade-spouting thieves perfectly demonstrates Bolivia’s less-than-favorable position in our global pecking order. It’s no wonder populism has seen such wide success throughout Latin America in recent years.
Con Evo Si. With Evo Yes. The most effective campaign slogans are short and pithy. Through permanent association with our most prized ideals, they can even achieve generic trademark status.
Evo’s campaign slogan filed all the way down to the word “si.” I saw it everywhere on the walls of La Paz. Si. Spray painted one after another like a mantra. Si. Si. Si. Flashing past me on a rock in the middle of the desert. Si.
Then, every once in awhile: No. Con Evo S — No. The debate unfolded like two kids arguing: Si. No. Si. No.
No. No. No.
Achocalla: Ecological, Dignified, Productive
One of our first volunteer projects brought us to a school in Achocalla, a community on the mountainous periphery of La Paz. Trash started piling up as soon as we left the city. Though littering stood out as an issue no matter where we were, seeing the highway treated like a dump brought the problem into sharp focus. The trend continued even after we entered Achocalla and the schoolyard where we would be volunteering.
Of all the places we visited, this was where we encountered the least-appealing bathroom. No plumbing or lights, just holes in the floor and an overwhelming stench that had you asking yourself how quick you needed to be to get away with just peeing behind it. It wasn’t that I hadn’t expected to encounter bathrooms like this in Bolivia, but a public school hadn’t struck me as someplace to expect the worst.
Our partner for the project was a non-profit called Agua Sustentable, with whom we worked to install two water filters at two separate institutions. Again, the question arose: why are outsiders paying for a public school to gain access to clean water? Is this not what tax money is for?
As I stood outside the school observing a pig stuff his face with garbage, I started to understand where the protesters in La Paz were coming from. Also on my mind was the memory of my spitfire Spanish teacher, Alejandra, who’d given me a crash course in my first week. This woman hated Evo, and I mean hated. Still fresh off the plane, I’d questioned her about it. “But isn’t the economy doing better under his leadership?”
“Better?” she scoffed. “Worse!”
The line on the graph tells a different story: Bolivia’s GDP has been rising since Evo’s government took power. It’s worth asking, then, how one assigns value to the term “better.” For a long time now, economic growth has been synonymous with improvement. More money is always a good thing, right?
I present for your consideration this little nugget of knowledge: when the Exxon Valdez oil spill struck the Alaskan coast, $2 billion was spent trying to mitigate the damage. That money then circulated throughout the American economy, significantly boosting GDP. In fact, every time there’s a car accident, a new hospital patient, even personal or societal disasters, GDP goes up and the economy does “better.”
The gross disconnect persists. Walking, biking and using public transit contributes less to GDP than driving a car. Donning a blanket or coat contributes less than raising the thermostat. Eating vegetables contributes less than eating meat; planting a garden contributes less than shopping at supermarkets; staying home to raise your child contributes less than getting a part-time job.
GDP as a measurement of a nation-state’s success epitomizes to me the complete divorcement of conventional economics from actual human interest. We’ve created a monster.
No wonder Alejandra wasn’t impressed.
Puzzling politics in Cerro Rico, the “mountain that eats men”
The highland city of Potosi, Bolivia, with its gas-guzzling buses and crumbling streets, once stood as one of the wealthiest in the world. It is home to Cerro Rico, the infamous mine of five hundred years. Cerro Rico’s mineral deposits have acted as a cash cow for the wealthy and a living hell for the poor since the very beginning of the Spanish conquest. Inside, miners pay homage to the devil with shrines of his image tucked away in the shadows. Gifts and prayers are offered in pursuit of the elusive silver vein, whose rare riches overflow into the pockets of the lucky miner that strikes it. While silver started out as the mountain’s primary product, reserves are nearly exhausted. Nowadays tin has replaced it as the main export, a commodity so cheap in the west it’s used to wrap leftover food with.
Our time in Potosi was short and sweet, spent largely in the company of children. We’d allied ourselves with Cepromin, a small NGO working to support people affected by mining. Cepromin runs three youth centers around Cerro Rico for the children of miners to gather and study. Most of them had lost family to the mines — a mother or a father, if not both.
“Our goal is to show these kids that they have options outside of the mining industry,” the Director explained. “These centers are important because they allow the children to continue their studies past dark. At home they have no electricity.”
Here, our money went towards hiring another member of staff to help keep the centers in operation. Kids of all ages sat around in a circle with us, professing dreams of becoming doctors or teachers and performing choreographed dances as thanks for our contribution. It was difficult to tell which of the children were related — the bigger ones looked after the smaller ones without question; cradling the overwhelmed, distracting the restless. Watching a little boy hold up the head of his even tinier neighbor as he repeatedly nodded off, I wanted desperately to imagine that they’d all make it out of Potosi without losing more than they already had. But who can say? Cerro Rico has been eating men for centuries, and at present shows no signs of stopping.
With silicosis wreaking havoc on the miners’ lungs and one to two accidental deaths on the mountain per day, it’s a job more closely resembling a death sentence. Life expectancy drops to 45 as soon as one enters the mines. And as if that isn’t bad enough, most are paid far below legal minimum wage. Bolivian law mandates that all workers receive at least 2000 bolivianos ($289 USD) a month, but few receive more than 400–600 Bs.
The Director was very patient in answering my myriad questions.
“Have there been any attempts at reform?”
“The system of mining cooperatives prevent labour reform from taking place. No organizations are at work to restructure the industry or bring about wage justice. We are the only institution supporting these people, and all of our funding comes in internationally.”
“So the government doesn’t help at all?”
Evo’s socialist government wasn’t looking so socialist right around then. Scrambling to find some workable takeaway, I asked, “What’s the solution?”
“One proposed solution has been the development of alternative industries in Potosi, but a big part of the problem stems from lack of funding. Money taken out of Potosi does not get reinvested back into the city.”
“Have you tried civil disobedience?”
“A 27-day general strike two years back was unsuccessful in stimulating alternative development. The labour force prepared a list of demands for the government, but it was never looked at.”
Why? It seemed impossibly short-sighted to me that the MAS party would turn a blind eye to the country’s biggest industry in full view of its workers’ suffering. Bolivia’s minerals had been making other nations rich for hundreds of years, and Evo Morales clearly had no qualms about nationalizing key industries. I asked the Director about the possibility of domestic processing.
“Minerals have to be exported raw because we don’t have our own processing equipment.”
“And the government sees no merit in investing in equipment?”
“There isn’t enough money,” she answered, “and no technical support in the long-term. Equipment would need to be maintained by those with the knowledge and skills to do so.”
If this explanation strikes you as strangely insufficient, then you’re a smart cookie. There’s more to this story than meets the eye. To understand how a country rich in natural resources could be too poor to profit from them, one must once again set aside comfortable illusions about capitalism’s capacity to benefit all people. The Director’s words contain a glimpse at the rigged nature of the game.
Organized oppression, modern-day imperialism, and the real reason your mom insists on that patch of the Canadian flag
Before I left for South America, I talked to my mom on the phone.
“Listen, Mad,” she began earnestly, “if you really insist on doing this, then at least do me a favour and patch a Canadian flag onto your backpack. You do not want those people thinking you’re American.”
My mom was quite mom-ish in assuming that the first problem I’d be facing in my travels was robbery at knifepoint. Nonplussed, I tried to point out that most of the people I’d be travelling with were American.
“Better them than you!”
We agreed to disagree. (Though I did respect her wishes in sewing a flag onto my ‘pack.) There is a reason Americans traditionally watch their backs more closely abroad than Canadians — though I figure it’s mainly to do with the Canadian habit of apologizing whenever someone walks into us, since a little-known fact about Canada is that it has more companies mining abroad than any other nation.
As discussed earlier, our current world order revolves around economic domination and submission. Consequence for our twisted power dynamics are such illogicalities as this: we in the Global North profit more from consuming goods than do those in the south for producing them. Rarely brought up alongside popular media narrative “America-is-the-one-true-superpower,” however, is the nation’s utter dependence on cheap foreign imports.
The United States imports 25% of the petroleum it consumes. It is the world’s largest importer of steel, crucial in almost all aspects of construction and manufacturing. Tin, another essential nutrient for any industrial society, is imported in bulk from Asia and South America. And so on: the US depends on foreign sources for almost all of its energy and mineral needs, without which its economy would collapse overnight.
America’s ability to sit around while other nations feed it grapes can be traced back to its trillions in military spending debt. In truth, this “superpower” is super only so long as others are coerced into lending it power.
Just how long America and other Global North can keep this up — or how long the rest of the world can afford to let them— remains to be seen, but so long as Global South countries remain trapped in their economic chokehold, it’s hard to imagine conditions in those countries improving. Sadly, those who have historically figured that out in Latin America were systematically sabotaged into extinction.
You may have already guessed that Potosi’s lack of domestic processing is no accident. The late Gualberto Villarroel can tell us what happens to those who try to go beyond nationalization in pursuit of true economic independence. In the early 1900s, an industrialist by the name of Mariano Pero fought a lone thirty-year war to have Bolivian tin refined in-house instead of in Britain. Villarroel’s fall spelled the end of this dream. Further attempts throughout the century were likewise thwarted.
There is a very simple rule at work here: dependence begets submission. If Latin America were left in peace long enough to develop its own manufacturing industries, it would no longer need to follow the crippling terms set out by its first-world masters. Free trade has long operated in service of richer nations, whose premature industrialization allowed them to saturate poorer countries with cheaply-produced goods early on in the colonial chess match. Local artisans using traditional methods simply couldn’t compete, and with their slow annihilation began the cycle of economic dependence that persists into tomorrow.
Countries like Bolivia will always “lack” the capital to exploit their own wealth — the elevated positions of the world powers that control their industries depend on it. Industrial infanticide was as much a priority for European colonizers as was the enslavement of local peoples. Today, its flag flutters on in the hands of neoliberals under the far more legitimate-sounding name of foreign policy.
A Guatemalan foreign minister had this to say on the topic of US-led foreign “aid”: “It would be strange if the remedy should come from the United States, the same place which brings us the disease.” Very strange, indeed.
On the topic of covert economic subversion, I slide under your door a slip of paper with these three words: “Made in China.” In the colonial era, Europe was able to usurp control of an entire continent by pouring cheaply-made goods into their markets, destroying local manufacturing industries. Lack of domestic production made these countries dependent on European imports for all manner of goods basic to their livelihoods. And dependence begets…
“Made in China.” Think about it.
Does all this amount to a massive conspiracy deserving of fervent media exposure and household discussion? Depends on who you ask. Thomas Jefferson said that “the cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate,” and he was a reasonably accomplished guy. The way I see it, if our species wants to shift society in a more positive, less headed-for-a-brick-wall-at-a-hundred-and-sixty-kilometers-per-hour direction, we’re going to need to build a common understanding of what works and what doesn’t. And this outdated game of cowboys and indians ain’t working for the greater lot of us.
The inequality that plagues our world is the unshakeable result of divisive capitalist structures; the very same paradigm responsible for such family-favourites as melting glaciers, extended forest fire seasons and aquatic dead-zones. I think we can do better, don’t you?
Why are we bringing about our own demise?
I’ve asked myself this question a lot. As much as there isn’t one clear, easy answer to it, there actually kind of is.
Hear me out.
Lack of social awareness is a big issue in our time, the so-called “post-truth” era. One may wonder why media outlets fail to report on big-picture issues that actually require vast public knowledge while force-feeding us celebrity gossip or highly-polarized political accounts.
- Vested interests. The suppression of truth is big business. It should come as no surprise that those benefiting from the status quo are among those most motivated to preserve it, regardless of long-term irreparable damage. Those benefiting from the status quo are also, rather inconveniently, those with the most money/power to shape public opinion and start or stop the process of change. Vested interests represent the greatest obstacle in our race to address the major problems facing us.
- Centralization of power. Say it with me, folks, because this is the chorus of our modern-day spiritual: dependence begets submission. If you can’t picture yourself surviving without a government or corporation’s services, how are you supposed to meaningfully question its right to exist? The centralization of vital resources into the hands of conglomerates basically spells a future of authoritarian governance, especially as more readily-available resources begin to dwindle. Would another pop culture reference help put this into perspective for you? Hunger Games. 1984. Blade Runner. Uh… gimme a sec —
- Social stratification. Contrary to popular belief, humans are not genetically predisposed to hierarchical order. If we were, navigating bureaucracy probably wouldn’t feel so much like pulling teeth. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors actually lived in egalitarian societies. Like democracy, social stratification developed in support of economic expansion. The promise of elevated status was used as a motivator for people to work harder. Social stratification enabled the intensification of production, but it didn’t come without its price. Those who rise to organize key areas of production or distribution in our society achieve levels of power that quickly turn into… vested interests. Well, shit.
It’s a deadly little pinwheel we’ve got on our hands here. To keep our modern-day meat grinder of manic overproduction in 24/7 operation, we require great concentrations of power in the hands of the few. Of course, both halves of this equation are slowly killing us, kind of like how eating steroids for breakfast, lunch, and dinner might. Perhaps our problem isn’t so unavoidable after all.
Power corrupts. It breeds selfishness and greed. We can temper this tendency only by limiting the amount of power afforded to any one individual or interest group. Global free-trade capitalism is the promise of uncapped power to master exploiters at the expense of everyone else, and we can’t afford to support it any longer.
Autonomous self-development in Talula, a village on the fringes of civilization
Of potential interest to anyone wondering how small-scale social enterprise can be used to finance international development is the non-profit Condor Trekkers. I had the pleasure of working alongside them in constitutional capital Sucre’s backcountry. Outside the bleached confines of the white city, a precipitous landscape of rainbow mountains, trickling streams, and sun-drenched cacti awaits. Condor Trekkers led us on a two-day hike through the Andes to do some volunteering in a minute farming community called Talula.
All of our guides spoke three to four languages. These were some extremely smart people. Their mandate with Condor was to reinvest profits from tourism back into supporting regions. In collaboration with the people of Talula, they determined new routes of development and offered unique, meaningful travel experiences to tourists who wished to support them. For us, this looked like pitching into the construction of a collectively-owned hostel. The group before us helped install infrastructure to bring clean water to a remote school. All projects were generated with the community rather than for them. And I’m talking literally. As I struggled to carry one adobe brick at a time, an indigenous woman around three times my age swept past me with two stacked against her chest. Slightly humbling, that.
The feeling lingered. Talula had no plumbing or electricity. Our kitchen was a campfire and our bath was a local hot spring. Many of the townspeople lived in one-room adobe huts. Certainly room for improvement, but no desperate immediate need for it, either. They had family and community and work and art. The people of Talula seemed happy. So happy, in fact, that I attracted a few comments for my sombre face.
“Not very Canadian of you to look so serious,” one of our guides told me. “Aren’t Canadians supposed to be cheerful?”
Indeed we should, given the amount of material wealth we consume. And underneath my serious face, I was happy — happier than I’d felt in a long time. We humans don’t need nearly as much as we think we do. Useless laborer though I was, it felt good to support something that didn’t come accompanied by so much internal strife. For once there was nothing to feel conflicted about. Nevermind that I was peeing in the bushes.
My time in Talula had me thinking a lot about scale. The business model that Condor Trekkers used to support their humanitarian mission struck me as a fantastic way of developing communities. Make it a collective effort. Make it meaningful. Involve local peoples to ensure all projects remain in their best interest. Could it be replicated in our quest to dig ourselves out of the hole of modernity?
Talula’s development projects had their priorities in order. They combined modern materials such as concrete with more readily-available, economical substitutes like sediment from surrounding hills. Locals gathered for town hall meetings to discuss the village’s direction as a group. And of course, all this was accomplished without any sort of centralized leadership. The Bolivian government was not needed and not involved.
A level of government does play an indispensable role here: it’s the local level. And a form of trade also lends its support: non-profit social enterprise. But scale plays a part as well, because the larger these institutions become, the more illogicalities creep in from between the cracks. Keeping things small means remaining in touch with the people and lands that sustain us. For the question of how we can develop sustainable communities going into the future, this is the best route I can see.
I don’t want civilization to devolve into a polarized dystopia
Yo, I get that!
Social progress generally requires the fertile soil of economic security in order to flourish. It’s no coincidence that the social revolutions of mid-century America unfolded during a period of unparalleled nationwide prosperity, nor is it any coincidence that they petered out towards the end of the economic boom with stagflation and the 1973 oil crisis. Everyone’s in a good mood at the height of the party; there’s no better time to push for positive societal change. Lord knows how far we’ll get if we wait until we’re all fighting over clean water supplies.
As the richest civilization in all of human history, we have a brief window of opportunity to consciously create culture to the benefit of future generations. But it has to be a conscious effort, and that requires an educated populace. There’s so much misdirection in our world today; so many parasitic interest groups that have completely cut themselves loose from any higher purpose beyond insatiable gluttony. (To be fair, it’s not really their fault. Consumer capitalism has been shaping our raison d’etre for far too long now.) All that aside: you, dear reader, chose to dedicate your attention to this lengthy piece of writing in service of something bigger, and that gives me hope. As much work awaits us in leading our society away from the edge, it has to start with us caring enough to try. And with the amount of things competing for our attention in the Age of Distraction, that’s a battle in and of itself.
You’re here. You showed up. That’s huge, so give yourself a pat on the back. Staring down problems as big as climate change and the sixth great extinction, I know how tempting it is to turn away, and so I applaud you for including yourself in the picture, because it’s so much easier not to.
Cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote that in order to create and maintain a new society, you also need to create and maintain a new consciousness. He’s talking about counterculture — Bolivians fighting propaganda on the streets; you and me, right here, right now. Culture is created by reading and sharing, writing and talking, asking and exploring in spite of what’s popular or easy or politically-correct. We create it every time we refuse to buy meaning, indulge in apathy or distract ourselves — every time we choose curiosity or spontaneity instead. Culture is a conversation, perpetually in flux. Whether you choose to speak or listen is entirely up to you. At the very least, being cognizant of the influence money has on whose voices get heard may help you decide when to do one or the other.
Yes, our problems are colossal, monumental, holy-shit-what-the-fuck-do-we-do-huge, but it’s nothing to despair over. Creative destruction is inherent in evolution; any failure can be transmuted into opportunity with enough force of will. None of this has to be scary. The better acquainted you become with alternatives, the faster you regain your optimism. All across the world, people are working in their sphere of influence to enact positive change. Join them and you’ll never have to feel hopeless again.
For now, my call-to-action is this: be your own public service announcement. Side-step the fear that stops you from saying what’s really on your mind and actively involve others in your search for truth. For the sake of everyone on the planet, rock the fucking boat. It’s a matter of choosing our values independent of corporate influence, because ads beam messages at us all day every day, and their calls for us to keep consuming are anything but benign.
I’ve thrown around a lot of ideas in the last few thousand words. I attempted to explain the corruption of Bolivia’s socialist government by two dominant forces: global capitalism and the tendency for our largest institutions to become self-serving and disconnected from their higher purpose. I touched briefly upon America’s delicate position as the “one true superpower” and China’s imminent takeover of the world (more on that here). I offered my thoughts on how the decentralization of vital resources out of the hands of the elite coupled with a stronger focus on local autonomy can help temper corruption and prevent a future of authoritarian governance. And I concluded with a point about the fundamental importance of an informed populace, fighting the influence of vested interests with consciously-created culture.
Now it’s your turn: what’s your take on all this? What direction do you see our species taking? Are you optimistic? Pessimistic? Do you feel empowered to sway the tide? Have you thought about what you might do with the disproportionate amount of power afforded to you? Do you wish there was a questioning-capitalism support group? Are you way too drained from the 40-hour work week to even think about this shit? Do you think I’m dead-wrong about everything? Do you have different ideas that you’d like to share?
Chime in with your thoughts — let’s look into the eye of the hurricane together.