The World Won’t Wait for the U.S. to Take Climate Action

In pulling out of the Paris Accord, Trump is putting his own interests and the interests of his fellow billionaires first, IPS associate fellow Daphne Wysham told the Real News Network, noting his many investments in oil and gas projects.

“As a result, we are squandering what little trust and reputation and international standing we have with the international community,” she said.

Trump is also working to pull the U.S. out of the Green Climate Fund, which acknowledges that the world’s largest polluters, including the U.S., are responsible for the shifts in the climate. The GCF is designed so that developed countries provide funds to developing countries to help them meet their Climate Accord goals.

“The U.S. is responsible for 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions that are causing significant climate changes,” Wysham explained. “For the U.S. to acknowledge that it created a good share of this problem, but to decide to put itself first and turn its back on countries that are currently suffering extreme weather conditions, is morally and ethically bankrupt.”

While Trump’s announcement is a blow to the reputation of the U.S. on climate change,  it does not undo the work U.S. climate activists have been pushing towards, Wysham said.

“The solution has always been at the local level,” Wysham explained. “State and local officials have a lot of power and they’re showing it out here in the Pacific Northwest.”

Portland currently has a target for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, with activists trying to push that even faster, Wysham explained. The city also has an ordinance for no new fossil fuel export infrastructure. She said that elected officials in both the West and East coast are eager to follow Portland’s lead.

Wysham also explained that the global community will continue to push towards a cleaner energy transition, “whether it’s the European Union joining up with China and pushing forward with plans to address the needs of the Green Development Bank for developing countries, or countries around the world that are moving forward with their plans to pursue renewable energy.”

“The global community is going to push forward regardless of what the U.S. does,” Wysham said. “It is no longer an option to sit around and wait for the one country that has over and over again attempted to disrupt meaningful climate action.”

Watch the full interview on the Real News Network.


How Progressive Cities Can Reshape the World — And Democracy


(Photo: Mandeep Flora / Flickr)

“We’re living in extraordinary times that demand brave and creative solutions. If we’re able to imagine a different city, we’ll have the power to transform it.” – Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona.

On 24 May 2015, the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú was elected as the minority government of the city of Barcelona. Along with a number of other cities across Spain, this election was the result of a wave of progressive municipal politics across the country, offering an alternative to neoliberalism and corruption.

With Ada Colau — a housing rights activist — catapulted into the position of mayor, and with a wave of citizens with no previous experience of formal politics finding themselves in charge of their city, BComú is an experiment in progressive change that we can’t afford to ignore.

After 20 months in charge of the city, we try to draw some of the main lessons that can help inspire and inform a radical new municipal politics that moves us beyond borders and nations — and towards a post-capitalist world based on dignity, respect, and justice.

  1. The best way to oppose nationalist anti-immigrant sentiment is to confront the real reasons life is shit.

There is no question that life is getting harder, more precarious, more stressful, and less certain for the majority of people.

In the U.S. and across Europe, racist reactionaries and nationalist politicians are blaming this on two things — immigrants and “outside forces” that challenge national sovereignty. While Trump and Brexit are the most obvious cases, we can see the same phenomenon across Europe, in the rise of far-right parties like Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the Front National in France.

In Barcelona, there is a relative absence of public discourse that blames the social crisis on immigrants, and most attempts to do so have fallen flat. On the contrary, on February 18 of this year, over 160,000 people flooded the streets of Barcelona to demand that Spain take in more refugees. While this demonstration was also caught up with complexities of Catalan nationalism and controversy over police repression of migrant street vendors, it highlighted the support for a politics that cares for migrants and refugees.

The main reason for this is simple: There is a widespread and successful politics that provides real explanations of why people are suffering, and that fights for real solutions.

The reason you can’t afford your rent is because of predatory tourism, unscrupulous landlords, a lack of social housing, and property being purchased as overseas investments. The reason social services are being cut is because the central government transferred huge amounts of public funds into the private banks, propping up a financial elite, and because of a political system riddled with corruption.

While Barcelona played a leading role in initiating a network of “cities of refuge,” simply condemning anti-immigrant nationalism isn’t enough. In a climate where popular municipal movements are providing a strong narrative as to what they see as the problem — and identifying what they’re going to do about it — it’s incredibly difficult for racist and nationalist narratives based on lies and hatred to take root.

  1. Politics doesn’t have to be the preserve of rich old white men.

Ada Colau is the first female mayor of Barcelona. She is a co-founder of BComú, and was formerly the spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform, a grassroots campaign challenging evictions and Spain’s unjust property laws. Colau leads a group of 11 district council members, seven of whom are women, whose average age is 40.

BComú’s vision of a “feminized politics” represents a significant break with the existing political order. “You can be in politics without being a strong, arrogant male, who’s ultra-confident, who knows the answer to everything,” Colau explains. Instead, she offers a political style that openly expresses doubts and contradictions. This is backed by a values-based politics that emphasizes the role of community and the common good — as well as policies designed to build on that vision.

The Barcelona City Council’s new Department of Life Cycles, Feminisms, and LGBTI is the institutional expression of these values. It has significantly increased the budget for campaigns against sexist violence, as well as leading a council working group that looks to identify and tackle the feminization of poverty.

The changing face of the city council is reinforced by BComú’s strict ethics policy, Governing by Obeying, which includes a €2,200 monthly limit on payments to its elected officials. Colau takes home less than a quarter of the amount claimed by her predecessor Xavier Trias. By February 2017, €216,000 in unclaimed salaries had been paid into a new fund that will support social projects in the city.

  1. A politics that works begins by listening.

BComú started life with an extensive process of listening, responding to ordinary peoples’ concerns, and crowd-sourcing ideas — as summarized in its guide to building a citizen municipal platform.

Drawing on proposals gathered at meetings in public squares across the city, BComú created a program reflecting immediate issues in local neighborhoods, city-wide problems, and broader discontent with the political system. Local meetings were complemented by technical and policy committees, and an extensive process of online consultation.

This process resulted in a political platform that stressed the need to tackle the “social emergency” — problems such as home evictions on a huge scale, or the effect of uncontrolled mass tourism. These priorities came from listening to citizens across the city rather than an echo chamber of business and political elites. BComú’s election results reflected this broader appeal: It won its highest share of the vote in Barcelona’s poorest neighborhoods, in part through increasing turnout in those areas.

On entering government, BComú then began to implement an Emergency Plan that included measures to halt evictions, hand out fines to banks leaving multiple properties empty, and subsidize energy and transport costs for the unemployed and those earning under the minimum wage.

  1. A politics that works never stops listening.

Politics doesn’t happen every four years — it is the everyday process of shaping the conditions in which we live our lives. This means that one of the central tasks of a politics that works is to forge a new relationship between citizens and the institutions that we use to govern our societies.

For BComú, the everyday basis of politics means citizens and civil society organizations directly shaping the strategic plan of their city. It means not just consultation, but active empowerment in helping move citizens from being “recipients” of a politics that is done to them, to active political agents that shape the everyday life of their city.

In the first months of occupying the institutions, BComú introduced an open-source platform, Decidim Barcelona, for citizens to co-create the municipal action plan for the city. Over 10,000 proposals were registered by the site’s 25,000 registered users. While that’s a small share of the city’s population, the online process was complemented by over 400 in-person meetings.

The Decidim platform is now being adapted to run participatory budgetary pilot-schemes in two districts, as well as being used in the ongoing development of new infrastructure, pedestrian-friendly spaces, and transport schemes. Meanwhile, the municipal Department of Participation is undertaking a systematic rethinking of the meaning of participation, looking to move away from meaningless “consultations” and towards methods for active empowerment.

This is an imperfect process, and BComú have gotten things wrong at times — such as the failure to properly engage when introducing a SuperBlock in the Poblenou district — but the principle is simple. To govern well, you must create new processes for obeying citizens’ demands.

At the same time, the structures that built BComú remain in place, with 15 neighborhood groups and 15 thematic working groups providing an ongoing link between activists and institutions. No structure is perfect, and it remains unclear if these working groups can help BComú avoid institutionalization and remain connected to social movements, but the hope is that this model provides a basis for remaining in touch with grassroots concerns.

  1. Politics doesn’t begin with the party.

BComú isn’t a local arm of a bigger political party, nor does it exist merely as a branch of a broader strategy to control the central political institutions of the nation-state. Rather, BComú is one in a series of independent citizen platforms that have looked to occupy municipal institutions in an effort to bring about progressive social change.

From A Coruña to Valencia, Madrid and Zaragoza, these municipal movements are the direct efforts of citizens rejecting the old mode of doing politics, and starting to effect change where they live. Instead of a national party structure, they coordinate through a network of rebel cities across Spain. Most immediately, this means coordinating press releases and actively learning from how one another engage with urban problems.

That doesn’t mean that BComú can reject political parties entirely. While the initiative arose from social movements, it ended up incorporating several existing political parties in its platform. These include Podemos — another child of Spain’s Occupy-style indignados movement — and the Catalan Greens-United Left party, which had consistently been a junior coalition partner in city councils headed by the center-left Socialist Party of Catalonia from 1979 until 2011.

These parties continue alongside BComú, with their own completely separate organizational and funding structures. But entering BComú has forced existing parties to significantly change how they operate. Coalition negotiations encouraged the selection of new council members (only two of the elected candidates have previously held office), and they are subject to a tough ethics code that considerably increases their accountability.

The fluid relationship between the new coalitions and political parties allows for multiple levels of coordination, without having to pass through a rigid central leadership. It may also be replicated in regional government, where the recently formed Un Pais En Comú seeks to replicate the city government coalition across Catalonia.

On a terrain that contains a different set of politics — not least a strong national-separatist sentiment — it remains to be seen whether this latest initiative will be successful.

  1. Power is the capacity to act.

BComú doesn’t subscribe to traditional notions of power, whereby if you hold public office, you somehow “have” power. On the contrary, power is the capacity to bring about change, and the “occupation of the institutions” is only one part of what makes change possible.

BComú emerged after almost a decade of major street-protests, anti-eviction campaigns, squatting movements, anti-corruption campaigns, and youth movements — the most visible form being the indignados protests that began in 2011. After years of being at a high level of mobilization, many within these movements made a strategic wager: We’ve learned how to occupy the squares, but what happens if we try to occupy the institutions?

Frustrated by the limits of what could be achieved by being mobilized only outside of institutions, the decision to form BComú was to try to occupy the institutions as part of the same movement that occupied the squares. In practice, this isn’t so simple.

Politics is a messy game, full of compromises forced by working in a world of contradictions.

In the most practical sense, BComú may be leading the council, but it holds only 11 of the 41 available seats. Six other political parties are also represented on the council, mostly seeking to block, slow down, or weaken its initiatives. Frustrated by these moves — and overwhelmed by the demands of the institutions — BComú formed a governing coalition with the PSC, a move supported by around two-thirds of its registered supporters.

But it remains a minority government, and two left parties that refused a similar pact responded by stepping up their block on almost all legislative initiatives. The resulting political crisis delayed the passing of the city’s 2017 budget, which was eventually forced through on a confidence motion when BComú challenged the opposition to unite around another plan — which it failed to do.

While this experience has shown the resilience of BComú in the confrontational confines of the council chamber, the key lesson here is that occupying the institutions isn’t enough. An electoral strategy is not sufficient alone to create change.

The power to act comes from a combination of occupying both the institutions and the squares, of social movements organizing and exercising leverage, providing social force that can be coupled with the potential of the occupied institutions. The power to change comes when these work in tandem.

It’s been a bumpy ride, but BComú has been able to justify its budget on the grounds that it prioritizes social measures (such as building new nurseries, combatting energy poverty, and focusing resources on the poorest neighborhoods) with reference to the extensive and ongoing process of participation that it has encouraged.

One of the biggest dangers in looking to build radical municipalist movements in other cities is to mistake electoral victory with real victory — to sit back and think that now we’ve got “our guys” in the institutions, so we can sit back and let change occur.

  1. Transnational politics begins in your city.

In a time where reactionary political movements are building walls and retreating to national boundaries, BComú is illustrating that a new transnational political movement begins in our cities.

To this end, BComú has established an international committee tasked with promoting and sharing its experiences abroad, while learning from other rebel cities such as Naples and Messina. Barcelona has been active in international forums, promoting the “right to the city” at the recent UN Habitat III conference, and taking a leadership role in the Global Network of Cities, Local, and Regional Governments.

These moves look to bypass the national scale where possible, prefiguring post-national networks of urban solidarity and cooperation. Recent visits of the first deputy mayor to the Colombian cities of Medellin and Bogotá also suggest that links are being made on a supranational scale.

One of the most tangible outcomes of this level of supranational urban organizing was the strong role played by cities in the rejection of the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership, or TTIP — a massive proposed trade pact between the U.S. and Europe. As hosts of a meeting entitled “Local Authorities and the New Generation of Free Trade Agreements” in April 2016, BComú led on the agreement of the Barcelona Declaration, with more than 40 cities committing to the rejection of TTIP. As of the time of writing, TTIP now looks dead in the water.

At this early stage, it remains unclear how this supranational network of radical municipalism may develop. Perhaps the most important step for BComú is to share their experience and support those in other cities that are looking to reclaim politics, helping to build citizens platforms across Europe and beyond.

But the idea of a post-national network of citizens also allows us to dare to dream — of shared resources, shared politics, and shared infrastructure — where it’s not where you were born but where you live that determines your right to live.

  1. Essential services can be run in our common interest.

The clue to BComú’s strategy for essential services is hidden in its name: The plan is to run them in common.

At the end of 2016, and faced with a crisis in the funeral sector in which only two companies controlled the sector and charged prices almost twice the national average, the Barcelona council intervened to establish a municipal funeral company that is forecasted to reduce costs by 30 percent. Around the same time, the council voted in favor of the re-municipalization of water, paving the way for water to be taken out of the private sector at some point this year.

In February 2017, Barcelona amended the terms and conditions for electricity supply, preventing energy firms from cutting off supply to vulnerable people. The two major energy firms — Endesa and Gas Natural — protested this by not bidding for the €65-million municipal energy contracts, hoping this would force the council to overturn the policy.

Instead, a raft of small and medium size energy companies were happy to comply with the new directive to tackle energy poverty, and stand to be awarded the contracts if a court challenge from the large firms proves unsuccessful. BComú is also actively planning to introduce a municipal energy company within the next two years.

However, it’s important to recognize the major difference between the public and the common. As Michael Hardt argues, our choices are not limited to businesses controlled privately (private property) or by the state (public property). The third option is to hold things in common — where resources and services are controlled, produced, and distributed democratically and equitably according to peoples need.

A simple example of what this could look like was the proposal — which narrowly failed only due to voter turnout — for Berlin to establish an energy company that would put citizens on the board of the company.

This difference underpins the Barcelona experience. This isn’t a traditional socialist government that thinks it can run things better on behalf of the people. This is a movement that believes the people can run things better on their own behalf, combining citizen wisdom with expert knowledge to solve the everyday problems that people face.

Oscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Bertie Russell is a research fellow at the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute and a member of Plan C.


The Trade Debate Isn’t About the U.S. vs. the World, It’s Corporations vs. the Rest of Us

Media Contacts:
John Cavanagh,, 202 297 4823
Domenica Ghanem,, 202 787 5205

In an executive order yesterday, Donald Trump scrapped the Trans Pacific Partnership under the guise of bringing jobs back on American soil and promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This is the response of Institute for Policy Studies Director John Cavanagh, who has been analyzing U.S. trade policies since the 1994 launch of NAFTA:

“IPS has worked for many years with the broad array of labor, environmental, consumer, and other civil society groups in many countries that are primarily responsible for the death of the TPP agreement. The pact was designed in the interest of large corporations – circumventing labor and environmental standards, offshoring jobs, and granting excessive investor rights that would let tribunals sue governments against the public interest.

But we cannot allow the trade policies that replace it to put the interests of multinational corporations first, as the renegotiation of NAFTA under a Trump administration teeming with corporate interests is positioned to do. Trump has promised that the NAFTA renegotiation will create jobs in the United States, but if corporate elites are allowed to dictate the renegotiation, Trump’s false economic populism will result in Americans facing job loss, wage stagnation, and eroding working conditions, especially for low-income workers and workers of color.

We need an internationalist approach to trade that lifts up labor rights, environmental standards, and human rights for people in all of the nations involved in the agreement, and provides good jobs for workers in the U.S. Trump wants to allow corporations to pit American workers against other working communities in a global race to the bottom. IPS will fight with broad civil society networks for a trade policy that lifts up all working families and the environment.

We support the recent trinational declaration that brings together Canada, Mexico, and the United States to make a transparent, internationalist approach to trade a reality.”

For more information:

John Cavanagh,, 202 297 4823

The post The Trade Debate Isn’t About the U.S. vs. the World, It’s Corporations vs. the Rest of Us appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies.


While Trump Tries to Return to Coal, the Rest of the World Market is Turning To Renewables

While Trump may be trying to take the U.S. backwards by returning to fossil fuels as an economic driver, the rest of the world market is moving forward toward renewable energy, Janet Redman told the Real News Network, “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Trump has also promised millions of jobs will be gained in the fossil fuel energy sector, a number that Redman guesses he had to “pull out of thin air to make a big splash, as he often does.”

Jobs have been lost in coal country, Redman said, and rural communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio are certainly feeling a crunch as the sector shrinks. But the problem is not overregulation, as Trump says, instead it’s a global decrease in demand for coal.

Trump claims he wants to cater to people who have lost their jobs in the coal sector, but he has rejected the kind of just transition policies that would help them, Redman said, like the 30 billion dollars that could be used to retrain these folks to learn skills in producing renewable energy.

Lately, Trump has pulled back from saying that he’s going to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement and instead would “give it a fair shake.”

“Saying he’ll ‘consider’ the agreement isn’t a victory,” Redman said. “It’s him pulling back from the edge of ridiculousness and we should be careful not to consider that a compromise.”

Redman said Trump’s list of advisers reads like the list of invites to an American Petroleum Institute Ceremony. It includes names such as Forrest Lucas, an oil executive, Sarah Palin, infamous for ‘drill, baby, drill,’ Harold Hamm, a fracking mogul and billionaire, and Rick Perry, who’s invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Trump ran on a campaign that appealed to people who were sick of a corrupt government and sick of feeling like the people on the inside were colluding with one another to rig the rules. But meanwhile, he is appointing people who are “deeply embedded in the fossil fuel industry,” Redman said. On the pipeline, for example, Redman said he is benefiting from it commercially.

“I think he’s going to alienate some of his own voters, some of the people in those middle states who said ‘we’re really sick of government officials making money off of the decisions that are hurting us,’ ” Redman said. “And pipelines will certainly hurt people in rural America.”

There is hope at the state and local level, Redman said, though the national scene will be mired at least for the next four years. Even as the clean power plan has been locked up in court battles, many states are moving forward with their own plans to reduce emissions from power generation, Redman said.

To defeat Trump’s plan to return to fossil fuels, “individual direct action on the streets, local municipal action, and state action is going to be increasingly important,” Redman said.

Watch the full interview here.

The post While Trump Tries to Return to Coal, the Rest of the World Market is Turning To Renewables appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Janet Redman is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Kids Won’t Want to Protect the World If They Never Get to Explore It

(Photo: IberianExplorer/Flickr)

(Photo: IberianExplorer/Flickr)

Let kids be kids — that’s some of the most common parenting advice you’ll hear. But when it comes to letting them be kids outdoors, many parents take pause. According to one U.K. study, in fact, most kids spend less time outside than incarcerated adults. What a loss.

Every other summer when I was growing up, my family visited my great-grandmother’s ranch in the hills of northern California. A bounty of interesting and abandoned structures stood decrepit on this once bustling cattle farm, and it was all mine to discover.

I still remember searching for barn owls in the rafters of the old hay barn and relishing in the capture of the pudgiest bullfrog tadpoles from the dredger ponds. For what seemed like hours, I’d kneel on muddy knees as I earnestly tried to lure feral kittens out from under the front stoop of the farmhouse. Traveling through the fields alone, I was aware of the risk of startling rattlesnakes as I walked through thigh-high wildflowers, or the chance of meeting of an aggressive Angus bull. And the incessant buzz of wasps and hornets was never far away. Yet I was having the time of my life.

It was this faint whiff of danger that cemented my appreciation of nature and ultimately resulted in my choosing conservation education as my profession. Teetering on the edge of risk around the dangers of the ranch increased my attention to the world around me and elevated my respect for animals.

Read the full article on the Baltimore Sun’s website.



The post Kids Won’t Want to Protect the World If They Never Get to Explore It appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Heather Doggett is a New Economy Maryland fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Ahead of World Day, two UN agencies launch course to end child labour in agriculture – UN News Centre

UN News Centre
Ahead of World Day, two UN agencies launch course to end child labour in agriculture
UN News Centre
The End Child Labour in Agriculture e-course covers the sectors of crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture. Specifically, it consists of 15 lessons, ranging from about 30 to 65 minutes each, grouped into seven units: introduction to child
FAO, ILO Working To Stamp Out Child Labour In AgricultureLeadership Newspapers

all 16 news articles »


Workers Struggles: Asia, Australia and the Pacific – World Socialist Web Site

Workers Struggles: Asia, Australia and the Pacific
World Socialist Web Site
Indian bank workers strike. Up 50,000 government bank employees in five Indian states struck work on May 20 to protest the pending merger with their parent bank, the State Bank of India (SBI). … The protest was organised by the Garments Sramik

and more »


Beyoncé sweatshop controversy shines spotlight on harsh conditions of working women – People’s World

Beyoncé sweatshop controversy shines spotlight on harsh conditions of working women
People’s World
In a mission statement for the clothing line, (that is a joint venture with the popular UK clothing store Topshop), Beyoncé explained that her goal with Ivy Park was to, "push the boundaries of athletic wear and to support and inspire women who

and more »


Can consumers buy a fairer world? An interview with Wouter Mensink

The modern consumer is faced with a dizzying amount of choice when it comes to certifications and labels. The Ecolabel Index , the largest global directory of ecolabels, currently lists 462 ecolabels in 199 countries. It would seem we have more power than ever before when it comes to shopping consciously. But how fair and transparent are these labels? Do they really help food workers and the environment, or is just good marketing? Do consumers know what these certifications and labels actually mean?

Wouter Mensink is a Dutch philosopher, writer and researcher who recently published the book ‘Kun je een betere wereld kopen? De consument en het fairtrade-complex’ (Can you buy a better world? The consumer and the fair trade complex), which was nominated for the Socrates Wisselbeker 2016, the annual prize for the ‘the most urgent, original and stimulating Dutch-language philosophy book’. In this book, Mensink questions the power of consumerism to transform the food system and pleads for collective action within communities. In this interview with Richard Glass, he talks about the certifications maze, the myth of consumer sovereignty and how philosophy can help us come up with better solutions.

You have a degree in philosophy and your PhD thesis was on the relationship between patients and technology, what made you write about fair trade, certifications and labels?
Basically, it was through the Movies that Matter festival, which has a lot of documentaries about social issues? I saw a lot of documentaries about fair trade and that’s what made me think about it.

Which of the documentaries influenced you the most and what was the message you took away from them?
I started with documentaries that say a lot about how the supply chain works, so how a product goes through the chain and ends up with a consumer in the West. There were some documentaries about this, but other documentaries took a different approach not only discussing the Westerner as a consumer, but also trying to see if there are different ways of organising.

For example, ‘Blood in the mobile’ is about a guy who wanted to find out if there was ‘blood’ involved in making his Nokia phone. He first goes to Nokia, but they are not able to tell him. So, he goes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the mines where the minerals in his handset originate from, to see if he can figure out himself, but he doesn’t. It’s a very insightful thing to show how complicated this mess is and shows, in particular, that you are in no position to do this as an individual consumer.

So supply chains are not transparent?
That’s right.

Did any of these documentaries propose a viable solution to the current unregulated, neoliberal model?
There’s one documentary that actually discusses a lot of alternatives. It’s called ‘My Cultural Divide’ and it questions whether ethical consuming actually does anything good for the workers behind the machines, focusing on Bangladesh.

There is also another documentary called ‘We Want to be Sweat Free’ and it talks about the ‘No Sweat campaign’ in the United States, where a group of students at the University of Montana figure out that their University clothing is made by Nike in sweatshops. They go to the board of the University and try to pressure them to sign onto the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), which would ensure that workers making their collegiate clothing were given basic human rights. Even though the documentary is fairly basic, it does show how you can be involved with these types of topics. Not necessarily as a consumer, but by joining together and putting pressure on a governing body to convince them that the way the system works now is not working. The model that they show in this documentary is quite nice. What is quite interesting with this ‘No Sweat’ case is that a lot of university campuses decided to take part too and it became one of the biggest campaigns with respect to sweatshops.

There are so many certifications now vying for the consumer dollar, such as Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance. How can anyone know what is actually green washing/good marketing or what is something positive?
That is illustrated I think by the documentary about the Nokia phone. You could do it, but you’d probably need to become a full-time consumer and spend 40 hours per week to try and figure out all this stuff. For example if you look at the difference between Utz and Fairtrade and the standards they have you can probably go to the website, and there are many articles discussing the two certifications, and you could decide that one is better than the other, but it would take you a ridiculous amount of time.

But if it’s so difficult for anyone to gauge this, can you actually trust any certifications or is it the better of two evils?
Probably the latter. You can’t fundamentally trust certifications. It has turned out there are issues with pretty much every certification. A lot of people would then just say, so it doesn’t make any difference and then I might as well just buy the cheapest. But that’s not really an answer either. I think some certifications are trying to do a decent job. Fundamentally, you can’t trust many labels but that doesn’t mean you should completely ignore the whole thing. It’s not a black-and-white issue.

Looking at the rise in popularity of certain fair trade products, such as coffee and chocolate, are those examples of consumer sovereignty winning or is consumer sovereignty a complete myth?
I think the idea of consumer sovereignty is one of the biggest problems. My book tries to get people to think about this: what does consumer sovereignty mean? The notion of consumer sovereignty is a problem. It is flawed, but I think a lot of effort is put into trying to make people believe that it does work this way. We have had consumer programmes on television and consumer organisations, like the Consumentenbond (Consumers’ Association), for many decades. There is this ‘the customer is king slogan’, which is deeply ingrained in our systems. We have labels, we have certifications, and we have governmental websites that help us to make decisions. What I’m trying to do is to discuss the consumer as a construct, to show how the idea of an autonomous consumer is constructed by governments and companies. What happens if you realise this, that it is a construct and that maybe this autonomy, the free market and consumption are not as obvious as they are made out to be.

In your book you make reference to a German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and the need for people to organise as groups within societies or as collectives. Could you clarify why you think that’s important?
That idea stems from John Dewey, an American pragmatist. He comes up with this idea, which he calls ‘the public’, in a book he wrote in 1927 called ‘The Public and its Problems’. What he basically says is that if you have a group of people that are struggling with the consequences of particular issues, they will often organise. And he gives all sorts of examples and he basically says when we think of politics we should not start thinking from our established political institutions, but we should take issues that the public raise seriously. This is a good idea. I don’t think we can rely on building a political system entirely around these ‘publics’. We need to have some basic institutions.

Peter Sloterdijk is a very conservative thinker, and I disagree with many if not most of his views, but one of the nice things that he tries to point out is how collectives organise within certain spaces and he puts this concept of ‘space’ into the discussion; a pretty useful albeit pretty basic idea. One of the nice things is that if you look at how these publics, which Dewey talks about, organise is that you will often see that they organise around a particular space. This is also something you’ve talked about in previous interviews, like the case of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. If you talk about cooperatives in coffee plantations, it’s really important to be aware that this is a group of people who form a collective because they deal with the consequences of a particular social problem, but they do it in a particular area or space. If you start thinking about those basic parameters, you move from a system in which an individual is supposed to make moral decisions, maybe helped by these consumer programmes and certificates and labels, to thinking about how our morality is formed by a group of people forming a collective within a certain space.

The example I gave about students who organise on their campus is a nice example. What they’re saying is that in this space, which is our campus, we don’t want to have to choose between good and bad products. So basically they’re saying we want our campus to be an ethical space and this idea of ethical space is an interesting one I think, because you can apply it to many different types of initiatives. Take, for example, this old initiative that we have had in the Netherlands since the 60s and 70s of wereldwinkels (world shops). You could also regard those as ethical spaces. The idea basically is that once you enter this space, this is like a safe space where we guarantee that you don’t need to take the consumer role that you normally have to take. Once you enter the space you don’t need necessarily to be a consumer that is in charge of making decisions. We will help you to make these decisions.

So these spaces could be anything, like workplaces or universities?
Yes. They can even be cities. You can go a lot deeper with these spaces. There’s this idea of ‘Fair Trade towns’. Amsterdam is now a Fair Trade Town and The Hague. There are a few hundred around the world. The idea is that fair trade is put on the agenda as a fundamental topic of discussion, as a core value for the city. This obviously does not mean that everyone in that city suddenly has this mindset. It’s a different way of talking to people; not merely as consumers, but also as inhabitants of the city. You can invite people to join in the discussion, to involve them in terms of setting priorities. What should be on our agenda? What should be our priorities? It’s an entirely different way of involving people. You don’t necessarily need to involve people in their role as consumers. You can involve them in many different ways. They could be involved, like the case of the University, as activists. This is what I tried to do with the book: to show people that this idea of the consumer is a construct. You are not the autonomous free consumer that you are made out to be and if you realise this you can also decide to take on other roles.

This is one of the things I talk about in the book. We have made fair trade and sustainability into an individual problem and I think we should make it into a public problem. One of the ways of making it into a public problem is the notion of the public as activist groups that basically put pressure on governing bodies. The other idea is more basic, which is just the idea of having a public debate or discussion. I think we could do much better with public debate than we currently have. One of the main things is to address the system as a whole. The public debate shouldn’t be about which label is better than the other label, but we should talk about the labelling system in itself. Is this the best way? I don’t believe in putting the blame pointing the finger at, for example, Max Havelaar, and saying we’ve heard that workers are still doing badly at that cooperative so you are doing a bad job. We should rather see this problem is much broader. Let’s look at the root causes of what’s causing unsustainability. Inevitably you will find the system as a whole is unsustainable and needs to be changed. However, at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, for example, there is no discussion at all whether the system as a whole is sustainable. This is just a given.

The Belgian Psychologist Paul Verhaege has said: ‘A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents’. Do you think collectives can take root in the current neoliberal individualist political climate?
There are historical examples in which this has worked, so yes I think it can work. But it’s pretty hard. You’re right that this idea of individualism and competitiveness and meritocracy goes really deep and if you want to fundamentally challenge the idea that’s not going to happen from one day to the next. That’s a pretty fundamental shift. Sometimes these paradigms shifts can happen. For example, it’s really hard to imagine now that 20 years ago we could smoke on aeroplanes. I sometimes ask people in talks: ‘Don’t you think it’s weird that you go to shops where you have a product on the shelves that’s slave free and right next to it there’s a product that is made by slaves. That’s really weird. You’d like to think that in 20 years we will look back on that and say God that was awful. I think it is possible to convince people that the system we have is crazy.

What do you want to achieve with the book?
I want people to start thinking about what it means to be a consumer, also to start thinking outside of the system and to start thinking about the system as a whole. If I’m not going to be involved as a consumer, but I still think I’m part of the system, what other roles can I take?

Visit Wouter Mensink’s website to find out more about his work.



Cyclist Juliana Buhring on Overcoming Obstacles and Racing Around the World – Glamour

Cyclist Juliana Buhring on Overcoming Obstacles and Racing Around the World
(Responding to accusations of child abuse, the Family has acknowledged that from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s the group “wasn't as safe an environment for children and young teens as it should have been.”) Early on … We got beatings, hard labor