30 April 2009

Walking the walk, one step at a time

I have said for years that I refuse to be the little liberal leprechaun jumping around screaming for change. I like the imagery. What I mean is this: I am weary of criticizing the current system without envisioning an alternative. The problems we are seeing are very real. Globally, the income gap is widening; 358 billionaires control a total net worth of $760 billion—equal to the combined net worth of the poorest 2.5 billion of the world’s people. The planet’s resources are being consumed at an alarming rate without thought to environmental limits. Traditional livelihoods are being destroyed in the name of economic and industrial development. Cultures are being clear cut and paved over to build a consumer monoculture superhighway. These problems—and countless others that keep me awake at night—are not isolated incidents of carelessness but the product of a ideology generally accepted as the solution to the world’s ills. The credo of economists, politicians, corporate leaders, and anyone deemed to be credible by the world’s elite is growth, free trade, and no regulation. Say it three times. To denounce neoliberal ideology, free trade, is heresy in the circles of people who run the world.

The people who realize the lethal fallacy in this way of thinking can’t afford to lose. The majority of the world’s population is not benefiting from development policies; in fact we are spiraling into a world very different than the one we envision. In order to slow—if not stop—a global system that doesn’t work for the majority of its inhabitants, it is imperative that we not only speak out but also act. We must work to create the world we envision. We must work together to enact a positive form of development.

Many communities that we’ve visited in Thailand are doing just this. They are protesting destructive forms of development in which they are denied a voice, and working to develop the people and culture in their communities while working sustainably with the land. In Yasothorn, villagers are organizing under the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) to support organic sustainable agriculture. They are creating innovative and creative ways to support the people in their communities in the difficult transition to organic agriculture. Villagers are provided with hands-on, community based training, learning new techniques from each other. Rather than the establishment’s view that these forms of agriculture are antiquated, they are looking at new technology and integration systems to enrich their soil and increase yields sustainably. They are educating community youth about traditional practices and positive ways of living, using intergenerational pass-ons and interactive methods.
The focus on developing the potential of community youth is integral to this positive development. In Udorn Thani, the Youth Group of the Conservation Club is organizing to protect their way of life against the development of a potash mine. Two young people we spoke with from this group are getting their university degrees in agricultural science and business in order to form a company that sells organic fertilizer after graduation. The Iron Ladies of the Conservation Club train community members in sustainable livelihoods. This group has networked with other villagers across the Northeast and in other countries in order to form a coalition of people working to preserve and progress sustainable development. These networks that form out of collective struggle are an innovative and modern method of social organization that will be essential in the future.

Working and living with these communities has offered me an alternative view of development. Villagers are not anti-progress nor anti-development. They foresee a productive future based on the development of human potential and social values. Where before I had only books and theories to fall back on in my opposition to destructive development, I now have a foundation of knowledge that will inform my future struggle for positive change. I am intent on working to perfect my vision of positive development and to fight to further this vision. I will continue speaking out in my opposition to injustices, but I will also speak out about the solutions I see. These solutions are grassroots, building the strength of communities from the ground up. We can enact change together.

Hannah D. Clark - University of Michigan


Anonymous said...

Really well spoken (written), Hannah. You touched on issues we’ve observed (social and environmental) through the lens of various communities and development projects, and on the promise of alternative models through community organizing and social movements.

One specific part I’ve been thinking a lot about as well lately: “Villagers are not anti-progress nor anti-development. They foresee a productive future based on the development of human potential and social values.”
I think that as modernization and development rhetoric has evolved, all those who stand in opposition get placed in this category of “anti-progress” and as a result are labeled as backwards, or less willing to embrace what is “civilized” (devaluing tradition, culture, etc.). In reality there is no such clarity in opposition. Organizers seem to be more commonly anti- this development model. They oppose blind pursuit of capital, unlimited economic growth, and the rapid exploitation of natural resources. They seek greater public participation in affairs involving the use of their own resources and search for representation that prioritizes local and community interests over the success of the private sector.

I’d like to include two quotes from the Conservation Club exchange we had a few weeks ago that touch on these issues and question the definition and extent of progress:

“We don’t reject development but development has to be greater than the value of what we lose. This particular project doesn’t pay for the natural resources we will lose.”

“Maybe we didn’t prosper but we could grow our vegetables, feed our kids, and drink our water. In the end we won’t be able to do these things. And they’ll call this progress…”


Alex said...

Thank you for your reflections, Hannah. In almost every line of your post I saw some thought or personal struggle that I could identify with. I, too, have been seeking some sort of alternative to the structure of development our society has come to be dependent on. Although I may not have had such an informed perspective before my semester in Thailand, my understanding of development and its effects on people has totally transformed since being here. Whereas before I was unaware of the human rights violations perpetuated by globalization and development projects, I am now at least somewhat conscious of the severity of the problems. My interactions with community members, NGO’s, local families and Isaan youth have inspired me to understand my role in development, and adjust my own actions to support the alternatives I am looking for. I have come to see that there are two paths (at least) that might lead toward alternative forms of development. One path is that of direct action, or actively protesting unsound policies and development projects that are violating human rights. Another is that of self-awareness and personal adjustment. I struggled for a long time to understand my role in development, how I could participate in and support human-rights based development and still lead my life, and NGO P’Suvit helped me understand that. This path, as I see it, focuses more on the actions individuals can do in their own lives to work against development, like using solar panels for energy or riding their bike places instead of taking cars. It might not seem like much, but I believe something is better than nothing…and you have to start somewhere.


Catherine said...


I am still thinking about your introduction, how you refused to jump around and yell about the world's ills until you had come up with an alternative. I absolutely agree with this. It has always been easy for me to critique society and our system. To me it is obvious that capitalism works to the advantage of the minority. The majority of the world's population does not benefit from this system. We don't change the system because the marginalized have no voice.

I feel like I've thought this for a long time, but I've never been in a place to actually express these ideas. Like you, I didn't want to just throw out criticisms without also offering up alternatives. I have thought about alternatives to our global capitalist system and I couldn't come up with anything that really seemed to work. In different classes, I studied socialism and communism. Some of the theories appealed to me, but in practice none of these ideas seemed to make sense.

Here in Thailand, I have found the viable alternative that I have been looking for. We have seen localism at work in a number of situations. We have seen organic farmers selling their produce at a green market. We have seen many communities living sustainably. We have seen grassroots organizing. We have seen villagers resisting companies who threaten their way of life. I have seen examples of localism working on a number of different levels. I have seen it working as an alternative to our international capitalist system, but I have also seen it working within this system to slowly change the way we think and live.

This discovery has allowed me to understand and believe in an alternative. This means its time to start standing up and speaking out.