The COVID pandemic highlighted the deepening water crisis. “Do we understand that over half the population of the world doesn’t have a place to wash their hands with soap and warm water?” says water warrior Maude Barlow.
Welcome to Economics & Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. I’m here today with an extraordinary guest. Maude Barlow from Canada, is an activist and an author. She’s written 19 books, and she focuses on many things for the common good, but most preciously - and I’m an Aquarian - water. I have followed her work since I was involved in UN Commission in 2008, and she was the special adviser to water there, for the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly.
She’s the recipient of 14 honorary doctorates, as well as many other awards. And she won the 2005 Right Livelihood Award, known as the alternative Nobel. She is someone who I’ve watched on film, Water on the Table, and a new film, I think it’s called the Lords of Water. Though I haven’t seen the title page yet, I just got the advance viewing. The combination of passion, intellect, and unrelenting nature, is something I want to foreshadow for all of our young scholars who tune in today. Maude, thanks for joining me.
Well, thank you for that lovely introduction, and thank you for having me, Rob.
Well, it was earned, and I know in watching you in the movies, the kind of resistance that you’ve overcome with your perseverance. It reminds me of someone we’ll talk about later and its Dr. Martin Luther King. But like I said, as a sailor and an Aquarian, the fact that you’re focused on water, I’m a pre-convert. So let’s talk. Let’s start with, you’ve been doing this for years and years and years. I mean, 30, 40 years of depth and knowledge, but we just had a pandemic come out in, I use the silly joke, unmask many things that we need to address, the fault lines and melodies of our society. How has the pandemic affected your vision, and what you see in relation to water?
Well, the most shocking thing I guess, was when we first all learned about this COVID-19 back in March of 2020. We were told the most important thing to do is wash your hands with soap and warm water. And the United Nations immediately put out a statement saying, “Do we understand that over half the population of the world doesn’t have a place to wash their hands with soap and warm water?” And that was so stunning. I mean, I knew that, but I think for a lot of people, this was brand new, it’s far away, and nothing to do with them.
And I think COVID has shone a spotlight on many, many, many things. In a new book, I’m writing on hope, I talk about what can come out of a bad time and I use the Second World War as an example, what came out of the conflagration of the Second World War, was the first framework for human rights globally. I mean, we’d never had anything like that, the 1948 made a declaration on the human rights, and so on. A whole legal body of jurisprudence came together.
What can come out of COVID, is an understanding that number one, we are playing fast and loose with nature, we are killing nature, we’re destroying our forests and our wetlands and our soils and most particularly, our waterways and this must stop. And this is the hopeful part, because I’ve written about this in a new book that I’ve just written on hope that there is, what I call a tsunami of understanding that we have to stop destroying nature. We have to restore watersheds and so on. But the other thing that I think that came through very, very clearly is that, those people living in places where they don’t have access to clean water and when I tell you, you’re talking about kids in school, no toilets, no place to wash their hands. I’m talking about health clinics.
There are studies that show anywhere in certain countries, anywhere from a quarter to over half the health clinics, don’t have running water. Can you imagine that in any case, but then try adding Coronavirus complications to that? And I think what it’s done, is it’s simplified a lot of things for a lot of us. What do we value? What matters? How can we hold on to what we have? How can we restore what we’ve destroyed? How can we adapt and think about values that are not so materialistic? And I think everybody I know has gone through this kind of metamorphosis and I think it’s been profound.
And one of the things is that, it has shone a light on the lack of human rights to water. We have well over two billion people who were forced to drink contaminated water every day because they don’t have access to clean water. 2.5 billion don’t have the most basic sanitation, even more basic than you know, they’re literally defecating in a lake or a ditch somewhere. We have well over three and a half million people dying every year of waterborne diseases, the biggest killer of children, including all forms of violence, including war put together, waterborne disease kills more children.
One of the positive things that may have come out of this virus is this pandemic, is that I don’t have reports on this, but I think it’s being worked on at the UN. But I have anecdotal evidence that a number of the aid agencies and government aid programs for the Coronavirus in the global south, has gone to sanitation and to permanent sanitation, realizing that this pandemic, a future pandemic, whatever, just like the argument about vaccines, so we’re all vaccine or a lot most of us in the so called First World. But if we don’t care, or don’t ensure that those vaccines reach those in other countries, nobody’s safe, even if you don’t care, which of course we do. But even if you don’t, it’ll come back to you, and we can’t leave this situation as it is.
So there’s a silver lining here, and that’s why I made the comparison to the Second World War because what silver lining could have come out of such or well, knowing that it must never happen again is one thing, right? And what we need to do now is my goal, my long term goal, I talk about turning the world blue one community at a time, is to have clean, safe, public, accessible, affordable water everywhere. That’s got to be the goal. And if we have that as a goal, then we’re going to build in certain kinds of legislation, we’re going to bring in certain kinds of policies. If we think about those millions are expendable, we don’t care, then you’re going to bring in different kinds of policies and you’re going to use water in a different way. So it’s really important to assess and assert that value and I think the Coronavirus pandemic has helped us clarify these issues.
It’s a wakeup call for sure. And how we put together the means to first identify and then address the challenge is very important. Let’s go to the building blocks. Our Institute for New Economic Thinking, obviously is centered in the economics profession. A lot of people emphasize markets because they say if something is scarce in high demand, then pricing will help people conserve. Others say, the incentives from pricing, will inspire innovation and investment and expand the supply.
On the other hand, there’s a great deal of awareness. And I often point back to an old part of the history of economic thought at the time of Adam Smith. A man called the Earl of Lauderdale said, “What do you mean air and water have no value? If you turn them off, we all die.” He was pointing out what they continue to argue is the difference between exchange value on the one hand and used value. And most painfully, well you will not survive, if you don’t have access to something, people can really exploit you. They can have you say back you up against your despair and extract a great deal from you, and they do.
I’m from Detroit, Michigan. I saw the big water tank in Highland Park, free the water that the young people drew. As people were shutting off the water throughout that city during the time of the bankruptcy, I saw the Flint water crisis close and I don’t want to be too simplistic, but I was scratching my head because Flint is so close to Lake Huron. I used to sail on Lake Huron, you could take a ladle and put it in that lake and to have a drink and this was back in the ’70s, I don’t know if the water has deteriorated.
But the idea that you’re having this crisis that close to that shoreline, it’s almost like I wanted to buy everyone a kayak, so they could just ride out with a glass and take some out of the lake. But when human systems get involved, this is the other side. When human systems get involved, it really can be exploited, and not for good. So how do we resolve the role of these mechanisms perhaps in improving things on the one side, versus the links about exploitation, and neglect and exacerbating painful inequality on the other?
Well, for one thing, I think we need to distinguish between saying that we’re going to put a price on water as in buying the water or owning the water, which actually exists in some places. Australia actually, and Chile are the two biggest examples of this, where they’ve actually taken the water, separate it from the land, given people the right to buy and sell it, and so the prices have just gone through the roof and people can’t afford it. There’s a difference between that and asking for a service charge, for the clean water that comes into your home and the wastewater service that goes out. You’re not owning the water, it’s still a commons, a public trust or a human right. But you’re paying for the service.
So I don’t think anyone is saying, we are all saying, no one should be denied water, because if they’re too poor to pay, and you need to know there are many 1000s every single year in the United States who get their water cut off. It wasn’t just in Detroit, from an inability to pay. So we believe strongly that there need to be mechanisms to help work out payment schedules for people who can’t pay. But we’re not talking about free water, of course, we’re going to pay a service charge for that service that costs a lot of money to bring clean water into my home.
Now what you’re asking Rob, is terribly important distinction here. Is water a commodity or is it a commons? Is it a public trust? And this is very important, because we have declining water sources in our world. You read these headlines every day, the Middle East is running out of water, Indonesia is running out of water, 11 major cities in India are going to be out of water, 22 countries in Africa, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, we are in water crisis. If you look at the graphs at the UN and others, the demand for water is going straight up and the supply is going straight down, arrow is in two different areas.
We need desperately to say that water must be a protected commons that we come together, and we make rules about who has access, who should not be allowing unlimited access by big bottled water companies, or big fracking companies or whatever to water that we need for life. So we need a hierarchy, a priority of needs for the water sources. And it’s going to be different if there’s more water here, maybe the rules can be a little looser, but if there’s less water here, they should be pretty tight. But if you say that it’s a commodity, and many people do, the World Bank basically sees it as a privatized commodity, there are big bottled water companies, many of the food companies, we thought this out at the UN, think that and say the best way to deal with the crisis that I’ve just described, this human crisis, this ecological crisis, is to bring water into the market, put a price on it, and the market will take care of it.
Well, that’s true, it will. Millions more will die, many millions more will be permanently ill because they’ll never have access to clean water and those who can afford it, will have all the water they need for their swimming pools and golf courses and everything else if that’s what we want, if that’s the society we want, that’s the society we’ll get if we think of it that way. There is what I call a continuum of ways to see water as a commodity. There’s the privatization of water services, which started with Pinochet, the dictator in Chile, which is being undone now with the new constitution led by an indigenous woman by the way, which I think is a very, very lovely piece of information.
And at the World Bank, Margaret Thatcher started water privatization in England in 1987. And then the World Bank said, “Well, that’s great, then we’ll just take that model, and we’ll only give funding for poor countries that need water infrastructure and water services. We’ll only give the money if they bring in a private company.” And they brought in these big companies, Suez and Veolia and so on and there were water wars, particularly all over Latin America because the deal would be private between the elites in the country and the World Bank and the CEOs of these companies and the local people, their prices would go through the roof, the services would be terrible.
And we actually, there’s been such a fight back against privatized water services that there are now 337 cities in the world. Many of them large like Paris and Berlin, that tried water privatization, and it brought water back under public management. Then you get to the next level, which I talked briefly about a minute ago, which is where you’re actually buying and selling the actual water. And we have added the American West with the first and time, first and right system, which is not working and California has to go back to the basics, and redefine its law. The laws were made to bring people and ranchers and miners and businesses and settlers out to California 150 years ago, it should not be applying to a state that’s running out of water, right?
But that notion of separating water and then selling it, brings it up a tad closer to what I call them, the financialization of water. Now you have water assets on the stock market, you can bid, you can make money on the water crisis. And then the latest is the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which they allow Bitcoin futures and then they allow water futures, by just starting with California. And basically what you’re doing, you’re no longer buying and selling the actual water, you’re buying water futures. So you’re saying, “Well, I think there’s a drought here Jeepers.” Do I ever pick up a newspaper that there isn’t a leading story on the crisis in California? Maybe I’ll buy a whole whack of water futures, and then I’ll hold on to it. And of course, I’ll make a fortune in a few years.
And they actually have the nerve to claim some of these companies, that they’re doing this to help conserve water, and they explain how that would happen, right? And who’s got the money for that? It’s the big banks, it’s the big equity funds, it’s the big investors, it’s the big agribusiness companies. It’s not you and me, it’s not the small farmers who desperately need it, it’s not the small indigenous communities. So if that’s allowed to continue, you’re going to see more and more control of water in the hands of people who know nothing about water, nothing about the environment, nothing about sustainability, couldn’t care less. I don’t mean as individuals, maybe they’re nice people as individuals, but it’s the dead hand of the market, they have to make money, there’s no reason they would be there if they’re not going to make a profit from it.
So it’s very important from the perspective of our movement, our global social water justice movement, that we say very clearly that water is a public trust, that we need laws and controls to protect water as a public trust, as a commons, that we need laws and priorities around who has access and why. I mean, why do we have bottled water companies coming in and taking our bottled water when the water coming out of our taps is clean and safe? It’s just we need to ask these hard questions. We are Rob -
I can’t say this strongly enough - a planet running out of accessible clean water, and it isn’t just climate change. We always hear it’s climate change created this drought. Oh, maybe. It sure had a hand in it, but it could also be because you dammed the rivers all to death and you pulled up your groundwater way faster than nature can replenish, that the Ogallala Aquifer is going to be gone in our lifetime. People don’t understand that technology that they developed after the Second World War, the circular groundwater technology, that green the deserts, that’ll be gone. And when it’s gone, what will we use? What will people use? Well, everybody is going to turn to the Great Lakes, I can tell you that.
So we need to say water is a public trust, a commons, and a human right. And then you start to say, well, then what priorities do we place on it and who has authority over access and who should be allowed to dump their toxins into this water. In my country, two governments ago, but it hasn’t been undone. The government of the time, allowed mining companies to apply to the government to rename a lake, a tailings impoundment area so it would no longer be protected by our legislation, which is the Fisheries Act, the same as your Clean Water Act. There’s dozens of them, these beautiful lakes that are now just dump sites for mining waste, but they’re not protected because they’ve been renamed presto, they’re not like lakes anymore.
So this is how the law could work when we’re not clear about, we need water for life, we’re a planet running out of water. You can have all the human rights in the world if you don’t have the water there, people are going to go without, and it isn’t just in the global south Rob, and it’s really important to say this. I was in Los Angeles a year and a half ago when it became a blue community, which is when a municipality vows to protect water as a human right. And to protect, not to end - promise not to privatize it and to protect it as a commons. And they also promised to phase out bottled water, plastic bottle water on municipal premises and events and so on.
There are a million people in the Greater Los Angeles area that don’t have access to clean water and sanitation. We’re not talking a country on the other side of the world, we’re talking right here. So it’s kind of a mindset, and when you say when we come to an agreement, that water is not running shoes, although I want everybody to have shoes, but water isn’t cars. Water is essential for life, it’s limited, it’s not only the same amount of water, it’s the same water that was in the blood of dinosaurs, we must take care of it, we absolutely must, and making it sing to the tune of the market, is wrong.
Now, as I say that, and you mentioned earlier, if it’s valued is nothing, what does that mean? And there is a movement to put a price not by charging for water or nature, but to try to assess and this has been done actually, in lots of places in the US, in my country Canada, trying to put a dollar figure on what a forest is worth or what a lake is worth, the service it provides. And where I understand the thinking of the good people behind that, because what they want is to be able to say, “Well, in a competitive market, that force is giving us clean air, it’s protecting the water, it’s a carbon sink. I can show you in dollar cents why we should keep it.” Well, what if it’s full of walnut trees, and somebody comes along and says, “I can make more money on it than the dollar amount you put on it.”
So it’s a double edged sword, and I think we need to be really careful when we talk about natural assets, the assets of nature or natural capital, you’ll hear that language, then you start hearing about, well, like we have carbon offsets, now you’re hearing about water pollution trading, which started in Chesapeake Bay in your country, and then you’re using the market and you’re using the argument that we need to protect water by putting a price on it, you’re using it to bring it into the market on the markets terms. And I think that’s a potential slippery slope. It needs to be, I quote Martin Luther King who said, “Legislation may not change the heart, but it will restrain the heartless.” We need the rule of law.
And I would point your listeners to Food & Water Watch in the United States, it’s a really, really fine organization and full disclosure, I’m on the board that’s fighting for good law, for water and food. And they are proposing what’s called a Water Act, water affordability, investment in infrastructure and so on, that really people can get behind, because one of the worries right now in your country is, as municipalities are so strapped with, particularly through the COVID crisis, that these private water companies are coming in and saying, “We’ll give you money and we’ll take over your water services. And if you don’t have any money, you feel you don’t have a choice. So how can we together, not allow that to happen?”
I had a, how do they say, a premonition of that experience, because at the time of the Detroit bankruptcy, they wanted to have, I believe it was a French company, Swiss takeover Detroit water and sewage, so that they could lay off all the employees and not pay them a pension and create a windfall for themselves, and somehow this was solving the problem. Activists, obviously stopped and thwarted that very quickly. But you’re right, what you might call the private interests, they may not see the entire, what you might call social ramification of what they pursue.
One of the things that I get, a lot of people are concerned about, is the pretend notion that markets and politics are separable domains. And what I often refer to in these podcasts is the commodification of social design and enforcement, becomes the problem because if money plays too big of a role in politics, it’s hard to imagine what you might call the architect or the referee, being able to design or enforce or implement something which has, what you might call characteristics of the common good. And everything gets refracted by money, as to some information that comes through advertising, as to some education in schools are dependent on money.
So how we get to people with truth, vision, design, inspiration, fuel activism, is many times outside the system. It’s people like you, but I’m very, very concerned. I read lots of history of thought. Someone like Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. There was almost this sense that markets were overdone and government would be good, and the New Deal kind of showed that rebalancing, at least for white people.
But the notion that somehow now, people in America who are progressives would say, let’s have more government, a lot of them think government has captured. And some of the strength that libertarians have is that they say, “We can’t rely on government, the system is rigged.” And I think that’s part of why Donald Trump was so popular in the aftermath of the great financial crisis. So I guess this is a long winded way of leading to a question. How do you maintain your stamina and your perseverance with the vision and the ideas that you have, but which are micro challenges of implementation? How do you maintain your resolve?
Well, I’m going to go back, I’m not going to forget your question. But I want to just say that I was in Detroit many times over that issue. And I don’t know if you ever remember reading that a group of Canadians brought public water over to Detroit? So that was us, that was my organization.
Whoa, whoa. I mean, whoa. It was a [crosstalk 00:27:19].
So Homeland Security guys at the border, they knew we were coming, and I mean, what were we bringing? Great big jugs of water. Of course, it didn’t make a difference, it was totally symbolic. But it was the most beautiful meeting of activists, mostly African Americans, because that’s who’s on the end of the shot, the cut offs are our poor people, older people, people of color. It was just a very, very moving event where we just exchanged. We said this is clean public water, our gift to you and your right to have this.
Your question is really important. I often look to my own country, as it was at a particular time, not now. When I think we found a balance between private and public, because I’m not against the private sector, I don’t want governments making running shoes, speaking of running shoes or cars or whatever. We have a very big country, and a lot of its cold, and a lot of it’s still remote. And the government’s realized that if they were going to provide health care services, or be able to move people one place or another, or deliver mail or wherever, they had to have public services, because you couldn’t make enough money going into remote areas, as a private industry.
So we have what I call a mixed economy, and the question was, what is, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and what is appropriate for the government to be doing and providing and the collective and where do you want the entrepreneurship to come from, because I think there in the water area, there’s a whole lot of exciting stuff happening coming from the private sector around new technology. So you don’t want to dampen that. And I still, for me, I don’t know how to put it. It doesn’t sound very exciting or romantic, that that balance is something that I think we’re trying to seek.
I do believe with all my heart, that people have the right to good governance. And if they don’t have it now, that doesn’t mean they should give up on it, and we should not be cynical. We should not be cynical, we should get up every morning and say my right to good governance continues, and this bad government or maybe you don’t want that bad government or whatever, we can change, we can do something about it. I do think I have to say in your country that your new president and though his party cares, are they perfect? Nope. But I think by President Biden sees things through new eyes.
I’m heartbroken with everybody else with what he’s going through in Afghanistan and so on. But I think who picked up the whole neoliberal conservative, give the markets everything, the full free trade agreement, never saw a free trade agreement that they didn’t love. It was Bill Clinton, and it was Obama, it was the Democrats sounding cool and being cool and saying all the right things, but giving so much power to the corporations and listening so much to big oil and big fracking and the big investors. But we know who they were listening to, we know who gave the money.
And I have some feeling, some faith that this President wants to change that, wants to reverse courses, and wants deeply to put America back on a new path. Again, not to squash squish, or whatever the word is. Entrepreneurship and exciting ideas, not to do that, but to ask that vital question, what is the role of government, public education, renewing public health, all the things that we need for a good life. I don’t know if you’ve been reading Kate Raworth, the Doughnut economy concept. She’s an economist. I love her.
I know her. Yes, yes.
Okay, well then you’ll know her work. And basically, she says, rather than the growth economy, which is the straight up or straight down, we’d have a Doughnut shaped economy. And on the outside, are all of the environmental thresholds we cannot break. I mean, this is the planet, this is like being sustained, what do we need to do to protect that. On the inside, are all the things that we humans need. The real things we need, not all the stuff we may want. And she calls the sweet spot, is that part in between in how we get there.
I think we need to have that kind of thinking, and I’m hopeful in your country, that you’ve got a government with that kind of vision. And not to say there aren’t problems in the Democratic Party and not disagreements, you can see them from anywhere on Earth, right? But I do believe that there’s an understanding in giving everything to the corporations. Look, you want to know how I got into the water issue, nothing to do with the environment. It wasn’t even specifically to do with human rights. It was reading the Canada–US Free Trade Agreement in 1985, between President Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who was a Reagan titan, and they came up with the first modern free trade agreement in the world.
And by free trade, they didn’t mean nice, take down some borders and take down some quotas. No, they meant give over to the market. All the decisions about finance, about the market, about the economy and governments, will have a smaller and smaller and smaller roll. And with every new trade agreement, governments are reduced. I was at the Battle of Seattle in 1999.
And got tear gassed and everything, it was an amazing event. And I remember when Bill Clinton called the head of the WTO and said, “Shut it down, shut it down.” There were 1000s of reporters from all over the world and they were sending stories home on child poverty and the environmental destruction and human rights and the rights of working people instead of the glories of the market, but it was Clinton who loved that stuff. And in our country, it was the Liberal Party, just as much maybe more than the Conservative Party. So we have a lot of questions for these neoliberals in the so called progressive parties. And I think that’s part of why so many people were so angry and voted for Donald Trump because NAFTA came along, and just took the rug out.
Anyway, I started to tell you about water. So back in 1985, I’m reading the Canada–US Free Trade Agreement, which was the predecessor to NAFTA, because NAFTA then included Mexico. I’m looking at the annex at the back that gave a list of all of the goods, tradable goods that were to be now disciplined by the new trade agreement, which is basically the government saying, “Get your hands off. These are free trade goods. These are the things that are going to be traded without government interference,” and there was water in all its forms including ice and snow.
And Rob, I can remember looking at it and thinking What? What, water?” And we had been fighting a couple of huge proposals to move them commercially by pipeline, water from Canada’s north or from Quebec through the Great Lakes to California, and Texas and the thirsty parts of the United States, not as a humanitarian thing, very much as a commercial enterprise, and we had stopped these water exports. And when I looked at that, I thought that’s what this is about. That is about freeing up, or removing I should say, government right to interfere in the commercial export of our water.
Ditto with our energy, we signed what’s called Proportional Sharing, which meant we couldn’t have our own rules for our own energy, it was absolutely outrageous that we did that. So that’s what got me interested. I thought, “Well, I don’t understand,” and it sent me on a journey, which then took me all over the world, from the slums of the poorest communities in the world to the UN, understanding that this is a fundamental fight around the human right to something that we need for life. And it should not be in a free trade agreement and shame on anybody who thought that you could trade water like running shoes, I keep using that example, and think that it’s the same thing, but that’s how I got involved.
It was because that notion of neoliberal, free for all the market knows everything, corporations are the best. Do you know, of the worlds 100 leading economies, 69 are corporations, 31 are countries, what does that tell you? How much power these corporations have? You asked me how I keep going, I keep going because there’s such a wonderful group of people around the world, in my country, in my community and around the world who have formed a bond. And so in my new book, I talk a lot about this, it’s called, it’s not out yet. It’s called Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism. And I talk about the need to see the long view. It may not happen in your lifetime, it may take longer than that, and you don’t know what to win.
You think this is the goal you have, well, maybe you didn’t get there, but you built a wonderful movement. You got a whole bunch of young people you brought in, you educated a whole new group, you met a whole new group of people, you moved something you might not have understood and the fruits of that will come in a different time. It’s understanding that the need to disconnect from, if I wasn’t successful, then to hell with it, I’m going to go away. No, you can’t have that kind of view, you must have hope or what one American philosopher calls wise hope. It’s not Polanyi’s, everything’s fine, so don’t worry.
It’s real hope, and you have to allow for grief. And you have to allow for burnout and watch for it and be kind. I talk a lot in my book about the need to be kind to one another because we don’t tend to be that kind to each other sometimes in our movements. If you’re fighting something too big, well, I’ll fight you instead because you’re a small fry, and I can turn on you instead. So the need for us to come together, but I am hopeful. As I said earlier, out of the Coronavirus crisis, is a new awareness of the need for sanitation in places that don’t have it and permanent sanitation. Out of this is coming a new consciousness of our global connections.
I mean, we are one human family and I feel that that’s been very, very clear and we just owe it. I’m not rich, I’m middle class I guess. But I live in a safe city. I was given opportunities that many people weren’t, I recognize the parts. Part of it is the color of my skin and when and where I was raised, and I feel I have a responsibility not to give up because to give up is to give up on behalf of the people around the world who are in desperate situations and who need us to continue to care, support them in any way we can. Whether it’s funding or sharing technology or just being there for them. I mean, to give up because I’m petulant, or I didn’t get all my way, is to give up for people who need us. And anyway, there’s nothing nicer than getting up in the morning and caring something about something besides yourself. I really do believe that, I think it keeps you healthy.
I think it’s very healthy and that, how do I say? Deeper sense of values that you’re imparting in this conversation is a wonderful example. And also as I listened to you in this last segment, your concerns about the neoliberalism and your contrast, which I might call the empathetic projection that Joe Biden is capable of, was very interesting to me because I felt like I lived in the city, that America divorced when it was going down. And I watched my parents friends, getting things like we now call diseases of despair. Alcoholism and suicide were very prevalent at the time, and I saw people blaming the victim.
So you could anesthetize the rest of the country, to think that the American dream was still alive, that these people made a mess themselves, and partly because of racial conflict. After Lyndon Johnson passed the civil rights and Voting Rights Acts, you couldn’t get Democrats on the self, to transfer resources to Detroit. So Detroit was no longer part of the nation, it was on its own. And that was very, very hard for me to experience and then to go to an Eastern University, and you’re all about equilibrium and economics and how the market would solve everything.
So I think, what you might call the journey and the pain that you’ve been through, is actually partly the fuel for your perseverance as I listened to you. I feel that that pain, tells you, you’re on the right track, and that’s an extraordinary example for people of any age, people in their ’60s looking for a restart, there’s still a lot to put your shoulder to the wheel and get gone. But I think when you talk about the despondency, this is one thing I’ve really loved in what you’ve just presented. Still Hope is the next book. Inside it, you’re saying, we can’t be angry.
I’m watching people tearing each other apart when we need a coalition, and I watched the despair, that economic dysfunction, partly related to globalization, automation, machine learning, climate fears, what have you, created a despair that fueled a Trumpian like energy, but it also fuels racial animosity and others where the economy goes down the polarization and the blaming or even what you might call confected of an “other,” rather than seeing them as a human, seeing them as an other, there’s something you can blame, gets you to a place where we can’t possibly work together, we can’t build a better education system, when everything’s fragmented across all these different artificial divisions when we’re all humans.
So when I saw you were or listened to and observed you saying, you can’t afford to be essentially hateful, because you’re actually shooting yourself in the foot. So I feel like, I don’t know. You’re a real beacon, that’s what I’m saying. You’re a real beacon. And I want to take this to other places, because you’re on a commission of, I think it’s a commission on globalization that you’re on the board of? Globalization is very interesting because at some level, especially when we relate to climate type issues, it’s a planetary challenge and we all have to work together.
At another level, people are always suspicious of government, that isn’t intimate, that’s too far away. They can say, at the level of the intimate local government, we see the problems, but they don’t have the power to handle. The people that have the power to handle them, are so far away to recognize the pain. And so I’m wondering how you view globalization. Traditional economists are saying free trade is wonderful. It’s more opportunities and possibilities and migration is nourishment. My Canadian friend John Ralston Saul, makes these arguments beautifully about migration, and the nourishment rather than the danger. But the point I’m concerned about, is globalization, a system where public servants, politicians, do not have the power to implement and realize the design that we all need, and how do we overcome them?
I think Rob, it depends on what kind of globalization we’re talking about. I am entirely in favor of globalization of, but with respect, for others cultures, and languages and literature, and art and music and food, and I’m totally pro immigrant. I mean, we’re a land of immigrants, and it just makes us richer. There is just absolutely no question about that. What concerns me, and our movement, is what we call economic globalization, which is basically where you say, well, governments will do this little bit over here, but the economy will be now ruled by the market and the financialization of the economy where you’re not even investing in stuff anymore, you’re investing in investing, you’re investing in speculation.
It’s giving over and that’s what these free trade agreements do. They give over to corporations in the private sector, huge rights to determine policy and the rights of the situation for all of our lives. I mean, one of the fights that we’ve had and we’re winning this one I think, is this ISDS, the investor-state dispute system, which was in NAFTA for the first time in modern trade agreements, there were a few ones through the ’50s and ’60s. But it’s where a corporation basically gains the right for a free trade agreement to act like a country and lay a charge against the other country, their signatory state, if they don’t like their regulations. And Canada has spent millions, have paid millions of dollars to mostly American corporations out of NAFTA.
Now, when I say we’re winning, we’ve had a global fight against ISDS, because it’s just gives corporations huge powers and it’s not included in the revised NAFTA, the Canada-US-Mexico Trade Agreement. It’s out. It’s not out totally between the US and Mexico, but it’s greatly reduced. If the European Union has promised that they will not have ISDS among them or in any future trade agreement, and then we built a movement that actually has fought back and we’ve actually impacted governments and President Biden has said he would never sign another agreement that gave corporations that kind of power.
So I know that we can move ahead. I watched the International Monetary Fund, you should read them. They sound like one of my groups. They’ve been putting out these reports that Coronavirus pandemic showed that the private sector failed, failed the world, failed the planet, failed humans and that they said the governments have to come in, governments have to come back, governments have a very important role. If you read the new IMF report, you would think something has happened, right? So we can change this.
I think that globalization, of course, a certain kind of globalization, don’t close the doors to new ideas and to the exchange of people and culture and all of that, of course not. But we do need to ask that proper question rendering on to Caesar, what is the appropriate rules of the government. And when you go too far, and say, “Oh, the market gets all of it,” that’s when what you have what you talked about, which is return on each other, because we don’t feel we have the power to do anything about the big picture.
And I want to say something, and I know we don’t have a lot of time left, but I want to say something about hope. I decided on writing this book. One evening, about a year and a half ago, I was speaking at a big event, at a great big church here in Ottawa on the Green New Deal. And there were some famous speakers, David Suzuki, and a bunch of, it was a panel of us. And it was filled with people, maybe eight or 900 people. So huge church, lots of young people, including my 16 year old granddaughter, and the other speakers were all really, really negative.
It was like it was only 10 years left for the planet, they all gave the worst statistics on the lack of climate action. The oceans are dying, the sixth great extinction, insect extinction. I know all those statistics, I got them. I am on all too many listservs, and I have to turn them off. Sometimes I think I’ll just go jump in the lake somewhere. I got up and talked about hope. I talked about Green New Deal, I talked about the blue communities where we have over 50 million people in the world living in blue community cities where they promise to protect water as a human right in a public trust, I talked about what young people can do.
And at the end of it, there was two young high school women maybe grade 12 came up and one of them was in tears and she said, “I have to tell you this is the first event like this I’ve ever gone to, and if you hadn’t spoken with hope, I would never, ever come back to another one.” I was so devastated. We need to think of what it sounds like to be 14 years old and hear the stuff that these kids are hearing and bless their teachers, they have to teach it, but you have to teach it with alongside, what are we doing?
So the whole last chapter in my book, is the good stuff that’s happening because we didn’t just discover there’s a problem now and there is as I said earlier, a tsunami of interest in understanding that we have to protect nature, we have to protect and restore soils, and forests and wetlands and watersheds. It’s like, I don’t know, we all just drank the good Kool-Aid, but a new lens on our glasses or something. There’s a major push for a major international treaty on plastics, I mean, the understanding of plastic.
Africa is moving fast ahead on banning plastics. I mean, there are good stories, there really are. And what we need to do is attach our energy, even the negative energy to the good stuff that’s happening. And I keep saying, we got ourselves into this situation, we can get ourselves out of it. But if we get bogged down with despair, we walk into a blank wall. If you’re feeling that, go away and renourish it, or as Banksy, the street artist in London says, “If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit.”
Yes. There’s a wonderful book by a man who experienced a tremendous set of tragedies in his life. It goes by the name W. Mitchell. And W. Mitchell was a cable operator on the Street, Carson in San Francisco, who had gotten out of the Marines and he was a happy, good looking guy, and he got himself a motorcycle. And he got into some kind of accident, that was somebody else’s fault and it exploded and it burned him to the point where he lost his fingers and everything else.
He lived in the intensive care unit for a little while, and then started to come back. And despite all of the handicaps and so forth, he went out and got a private license as a pilot for airplanes. But then one time when he was on a plane, not as the pilot, the plane crashed, and he became a quadriplegic. And he wrote one of the most powerful motivational books for this despairing time I’ve ever come across. It’s called, It’s Not What They Do To You, It’s What You Do About It. And it was all about this horrendous constellation of things that descend upon this man, because the gas tank breaks, and he’s just engulfed in these flames. And none of these things were known, none of these things were his own folly, but he experienced this and he talked about how to dig out.
I think these schools now, there are a lot of people who are protesting the establishment, you and I could be included in that, who think just by distancing, just by distancing from the mantra of the status quo, you’ve done enough. It’s like you purified your identity. But my dad was a physician. Diagnosis is a precursor to remedy. We got to find the way beyond. We can’t just wallow in the satisfaction, that we’re not going along with the parade. And let me turn this into a question for you. If I made you the Minister of Education for the United States and Canada, what’s your curriculum look like that, say different than the baselines now, what else do people have to know?
To answer the question what kind of an education system we want, we have to ask the question what kind of society we want, and then we have to build our schools to make that. If we want a society that’s hierarchical, that’s based on class, that makes a differentiation around race and so on, if that’s what we want, then we’ll build a certain kind of school system. If we want a system of inclusivity and respect and justice, then we’ll build a different kind of education system. I would build into every single school, right from grade one, grade kindergarten, whatever, because I think these kids get it, I think they get it more than we do, any of us what they’re facing. They live it and they’ve lived it through COVID if they’re small kids and reverence for nature, a new relationship with nature.
We do not have dominion over the animals, we do not have dominion, we are just animals. We are clever, no question about it, but we are part of the ecosystem. We have to listen to the indigenous teachings that we have our First Nations people here in North America and around the world who say you’ve divorced yourself from Mother Earth, you’ve divorced yourself entirely. And you think that you can use it as a resource. I mean water is a resource for my pleasure and convenience and profit. No, it’s not. It’s the vital element of a living ecosystem, and you better respect it.
If we’re going to not destroy the world, the planet, we’re going to have to teach those fundamental values, and of course, the values of inclusion and justice. Again, I work with little kids sometimes, I’m the chancellor at a university, these young people get it, they get it and they’re working hard to bring justice and equality and diversity and respect to one another. They amaze me, and they give me an enormous hope, and I am still hopeful after all this time.
I’ll tell you a quick story that I’ve told to this audience a handful of times because one of the people I’m in most inspired by is my 12-year-old daughter, Sarah. When Sarah was very little through good fortune, my wife and I knew Naomi Klein and her husband, Avi Lewis, two Canadians. And Sarah was very inspired by Naomi, she was working on a book about corruption, The Shock Doctrine, and concentrated power. And I was working with her and doing dinners with her around.
She got to know Sarah a little bit. She inspired us to keep an eye on Greta Thunberg. My two daughters, then nine and six, went on the climate strike here in New York. And then shortly thereafter, I had an INET board meeting and two of my board members John Powell and Drummond Pike, who were friends of ours we vacationed with, were talking about how ominous climate change was, and Sarah was very quiet. In the next morning, she went to school, I drove her, she was very quiet. And at the end of her second period, I got a text, that was a poem. It’s called, “What is Everything,” by Sarah.
“What is everything? Is it all essence it or is it all answers? Is there more? Why am I all covered up? Never seen past or present or future. Is it all an illusion? Why is it all collapsing? Destroyed? All those lives not knowing, will we ever know?” Now I was very sad when I read that because that’s a lot of weight on a nine year old shoulder. And a little bit after that, when I got involved with Pope Francis and Joseph Stiglitz and a group, Jeffrey Sachs, at the Vatican, and we were talking about education reform with his group called scholarly encounters, scholas occurrentes.
They were talking about the need to receive inspiration from the children, not do a vertical drop down with what education is because we need to inspire them to stay in school, and help us find its meaning. And I read this poem to the group as an example of then a nine year old girl and the Pope has read it to many youth groups around the world. But she’s just one example, there’s bright lights like that in every classroom if we just turn an open eye to them. That in part, is why I can’t, not keep going. I can’t resign when she’s that aware. I can’t. I can’t pull back.
Too gorgeous, gorgeous example. Thank you for sharing it. Greta Thunberg, when she first learned about the climate crisis, went into a deep depression. You probably know this and she lost 27 pounds. And she said she only came out of it when she decided to take action. She said that was her saving, that was her savior, taking action, getting up and she’d sit in front of… And I happened to be in Stockholm when she first started having her sit in front of the parliament building, so we would pass her and all the people I was with just adored her and would wave to her and bring her little treats and stuff. But she then, she got better. She made herself well by taking action and this is so important to understand.
A farmer friend of mine who’s fought for the farmers for years and years, says, “When you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask yourself what is the next appropriate step to take and take it.” You can’t do everything. You can’t take the whole thing on your shoulders. If you think that something feel cozy, you maybe you thinking too highly of yourself. Do the piece of it that you can and have some faith that others are doing wonderful work too. Before he died, Carl Sagan said that, “No matter what you want to do in this world, you’re not going to be able to do it if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water.”
So he says, “So do something, don’t sit there, do something.” And then he says, “You are by accident of fate, alive at an absolutely crucial time in your planet’s history.” And I thought, that’s a different way of looking at it, instead of saying, “Oh, well, all these problems?” It’s an honor.
It’s an honor to be part of-
It’s call to action.
It is, it’s a call to action, and hope is action and action is hope and it’s got to be the lesson we learn. I’ve loved speaking with you Rob, this has been just terrific and I have high regard for your institution by the way.
Oh, thank you. I wanted to close by reflecting a little bit on some coincidences, with this nautical guy talking to the lady of water. And I used to carry a tag on all the things that, like Instagram or the AOL, and my code name was sail music dad. And so I think the nautical part of me, I mean my favorite authors were Herman Melville, and then probably David Foster Wallace, who’s Kenyon College commencement address called, This is Water. And then I got very deeply involved in music.
My mother was Scottish, and probably my favorite band of the ’80s and ’90s, was called the Waterboys. When we did an Edinburgh conference, I took my staff afterwards down to Glasgow, and we saw the Waterboys play. And my closest friend of 47 years, who was a baker, died three years ago, and his daughter, learned from me that I have learned from him about the Waterboys. And at his funeral, she stood up and sang and played that entire song at age 14. And what she took, is that feeling, because I’m talking now about perseverance, not sorrow.
She told us all that her father was still alive through her actions. But the song reminded me of you, by the Waterboys, is called The Whole of the Moon. And the first verse is, “I pictured a rainbow, you held it in your hands. I had flashes, but you saw the plan. I wandered out in the world for years, while you just stayed in your room. I saw the crescent, but you saw the whole of the moon.” And I think that you somehow are extraordinary and blessed, that you can integrate all these things with the emotional strength and resilience to set the kind of example that I would like to see every child learn about when they’re my daughter’s age. So thank you for your work, thank you for being here today. I look forward to the next time we talk and perhaps when the pandemic releases, we’ll get to meet in person.
That’s a promise.
Great. Thanks. We’ll talk again soon. And check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org