July 22, 2007

Notes from Summer Camp: I am not Tom Friedman

Notes from Summer Camp: I am not Tom Friedman

From Paros, among the Cyclades, in the deep blue of Odysseus’ Aegean Sea

On a Greek island that would do for paradise, we’re contemplating the near impossibility of rescuing the human habitat from earthly ruin.

The conference here is a sort of poor-man’s Davos. The 10th annual “Symi Symposium” is George Papandreou’s personal in-gathering of old and new friends among American and Euro progressives. Bill Clinton (absent this summer) is one of the old ones; I’m one of the new ones, invited because George Papandreou listens with pleasure, he says, to the podcast of Open Source.

George Papandreou may be the most comfortable professional pol I’ve ever watched. Born in Minnesota of an American mother who is here coaching him, he is the dynastic heir on his father’s side of the liberal tradition in Greek politics, and chief of the Socialist party that will be contesting parliamentary elections as soon as this Fall. George is a bridge-builder with Turks, a listener among intellectuals, a remarkably calm and confident practitioner in a political culture of shouters.

The main Symi conversation this summer centers on global warming, with guests prepared to take it in many directions. Among them: Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel economist from Columbia; Misha Glenny, British journalist and historian of Yugoslavia’s fall, now finishing a book on global organized crime; Gerd Leipold of Greenpeace International; Ronald Heifetz, the clinical analyst and coach of “leadership,” and his Kennedy School colleague at Harvard, Richard Parker, biographer of J. K. Galbraith; sprightly Anthony Barnett, the British founder of a great global website, a sort of HuffPo for grown-ups called Open Democracy; and Kemal Dervis , a Turkish progressive and Princeton-trained economist who’s now the head of the UN development program. At an informal session on Turkey’s admission to the EU, I volunteered because nobody else would that until Turkey fesses up to the Armenian genocide, one of the signal national crimes of the modern era, perhaps it shouldn’t be admitted to much of anything. Kemal Dervis was the first of a rather stunned table to come and give me a hug.

So the mood is comfy, not least because many guests have brought spouses, teenagers and tots who make all the grand survival issues cheerfully personal. But the most amazing relief for an American wanderer is to be sitting among self-styled Social Democrats whose reflex is to think and speak first and last of civil society and “the commons,” the general interest, “the republic,” as our Founders, or Plato, might have said.

Dismay and grief are the near background of our gab on global warming.

Greece’s tiny remnant of forest is ablaze not far from Athens. The fires seem to represent a culmination of well-tracked climatic and environmental trends, on one hand, and official fecklessness in confronting them, on the other. A Greek version of our Katrina has cast the country into shocked mourning: our band concert here on Paros was cancelled Thursday night because the usual music and dancing for visitors would have ill fit the Greek mood of loss and bitterness.

It’s an old story, like everything else in Greece. Henry Miller, in his book of Greek marvels, The Colossus of Maroussi, experienced and written just before World War 2, writes in a perfect anticipation of our idyll in a disaster zone:

Trees, more trees, that is the cry. The tree brings water, fodder, cattle, produce; the tree brings shade, leisure, song, brings poets, painters, legislators, visionaries. Greece is now, bare and lean as a wolf though she be, the only Paradise in Europe. What a place it will be when it is restored to its pristine verdure exceeds the imagination of man today. Anything may happen when this focal spot blazes forth with new life. A revivified Greece can very conceivably alter the whole destiny of Europe. Greece does not need archaeologists — she needs arboriculturists. A verdant Greece may give hope to a world now eaten away by white-heart rot.

Henry Miller, in my gift edition (from intern Colin Baker) of The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), page 48 in the New Directions paperback.

The context is very strange actually, as fraught as the whole numbing climate crisis. An early onset of the strong northern “Meltemi” wind nearly blew me off the pier in Athens, but there is not a windmill to be seen on the fantasy island of Paros where we talk of renewable energy. As on Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts, the local powers do not want to compromise their postcard scenery with scarecrows in the wind. Here in Greece, the brightest sun I’ve ever seen burns like a roaring furnace, but I haven’t glimpsed a solar panel anywhere.

Greece’s per capita carbon emissions are the worst in the European Union. At a break in our symposium with local politicians and citizens on Paros, George Papandreou commited himself and presumably his PaSoc party, to lightening Greece’s carbon footprint by getting it’s dirtiest coal — lignite — out of the power generating system. He didn’t say exactly when or how this would happen. There are more than 100,000 Greek jobs in lignite production.

So who is to say whether George Papandreou’s lignite line was a brave start or an empty gesture? Was it a trial baloon or the wisp of an illusion, in the spirit of Henry Miller’s pre-war dream of a “verdant Greece.” “I can see the whole human race straining through the neck of the bottle here,” Miller wrote in The Colossus of Maroussi, “searching for egress into the world of light and beauty. May they come, may they disembark, may they stay and rest awhile in peace…”

Good luck to all of us.

In sum, the catastrophe, the cure, and the conversation.

The sense of a week’s gab on global warming is that while the vision of cataclysmic climate change is unforgivingly sharp-edged, this cross-section of constructive minds has barely a clue — and not much confidence — about averting it. The consensus goal is to contain the rise of the globe’s temperature at 2 degrees centigrade in the 21st Century. A “50-50” solution might just do it: meaning a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050. But that 50 percent reduction for the world at large turns on an almost unthinkable 80 percent (!) reduction by the industrialized elite of today’s big-time carbon emitters, led by the US, which has had a hard time officially acknowledging the problem.

Nick Mabey, a congenitally buoyant “change agent” from London, threw up his hands at the conversions required in domestic and global alliances, in public and private investments, in universal definitions of justice — all unprecedented in human history. “Money and technology are not the real constraints,” Mabey observed. “We do not have the politics.” Kemal Dervis, another born problem solver, remarked darkly: “there’s a chance the world will be four times richer in 2050, and a chance that the world will be disappearing by then.”

And finally, there’s the public conversation. It leaps out of my deep media file on the climate crisis that the man who has captured the journalistic flag of the “green transformation” is much closer to being the problem than the solution. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has mapped a path of green politics to serve explicitly as a recovery road for politicians and pundits like himself who can’t yet explain how they got the Iraq war so wrong.

In an epic Times Magazine piece last April 15, “green” was Friedman’s word for the way America will “get its groove back.” The world may hate us a long time for Iraq, Friedman concurred with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it will love us for saving the environment. We will save the environment, it turns out, by a “more muscular green ideology” that embraces capitalism, patriotism, our car culture and an impatient rage to even the score with some Arab regimes we don’t like anymore, especially Saudi Arabia. It reads much more like the road into Iraq than the road past Iraq. And the final promise sounds like the nonsensical George Bush: “… green is not about cutting back,” Friedman writes. “It’s about creating a new cornucopia of abundance for the next generation by inventing a new industry.”

Friedman — of flat-earth fame — is now looking for a hill to charge, a “green” Iwo Jima, and a Green Generation to pair with the Greatest Generation. Block those military metaphors, Tom! More typical of the very few heroes of the climate fight so far are the women that got incandescent bulbs banned in Australia and plastic shopping bags banned in Ireland, the Mayor of London who is clamping down on autos, the scientists and the loony left activists like Greenpeace who have stuck to their guns on the problem itself. What the world would love from America — 5 percent of the world population producing 25 percent of the problem carbon — might be less talk of muscles and techno-magic, more modesty and an air of responsibility for the rising waters that have begun to drown Bangladesh.

Global warming, as Kemal Dervis wrapped it up here on Paros, “is an inherently multilateral problem. It may just be the topic that could bring us all together — and we badly need something like that.”

So let us Open Sorcerers make our own metaphors and find our own fresh grounds for talking about it.

Update, 7/23 7:45 pm

Chris recorded a handful of the participants. The following is Chris’s interview with Gerd Leipold of Greenpeace International. Stay tuned for more conversations.

Click to listen to Gerd Leipold (4.9 MB MP3)

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