Can we talk?

Today is 23 July 2011. I’m writing from the suburbs of Chicago where it has been storming all night and we are experiencing a power outage. This is not funny. Yet, I’m am inclined to laugh. Why? Well, for starters, this morning I am meant to be meeting some people at the beach – reviving a high school tradition of breakfasting at the beach before going to class. Of course, we would drive there – it is about a twenty minute drive. Now, I suspect – there being a power outage – no one is going – homes with small children will be in a state of morning chaos without electricity or hot water. In my case, the issue is that I cannot get the car out of the garage – it’s electric!  I see a cord dangling, and I’m sure that is the key – but the car is parked smack in the middle of the garage and makes access to the cord difficult. I am compelled to laugh because it seems totally absurd. But this no laughing matter. Here I am confronted by no electricity, and it is a prompt to consider seriously the ways in which I/we have become crazily dependent on it. It also a prompt to consider seriously what is ‘good’ and ‘just’ in this world.

Now you may think this will turn into an ‘anti-consumerist’ rant – but it will not. Sure, consumption is on my mind. But I am also conscious of the ways in which lack of electricity means more than being without a car. In a hospital or care home it is, for example, life threatening. The truth is, I’ve never thought of myself as an ‘environmentalist.’ Recently, however, I’ve found myself writing about the Belo Monte dam project. My primary interest in it is its displacement on the Xingu River peoples.  I engage with it primarily as an issue of human rights and self-determination, though I’m conscious of the environmental aspect, e.g. deforestation of the Amazon.

Access to electricity is at the heart of the Dam controversy. The Brazilian government is prepared to build a dam because it wants electricity for more of its people, which will in turn stimulate economic growth while decreasing poverty. Building the dam is being pitched as key to the economic and social well-being of Brazilians.  Wow. That is quite a narrative to be following.

I came to the dam controversy wearing my hat of moral outrage – having seen a picture of a sobbing Chief from the Xingu River peoples. I still feel that outrage, but  it is now tempered by an awareness of the complex range of issues and tensions at hand. I wrote about this last week. Stamping my foot and saying ‘No Dam’ is all well and good – but what about the underlying policy challenges: how to bring electricity to Brazil; how to do so in a with negligible disruption to the natural environment and indigenous communities; how to create jobs and decrease poverty? To challenge the narrative that has led to the building of the dam, we must look closely at its different core threads.

With each day, I’m wanting to explore this controversy further. It encompasses the essential challenges and complexities to building a fair and just world, to democracy, to harmonious living with each other and the planet. The decision to build the dam is laden with values, beliefs, and assumptions about human relationships and our relationship with nature. Yet, the deliberations surrounding the dam seem to sidestep or marginalise open discussion of values, beliefs and assumptions. Last week, I called these ‘grey areas.’  And today as I sit here, sans electricity, I’m becoming more and more passionate about provoking myself and others to engage with the ‘grey’ areas, with what the Institute for Global Ethics calls ‘right versus right’ dilemmas, with our fundamental beliefs and values.

I get the impression many people think that opening up deliberations about moral, social, and economic beliefs and values is what closes arguments down; that these are the seeds of stalemate and deadlock. But the opposite it true. We sidestep open discussion of these topics at our peril. Our moral codes, our beliefs, and our values are what guide us in our decisions and choices. If – in the name of progressive social change – we are wanting to people to make different decisions and choices – than we must create the spaces where we can be reflective on what we believe in and what is important to us. Only then can we move beyond ‘I’m right and your wrong’, stalemates, and resentment over what seem like unjust decisions. Only then can we being to ask and address ‘How can we move forward together and in ways that bring out the best of who we can be as human beings?’


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