By Pamela Philipose, Womens Feature Service
Paris-based political scientist Susan George is one of Europe’s best-known public intellectuals. She has authored 14 books, including international bestsellers like ‘How the Other Half Dies’ and ‘Faith and Credit’. In an interview, George reflects on the challenges before the world today, in terms of the food crisis, the financial meltdown and, what she terms as the most serious crisis of all, the ecological crisis.
Q: I would like to start with your first book, which came out in the mid-1970s, entitled, ‘How The Other Half Dies’. Would you change the argument that you put forward in that book in the light of the present day world?
A: Not at all. Unfortunately. The solutions that I was proposing at that time, I saw as solutions for the future. But they have not been attended to. Of course, there have been changes in the scope of hunger and the places where it is most prevalent. Another big change is the fact that the food riots of last Spring were global in scope. That is a world first, because earlier food crises had always been local or national. There had never been a globalised food crisis of this kind due, of course, to the huge rise in prices.
It’s pretty obvious now that neo-liberal answers to this crisis have been discredited. Meanwhile, hundred of thousands of small farmers have been ruined and sent into the cities. They are precisely the ones who are now involved in food riots because they have been dispossessed of any possibility of either growing their food or buying it because they don’t have jobs. If we continue along these lines I think governments are playing with fire because they are not only contributing to destroying the base of their agricultural success and their food security, but they are creating all of the conditions for social upheaval in the future. So, it seems to me that this is a time when one can advocate different policies and hope that governments may listen.
Q: Women seem to be among the worst affected in such times of crisis.
A: In most societies, women are the first victims of hunger. In many cultures, they are the ones who prepare the food but eat after the men. I was shocked to read that nine-out-of-ten pregnant women in India are getting less than 80 per cent of the necessary caloric and protein input. Women are very often food producers but are not in control of the marketing and, therefore, not in control of the resultant income.
In fact, in societies where women are in control of the income, children are better fed and the family budget is intelligently managed. So this is an ongoing problem, it is a societal problem. It has nothing to do with the actual amount of food that is available. Cultural and anthropological factors determine how food is distributed – inside the family, community and country.
The one thing that governments do not seem to understand – something that has emerged in innumerable studies – is that an extra three years of schooling for women will mean one child less in the following generation because they are simply better able to manage their fertility.
The first impact of all structural adjustment policies, advocated by agencies like the World Bank, is to take girls out of schools because they insist on cost recovery and if a family has to educate the children, they are almost universally going to opt for educating their sons. As soon as Tanzania got some debt relief, which the government passed on to the people, the enrolment rate of girls went up by about two-thirds.
Q: What do you see as the big crises currently facing the world?
A: Well, there are so many of them that you can talk about them in plural, and in many plurals. The social crisis of poverty is getting worse. Which is to say that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. There is no hope of ever reaching the Millennium Development Goals. The social crisis was aggravated by the food crisis that hit last Spring. The volatility of food prices has not disappeared by any means and is going to be a factor to deal with unless one can force governments to seek food security for their populations. There is a water crisis.
Water stress means increasing numbers of people won’t have access to sanitation and drinking water, which means more diseases, which in turn means a health crisis. Then, of course, more recently, we had the financial crisis, which will change everybody’s lives even if they don’t have a rupee or a cent in the stock market because it is going to affect the real economy.
But what I think is ultimately the most serious crisis of all is the ecological crisis, because that is the one, which we cannot do anything about without fundamentally changing our habits. And it’s not something we can reverse. We can reverse poverty in the world today. There are many, many way in which one could start over. But not global warming. Once it’s off the charts, it’s off the charts. It’s going to make the lives of poor people unbearable in large swathes of the world, and mostly in the tropics.
The humid areas will become more humid and, therefore, more flooded, and elsewhere desertification will set in and the land will become more unproductive. We have all these predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. This process is happening faster than scientists had predicted. Most of them had forecast that these massive effects would take place around 2050. But, to give you just one example, the summer ice of the Polar circle
is half as thick as it was in 2003. That should point to how fast things are going. We haven’t even begun to measure the impacts of this crisis – in terms of immigration, in terms of mass hunger, in terms of social chaos. So that’s the one that keeps me awake.
Q: Given all this, what are you currently working on?
A: I am trying to do something – I’m speaking a lot but haven’t got down to writing as yet – about the way these various crises reinforce each other. At a time when the financial crisis has focused the minds of the elite – as long as they were making hand over fist they were never worried about tomorrow at all – let us take it as an opportunity for governments to get the banks under control. Which means citizens’ control. Let’s get the financial system back under regulatory control and use that money to invest in a green and more just future. Because there is a real opportunity to do that. All this money that has been handed over to the banks has been given to them with no collateral at all. I think the time is ripe to say, “Look, that’s our money.
Don’t let this political moment pass because that’s when we can make genuine reforms.” We’ve been in a period for 30 years of increasing neo-liberalism: deregulation, privatisation, enrichment of the few, greater inequalities, and so on. So people are a bit knocked out. But this is a moment when we can say, “Look, it doesn’t have to be this way.” There is no excuse for mass poverty, there is no excuse for hunger, there is no excuse for very many things, including gender imbalances. If we want to leave a better world to our children and grandchildren, we must seize this moment.