When it comes to change, don’t wait for governments. As citizens we need to take the initiative, says Sara Larrain. A conversation on the limitations of economic growth, the blind spot of price fixing, Santiago supermarkets and the need to develop our own vision.
Marco Visscher and Jurriaan Kamp | February 2003 issue
For more than 15 years Chile’s annual economic growth has been around 6%; a real Latino “tiger”. Yet one in four Chileans struggle daily against poverty; the cuurent rate of deforestation means there won’t be a tree left standing in 2025; and fish stocks are already so low they can hardly support Chile’s fishing fleet. Qué pasa?
My question is met with an inquisitive look from across the table. But Sara Larrain does not pause for long: ‘Chilean economic competition is based on low wages, the export of natural resources and the unequal distribution of wealth. Chile has the greatest gap between the rich and the poor after Brazil. The advocates of globalization as we know it emphasize economic growth. But growth itself is no guarantee that people also benefit from that growth.’
Some years ago, Larrain realized that to merely point out the illusions of economic growth is not enough. After years of activism with environmental, human rights and peace groups, she decided it was time to come up with an alternative development model. She founded her own political party, the Partido Alternativo de Cambio (Alternative Party for Change), and was a candidate in the 1999 presidential elections, when she wrote her voluminous Chile Sustentable (A Sustainable Chile), which is also the name of the organization she manages today.
Larrain has become disillusioned with politics. ‘It’s become clear to me that we have nothing to expect from governments on the path to a sustainable economy. It wasn’t the goodwill of governments, but the years of pressure from social movements which led to the first conference on durability and the environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. And last year in Johannesburg, we had to conclude that precious little has been achieved since.’
Her politic cynicism has been replaced by consumer optimism. Don’t wait for the next elections, take control next time you go shopping, she says. ‘You can make a daily contribution to change, for instance by always choosing actions that promise the best contribution to sustainable development. By riding on the bus instead of in your car. By buying organic food. By using solar panels. Those are individual choices, and they are the only alternative. Governments are not going to make them for you.’
Sustainability is not only influenced by the quality, but also the quantity of consumption. Larrain: ‘The United States and Europe will have to consume less if the South is to consume more. The point is not to have the entire global population adopt a modern Western lifestyle; we’d need four or five planets to do that. I realize it’s not going to be easy to tell people in the South that their future does not lie in the Western affluence they see on their TV screens. The future we have to fight for is completely different from modern life in the West. We have to think about a completely new lifestyle for the entire planet. We have to ask the crucial question: How much is enough?’
But how realistic is it to expect a shoeshine boy from Santiago to by expensive organic food? ‘The problem is that food prices do not reflect the actual costs of production,’ Larrain explains. ‘Supermarkets in Santiago sell Argentinean apples at a lower price than those of local Chilean farmers. Because the environmental costs, as well as the social costs, are not calculated. So prices offer a distorted picture of reality. Consumers are being steered in the wrong direction.’
The right direction, according to Larrain, is towards local modes of production and consumption wherever possible. In order to bring a sustainable economy within reach, the principle of subsidiarity should be employed: only that which cannot be done locally is done regionally; only that which cannot be done regionally is done nationally. ‘This results in a significant drop in transportation and therefore in energy use, for example. Labeling is important. If labels were to read: “No unnecessary transportation, no chemical additives, no industrial fertilizers have been used to produce these products,” then local markets would naturally become more important. That would be a turning point in the present process of globalization.’
Many assume that the ability to influence price fixing is an international, political affair. But Larrain thinks change can also be effected on a local or regional level. She gives the example of a Chilean timber factory that refused to build a sewage treatment plant as required by national law. The company offered to build a 20-mile long pipeline instead to carry its cellulose-rich sewage water to sea, where it would have polluted the bay of a small fishing community. The villagers engaged in a head-on confrontation with the local authorities, who were under pressure to accept the company’s offer. They won, and the company was finally forced to build the plant after all.
For Larrain, there is no doubt that citizens across the world will achieve more and more such successes. ‘We have delegated our power to governments, but it’s becoming clear to ever more people that governments do not look after our interests, and that they do not provide for our needs. We must realize that the ultimate power lies with us. That is the real essence of the World Social Forum. It is proof of the vast diversity, the hope and power of global civil initiatives.’
‘It is often thought that there are only two power blocks in the world: international politics, and international business. But there is also the people’s power, and it’s increasing every day. The only problem now is that that power is led by the fact that we are against the ongoing globalization process. But ultimately, it is not enough just to say ‘no.’ The challenge is to develop a clear alternative vision. It is not about being against somebody else’s vision, but about being for our own vision.’