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Mark Levine

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Why Live Earth Will Fail

Posted: 07/06/07 02:29 PM ET

Tomorrow the world will once again be blessed with a world wide concert featuring the leading concerned citizens of the rock 'n roll world playing for free (although all the free publicity certainly makes it worth while) to help educate the rest of the world about the dangers of global warming.

Live Earth certainly is long overdue. In fact, many of the same processes that are at the root of global warming -- thoughtless consumption and the wars, exploitation, environmental degradation and the wholesale violations of the rights of entire peoples -- were also at the root of the African famines that 1985's Live Aid concert were organized to combat. In the intervening 22 years, however, the situation for the majority of the world's poor has only gotten worse, not better. And we in the Global North are continuing to consume way beyond the means of the earth to sustain itself, all the while telling the rest of humanity that with enough hard work, World Bank loans and inducements (complete repatriation of profits, lax labor and environmental laws) to Western corporations to invest in their countries, they too can join the global consumer paradise. We seem always to forget to mention that if Americans, at six percent of the world's population, needs to consume about a quarter of its wealth and resources to maintain our standard of living, the idea of the rest of the world even approaching our levels of consumption, energy usage and exploitation of land, water, resources and people would mean the end of civilization, if not most life on the planet, in a very short period of time.

Two years ago, some of the same people now organizing Life Earth worked with Live Aid originator Bob Geldoff on Live 8. This time the goal was to raise awareness rather than money about the continuing plight of Africa, in order to get average citizens around the world to pressure their governments to enact the huge increases in debt relief, aid, and lowering of our own agricultural subsidies systems without which much of Africa will be doomed to sink even further into the hell of war, ecological disasters, drought and famine in the near future -- particularly as global warming becomes more prevalent across the continent.

I knew then that Live 8 was doomed to fail. And sure enough, a few months ago reports detailing whether governments who signed onto the Gleneagles Summit's call for increased aid and debt relief to Africa have lived up to their pledges revealed that almost none have. Even Bono's warning in May that the failure to live up to their promises could spark violent protests didn't move the G-8, whose leaders in their May meeting in Germany reminded us by their inaction that they were never interested in anything more than a photo up with Bono and his famous friends and maybe a few autographs for the grand-kids.

The reality is that there was no way that Live 8, as Bono argues on the concert's home page, would give "the poorest of the poor real political muscle for the first time." It is, unfortunately, most likely that the only thing that will give the poor muscle in places like Nigeria or other resource rich but horrifically corrupt and despotic states is literally muscle -- that is, powerful mass based resistance movements, with enough capacity to use violence against the corrupt governments and multinational corporations that they will be forced to share the profits extracted from the territories in which they operate with the people who live there.

Of course, the people of the third world understand this all to well. This is why, for example, in Johannesburg, ticket sales for Live Earth were tepid enough so that the concert had to be scaled back significantly. Rio's concert will draw the usual million people; but that's because Brasilians never pass up an opportunity to party, not because anything thinks Live Earth will help stop global warming. Indeed, Brasilians don't need Al Gore or Sting to advise them on the need to do more about global warming; the country is already in the lead among major CO2 producing countries through its use of locally produced ethanol instead of gasoline and other measures.

Even Geldoff has criticized Live Earth for not having a clearly defined program of action that people could engage in and pressure their governments to do the same, a criticism clearly shared by Who frontman Roger Daltrey, who exclaimed "the last thing the planet needs is a rock concert." Of course, that didn't stop him and remaining Who member Pete Townsend from doing a few concerts in Ireland this past weekend (there was no mention of whether carbon offsets were bought to cover the energy used to rock the crowd in Dublin). Similarly, Live Earth will do nothing to convince 99% of the people who watch it to take meaningful -- that is, painful -- steps towards reducing the harm their lifestyles are doing to the planet. Indeed, for all but the already greenest of us, joining the fight against global warming would be a bit like going into the UFC Octagon against Quinton Rampage Jackson-who beat reining champion Chuck Liddell in one minute and fifty-three seconds. Except that we're more like Homer Simpson than Chuck Liddell.

For me, however, the biggest problem with Live Earth is not that it is a concert, or that rich rock stars are once again telling the rest of us how to behave. Artists and art more broadly have long been crucial to successful struggles for social change, and global warming should be no different. The problem is that Live Earth is reproducing the very top down and relatively painless notion of activism that doomed Live 8, and is refusing to make clear the obvious links between global warming and the policies of the Bush Administration and other governments of supporting war and dictatorships to ensure our access to oil. And most important, the organizers of Live Earth have left the grass roots activists at the forefronts of the struggles against global warming and environmental devastation more broadly, especially in the developing world, out of the conversation when in fact they should be leading it.

The most glaring evidence of this comes from the concert that was proposed, and then canceled, for Istanbul. As soon as I heard about Live Earth I contacted the producers to urge them to include the people of the Middle East and larger Muslim world in the concert planning. After all, the strategically most important location for petroleum extraction is the Middle East, and the entire foreign policy system of the US for more than half a century has been geared, largely, towards preserving our control and/or management of the most important reserves in the region. The "military industrial complex" that President Eisenhower warned about half a century ago -- which today is more properly called the "arms-petrodollar complex" -- has been the primary planner, executor and beneficiary of US Middle Eastern policy since that time, from supporting some of the most corrupt, autocratic and violent regimes in the world, to invading Iraq, all for the sake of maintaining an "American way of life" -- exemplified by President Bush's exhortation after 9/11 for Americans to "go shopping" which is literally poisoning the planet to death.

From my frequent travels to the the Middle East I have become away of the strong if little discussed environmental movements who have sprung up with civil society's development across the region. More important, if the Middle East is at the center of the problem of global warming, it stands to reason that it should be part of the conversation about the solution, especially since the impact of global warming, particularly as regards increased desertification, will hit the countries of the region harder than almost anywhere else on earth.

I told them about the vibrant and growing rock, metal and hip hop scenes across the Muslim world, many of which are quite political, and whose members have already begun taking on issues related to Live Earth. I even put them in touch with an amazing array of environmental activists in Turkey who are at the forefront of the global warming movement in the country, and have put on huge festivals in the last few years bringing tens of thousands of people together, all in a spirit of DIY grassroots activism. They were already planning a concert on July 7 and were happy to work with Live Earth to bring in bands from around the Muslim world to make it a truly global affair (as far as I can tell, apart from a last minute addition of Yusuf Islam to the Hamburg show, there is not a single artist from the Middle East or North Africa performing at any of the concerts, although I can't be sure because not all the lists of performers has been made public).

But it was clear that this was not a major concern for the organizers, although ultimately they did decide to organize a show in Istanbul. But instead of working with local grass roots organizers who had a track record of doing exactly what Live Earth has said are its main goals, the producers sought out a big time concert promoter who was a convicted felon with ties to the mafia, a horrible reputation among artists, and who has no history of environmental activism. Sadly but not surprisingly, the Istanbul show was canceled because of "financial and logistical snags." My friends have still organized a great concert, but no one outside of Turkey will know about it.

The simple but profoundly depressing fact is that the entire world economic and political system as it exists today is based around practices that are destroying the planet slowly but surely. The corporations, political elites and others who benefit from the existing system are not good Christians and will not be swayed by Bono's religiously grounded arguments. They are not good environmentalists and will not be swayed by Al Gore's arguments at Live Earth. They will do whatever is necessary -- lie, cheat, steal, oppress, exploit, murder and wage war -- to maintain control of a world economy that sees half the world living on $2 per day or less while inequality and poverty increase in line with the amount of CO2 in the air, in order to continue to reap their huge salaries and bonuses and maintain their stranglehold on power.

Against such a superpower few alternatives exist. One is al-Qaida, but its ideology and actions have only strengthened rather than weakened the system, while enriching the oil and arms barons who most benefit from it even more than they could have ever imagined possible. Another is comprised of the multitude of grass roots movements around the world who, before 9/11 gave governments the excuse to use increasing levels of violence and abuse of rights against them, were achieving enough success in raising awareness about the current system to have been considered, for a brief moment, a "second superpower" that could potentially alter the shape of the world economic system with its demands.

In the middle stands all those movements on the front lines of the "arc of instability" around the world, who are fighting a life or death battle against western oil and mining companies and their own corrupt governments and economic elites, and who will increasingly use whatever means necessary in that struggle-in the process coming to look either more like al-Qa'eda or like Seattle's turtle people, depending on what the rest of us do to help them.

If Kanye West, Sting, Melissa Ethridge, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the dozens of other artists donating their time to the effort to combat climate change really want to do some good, they should take their digital cameras, go to the third world communities on the front lines, record their stories -- and their music -- and stand with them against the corporations and governments (including ours) who are committed to exploiting their lands and resources down to the world's last drop of fresh water and clean air. Anything less than that is just a concert, and as Roger Daltrey points out, the world already has enough of those.