Reclaiming The Commons: The Work of Social Movements

Theresa Wolfwood : A presentation for the Reading International Solidarity Centre. October 27, 2005

“…Economy is the bone, politics is the flesh,
watch who they beat and who they eat,
watch who they relieve themselves on, watch who
they own. The rest is decoration.”  from In the Men’s Room(s) by Marge Piercy

“The Soil is ours to make or mar,
and we should aim to leave it
when the time comes for us to pass it on,
in as good or better condition
than when it first came under our hand.” 

Seager Wheeler, famous Canadian farmer, 1919

Topsoil is more vital to human survival than almost any other resource, for without topsoil we cannot feed ourselves.”    Michael S. Northcott, quoted in introduction of Fateful Harvest.
A world-wide survey on food shortage was conducted by the UN. The only question asked was: “Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world?”  The survey was a huge failure…

In Africa they didn’t know what “food” meant.
In Eastern Europe they didn’t know what “honest” meant.
In Western Europe they didn’t know what “shortage” meant.
In China they didn’t know what “opinion” meant.
In the Middle East they didn’t know what “solution” meant.
In South America they didn’t know what “please” meant.
And in the USA they didn’t know what “the rest of the world” meant
. (source unknown)

This summer as I picked blackberries along a rural roadside, I thought of the First Nations people. I wondered how they knew where and when to gather the abundant food of this area. I realized that integral to their beliefs that they and land were one, they had one great commons that we all have had at sometime in out lives: they had knowledge and the knowledge gave them security as well as life. As infants we have that knowledge instinctively; we turn to the breast within hours of birth.

Image by Elizabeth Mayne


Knowledge and food are the most vital of the commons. I was asked to talk about the commons of water. I see water as food, food for the living body and food for the planet. It is the ultimate commons, constantly circling and touching the earth. The other commons is the flow of knowledge and wisdom that stretches back generations into history; the knowledge of our natural environment, of ourselves, the world around us like a sea…as the basis of life and the livelihood of humanity. Today we live in strange times, a time when knowledge of life has been twisted into the knowledge of how to destroy life. The construct of “globalization” which is another word for capitalist development, based on the growth imperative, is no longer inevitable, or soon will not be even possible. Partly because increasing numbers of people world-wide – people like us take community, survival and citizenship seriously, we are the real force of globalization- and partly because of our diminishing resources – oil, land, and water – we are using up the world. The energy crisis, peak oil is a reality in our lifetime –even for the older generation like me.

Water is a vital commons, it is the food of the earth; water is Human Rights issue: Water is a women’s issue. Women are responsible for, and in many countries they fetch and carry, the water used in households because they do the washing, cleaning, cooking and the bathing of children.  This recognition of the importance of water is evidence in a dramatic shift in global water politics that manifested in the 1991 UN decision – pushed through by international corporations and the World Trade Organization — to define water as a human need instead of a human right, meaning that it can now be bought and sold for profit by private companies. Unnecessary scarcity in 21st century is caused by pollution, industrialization, militarization and privatization.

High yield (supposedly) genetically engineered seeds, developed by European & USA companies and forced upon farmers, require more water; they replaced traditional, drought-resistant crops. Most of the water consumed in the USA is used for industrial agriculture in semi-desert regions. Since the signing of NAFTA, the USA has looked greedily at Canada’s water, to support its corporate farming. Meanwhile around the world, large dams to provide water for monoculture agriculture and electricity for industry have uprooted millions of people, left them landless, homeless and without means to support themselves.

Reading, UK, 2005.  l. to r. Ricarda Steinbrecher, Maria Mies, Bente Madeira, Theresa Wolfwood

When I went to the World Social Forum in 2004 in Mumbai, the shortage and waste of water were glaringly obvious at a conference that was convened to address such issues. Toilets leaked inside the buildings and outside, the leaking sewage from our constant use bubbled up on the grounds. In one toilet there was a graphic poster, “Your pee is cleaner than the water 1.1 billion people drink daily“. At one end of the WSF site I saw the crude huts of the workers who constructed the temporary meeting rooms and buildings; they had one well to serve their needs. So carping about

the inadequate toilets and leaky sewage on the site seems petty by comparison.

Reports from many countries indicate a critical shortage of ‘safe water’ in the cities and the rural areas, particularly in the countryside. Cholera, typhoid fever and diarrhoea are prevalent in Tanzania from contaminated water. In South Africa where private companies bought the water systems and installed meters and high prices people also get these diseases because they get their water from rivers instead. The Jordan River where Jesus was baptized is now 50% toxic & sewage. Leticia Paul de Flores of El Salvador says, “Our rivers, lakes, the surface water and the underground water are 94% contaminated… Industry pollutes our rivers.” Contaminated water from industry and domestic and farm waste pollute and endanger health of people and all life. People who have reduced immune systems due to HIV/AIDS are in great risk.

Aliyah Strauss of Israel says, “Israel has stolen the Palestinian water and is selling it back to them at prices they cannot afford…the situation is explosive.” In a recent film shown at RISC we saw Palestinians with access to water for 2 hours a week, while nearby Israelis had lawns and swimming pools. Other conflicts, as the result of water shortages may escalate into war; India has water disputes with Pakistan & China.
Yet if we were proper stewards the water that cycles continually in the atmosphere would be available for all.

We need to be aware of the dangers of the sudden popularity of bottled water, promoted by virtually unregulated private companies, wasting vast amounts of petroleum for bottles and transport. They also take the pressure off water providers who should ensure safe water at the tap – another form of private mental as well as public group privatization.

In last 20 years the sale of bottled water has nearly increased 100 times (84 billion litres by 2000), mainly from the 3 giants, Nestle, Coke Pepsi, bottled water is right up there with coffee and colas as the most drunk beverage, yet it is almost totally unchecked here in minority world and not tested as rigidly as tap water is; in fact most bottled water comes from the same taps we use or private wells. False claims about health and sophisticated marketing appeal to young and old.  Sugary beverages are declining in sales for health reasons and concerns about artificial sweeteners. Water is cheaper to bottle and market than colas. These companies already have bottling plants so they don’t have the expense of new installations and pay no royalties to the public for the use of this commons.

Do we think as we sip Dasani about all the workers and union activists in the beverage industry who have been assassinated in Colombia? About Indian peasants whose wells are dry because Pepsi has drained the groundwater to bottle Aquafina?  Do we think of the corporate land and well grabs from India to Uruguay? Even in Canada most bottled water is sold without any royalty or fee to the public purse. A one litre bottle of water costs the same as 1000 gallons delivered to a home without the pollution of billions of plastic bottles strewn across the world. These common plastic bottles of water actually cost more than petrol at the pump – and we complain about that!

Privatization is a major part of the problem. Vivendi Universal (France), Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux (France), Bouygues-Saur (France), RWE-Thames (Germany) and Bechtel-United Utilities (US) have become the water barons who are taking over public utilities. These corporations export water and also acquire local water rights and sell the water back to the community at much higher rates.

The UN says 31 countries face water stress by 2025; one-third of humanity will have absolute scarcity, mainly Africa and Asian countries. The combination of industrial over use, pollution, aquifer depletion, urbanization – deforestation/wetland loss, runoff means that water falling as rain is not held in earth but runs back into ocean without being recycled or absorbed into the land.

There are many, many grassroots communities from Bolivia to France to Canada already engaged in taking back their water and in finding long term solutions to the water dilemma. They are evaluating the condition and availability of water in their own communities, including ownership; prices; military, industrial or agricultural pollution; condition of infrastructure; purposes for which water is used in a given community; availability now and predictions of availability in the future. I’ll get back to this later.


Nature is the basis of life, look at Maria Mies’ pyramid, we can see that nature is the broad base on which we all stand. The land and water nourish all life, yet terrestrial life, including humanity, is dependent on 30 centimetres of top soil. How we care for that soil will determine our survival. Paving it over much of it so that water cannot enter the soil, deforestation, monocropping, urbanization and the dumping of toxic waste, the heavy load of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are all injuring the soil; much of which blows away in vast swaths of desertification. Add to that the squeezing out of caring farmers and their land stewardship. Farmers are being forced to use corporate seeds, many of which are human created GE seeds, and work under constantly new and more restrictive regulations of governments and their bosses – big business that force unsustainable processes and dangerous products on us all.

This despoiling of the earth is increasingly in the interests of a small rich elite; actual people with names and addresses, behind the corporate logos. In the USA there are plans to strip local control of food supply. Legislation being pushed by industry aimed at preventing counties, towns and cities from making local decisions about food supply is being introduced in states across the nation. These highly orchestrated industry actions are in response to recent local decisions to safeguard sustainable food systems. To date, initiatives in three California counties have restricted the cultivation of genetically modified crops, livestock, and other organisms and nearly 100 New England towns have passed various resolutions in support of limits on genetically engineered crops. The bills represent a back-door, stealth strategy to override protective local measures around GMOs. Pre-emption of local government undermines democracy and local control, and is a threat to meaningful citizen participation around issues of wide-spread concern.

Meanwhile in the majority world, debt-ridden farmers are discovering that GE cotton is not bollworm resistant, still needs massive amounts of fertilizer (which may contain toxins and heavy metals) and pesticides but yet has low yields.  Use of GE plants with their wide pollen drift endanger pure plants and produce new chemical-resistant superweeds. In Canada where many farmers oppose chemical farming, studies have shown that for the first four years, organic crops have a lower yield, but after that have a higher yield than chemical crops, all the while having lower initial costs and getting higher payments for their products. No wonder chemical companies are worried and are trying to force government to regulate seeds and seed sales.

While I wrote this at my desk in Canada I hear on the radio news that the USA plans to send people and cargo to moon at an announced cost of USA $100 billion. I think we could all suggest a few passengers and cargo we’d like to send into outer space, but must we foul the moon now also?


Susan Hawthorne says: Disconnection is critical for a system based on profit. By contrast, biodiversity relies on connection and relationship.
That is really what has happened to our commons; they are looted for profit. Disconnection is
what happens when ‘experts’ in the service of capital take over and control our knowledge. Traditional knowledge is either ridiculed and cast aside or stolen and patented. We become disconnected from the consequences of our consumption habits.
At the World Social Forum in Mumbai, Abha Bhaiya, one of founders of Jagori, a New Delhi based feminist collective, told us,                                   “…we are involved in a very fragile project … fractured livelihoods, pushing women out of their familiar habitat and the security of commons are posing a big danger to people’s common knowledge systems.”
Of all the international agreements and organizations which have commodified the commons, those that privatize and patent knowledge are the most pernicious. So much traditional knowledge about life, food and health is being stolen from those most knowledgeable – in Canada as well as India. This is related to one of the most obvious results of globalization – the urbanization, landlessness and involuntary migration of millions of people. These upheavals cause the destruction of survival knowledge systems and traditions as coherent communities are abandoned and destroyed.

The media which purport to inform us package lies and half-truths and usually omit some of the most important information as they serve their corporate masters. Advertising has become the door to information; TV sellers now know that 2 year olds can learn brands.  I recently visited family with small children, here in the UK. Much to our horror we found on a children’s CD: PLAYTIME! a song by the Fast Food Rockers that was nothing but an upbeat repetition of the names of three of the giant fast foods of the world! It is time for us to end our passive acceptance of this culture of control; our uncritical faith in corporate benevolence.

We also are loosing the right to own and develop public services; the application of knowledge to benefit all. Services are the last frontier of corporate profit. If we allow ourselves to be disconnected via GATS and other agreements from the social organizations we have helped form, we will be disconnected from the resulting injustice to many. The universality of our rights to health, social security, education are the fabric of our public services, the foundation of social justice wherever they exist, even in the sometimes flawed forms we have.

Academia was once the place for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge. Freedom was given to scholars and students to learn and understand the world around us. But the forces of neoliberalism and corporatism have infiltrated these sanctuaries. Cash-short administrators and faculty are willingly taking funds from companies who then have the right to the product of their funding; the military everywhere pours money into universities and academics sell their souls for grants. Corporations fund buildings, programs and courses – neoliberal governments cut funds and corporations are ready to step in. And the concept of open knowledge for the public good is lost. We will have to be the universities of the future!

We can see the corporate take over of the media – we know that the mainstream media are structured to entertain, amuse, divert and to sell – ideas and commodities. The philosopher, Herbert Marcuse said: The success of the dominant ideology is to make unthinkable the possibility of alternatives. That is why the World Social Forum chose the slogan: Another world is Possible! It is our responsibility to be and to create our own media that present the range of possibilities that social movements have developed.

I want to work my way through the significance of the words in my title. I have touched on some of the commons; but they are all connected and together can form the base of a diverse and rich life for all. But much has been lost, hence we have to reclaim, at the same time, create new commons that will change our way of thinking and living.

It is as though one day we went berry picking and came home to find the larder empty. We were told the contents weren’t ours anyway! And that corporations and governments would take care of commons for us. There is a lot of research being done on the process of stealing our commons. For many of us it started in the 1970s and went on steroids when the USSR fell apart. For many it started long before with colonization. After WW2 it spread with new international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (the Africans call it the Infant Mortality Fund). The global theft has always been backed by military power and threats of annihilation; for 60 years the threat of nuclear annihilation has and still does terrorize us, as the present use of the ‘terrorism threat’ does, to passively accept the theft of our rights and freedoms – another commons.

We have seen how the complex web of trade agreements enmeshes us all. Democracy has been replaced with regulation that does not answer to citizens.  But the appeal of bilateral and regional trade pacts like the one Canada signed with the USA and Mexico (where the results have been disastrous), The North American Free Trade Agreement – is definitely fading.  Observers see that the USA does not honour its agreements; they observe that Canada is close to giving up hope of reaching a fair settlement of its softwood lumber dispute with its giant neighbour. Many of us have the bitter satisfaction of saying: I told you so. The FTAA for the hemisphere was supposed to be ratified on Jan.1, 2005. The date passed with no fanfare – Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela kept their pens at home. Bush’s trip to South America will only reinforce new awareness in this exciting part of the world.
The USA dollar which so many people accept as a global currency is in decline. The massive debts incurred by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are held by Japan & China; the USA has an enormous trade deficit, its dollar is its major export. A privileged trading relationship with the world’s reigning superpower is no longer the coveted prize that it once was. The USA has 10 million production workers and 300 million people; it is dependent on other countries while capital which has no allegiance deserts the USA and labour continue to be outsourced. But where will they find buyers for these foreign-made products?
A growing number of countries regard trade agreements with the USA as dubious assets in spite of Bush’s recent appeal offering “free trade” to all comers. “Full Spectrum Dominance” may still exist militarily, but economically the pot of gold at the end of the USA rainbow is shrinking. I have presented this information so that we can recognize all we are loosing and our task of reclaiming these commons.

The Work of Social Movements.
We all know what work is, don’t we?  The Canadian poet, Tom Wayman, has said that work is one of the most important parts of our lives. It fills most of our waking hours, gives us connection and community with others, work is what we do that uses our bodies and brains for survival. He says that work is the main structure of oppression in our society yet society perceives our contribution of work as insignificant. This is important for social change because unless we see ourselves and our work as important, our willingness to act to change our lives and society is sapped and weakened. He quotes Bob Black who says, “Once you drain the vitality from people at work, they’ll likely submit to hierarchy in politics, culture and everything else.” Wayman says,  “We live in a society that hides from itself the basis of its existence, North American culture…..presents almost nowhere the realities of daily work…Our jobs form the central and governing core of our lives…No other activity in daily life has more personal consequences for us than the work we do(or our looking for).”

I think he is right; we are portrayed in popular culture almost exclusively as passive consumers, not as active contributing participants. This analysis is profoundly significant for us. Work, not only wage  labour, but care-giving, home and childcare, subsistence agriculture, nature preservers, and nature itself are, as Maria Mies shows, the basis of the pyramid of human society. Our work is important and we have to see it as important; nothing can change the world, reclaim the commons and create a better world for all except work – our work and that of millions of activists we are connected to by commitment to peace, justice and health for all. Work is what will make it happen.

Our Work in Social Movements
‘Social movements’ is a relatively new expression which needs some examination. There have always been citizen groups of various kinds – guilds, churches, societies based on gender, culture, geography and mainly formed to serve their membership. In the last century, what we call NGOs flourished, groups with specific aims and localities, many receive government funding and are purpose –driven – to provide a service or response to its members or its clients, as they are seen.

The new social movements, although many have a specific goal, have a universality and connectedness that is new, exciting and powerful. We gain our strength and optimism from our roots in our own geography, we are the ‘wild politics’ Susan Hawthorn describes in her book of that title; we grow best in our own ecosystems. The problems and solutions are her, not out there. Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2004, says: solutions to problems must come from us. Social movements act in connected solidarity, not authority. We put a different future on the horizon.

Remember in the beginning of Winnie – the Pooh how Edward Bear comes downstairs on the back of his head, bump, bump, bump?
“It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”
It is gatherings like this, meetings and discussion which give us an opportunity to stop bumping and do some thinking. It is important that we come together to discuss and create other ways of living. One world of universality of human and earth rights with cultural and bio- diversity will only be possible if we take time to build it. (One World Week, Buy Nothing Day, international conferences like Social Forums are all part of our work.)

A Map of the World without Utopia is incomplete”. Oscar Wilde

 It is our vision that is the missing geography. The power of social movements is to raise awareness, create and disseminate information – to be our own independent media – to organize with hope and peaceful purpose – to provide a vision and new directions – to bring issues and knowledge from the margins into the lives and avenues of the mainstream. Social movements are essentially creative works; we explore new issues, envision new possibilities, develop new strategies, become innovative and responsive to our community, and build new tools and re-apply existing ones.

I have been reading an amazing biography of the English artist, Ken Sprague, an artist who dedicated his creativity to social causes expressed in art that was striking and realistic. He saw his art works as bridges between people and social intercourse. The author says that the tremors of the future run through it. Resistance of social movements is creative and I find this definition of a social artist inspiringly applicable to us all.

Success can sometimes come when our causes are integrated into mainstream politics and public discourse. We think we are left behind as politics and social movements intersect,  our issues are taken up by politicians while we move on up a different path, but we must ensure that politicians do enact the right legislation, we can’t stop monitoring them.  Often we think we have failed when a movement disintegrates; but that is often when we have succeeded, the public and politicians have taken up the issue. That has happened in many movements; women’s rights, homosexual rights, the anti-MAI movement and others. We work in an atmosphere that empowers everyone, but does not seek power. So when our cause is accepted by politicians, we have reached an important intersection. and  we must see and aim towards new and expanded social change.

We can take our inspiration from the resistance movements against the rampant privatization of the world’s water. In Sri Lanka, activist report that “we are resisting converting water to a commodity for exploitation by international water markets as encouraged by the World Bank. We have established several campaigns to protect our water. We have collected signatures; we have a coalition of 300 women’s groups and NGOs and farmers and everybody who is being affected by the encroaching privatization of water in Sri Lanka.”

The peasants of Bolivia who organized and threw out the USA giant, Bechtel, and reclaimed their water are now organized to demand proper royalties from the oil industry. One of their leaders is seeking political office, but the movement continues. In fact there is much inspiration to be found in Latin America today.

Cuba, an economically poor and embargoed country, has one of the highest standards of public service in the world; free excellent education and healthcare.  Cuba has pioneered for the world to see, viable organic agriculture, producing much of its own food for a healthy population. Many Canadians go to study Cuba’s unique urban farming and organic agriculture. Other countries get the benefit of Cuba’s medical workers serving abroad and Cuba provides free education for people from around the world.

Many of us are very excited by Venezuela’s path to popular democracy. The government rests secure on a network of neighbourhood and workers’ group around the country that are creating a model called the Bolivarian Alternative. It is different vision, inspired by Simon Bolivar, who liberated the continent from Spain in the 19th century. New trade agreements and exchange systems are being forged, based on Venezuela’s oil wealth. There are plans for a continent-wide literacy program and a South American energy co-operative. This has been a major intersection of social and political movements and  both are flourishing. They call it the politics of integration – where ideas and solidarity are consolidated. No wonder there have been attempts on the life of Chavez and his government.

The Zapatista movement in Mexico is unique in that it does not seek power for itself and works to empower local communities. Women in particular, have been empowered by this movement and land and food production remains in the hands of the people. The first revolution to go on-line, the eloquent analysis of these peasant leaders informs us all.

There is rarely political change without a history of social activism and awareness. Social movements are the hidden base of the iceberg in political success. The movement against waste and consumption has its roots in the environmental movement. Many people in the minority world are choosing voluntary simplicity while those in the majority world organize against the corporate takeover of land, seeds and water in order to maintain their subsistence existence. For instance, recycling garbage and the beginning ban on plastic bags (5 trillion are made and discarded every year; 80% in Europe and North America; we are throwing away our oil) move from the margins to the mainstream.
We work for renewable energy and conserving what we have. Although governments give massive subsidies to the uranium industry (watch out – nuclear is being pushed as clean energy again – time to rediscover all the lies of the last decades about this dirty monster) and fight wars on behalf of oil companies, research and use of wave, solar, wind, micro-hydro power is increasing everywhere. Which is good thing as the most conservative estimates are that we will have little oil left by mid-century. Some researchers say production will peak in the next 10 years. Oil is the blood of all industry, including agriculture and the military. Economic growth, sometimes referred to as progress, is based on oil. We are at war for oil; the USA military is the single largest user of oil in the world, it kills for oil – and kills with oil. As peak oil approaches, we use 4 for every one new barrel discovered. Our unsustainable system is in panic. No oil; no growth. Maybe the earth spirits are cheering!
A world not based on consumption is a world of meaning, community and cooperation; a world where people are not uprooted by war and privatization. Wangari Maathai says people without a culture feel insecure and substitute commodities for culture. Maybe that describes much of our society, a frantic search to fill emptiness with possessions; committed social action and the hope we generate are the models for a culture of peace and transformation.

More examples: Citizens of Lexington, Kentucky, USA, have organized Bluegrass FLOW to fight to regain control of Kentucky-American Water Co. which had been bought by RWE in 2003. Nestlé’s right to local spring water for bottling is being challenged by local citizens in Mecosta County, Michigan. There are countless other examples of the potential power of a community to save its own water. Community groups in Canada’s most right-wing province, Alberta are challenging the use of massive amounts of water in oil wells; it is pumped in clean and pumped out dirty. In Calgary, Alberta, the Texas of Canada, public rail transit is powered by two windmills!

Workers are taking their message around the world. We have had recent visits seeking solidarity from Guatemalan garment workers, Colombia coal miners (Colombia Coal – largest open pit in world), and union organizers from Cola-Cola and Nestle companies in Colombia, where many union leaders have been assassinated. Peasants in India stopped World Bank funding of dams, Indians organize against GE seeds and new legislation controlling seeds. That is happening in Canada also. We stopped our government from introducing ‘terminator’ seeds and have held off new seed selling restriction – while more and more farmers in Canada go organic.
Coffee, organic and fair-traded, is a hot part of a cool depressed world coffee market. Fair trade in more food products – tea, cocoa, bananas and dried fruit is appearing in major supermarkets. Buying local and practising conservation at all levels of consumption is a also a form of ‘buycott’ as the new socially conscious habits are called. RISC and other global centres are fine examples of this.

Ethical investment (if you consider investment ethical) in corporations that support good labour and environment practices and do not make military or nuclear products are thriving. Pension plans, an enormous source of investment funds that we rarely think of, are moving into ethical. I wish I could say the same for the Canadian government which has invested my compulsory savings in the biggest and worst of military companies and companies that cooperate with evil governments, like that in Myanmar.

The tide of agricultural chemicals used in the world is turning thanks to citizen groups, social movements in India, Kenya, and Malaysia. Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, recently joined a caravan of farmers in Asia to tell them about his struggle for farmers’ rights against Monsanto. It is now public knowledge that Roundup, Monsanto’s herbicide of preference, is linked to cancer and placental damage in pregnant women. Time to get off the chemical fix. GE maize is banned in Europe – thanks to all of you creative resisters! GE rice illegally sold in China, but even that government is trying to stop it. Organic food sales are soaring herein the minority world. If we want change; we can start at home.

Much of Africa is held up to us as a hopeless, pathetic, helpless mess, needing our help! That is a lie; Africa is full of social movements doing great work. We do have the responsibility of solidarity to these colleagues in our work; it includes the recognizing the terrible support given for decades to countless African tyrants and to white racists. It includes the demonstrably retrograde free-market policies imposed on virtually every African government by ideological extremists at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund Social movements; we are part of that oppression; we have a job to do for Africa right here.
Boycotts are an extremely effective form of social action. A global boycott of the big six profiteers in the war on Iraq has had a known effect of sales of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-cola, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, McDonalds (sales are down everywhere) and Altria (Phillip Morris-Kraft). Corporations hate boycotts; they know they worked in South Africa and are working now. Even in North America health conscious parents are opposing the sale of COKE products in schools. Resistance to Coke’s greedy policies has closed a plant in Kerala for 16 months, while there has been a 14% drop in CC sales in India. There is a global movement to end the use of USA $ as the world’s currency. It is the USA’s only export – we can stop using it. Divest and sell USA currency; don’t use it, even in speech.  We have to delegitamize the control of the economy. As Arundhati Roy says, we must act where it can really hurt the empire.
New groups are being formed in Canada now to help USA war resisters; an estimated 5000 military workers have left their employer and many want to come to Canada. This war is becoming as unpopular in USA as the Vietnam War (or the USA war as Vietnamese call it); the peace movement has not given up, and the pressure on the USA government and UK’s I hope, continues.
War is a particular form of violence, an elitism that only a few can afford. War is also the daily violence against people and nature wrought by these elites for the benefit of a few; in our work for justice we all become peace activists. Low intensity economic warfare is often the introduction to military warfare. The connections are there. UK, like Canada is deeply involved in war, through military support and the hidden profiteering that our taxes provide to the arms industry. Our governments have committed us to the next insane stage; war in space. Our action must include exposing all governments that fund, support and profit from the insanity of war-making.
I spoke recently to the director of the Right Livelihood Award in Sweden – a friend in Malaysia I nominated won this year. This award is given to about 4 people or groups every year to honour their work for social justice, human rights and the environment. It was founded on the dream of one man 25 years ago. The director told me how wonderful it was to see all the nominations come and learn about the incredible work so many people and movements are doing. It is important that we take time to recognize and celebrate the workers of our movements. This is why, even on a small local level, social movements must encourage democracy and respect within groups; we should enjoy each other and support one another in the development of creative ideas and actions. Solidarity is personal civility. World Social Forums, rallies, campaigns and conferences and meetings like this are the result of many peoples’ grunt work, as Walden Bello puts it. We need to meet, to communicate concerns and strategies, plan campaigns and to celebrate our work!
Our work must combine the actions of delegitimizing the culture of control that many seem to accept as the only possibility. We must withdraw our consent from global crime. Globalization is an addiction to power, worse than any drug. We have to create a new culture of communication so we can support each other, learn from each other, to discuss our strategies – which issues are we strongest on, that will speak to our communities – like water, food and militarism are growing concerns and may be the issues to consolidate on, where is globalization weakest – on resource depletion, for instance?  How much thought do we give to creating new structures that are models of cooperation and democracy that we want the world to be, do we nurture creativity in all forms to help our movements and to empower people to join us? We have to understand the power of the dominant ideology as we learn not to be co-opted as we gain power – that we share with others openly in a trusting relationship. We have to be wary of cooption through the use of our own language and images. We cannot abuse power as we have so often seen political groups do, once they have control. We are creating a new commons, not a new form of political control.
The project of social change is our work and we need to respect ourselves and our companions in the travel of transformation.  We are creating the new commons and we need all the strength, wisdom, creativity and compassion we can find and draw on. We will not move from violence, privatization, and the trivialization of human existence unless we make a new road to cooperation, creativity and justice for all. Social movements must map the future and work as though our lives depend on it…they do.

I would like to close with the words of one of my heroes, Rosalie Bertell, quoted in Engel’s biography.

“The continuity of life, the call for making things better for the next and the next generations blots out all hesitation…We have to be part of something larger than ourselves, because our dreams are often bigger than our lifetimes.”

Theresa Wolfwood, Barnard-Boecker Centre Foundation, Victoria, BC, CANADA

References and Reading List

Barlow, Maude & Tony Clarke. BLUE GOLD. The New Press, USA
Bertell, Rosalie. PLANET EARTH: THE LATEST WEAPON OF WAR. 2000. The Women’s Press. UK
Coates, Ken. EMPIRE NO MORE!  Spokesman Books. 2004. Spokesman Books, UK.
Engels, Mary-Louise ROSALIE BERTELL: Scientist, Eco-Feminist, Visionary.  2005. Women’s Press, Women Who Rock series, Toronto, CANADA.
George, Susan, in ANTI-CAPITALISM. Bookmark Publications. 2004. UK
Green, John. KEN SPRAGUE: People’s Artist. 2002. Hawthorn Press. UK.
Hawthorne, Susan. WILD POLITICS. Spinifex Press. 2002 Australia
Hawthorne, Susan & Bronwyn Winter. SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES. 2002. Spinifex Press. Australia
Milne, A.A. WINNIE-THE-POOH  Methuen Books. UK
Roy, Arundhati. AN ORDINARY PERSON’S GUIDE TO EMPIRE. 2004. South End Press, USA.
Santina, Laura. WATER, WOMEN AND WAR . Awakened Woman E-Magazine. September,  2004
Seabrook, Jeremy.  CONSUMING CULTURES.  2004. New Internationalist. UK.
Sen, Jai, with Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar & Peter Waterman CHALLENGING EMPIRES: World Social Forum. 2004. Viveka Foundation, New Delhi, India.
Wayman, Tom. A COUNTRY NOT CONSIDERED: Canada, Culture, Work.  House of Anansi Press. 1993. Canada
Wilson, Duff. FATEFUL HARVEST: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry and a Toxic Secret. Perennial/ HarperCollins Publishers. 2002. New York, USA

Briarpatch, Canada.
Canadian Dimension, Canada.
Down To Earth, India.
New Internationalist, UK/Canada.
Press for Conversion, Canada.
The Ecologist, UK.
The Whole Circle. Canada.
Third World Resurgence, Malaysia.
Union Farmer, Canada.
Watershed Sentinel, Canada.

Other Resources
Bhaiya, Abha.
women and the security of the commons.
Environmental Institute for Social Ecology,
USA. Britt Bailey,
& Brian Tokar
Deborah Koons Garcia. Lily Films, California, USA. 2004.  90 minutes.
Available on DVD
edited version of a speech, and other essays and reports.


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