Power, Privilege, and Climate Change


As I watched a video of Barack Obama delivering his second inaugural address last month, and listened to his call to “respond to the threat of climate change” lest we “betray our children and future generations,” I could not help but think of another president.

Indeed, the very holding of the event at which Obama spoke is one indication why it is not to the occupant of the White House that those concerned with global warming should look for inspiration, but to someone else. After all, there is something disconcerting about hearing about the need to fight climate change—to reduce the gargantuan greenhouse gas-related footprint of the United States in other words—at a huge event that was both unnecessary and expensive. Obama was already president of the United States, so why another inauguration?

No doubt, the answer illustrates how the nation-state relies to a significant degree on performances to reproduce itself. This is especially the case in countries such as the United States where the benefits that the state actually delivers to its citizenry are increasingly meaningless in terms of everyday well-being. In a country in which more than 20 percent of its children live below the official poverty line, for example, approximately half of discretionary U.S. government spending is dedicated to its enormous, global military apparatus and what is called “homeland security.” (Under a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, U.S. military spending rivals that of all the rest of the world’s countries combined.)

But the event is also a manifestation of U.S. wealth and power. As one historian stated in endorsing Obama’s decision to hold the inauguration, to “let it roll,” a U.S. president “is part of the most elite club in the world,” and a second-term president “the most elite within the most-elite club.”

Such elitism is costly: while the final price tag of the inauguration won’t be known for months, it will certainly be many tens of millions of dollars. According to The Economist, security alone for what it called “the three days of revelry” totaled around $100 million.

It is also ecologically expensive. With an estimated 800,000 people in attendance, for instance, large numbers of the celebrants traveled long distances by ground transport and airplane—adding tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases to the Earth’s atmosphere in the process.

Compare such consumption and priorities to another head of state, one profiled late last year in The New York Times: President José Mujica of Uruguay. Mujica, reports the Times, “lives in a run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts with no servants at all. His security detail: two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road.” He hangs his laundry on a clothesline outside his home.

As part of Mr. Mujica’s effort, he says, to make his country’s presidency “less venerated,” he sold off a presidential residence in a resort city on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast. He also refuses to live in Uruguay’s presidential mansion, one with a staff of 42. Instead, he has offered the opulent abode as a shelter for homeless families during the coldest months.

The leftist president sees such practices as necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy, a goal which requires, reports the Times in paraphrasing him, that “elected leaders . . . be taken down a notch.” He also explains his austere life style by drawing on the words of Seneca, the Roman court-philosopher Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”

José Mujica’s net worth when he took office in 2010 was $1,800. While his official presidential salary is about $108,000 per year, he donates 90 percent of it, mostly to a program for expanding housing for the poor. This leaves him with a monthly income comparable to a typical Uruguayan. As Mujica is quick to say, “I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less.”

Barack Obama, by contrast, lives in luxury—in the White House—and also takes in $400,000 annually as president. That, combined with his royalties from book sales, gave him and his wife an income of $1.7 million in 2010. The Obamas, as they typically do, also donated a portion of their income—about 14 percent—but kept enough to maintain their position among the “one percent” nationally, and by easy extension, globally.

Given these differences, it is hardly surprising that Obama embraces the interlocking interests of U.S. capital, empire, and militarism (how else can one credibly explain, for example, the many hundreds of U.S. military bases that litter the planet?), and the rampant consumption they entail. With less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuels. The Pentagon, which devours more than 300,000 barrels of oil per day, an amount greater than that consumed by any of the the vast majority of the world’s countries, is the planet’s single biggest consumer.

Such factors might explain why Obama’s soaring rhetoric about global warming in his inauguration speech only very indirectly and weakly, at best, indicates, why human-induced climate destabilization  might be happening. If one employs a very generous interpretation of his words, his invocation of the need for “sustainable energy sources” would seem to suggest the fossil fuel use is to blame. But he offers nothing beyond this. There is no indication of who is responsible for its use, thus implying, by default, that all the planet’s denizens are equally culpable, not the small slice of the Earth’s population that consumes the lion’s share.

Mujica has much more of substance than his U.S. counterpart to say on this front. Uruguay’s president laments that so many societies consider economic growth a priority, calling it “a problem for our civilization” because of the demands on the planet’s resources. Hyper-consumption, he says, “is harming our planet.” he is also highly doubtful that the world has enough resources to allow all its inhabitants to consume and produce waste at the level of Western societies. Were such levels to be reached, it would probably lead to “the end of the world,” he guesses.

In a speech to UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last June, the man who many in the media dub “the poorest president in the world,” insisted that “the challenge ahead of us . . . is not an ecological crisis, but rather a political one.” Pointing to a “model of development and consumption, which is shaped after that of affluent societies,” societies ruled by the dictates of the capitalist market, Mujica said it was “time to start fighting for a different culture.” Arguing that the assault on the environment was a symptom of a larger disease, he asserted that “the cause is the model of civilization that we have created. And the thing we have to re-examine is our way of life.”

Given the position he occupies, and the interests he serves, it is almost impossible even to imagine Barack Obama—or any U.S. president of today—uttering these words, advocating living simply, or doing with a lot less in the name of equity. And the interests he serves are a big part of the problem.

In an era of climate change and other ecological crises, it is these interests that humanity must confront. In this regard, José Mujica’s willingness to live by example and, through his words, offer a larger structural critique—while insisting that the everyday and the systemic are inherently linked—is not only inspiring, but instructive.

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. He is the author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010).

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