“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” — Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Some time ago, I attended the launch of a campaign in New York City. We were invited to stand with the small island nation of Palau:
“Palau is a small country with a huge idea: closing its waters to industrial fishing. No country has ever done it before. Palau would become the world’s first National Marine Sanctuary with one of the largest protected ocean areas on Earth … Stand with Palau in a quest to protect its environment and ignite a global movement to save the oceans.”
What does it mean to stand with Palau? There is more than meets the eye to this question, and this calling. I once had the honor of traveling to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of South Africa. Where one expects to see the meeting of the Atlantic and the Indian oceans, one sees only … ocean. Searching for north or south, for the southernmost point, for the meeting point, or any point, is futile. The world does not know such markers and borders, and the ocean least of all.
To stand with Palau and its oceans, it is not enough to help them to defend their marine ecosystems from the deep mills of industrial fishing. One cannot defend one part of the ocean alone; it is all for one and one for all. To stand with Palau is to stand in defense of all the oceans of the world.
And so to stand with Palau we must stand not only against industrial fishing. We must stand against offshore drilling, against disposable plastics, against fertilizer and pesticide runoff, against everything that poisons the oceans. And since all water flows to the oceans, we must stand against everything that poisons the sky, the rivers and the mountains.
Most urgently of all perhaps, we must stand against the acidification of the oceans, the endless acid rain that our mode of production and consumption pour relentlessly into the skies and soil. Since acid rain knows no borders, since drifting dioxin tides cannot be satellite-tracked, because mass extinction is no respecter of persons, we cannot stand with Palau until we stand everywhere.
To stand with a country destined to go underwater means putting your life on the line against inestimable odds. Are we willing, like Marvin Gaye dared, “to save a world that’s destined to die? Who’s willing to try?”
At the launch event for this campaign, I had the honor of chatting with the late Stuart Beck, one of the campaign’s architects. When I asked him about ocean acidification, he told me that in 10 years of working at the United Nations on climate change, he had seen zero progress of any kind. He compared the UN COP system to a Chinese finger trap: the harder you pull, the tighter the deadlock becomes.
Perhaps the ocean, in its immensity and its intimacy, its vast and delicate diversity, can awaken us, when appeals to lower carbon emissions have not.
But let us not be naïve. To stand with Palau, we must stand against not only the transnational fishing, plastics, drilling and fossil fuel industries. We must stand squarely and surely against both international finance capital and our respective national bourgeoisie, all accomplices in the massacre of marine life.
To stand with Palau is to stand against piecemeal philanthropy, against the UN Conference of the Parties system, against false solutions like carbon trading, “the green economy” and “sustainable development.” Business as usual will kill all the coral reefs in my lifetime. So if I wish to stand with Palau, I must stand for revolution, against capitalism, for an alternative mode of production and existence.
The enemy has many faces. It disguises itself as our friends, and even family. But it will kill us just as surely, gradually and/or suddenly. This is the understanding we need, to build the determination we need, to stand with Palau, the tiny country with a huge idea. “We’re here together to start the movement” — and also to keep the movement going and growing, so that it will not become trapped in detours and cul de sacs, as so many worthy initiatives have perished.
To stand with Palau we must stand with everyone, everywhere, in a movement combining struggle and prefiguration, with an anti-capitalist program and ethos.
As Oscar Olivera says, our movement should be like water: transparent, in motion and happy.
Palau calls our rivers to the ocean. To stand with Palau we must be like the ocean — everywhere. We cannot afford to be a quiet semi-domesticated endangered species. We must be untameable, capable of storms and hurricanes.
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