Brief meetings, partings long,
Men, with unsure feet, post on never to return, too weak
To find the treasure they have lost."
In our 19th summer we invented a new sport. It may not have been all that new (or all that sporting) but those were the pre-Rough Guide Sixties, so it seemed new to us. The idea was to survive and thrive in some foreign urban environment with no money. Not $5 per day. Not $10 per day. Nothing.
Some years later, while staying in a Kinneret kibbutz, we learned the story of Rahel Bluwstein, Palestine’s poet laureate (1890-1931). A brilliant agronomist and early kibbutz pioneer at age 19, Rahel was sent by Kvutzat Kinneret to a trade show in Paris, got caught up in World War I, had to make her way across the lines to safety in Moscow, lived on garbage and poetry there, opened a school for Jewish refugee children, then in 1919 walked backed to Israel, but because of tuberculosis was refused accommodation by Kibbutz Degania. Once more back to living on garbage and poetry, she wrote haunting lines for the Jerusalem Hebrew newspaper until her death at age 40.
While never doing anything as hard as a walk from Moscow to Degania with tuberculosis, we have had many more chances to play the urban survival game in the past 50 years, and each time it improves our skills and winds up being fun, despite the hardship. The downside is always short discomfort — no food, no water, sleeping in public places, cold, police harassment, etc. The upside is beating the odds, new skills, a greater sense of security, and knowing you can take setbacks and not just survive, but thrive.
In the past 72 hours we got a new challenge, and it put all our old skills to the test. We think this is the kind of thing many more of us will experience more frequently as complex systems implode so it bears reporting here.
That done, we settled back into the 7 hour flight to JFK with the full range of Air France amenities, including a USB jack on their 7-inch seatback monitors, free movies on demand, champagne and a first rate menu of free food, even for the economy class.
In the Tibetian Book of Yoga and Secret Doctrines it says, “Adversity being a teacher of the true way is not necessarily to be avoided.” In any survival situation, the drill is always the same. Secured from immediate danger, you take inventory.
So we stabilized and took inventory. Our advantages were so strong it was almost not a fair game. We had warm clothes, canteen and compass. We had peanuts and bottled water, courtesy of Air France. We had native language, a passport, a plane ticket and citizenship. Best of all, we had a laptop and a cell phone. That meant we had Facebook, Linked-In, and Twitter.
With a day pass on T-mobile, we got home by Tuesday, arriving not only with a pocketful of peanuts, cookies, pretzels and dollars (thank you Tim Quinn of Google), but two apples, a banana and a full canteen. We’d had on-line offers to bring us sandwiches or order us a pizza. It was Christmas. Note to self: next time we risk weather delay on air travel, bring a power strip to help others charge up laptops, phones, iPods and shavers. In an airport where people are living for days, every free wall socket is precious.
Perhaps the strangest and most serious outcome was the damage wrought to the UN negotiation process itself. One needs to go back and re-read the 1972 Stockholm principles, the document that emerged from the 21st plenary session of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. From the preamble, authored by Maurice Strong:
“Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth. In the long and tortuous evolution of the human race on this planet a stage has been reached when, through the rapid acceleration of science and technology, man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale.
“The natural growth of population continuously presents problems for the preservation of the environment, and adequate policies and measures should be adopted, as appropriate, to face these problems.
“A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes. There are broad vistas for the enhancement of environmental quality and the creation of a good life. What is needed is an enthusiastic but calm state of mind and intense but orderly work.”
With our laptop and a wall socket at JFK, we were able to watch Rachel Maddow’s interview with Andrea Mitchell and learn how freakish and noir the COP-15 talks really were. Looking for Premier Wen Jiabao of China, President Obama followed a lead to a back room at the Bella Center, his press pool in tow.
Before the COP, the United States and China had been sniping at each other over demands that Beijing agree to international monitoring, ostensibly to verify its pledge to reduce by 40% the carbon intensity of its economy (the rate of emissions per unit of economic activity, something that is easy to do if you are growing your GDP by 10% annually).
The White House made a point of noting the snub in a statement to reporters. According to an aide who passed it to the New York Times, Mr. Obama confided to his staff: “I don’t want to mess around with this anymore. I want to talk to Wen.” The story the Times then began spinning has formed the official frame of the talks — China was the bad actor, the US President stood tall and went dragon hunting, he slew the beast in its lair, and emerged with a new Accord, which was not the best, but the best that could be salvaged. “This progress did not come easily, and we know that this progress alone is not enough,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but we have much further to go.” The carpenters then moved in to break the site down and make way for a trade show of home furnishings.
China backed Africa. Africa did not want voluntary, symbolic pledges. So the White House tried to set up a third meeting between Obama and Wen. It also set up a separate meeting with Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, and Manmohan Singh of India. China apparently got wind of this sequence of meetings and called those players together on its own, before the Obama meeting.
When Denis McDonough, the national security council chief of staff, and Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, learned of the Chinese pre-meeting, they passed the word to the President and he rushed to China’s room.
It bears mentioning here that the Bella Center has a very curious layout, thanks to the Danish hosts. All of the national delegations were assigned a Bella Center office and display space for administration, conferencing and receptions, which was typically a plastic-walled Star Wars battlecruiser cubicle between 24 and 48 square meters in size. There were no distinctions based on population size, GDP, or emissions, but there were some differences in both placement (near or far) and size between G-77 (130 poor countries, green in the image), G-30 (the industrial economies headed by Merrill Lynch’s William McDonough, no relation), and a few VIP countries who rated special treatment.
Locating China’s tiny room at the downstairs back, just behind the boiler room, under the steam vents, where the greenish neon lights flash intermittently through a high window and there is a faint odor of solvents, Mr. Obama called from the doorway. “Mr. Premier, are you ready to see me? Are you ready?” From inside a room that was already stuffed with Presidents Zuma, Lula, Singh and their top aides and translators, Wen, surprised, beckoned Obama to enter.
The Chinese, who had to send their people out to make room for Obama and his aides, balked at admitting the White House press pool to the fluorescent-lit craps game. Gibbs pressed forward with the pool’s photographer. “My guys get in or we’re leaving the meeting.” They squeezed Gibbs in, which yielded this (hands over head) photo from Doug Mills at the NY Times:
Despite whatever had been discussed by Zuma, Lula, Singh and Wen before Obama arrived, the US got its wish for a barebones “accord.” Danish hosts Rassmussen and Hedegaard, and UN leaders Ban Ki Moon and Yvo de Boer, none of whom had slept more than 2 hours in the previous 48 trying to broker a highest denominator deal, were not invited.
Having destroyed the whole notion of consensus negotiations carefully crafted over the 37 years since Stockholm, Mr. Obama joined his waiting motorcade and exited. In 8 hours, he had done more to destroy the fabric of the United Nations than his predecessor had accomplished in 8 years.
Goodman asked him about reducing Venezuela’s emissions. Chavez replied, “We must reduce emissions 100 percent… We are in agreement — we must reduce all the emissions that are destroying the planet. However that requires a change in lifestyle, a change in the economic model. We must go from capitalism to socialism, that’s the real solution.”
“How do you throw away capitalism?” Goodman asked. Chavez replied, “They way they did it in Cuba. The way we are doing it in Venezuela. Give the power to the people and take it away from the elites. You can only do that through revolution.”
Being more evolutionary than revolutionary, we are still betting on the dolphins. They can survive even without T-mobile and a laptop.