Herve Kempf: Taking Responsibility for a Historic Crisis

Thursday, 13 November 2008 17:13 By Leslie Thatcher, Truthout | name.

Herve Kempf: Taking Responsibility for a Historic Crisis

    On Wednesday, November 5, 2008, Le Monde's environmental editor and author of "How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth," Hervé Kempf spoke to a large audience at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where the Master of Arts in Sustainable Communities (MASC) Program and several other departments sponsored his presentation. MASC Chair Dr. Sandra Lubarsky suggested it was the most radical presentation the program had sponsored in some time: Mr. Kempf did indeed say it was not an exaggeration to call the wealth currently locked up in tax havens "stolen." In the animated question and answer session that followed Kempf's presentation of the main theses of his book, recently published in English [1], the audience did not take issue with his positions, but rather wanted to know how he hoped to see his agenda implemented.

    I interviewed Mr. Kempf after the presentation.

    Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: What has been the response to "How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth" after almost two weeks in the United States?

    Hervé Kempf: I was actually surprised by how little difference there was in the response to my lecture between American and French audiences. Many of the questions and the themes of the questions were the same.

    Americans do seem to reverberate to the issue of equality - or the lack thereof - but have more trouble with the concept of consuming less than European audiences. I always start my talks by putting the issues in the context of this historic situation of planetary environmental crisis and asking what our responsibility is as people living in these times. There may be more resistance here in the US than in France to this notion that each individual has a responsibility.

Hervé Kempf
Hervé Kempf visited Northern Arizona University during the book tour for "How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet."
(Photo: Leslie Thatcher / Truthout)

    Another difference is that the American radio journalists who have interviewed me have much more difficulty with the inequality question [that is, they don't understand why it's a problem] than French radio journalists who understand that it's not just an issue of the share or position of the rich per se, but the issue of tremendous inequality in this historic context of environmental crisis.

    The one exception to this attitude among radio journalists of relative complacency in the face of growing inequality was one reporter who seemed to feel there was a capitalist conspiracy. I was very clear that I don't believe in a capitalist conspiracy because the capitalists say what they want very clearly. Their goals are not obscure.

    But in general, I would say that the American journalists I have spoken with have less overall political consciousness, are less progressive, and have more trouble making the connection between social and environmental issues than do European journalists.

    I talked to you about the difficulty I invariably have translating "libèral" into English and how I have settled for the descriptive, but inelegant term "neo-liberal free market." You are no longer using the term in French, but using "capitalist." How do you define the term "capitalist"?

    Yes, it's true that many people use this term "capitalist" all the time, but no one now ever says exactly what it is.

    I define capitalism as an ideology according to which:

• First of all, all human motivation is reduced to maximizing each individual's personal self-interest

• Secondly, market mechanisms only are considered the legitimate over-arching arbiter between individuals' competing self-interests.

    Capitalists are those who champion this ideology and are in power.

    What do you see as the big differences between Europe and the United States with respect to social and environmental issues?

    The European Union has been much less damaged by Reagan/Thatcher capitalism than the United States.

    The politicization of social movements is still strong in Europe, while my sense is that American social movements are less global - in both senses of the word - less political and less progressive.

    The oligarchy is less powerful in Europe than in the United States. Europe still enjoys effective social protections such as health care, social security, unemployment benefits and pensions.

    In Europe, the state is not seen as the enemy of society. It is still considered an authority that may and should be good for society overall. The legitimacy of government intervention in health, education and other social issues remains strong and has been strengthened by the financial crisis - which has also had that effect in the United States.

    The great paradox, however, is that it's the United States which has just elected perhaps the most progressive politician of all, one who is certainly ahead on social and environmental issues and supports the oligarchy less than European leaders Sarkozy, Merkel, Berlusconi and Brown. This is part of why we believe Obama may make a very positive difference in Europe.

    The last major difference, however, and a crucial one, is that Europeans have far lower per-capita energy consumption than Americans and their environmental consciousness - even in France, Germany and the UK - seems far more advanced than here. Europeans are well aware and generally accept that we need to change the habits of our daily lives. There is a more general acceptance and consensus in favor of bicycle use, support for public transportation, organic farming, waste reduction than I have seen on my visit here.

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    [1] "How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth," Hervé Kempf; Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 124 pages. [Full disclosure: The book's translator was Truthout's French language editor, Leslie Thatcher.]

Last modified on Thursday, 13 November 2008 17:54