Socialist Worker

People and Planet conference: students show 'We do give a damn'

Sam Ashman reports from the People and Planet conference

Issue No. 1672

'THE WORLD is screwed and we've got to do something about it.' That is what Sam from Derby University said last weekend. He summarised the feelings of about 1,000 students who gathered for People and Planet's 'Shared Planet' conference at Warwick University.

People and Planet, previously called Third World First, is an organisation based in colleges across Britain. It is growing as people's anger at the state of the world grows. It had 30 local groups three years ago. Today it has 150. Every student at the conference felt passionately about world poverty, about human rights and about the arms trade. There was hatred of multinational corporations, and of the IMF and the World Bank, whose 'structural adjustment programmes' force free market reforms on Third World countries while sucking out debt repayments. There was hatred of the way that the market wrecks lives and the environment.

Campaigning author Susan George summarised these feelings against the world system in an inspiring opening speech to the conference. She described how the 1950s and 1960s were a time of hope, despite the Cold War and the arms race. 'It was a time of de-colonisation, of the non-aligned movement, a time when the countries of the South were still a fairly powerful voice calling for a new international economic order – although there was also famine in Africa and the build up of debt in the 1970s. Then we reached the 1980s – Thatcher, Reagan and the triumph of neo-liberalism. Globalisation is apparently triumphal. The IMF and the World Bank have forced market reforms on unequal terms. They have focused econ omies on exports, and on the payment of interest on debt at the expense of health and education.'

But she also spoke of the need to fight for change. 'Your job is to show that the free market ideology they have constructed over 40 years is false. What some have created, others can destroy. We must fight the idea that if we only explain things to the people in power they will change things. This is tragic naivety. I have come to understand that there is no level of human suffering that is enough to force political change. But I am more optimistic than at any time for the last 30 years because we've got the numbers. Young people are coming back to politics. They are not cynical. It is a marvellous trend. We need to change direction and make things happen.'

That sentiment was echoed throughout the weekend. Laura Parkes from York University told Socialist Worker, 'I've come because People and Planet share my concerns about the world. It is fantastic, inspirational, to be in a hall full of people who do give a damn. You've got to go out and fight, and stand up. We need to raise people's awareness. How can you expect people to protest if they don't know what these transnational corporations are doing?'

A group of ten students travelled to the conference from Roehampton Institute in London where they have just formed a People and Planet group. 'It is Jubilee 2000 that got me involved,' said Nicky Judd. 'It is excellent. It is really amazing to see so much happening about debt and that people acting together can make a difference.' Jenny from Hull said, 'Capitalism for me is just an endless rat race of finding new markets for pointless things, of taking money and power from the bottom and giving it to a small elite at the top. All the issues are social and political as well as environmental.'

Dane from Bath University said, 'When I look at the world the problem is the entire system. It all needs changing, and we've got to start at the bottom. We came to get more information and to find out what we can do. Direct action is really good. The more people we can get in one place making a noise over issues, the more chance we have of someone noticing us.'

Freedom to trade in growing misery

ABOUT 500 students attended a debate on free trade between Charles Bridge, the director of trade policy at the Department of Trade and Industry, and Tony Juniper from Friends of the Earth. Charles Bridge claimed that free trade, market based principles and a wider range of competition would be good for both the world system and the world's poor.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference begins in Seattle on 30 November. It will be dominated by the US, Europe, Canada and Japan, which want to prise open more of the world market so giant firms can make even more profits. Clare Short is supposed to be the Secretary of State for Overseas Development, yet she told the Commonwealth Business Council last week that trade liberalisation is essential for development. She attacked people for protesting against the WTO.

Tony Juniper and contributors from the floor destroyed the argument that free trade benefits the poor. They showed how the multinationals want free trading agreements when it suits them but are quite prepared to block them when it does not. Tony Juniper said he thought markets could be made to work more fairly, with reform, and that he was not against profit as such. A student from SOAS, however, asked, 'Is the way to win change through accommodation with the system or through revolution? Can we really work through the present system that is destroying everything?'

A MASSIVE protest is planned in Seattle on 30 November when the WTO conference begins. Protests are also planned in this country. People and Planet groups are to organise local actions. Socialist Worker urges all its readers to get involved in such initiatives.

Protest against the WTO and its privatisation plans Tues 30 November 5pm-7pm, Euston station, London Called by Reclaim the Streets. Supported by RMT London Regional Council

Ideas galore

THE WEEKEND was filled with talks and workshops about an enormous range of subjects that gave both an idea of the scale of the problem, and also of resistance and how to fight back. There were workshops on GM foods, on the impact of multinational corporations on the world's poor and on food supplies, and on the relationship between the arms trade, debt and development.

People discussed the way big corporations influence scientific research to meet their own ends. They discussed: What is globalisation? Who is behind the British arms trade? What is the IMF? Kosovo, Russia's downhill spiral, and Iraq. There were big workshops on human rights in Burma and on the resistance of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Other workshops and talks dealt with how to set up a People and Planet group, non-violent direct action and building international solidarity.

Which division?

CAMPAIGNERS debated whether they should work with or against big business. An overwhelming majority thought they should be against big business. But some thought it necessary to work with big business in order for companies to develop more ethical policies. There was debate about whether the WTO should be scrapped completely or whether it is better to try to reform its structures.

Some thought the size of the world's population is a problem, though many clearly rejected this view. But People and Planet argued that the 'rich nations' should cut back on their consumption. 'We have got to put consumption on the political agenda,' said one spokesperson. 'We are the consumer class.'

This is a mistake. The problem is not the majority of people in the Western world, but the minority who run the entire world system. That system exploits workers everywhere. For example, multinational corporations are prepared to risk poisoning us all with GM foods. We need an international alliance, but of the exploited fighting back against the exploiters.

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Sat 13 Nov 1999, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1672
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