‘Alternative convention’ focuses on peace, justice, sustainability
Concordia University, St. Paul, hosted “Peace Island” conference September 2-3
Twin Cities peace, justice, and sustainability activists, including a strong
contingent of area Lutherans, gathered at Concordia University, St. Paul,
September 2-3. The event, attended by about 300, was held during the
Republican National Convention. Billed as an “alternative” to the political
event being held just blocks away, “Peace Island: A Solutions-driven
Conference” developed three general themes: energy and the environment;
global peace and nonviolence; and justice and human rights. Concordia was
not a sponsor of the event, nor of a gathering of “Young GOP” which met
simultaneously elsewhere in the same building.
Addressing the Peace Island gathering, Jim Harkness, president of the
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said U.S. efforts to provide cheap,
abundant food have actually led to the current worldwide food crisis.
Industrial agriculture (replacing family farms) and globalization have, he
argued, endangered the world food supply. By dumping cheap commodities
onto the world market, marginal farmers in other countries are now
“We now have farmers in Punjab, and other underdeveloped regions of the
world, committing suicide because they cannot survive economically.”
Three factors are driving the current food crisis, he argued: climate change,
the financial markets (money fleeing the failing housing market is now
pouring into commodities), and the rising cost of petroleum worldwide.
Harkness called the current U.S. farm program “a house of cards in a room
where somebody just turned on a strong fan.” The best possible scenario for
the future, he said, would be to reject what he called the failed policies of the
International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. That needs to be coupled
with sustainable agriculture and a rejection of “petroleum and poison”
farming by agribusiness.
Why is it, he asked, that “poor people in our urban areas have to walk a lot
less to buy a gun or alcohol than they do in order to buy healthy food?”
Arguing that “sustainability is the new business model,” Terry Gips told the
gathering that corporations need to change their practices if the common
good is to be served. The president of the Alliance for Sustainability declared
that ordinary citizens have the power to make business change the way it
“I was a spy inside Cargill,” he said. “I worked there to learn about and expose
abuses being carried out.” Gips continued, “I’m not an enemy of corporations.
They can have a positive influence, but we have to convince them that it’s in
their best interest to do so.”
He lifted up the “Natural Step” movement, a phenomenon that developed in
Sweden. “Polarized groups — activists and the business community —
cooperated in that country, resulting in the cleanest agriculture in the world.
Sweden has reduced pesticide use by 70 percent in ten years.
Gips was optimistic about sustainability, which he defined as meeting the
needs of the present without destroying the future. “We are beyond the
tipping point. It is already beginning to happen.” He said major changes can
take place in less than a decade. “It took only seven years to convince Nestle
to stop peddling infant formula in the Third World.”
What created the tipping point? Gips identified three factors: Hurricane
Katrina, high gas prices, and the influence of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”
traveling road show.
He said there has been in place, since 1999, the “Dow Jones Sustainability
Index.” It now represents a $5 billion market. Such a thing would have been
unthinkable a generation ago.
The planet, he said, is actually a space ship with four operating rules. “For the
past 200 years, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been
violating all four, and need to stop doing so soon.” The four, he said, are:
limit what we take from the earth; avoid toxic substances we’ve been making;
care for what we do to the earth; and meet the fundamental needs of
everyone on the planet.
Said Gips, the U.S. government is the largest purchasing agent in the
economy. “We can get them to ‘go green’ very quickly if we have the will,” he
maintained. He suggested that the government take a page from the nation’s
hospitals. “They’re all going green, because the nuns and nurses who work in
them have decided they don’t want to work any longer in a toxic
An expert on oil and global politics sounded a warning concerning the undue
influence of large oil companies on U.S. international policy. Antonia Juhasz, a
fellow at Oil Change International and the author of Iraq, Oil and the Politics
of Empire, noted at the conference that for the first time in history, the
current U.S. president, vice-president, and secretary of state all have prior
career histories in the oil industry. “What do you suppose their priorities and
loyalties are bound to be?” she chided.
Reminding her listeners that anti-trust legislation broke up Standard Oil a
century ago, Juhasz said, “In the last 20 years, since Reagan made
deregulation a mantra, the oil industry has reconsolidated. What the oil
industry does with its profits — and they are now staggering — is to buy
On the day before the Republican candidate for vice-president gave her
acceptance speech in downtown St. Paul, Juhasz explained, “Sarah Palin, the
Governor of Alaska, wants to get the polar bear delisted from the endangered
species list. It’s the last roadblock to unregulated drilling in the Alaska
National Wildlife Reserve. So far she hasn’t gotten her way but, as vice
president, it would be a continuing priority for her.”
Juhasz argued that the war in Iraq was fought mainly to give U.S. oil
corporations free access to cheap oil. “They anticipate changing Iraq from a
nationalized to a privatized oil system.” There are, she said, only two large oil
pools left on the planet. They’re controlled by Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Without access to them, oil companies will run out of cheap oil in 2015.
What we need, said Juhasz, is “a separation of oil and state. We need to
pressure candidates running for office not to take oil money. Failing that,
legislators will owe their souls to the petroleum industry.”
Other speakers at the Peace Island conference included:
* Kathy Kelly, a coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who said
militarism “is like a big wrecking ball;” argued that our security is found not
in armies but rather neighborliness; and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., who
declared, “If there be any hostility, let it be hostility toward poverty, racism
* Mel Duncan, executive director of the Non-violent Peaceforce, who said,
“Blackwater [the private contractor working for the U.S. government in Iraq]
pays their guys $1,000 a day; we pay our peacekeepers less than $100 a day;
we get better results, so that makes us the fiscal conservatives, not them.”
* Colleen Rowley, a whistleblower within the FBI, who warned that “group-
think” allows many Americans to delude themselves about the truth, even in
the face of convincing evidence to the contrary; and who declared “I was the
first person to put the phrase ‘War on Terror’ in quotation marks because I’ve
never believed what you have to do to punish international gangsters can be
called a ‘war.’”
* Doug Johnson, executive director of Center for the Victims of Torture, who
reminded his audience that 80-85 percent of Europeans believe torture is
never justifiable, and who quoted the Army Field Manual which forbids the
use of torture not only because it violates the Geneva Convention but because
the information it yields is useless and because it makes the soldiers of the
nation practicing it likely to receive the same treatment when captured.