Don’t forget your history
Know your destiny
In the abundance of water
The fool is thirsty
Rat Race, Bob Marley
The first word I learned when I went to Iceland last year was utsala. I still remember it, because it was everywhere, on billboards, in shops and bus stops.
When the news of the deepening economic crisis hit this week, it popped into my mind again, the one word from that language so different from my native that made an impression on my consciousness.
I guess it was fitting, since I was in Iceland for a conference on the global impact of the aluminum industry. We couldn’t ignore the obvious economic advantages companies like Alcoa and Alcan were reaping from targeting countries like Trinidad and Iceland and South Africa. Countries with lots of natural resources and small bendable populations. So many sale signs dotted across the landscape like smoke rising from the many geothermal springs whose energy was being tapped as green energy for smelting primary aluminum.
There was a sense that money was easy, money was no problem and Icelanders were welcoming any and everyone who wanted to partake of the wealth.
We gathered two hours east of Reykjavik, a bunch of people with much love and rage for the state of our respective parts of the planet. I told them about Union Village and the animals clubbed to death when they came to clear those 800 acres in the name of progress. I learned about the Narmada in India and the protests against Alcan in Johannesburg. And farmers in northern Iceland who were promised the world but ended up with respiratory problems and a dead end job in a fish packing plant.
Leading the charge was an American performance activist called Reverend Billy and his wife Savitri who manages his Church of Stop Shopping. Reverend Billy and Savitri and I waxed lyrical about the shopocalypse. It seemed a long way away in the midst of all those signs screaming utsala.
I knew that Babylon had to fall. We fantasized about it and wondered what we would do and where we would be when the bottom finally fell out on the spending and the debt and the conspicuous consumption.
We were hopeful, but not really.
On the last day a woman rolled up in a stretch Hummer and those of us who had lost ourselves in the starkness of the landscape and the spareness of our tents and sharing food and ideas and dreams of changing our worlds got tired again. I quoted Rat Race to her. She shrugged and gulped her champagne.
On Monday we turned up at a mall in Reykjavik, and Reverend Billy started preaching the gospel of the shopocalypse to the scandalized middle class Icelanders burdened with their bags from the many utsalas.
The security guards were swift and brutal. We sang, regardless, handing out fliers, asking regular Icelanders to watch what their government and their big companies were choosing to do with their land, their money. Most of them looked confused, some of them were downright angry.
Eventually they released Reverend Billy. We gave out free hugs and walked through the streets of Reykjavik utsala signs flapping all around us.
A year later and Iceland, where aluminum is king, is on the brink of bankruptcy. This week, Alcoa’s profits halved as the price of primary aluminum dropped due to seasonal fluctuations and a downturn in the manufacturing sector worldwide.
One report from Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch said “Alcoa warned that the profit squeeze will be exacerbated looking ahead due to lower aluminum prices, waning demand and still-high input costs.”
Now I see Reverend Billy as he walks through main street America seeing his comic prophecy become reality. He preaches his stop-shopping gospel now to more people who see that the line between mad man and prophet is not that thin.
The warnings are there, too many to ignore. You don’t have take on the insane ravings of tree huggers if you don’t want to. But people better start waking up. Better rebuild their community parlours and their sou sous and their gayaps.
In the panic of markets and the trillions of debt and the excess of luxury, countries like Trinidad and Tobago and Iceland, with so much for sale, will suffer the most.
With no sensible leaders and a business elite that is not obliged to share their vast wealth, who will be our buffer zone protecting us against the global economic crisis? Who will save us from loans for shopping at Christmas and loans for playing mas in obscenely expensive costumes at Carnival?
As we walk through the valley of the shadow of debt who will speak out for our homeland security? Who will mark out a new energy policy now that the rich countries are closing ranks and shutting down all the businesses that we keep tagging our economy to?
Who will save us from selling ourselves short of our own worth?