Monday, October 12, 2009

William Powers Discusses “Writing for Change”

Author Pushes Students to Write at City College Book Fair


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“I spent six years in Bolivia, but I’m not here to inspire you to go to a rain forest,” said author and former aid worker William Powers at the start of his presentation October 3 at the San Diego City College book fair. His hour-long presentation was uneasily divided between presentations of his experiences in Liberia and Bolivia and the year he spent living in a 12 foot-by-12 foot house in North Carolina, and pep talks aimed at getting the City College students in his audience interested in writing and developing the self-confidence needed to finish books and get them published. “If you leave here with one message,” he said, “it should be that if I can publish books, so can you.”

Powers recalled that he’d always been interested in writing when he was growing up — in high school, he wrote for the student literary magazine — until he went to college. “I majored in international relations because I thought English wouldn’t pay,” he confessed. “I worked with Native American youth in New Mexico for two years, and for 10 years I was in Africa and South America. But I couldn’t see myself on the other side of a book.”

That changed after what he described as “the two most intense years of my life” — when he worked in foreign aid in Liberia at the height of Charles Taylor’s dictatorship. Powers was all too aware of the unrest in the country and the civil war against Taylor’s regime — “all I could picture was kids with guns” — when Catholic Relief Services sent him there. But as a 28-year-old fresh out of graduate school, he was nonetheless “thrilled to be there.” It was only later that he found out “I only went because no one else would go.”

His job was to be part of “a major food pipeline” — getting donations of U.S. products into the hands of needy Liberians — “in the middle of a civil war. I had 150 professional staff and hundreds of day laborers bringing the food off ships to the six relief centers. I was there to help the country’s transformation from relief to development.” Unfortunately, that transition was being blocked by the cruelties of Charles Taylor, who not only held the title President of Liberia but also called himself the “chief witch doctor” of the country and regularly drank blood as part of a ritual aimed at keeping himself in power.

Like many Americans who go to trouble spots, Powers found a quiet dignity and strength in the people that contradicted the impression he’d got before he left that everyone was cowering in fear of Charles Taylor 24/7. “There was powerful energy and optimism,” Powers said, explaining that civil wars tend to wax and wane and therefore “there were long periods of peace” in which Liberian life continued more or less normally. Powers called Liberia “really the U.S. in America” — a reference to Liberia’s unusual history as a colony for former African-American slaves, founded in 1831 as part of a movement aimed at ending U.S. slavery by shipping all the slaves back to their ancestral continent. (This led to years of conflict in which indigenous Liberians often complained that the ex-slaves formed an aristocracy and oppressed them.)

Powers began writing his memoir of his Liberian experience, Blue Clay People, while in the city of Abijan on the Ivory Coast as he prepared to leave Africa. He continued while in Bolivia on his next assignment, working on so-called “carbon ranching” programs to save the rainforest and combat global warming. “One year later, I had a manuscript,” he said. “I sent it to my old high school teacher, who was now a book doctor, and she rejected it. A few weeks later, I sent it out to two small publishers. I got an e-mail from Uva Taylor at Chicago World Press, and she offered to buy world rights. I had several offers on the book, and with three offers I was able to get an agent. With every e-mail, there were another five figures added to the offer.”

Meanwhile, Powers was in Bolivia working on an issue — rainforest preservation — that had also been part of his mission in Liberia. He said the Bolivian rainforests were under assault from both the poor and the rich — impoverished Bolivians were clearing them to plant yucca so they could eat, and the huge American corporation Archer-Daniels-Midland was logging them to set up soy farms for export. What’s more, the mountains of Bolivia gave him a bird’s-eye view of global warming in action. “The glaciers above La Paz, which provide the city’s water, were literally melting,” he recalled.

The solution Powers and his group were trying to implement is called “carbon ranching.” It’s based on the idea that plants “breathe” carbon dioxide, the most common and most serious greenhouse gas. Therefore, it’s a bad idea to destroy great swaths of natural vegetation and use the land either for development, which generates additional greenhouse gases; or corporate agriculture, which takes far less carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than the native plants do and involves heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemical inputs that are made from fossil fuels and the energy from them.

According to Powers, 20 percent of all global warming is due to deforestation — but, contrary to popular opinion, a rainforest that has been clear-cut can be restored. Indeed, he said that in Guatemala there’s a rainforest that has recovered after the Mayans clear-cut it 500 years ago — and he showed a slide of his group’s operation in Bolivia, aimed at restoring a former rainforest they had bought from a logging company. Powers said this not only helped Bolivia’s environment but stimulated its economy as well. “A lot of the indigenous people were trained as park guards,” he said. “Some did measurements of the trees.”

Powers’ experiences in Bolivia became the subject of his second book, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontlines Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization. He noted that, next to Venezuela, Bolivia has the largest petroleum reserves in South America, and he credited the current government of Bolivian president Evo Morales for having nationalized the country’s oil reserves — not to throw out the multinational companies that were drilling there, but to reverse the 82 to 18 percent split of the country’s oil wealth so the larger share now goes to Bolivia and its people, not the companies.

But the book he wrote about Bolivia got hit hard by the companies he was denouncing in it. Attorneys for five of the multinationals mentioned in it “wrote a five-page memo that threatened to sue the publisher, Macmillan,” if the book remained in print. Macmillan caved and allowed the book to go out of print after the first edition sold out. Powers caved, too. “Some of my friends said to fight back and expose that,” he said, “but I knew I couldn’t win, so I let it blow over and quietly let the book come back into circulation.” Today it’s available, but only on a print-on-demand basis from and Powers’ own Web site,

In the meantime, Powers has been lobbying to have “carbon ranching” included in the Copenhagen treaty on global warming that is supposed to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. helped negotiate but never signed. He’s been to the United Nations, where he’s met with former Irish president Mary Robinson and Wangari Matthai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for reforestation work in her native Kenya. He calls the idea “sure-fire” but says it’s only one step towards a re-orientation of human life away from heavy-duty consumption and towards living in more harmony with the earth.

That’s the subject of his next book, 12’ x 12’, which is due out next year. It derives from a unique opportunity he had to house-sit for a woman doctor in North Carolina who lives in a house just 12 feet long and 12 feet wide, and who deliberately keeps her income so low she doesn’t have to pay taxes. Powers bristles at the idea that countries like Liberia and Bolivia are “underdeveloped.” Before he moved into this house — which is surrounded by food gardens that make it virtually self-sufficient — “I thought maybe Bolivia was developed and the U.S. is overdeveloped.” He said the little house in North Carolina is surrounded by farmers who raise free-range chickens — and they are surrounded by giant factory ranches that, according to Powers, “use their workers the way they use their animals.”

The point, Powers explained, is to practice what has been called “permaculture” — living in a landscape designed in harmony with nature — and, beyond that, to move beyond a consumer society altogether. It’s a concept he calls “enough” — “between where we live now and dire poverty,” he explained. “I think ‘enough’ is $10,000 per capita gross domestic product per year, the average in Europe in 1990. That’s how much material you need to maintain peak happiness. Subsistence agriculture is not poverty. We shouldn’t punish people for living sustainably with nature.” Just how “enough” can be reconciled with a capitalist economy and culture that demands the economy grow continually — and defines it as a dire problem (“recession”) when it doesn’t — Powers left unanswered.

One fascinating aspect of Powers’ talk was its surprising degree of optimism. Powers said he respects Left-wing spokespeople like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, who’ve made their reputations railing about how bad everything is — but that’s not his style. Asked how he can be optimistic about humans’ ability to handle global warming when it’s already advanced so far that the polar ice caps are melting, Powers said, “Mitigation and adaptation. There are all kinds of programs to help people adapt.” He said one hopeful sign was a recent meeting he went to between labor leaders and environmentalists calling for “green-collar jobs” — ways people can make their livings while being part of the global warming solution instead of part of the problem.

Powers also talked about the upcoming global warming conference in Copenhagen and what he’d like to see from President Obama. “I like the 350 organization,” he said. It’s an international group whose program, Powers explained, is to “keep global warming 2° Fahrenheit above what it is today. The U.S. has to take it seriously, and China and India must come to the plate. I’m going on December 11 and will be pushing for carbon ranching.” He said that at Copenhagen “Obama should agree to specific targets, not just rough goals and timetables’ — and, he added, the President needs to be less fearful about possible rejection by Congress.

“Congress is full of farm-state people who don’t want to make any change,” Powers said. “If there’s any way to reach them, it’s to broaden the appeal and show them how people in their states can be helped through carbon ranching. I believe Obama and his people are convinced that they won’t sign anything that won’t go through Congress.” Powers also said we need to use the leverage of “publicity and reputation” to push the Chinese government to adopt more sustainable environmental and development policies instead of following the same path we did. He recalled that when he was in Liberia, “I was representing an agency that had got the European Union to agree to accept only sustainably harvested timber. The Chinese consul said, ‘We want Liberia’s cheap timber,” but to an extent they can be convinced.”

Asked whether Africa can break out of the cycle of tyrants and dictators that has plagued it since the 1950’s and 1960’s, when most African countries became independent of colonial rule, Powers said that recent events in Ghana and Liberia made him hopeful. But he also cited a book by African author Dambisa Moyo called Dead Aid — a controversial work which argues that foreign aid has made Africa dependent (an argument Powers makes in his own Blue Clay People as well) and what is needed instead is more foreign investment and trade to create jobs for Africans — and agreed with Moyo’s point that aid from the West has propped up the dictators. “Africans, too, have to take responsibility,” Powers said. “In Guinea there’s been a bloodbath in the last week. It’s sad to see these repetitions happening.”

Powers confessed that he’s in “kind of a fallow period” as a writer — even though he continues to contribute to the Washington Post op-ed page and boasted that he’d got some of his thoughts about the environment and long-term sustainability into a column about grizzly bears. “A lot of my writing comes from seeing myself as an outsider,” he said. “There’s a risk of getting superficial. The trick is being there and listening to the people. I try to get across my method and use my own bliss and passion, and maybe those smaller pieces of writing for the Post can build themselves into a full book.”