Two children died on the street near my apartment the day before I left Quito, Ecuador in late December 2001. One was five and the other was seven. The newspaper reported them as “un-identified.” I had seen them for weeks, begging for money and food near the bus stop. Numb to the vast numbers of homeless beggars that surrounded me, I often ignored their pleas, but once in a while I gave them my food. It never occurred to me that these two innocent children would actually die from being ignored. I assumed that someone (their families, the government, etc.) would take care of the children. But nobody took care of them. Cold and starving, these two nameless children had been left alone on the street to die. In a world that produces so much excess, I couldn’t understand how children could be left without care.
Wondering how many other nameless children I ignored, I sobbed incessantly as I packed my bags to return to the US. Guilt plagued me such that I couldn’t sleep that night. I constantly thought about the children that I and everyone else had just let die. Would it have made a difference if I hadn’t ignored them? What would I have done differently? Jet lagged and weary upon return to the US, I accidentally found myself in Las Vegas. Delays and bad weather caused me to miss my connecting flight. I was stuck in Vegas for the night.
Nausea swept over my body as I walked through the Las Vegas airport. At 2 am, three days before Christmas, I saw remnants of what used to be human beings staring blankly at slot machines emptying their life’s savings into the belly of the beast called Vegas. “Ka-ching! Ka-ching!” I wanted to scream. I fantasized about shaking them to wake these zombies up from their coma of excess waste.
Using the eloquent words of Arundhati Roy: these two children in Quito were part of the “larger convoy that melts into the darkness and disappears.” It is this kind of disparity that knocks the wind out of you and makes you nauseous. These aren’t just problems “south of the border.” Really you don’t have to go south of the border anymore. Just go south. In my own rural town in Southwest New Mexico, there is a Call Center College, just like the ones in Delhi. Except in New Mexico they are trained to speak English without a Spanish accent. Much of the southern parts of the US, are starting to resemble the more impoverished parts of developing countries. Of course it isn’t yet at the extreme of places like Mumbai, but the growing economic disparity is becoming increasingly apparent in the US.
In response to this growing economic disparity, Accion, a micro finance organization has followed the example of the Grameen bank and is starting to give micro loans to rural women in the US. This isn’t an isolated example of how the north is looking to the south for answers. Communities in the US are beginning to turn to the developing world to find solutions to ever increasing economic, environmental and social problems. A few years ago Wangari Maathai, came to Palo Alto to help coach their community forestry program in how to engage citizens in tree planting. She has inspired the world with The Green Belt Movement, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. At the 2006 Goldman Awards, she upstaged Schwarzenegger with her powerful presence. While he received silent disapproval, she got a standing ovation. Unlike so many other highly admired people, it isn’t what she says that makes the difference. It is what she does. And in Maathai’s own words “ . . . until you dig a hole, plant a tree, water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking!”
Let’s do something! What actions will you take? Where will you “plant trees?”