A Tale of Two Presidents by Joseph Nevins

         President Barack Obama                               President José Mujica   

As I watched Barack Obama delivering his second inaugural address last month, and listened to his call to “respond to the threat of climate change” lest we “betray our children and future” generations, I could not help but think of another president.

There is something disconcerting about hearing of the need to fight climate change — to reduce the gargantuan greenhouse gas-related footprint of the United States, in other words – at a huge event that was both unnecessary and expensive. Obama was already president, so why another inauguration? Answer: the nation-state relies to a significant degree on performances to reproduce itself.

This is especially so in the United States where the benefits the state delivers to its citizenry are increasingly meaningless in terms of everyday well-being. In a country in which over twenty percent of its children live below the official poverty line, half of discretionary U.S. government spending is dedicated to its enormous, global military apparatus – “homeland security.” Under a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, U.S. military spending rivals that of all the rest of the world’s countries combined.

But the event is also a manifestation of U.S. wealth and power. The final price tag of the inauguration is still undisclosed, but it will certainly have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. According to The Economist, security alone for what it called “the three days of revelry” totaled around $100 million. With an estimated 800,000 people in attendance, many of the celebrants traveled long distances by ground or air, adding tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases to the Earth’s atmosphere in the process.

Compare such consumption and priorities to another head of state, President José Mujica of Uruguay. Mujica, according to The New York Times, “lives in a run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts with no servants at all. His security: two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road.”

José Mujica believes that for a true democracy to function, “elected leaders [must] be taken down a notch.” As part of his effort to make the country’s presidency “less venerated,” he refuses to live in Uruguay’s presidential mansion, one with a staff of 42. Instead, he offers the opulent abode as a shelter for homeless families during the coldest months. He explains his personal philosophy by citing Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
While his official presidential salary is about $108,000 per year, he donates 90 percent of it, mostly to a program for expanding housing for the poor. This leaves him with a monthly income comparable to a typical Uruguayan. As Mujica is quick to say, “I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less.”

Barack Obama, by contrast, lives in luxury – in the White House – and takes in $400,000 annually as president. That, combined with his royalties from book sales, gave him and his wife an income of $1.7 million in 2010. The Obamas typically donate 14 percent of their income, keeping enough to maintain their position among the “one percent” nationally, that is, the elite of the elite, globally.
Given these differences, it is hardly surprising that Obama embraces the interlocking interests of U.S. capital, empire, and militarism, and the rampant consumption they entail. Obama’s soaring rhetoric about the need for “sustainable energy sources” falls flat for he offers no indication of who is primarily responsible for its use.

With less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuels. The Pentagon, which devours more than 300,000 barrels of oil per day, an amount greater than that consumed by any of the vast majority of the world’s countries, is the planet’s single biggest consumer. By not acknowledging this, Obama implies, by default, that all the planet’s denizens are equally culpable, rather than the small slice of the Earth’s population that consumes the lion’s share.

In contrast, Uruguay’s president laments that many societies consider economic growth a priority, calling it “a problem for our civilization.” Hyper-consumption, he says, “is harming our planet.” He is also highly doubtful that the world has enough resources to allow all its inhabitants to consume and produce waste at the level of Western societies. If such levels are reached, it would probably lead to “the end of the world,” he says.

In a speech to the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last June, this man who is dubbed “the poorest president in the world,” insisted that “the challenge ahead of us … is not an ecological crisis, but rather a political one.” Looking at a “model of development and consumption shaped after that of affluent societies,” ruled by the dictates of the capitalist market, Mujica insisted it was “time to start fighting for a different culture.” Arguing that the assault on the environment was a symptom of a larger disease, he asserted that “the cause is the model of civilization that we have created. And the thing we have to re-examine is our way of life.”

Given the position he occupies, and the interests he serves, it is almost impossible to even imagine Barack Obama – or any U.S. president of today – uttering these words, advocating living simply or doing with a lot less in the name of equity. And the interests he serves are a big part of the problem. In an era of climate change and ecological crises, it is these interests that humanity must confront.
In this regard, José Mujica’s willingness to live by example and, through his words, offer a larger structural critique – while insisting that the everyday and the systemic are inherently linked — is not only inspiring, but instructive.

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. His books include Dying to Live: A Story of US Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid and Operations Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the US-Mexico Boundary.


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