by Bob Geary
Advocacy is fine, former President Bill Clinton says, but what the world needs now is a “how generation” in America willing to translate high hopes into practical solutions to the planet’s health, environmental and economic problems—before those problems destroy us all.
Clinton spoke to an audience of about 6,000 at N.C. State University’s Reynolds Coliseum this morning as part of the university’s Millenium Seminars series.
His theme was the world’s increasing interdependence, which is bringing people ever closer together and pulling them into dangerous conflicts at the same time.
The impacts of interdependence are more good than bad, Clinton said, adding, “more good, or you wouldn’t be here.” But in the same breath, he warned that the globalization of finance is causing the world to be more unequal, not less, and the growing inequality—on top of other threats—is making the world highly unstable and “more combustible.”
The issues are beyond governments’ powers to surmount by themselves, Clinton argued. But if a how-to generation of Americans will pitch in and help, they can be surmounted.
“In a world where the how has become the most important question, we need a lot of doers,” he said. “We have a crisis of doing in the world.”
Clinton likened the global situation today to the America he’s seen since the election of President Barack Obama. “It’s hard to imagine a more hopeful time,” he said, “and yet a more frustrating time.”
The United States has overcome hoary racial, ethnic and religious barriers and is ready to “move forward together,” Clinton said, while at the same time we’re watching the global banking system implode and wipe out $27 trillion in wealth—equivalent to half the world’s annual income, he said—in just five months’ time.
Worldwide, the financial crisis has exacerbated serious nuclear, terrorist and narco-criminal threats, Clinton said, and all this needs to be understood against a background of worsening global poverty that existed before the current calamity: Half the world exists on incomes of less than $2 a day, Clinton said; one death in four is caused by dirty water or some other easily preventable cause.
Finally, the world faces imminent environmental danger, the result of our unsustainable living practices and consequent global warming, he said.
Clinton suggested that the world’s political systems aren’t up to dealing with the issues, and that the pace of change, good and bad, is such that they won’t catch up anytime soon.
The financial meltdown could’ve been averted, for example, if our federal government had responded more quickly to the U.S. mortgage crisis, Clinton argued, either acting alone or with other nations pushing it and working with it.
“If we’d done it a year ago,” he said, “90 percent of this never would’ve happened.”
But world governments aren’t that nimble and don’t coordinate very well, Clinton said.
Which is the reason governments can’t solve the world’s problems by themselves, and why “a how movement in America” is needed.
Clinton’s own foundation, the William J. Clinton Foundation, is such an enterprise, he said. It’s tackling, among other initiatives, the problem of how to rid the world of its landfills, including in Mumbai, India.
(Clinton touted “Slumdog Millionaire” as his movie of the year, and recalled the opening scene in which the kids run across a seemingly endless landfill in Mumbai.)
His foundation’s working there, he said, “but you could be working in North Carolina” getting rid of your landfills, he told his audience. And not just advocating their removal; the task is figuring out “how to” replace them—and then doing it.
Clinton cited www.kiva.org as an example of two young people who saw a problem—lack of working capital in third-world countries—and figured out a way—a “how to”—to address it. The website links willing lenders with vetted borrowers in poor nations like Afghanistan. The lenders aren’t giving their money away; they get repaid with interest “in a personally accountable system that goes all over the world,” he said.
The challenge for Americans today, Clinton said, is to realize that a vote for Obama, or a campaign contribution to him, isn’t enough—people must become personally responsible for making the world better in some tangible way. “If we do that,” he concluded, the world will be “just fine.”
To which N.C. State Chancellor James Oblinger responded, whispering in Clinton’s ear as he finished, “You’re at how-to university.”
Clinton began by remembering NCSU women’s basketball coach Kay Yow, who died Saturday. He’s a huge basketball fan, the former president said, “and I admired her enormously.”
Clinton received enthusiastic standing ovations at the start and end of his talk.