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2013-10-16

Saving the Third World from Poverty

The Third World is the same wherever we go. It is us First Worlders who have created the Third World, thanks to our evil plan of World Globalisation. Without rich consuming countries wanting more more more and therefore wanting to trade with every part of the world, much of what is now the Third World would simply have remained the world, or Planet Earth. To convince these Earthlings that they want our abstract little notes and coins, that they want to trade all of their precious resources for it, I guess first we have to teach them to envy us and our superior lifestyle and culture. Being “Christians” we sent Missionaries ahead to “convert” the Earthlings to our peculiar religion, appropriately worshipping a genocidal god, and had a lot of success. Being Consumers now we send Hollywood to convert the Earthlings to our modern, updated, secular religion, worshipping our new god, Economy. Unlike Jahweh, the Christian god, who is clearly genocidal in his official literature, Economy wants to wipe out all species on this planet, not just specific races of humans. Hollywood, it seems, has been far more successful than the Missionaries. As a result more people than ever, living as heathens, close to the land, are now living in poverty, perhaps because they suddenly have to pay for food, perhaps because their environment is becoming increasingly polluted as a result of industrialisation. Either way, they want cellphones, they want Coca-Cola and they want action movies. As I sign of their independence, they may even form their own centralised government, therefore becoming, like us, a country, and even making their own action movies with local actors and locations. As a continuation of their independence from the imperialism of global advertising corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonalds the may even develop their own soft drinks and takeaway chains, so the profits from diabetes, obesity and heart disease can stay in the local economy.

Having established a centralised authoritarian government that worships the Economy, they can now embrace their position in the world as Third and Poverty. Some heretics, living in small tribal groups in unity with nature, remain outside of the classifications of Third World and Poverty, but they are being worked on. A growing proportion of this exciting new country are now futilely striving to become First World, and therefore lose the final link they have with the environment they live in, the humans they share their environment with and even a full experience of their own bodies. Hollywood has been the great teacher for a century now, sending movies, television and pop music from Los Angeles to (almost) every corner of the world. The American Dream, now officially dead in all remotely intelligent discussions in America, is now the dream of all who worship Economy, who see it not as a dream but as a literal truth. Stable governments worshipping Economy and welcoming Globalisation are being deliberately spread, not for the sake of some ancient Greek philosophy, Demokratia, but for the sake of Trade in praise of Economy. We will never extract and consume all of the planet's resources if we focus only on First World Christian Capitalist countries.

It is noble, even necessary, to spread our way of life, with alienation and airports, bureaucracy and border patrols, concrete and carbon monoxide to the entire planet. By some anomalous miracle of green politics most world governments have agreed that Antarctica will not be exploited and is not even a country, though it has been tentatively drawn on to define which rich countries look after which pieces of mouth-wateringly immaculate virgin-white continent. The most empathetic and least money-obsessed among us even volunteer in poor poverty-stricken Third World “countries”, helping them “develop” their lives, environments, communities and bodies into something that can serve the Economy and so bring them a paper-thin slice of the money-pie. Meanwhile they are very quickly losing connection with thousands of years of cultural tradition, the way-of-life and unity with the environment that have successfully brought them here (when it is widely agreed that the Industrial Consumer way of life will definitely not last 1000 years or bring the human species into any recognisable future). While 100,000 years of folk medicinal knowledge is being lost forever in our lifetime, modern psychiatric drugs are spreading like a plague from the eastern United States of Amnesia.

Outside of the executive boardrooms of major corporations and the debate chambers of “secular” Capitalist Governments, we know that this progress may not be “good”, but we recognise that is it “inevitable”. That's how things are now. We can't go back to being Cave Men. We must all step into and live entirely within the Real World, and forget that anything else ever existed, because it didn't. It has always been like this and if it hasn't it was always leading up to this. It will always be like this and if it is unsustainable we will have to be unsustainable “Sustainably”.

My friends and I compare our Third World experiences in countries in Central America and South-East Asia, finding similarities in tropical fruits and tourist economies. “Everything is so cheap!” we exclaim with delight. Many of us travellers are peripheral beings in the West, but in the Third World we become white Messengers carrying wads of divinely-ordained money. We are seen as “rich” by the locals and are treated as such. They want what we have, though we have travelled halfway across the world to get away from it. All we have is this universally-recognised abstraction, currency, which is terrifyingly finite. We battle with the locals for possession of this abstraction and they blackmail and threaten us by withholding the resources they possess, food and shelter, exchanging them for our notes of abstraction, just as we taught them.

I am told that Guatemala is a very poor country. I found, upon flying into the United States of Anorexia, a profound paranoia and distrust. They suspected me of wanting to overstay in their free country and so questioned me and checked my documents for hours before allowing me to pass the border. Upon flying into Guatemala, with a long line of locals wanting to cross the border, they saw me, the tallest, richest, whitest person in the line, and waved me through. Come, stay, spend your money, enjoy our food and our women, they seemed to be saying. They tried to sell me bus tours and any number of contrived travel options inside the airport and, upon seeing me proudly stepping out into the hot air unencumbered by their expensive controlled holidays, gave me pitying looks. As soon as I stepped outside the doors of the airport I was leaped upon by thirty taxi drivers willing to take me anywhere. I did not choose one, somehow one of them chose me and led me away to his car, naming a price that sounded cheap until I realised it was in US dollars.

This was Guatemala City, the central temple of Economy in this “developing” country, and so I took the bus straight out of the city, to Cobán, less developed, more poor, more welcoming, more comprehensible, more “authentic”, cheaper, the great dream of the rich foreigner, able to buy anything in the poor naïve Third World town. In Cobán, my local town for six weeks, the streets are dirt and lined with women selling fruit and tortillas, men selling energy boosters and cigarettes. I would walk through the streets a perfect Gringo, with more money than Spanish. They would try to talk their prices up to much more than they usually charge, but, I slowly learned, could be talked back down to the normal price. I learned with my Canadian friend, who has good Spanish and is a social genius, that to break through the image of Rich Gringo is very easy. To make a joke, to give a compliment or to simply humble ourselves, we suddenly transmute in their eyes into a real person and they laugh with us and empathise with us as the strange foreigner in a difficult situation, and we are friends, sometimes family, and they don't even want to charge us. We found that if we ask for food, say we have no money, it will be given to us without second-thought. Money is secondary to everyone eating. I was surprised and confused by how much the large gathering of Westerners I met in Guatemala became obsessed with living as cheaply as possible and talking the price of everything down as low as possible. While it made me feel more confident to learn enough Spanish to facilitate commerce, it made me feel satisfied and comfortable to later learn enough Spanish to laugh and joke with bus drivers.

Outside Cobán many people don't even speak Spanish, the language of four-hundred years of Colonisation, Christianity and Capitalism. They live in small villages in a variety of relationships to their Mayan traditions. It amazed me the extent to which they have survived these centuries of Colonisation, while México is progressively polluted by America like a leaking landfill above them. We received visits from Mayan shaman women, who blessed our gathering with ceremonies around the fire. We brought our multi-cultural performance into their village and they all gathered around us in fascination of our strangeness. We received a lot of sun and a lot of rain and we discovered, upon digging toilets, that there is about two metres of topsoil. Consequently, there was plenty of food, not only tropical fruits but maize, their staple food and the central god of the Mayan cosmology. Everyone had bananas and wanted to give them to us in appreciation of meeting us. We weary travellers always appreciated a bunch of bananas to nourish and delight us. There was plenty of food, but every village had a tienda, a little shop selling candy, chips and softdrinks, and every tienda was painted with either a Coca-Cola or Pepsi logo. It seems, unless they take the collectivo into town, the tienda is the only place to spend money, and only on junk food. In the poor Mexican villages, the Mexican Mayans all seemed desperate to sell us anything to make a tiny amount of money. The Guatemalan Mayans, less advanced, were less interested in our money. But every day, as Cobán sucked us towards it, bus after bus was filled with perfumed young men and round old women also sucked into town for their chance of making money.

Despite what is often referred to as “Poverty”, there were cellphones everywhere, and the cellphones that we Westerners left lying in our tents tended to disappear. There were satellite dishes in the most obscurely-placed houses, all with the mark of the beast, the “Claro” logo, the huge central American cellphone corporation. Why would everybody in Guatemala want a cellphone? The advertising in Cobán was very aggressive. “Claro” logos were everywhere and constantly there were vans driving slowly through the narrow streets shouting through loudspeakers on their roofs advertising for everyone needing a cellphone. Desensitised and over-exposed to advertising, it just aggravated me. New to its power to manipulate and the novelty of advertising not being completely insidious in their environment, the locals surely responded conscientiously to the advertising.

It is such a relief for me, Western Consumer of New Zealand, distant outpost of the British Commonwealth, to not have a cellphone for a while, to not use it for a while. We rich Capitalists, dissatisfied with what our culture offers us, consumption, accumulation and entertainment as the meaning of life, travel all the way to Guatemala to gather together in the remote river valley of Rio Sachicha, to live together on the earth without commerce. Yet we are pulled over and over again to the urban centres to satiate our craving and buy something, anything, to have it and take it with us, not even caring if it is later stolen by some poor local. We exhaust ourselves in the exuberance and chaos of the Third World, we obtain their intestinal parasites, and we retreat home to our sterility and stupormarkets to recover from our loss of illusion-of-control.

We educated post-consumer hippies are confused and conflicted by the development of the Third World, by Guatemala, surviving 400 years of Colonisation, only to embrace Capitalism now. We want to support their development, we want to exploit their resources, their naïvety, their pure land and way-of-life and we want to leave them untouched, to maintain a life not defined by our failed institutions.


I guess we learn and we return to New Zealand and Canada and Finland with an experience that reverberates through our bodies, rather than media-produced images in our heads. We may not understand, but at least we don't pretend to understand. We may not reject Imperialistic Corporate Industrial Consumerism, but at least we worship the Economy with a disrespectful irony and sarcasm.

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