March 2014

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Written by Tom McGuire

Having recently chosen unemployment as my next career move, I volunteered to join the Peace Run throughout Europe for several months. Free accommodation, food and travel. The only catch? Run at least 10 kilometres every day, do presentations at schools and smile whenever the camera appears. It's exhilarating, exhausting and fulfilling. It also makes you realise something amazing: the boundaries that divide human beings from one another are mostly an illusion.

Here's why. When you meet so many children every day from different villages and cities, passing new borders with a bewildering frequency, you somehow get the impression that you are seeing the same kids over and over again. Now, I don't mean that you reach a point where they all seem like carbon copies of one another. Of course, every child is wonderfully unique. What I mean is that in my perception, the commonalities became so apparent that they totally overshadowed the differences.

In the absence of ideological training to the contrary, young children care little for differences in race, class and nationality when choosing whom to associate and share resources with. The division of human beings, and the consequent exploitation of one group by another, starts with powerful ideas that give birth to the 'us' and 'them' mentality which so powerfully dominates the society constructed by adults. It is these ideas which sociologists study to better understand why humans behave in the way that they do.

So far I have run through Portugal and Spain, both of which formerly had tremendous empires stretching around the world. They grew richer at the expense of peoples whom they subjugated and pillaged. But these old empires have long since waned, and their wealth too is fading away. The youth here are restless and wanting more. Lacking jobs and financial security, they leave markings of their discontent: 'Revolucion' painted in red on the walls of crumbling shops, a traffic Stop sign transformed into a protest placard with the addition of a single word - corruption. The schoolchildren we meet in Iberia are lively, sweet, and bursting with energy. One gets the impression they have no time for old ideas and old divisions - these are walls that they will happily climb over to build something new and better suited to human needs.

I have my own ancestral links to this region. My grandmother, Isobel Dodds, was one of only a few New Zealand nurses to provide medical assistance to the International Brigadiers - a civilian fighting force which tried, unsuccessfully, to defend Spain from Franco's fascist takeover in the 1930's. My grandmother lived to tell the tale, but she saw and tended to many who did not. Many decades have passed, but the world is still not free from war and poverty. Increasingly, ordinary people grow wary of a tiny elite controlling most of the world's resources (in the rhetoric of the Occupy movement, the 1% versus the 99%). Many who feel moved to take to the streets in this way share a sociological perspective in which the structure of global power is pyramidshaped, and they seek to flatten this out. But identifying the problem is much more difficult than finding a solution. Bloody revolutions have a tendency to change the identity of those at the top without altering the pyramid structure.

During a stopover in Germany, I was able to attend the European premier of 'Food Chains' which shines light on a mostly forgotten group of people - U.S. agricultural workers. Director Sanjay Rawal spent over a year getting to know tomato-pickers in Florida, following their daily lives and efforts to collectively organise for better conditions. The documentary focuses mainly on their struggle with Publix, a supermarket chain with a nearmonopoly on the state's food shopping industry. Because of its market clout, Publix can virtually dictate the price of tomatoes, and consequently the wages of those who pick them. It is an industry characterised by excessively low wages, job insecurity and unsafe conditions - particularly for women. The movie follows a campaign by the workers, including a hunger strike, to lobby for an extra cent per pound of tomatoes picked, which would double their pay.

What is it that suppresses the power of each one of us to spark global change? Of course there are many outer institutions and limitations which constrain us. But each person also has a tremendous ability to alter their experience of the world by changing something within themselves. A simple example is the act of smiling at someone to cheer them up - there is a good chance that they will in turn do the same to another person. Pyramidshaped control systems rely on the base of the pyramid (i.e. the 99%) not being aware that they actually hold most of the power, and are completely supporting those at the top. The feeling of powerlessness works entirely in the interests of those would rather have you under their thumb. So, even while lamenting the problems of the world, get creative and take some time to reflect on the many ways in which you can actually do something to change it. That is the point, after all.