A River of Hope

Patrick McCully
Monday, March 2, 2009

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”  President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009

I’ve devoted the two decades of my professional life to acting on my belief that we in wealthy countries should not tolerate indifference to suffering elsewhere, and that our over-consumption of resources is one reason for this suffering. I never thought that a US president would share this belief and, even less likely, refer to it in what was probably one of the most watched speeches in the history of the world.

How wonderful it would be if the “Obama Doctrine” could come to mean the acceptance of a responsibility to reduce inequality, and a responsibility to stop over-consumption and pollution. (Not to mention a responsibility to “let clean waters flow” by stopping new dams and removing old ones …)

The Author at the Inauguration
The Author at the Inauguration
I watched Obama’s inauguration speech on a big screen in a church hall on Capitol Hill, maybe a third of a mile from where the new president took his oath. Along with my wife and two-year-old son Liam, I’d traveled across the country from San Francisco to be part of the historic event. We tried to get to the Mall to see the ceremony but Liam seemed likely to go hypothermic if we stayed out in the biting cold, so we took shelter in the warm and welcoming St. Mark’s Episcopalian Church.

We shared our table in the church hall with several elderly African-American women from Chicago who had spent a sleepless night on a bus and been out in the cold since five in the morning. They had walked for miles from where their coach parked and finally sat down on the sidewalk, too cold and exhausted to make it to the Mall. Thankfully, someone from St. Mark’s found them and directed them to the church.

Before coming to Washington I thought I understood how much Obama’s election meant to the African-American community, but I don’t think I could fully comprehend it until actually being surrounded by the sea of tears, pride and joy that washed over DC for a few days this January.

We cried, in that comforting church, on the freezing Mall, and in living rooms and workplaces throughout the US and beyond, for the centuries of suffering endured by Black America, for the great harm caused by George Bush, for the joy that maybe a better world is indeed possible. Already we are seeing signs that some of these hopes will be realized. President Obama’s executive orders and statements on energy, climate change, labor rights and government transparency in particular bode well.

Of course we must be realistic. No individual can save the world. Greed, bigotry, selfishness, ignorance and corruption have not suddenly been banished from Washington, never mind the rest of the world. But the campaign slogan is true, Obama has brought hope, and hope is essential to inspire people to create change.

As Obama has repeatedly reminded us, his administration alone cannot bring the changes we need. Just as it required an incredible grassroots mobilization to get him elected, it will require the efforts of a movement of many millions of engaged citizens to ensure that positive change happens.

In our own work, we’ve always known that it requires a movement to stop the destruction of the world’s rivers, and we have put a lot of our resources into nurturing this movement, providing information and analysis and small amounts of funding, and forging links across the continents.

Many times the forces destroying rivers appear just too powerful to be turned back by the pro-river activists scattered around the globe. But as Obama’s victory has reminded us, movements can prevail against extraordinary odds. With courage, commitment, leadership, truth and hope, we can better the world. Sometimes, as Irish poet Seamus Heaney has said, hope and history can indeed rhyme.

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