Last week, I had the incredible delight of not only going to the Economics of Happiness conference hosted by the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), but also meeting some of the people who have most inspired me in the past, and meeting new people who blow my mind. One of the people in the former category was of course Helena Norberg-Hodge, author of Ancient Futures and director of ISEC. Another was Gustavo Esteva. I was almost speechless when I realized I had somehow managed to go out to lunch with him and some of his colleagues. Everything he said was memorable (especially about his intimate experiences with the Zapatistas), and I had to resist the temptation to take notes over lunch!
In particular, I asked him two questions that seemed to come up over and over in my own work about the role of do-gooders. Esteva was a close colleague and friend of the late Ivan Illich, who greatly influenced me with his famous speech To Hell with Good Intentions (I was first introduced to Illich by my mentor, Stephen Bezruchka). Here is what he said:
Q: “What do you tell Westerners who want to help [places like Mexico]?”
A: “Thanks but no thanks.” He said the Zapatistas say we don’t want your “help,” BUT, “if you see our struggle as your struggle, then come, let’s work together. We have a lot to do!”
Q: Should Americans just stay at home and work on fighting this empire from within?
A: No, because you can’t understand the empire from the inside. He said he believes strongly in the value of travel, because “we live in a deeply interconnected world”: we must go there to learn about ourselves and our countries. That is the biggest lesson. We cannot stay in isolation any longer. For example, he said, you can much better understand the drug war’s effects on Mexican people by being in Mexico and experiencing the daily trauma than reading about it in the U.S. (He believes it is a farce to justify occupation and expansion just like the war on terror.)
He said so many gems that I don’t know if I can recall to write here. I still can’t quite get over meeting someone so fascinating.