When we first met, the first thing I wanted to do was hand him a bottle of our Brazil Nut Hair Conditioner - his hair was as rough as straw and he had a long plaited beard which he rolled up when he went into cities. I quickly learned Jacob's personality was determinately passive. If ever he was in adversarial situations, he would gently talk his way out of things. Once, when every inch of our truck was filled with wayfarers, itinerants and hitchhikers who would normally strike fear in any of us - Jacob never passed anyone on the highway - I studied how softly he spoke and how intently he listened. In our society, gentleness is often viewed as ridiculous or insincere: Jacob showed me that nothing is as powerful as gentleness or as persuasive as treating a person with respect and kindness. This is how he has survived the hazards of the life he has spent gathering the stories of the marginalised and powerless.
What I saw whilst travelling with Jacob astounded me. The hope for change, and the optimism that I felt during the 1960s when our generation campaigned for racial equality had disappeared. The longer I journeyed with him, the more I started to fear there was no more hope. I also saw the effects of the overwhelming power of television, and how it acts just like a pacifier to the mind. A pale blue light flickered in the broken down shacks 24 hours a day. It seemed that we had all become part of a media culture, designed to perpetuate the myth that material wealth defines self-value and self-worth.
While we travelled in the truck, Jacob and I talked long and hard about racism. I used to be convinced that colour wasn't important in my relationships, but still I constantly check myself.
For the last 15 years I have experience how wealth can make you insensitive to the human condition and from that time on I decided that I'd do anything and everything to not allow this insensitivity to happen to me. The journey with Jacob provided me with yet another antidote to comfort and complacency. It helped illuminate the current state of human affairs.
This hopelessness and poverty in the midst of wealth is a stark reminder that the "economic problem" - as John Maynard Keynes put it - is not solved. We have a record boom in the US economy, we have stock markets soaring over the 10,000-point barrier, but we have this looming human catastrophe as well. And poverty drives the other crises. It drives desperate people to over-exploit their resources, or allow them to be over-exploited. It drives them into drug dealing or terrorism. And it also drives them into the waiting arms of rich countries as military, economic or political collaborators who perpetuate the poverty of the majority world. We've institutionalized it.
I sometimes wonder why we're not more outraged by the fact that three billion people live on less than $2 a day, while the wealthy have stashed away $8 trillion dollars in tax havens. They certainly don't seem to be picking up the tab on world poverty. Despite the astonishing wealth of the so-called 'long boom', a fifth of the human race is still living in absolute poverty without access to proper food or clean water.
The rise of the NGOs
This is the reality of the modern world, but it has spawned the beginning of a much more hopeful trend, and it's one that absolutely thrills me. I knew the business environment had changed, but until my flight to Seattle, I hadn't understood just how much the rise of the NGOs has changed the environment for corporate life. All those focus groups, futurists and pollsters the corporations employ failed to predict the extraordinary rise to influence of the NGOs - yet their emergence could well change everything. There are now at least 100,000 NGOs working on green issues alone all over the world. Some of them are persecuted and embattled; some are increasingly powerful.
Copyright Anita Roddick 2000. All rights reserved.
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