Japan is no stranger to extreme weather events, nor to developing massive infrastructural defenses against them. At the beginning of the millennium, faced with a capital city susceptible to cataclysmic flooding, the Japanese government poured millions of dollars into the creation of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, the largest underground water diversion system in the world. An impressive cathedral-like structure, the channel can divert the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool into the Edo River every two seconds. It is a masterpiece of civil engineering and a testament to sheer human determination to innovate our way out of any existential threat.
But even with the support of the Channel’s miles of tunnels, Tokyo today—not in some distant climate future, but right now—still faces the prospect of a flood severe enough to require the immediate evacuation of up to 1.78 million people. As climate change pushes Japan’s natural disasters to new extremes, efforts to out-design increasingly lethal weather patterns may be in vain. Rather than attempting to treat the symptoms of climate change, Japan must tackle its root causes.
This was the charge levelled at the Japanese government following the devastating events in the summer of 2018, which saw the country, which generates 83% of its energy from fossil fuels, brought to its knees by climate change-driven extreme weather. Over the month of July, huge swathes of southwestern Japan were inundated with water. Flash flooding and mudslides took the lives of over 200 people. Many regions set rainfall records by enormous margins.
As the rain fell, a heatwave was simultaneously gaining strength, burning through still-flooded prefectures and killing at least 65 people in a single week. 65 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, in the city of Kumagaya, the mercury had just hit 41.1 degrees Celsius—the highest temperature in Japan ever recorded. Just one month later, the Typhoon Jongdari made landfall, with 120 km/h winds injuring 24 and driving the evacuation of thousands. It was only a few short weeks before Typhoon Jebi—Japan’s strongest storm in 25 years—slammed into Kyoto, killing 7 and smashing a 2,591-tonne tanker into a road bridge. Completing a trilogy of destruction, Typhoon Trami followed hot on Jebi’s heels, cutting power to 750,000 homes and evacuating over 380,000. This time the winds reached 216 km/h.
This was record-breaking weather, and the media responded accordingly, running stories about the growing impact of climate change on Japan’s already storm-prone archipelago. Aired in an atmosphere of crisis, the stories ended with the familiar climate imperative: ‘Act now!’ But in the same year that unprecedented floods and rising temperatures wrought havoc on the country, the Japanese government released a report with a bizarre angle on climate change. Jointly produced by five government agencies, the report assured its readers of the opportunities for businesses to ‘take advantage’ of climate change. How? By building products to make heatwave-stricken homes and offices more comfortable, or designing sophisticated financial instruments to manage the economic risks of abnormal weather events.
Examples included Japan-based Dexerials Corporation’s heat-ray reflective window film, a product that promises to shield buildings from extreme heat, along with Kokusai Kogyo’s GPS technology that provides land management tools for farms struck by increasingly erratic weather-related disasters. The report made no mention of fossil fuels, carbon emissions or waste reduction, but did note that new varieties of oranges able to tolerate the heat are now being grown in Ehime, a prefecture that suffered 25 deaths and millions of dollars of damage in the 2018 floods.
While such official responses to climate change are deeply out of touch with the urgency of the situation, it wasn’t long ago that Japan’s energy sector was poised to lead a worldwide energy transition. In 1997, when world leaders came together to sign the historic Kyoto Protocol, Japan was synonymous with fighting climate change. But its drive for clean energy faltered in 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s eastern shores delivered a fatal blow to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, in what would become the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
In the ensuing panic, the country’s nuclear reactors, which had been generating just under a third of Japan’s energy, were shut down immediately. The tide of public opinion seems to have turned against nuclear energy for good. In 2014, 59% of the public opposed switching the reactors back on. To date, nine reactors have been brought back online since the Fukushima disaster, bringing nuclear’s contribution to Japan’s energy mix up to 3%.
This disaster was a boon for the fossil fuel industry, as coal and oil were seen not only as safer than nuclear energy, but also a more reliable alternative to still-developing renewable energy sources. Japan’s reliance on imported oil and coal soared, and it took less than a year for Japan to become the world’s second biggest importer of fossil fuels. More than two decades after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, just under 15% of Japan’s energy needs are met by non-carbon sources.
Comparing the Fukushima disaster with the even greater threat posed to Japan by climate change allows a certain irony to emerge. Not only were the Japanese government’s actions after Fukushima driven by all the urgency that has been so sorely lacking in their response to climate change, they also set the country on a path of self-destruction, as continued reliance on fossil fuels continues to warm our planet. But when it comes to Japan’s climate inertia, the impact of Fukushima is just one part of the story. To understand why the fossil fuel industry maintains its iron grip on Japan today, we need to look beyond the aftermath of this disaster and to ongoing conditions.
The long road to decarbonization
For many businesses, the decision to do without fossil fuels would doom them to a competitive disadvantage severe enough to threaten their existence. Instead, major Japanese corporations seek to place the burden of change on consumers.
Japan currently holds the most solar technology patents in the world, and is the leading manufacturer of photovoltaic devices, providing nearly half of the world’s quota. The islets and channels in its Western coastal regions offer significant tidal energy generation potential. Moreover, as a mountainous island surrounded by sea, Japan is perfectly placed for the development of wind technology. But the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry failed to award a single contract last year to a solar energy supplier to deliver energy to consumers, citing costs that exceeded government targets. Plans announced in 2013 to install tidal turbines along Japan’s coastline have not yet come to fruition,and public doubts about the reliability of wind power have been exploited by regional electricity companies who, citing variability issues with wind-generated electricity, are sticking to the ‘safe bets’ of oil and coal.
Meanwhile, the Abe government refuses to take the lead on emissions reductions. The Japanese government’s ‘Long-Term Energy Supply and Demand Outlook’ pledged to increase the amount of energy supplied by renewables from 15% to 22-24% by 2030: a goal that was described as ‘modest’ by news outlets, and more bluntly by the country’s own Foreign Minister as ‘lamentable.’In negotiations leading up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries were asked to present their own national emissions reduction plan. Each plan would work towards an overall global reductions target, while taking economic and infrastructural differences between countries into account. So far, so good—except Japan’s plan for a 26% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030 was widely criticized for falling far short of the plans produced by other industrialised nations. For comparison, the European Union is chasing a minimum target of 40%.
With the national climate strategy plagued by inertia, some Japanese businesses have begun mobilising to accelerate the energy transition. Last July, as floods swallowed the south of the country, a handful of companies, local governments and NGOs joined together to form the Japan Climate Initiative, a network independent of the national government and committed to fostering productive climate action. JCI’s mission statement is simple: ‘We believe that Japan can and should play a greater role in the world in realizing a decarbonized society.’
As of March 2019, the network includes 350 companies, and counts giants SoftBank and Fujifilm among its members. According to the network’s website, over 50 Japanese companies have committed to setting ‘science-based targets’ to reduce emissions. Many are signing on to RE100, the pledge to generate 100% of a company’s energy from renewables, and some local governments have even declared a goal of zero emissions.
But for many businesses, the decision to do without fossil fuels would doom them to a competitive disadvantage severe enough to threaten their existence. Instead, major Japanese corporations seek to place the burden of change on consumers. The Japanese technology giant Hitachi, for example, claims that since the majority of their emissions result from the use of their products by consumers, their hands might as well be tied. ‘It’s really a challenge,’ a Hitachi spokesman lamented,echoing Sony’s proclamation that the real problem lies in families’ failure to teach children about curbing carbon emissions. Never mind that in the last fiscal year, Sony Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions accounted for 75% of the company’s total global emissions—an increase from the previous year.
Such rhetoric serves to mask the driving force of ceaseless competition for profit that incentivizes the production of carbon-intensive and environmentally-destructive goods in the first place. This competitive logic prevails even as corporations are required to disclose their environmental impact. Revelations that Japanese carmakers Nissan, Suzuki Motor, Mazda and Yamaha have been faking vehicle emissions data could be just the tip of the iceberg of climate malfeasance.
With the corporate sector at best an unreliable ally in the fight to reduce emissions, Japanese citizens have been working to pick up the slack. But this burgeoning climate movement faces its fair share of challenges too.
Japan’s burgeoning climate movement
Posing a defiant alternative to the Abe government and corporate sustainability, these protesters point to the only possible path forward: Japan must take responsibility for its historical emissions, and use its enormous wealth to help pull the planet back from the brink.
On February 22, 2019, 20 young people from Japan’s Fridays For Future chapter gathered in front of Tokyo’s Diet Building holding placards and shouting their support for climate justice. Though a far smaller spectacle than the crowds that gathered in Paris and Sydney, this act of rebellion marks a significant step forward in the fight to bring climate legislation to Japan. Public demonstrations in the country are uncommon, usually arising in response to only the most contentious social issues.
One of the largest gatherings of Japanese protestors took place in 2012, in response to the restarting of a nuclear reactor 16 months after the Fukushima disaster: around 100,000 people took to the street to protest the decision to bring the reactor back online. I spoke to a member of an online Japanese climate activist group, who put the numbers into perspective: ‘It was the largest demo in several decades… [and] it wasn’t that [big],” he noted. ‘Japan is a country of 127 million. Even considering the logistics, the greater Tokyo area is home to 30 million.’ But as it seeks to expand its reach into mainstream Japanese society, the climate movement will have to overcome a prevailing sense of apathy. Some see this apathy as unsurprising for a generation that came of age during Japan’s ‘lost years’ of economic decline.
This apparent lack of political engagement is compounded by the perceived social costs of protesting. A member of the group Climate Youth Japan suggested that ‘not only young people but also Japanese people generally feel that the hurdles to participating in [protest] actions are high.’ Views of social change in Japan tend to hew to tradition: let the government lead and citizens follow. In such a staid political climate, taking a stand as an activist means taking a serious risk. As the Japanese saying goes, ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’ Street protests struggle to garner support in a culture that values adherence to the official channels of parliamentary politics.
As a member of an online Japanese climate activist group explained, ‘there’s a vote where everyone gets a chance to choose a representative. Then you should petition and call your representative. If a handful of people gather in the street to forcefully set the agenda on a topic, many see it as an unfair process.’ Those who do protest publicly will go to considerable lengths to cover their faces and preserve their anonymity. Police forces in Japan are known to keep databases on members of political movements, and participating in protest actions can spell significant legal and financial trouble.
While these risks are not unique to Japan, my activist contact pointed out that while some protests in Europe or America do find public support, in Japan, ‘you’d most likely just be labelled extremist or criminal, if you’re lucky enough for the media to pick up the story.’ My contact had touched on another barrier to the climate movement in Japan—awareness.
The between awareness and action among Japanese youth remains a major obstacle for climate protests. Outside the Diet building during Fridays for Future protest, 18-year-old protestor Isao Sakai admitted that it was only thanks to an environmental science class he took during his time studying in the US that he was worried about the world’s projected future. Before then, he says he ‘didn’t care,’ nor do many of his peers.
To turn this apathy into action, local activist groups are doing their best to tear down the status quo. Last month, young students and workers gathered in Saitama for the first ever ‘Power Shift Japan,’a regional chapter of the worldwide climate summit network Global Power Shift. The event’s three days were filled with campaign brainstorming and strategising, culminating in the planning of two protest actions involving demonstrations in front of local landmarks. And it wasn’t only Japanese youth in attendance: activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan also showed up to participate, proving that the desire to mobilise against government inaction isn’t bound by national borders. The event, which many considered a test run, offered an outline of something new: a shining example of how online activism, institutional campaigns and street protests can fit together in a growing movement. It might just be the new blueprint for the next decade of Japan’s climate fight.
The Fridays for Future protest was organised via social media, where platforms uniting citizens around climate change are quickly spreading. Climate Youth Japan, Extinction Rebellion Japan, Fridays For Future Japan and 350.org Japan are just some of the spaces on Facebook where young activists post links offering advice on how to create a more environmentally-conscious workplace, or share news of school walkouts inspired by Greta Thunberg. The movement is age-inclusive: ‘Let’s move to action,’ a recent post on one group reads, ‘knowing that it’s not just young people but all generations who can work to combat global warming!’
These groups are not only passionate but increasingly direct in their demands. Climate Youth Japan’s ambitious five-point plan includes establishing a road map for the abolition of coal-fired energy and pushing clear goals for phasing in renewables. These plans are underpinned by two major goals: to achieve the Paris Agreement’s aim of keeping planetary warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to ensure that youth ‘will be involved in the process of social decision-making’ to hold their country accountable for its climate contributions.
Posing a defiant alternative to the Abe government and corporate sustainability, these protesters point to the only possible path forward: Japan must take responsibility for its historical emissions, and use its enormous wealth to help pull the planet back from the brink. If this climate movement succeeds in catalyzing a dramatic political transformation, it might just save the land of the rising sun from a dark future.
Imogen Malpas is a writer and teacher currently living and working in Nagasaki, Japan. Recently graduated from University College London with a degree in literature and neuroscience, her journalistic interests lie in the social and political responses to the environmental crisis.
Saturday 8 December 2018 is a day that will likely go down in history for many social movements. The streets of many European cities were filled with demonstrations against the most pressing social issues of our time: growing inequality, useless mega infrastructural projects, and climate breakdown. While these issues may seem unrelated, they have common origins in neoliberalism. The demonstrations that most captured the collective imaginary and the headlines are those of the gilets jaunes – or ‘yellow vests’ – in France. The past five weekends have seen protests rising against Macron’s government. Although the movement was sparked by a new tax on petrol, the ‘fuel’ keeping the movement alive is resentment towards ‘the President of the rich’ who recently reduced the solidarity tax on wealth, an iconic policy of French socialism. Other notable resistance protests marking that weekend include those in Italy against the ‘useless mega infrastructural projects’ such as the TAV, TAP and the MUOS military antenna – major proposals of private industrial infrastructure that devastate ecosystems and the health of citizens. The TAV is an example of how transport becomes a threat to ecology and society when privatized rather than run as a public service. The TAV is the result of a historic wave of the neoliberalization of transport, energy and telecommunications industries, through the privatization and deregulation of publicly-owned enterprises.
At the same moment, international policy-makers convened in Katowice, Poland to negotiate how to implement the Paris Agreement at the COP24 UN climate conference. Or, in the case of some parties, such as the US, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, the conference was about negotiating how not to implement the Paris Agreement. For delegates of poorer nations and small island states in the Pacific that are on the frontlines of climate change, the objective was to negotiate their own survival. This year could be the last opportunity for international policy-makers to take the necessary measures to avoid climate apocalypse. The result has been an unprecedented wave of climate marches in recent weekends, including the biggest some countries have ever seen.
It is therefore evident that ecological issues are an ever-stronger underlining force for many social movements. Ironically, it is precisely in France – whose President was recently recognized as a UN “Champion of the Earth” – where it has become evident how the neoliberal establishment privileges the wealthy through climate policy while neglecting the working class.
As human ecologist Andreas Malm argues, Macron is today the champion of neoliberal rhetoric on climate change in upholding the tenet that all individuals are indiscriminately responsible for climate change and must be encouraged to consume sustainably through the imposition of value-added taxes (VAT). Such is the logic behind the fuel tax initially proposed by the French government. However, an increase in VAT is the most regressive way to drive the ecological transition we need. This is because the tax assumes that purchasing power is equal for all citizens. The real impact of the tax would be felt in the wallets of the poorest citizens who cannot afford to abandon their old vehicles – their only lifeline to access work and services in rural areas where public transport is sorely lacking. Meanwhile, overall C02 emissions would remain substantially unchanged since the wealthy can afford the tax and the poor have no other transport option but to keep driving.
This is why the streets of Paris have been ringing with the chant “The end of the world and the end of the month, same perpetrators, same struggle”. In response to the protests, Naomi Klein tweeted, “Neoliberal climate action passes on the costs to working people, offers them no better jobs or services + lets big polluters off the hook. People see it as a class war, because it is.” As an example of how taxes should target the big polluters, we need only consider aviation transport in France. , While the car is the most widespread means of transport among all social classes, 75% of French people never fly and half of the total domestic flights in France are made by just 2% of the population, presumably the upper classes. Yet kerosene, the fuel used for commercial airliners, is not taxed. Higher taxes on kerosene would be a way to reduce emissions quickly and more fairly.
The climate crisis has its roots in the rapid accumulation of capital wealth associated with burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Continued centralization of decision-making within a neoliberal order can only offer solutions such as the construction of new pipelines for natural gas, the TAV, and the fuel tax. Instead, the ecological transition must also be a social transition, and a quick one at that. The IPCC special report on 1.5°C warming warns us we must halve global emissions in the next 12 years and reduce them to zero by the middle of the century.
Maybe we can give Macron some hints in the right direction. To ensure mobility and energy access in times of transition, we must return them to public oversight with devoted resources commensurate to the urgency of climate breakdown. This requires a massive expansion of affordable public transport in the urban, semi-urban periphery, and rural areas, with support of alternative forms of transport, such as bicycles and electric carpooling. We must also bring the electrical grid under democratic control through nationalization, or still better municipalization, to encourage the supply of renewable, locally-managed energy sources. Preferably, this public management would be coupled with advances in participatory democracy at the municipal level. A great example is Barcelona Energía, the city’s new publicly owned grid of renewable energy soon to supply 20,000 homes, implemented under the municipalist politics of Barcelona en Comú.
It would be useful if the automotive industry was ordered to transform its industrial production for what we need: wind turbines, solar panels, electric bicycles, trams, etc. Just as the American automobile factories were converted to churn out tanks in World War II by order of the Roosevelt administration, so today they could be converted to supply the technology needed for a renewable energy transition.
More and more progressives around the world – from Corbyn to Sanders – are already following Roosevelt’s footsteps by calling for a Green New Deal, as a government led investment in low-carbon infrastructure, providing training and employment so that the energy transition simultaneously tackles income inequality. To finance this new era of large public investments, we need more progressive taxation since a close correlation exists between wealth and quantity of emissions. This will be necessary to take back the private wealth accumulated in recent decades to avoid the socio-economic and ecological collapse that climate change guarantees.
But these issues won’t be a priority for the European ruling class, unless the people force a change in the agenda of the ruling class. Another important lesson of the past few weeks is that any progress on the climate front will only come from public pressure. This does not refer only to street demonstrations, but acts of civil disobedience like those carried out in central London in November by the Extinction Rebellion movement. As long as Macron or other European leaders of the current neoliberal ruling class are unwilling to implement the measures required for system change, mass direct action must continue to demand it. A convergence des luttes is essential for shaping a common vision and catalyzing political action.
Anya Verkamp is an activist and media producer on environmental justice, political ecology, and a just transition. You can follow her on Twitter.
Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta
The seductive nature of development rhetoric, sometimes called developmentality or developmentalism, has been internalized across virtually all countries. Decades after the notion of development spread around the world, only a handful of countries that were called ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’, now really qualify as ‘developed’. Others struggle to emulate the North’s economic template, and all at enormous ecological and social cost. The problem lies not in lack of implementation, but in the conception of development as linear, unidirectional, material and financial growth, driven by commodification and capitalist markets.
Despite numerous attempts to re-signify development, it continues to be something that ‘experts’ manage in pursuit of economic growth, and measure by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a poor and misleading indicator of progress in the sense of well-being. In truth, the world at large experiences ‘maldevelopment’, not least in the very industrialized countries whose lifestyle was meant to serve as a beacon for the ‘backward’ ones.
A critical part of these multiple crises lies in the conception of ‘modernity’ itself – not to suggest that everything modern is destructive or iniquitous, nor that all tradition is positive. Indeed, modern elements such as human rights and feminist principles are proving liberatory for many people. We refer to modernity as the dominant worldview emerging in Europe since the Renaissance transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The cultural practices and institutions making up this worldview hold the individual as being independent of the collective, and give predominance to private property, free markets, political liberalism, secularism and representative democracy. Another key feature of modernity is ‘universality’– the idea that we all live in a single, now globalized world, and critically, the idea of modern science as being the only reliable truth and harbinger of ‘progress’.
Among the early causes of these crises is the ancient monotheistic premise that a father ‘God’ made the Earth for the benefit of ‘his’ human children. This attitude is known as anthropocentrism. At least in the West, it evolved into a philosophic habit of pitting humanity against nature; it gave rise to related dualisms such as the divide between humanity and nature, subject and object, civilized and barbarian, mind and body, man and woman. These classic ideological categories both legitimize devastation of the natural world, as well as the exploitation of sex-gender, racial and civilizational differences.
There is no guarantee that development will resolve traditional discrimination and violence against women, youth, children and intersex minorities, landless and unemployed classes, races, castes and ethnicities. As globalizing capital destabilizes regional economies, turning communities into refugee populations, some people cope by identifying with the macho power of the political Right, along with its promise to ‘take the jobs back’from migrants.. A dangerous drift towards authoritarianism is taking place all over the world, from India to USA and Europe.
Development and sustainability: matching the unmatchable
The early twentieth-century debate on sustainability was strongly influenced by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth argument. Regular conferences at a global level would reiterate the mismatch between ‘development and environment’, with the report Our Common Future(1987) bringing it sharply into focus. However, the UN and most state analyses have never included a critique of social structural forces underlying ecological breakdown. The framing has always been on making economic growth and development ‘sustainable and inclusive’ through appropriate technologies, market mechanisms and institutional policy reform. The problem is that this mantra of sustainability was swallowed up by capitalism early on, and then emptied of ecological content.
In the period from 1980s on, neoliberal globalization advanced aggressively across the globe. The UN now shifted focus to a programme of ‘poverty alleviation’ in developing countries, without questioning the sources of poverty in the accumulation-driven economy of the affluent Global North. In fact, it was argued that countries needed to achieve a high standard of living before they could employ resources into protecting the environment. This watering down of earlier debates on limits opened the way for the ecological modernist ‘green economy’ concept.
At the UN Conference for Sustainable Development in 2012, this hollow sustainability ideology was the guiding framework for multilateral discussions. In preparation for Rio+20, UNEP published a report on the ‘green economy’, defining it ‘as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities’. In line with the pro-growth policy of sustainable development advocates, the report conceptualized all living natural forms across the planet as ‘natural capital’ and ‘critical economic assets’, so intensifying the marketable commodification of life-on-Earth.
The international model of green capitalism carried forward in the declaration Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reveals the following flaws:
No analysis of how the structural roots of poverty, unsustainability and multidimensional violence are historically grounded in state power, corporate monopolies, neo-colonialism, and patriarchal institutions;
Inadequate focus on direct democratic governance with accountable decision-making by citizens and self-aware communities in face-to-face settings;
Continued emphasis on economic growth as the driver of development, contradicting biophysical limits, with arbitrary adoption of GDP as the indicator of progress;
Continued reliance on economic globalization as the key economic strategy, undermining people’s attempts at self-reliance and autonomy;
Continued subservience to private capital, and unwillingness to democratize the market through worker–producer and community control;
Modern science and technology held up as social panaceas, ignoring their limits and impacts, and marginalising ‘other’ knowledges;
Culture, ethics and spirituality sidelined and made subservient to economic forces;
Unregulated consumerism without strategies to reverse the Global North’s disproportionate contamination of the globe through waste, toxicity and climate emissions;
Neoliberal architectures of global governance becoming increasingly reliant on technocratic managerial values by state and multi-lateral bureaucracies.
The framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), now global in its reach, is thus a false consensus
We do not mean to belittle the work of people who are finding new technological solutions to reduce problems, for instance, in renewable energy, nor do we mean to diminish the many positive elements contained in the SDG framework. Rather, our aim is to stress that in the absence of fundamental socio-cultural transformation, technological and managerial innovation will not lead us out of the crises. As nation-states and civil society gear up for the SDGs, it is imperative to lay out criteria to help people identify what truly is transformative. These include a shift to well-being approaches based on radical, direct democracy, the localization and democratization of the economy, social justice and equity (gender, caste, class etc), recommoning of private property, respect for cultural and knowledge diversity including their decolonisation, regeneration of the earth’s ecological resilience and rebuilding our respectful relationship with the rest of nature.
This article is an excerpt of the introduction to the forthcoming book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta (editors).
Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam in India, and co-editor of Alternative Futures: India Unshackled.
Ariel Salleh is an Australian scholar-activist, author of Ecofeminism as Politics and editor of Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice.
Arturo Escobar teaches at University of North Carolina, and is author of Encountering Development.
Federico Demaria is with Autonomous University of Barcelona, and co-editor of Degrowth: A Vocubalary for a New Era.
Alberto Acosta is an Ecuadorian economist and activist, former President of the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador.
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
Over the past month we saw an uptick in conversations on degrowth in both mainstream and leftist media in the aftermath of two degrowth conferences in Sweden and Mexico and in connection to a “post-growth” conference in the EU Parliament in Belgium. We’ve also been reading about resistance, community building, and struggle for autonomy and control of land in cities and rural areas around the world—and about criminalization of this resistance. And as usual there are articles about environmental and climate injustice, socialism and the limits of “green” technologies, and new political organizing practices.
Uneven Earth updates
We’re excited to announce our new call for submissions for futuristic imaginaries! We are looking for science fiction, science fiction-inspired thoughts, and critical analyses of sci-fi, this time with a focus on pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies.
The shock doctrine of the left | Link | New book by Graham Jones is part map, part story, part escape manual
How the world breaks | Link | Stan and Paul Cox describe the destructive force of nature in the context of climate change
How radical municipalism can go beyond the local | Link | Fighting for more affordable, accessible places to live means fighting for a less carbon-intensive future
Learning to fight in a warming world. Andreas Malm spoke at the Code Rode action camp against a gas pipeline in the Netherlands, addressing crucial questions for anti-fossil fuel organizing: Who are the political subjects in this struggle? How can people be mobilized? Should we think of the climate justice movement as a vanguard? Which methods and strategies should we use? What are the roles of non-violent and violent resistance?
The persistence of settler colonialism within “the urban”. As long as the urban agenda is so tangled in the mess of capitalism, how can urban practitioners work to free the ever expanding and increasingly complicated field of urban studies from its colonial shackles? Is it even possible to think about the urban without colonialism?
The Rise of the Robot: Dispelling the myth. The ‘march of the robots’ idea relies tacitly on the assumption that the limits to growth are negotiable, or indeed non-existent. It buys into the idea that there can be a complete – or at least near complete – decoupling of production from carbon emissions.
Dirty rare metals: Digging deeper into the energy transition. “Western industries have deliberately offshored the production of rare metals and its associated pollution, only to bring these metals back onshore once cleansed of all impurities to incorporate them into intangible ‘green’ technologies.”
The real problem with free trade. As trade has become freer, inequality has worsened. One major reason for this is that current global trade rules have enabled a few large firms to capture an ever-larger share of value-added, at a massive cost to economies, workers, and the environment.
Following from the success of the two International Degrowth Conferences in Mexico and Sweden in August, scientists and politicians gathered at the EU Parliament in Brussels this month to discuss the need to move to a“post-growth” economy. Degrowth has always been a term meant in great part to provoke conversation. And that it did: what followed was a month careful commentary, knee-jerk responses, and thoughtful criticism.
Searching for words in Indian Country. A non-Native journalist encounters a tribal-managed forest and an indigenous garden. “I had no idea how to use the English language to describe what I was seeing.”
Climate change, global finance, the neoliberal state: today’s crises require action on a big scale. And yet fighting for local democracy is – perhaps counter-intuitively – the best chance we’ve got.
Throughout this series, we’ve argued that the best way to address today’s ecological, social, and political crises is to get people together where they live and work to provide resources that people need – eventually building up an alternative political and economic system that can replace the present, failing system. We need to build a democratic, just, and ecological world in the shell of the old.
In the previous installment, we argued that organising on the level of the neighborhood, town, and city is the most strategic approach to this today.
The rise of loneliness worldwide, the centrality of real estate speculation for global economic growth, and the breakdown of many large-scale factories that helped to bring workers together mean that we have to rethink the ways we demand change.
We can build community and force elites to listen to our demands at the same time. Radical municipalism is a project to take direct democratic control over the places where we live.
When we talk to people about this strategy, the same kinds of questions often come up. In this article, we highlight three common criticisms. Each one of them revolves around the complaint that radical municipalism is too local: it can’t deal with the ‘big stuff’.
1. Because of climate change, we don’t have time
Any call for a long-term vision for social change begs the response: the urgency of the present moment means we don’t have the time for the slow work of neighbourhood-level organising.
Impending climate disruption is a ticking time-bomb. Every year we delay will make the future worse. And as a global phenomenon, it takes immediate global action. Strategically, this argument goes, we’re better off pushing our leaders to take strong stances on climate change.
The situation is so dire that the progressive environmentalist website Grist and the socialist magazine Jacobin are publishing pieces asking us to seriously consider geo-engineering and scaling up nuclear energy – all in a bid to give us more time.
For many, the problem of climate change can only be addressed with big stuff: international agreements, renewable and nuclear energy on a massive scale, geo-engineering schemes that involve changing planetary weather systems.
Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for taking on the state.
This kind of response is understandable, but puts the cart before the horse. Without a coherent counter-power to corporate control over government, we have no chance of forcing policy into accordance with the public good. We’re relying on the assumption that leaders are kind enough to listen, and that they by themselves have the power to implement needed reforms.
Feet to the fire
Even if we elect the most principled people to power, and even if all politicians were to realise that it’s in their own interest to do everything they can to stop climate change through a ‘Green New Deal’, the system would still be dead against them. You can’t beg a system dependent on extraction, endless growth, and exploitation to change its ways. A systemic restructuring the economy is necessary to stop the ecological crisis.
What is clear is that those in power—the CEOs, the shareholders, the bankers, and the politicians that implement their laws—would suffer greatly from necessary action on climate change.
Government debts would need to be cancelled, the most powerful industries would need to be phased out. Production would need to be reordered along democratic lines, putting people and planet before profit. No matter what, we will still need the kind of popular power that hasn’t been seen in generations to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. It took the combined threats of national collapse, socialist revolution, and a massive workers movement during the Great Depression to get the New Deal. This kind of people power needs to be organized neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace.
Every step we take towards dual power and democracy from below puts us in a better position to force the hands of government. Extracting concessions from the state and building a new political system from the ground up aren’t opposing strategies—they should go hand in hand.
Climate change and the right to the city
There’s a second answer to this objection. The fight for the right to the city is the fight for climate justice. For example, research on São Paolo in Brazil shows that the fight for affordable housing is a fight against climate change, even if poor people’s movements don’t speak in those terms.
Making the center of the city accessible for everyone to live in and building social and cooperative housing reduces carbon impact. Urban social issues like transit justice are key components of moving beyond fossil fuels. By making the places where we live more equal and democratic, we’re simultaneously fighting for a greener future.
In fact, we’re already seeing that cities and towns with strong social movements are at the forefront of radical and innovative responses to climate change.
What’s more, they’re starting to work together to provide a common front to demand change on national and international scales—the Global Covenant for Mayors for Climate and Energy is already a force to be reckoned with in international climate talks. And cities globally are leading the fight to take the fossil fuel industry to task, even suing them for contributing to climate disasters.
All this comes down to the fact that we can’t actually make the necessarily large-scale changes without taking control over the places where we live and creating the alternatives necessary for a new system. It’s precisely these alternatives that force the hand of the state to act on climate change. They organize people power and show how things could be done otherwise.
In other words, radical municipalism is the best investment against climate change: our power together forces our leaders to act and buys us time, all the while developing a new ecological social order that can replace capitalism.
2. Local activism can’t address global capitalism
A common response to those who work to mobilise their neighbours and create local democracy is that localism can’t scale up. It’s always just stuck back-pedaling, unable to actually change the large-scale problems like predatory trade deals, foreign takeovers, the capacity of finance to make or break whole countries—the stuff that really shapes national decision-making.
Often, these same people argue that, to break out of this pattern, we need to engage with the big players. So they form think tanks, lobby groups, NGOs, and new media platforms, showing up to climate negotiations year after year and putting pressure on politicians through endless petitions. For them, the most important agents of change are well-worded policy briefs, expensive conferences, powerpoint presentations, and 40-page reports.
The key actors of social change aren’t think-tanks or lobby groups: they’re people, and people live and work somewhere. This kind of critique often forgets the fact that all successful international movements of the past were also intensely local.
For example, the labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were able to make demands of governments because they were so embedded in people’s day-to-day lives. Historically, unions weren’t just at the workplace; they ran dance halls, classes, cafeterias, and sports leagues.
It was only by broadening their reach to every aspect of life that unions were able to become indispensable to working class communities. This made it possible for them to organise effective strikes and, eventually, mount a significant challenge to their bosses and the state. It’s regular people that are the actors of world-historical changes.
What some people deride as ‘localism’ is actually the very foundation of transformative change.
A plan of action
That said, we shouldn’t forget that, without a long-term vision, a coherent plan of action, and trans-local alliances, every local movement is doomed to become a relic in the town museum.
Keep in mind that capitalism works at scale. That’s the genius of it. Stop one development in your neighbourhood, and investors just move their money elsewhere. Take on giants like Amazon, and they’ll just move to another city. So, in that sense, we agree that local action, on its own, will always fail.
This is why, for radical municipalism to be successful, it requires collaboration at higher level. This July, the Fearless Cities Summit in New York City will bring together municipalist movements around the world to share resources and action plans.
In our own work as Symbiosis, we hope to bring together radical municipalist movements from across North America to form a democratically run network of community organizations that can coordinate strategy beyond the local.
In the short term, these kinds of movements are already proving to be a challenge to big corporations. In Seattle, the city council passed a law that would tax big companies like Amazon—money which would then go into subsidies for affordable housing. In Barcelona, the city is turning AirBnB apartments into social housing. Only local, democratic, and people-based movements can force politicians to bring transnational corporations to task. What we need to do now is learn from each other’s victories and work together to scale them up.
In the long term, a system of dual power would transform into what we call communalism or democratic confederalism: an allied network of interdependent communes or regions that work together in a directly democratic way.
On the local level, the neighbourhood assembly makes the decisions and decides the course of action. On a bigger level, these organisations band together in what is called a confederation: a body of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, directly accountable to their communities.
This body would allow communes to exchange resources, support each other, and make democratic decisions. Without this kind of networking, collaboration, and interdependence across borders, local movements are just that: local, isolated, and doomed to fail, again and again. But through international confederation, we can pose a real threat to global capitalism and the ruling class.
3. We can only make real change by taking over the state
For many, the state is the best vehicle for action to fight the major systemic problems of climate chaos, finance capital running amok, and global inequality.
Further, with the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, now seems like a bad time to redirect energy away from national politics. After all, conservative movements thrive off of voter apathy. If you ignore elections, then you cede the ground to the welfare-bashing, poor-blaming, and racist right.
How should radical municipalist movements engage with the state? First, it’s important to reframe the debate away from “should we try to take state power?”.
We’re trying to build democratic institutions that can, in the present, extract concessions from the state. These will inevitably exist within the current (statist) system and leverage available (state) institutions and resources toward that goal.
Eventually, these new institutions will form an ecosystem of dual power that can force a crisis within the state and dissolve its powers into confederal direct democracy. This is not a contradiction, it’s just to acknowledge that the state has embedded itself into almost every aspect of our lives and can’t be abolished in a day.
This process would amount to a fundamental restructuring of the public sphere, from a state—instruments of coercive violence under the control of a ruling class—into a democratic commons, a government from below.
Rewire its institutions
In the meantime, however, we can grow our movement through struggle for important expansions of the public sphere (social spending, halting carbon emissions, public transit) and drawdowns on the most socially and ecologically destructive features of the state (the police, the military, prisons, border security, surveillance).
As we gain greater power to extract concessions from the state through new institutions of communal democratic life, we can use strategic policy changes to improve our position. Non-reformist reforms like nationalized healthcare, job guarantee programs, and public childcare can enable more working-class people to participate in neighborhood organizing and movement work. Putting public funds into cooperative development, social housing, public banking, and participatory budgeting can speed along our transition to a democratic economy. With the support of municipal governments, solidarity economy initiatives developed in our communities can be dramatically expanded. Most importantly, we can secure radical changes to city charters that restructure political authority into direct rule by citizens through confederated community councils and assemblies.
It is never enough to simply “take the state” and wield it as a tool to reshape society, for the state is not a neutral institution to be held by one class or another. At a structural level, the state exists to enforce the will of a ruling elite, who make decisions on our behalf. Even if we replace horrible capitalist ones with working-class representatives of our own, we haven’t assured that the will of the public is governing society, for the public is not itself in power. Empowering ordinary people to have control over our collective future requires fundamentally transforming the way governance works.
This is why building power from below outside of the state is so essential. The mass organization of community councils, assemblies, tenant unions, labor unions, and cooperatives is what can (through its own growth) force governing elites to make the reforms we need right now, while creating the conditions for a more revolutionary restructuring of society.
It’s clear that we can’t depend on an electoral strategy alone to put these ideas into practice. Elections are an important platform to spread ideas and implement our program, but only vibrant social movements can actually hold elected representatives accountable.
What kinds of policies would a radical municipalist movement put on their electoral platform, if they had one? In each case, it helps to ask: how does this policy build popular power? What institutions can we strengthen through public policy to better hold the state accountable?
No matter what the state does, however, it’s crucial that people practice doing politics themselves. Building these kinds of institutions is the antidote to apathy and encourages civic engagement. Through this broader strategy of dual power from the neighborhood on up, we can effectively challenge the state and, at the same time, rewire its institutions—already running through every aspect of our lives—into something new.
Turning local action into global power
It’s easy to criticise everything under the sun as insufficient, not good enough. Organising in your own neighbourhood can sometimes feel distant from the important stuff happening around the world.
But while local action alone is not enough, organising should still be a part of people’s everyday lives: it should be place-based. Fighting for affordable housing means fighting climate change.
Taking on AirBnB or Amazon in your city means struggling against corporate control over politics. Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local democracy is the necessary ingredient for challenging the ruling class’s grip on government.
How can we solidify these distant, local actions into an intentional power that can take on state, corporate, and global powers? Through learning from each other, networking, forming alliances, and, eventually, confederating. Without a democratic politics of scale, we’ll just stay stuck in the local.
In the next installment of this column, we’ll discuss another common objection—one that has become more and more pressing. Can radical municipalism avoid what we call ‘dark municipalism’: the rise of a fascist or reactionary localist movement that seeks to protect only its own and expel anyone who doesn’t fit the norm.
This article was originally published in The Ecologist. The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi) with contributions by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2).
Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.
We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
Uneven Earth updates
We’ve launched our series on sci-fi, near-futures, utopias, and dystopias, Not afraid of the ruins. The first three stories are now online! Expect a new piece every Friday.
Borne on a damaged planet | Link | Two books that do the hard work of thinking through the Anthropocene
Turkey, commanding the second-largest NATO army, has attacked the predominantly Kurdish region in Syria building a feminist & democratic governance system. The region under attack, Afrin, has gone the furthest in institutionalizing women’s liberation. You can follow any updates or find local protests via #DefendAfrin.
This is important. The International Organisation’s dealings often don’t get much scrutiny, but their reports can make or break a country. An informative Twitter thread here.
A victory for the movement against airports?
The Zone à défendre (ZAD) achieved a victory this month: France announced that it would no longer build the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But for ZADistas, it is a half-victory: “While we are trying to prevent the construction of an airport, more than 400 others are being planned or built around the world.”
Where we’re at: analysis
Happy new year! Essays on loneliness, happiness, and an accelerating world
Smart cities, green urbanism, livable cities. The catchy terms keep proliferating, but does it come with better policies? Maria Kaika, foremost theorist on cities, opens up a bag of worms in this interview.
“often current events are analyzed in a vacuum that almost never includes the context or history necessary to understand what is new, what is old and how we got to where we are.”
Two years of radical municipalism in Barcelona
A documentary about what happened in Barcelona and why it matters, including resources for discussing the video with your local group. An inspiring interview on the new politics in Spain, and how people have used the internet in creative ways. Eight lessons from the last two years of radical municipalism. A report on the first Fearless Cities conference last year held in Barcelona, and another report on the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which is experimenting with a new economic system in the shell of the old.
Editorial from the seventh issue of ROAR magazine, which examines the social and political nature of climate change. The issue also features an explainer on the relevance of Murray Bookchin’s work for today’s climate crisis.
“If we can resist the age-old impulse to define binary oppositions between ways of knowing—scientific versus humanistic, expert versus popular—we will be in a better position to join forces across those divides towards understanding and action”, argues Deborah Cohen.
“Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution.” In light of President Trump’s recent ‘shithole’ comments, this article from 2016 on Haiti’s revolutionary history is worth revisiting.
Aaron kicks off a new series of articles on the ENTITLE blog which questions the foundations of ‘eco-modernist socialism’ and ‘communist futurism’ as proposed in Jacobin’s climate change issue Earth, Wind, and Fire.
With increasing natural disasters and the retreat of the state, more and more people are getting involved with grassroots disaster response movements. Movement Generation has put out a document with a guiding framework for how to do people-based recovery. PDF here.
“It is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.” Ursula K. Le Guin has died, and there are so many more worlds to explore. We’ll build them with her in our hearts. This is one of our favorite pieces by her, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”
“Entire landscapes, replete with designer insects and subscription seed stock, will have the potential to be recognised as protected intellectual property. The proprietary ecosystem will emerge, financially and biologically controlled by a particular hotel chain, property developer or private homeowner.”
Kitara is a Tuvaluan climate change activist and Carol Farbotko an Australian social scientist. They met in Tuvalu in 2005 and have collaborated on several writing projects to raise awareness about Tuvalu and climate change.
I am a Tuvaluan. I work in a gas factory and I am a climate change activist. I am not a climate refugee. I am a migrant in Australia. I want to share my story because it is a personal story about climate change.
In Tuvalu, fishing and growing food are very important. My family grew coconuts, taro, pulaka, pawpaw, breadfruit and bananas. I started to notice a lot of changes in the sea and land. Scientists seemed to be talking about the changes I was noticing in my islands. I knew that climate change was real. I learned that fossil fuels were causing the damage.
I was born on the island of Nui in Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, as were my parents and their parents. Nui is my fenua, my island and my people. On my island, land is communal – owned by families, not individuals. Those members of my family who still live on Nui look after our land. They make sure that crops are planted, although this is becoming more difficult with saltwater inundation and erosion. But on Nui, life is beautiful. Most people don’t have jobs, but they don’t really need much cash. Fish and coconuts are still plentiful, and with some taro, pawpaw and banana growing, and pigs. There is usually enough to eat.
When I was a teenager I was lucky to get a scholarship to go to boarding school in Australia. That was when I discovered that I liked Australian life. I also realised I liked travelling and learning about different people and different places. I went back to Tuvalu when I finished school. I trained and worked as a high school English and Geography teacher. Then I started working in community development. I helped Tuvaluan communities to do projects to protect the environment and improve their livelihoods. We planted mangroves and implemented pig farming and crop-growing techniques that were better suited to the changing climate.
There were other changes too. Droughts were worse than they used to be. The weather was changing. Houses were being flooded during king tides. Fish were no longer in the shallower waters when I went out fishing to feed my family. We had to go further out, into deeper cooler waters, which was more dangerous. Our marine conservation areas were being used properly, but it was hard to look after fish stocks when the water temperature was rising.
I knew I had to try and do something about climate change. The scientists were warning that one day, all the islands in Tuvalu would be so badly affected by sea level rise that nobody would be able to live there. All of our nine islands in Tuvalu, including Nui, are very very small. You could walk all around the biggest one in a single day. Some of the islands are actually comprised of several tiny islets. These islets are very skinny. You can walk from one side to the other in less than five minutes. If the sea levels rise, there really is nowhere to go.
So I signed up to represent Tuvalu’s civil society at the international climate change negotiations. I wanted the voice of the communities I worked with to be heard. I travelled to China, Germany and Denmark to attend COPs where I met activists from all over the world. I learned about the international Climate Action Network and helped to set up TuCAN. I worked with Tuvaluan government representatives to try and get the international community to listen. We needed serious global reductions in fossil fuel use. At the Copenhagen COP in 2009 I was one of the few civil society representatives to still have access to the negotiations when everyone else was banned. Protests against the lack of agreement were too much of a ‘security risk’ according to the organisers. But since everyone in Tuvalu works together, I was able to join the Tuvalu government delegation. We all worked such long hours, and so hard, but Copenhagen was a failure. Nothing real was achieved. I went home devastated.
It was around this time that I fell in love with an Australian and we got engaged. I migrated to Brisbane six years ago when we got married. My wife and I both love Tuvalu, but it would have been hard for her to find work there. We wanted our children to be dual citizens and attend school in Australia.
When we first got married, my wife worked full time. I could not work because I had entered Australia on a tourist visa, waiting for my permanent residency visa application to be processed. When my PR finally came through, it was time for me bring my mum and daughter from a previous marriage to Australia. They had been waiting in Tuvalu for their PR too, because they were my dependents. I made the choice that we would all migrate, even though a part of me wants to be on my island, Nui. After a lot of worrying about how strange Australia would be for my mum and daughter, I decided that they would, on balance, be safer in Australia than in Tuvalu. Climate change is real, and it will become harder for children and the elderly to be safe.
One month after my mum and daughter arrived, my wife and I welcomed our first baby together. After getting pregnant, my wife had applied for and was accepted into a permanent job, after many years of casual and contract work. But she had not been in her new job long enough for entitlement to maternity leave. So our only income was about to dry up for several months, and there was my mum, daughter and new baby to look after. I had to find a job fast. My teaching diploma was not recognised in Australia, and community development work is hard to find, and I didn’t have a university qualification anyway, which didn’t help.
A Tuvaluan friend who had lived in Brisbane for a while had a job at a local gas depot. He told me they were looking for workers. I applied and got a casual position straight away. There were a few Tuvaluans there and we all were known for working hard. I have now worked at this job for five years. I was one of only nine out of 28 plant workers to be granted the opportunity to change from a casual to a permanent position. I also was one of a few to survive a merger with another gas company. In 2017, I was a finalist for the national employee of the year, the only plant worker in the history of the company to be nominated. I am working on risk assessments and am now a trainer. However, I have never been promoted and my wage is almost the minimum that any adult worker in Australia is legally allowed to earn. It is physically hard work and I am often exhausted and sometimes sick with the effort I put in, especially when we do overtime starting at 4 in the morning.
My wife and I welcomed another baby. Between work and kids and going to church, I do not have much time or energy left for climate activism these days. I don’t even have much time to look for a different job so that I don’t have to work in the fossil fuel industry. I would love to do work in the social or environmental sector, working for what I believe is good and right. Sometimes I send off job applications where I think I might have a chance, but so far, I have not been able to find work elsewhere. I still hope to do further study and work in a very different industry one day. But for now, our daily worry is the struggle to meet the costs of daycare and healthy food for a growing family – things I never had to worry about in Tuvalu. I have to keep going to work at the gas factory. I have hopes that maybe I can do some change for good within the system. For example, I support my co-workers who are not well educated or are migrants like me, who do not necessarily know all their rights as workers. I educate myself and others on our contracts and industrial agreements.
I will always be a proud Tuvaluan, no matter where I live. I am not a climate refugee. I chose to move, I was not forced out of my country by climate change. But I know that one day life might be almost unbearable on my island because of climate change. I also know that no Tuvaluan wants to be a climate refugee. Refugees do not seem to have their human rights respected, even though they are among those who most need the protection that human rights should be able to offer. No Tuvaluan wishes to be treated poorly. We would rather make our own choices. In fact, for many people in Tuvalu, there is a strong wish to stay on the islands no matter what climate change brings. Many would rather stay and die, than to migrate to another country or to be forced to go as a refugee.
I want my daughter and sons to grow up knowing their Tuvaluan identity, and sharing in the rich multicultural life of Australia. I hope that when my daughter is a young adult, in maybe ten years’ time, she will return to Tuvalu to spend time with family there. Then she can decide for herself if she would like to stay for a while, maybe to work among Tuvaluan communities or teach as I used to do. Sadly, my mum will never go back now, as she passed away and was buried in Australia.
My life in Australia has many blessings, but it is not easy. It is hard to meet the daily challenges. I struggle financially, I miss Tuvalu, I work hard, I am tired, I love my family. I am not powerless in the fight against climate change, but I have to pay the bills too and look after my kids in the home I have chosen for them. One day, maybe when the little ones are a bit older, I can be a climate change campaigner again.
Taukiei Kitara worked for over 10 years helping communities in Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, to develop projects for sustainable livelihoods. He was a founding member of Tuvalu Climate Action Network and represented Tuvalu civil society at several meetings of the international climate change negotiations. In 2011 he migrated to Australia, where he now works as a trainer, assessor and cylinder tester and filler in a gas depot.
Carol Farbotko is a cultural geographer who has conducted research on the cultural politics of climate change, arguing for increased recognition of and dialogue about indigenous perspectives on climate change in the Pacific.
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After eight months, starting with a few hundred young Native Americans and swelling to up to 15,000 people in the sprawling encampments of Standing Rock, North Dakota, a victory was celebrated. President Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers denied the request for an easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners (ETP)* and their “family” of logistics corporations to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, which that could threaten the water supply and sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. The Army Corps of Engineers further required a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which usually takes months and sometimes years, to reconsider granting the easement.
DAPL is a $3.7 billion project that would link 1,200 miles of pipeline carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota through the mid-west and eventually to the east coast and south of the US. The sunny and wind-swept prairie of Standing Rock reveals the absurdity of building fossil fuel infrastructure that will further harm the planet when renewable energy is everywhere, waiting to be developed.
The December 4th decision came immediately after 2,500 US military veterans joined the “water protectors”, as they are called, at Standing Rock. The vets formed a human shield protecting the water protectors from the myriad local law enforcement officers who work on behalf of the interests of the private oil and gas industries. Several of the vets said that, after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their effort to protect Standing Rock was the first time they actually felt they were protecting the American people.
After almost 500 years of white settlers and the US government stealing land from Native American tribes and forging divisions between them, over 200 Native tribes have coalesced to protect Standing Rock. The history of government-sanctioned genocide and colonialism are recurring themes in this struggle.
The main “road” in the encampment is Flag Row, a long dirt path lined with hundreds of colorful tribal flags from all over the Americas, signaling unity. Strict rules of decorum prevail—no drugs, alcohol, or weapons of any kinds, total non-violence, respect for decision-making by the tribal council and for elders, and dedicating the encampment to non-violent prayer. Their slogan is “Water is Life”. Thousands of Indigenous peoples from all over the world and tens of thousands of non-Indigenous peoples have come to Standing Rock to defend Indigenous rights and to protect Mother Earth. They want to kill the “black snake”: DAPL. There lie the seeds of unity and dissent.
Mother Earth and/or Indigenous Rights
Indigenous activists such as Tara Houska, Anishinaabe lawyer for Honor the Earth and Tom Goldtooth, Navajo leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, see fighting the pipeline as more than defending the tribes; they see it as defending Mother Earth. They see fossil fuel infrastructure as dangerous to the future of humans on earth. They want to see the development of renewable energy and the end of fossil fuels.
Dave Archambault, II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and primary spokesperson for the coalition of tribes, will be satisfied if the pipeline is re-routed away from the Sioux orbit. He has told the water protectors camping on the grounds to go home to their families for the winter: their jobs are done. He has repeatedly stated that he is not opposed to infrastructure projects or to “energy independence” but rather is opposed when Indigenous peoples are not consulted and when the pipelines go through their lands and waters. Native Americans, many of whom are desperately poor and denied opportunities, have sold mineral rights to their parcels of land to fossil fuel developers.
This is a basic contradiction for Indigenous peoples: those who see Mother Earth as their responsibility to protect for the next seven generations (a common saying for some Indigenous groups), versus those who want to address their own poverty which seems much more immediate. This is a global phenomenon.
Months of battles with brutal local law enforcement have left hundreds of water protectors facing arrests, rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, water cannons used in sub-freezing temperatures, serious injuries and brutal treatment when incarcerated. Images of this police brutality against Indigenous peoples and their supporters have galvanized support for the protests and brought thousands of people to the 5-6 camps that make up the sprawling Standing Rock encampment. Tribal elders often look askance at many of the “unofficial” actions advanced by the “Red Warrior Camp” and their allies because they have drawn so much violence against them. Nonetheless, the tribal leaders decry the violence and partisan nature of the “law enforcement’s” savage response. Red Warriors see these direct action confrontations as the reason that Standing Rock has gotten any publicity at all and has attracted the attention and won the hearts of radicals and human rights advocates across the world.
Life at Standing Rock: Building liberated spaces
Standing Rock has developed massive camps, replete with many cooking tents each serving hundreds at every meal, large-scale donation operations, legal, medical, and psychological counseling services, schools, orientation sessions, and direct action trainings. Each morning and evening people gather around sacred fires and hear information, speeches, and music, and they dance and feel the power of unity.
They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent.
Comparisons with Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs would reveal a much larger, more on-going, and much more disciplined space in Standing Rock. It has captured the imagination and support of hundreds of thousands of people across the planet, from the Indigenous Sami peoples of Norway to workers from all over the US who are angry at the lack of support from organized labor, specifically the AFL-CIO.
The presence of youth is immediately noticeable at the camps though there are plenty of elders and children as well. Supporters mostly camp out and help to winterize the teepee, yurts, army tents, recreational vehicles, camping tents, vans and school buses that create a small city of protest. They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent. The pull of such a liberated space is all the more meaningful in the face of US President-elect, Donald Trump. The encampment is simultaneously a historic throwback and a futuristic village of care and commitment to a more egalitarian and caring world.
The parallels with Occupy Wall Street are many—both aiming to build a new way with progressive and humanistic values, addressing the oppression of our people. Both captured the hearts of progressive folks and engaged mostly young people but Standing Rock’s supporters include many more people of color of all backgrounds. The history of Indigenous tribes welcoming people of African descent, especially during slavery, is not forgotten in this solidarity. Standing Rock’s success is grounded in Indigenous cultural values of respect, formal representative decision-making, discipline, and work that is further expressed through a deep spirituality that connects our human activity to the earth. Standing Rock is orderly and behavioral norms are clearly articulated and encouraged, if not enforced.
Naomi Klein, in her groundbreaking book, This Changes Everything, asserts that the climate movement can only be successful if it addresses racial, gender, and economic oppression as its main strategy and if it takes leadership from those most affected by climate change and the savages of capitalism. Without so much explicit language this is evidently what is happening at Standing Rock. The power of this strategy impacts everyone who enters the camp and the movement; the pull of this approach is enormous.
What lies ahead?
On December 4 and 5, over 15,000 people celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny the permit to complete DAPL as planned, but the struggle is nowhere near over. Several factors make for a complex web of possibilities that underscore the necessity of the encampment and wide support to continue.
First, Trump can overturn Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers’ decision and force them to grant an easement to ETP. That will be challenged in court as the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal agencies cannot change a settled ruling of a federal agency that is based on facts when a new administration takes over. The US Supreme Court declined to take up this ruling, leaving the Ninth Circuit decision to prevail. If Trump tried to get the permit without an environmental impact statement he would have an immediate lawsuit on his hands that would prevent the easement from taking effect, at least immediately. Additionally, Trump’s reported investments in DAPL of $500,000 to $1 million may create a conflict of interest he cannot navigate. Other lawsuits against ETP are already in the courts and proceeding, further slowing down the process.
Further, Trump has talked about privatizing over 56 million acres of Native American reservations in order to facilitate exploitation of the natural resources of those lands. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Indigenous reservations cover 2% of US land but contain an estimate 20% of its oil and gas plus vast coal reserves as well. That fight will ignite much more organizing and fight back.
Second, and perhaps most important, are the specifics of the contracts between ETP and Sunoco Logistics, their partner organization in this project, and the dozens of major financial institutions that have invested in DAPL. These contracts can be negated and/or open to re-negotiation if the pipeline is not completed by January 1, 2017. At that point the financial institutions will have the legal right to back out of or diminish their investments. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of groups in the US that are pressuring these very financial institutions to drop their investments in DAPL. Many of the pension funds of public workers and others are invested in these financial institutions and supporters are mounting campaigns to uncover them and demand divestment.
Supporters have been cutting up their credit cards and closing their accounts from banks investing in DAPL. The Sightline Institute did a study of DAPL financing and found them to be “rickety”. They found that the value of crude oil has declined by about 50% since these contracts were signed, making the windfall profits from this venture much less likely. They found a sharp decline in oil production that may signal no further need for the pipeline. For some of the investors, DAPL is looking risky on many levels.
Third, ETP has a way to sneak out of the job as well. Their contract indicates that they are not liable for project completion if “rioting” takes place. ETP along with their allies in local North Dakota law enforcement have been calling the direct action by water protectors “rioting”, setting the stage for a possible exit from liability. The demonstrators have been peaceful if sometimes provocative and a great deal of video evidence indicates that the violence has emanated from the law enforcement officers, not the protesters. But “rioting” is the language ETP and the cops use, and for a specific purpose.
Fourth, the popular support for Standing Rock seems to grow with each day and each report of violence against the water protectors. There are similar challenges of fossil fuel pipelines in many parts of the US and they are gathering people to protest in those places as well. The model of encampments, of creating liberated spaces that protect the activists, land, water, and movement, has taken hold. No force will hold that back. From the AIM Spectra Pipeline, slated to go under the Hudson River and immediately past the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station 10 miles from New York City, to the Black Mesa Water Coalition of the US southwest, the struggles to reject fossil fuel infrastructure and to build a sustainable energy economy are everywhere in the US as they are across the planet.
A new solidarity is emerging. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many.
A new solidarity is emerging. One that has a great deal of potential to unite the left under the joint banners of the oppression of people, particularly people of color, and the oppression of the earth itself. The hope lies in navigating that unity with a vision of solving both oppressions simultaneously. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many. While its opponents are on the ascent, the struggle continues. Compassion, respect, clear demands and decision-making and solidarity can guide the way.
*The “Energy Transfer Family” of corporations involved in the logistics behind building the Dakota Access Pipeline are: Enbridge, Inc., Energy Transfer Partners, Energy Equity Partners, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Sunoco LP and Phillips 66
Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America.
This article originally appeared in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2016 report.
“The object is to change the heart and soul” – Margaret Thatcher
On the final day of the UN summit held in Paris in December 2015, thousands of people defied a ban on public gatherings by converging at a boulevard leading to the business district in La Défense to denounce the new climate agreement that government negotiators were about to sign and celebrate at the conference venue in Le Bourget, 20 kilometres away.
Hoping to counter governments’ attempts to control the narrative regarding the summit, they gathered behind giant inflatable ‘cobblestones’ and a red banner proclaiming “System change not climate change!” Departing from some other environmentalist groups, they held placards criticising the undemocratic ways in which decisions regarding our relationship to nature are ultimately made only by capitalists and other powerful groups in the current global capitalist system. In different ways, they put forward a more democratic alternative: a system in which ‘the people’ decide on important questions such as what sources of energy to use and what activities to power and for whose benefit, how many trees to fell and to produce what goods for whom or, more generally, how to organise our relationship to nature and in pursuit of what ends.
Broad and as defiant as the action turned out to be, however, it was still not as large or as confrontational as some of the organisers had hoped. Unable to rally more people behind them, the radical anti-capitalists had little choice but to abandon their original plan to barricade Le Bourget and also ruled out marching on La Défense. In the end, the protesters could only gather, lobbing their ‘cobblestones’ in the air, aimed at no targets. Meanwhile, the popping of champagne corks in Le Bourget or La Défense went undisturbed.
Why, as this particular but not uncommon episode indicates, are activists struggling for a more democratic system unable to attract more people to their side? Or why, despite the intensifying ecological crisis caused by capitalism, is the movement for radical system change still confined to the margins?
Part of the answer surely has to do with how the world’s elites have increasingly resorted to more coercive measures to keep people off the streets or prevent them from conceiving or expressing anti-systemic demands. But—as shown by the large number of people who refused to be cowed by the threat of force or to buy into the governments’ discourse in Paris and beyond—it is not merely the presence or absence of physical or ideological repression that determine people’s willingness to take on the powerful. Indeed, it pushes us to ask why more people are not willing to defy repression to fight for a democratic system.
This essay seeks to contribute to understanding the causes of the movement’s weakness by drawing attention to another, typically overlooked, way by which the dominant seek to contain challenges to their undemocratic rule other than by trying to repress people’s bodies in order to dissuade or restrain them from overthrowing the system: that of trying to mold people’s very subjectivities—how they see their identities, how they make sense of their life situations, what they aspire to, whom they consider their ‘friends’ or their ‘enemies’—in order to persuade people to actively defend the system.
By purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.
I argue that part of the reason why activists struggling for a democratic alternative to capitalism find it difficult to draw more people to their cause is because a section of the world’s dominant classes have been waging what we can think of, extending Gramsci, as a kind of global “passive revolution”: an attempt to re-construct or secure (global) hegemony by attempting to fundamentally reform global capitalism in order to partially grant the demands of subordinate groups. I show how, by purportedly trying to ‘change the system’, a particular section of the world’s elites have achieved some success in countering radicals’ attempts to reshape people’s subjectivities, thus preventing them from fighting for a radically democratic system.
A resurgent global counter-hegemonic movement
To better understand how world elites seek to contain counter-hegemonic challenges to their rule, it is useful to go back to the late 1960s when new radical movements, including those mobilising around ecological issues, burst onto the world stage as part of a broader resurgence of radicalism.
Even before then, a growing number of people in industrialised countries and also in the ‘Third World’ had been increasingly concerned about their deteriorating living conditions as a result of the ecological degradation that came with capitalism’s renewed post-war global expansion. Before the 1960s, many people still typically thought of these ecological problems and the impacts these had on their lives to be the result of others’ ‘bad personal habits’, ‘unscientific management’ of resources, or insufficient regulation of ‘big business’. They therefore generally thought that these problems could be solved and their suffering ended by the inculcation of better personal habits, more ‘scientific management’ of resources,’ or greater checks on big business. Consequently, few directed their anger at the world’s dominant classes in response to ecological degradation. While there would be a growing number of protests as people ‘spontaneously’ defended themselves against direct attacks on their wellbeing, they did not amount to the kind of organised and sustained resistance that threatened the ruling classes in earlier revolutionary upheavals in various countries.1
Starting in the 1960s, however, various intellectuals began to advance a different way of making sense of, and responding to, ecological problems. Herbert Marcuse, Barry Commoner, Murray Bookchin, or Chico Mendes, along with other scientists, journalists, writers, and organisers, began drawing not only from Marx but also from Morris, Kropotkin, Weber, and other critical thinkers to popularise new ways of looking at the world that challenged not just the dominant worldviews but even those propagated by so-called ‘Old Left’ activists.
Calling on ‘the people’ as members of exploited classes and other dominated groups whose interests were antagonistic to those of the world’s elites, they argued that deteriorating living conditions were not just because of bad habits, poor management, or the insufficient regulation of big business by governments, but because of the historically-specific property relations under capitalism. They revealed how capitalism drives capitalists, or those who own land, factories, power plants and other “means of production” and who therefore monopolise social decisions over production, to constantly intensify their exploitation of both workers and nature so as to maximise profits.
To overcome their suffering, they argued that reforms such as regulating big business—while not necessarily wrong—would not suffice; they needed to challenge nothing less than capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and other forms of domination. Though they did not necessarily agree on how to go about it, they urged them to end what Marx once called the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” or the system of rule in which only those who own the means of production ultimately make production decisions. This would involve fighting for the abolition of private property relations and building a society in which all people collectively and democratically own the means of production and therefore have a say in making decisions about how to organise production. Only then, they argued, would it be possible to prioritise people’s welfare and the planet’s well-being over the need to constantly maximize profits.
Through their myriad efforts to propagate these new ways of making sense of and acting upon ‘ecological’ problems, these radical intellectuals began to reshape people’s subjectivities by providing alternative ways of looking at the world, of understanding their identities, of diagnosing and overcoming their suffering.
With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups.
As indicated by the growing membership and supporters of radical anti-capitalist ‘environmental’ organisations or movements that were concerned with ‘environmental’ questions, ever more people would begin to see themselves and the environmental problems they suffered in a new light.2 Many started to think of themselves as members of oppressed and exploited classes and also began to connect ‘environmental problems’ and their social impacts to capitalist, patriarchal, colonial, racial or other forms of domination. As one activist who came of age during this period put it: “a complete disaffection with ‘the system’… resonated deeply between East and West, North and South”.3 Protesters moved beyond critiques of particular aspects of capitalism and “challenged the very essence of capitalism”, according to the environmental historian, John McCormick. Many began to aspire to a post-capitalist, if not socialist, society. And they recognised the need to confront and overthrow the ruling classes and other dominant groups determined to perpetuate capitalism. “Whatever the cause”, notes McCormick, “by 1970, there had been a revolution in environmental attitudes”. 4
With these changed subjectivities, people connected the struggle around ‘environmental’ problems to broader struggles for social justice and equality and channelled their anger about ecological degradation away from fighting other individuals or other subordinate groups towards the dominant classes, their allies in the state apparatus, and other influential groups. Struggles around pollution, nuclear power, pesticides, and so on would become central to a reinvigorated global radical anti-capitalist bloc and re-ignited something that world elites thought they had ended: a “global civil war”.5
Although they did not necessarily succeed in—or did not even attempt to—seize state power, their actions, the historian Eric Hobsbawm argued, were still revolutionary “in both the ancient utopian sense of seeking a permanent reversal of values, a new and perfect society, and in the operational sense of seeking to achieve it by action on streets and barricades”.6 Or, as geographer Michael Watts noted of the uprisings that swept the world in 1968, they were revolutionary not “because governments were, or might have been, overthrown but because a defining characteristic of revolution is that it abruptly calls into question existing society and presses people into action”.7 Critical of ‘existing society’ and pressed into action, a growing number of people began fighting for what later activists called ‘system change’ to address ecological problems.
This resurgence of radical environmentalism in particular and of radicalism in general troubled those intellectuals drawn from or aligned with the world’s dominant classes in the United States and other advanced industrialised countries. Barraged with unrelenting criticism—pickets, protests, boycotts, direct actions—and besieged by demands for stronger regulation and ‘system change,’ many US business leaders felt under attack. One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.8 Not since the Great Depression and the New Deal, notes political scientist David Vogel, did US capitalists feel so “politically vulnerable”. Although the exact conditions varied, the situation was similar in other countries where radical movements emerged.
One executive probably captured the mood when he said in jest: “At this rate business can soon expect support from the environmentalists. We can get them to put the corporation on the endangered species list”.
Under siege, many dominant intellectuals and corporate elites struggled to understand what was going on, how to define their interests in the face of it, and how to react. Many thought that the so-called ‘environmental problems’ were not ‘problems’ at all or that they could be solved through the normal workings of the market or through existing institutions.9 Insofar as they acknowledged the problem, many perceived only a threat to their company’s or their industry’s interests and sought to protect them by simply rejecting the grievances aired by subordinate groups, killing their proposals, and resorting to coercive measures to intimidate or discredit their proponents.10
But there were other intellectuals who pursued and advocated an altogether different response.
Unlike most reactionary elites, these reformists were typically from patrician or bourgeois families in their respective countries. Others were from less privileged backgrounds but had assumed high government office or positions in ‘civil society’ organisations, most notably the philanthropic foundations. But unlike government officials, they were what Weber called the “notables”: those who lived for rather than off politics.11
Among those from such backgrounds who would play leading roles on climate-related issues would be people like Laurence and David Rockefeller, of the famous dynasty’s younger generation; Robert O. Anderson, owner of the oil giant Atlantic Richfield; McGeorge Bundy, the former dean of Harvard and National Security adviser and later president of the Ford Foundation; Robert McNamara, former CEO of Ford Motors, Defense Secretary, World Bank President, and Ford Foundation trustee.
In other countries across Europe, Latin America and Asia, they included those with very similar backgrounds to their US counterparts. Among them were the likes of Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Italian car company Fiat; Aurelio Peccei, former president of Olivetti and convenor of the Club of Rome; Alexander King, an influential British scientist; Maurice Strong, former president of a large Canadian oil company and later head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Barbara Ward, a British economist and best-selling author, and adviser to numerous world leaders; Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau; Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India; Gamani Corea, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), from Sri Lanka; Mahbub ul-Haq, World Bank vice president from Pakistan; and numerous other ‘gentlemen lawyers’ and ‘learned cosmopolitans’.
Though they came from different countries, had their own specific interests, and pursued different and not always congruent projects, this loose network of elite intellectuals often pursued the same actions or took the same positions on particular issues. This was not because they were engaged in a ‘conspiracy’ but because their background meant that they generally thought about and acted upon global ecological issues through the lens of a common worldview.12
Unlike other elites, they were generally more open to the view that global warming and other ecological changes were indeed happening. Thus, for example, the oilman-turned-philanthropist who funded some of the key organisations that would push for action on climate change, Robert O. Anderson, called for a “steady mid-course between doom and gloom alarmists and those who resist acknowledging the clear danger to which the human environment is being subjected”.13 Similarly, the industrialists, executives, and scientists gathered in the Club of Rome would portray the environmental issue as nothing less than a “global crisis”.14
Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.
And, unlike other elites, they thought that the problem involved far larger threats than simply the diminution of specific firms’ prerogatives or countries’ economic competitiveness. They worried about pollution impairing their access to raw materials, intensifying international competition and prompting protectionism, and potentially even igniting inter-capitalist wars, such as World War I and World War II, that could once again fragment the global market and impede capitalist expansion. But more than that, they also worried that environmental degradation would further fuel public dissatisfaction and anger and therefore encourage support for radicalism.
Breaking with other elites, they effectively concluded that in order to defuse such a threat, at least some of the grievances and demands of subordinate groups needed to be addressed—something that could be done only by fundamentally reforming global capitalism.
Bound by these common views, these “enlightened reactionaries”—to use Karl Polanyi’s label—set out to build a transnational reformist movement or “bloc from above”, bringing together otherwise isolated elites and drawing in members of other classes to push for their project of ‘changing the system.’ They did this despite more conservative elites who wanted no change at all, and of course, against the radicals who wanted a very different kind of system change.
Undertaking parallel, sometimes even clashing initiatives, they deployed their vast economic resources and social connections—straddling the worlds of business, politics and science—to build this movement’s capacity to engage in ideological and political struggle on the world stage.
Radical language, reformist ends
To attract support, they advocated a different way of making sense of, and, thus, of thinking, talking, and acting about ‘global environmental change’ that absorbed certain elements proposed by radicals while departing from them on the most fundamental questions.
They studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth.”
Like radicals, they sometimes called upon or “interpellated” members of subordinate groups as belonging to the ‘poor’ as opposed to the ‘rich’, and sometimes even borrowed from radicals in designating them as part of the ‘periphery’ as opposed to the ‘core’. But they studiously avoided calling them members of exploited or dominated classes whose interests are in conflict with those of the exploiting or dominant classes; instead, they preferred to emphasise their identity as members of one “mankind” whose interests are not at odds with the interests of the world’s elites—all inhabitants of “Only One Earth”, as the title of Ward’s bestselling 1972 book for the first UN conference on the environment put it.
Echoing radicals, they told people that global ecological problems had less to do with ‘bad personal habits’ and more to do with the broader political and economic system. As the 1974 Cocoyoc Declaration, a follow-up to the 1972 Stockholm declaration written by Ward, ul-Haq, and others, put it: “[M]ankind’s predicament is rooted primarily in economic and social structures and behavior within and between countries”. But unlike radicals, they stressed that the problem was not the system as such but rather the lack of regulation and inadequate ‘scientific management’ of the system at the global level. Though they would disagree over what counts as “excessive”, all saw ecological problems as “evils which flow from excessive reliance on the market system”, in the words of the Cocoyoc Declaration.
Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”.
So, like radicals, they explained to people that they could only alleviate their suffering by pushing for what radicals called ‘system change’. But against radicals, they told people that changing the system did not entail overthrowing capitalism, but rather enhancing the global regulation of capitalism through what the Club of Rome called “radical reform of institutions and political processes at all levels”. Countering both conservatives and radicals, they argued for the need neither to keep the system nor to junk it altogether but to improve it by reducing the “excessive reliance on the market” and by moving towards what the Cocoyoc Declaration calls the “management of resources and the environment on a global scale”. The Club of Rome, for example, called for a “world resource management plan”15 while the Trilateral Commission advocated “international policy coordination” for managing the “global commons”16 in order to correct market failures, minimise inefficiencies, foster competition, and redistribute wealth in order to reduce poverty and mitigate ecological degradation. These proposals were what later scholars would call “international ecological managerialism”, or global “ecological modernization”.17
They urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’. At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’
Put differently, they told people that they should aspire not to the creation of a post-capitalist society but to a greener, more regulated, capitalist society. For only by perpetuating reformed ‘green’ capitalism, pursuing more trade, more growth and ‘sustainable development’ could ‘mankind’ solve ecological problems, address social grievances, and realise the vision of the good life. As the Founex Declaration put it: “development”—meaning capitalist development—is the “cure” for the environmental problems facing the poor.
Consequently, against radicals who urge people to view the dominant classes as their oppressors and the targets of opposition, they urged the public to focus their anger only on particular members of the dominant group—i.e. ‘bad capitalists’ or those ‘bad elites’ (variously, the USA, the advanced economies, big business, the oil corporations, the Republicans, and so on). At the same time, they called upon the public to join the moral, responsible elites as ‘partners’ in pushing for and bringing about ‘system change.’ Much of what succeeding reformists would say and prescribe from the 1970s through to the 2000s essentially built on these recurring discursive or ideological themes.
Building their movement’s capacity
Reformist intellectuals did not, however, stop at rallying people to their side and exhorting them to fight for their cause. Often in coordination, but also sometimes competing with each other, they mobilised to equip their supporters with cutting-edge knowledge on global environmental problems—and with ‘policy options’ for managing them—by funding or otherwise supporting hundreds if not thousands of universities and government or inter-governmental research departments and think-tanks.
Thus, for example, the Ford Foundation financed a whole battalion of academic centres, research departments and scientific networks such as the Aspen Institute, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Brookings Institute, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Trilateral Commission “study groups”, and many other outfits. The Volkswagen Foundation funded the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study. McNamara transformed the World Bank into the world’s largest centre for research on the relationship between environment and development. As its first Executive Director, Maurice Strong established UNEP as one of the key initiators of large-scale collaborative research on the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Reformists in developing countries formed the South Centre, a think-tank that became a key source of analysis for government officials from the South.18
These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.
This is not to say that they merely funded research with which they would agree. Indeed, probably as a result of their own lack of knowledge, uncertainties, or internal tensions, they chose, or at least strove, to ‘diversify their portfolios’ by supporting different researchers approaching the problem from dissimilar perspectives, including those they would subsequently disagree with.
To improve their ability to advocate for the reforms they wanted, they also undertook various initiatives to identify and groom scores of highly educated middle-class professionals—lawyers, economists and scientists—who were supportive of their reformist vision, and devoted considerable resources and energy towards promoting the ‘professionalisation’ of their activism. Ford, Rockefeller, Anderson and others, for example, bankrolled the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC), and possibly thousands of other moderate or non-radical groups across the world. 19
These ‘capacity-building’ efforts extended to a wide range of organisations, in part because of a deliberate strategy of taking risks and finding innovative people. Ford, even as it supported more moderate or even more conservative reformists, also funded ‘public interest’ organisations that were more critical of ‘big business’ and more inclined to raise questions of social justice.
Through such investments in generating knowledge and building movements, they assembled a loose, decentralised, transnational network of highly-trained reformists, occupying strategic positions in various governments, international organisations and civil society groups worldwide, which then pushed the world’s governments to adopt a raft of far-reaching environmental measures to address global environmental problems at the local and global levels.
Thus, for example, equipped with research confirming global warming and with studies assessing possible policy options, this global network of reformists mobilised to raise the alarm and push for unprecedented global regulatory interventions to address climate change. It was UNEP, for example, that encouraged scientists to speak up and to push for an internationally coordinated response. Scientists and activists associated with EDF and other reformist groups organised a flurry of international conferences on the issue and pressed the world’s governments to commence negotiations on an agreement. And it was EDF and others that spearheaded the formation of the Climate Action Network (CAN), which would go on to be become the world’s largest network of NGOs calling for government “action” on climate change.20 Simply put, if it had not been for the independent but converging initiatives of these reformists—and the elites that supported them—the UN negotiations on climate change might never have happened.
Although they did not necessarily agree on all the details, they did converge in pushing for a strong, legally-binding international climate agreements. They united behind demands for unprecedented internationally coordinated interventions in the global economy that could oblige certain countries and industries to drastically reduce their emissions and for establishing a kind of de facto global ‘welfare scheme’ that could compel some countries to transfer finance and technology to others.
A global battle for hearts and souls
Thanks to all these investments in political and ideological mobilisation, the reformist movement was able to go on the offensive from the 1970s onwards. Effectively backed by the threat of the more radical alternatives posed by the movements to their left, it succeeded in overcoming conservative resistance and incrementally put in place a range of ambitious and far-reaching environmental regulatory measures in many countries, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act approved in the USA in the 1970s At the international level, this reformist bloc secured agreements tackling global environmental problems such as the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change. These measures, as limited as they may have been, likely prevented even worse outcomes had reformists not pushed for them.
In so doing, reformist elites did more than just deliver limited relief and material concessions to members of the dominated classes; they also countered radicals’ attempts to reshape their subjectivities and succeeded in dispelling their attempts to channel people’s anger and anxiety towards fighting for radical system change.
By appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, reformists undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism.
This is because, by appearing to change the system and channelling limited benefits or advantages to subordinate groups, they undermined radicals’ capacity to convince people to diagnose their suffering as the inevitable result of capitalism and to see themselves as members of antagonistic classes whose interests are always incompatible with the dominant classes.
And, as an increasing number of people came to see themselves as members of harmonious communities, to believe that their suffering is caused only or primarily by the lack of regulation of capitalism, to conclude that they could improve their conditions without going so far as having to overthrow capitalism, and to view at least some elites as ‘partners’ or ‘leaders’ to support, so ever fewer would therefore be motivated to defy the powerful and to cast their lot with movements fighting for radical system change.
Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins.
For this and other reasons, radicals worldwide have not only found it harder to gain new adherents from the 1970s on, but even once-committed fighters would either lay down their arms or ‘defect’ altogether.21 Once on the upsurge, radical anti-capitalist movements would consequently be on the defensive, continuing to organise but increasingly pushed to the margins. In the USA, Europe, and probably in other countries where the radical environmentalist message had only a few years before gained traction, radical critique would “fizzle out” and anti-capitalist environmentalism would suffer a “precipitous decline”.22
Thus, without always deploying the violence they constantly keep in the background, the more forward-looking of the world’s elites have at the very least been able to dissuade people from struggling to replace capitalism with a different, radically democratic system; at most, they have been able to persuade or motivate them to actively fight to ‘improve’ an inherently undemocratic system in order to prevent it from being overthrown. By organising and mobilising a transnational movement from above to wage a global “passive revolution” in favour of regulating the market, they have been able to defuse the class antagonisms that the radical intellectuals had sought to kindle. By so doing, they have not only prevented or restrained people from expressing or venting their anger, but have been able to harness that anger towards tinkering with the system in order to keep it the same.
Our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again. But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side.
Had these reformist elites not mounted this global passive revolution, it is unlikely that the world’s governments would have attempted to establish global-level regulation to address global ecological problems. And had the world’s governments not acted, it is unlikely that they would have staved off a global counter-hegemonic challenge to capitalism.
And yet, it is also important to stress that, as indicated by the willingness of a significant number of people to engage in mass civil disobedience action on the final day of the latest UN climate summit in Paris and the growing radicalisation of many climate activists worldwide, they still have not succeeded in completely defeating or eliminating this challenge altogether. For reasons that have to do in part with leading reformists’ decision to accommodate conservative elites’ demands to weaken their proposed reforms, our movement has not only survived the reformist offensive but in recent years, we have even become resurgent again.
But whether we will do more than survive ultimately depends on whether we can counter these more forward-looking elites’ sophisticated and well-organised attempts to change the hearts and souls of those we seek to draw to our side. This does not necessarily have to mean always just opposing the reforms and concessions that the more ‘radical’ among the reformists are promoting, or completely refusing to work with them in all circumstances. But it does mean constantly subverting their attempts to channel people’s anger to only their chosen enemies and to confine them to just aspiring for a greener, more ecologically-conscious ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’ Put differently, it means pushing people to go beyond the horizon that the reformists seek to restrict them to, and to help empower them to dream of a democratic, socialist, alternative.
The alternative is that we just remain stuck in place without being able to march forward.
Herbert Villalon Docena is currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of a workers’ group, Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers), in the Philippines. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, he was a researcher and campaigner with Focus on the Global South.
When people take to the streets and demand climate justice, they expect their elected leaders to step up and address the drivers of what is clearly the largest global crisis humanity has ever faced. However, the so-called “solutions” that were brought to the table for COP 21 in Paris last week are anything but—instead they deflect attention away from consumption patterns linked to the burning of fossil fuels.
These strategies are devised by powerful corporations and government partners as a literal and metaphorical “smokescreen” for the real drivers of deforestation and carbon release to the atmosphere, including monoculture expansion of palm oil and soybean, oil and minerals extraction, industrial logging and mega-infrastructure projects.
REDD+ is a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.
One of the most subtle and sinister “solutions” promoted by the UN, the World Bank and other global development institutions is REDD+, which stands for (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The “+” is meant to incorporate other environmental or development priorities, including biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. US$ 10 billion has been pledged for addressing climate change through REDD+, though not many have heard about what this strategy is all about.
Some people say REDD+ sends a signal that safeguarding forests through performance-based payments is key to combatting climate change. Maybe they are right, but the way in which REDD+ is framed also paves the way for appropriation of the landscape while reducing the capabilities of forest peasants to take control over their own development futures. While forests protection plays a vital role for maintaining critical ecological processes and the well-being of the people that depend on them, REDD+ does not place the forest at its heart. It is instead a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.
REDD+ is premised on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. While it is true that deforestation amounts to 25-30 percent of carbon emissions and is a major factor influencing climate change, carbon sequestered by trees is vastly different from sequestering carbon by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Firstly, it is a challenging endeavour to measure carbon emissions in an accurate and transparent manner, with many measurements tens of thousands of tons of CO2 off the mark.
Secondly, trees are unstable and only temporary repositories of sequestered carbon, since the carbon they store will eventually be returned to the atmosphere. Re-release of carbon might occur much faster than “expected” due to climate-induced forest fires. Indeed, just three weeks of raging forest fires in Indonesia have released more CO2 than Germany’s entire annual emissions.
It’s as though we are placing the blame on (remaining) tropical forests for not sequestering enough carbon when it is in fact actual carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels which has brought us to the brink of the climate catastrophe we face. Of course, it is all the more easy to place the burden on tropical forests for solving our climate problems when they conveniently reside in countries out of sight and out of mind from where carbon-intensive development paths occur, and of course where costs of taking responsibility for climate change are the cheapest. This is an all too-convenient recipe for shifting environmental costs and accountability of actions.
REDD+ projects are carried out by businesses or development NGOs in industrialized countries who pay communities residing in tropical forest areas, mainly in the Global South, to prevent forest destruction from happening, whereby it must be evident that deforestation would otherwise happen if payments are not forthcoming. The amount of payment provided by the industrialized country partner reflects the tonnage of carbon, linked to its price on the global carbon market, which is saved from being released into the atmosphere due to forest protection.
Damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.
The stipulation that the payment provided for forest protection and carbon sequestration has prevented the forest from being destroyed and that the forest continuously be safeguarded from destruction is important for the industrial country funders, who aim to score carbon-credits from the deal. These credits serve as “rights to pollute”—something of a reward for having done a good deed, in this case for paying to supposedly prevent deforestation from occurring. The incredulous, almost farcical nature of this arrangement becomes disturbingly obvious. The polluting country or company, who has been responsible for the majority of carbon emissions up until now, suddenly has the right to continue burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 as before.
The tropical forests of the Global South are a precious new commodity to squabble over, this time with billions of dollars backing the potential spoils and rich countries as new rights-holders of land locked away for carbon offsetting the continued economic development of rich countries. This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.
As social anthropologist Melissa Leach and colleagues of the University of Sussex have argued, mainstream economics has successfully attributed value both in the exploitation of the environment and natural resources for growth in manufactured goods, but in recent times have also determined the potential for market creation in the repair of the environment in the name of “sustainability.”
This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.
This new economic driver of environmental repair combined with the classical economic driver of resource extraction and resulting environmental degradation work in concert to extract the maximum value out of nature irrespective of whomever or whatever is in the way. In this way, damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.
REDD+ would be flawed even if the payments were targeted to major drivers of deforestation in the Global South, namely industrial-scale agriculture for commodities such as soybean and palm oil. This is because overall carbon stocks would not be reducing—which is ultimately what is so badly needed if we are to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. Without underestimating the important role that tropical forests could play in storing carbon, it would make far greater sense to curtail the burning of fossil fuels and other carbon-emitting activities and prioritize actions to halt carbon emission at the source.
However, what is so heinous about this situation is that REDD+ projects do not target those responsible for large-scale deforestation, but instead target poor shifting cultivators whose forest-dwelling livelihoods and associated socio-cultural knowledge systems and practices become ‘priced-out’ by the market because they are too low to compete with, in this case, the value of carbon for Western countries to keep polluting.
For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder- a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place.
As a recent report by GRAIN highlights, REDD+ proponents place the blame for deforestation on peasants under the guise of “slash-and-burn” farming practices, yet conveniently ignore and even simultaneously support the industrial palm-oil plantations, infrastructure projects and intensified agriculture strategies that are the real drivers of tropical deforestation.
The gospel of neoclassical economics explain this apparent contradiction, since the “opportunity costs” of paying off peasants for deforestation is overwhelmingly lower than halting the real drivers of deforestation. As the report emphasizes, this is a way for industrialized countries to pay very little, yet say they are doing something to combat climate change, while failing to reduce their historical and continued contributions to deforestation through the export of commodity crops and for mega-infrastructure projects largely to service resource extraction operations.
For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects which lock forests away for carbon mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder—a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place. Meanwhile, peasants desperate to feed their children continue venturing into the forest, risking fines and imprisonment. Where attempts, in response to donor requirements, are made by REDD+ project proponents to facilitate livelihood transitions to sustainable agriculture or ecotourism, project funds are often limited and short-lived, leaving communities with less capabilities than before the project started.
Just when you might wonder how this situation could get any more flawed, it doesn’t stop there! The strict contract obligations of REDD+ effectively immobilize peasant communities from achieving basic human needs of food and fodder for the duration of the project period (upwards of 10 years or more) while providing them “payment” which gets siphoned away through a cascading chain of carbon companies, auditors establishing certification standards, international consultants, conservation NGOs and “green” venture capitalists from primarily industrialized countries all seeking to grab a piece of the lucrative REDD+ pie before it ever reaches the community.
Contracted communities become legally bounded to follow suit with the terms of the carbon buyers in the West, even as many of the project documents are written in English rather than in local languages and introduce a seemingly foreign value of the forest for its ‘carbon’ which has little if any meaning for forest communities.
As this process unfolds, the already marginalized and now REDD-trapped forest communities are no longer a hindrance to the expansion of industrial agriculture, the mega-infrastructure projects, rare earth mineral exploration or commodity crop monocultures. Thus, despite having rights to the land, these rights become effectively weakened, since under REDD+, it is the carbon buyers who decide how the land is to be used and not the rightful owners of the land.
In essence, REDD+ sets the stage for a resource grab “free for all” under a swish green banner, while demonizing marginalized peoples as threats to the forest and ultimately inducers of climate change.
The “Cartel of the Parties”
So who are these REDD+ proponents who are advancing this climate “solution” at COP 21 in Paris? It is startling to note that those groups that society has tasked with solving humanity’s social and environmental crises are the foremost advocates for REDD+.
WWF, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are some of the leading proponents as they team up with some of the world’s most notorious climate polluters including Unilever, Syngenta, Monsanto, McDonalds, Walmart and Nestlé, whose business activities depend on actively promoting wholesale deforestation and depletion of soil fertility through dependence on commodity crops such as soybean and palm oils.
In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.
Another major player is the private investment arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which paves the way for these corporations to access previously unexploited lands through promises of new markets and “environmental stewardship” for corporate social responsibility via carbon offsetting through REDD+ projects, among other similar ploys.
As James Fairhead and colleagues at the University of Sussex have suggested, the Conference of the Parties is in reality more of a “Cartel of the Parties” involving international development banks, conservation NGOs, the private sector and government agencies who are all dead-set on advancing the “green” economy, through which nature presents itself as a lucrative investment opportunity to permit market expansion and access deeper into the commodity frontier while paving the way for more traditional resource extractivist markets to gain a stronger foothold around the world. In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.
Demanding an end to neo-colonialism
What then does it take to demand action on climate change for COP 21? What should COP 21 really be about? Well, besides the fact that strong measures to curtail climate change should have been made at COP 1, rather than waiting for 20 years, here are five forgotten agendas:
1. Limiting land-use practices and industrial activities that add further Greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and which depend on industrial agriculture involving the over-application of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides that deplete soil nutrients and damage water sources. These practices originate from over-developed countries whose demand-driven development trajectories have meant outsourcing industrial food production and resource extractive activities throughout the world to satisfy grossly unsustainable domestic consumption.
2. By turns, this means that an overhaul of the current industrial food trading system must be at the heart of any climate deliberation. Agri-business corporations with their herbicide-infused genetically-modified seeds must be heavily regulated by governments to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. As an important positive spinoff, regulating these companies would also diversify the food system and open opportunities to give living-wages back to millions of farmers around the world.
3. A climate solution must put the self-determination, food sovereignty and basic needs of resource-dependent communities at the forefront of any sustainable natural resource management initiative. This means resource use, access, and management rights must be prioritized for forest-dwelling communities to collectively manage their own resources, facilitated by domestic policies which encourage sustainable soil management. In order to achieve this aim, it is absolutely crucial to be clear as to who wins and who loses from strategies such as REDD+ or any other proposed “solution” that emerges from the Paris agreement. Rather than seeking climate policy panaceas, closer historical, socio-cultural and political scrutiny is required to understand when and where any given strategy can be successful and what kinds of unintended repercussions might occur as a result of its widespread promotion and implementation.
4. Dismantling the myth of the “green economy” that, rather than addressing the drivers of climate change, only serves to deflect blame away from those perpetuating climate crimes while permitting new opportunities to exploit marginalized communities as indentured labour to service new markets for nature. Falling under this strategy includes the increasing appropriation of agricultural land for biofuels, which creates the same alienating effects on communities who depend on their land for food security. Similarly problematic are investments in green start-up technologies by green venture capitalists who demand double-dividend returns in the name of financing an energy-efficiency revolution. Such an approach fails to come to terms with the Jevon’s Paradox: that increasing improvements in energy efficiencies become quickly over-compensated by ever-increasing consumptive demands fueled by unchecked economic growth.
5. Rather than permitting over-developed regions of the world to continue exploiting resources and people for their benefit, solutions that emerge through indigenous knowledge and non-Westernised knowledge systems are critical for re-balancing the social-ecological equilibrium of our planet. This socio-cultural conundrum is substantially more challenging than addressing the global climate crisis, as it requires an active process of “unlearning” what the West has taught the world, often through systems of oppression, as to what constitutes “development.”
Anything short of seriously considering these five points will once again result in a political circus that reinforces neoliberal strategies and colonial geo-political manoeuvres. If citizens of the world demand fair and just solutions to address climate change, we must not allow our elected leaders and national negotiators to blindly advocate for strategies such as REDD+. The devil is really in the details!
Vijay Kolinjivadi, PhD, is a researcher of the Ecological Economics research group at McGill University. His research has led him to report on the dangers of commodifying nature and to identify how and when human-nature relationships can be resilient in the face of inevitable change. He enjoys traveling and reading in grassy meadows among other things.
A version of this article was originally published on truthout.
The multilateral approach to climate change: denial and delay
The intergovernmental process to fight climate change leads up to COP 21, the upcoming meeting in Paris. This time, unlike all the last times, hopes are high that an agreement will be reached. It should limit the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to an amount that would cause a global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. Nobody knows if this is a safe level, but the intergovernmental process concluded it might be safe enough.
The negotiations follow a pattern you might expect in a negotiation game where everybody wants to bargain a good deal for themselves: poor countries want to maximize support, the rich want promises from all the others, and there’s as little commitment on funding as possible.
National Contributions would only start in 2020. Another 5 years lost.
Most participants agree with what is in the documents of the International Panel on Climate Change. Yet this knowledge does not translate into drastic measures. Action is limited to long-term negotiations on the international level and prudent changes on the national policy level. In the day-to-day choices we make to frame our lives, the urgency isn’t there – it’s not even on the radar.
Roads for diesel or gasoline cars are still being built, public transport suffers from budget cuts, and coal power plant construction permits are still legal.
Roads for diesel or gasoline cars are still being built, public transport suffers from budget cuts, and coal power plant construction permits are still legal.
Investments in sustainable energy and alternative transport are not guided by the climate change imperative but by economic, strategic, and political arguments. Fossil fuel is still subsidized in most countries. Natural gas is a midway investment to make the shift to fossil free more gradual. These investments will be guzzling gas for the next 30 years.
The current approach is seen as the reasonable and moderate pathway. Everything else is deemed unrealistic.
As a result, emissions will continue rising above current levels for some time to come. But the total level of emissions required to stop heating the climate is less than zero.
If we keep going along this route, we will be in crisis mode within decades. The situation will be so urgent that all use of fossil fuel will have to be taxed at prohibitive levels or banned. Denial will be impossible. Major powers will consider climate change as an existential, military threat, and may be ready to respond to it militarily if need be. After all, a country’s carbon footprint goes down after being bombed.
In an environment of strict rationing, massive use of private fossil fuel-powered cars will be unacceptable. The new highways that are planned now will be redundant before they are fully operational. Even those that are built right now will depreciate faster than calculated. Coal power plants and buildings needing heating or air conditioning will be considered extravagant in a strictly rationed world.
In every part of the society, on every level of the administration, there are already people who fully realize what the crisis entails and have internalized it in their actions. However in general they are marginal: their “moderate”colleagues implore them to be “reasonable”.
In every part of the society, on every level of the administration, there are already people who fully realize what the crisis entails and have internalized it in their actions. However in general they are marginal: their “moderate”colleagues implore them to be “reasonable”.
Waiting until the crisis is acute is irresponsible. We need to redefine what is realistic. Realistic planning is to go as quickly as possible – right now – to zero emissions. Every delay is irresponsible.
What we need is a mainstream acceptance that “There Is No Alternative” . Remember the Thatcherite revolution? Her – ruinous – thinking on economics was accepted as mainstream and labelled as the only option in a couple of years. The same must happen with “going for zero” climate change thinking. Unfortunately, this time there really is no viable alternative to going for zero, asap.
It is at this point that we should redefine “moderation” and “realism”:
Moderation is to accept reality and what has to be done to avoid a global humanitarian crisis.
Realism is to accept that any additional investment in a carbon world is a waste and a crime, and act accordingly.
The course we’re on now is the true extremism.
All current long-term fossil fuel-based investments (power plants, roads, ships, house heating) should be considered unacceptable.
There are millions of options of how we could get to zero carbon, but There Is No Alternative to the fact that we need to go to zero now. So we should redefine “moderation” and “reasonable” as: going for zero now.
Turning the tables
Are the engineers who design, the bosses who approve, the politicians supporting policy changes, the people buying cars, the families buying houses in the suburbs, consciously choosing to make the wrong decision? Greenhouse gas emission growth is not the fruit of a big evil master plan. It involves millions of individual decisions, an environment of decisions. To roll back emissions it will be these decisions that make the difference.
The current approach to climate change is a negotiation where individual countries try to limit change for themselves and maximize it for the others. The incentive structure of these negotiations encourages minimizing change, rather than maximizing it. It does not create an environment that leads to exponential change beyond the agreed-upon indicators.
The complicated interrelations of the economy, the climate, political power, and society cannot be managed simply with top-down international agreements. Under the new definition of moderation, this is an extremist tactic, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. It stifles the imagination and flexibility needed to go to zero fast enough. Real change will be result from transformation of the political economy at the local level.
The strategy: going for zero
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. (Churchill)
Every single decision matters. Like in wartime, the theater is everywhere.
The battle against a coal power plant investment is never lost: construction could be planned, but the municipal permit can be revoked. The permit is given but the imminent domain procedure is not successful, it can be started and never finished as investors disinvest. It can be built and never used over environmental concerns. It can be taken out of production early.
As every investment is composed of a chain of decisions that need to be taken one after the other, by tackling the individual decisions, accumulatively, change can happen faster, as changes become exponential rather than linear.
Within a moral and long-term economical timeframe, every person anywhere must stop any investment in fossil fuel-heavy products now.
Realism makes every person who has internalised climate change an ally. Office workers, like myself, will have to make alliances with politicians, communities, and action groups. Like-minded groups will need to work together to bring down the traditional barriers and create a new normal.
The objective is to stop every single individual investment in fossil fuel use. Most struggles will initially be lost. It is the war that counts.
The objective is to stop every single individual investment in fossil fuel use. Most struggles will initially be lost. It is the war that counts. With every resistance it becomes more difficult to present business as usual as an option, as “moderation“.
Individuals will need the backing of a mass movement to find the strength to resist and to have access to the knowledge to make a case. As the powers that be in the energy sector will resist, other instruments, like manifestations, petitions, civil disobedience and boycotts will be necessary.
Every decision already taken can still be stopped, overturned, or postponed at every level. Losing a struggle is only a step in winning the war, and losing the war is beyond imagination.
Every person who is asked to sign, to design, to propose, to make concrete, to breathe the air, will need to act on the knowledge that it is not worth it to continue with the old model. They will need to recognize that for the world, the children, for votes, and for their career, it is better not to do this.
The action plan for the Paris Agreement
Chances are there will be a binding agreement concluded at COP 21. The agreement will confirm the climate crisis, and the commitment to keep the temperature rise to only 1.5-2 degrees. Attached to the agreement there will be Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) that will be insufficient.
These NDCs will be irresponsible and amount to climate terrorism. The proposed measures should happen now, not in 2020. The agreed principles in the agreement should be strong and binding enough to form the legal basis to reject every unacceptable investment and go directly for zero.
If the going for zero strategy is implemented, investments in alternatives have a future and fossil fuel-based infrastructure has none.
If the going for zero strategy is implemented, investments in alternatives have a future and fossil fuel-based infrastructure has none.
Going now for zero on every decision possible will lead to tipping points where fossil fuel investments become less attractive economically, environmentally, and politically. An exponential change will happen.
As emissions plummet immediately, every cap and trade system would implode too.
Sam Gardner is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.
Climate change is big. As is the climate movement seeking to confront the issue, though it is not yet as powerful as the fossil fuel industry. People all over the world are standing up in very different ways, as evidenced by a quick glance at the over-800 partner organizations for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City on September 21. It’s a real challenge to bring together these very different groups.
In Canada alone examples abound of the diversity of people and range of strategies being used to address the problem. Many people at the Unist’ot’en camp are returning to their lands and effectively blocking pipelines. At universities, people like McGill Environment student & Divest McGill organizer Kristen Perry are demanding endowment funds become fossil fuel free. Shaina Agbayani and others are focusing on the relationship between migrant justice and climate change. In Toronto’s Bay Street offices people like Toby Heaps are selling low-carbon investment strategies. Amanda Lickers, a Haudenasaunee environmental organizer, is working to oppose fossil-fuel infrastructure (including pipeline) projects destroying native communities. The scale of the challenge has been responded to with many strategies from diverse groups that together are sometimes called the climate movement.
In this movement, there is no central leadership, no intelligentsia behind closed doors like in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s protagonist, an unnamed young black man who becomes a spokesperson for what could be called the civil rights movement, is told what to do and what to say by a small group of white men using supposedly scientific formulas that perfectly guide the movement. Thankfully this is not how the climate movement works: it is more decentralized and people have more autonomy to act as they see fit. This comes with its own set of challenges, as seen recently during Occupy and a few decades ago with the leaderless women’s liberation movement.
But wait, interacting with climate activism may give you the feeling that there is a centralized organization and a mastermind leader.
When someone hears “350” mentioned and asks what it is, I’ve often heard the response that 350.org is the climate movement and Bill McKibben its leader. This is easy to believe when articles on environmental news sites like Grist and RTCC announcing the Peoples’ Climate March include only McKibben and 350.org by name as leaders and planners. The RTCC article begins “Led by Bill McKibben…”, and it is his thoughtful articles that appear in youth-targeted Rolling Stone. The 350.org “Do The Math” tour description reads “In November 2012, Bill McKibben and 350.org hit the road to build a movement strong enough to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” The notion that McKibben is the leader and 350.org the movement is in large part due to the way the organization has framed itself from the start.
The story of 350.org is similar to that of many NGOs in that it began with a core dedicated group and a compelling call to action. As McKibben himself likes to point out, it started out at a college in Vermont with 7 people, and they decided to each take a continent and build a movement.
The organization has been acting out that global narrative ever since. They’ve gained prominence and power that most grassroots groups would never dream of through a combination of millions of dollars of support from the Rockefellers and others and a persistent mentality that they lead the worldwide movement-building process. Following a notable lack of discussion with other groups, 350.org called out for and selected 500 people to gather in June 2013 in Turkey for a Global Power Shift and claimed it as “the starting point for a new phase in the international climate movement.”
The well-intentioned Americans of 350.org venturing overseas to be the global umbrella for the movement have created an organization that has unfortunately bulldozed over other voices in the climate movement and has come to be seen by many as the movement itself. So while the movement is bigger and more complex than 350.org, having this unofficial and unaccountable focal point limits how we think about and interact with climate activism.
Take, for example, the problem that those who have the least wealth will likely face the worst of climate change-caused catastrophes including drought, flooding and storms. This means that those who already face deep injustices will have very different demands from those who simply want to preserve the earth as it is. We need spokespeople who can be accountable to these groups. Unfortunately, 350.org’s insistence that they represent the movement while they don’t actually respond to these diverse demands ultimately hurts the movement.
In fairness, considerable credit is due to 350.org and to Bill McKibben for building momentum. McKibbon is a good writer, if over-simplifying, as seen in his very widely read July 2012 Rolling Stone article. Recently he has been sitting down to have serious conversations with powerful people like university presidents to push the divestment agenda. As a celebrity in the climate world he is drawing big crowds to the Peoples’ Climate March in NYC, and at hype talks in recent months 350.org has used his draw to put the spotlight on some local groups and individuals. The staff of 350.org seem very motivated, with their hearts in the right place, and the problems of being a big international NGO are not unique to 350.org.
That said, constructive criticism is what will help the movement learn and improve. At a September 2 event in Montreal organized by 350.org and local campus groups, some issues were clearly visible. First, there were two lines of French spoken by all the speakers combined, a shame for an event happening in French-speaking Quebec, a hotbed of radicalism in North America. Thankfully the audience did hear some Kanien’keha (Mohawk), the language native to the area, from Ellen Gabriel. At one point McKibben attributed the initiation of the fossil fuels divestment campaign one half to journalist and 350.org board member Naomi Klein and one half to Nelson Mandela. Hopefully Klein, a thorough researcher, would dismiss such a claim outright as disinvestment is not a particularly new tactic for showing disapproval of an activity, even in the climate world. Throughout his talk, McKibben perpetuated the idea that 350.org was the movement, that it was the umbrella organization connecting everyone, that the 7 people from Vermont who went out build a worldwide movement had been more or less successful.
Near the end of his presentation, while he has talking about getting things right, Amanda Lickers, mentioned above, interrupted McKibben. He at no point tried to cut her off. She brought up the lack of acknowledgement of the centrality of indigenous contributions to the front-lines struggle to resist extraction and pipelines, the erasure of indigenous history in the planning of the upcoming much-hyped Peoples’ Climate March in New York City, concerns about inclusion of people most affected by climate change, and more. This drew many cheers of support from the audience. After she spoke, McKibben did not responded to her comments directly. He was visibly uncomfortable and while he briefly and generally mentioned the importance of front-line communities he unfortunately treated Amanda Lickers and everything she said as an interesting aside that was easy to ignore. In a place like North America, indigenous groups have been expressing and acting on their understanding of the earth for many centuries longer than the 25 years since McKibben’s first big book came out. In many ways, indigenous groups are at the front of the struggle here and in much of the rest of the world. They are more central than to the side, but they keep being pushed out, which is part of the injustice of worldwide colonialism. And if justice is not the goal in this movement, what is? A spokesperson better understanding the movement and the forces at play in our society, and conscious of the way they themselves perpetuate those forces, may have been able to better address Lickers’ comments and build a constructive dialogue with the audience.
It’s not that McKibben is a bad guy. It’s that he is currently not a good spokesperson for the climate movement, which is effectively what he is now given how he and 350.org project themselves and are seen by the media and general public. Naomi Klein will fully share the spotlight once her book is released. As with most of us (myself included), McKibben needs to undo his colonial mindset. As evidenced by Lickers’ interruption, when he speaks it is not on behalf of the whole movement and not on behalf of the most affected nor those fighting the hardest like the Unist’ot’en. The lack of confidence and imagination within the movement to put forward spokespeople intentionally but instead allow McKibben to remain at the front limits what it can do.
McKibben writes uncomplicated articles and speaks in ways comfortably relatable to American liberal-arts college audiences. While it is important to talk to those people, we need a movement with broader scope bringing forth dialogues about justice from different perspectives. We need to think hard about how the movement is represented, we need to listen to the voices in it, and to identify leaders intentionally. Being seen as spokespeople, McKibben and Klein could stress that they don’t represent anybody, that the main resistance is being done by others often completely separate from 350.org, and they can point to some of those struggles. 350.org can choose to stop over-extending itself in trying to be the movement and to not play the role of selecting who gets put forward as a leader. While not perfect, the Peoples’ Climate March appears to be a good collaboration between groups, and there are exciting possibilities for where the movement can go from here.
David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.