by Rafa Grinfeld
Tens of thousands of Belgian students have been leaving their classes to go on strike in defense of the climate. For almost two months now, every Thursday many of these students are striking. And they’ve been taking to the streets in mass protests.
One of the adult protesters is Karen Naessens of Rise4Climate, an organisation that has coordinated a recent demonstration in Brussels. Almost 100,000 people showed up for the protest. Never before did Belgium have such a large climate march. Naessens explains:
We’re protesting because we feel politicians still haven’t got it. We want to show these demands are held by the public at large and that people really care. It’s not only Belgium that should be more ambitious. It’s one of the worst performers in the EU. The EU should take a pioneering role. Europe should take the lead. It’s up to us to put it on the agenda!
Much of the Belgian media has been remarkably benevolent towards the climate protests. I have been wondering if this will change, when many climate truants will have been campaigning every Thursday for months. In my view, some of the students are obviously planning to do just that: to strike every Thursday.
Protests of young people have gathered force in Europe over the past weeks, especially in countries like the UK, The Netherlands and Germany. In France, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere, activists have also gathered in large numbers, the protests taking a different shape in each country. Nevertheless, the movement does have its common inspirations.
Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede, has drawn worldwide attention and inspired many of the protesters. She was the first to raise awareness of global warming through a school strike. In the beginning she was striking alone. Nobody expected her to become so influential . But her idea has taken hold among the youth, and not without reason: the strikers belong to a generation that will suffer immeasurably from climate change and its impacts.
In this text I am focusing on Belgium, where I live, and where climate protests have been larger than in any other country. Here, all age ranges are out on the street demanding for better climate policies, and youth is at the forefront of it. But, the movement does have its challenges. First, there is some danger from the Right. Second, many people don’t seem to really understand what is going on when it’s about climate change and what to do against it. And so, there are many who turn to experts to solve the problem. I argue that radical democracy, and the ideas of social ecology, are a much-needed antidote.
One of the reasons for the climate movement here becoming so big is the fact that it is very influenced by the ecological left. The ecological Right is small, but growing. Yes, the Right is slowly turning green – or so it seems. Amongst other things, they’re proposing “nuclear energy solutions” (like nuclear fusion or using thorium) and new climate technology (whether it already exists or not), stopping what they see as overpopulation, putting electric cars on the roads and setting up climate taxes (for the rich as well as the poor).
But is it really that green? After all, it has kept rather close connections with industrial lobby groups (investing in fossil fuels, for example) and climate skeptics. Arguably, the Right is just nervous after the large climate protests. Greenwashing their policies and proposals could simply be a response to feeling the wind turn under the impetus of the climate movement. The mainstream of the Right is only just trying to appear more ecological than it is in reality, to obtain more votes because there are important elections coming up in May.
What we especially need now in Belgium is a growing movement from below that puts good climate measures on the political agenda, not false or unwelcome solutions like those proposed by the “green” Right. If we look at all the climate protests of the past couple of months, we are doing quite well in that respect.
Beyond the challenge from the Right, Belgium is also facing another problem: the over-reliance on experts. Lately we have heard more and more pleas to have climate-related problems “solved” by experts. Experts, the argument goes, should sit around the table with policymakers, or should be given more money to do research on new technologies. Normal people are considered incompetent to find adequate solutions for climate change.
And so, the opinion of many people, even some of the students, has become that more power must be placed in the hands of experts. Experts who have to come up with a new type of nuclear power plant. Or experts who know a lot about the nature of climate change because they are climatologists, or architects, or … policy makers.
Experts are called in if people do not know how to solve problems. For example, when proposed solutions do not fit within their own ideological framework, or when they see themselves as not competent enough to come up with enough adequate solutions. Experts can help to solve problems, but their large power must be treated with some mistrust. If experts contradict each other a lot, like in Belgium for the moment, one soon has to deal with social stagnation and political immobility.
When it comes to climate change, Belgium has already looked at what experts do or do not advocate. Or what people do who are viewed as experts in a certain area (or whose expertise is questioned or even denied by some). There is therefore a battle going on when it’s about measures against climate change and choosing the experts that are fit for this.
So if not the experts, then who? If we leave measures against climate change to current policy makers, we will be setting ourselves up for a long wait. Power is nowadays mainly in the hands of large companies, as lobby groups they determine a large part of the Belgian and European policies. The large corporations generally are not much interested in ecological life, harmony or production. Their main raison d’être often is making profits and competing with other corporations. They want to keep their important positions within the contours of the market economy, and many principles have to be denied for that.
When experts obtain too much power we have elitist technocracy. This is really problematic, it’s disempowering and patronizing for most people. It’s especially a problem when the experts who have too much power are just politicians of top-down parties defending technocratic statecraft—like the case is now in Belgium and many other countries—and not at all climate experts trying to do something against climate change… well, then we really are in trouble. Then it becomes important for us to build counter-power and participation through grassroots movements.
The climate movement in Belgium needs to come to grips with the fact that the current ecological crisis cannot be solved by the market, or experts, alone. As Murray Bookchin wrote in 1993:
Unless we realize that the present market society, structured around the brutally competitive imperative of “grow or die,” is a thoroughly impersonal, self-operating mechanism, we will falsely tend to blame other phenomena — technology as such or population growth as such — for environmental problems. We will ignore their root causes, such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of progress with corporate self-interest. In short, we will tend to focus on the symptoms of a grim social pathology rather than on the pathology itself, and our efforts will be directed toward limited goals whose attainment is more cosmetic than curative.” Ecology should not become dismal science or co-opted by the right, and therefore it should be infused with good social theory and interesting politics. Ecologists should be aware of the way the present market society is structured and the ills and disadvantages of industrial capitalism.
Taking advantage of the growing momentum in the climate movement, a new group of grassroots activists in Liège, a city in the south of Belgium, is planning a large international conference on what is called “social ecology” in September. In the words of Murray Bookchin once again, what defines social ecology is:
its recognition of the often-overlooked fact that nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, our present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. To make this point more concrete; economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today — apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.
Projects like the conference on social ecology in Liège in September can help influence the climate movement to ask the hard questions about the role of capitalism and the need for alternative, direct democracy. We already have many climate protests now in Belgium. What we especially need now are some good debates and analyses about what direction the climate movement in Belgium (and other countries) should take.
Rafa Grinfeld has been studying social ecology for more than 25 years, and has been active in social and ecological activism, writing and traveling to meet and talk with social ecologists in Europe and North America.