Avaaz greenwashes Paris climate agreement

The betrayals and breakdown of the Copenhagen summit strengthened the climate justice movement because it demonstrated so clearly that salvation was not coming from above. We came to Paris with our eyes wide open, looking to each other instead of the summit, bracing ourselves for a weak deal and planning for the future.

This shameful agreement fell below even our expectations. But you wouldn’t know it listening to the corporations and their politicians – or to Avaaz, which is singing the same tune. World leaders, they write, have set a “landmark goal that can save everything we love.” They call the accord “a brilliant and massive turning point in human history… This is what we marched for.”

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Green-washing & White-washing

It’s not what we marched for. As New Internationalist explains, it fails on every front: on emissions reduction, on reparations for the global South, on the rights indigenous communities and working people the world over. Under this deal, we’re looking at 3-4 degrees of warming, and that is catastrophic.

Avaaz was a driving force behind this year’s massive climate marches, but this movement’s centre-ground is riven with contradictions. WWF partners with Coca-Cola to ‘save the polar bears’ in the Arctic while it steals drinking water from India’s poor and hires thugs to murder union activists in Latin America. And along with Avaaz, they invite mega-corporations like Unilever, a leading food monopoly with an atrocious labour and environmental record, to back its ‘People’s’ Climate March.

It’s worth noting the mobilisation was supported by the Climate Group – a green-washing front for big bad wolves like BP, Dow Chemicals, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan – and Avaaz’s founder used to work for the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations.

That helps explain why $220,000 went on glossy posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join the demo. It’s a sound investment if you believe the 1 per cent are the real agents of change. That’s not the attitude you’d expect from a ‘campaigning community’ for ‘people-powered politics,’ but it would also explain why they didn’t want the Global South bloc, Wretched of the Earth, leading the climate march on 29th November. Black people shouting about economic colonialism are not who bankers want to see leading a march of thousands.

But the agreement fails even by Avaaz’s own standards. They campaigned for a concrete and dated commitment to 100 per cent clean energy. What we got was a heavily padded commitment to ‘net-zero’ with exactly the kind of policies that have failed us so far. And it’s not even binding.

The Apartheid Analogy

But what really left us speechless was the apartheid analogy. “Like our brothers and sisters in South Africa who won legal equality… we are on the brink of that new, sweet wind,” writes Avaaz. It’s revealing that in referencing to this movement, they echo not Mandela, but British Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who famously spoke of the “wind of change sweeping through Africa… whether we like it or not.” (He did not.)

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‘Murder at Sharpeville’ painting to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, 21st March 1960 – courtesy, Wikicommons

In one sense, this is deeply ironic and insulting. Avaaz may take pride in its marches and petitions, but it hardly compares to decades of mass-resistance in the face of brutal state repression. Thousands of black men and women were brutalised and killed in their struggle against racist oppression and segregation. And it is indigenous and black communities that the Paris Accord failed more than anyone.

As Naomi Klein writes, “so much of what we are fighting for is based on the principle that black lives matter… The way our governments are behaving in the face of the climate crisis actively discounts black and brown lives over white lives. It is an actively racist response to climate change that we should expose.”

However there is an unintended sense in which the analogy is entirely appropriate. In 1955 the African National Congress’ (ANC) sent 50,000 volunteers into the townships and rural villages to collect ‘freedom demands’ from the people. The result was a powerful and radical call not just for the end of segregation – the most institutionalised manifestation of white exploitation and oppression – but for true, economic equality. Black South Africans didn’t rise up and risk everything because wanted to share busses with white people; they wanted social justice.

Despite Avaaz’s assertion that “the fall of Apartheid led South Africa to the single most bold and progressive constitution in the world,” it was in truth a huge step back from the Freedom Charter, which had been the political heart of South African resistance.

Compromising Freedom: a Cautionary Tale

In 1960, as the ‘winds of change’ reached gale-force and national independence seemed only a matter of time, Britain was under pressure from the USA to de-colonise. America wanted access to South African markets and feared a radical left-swing in South Africa unless it was granted independence. “It is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement,” said Macmillan, “but… [frankly] there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible.”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out which aspects he was talking about: the Freedom Charter’s calls for free education and decent housing; living wages and shorter work hours; land for the landless and the restoration of the national wealth to the people. All the things apartheid kept cordoned off from the black majority; the things the climate crisis gives us a ‘once in a century’ chance achieve.

Nelson Mandela once described a change in the ANC’s position on economic democracy was ‘inconceivable.’ But as John Pilger writes, following his release in 1990, reassuring the white establishment and foreign investors, “the very orthodoxy and cronyism that had built, maintained and reinforced fascist apartheid, became the political agenda of the ‘new’ South Africa.”

Even before Mandela was released, the ANC was cutting secret deals with the Anglo-American Corporation and the Afrikaner elite. Winnie Mandela, herself a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement and ANC government, said in 2010: “Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.”

Since the ANC took power, the number of black South Africans living on $1 per day has doubled and average life expectancy has dropped by thirteen years. Homelessness has risen and by 2004 over a million people had been evicted from their farms. Protesting workers are murdered by police and small-scale farmers are on the frontlines fighting pollution and industrial agriculture. The gap between rich and poor greater now than under the apartheid regime; in fact along with the Seychelles, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.

So, modern South Africa is about as progressive as COP21, which LDC Watch eloquently describes as ‘a nail in the coffin for justice for the least developed countries’. And the struggle against climate apartheid is only beginning.

What The Freedom Charter once called for are all the things the climate justice movement wants for the world today. And they are the very principles COP21 has turned its back on.

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Photo taken at the Palace of Justice (S Wierda) 1902 Church Square Pretoria – Courtesy, Wikicommons

Shorter version published by New Internationalist with Samir Dathi

La Via Campesina: One Way Forward from Paris

In 2007, a man named Keno was killed with two bullets to the chest at point blank range near the Iguagu National Park in Brazil. He was one of many farmers peacefully occupying a GMO research plant to protest the imposition of an industrial agricultural system that had no place for them. The men who murdered him were part of a private militia working for the Syngenta biotech corporation. They perpetrated what the courts would later describe as an attempted ‘massacre’ to, in Syngenta’s chilling words: ‘propagate the idea that every action results in a reaction.’

As any physicist (or farmer) can tell you, this is a basic law of the universe. But it also applies the actions of big agribusiness, whose land grabs, pollution and exploitation have reaped their own reactions from peasant farmers across the world. They are organizing, across communities, sectors and borders, and now they made themselves heard here in Paris.

‘They are destroying our homes, our livelihoods and poisoning the food in people’s mouths.’ Maria, another Brazilian farmer and spokesperson for La Via Campesina, had tears in her eyes as she finished telling me about the relentless destruction of indigenous and farming communities back home. But she held her microphone tight like a weapon. ‘This pollution is worse than death. If we have to give our lives to fight these transnationals, then that is what we should do.’

The Peasant’s Way

The essence of ‘the peasant’s way’ is agro-ecology and food sovereignty: simply put, protecting our farms and our farmers. It was La Via Campesina that first coined the term ‘food sovereignty’. For frontline communities in the South, this idea deeply rooted not only in an ecological culture, but also a deep consciousness of colonial history; an unwillingness forged by history, to rely on this government or that trade treaty to keep feeding you.

As one African famer – and mother – explained: ‘We were told our way of farming, natural farming, was wrong. We have to use the machines. Now, we are starving.’ She raised her fist. ‘Food security is not enough. It only talks about the food on the table. It doesn’t care who produces that food and how. Food sovereignty and agro-ecology is the only way.

La Via Campesina means ‘the peasant’s way.’ Founded in 1993, this coalition of 150 organizations represents more than 200 million small-scale, indigenous and migrant farmers. Active in more than 70 countries, it campaigns to defend farmer’s rights and our food system.

For Via Campesina spokesperson Adam Payne, this means a constant struggle against industrial agriculture. Far from being a nation removed from the impact of a changing climate, he described how British farmers have been affected by hotter summers, wetter winters, droughts and floods.

‘The industrial food system’s failed us in every way,’ he said. ‘It’s brought more hunger, more obesity, land grabs forcing small farmers off the land, forcing us to compete in markets dominated by free trade agreements, and all while producing 50 per cent of global emissions.

Food Sovereignty

In a report produced with GRAIN, winner of the 2011 Right Livelihood Award (the ‘alternative Nobel Prize’), La Via Campesina break food sovereignty down into five steps. First, taking care of the soil. They estimate that in just 50 years, restoring the practices of small-scale organic farmers could regenerate soil nutrients to pre-industrial levels. This would offset as much as 30 per cent of global Co2 emissions. Second, farming without the agro-toxic chemicals. Instead, traditional farming methods such as crop integration and diversification would improve soil fertility and protect biodiversity without threatening our health and our ecosystems.

The global food trade accounts for most of agriculture’s excess emissions. So, step three is the localization of production and consumption. While strengthening local economies, this would take a big bite out of global emissions. Industrial agriculture’s drive to maximize profit by exploiting cheap labour has super-charged the food market. Crops may be grown in Argentina to feed chickens in Chile which are exported all the way to China for processing and then shipped all the way back to the US for sale. These practices account for up to 6 per cent of all greenhouse emissions and serve no rational purpose. Organic, local produce would also mean more fresh food and fewer preservatives, so it’s healthier for us as well as the planet, which would cool and renew itself.

Next is a radical and vital demand: give the land back to the people who farm it. Because small-scale farms work more efficiently and more ecologically, and because it is their inalienable human right, La Via Campesina calls for a worldwide redistribution of land to rural family and indigenous farmers. Along with policies to support local markets, this could half global greenhouse emissions ‘within a few decades.’

Peasants in Paris

The final step is one that must start now, in the wake of COP21, because every day we do not take it the restraints our farmers grow tighter and the precious resources left to us are squandered and destroyed. It is the rejection of false solutions, the free-market fixes championed by big agribusiness and the politicians whose interests they represent.

Indigenous and rural farming communities are on the frontline in this fight. Despite having lost 70 per cent their farmland to big agribusiness over the past 50 years or so, small-scale farmers still manage to grow 70 per cent of the world’s food. But for nearly five decades they have been under attack from big agribusiness. Water systems are polluted and land grabbed from beneath their feet as indigenous families are forced from their homes.

On Tuesday, La Via Campesina activists in Paris held a flash-action in defiance of the protest ban. They painted the entrance of Danone’s headquarters red to protest the lives lost by the corporation’s water privatization and land grabs in Asia, and the lives threatened by Danone’s promotion of so-called ‘climate smart agriculture’.

The following day, activists celebrated their Peasant Agriculture and Food Sovereignty day with a series of public events, welcoming speakers from across Europe, North America and the global South. The final forum, co-hosted with Confederation Paysanne, was flooded with hundreds of guests and had to spill out into the main space. The atmosphere was electric.

Farmers from across the world shared stories of exploitation and dispossession matched only by the solidarity they showed one another. A fisherman from South Africa re-counted their long fight against the criminalization of small-scale fisheries. For him, no law passed by a corrupt government in the interest of foreign corporations is legitimate. Yet even after an arduous and successful legal battle won over many years, his colleagues are still being arrested for trying to feed their families from their own ancestral waters.

‘We have decided we will be arrested again and again until they change the laws.’ His pledge was met with heartfelt applause. ‘When the government brings the army the women form a human chain around us and they protect us with their solidarity and their bodies.’

Listening to their stories, three things became very clear. First, a deep love for their way of life, their commitment to the fight for it and the great pride they took in this most essential of professions: feeding people. ‘It is noble,’ one said with dignity, ‘the first noble profession.’

Second, this is so much more than an environmental campaign or a section of the labour force organizing for its interests: it’s an independence movement, in the truest sense of the word. I was reminded of Mandela’s Freedom Charter. One of its most significant and indeed radical demands was that ‘land be given to all the landless people’. Really, it was the moral and economic heart of the anti-apartheid movement; one that was ultimately sacrificed by the African National Congress in exchange for a far less tangible and ultimately limited form of freedom for black South Africans.

In exchange for national independence they sacrificed economic autonomy: a contradiction in terms, as South Africa – with the rest of the global South – would come to learn. But in this movement, the reclamation of the land takes on such enormous significance, and the environmental case for it is made with such clarity, it is hard to imagine it being sacrificed a second time.

Finally, we all heard loud and clear the necessity – and an embryonic culture of – a very deep internationalism. You could see it on people’s faces as they listened to a farmer from Mali speak: ‘[The agribusiness corporations] destroyed billions of hectares that are being occupied. They chase people from the villages. We are victims of mass evictions. And the governments are accomplices to the global corporations, they are protected even by police we pay for with our taxes… People are beaten up, peasants are in jail in their thousands, how can we resist this? There is a strong movement of resistance but at all times we will be too small. So we need to converge and fight together.’

As one fisherwoman put it: ‘We need more than solidarity. We must put our anchors deep.’ This kind of sentiment is more than a political strategy; more than the assertion that the more of us unite, the more we can win. It’s an old and intuitive recognition of the absolutely scientific interconnectedness of all life. And that’s a very strong foundation for the building of a better world, as well as an excellent reason to fight for it.

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Written for New Internationalist

RS21 Interview: This Changes Everything

On Saturday 28 March a mass participatory gathering on climate change and the alternatives will be addressed by Naomi Klein, Russell Brand and many others. Dan Swain spoke to two of the organisers, Neil Faulkner and Marienna Pope-Weidemann.

Dan: Can you explain what the plans are for This Changes Everything, what you hope for the event and what you hope will come out of it?

Marienna: This Changes Everything is mass participatory gathering that will bring a thousand people together with activists and campaigners to debate some of the biggest questions of our generation. It’s about joining the dots between different elements of the crisis – war, poverty and climate change – joining the dots for a common solution, and finding ways to support each other in the struggle to make it possible.

It’s been organised by a network of independent activists, some already embedded in the movement, others not, brought together by the vision articulated by Naomi Klein’s new book. She’s highlighted the fact that the threat of climate change represents a historic opportunity for progressive politics, because the cornerstones of any socially just way out of the crisis vindicate much of what the Left’s been fighting for (and against) for generations. One Occupy Wall St organiser in the States put it well: it’s not about building a “separate climate movement, it’s about seizing the climate moment.”

Our organising group is pretty diverse, ranging from black bloc protesters to Green Party canvassers. That comes with challenges, but it’s all about building something broad and vibrant, more of a network-community than a ‘new coalition’. And what binds us together is an understanding of the need for system change – and an appreciation that to achieve it, we also need to voice a positive vision of the alternative. The byline we chose, ‘Democracy, Equality, Survival’ sums up the elements we want to see brought together: the system’s become so rabidly corrupt, so exploitative, so pathological, that those things can’t be won in isolation anymore. We achieve them together, or not at all.

Neil: Perhaps, in a wider sense, the concept represents a throwback to the looser, more bottom-up ways of organising represented by late 1960s movements like the American SDS, the 22 March Movement in Paris, the German SDS, and People’s Democracy in the North of Ireland. Another way of talking about it is to say that it is not quite like anything that currently exists – not a ‘united front’, not a single-issue campaign, not a party, certainly not a sect. Not least, it is a reaction to the plainly dysfunctional forms of ‘democratic centralism’ that characterise so much of the far left.

Speaking personally, I think we need mass revolutionary organisation in Britain. I cannot see any way out of the crisis – a compound crisis with ecological, economic, imperial/military, social, and political/democratic dimensions – which does not involve ending the rule of capital and establishing mass participatory democracy and rational control over the world’s resources in line with human need and planetary sustainability. So we need to build mass revolutionary organisation – mass organisation that aims explicitly for total system change to achieve social justice and climate justice. I see This Changes Everything as a stepping-stone towards that.

Dan: How do you see the relationship between This Changes Everything and the existing climate and environmental campaigns and organisations, from big NGOs to local anti-fracking campaigns?

Marienna: The climate movement has become very polarised in recent years, and particularly since the disaster of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. Since the beginning I’ve thought of This Changes Everything as a response to a ‘red-green disconnect’ that’s emerged, mostly as a product of the dismal strategy adopted by more conservative elements of the climate movement. I see it as a priority for This Changes Everything to call some of the big green groups out on their silence because to the extent they have influence, they’re driving us down a dead end, because this system has got to go. Plus, beating the drum of ‘individual responsibility’ – blaming all our little actions and inactions equally instead of popularising the systemic critique and putting blame where it belongs is no way to build a movement. Not being clear about the problem makes it impossible to be clear about the solution. It breeds depression, political paralysis and resistance to change.

That said, the radical wing of the climate movement is a rising tide. From highly politicised indigenous movements on the front lines in the Global South, to the fantastic work being done by grassroots, anti-fracking and fuel poverty campaigns on the front lines here in the UK. A lot of great work is being done by people who understand that climate justice and social justice are now co-dependent, symbiotic. It’s not an alliance of distinct struggles to bulk up numbers: it’s one crisis, one movement, one vision. There is no radical Left manifesto that doesn’t have a solution to the climate crisis at its heart; and you cannot expect the environment to be treated with respect in a society where people are treated like trash.

Neil: There are three great forces in the modern world: globalised corporate capital; the militarised states; and the mass of working people. The first two form a unified bloc and are highly centralised. In fact, they are more centralised than ever before in human history. There is a vast gap between where most people live out their lives and the great concentrations of economic and political power like that represented by, say, the half dozen oil companies that dominate the global industry, or the ‘troika’ of EU, ECB, and IMF, or tax-havens and mega-casinos like the City of London.

We cannot fight the system effectively issue by issue, campaign by campaign, action by action. The system, and therefore the crisis, is an integrated whole. Power over the system is highly concentrated. We have to build united mass movements to confront that power if we are to have any chance of winning major victories.

Dan: I notice that the Young Greens are listed as supporters, and obviously they have received a big boost recently. What’s your assessment of the Greens as a political force?

Neil: The Greens have become the main electoral expression of what can be defined broadly as ‘anti-capitalist’ opinion in England. It is very good that people want to join and vote for an explicitly anti-neoliberal, anti-war, anti-climate change party. But it is not the solution to our problems. The fate of the Syriza Government in Greece – which has, in effect, capitulated to EU diktat within a month of getting elected – is a warning to us all. Breaking the power of the global corporations and the militarised states is going to involve a massive, protracted, complex historical struggle.

Marienna: In the long-term, the Green Party will be as good as its membership is active and part of the wider movement – because that’s how real change happens, and this is about so much more than getting the right people in government. That said, I think this explosion of support we’ve seen for the Green Party in Britain is really exciting. It reflects a lot of things, of course, not least war-weariness, concern for the environment and the impact of and resistance to austerity cuts – the Greens being the only major party in this country willing to take a stand on anything that matters anymore.

But it’s also about how the complete degradation of the Labour Party into an unrecognisable, neoliberal husk of its former self has opened a gaping hole in our political culture as far as parliamentary politics goes. People have known for a long time that the system is corrupt. They were content to vote for their ‘lesser evil’ because they couldn’t see any alternative. That’s what really excites me about the Greens: they represent a nationally visible, tangible alternative people are willing to go out and vote for. Join up to, even. Our job is to help people understand that the alternative is possible, but voting for it’s not enough: we’ll have to protest, occupy, strike and disobey to wrestle our economy back from the rich.

Dan: What about the existing far left? We all have links to that background, which is in a bit of a mess right now. What, if anything, can these organisations and traditions contribute?

Marienna: Neil said to me recently that after 40 years as an active revolutionary he’d finally come to the conclusion that “there is no formula for social change.” It’s true. Social change is as much an art as it is a science. We’re all learning as we go, but a huge part of that art is being able to treat people the way we think a better world might treat them: with respect. Without that we can’t have healthy political alliances or personal relationships. Nor can we grow, unless we create a culture, a community that people want to be part of.

Neil: I do speak very much as what I call a ‘refugee’ from the Old Left, which I was part of for 40 years. Organisationally the Old Left cannot really contribute anything. I am now convinced that you cannot graft new growth onto dead wood. The young activists think the Old Left sects and splinters are a joke. They are right. Individually we have to make an organisational break and set about building completely new organisations from the bottom up – organisations that are broad, inclusive, participatory, democratic, and dominated by young people. Small groups of non-sectarian revolutionaries should dissolve themselves into mass organisations of the kind I have been describing. Anything else simply prolongs the agony of slow and inevitable organisational death. There is no historical example of a small group setting itself up, proclaiming a ‘correct line’, and slowly becoming a mass party through something called ‘the primitive accumulation of cadre’. The way revolutionary parties emerge is through the crystallisation of revolutionary ideas and cadre inside mass organisations in the context of mass struggle.

Marienna: I think that those organisations and traditions can contribute to the extent that they can accept the need to create a culture people want to be part of, and listen to young people. When you can’t accept it, then you get the territorialism, the sectarianism, the antagonistic identity politics, the ‘I’m a better radical than you’. I think most people understand this is our greatest internal obstacle – but fewer seem to grasp that this calls for a deep cultural shift. One example: I think a lot of groups are losing the argument with radical young people about political organisation and formal membership. This cultural shift against formal organisation happened for a reason, there is a debate to be had and a new conclusion to be reached that reconciles the best of our tradition with the possibility of the present.

Basically, we need to start taking each other seriously if we want the world to take us seriously as a united force. I really hope that’s something that the existing far left can manage because there’s so much cumulative collective wisdom there and we can’t get it all from books! It’s also a culture I’d like to see This Changes Everything help cultivate – and people are telling me that what we’ve managed so far is a big part of why they’re making 28 March their first big political event.

Dan: Neil, you’ve spoken before about the importance of learning from history. Which historical experiences do you both think we should be focusing on today?

Neil: Well, there are so many, but here are two ideas: First, the Bolshevik experience has been the subject of the most grotesque caricature in the canon of post-war Trotskyism. Lenin was a democrat, and whenever possible – in 1905 and 1917 – he was in favour of mass participatory democracy in the party. Historical necessity has been turned into a theoretical dogma and used to justify an abusive and dysfunctional form of top-down internal party organisation. Indeed, modern forms of ‘democratic centralism’ have often been far worse than anything the Bolsheviks did.

Second, the Paris Commune. They did not have soviets or workers councils; they had a democracy based on geographical districts. Now, I strongly suspect, given the fragmentation of workplaces, communities, working lives, and so on, the growth of casualisation and high labour-turnover, and the relative weakening of the unions, that geographically-based mass democratic organs are more likely in a future revolution than industrially-based councils. We do not have mass strikes spilling onto the streets and becoming mass demonstrations or pickets. We have mass demonstrations which sometimes trigger what might be called ‘turnout’ strikes, like in Egypt during the Arab Spring revolution. The street, not the workplace, leads. So the Paris Commune may turn out to be a better guide to what a future revolutionary movement might look like than 1917 Petrograd.

Marienna: I think history is the most important lens to look through if you want to see clearly the how and why of the system we live in and how people behave within it. That said we are where we are, not where we were. Reform, revolution, social transformation – these are vastly complex processes we’re talking about, contingent on a picture we can never see completely. So I’m cautious about fetishising singular historical moments at the expense of learning from our global present and using our imaginations about the future. We need to talk more honestly about our shared history, be inspired by it and keep the best of it close. But we also need a new generation to take the lead by taking action and developing its own ideas about how we can change our world. And that’s another point for This Changes Everything’s to do list after 28 March!

Originally posted by RS21 on 24th March 2015

Photograph by Steve Eason, taken at the Time to Act Climate March, 7th March 2015

Facing Up to the Climate Crisis Part II: The Great Green Wash

Nature may ‘not discriminate’, but capitalism does. It will be the social classes – and countries – with the least responsibility for climate change will be hit first, and hardest. In 2004 the British government’s Office of Science and Technology produced its report, Future Flooding, which predicted up to 3.6 million Britons at risk of severe flooding by 2080 thanks to rising sea levels and rainfall. ‘Socially disadvantaged people will be most adversely affected’ it admits, because ‘the poor are less able to take out insurance against floods or to pay for the damage.’

15292219060_7bee7bec9a_kThis logic applies far more drastically to the global South. Even a 2°C rise in temperatures will create a global refugee crisis and hit agriculture internationally – a food system centralised, standardised and rendered utterly inadequate by the profit motive. Our capacity to adapt is reduced every day the free market has the run of food production. This has already undermined biodiversity to the point where three quarters of all cultivated plants are now extinct and their inferior, genetically modified substitutes are locked up in highly profitable intellectual property rights and free trade deals. Food prices will skyrocket and people will starve.

There has been a tendency in this debate to lay climate change at the feet of humanity as a whole and ‘progress’ as a concept. ‘Anthropological climate change’, they call it. But most of human history has been shaped by a world of scarcity, not the hyper-consumerism and over-production that we see around us in rich industrial nations. And let’s not forget, for 3 billion people on this planet, scarcity and deprivation still define the world. The climate change narrative of the global North is not the only story; the under-development of the South and exploitation of the poor in every country are as much a part of the system as wasteful consumerism.

Capitalism is different from what came before. No previous society has accumulated and concentrated wealth on a comparable scale. The ecological crisis is a symptom, the most deadly symptom, of a social crisis in human beings’ relationship to our environment. It makes more sense to talk of capitalist, rather than anthropogenic climate change.

In contrast, the culture of general responsibility that’s been cultivated by environmentalists like Hans Jonas has undermined the green movement in some very significant ways. In zeroing in on ‘consumer culture’ it fails to strike a chord with many. Millions of us living in this wealthy, competitive, consumerist society are working hard and still have to choose between eating and heating our homes. In that context, ‘consume less!’ is not a rousing carrion call. Particularly not when the carnival of consumption at the top of society has just rolled right over its own global financial crisis and wastes resources at an industrial rate. It is an argument utterly insensitive to the realities of working class life. At its worst, it scapegoats the poor while protecting the sensibilities of wealthy benefactors like Coca-Cola and Unilever.

Whenever it is articulated as a matter of personal moderation or asceticism, the campaign against climate change draws a curtain over the very worst of the capitalist system. It obscures the starring role corruption, inequality and exploitation. It creates confusion, helplessness and guilt. The political culture of neoliberalism has a gift for that. You can see it in the shame people are made to feel when driven to food bank in their thousands, in a rich free market where anyone can succeed if they deserve to. The neoliberal art is the individualisation of social problems. And well it might be, because it has to answer for an 80% increase in global emissions since 1970.

This is not about whether small actions by individuals – recycling the rubbish, cycling to work – have value, they do. But the value is symbolic. In an act like that we can advocate transition, but we can’t achieve it. The systemic wastage of our entire economic system, from production and construction to energy and consumption, play the overwhelming and decisive role in destroying the planet. To be clear: system change will require everyone to accommodate changes in the way we live, travel and consume. But it’s not an annual Ryanair flight to Costa Rica that’s blowing holes in the ozone layer. The really inconvenient truth is that individual acts count for nothing unless the system changes too. And pretending otherwise has crippled the campaign to stop climate change.

As Howard Zinn said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” No matter how small you make your carbon footprint, this train is still speeding over a cliff. We have to start talking about the system, or there is no hope for change. Already what use was ever made of renewable energy has been almost eradicated by standardising production for bigger profits. Yet that exact capacity of human beings to make conscious changes to the way we reproduce our existence is what makes change possible.

15292246928_3e532a1429_kOn the other hand, obfuscating the power of wealth and class not only divides the movement, it naturalises climate change. It is not natural law that productivity or population growth threatens the environment. Natural fertilisers that make farm land more productive without damaging the ecosystem were a historic discovery of the 15th century. Whether every ounce of profit is squeezed out of an innovation or it’s used to more efficiently meet the real needs of the population and minimise deforestation – that’s a choice we make collectively, as a society. The insanity lies in thinking that activity which harms our environment or our species can be classified as ‘growth’ of any kind.

Reactionary arguments from the likes of Jeffrey Sachs about population exceeding the ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth are a direct result of this refusal to look capitalism in the eye. Non-coercive population reduction strategies such as improving women’s living standards, education and access to contraception have proved successful and should be valued on many counts. But demographic change is slow, and the need to curb our carbon emissions is immediate.

Given that context, challenging the right to life for millions should not come before challenging capitalism. This is the tone of discussion in Washington memos that describe the US as a ‘fortress’ amongst the anarchy of a world consumed by flood, fire and war that re-balances the earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ through mass-extinction. Yes we live on a finite planet and no, it can’t support an infinite amount of life. But that capacity is determined first now by how many life, but how we live. At present we live in a society that produces far more than we need it to and still manages to deprive most of us of the basics.

‘Productivism’ – production for its own sake, for profit – prevails in this world because capitalism is a system based on accumulation. In such a system, innovation in productivity will only ever mean more production, market expansion and the manufacture of consumer demand to meet it. This is an inevitable consequence of the private ownership of the means of production. As the renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter observed: “A stationary capitalism is a contradiction in terms.” We cannot obtain meaningful environmental regulation within capitalism for the same reason we can’t achieve meaningful financial regulation. As Marx wrote in his Critique of Political Economy, “capital cannot abide a limit.” It will always seek to circumvent or transcend it in pursuit of greater profits.

Steady state theorists who argue for an end to population and economic growth, have been miles ahead of the Left in identifying the immediate significance of the planet’s natural limits. But the tradition has a frightening right-wing current. It has done since it began with Thomas Malthus in the 1700s. Thanks to this political lineage, too often those who focus on population and consumption ignore poverty and the ‘consumerist’ struggles for better pay and conditions that it breeds. There are honourable exceptions, like George Monbiot, Peter Victor and Caroline Lucas, who incorporate a respect for ecological limits within a relevant political perspective and broader concern with social justice. Still, not only would any movement that relied on the panacea of no-growth have little relevance for the global South, which demands its right to development; it excludes millions in the North blighted by poverty, unemployment and exclusion. We could build a growth-less system with a static population, at peace with the earth but characterised by all the inequality and oppression of today; but that’s not sufficient to inspire the mass-participation required to get us there.

At the end of the day the steady state is not a complete social project, or even a campaign – just a (vital and urgent) quantitative constraint. Capping growth is not enough; we need all sections of society drawn into a complete, collective re-definition of what we mean by ‘economic progress’. That means extending a critique of capitalism to its very heart: its law of value which makes money the aim and the measure of all life on earth.

I would put the case, as Naomi Klein, Daniel Tanuro and others have done, that climate change is the best illustration of where the capitalist system is heading and the most powerful case against it. Any kind of reconciliation with the climate would require the abandonment of $20 trillion existing fossil fuel infrastructure and 80% known fossil fuel reserves (all owned by corporations), de-centralisation, reduced production and working hours and a massive equalisation of wealth – all entAllirely opposed to the interests of the capitalist system. Only a society which puts the economy under democratic control and recognises equality as a pre-condition for such democracy, can move beyond the paradigm of commodity production and even identify – let alone protect – that which is priceless.

15478513492_6d2ac99a4f_kYou can read Part I here

Originally published by the Huffington Post

All photography my own

Facing Up to the Climate Crisis Part I: Capitalism vs. the World

The impossible is happening. The People’s Climate March was a global day of action of historic proportions. Over 30,000 people took to the streets in London. New York City hosted the biggest march climate march ever, with religious and labour leaders coming together with scientists, environmentalists and 400,000 Americans. People protested in 166 countries demanding system change. Even the Rockerfellers are divesting (sort of). In Paris just over a year from now, the UN will be holding its Climate Change Conference, widely considered by experts to be our last chance to reach a radical and binding agreement on carbon emissions before planetary catastrophe becomes unavoidable. So if there was ever a movement who’s moment had come, it’s this one and it’s now.

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Yet much like the system it challenges, this is a movement filled with contradictions. Is it a movement against capitalism, or a movement within it? We live in a world where Coca-cola, a corporation which hires thugs to murder trade unionists in Latin America and systematically steals drinking water from India’s poor, can be considered a legitimate partner to ‘save the polar bears’ by WWF; where Unilever, one of the world’s most powerful corporations and leading food monopoly with an atrocious labour and environmental record, ends up sponsoring the People’s Climate March. Much depends on where we draw our lines.

The American Dream of pointless over-production, which offers thirty kinds of smartphone all designed to break down but can’t allocate the resources to keep our local libraries and hospitals open – that dream has been globalised, and they call it ‘economic growth’. Co2 emissions, driven by deforestation (at a rate of around 36 football fields per minute) and the burning of fossil fuels, have reached historic and deadly levels. By even the conservative estimates of the IPCC, this will flood major cities, destroy whole societies, create a global refugee and food production crisis – it will change the world forever, unless we start reducing emissions within the next year and leave 80% of known (and owned) fossil fuel reserves in the ground. But despite all the campaigns and the summits, to recover from the financial crash within the confines of capitalism, global emissions were allowed to shoot up in 2010 at a faster rate than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.

All solutions are viewed through the lens of, and ul15478612912_fb82c841d5_ktimately nullified by, the demands of commercial viability. We see this battle between cost efficiency and actual efficiency being played everywhere in the market’s warped attempts to tackle global warming by promoting the worst and most inadequate alternatives – from ecologically destructive, inefficient and expensive biofuels undermining food security in the South, to the dangers of nuclear power in a highly militarised capitalism which cuts corners whenever it can afford to. The result, to quote Ban Ki-Moon who seems to grasp the consequence if not the cause, is that “we have our feet glued to the accelerator and are hurtling towards the abyss.”

It’s been the same with carbon trading, a climate-saving measure reduced to a money-making slot machine. Total emissions keep rising while hospitals and universities are obliged to buy extra credit, big business is making money trading and gambling on the carbon market while energy companies pass the costs onto consumers. The price on emissions, by IPCC estimates, is five times too small to discourage the Big Polluters. But perhaps worst of all, current rates are big enough to create an apparent conflict of interest between the climate and the majority of working people who struggle to pay their energy bills.

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The danger is real, immanent and almost too big to comprehend. For twenty years, the science has been ignored while campaigners work to wrestle concessions from a political system held hostage by big business – and with an annual profit of at least €1,325 billion per year (equivalent to the GDP of France), there’s no business bigger than the hydrocarbon business. Corporations have bought off scientists, journalists and politicians left right and centre. As leading climate scientist James Hansen put it to the US congress, “CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing… [they] should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”

But whether it is more ‘pragmatic’ to tackle capitalism explicitly or to ignore it, is a question of whether it’s possible for climate constraints to be respected following strategies determined by commercial potential. The answer, in short, is a resounding ‘no’. That is simply not possible in an economy dominated by corporate interests whose nature is to exploit catastrophe rather than prevent it. The UNDP estimates that genuinely ecological economic development of the South would require an $86 billion per year wealth transfer from North bypass reliance on fossil fuels – and capital flows are still moving in the opposite direction. That corporate monopolies of intellectual property rights have been allowed to obstruct this transition and save millions of lives is a supreme indictment of the free-market system. The Big Six agribusiness multinationals are already patenting ‘climate change crops’ at a rate of knots.

We saw when the poor were left to fend for themselves during Hurricane Katrina, how ill-equipped the market system is to protect even ‘the Western poor’. In fact New Orleans’ budget for sea wall maintenance was cut from 2003 to finance the War on Terror, during which they were receiving a sixth of the funds they requested. Separating the hurricane from its political context is impossible, and there is a lesson in that.

The 2009 Copenhagen Summit was a final straw for many. The world watched as the emphasis slid from stopping global warming to funding ‘adaptation’ – grants and loans extended mostly by the countries responsible for past and present global warming, to those most endangered by it. Funding is determined not by need, of course, but by their openness to ‘clean’ investments from Northern multinationals. Even though world’s oldest industrial powers are overwhelmingly responsible for historical and current climate change, Western leaders have the gall to offer IMF loans parcelled in exploitative conditionality agreements to help poorer countries pursue ‘sustainable development’. The delegate from Tuvalu famously equated the funds with Judas’ thirty pieces of silver. More than that, it’s the mass crime against humanity that will define our times and it will cost millions of lives. It’s time to make a change.

15291995739_5d2b65981b_kClick here to read Part II

Thanks go to the following authors, who’ve done excellent work on this subject on which this series of articles draws heavily: Naomi Klein, Daniel Tanuro, George Monbiot, Vandana Shiva & John Bellamy-Foster.

Originally published by the Huffington Post

All photography my own