2016: Time to take the leap

Naomi Klein has declared war on what divides us and in doing so has become a global voice for climate justice. Her latest bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, combines years of hard research with her uniquely evocative voice to explain why climate change presents the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to re-make our world.

In recent years, Naomi and her team have worked not only on breaking down the ideological barriers between climate and social justice, but between academia, art and activism. In autumn last year they released a documentary to accompany the book, directed by Avi Lewis. From the heart of the fossil fuel machine to the heart of indigenous communities fighting back against it, this film crystallizes the book’s call to arms, presenting a haunting and luminous portrayal of everything we have that’s worth fighting for.

Meanwhile, the book’s fire and clarity has had a meteoric impact on the environmental movement, giving many climate campaigners the courage to get political and putting the environment centre-stage for a new generation of social justice activists. On 28 March last year, at a 1,000-strong gathering in London titled after the book and streamed worldwide, Klein told us: ‘Books don’t change the world. Social movements change the world.’

theleap2So naturally, they have thrown their backs into building one. After attending the launch of The Leap Manifesto at the COP21 summit in Paris, I interviewed Naomi and her team about all the aspects of the project, and how they leaped from writing a book to shaking the foundations of the Canadian establishment.

Not many books or films need an ‘engagement team’. Tell me about yours. Was it always part of the picture or did it evolve spontaneously?

Katie McKenna, Engagement Lead for the This Changes Everything project, and a co-producer of the documentary:

When Avi directed The Take in 2004 and Naomi wrote The Shock Doctrine in 2007, we were amazed at how quickly both projects turned into organizing tools – The Take was screened in worker-occupied factories around the world, and the ideas in The Shock Doctrine helped frame and focus a global wave of organizing against governments using crises to push forward inequitable and undemocratic policies.

It was always meant as a project in three parts: a book, a film and an outreach strategy. This Changes Everything makes the case that the climate crisis is the most urgent opportunity we’ve ever had to fix our broken economic system, and calls for economic, climate and social justice movements to fight together. So it was a natural fit for some kind of strategic outreach, and when Avi’s film got the go-ahead in 2011, we started planning.

Can you tell me about some of the work you’ve done with activists at the grassroots level?

Alex Kelly, Australian filmmaker and activist, Impact & Distribution Producer for This Changes Everything:

On 18 September, the day before the historic People’s Climate March in New York City and a few days after the NYC launch of This Changes Everything we convened a two hour strategy meeting with 35 climate and environmental justice activists and organizers from around the world at Cornell University.

The meeting helped shape our thinking about the work going forward and importantly, affirmed the value of the convening power that the project has. It was clear from the engagement at the event and the feedback afterward that there is a need for spaces to be created for organizers to meet each other, build relationships and to find common cause across their struggles.

Since the launch of the book in September 2014 we have hosted another three major workshop convenings in the USA, one in Canada and Australia, as well as a number of smaller events across the world.

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1,000 strong This Changes Everything assembly in London (March 2015) hosted by TCE UK

The Leap Manifesto is described as ‘an open source idea’. What does that mean?

Bianca Mugyenyi, activist and co-author of Stop Signs: cars and capitalism on the road to social, economic and ecological decay. She oversees Canadian outreach for The Leap Manifesto:

We hope people all over the world will take this idea … and adapt it for their own countries, regions, and struggles

We hope people all over the world will take this idea – of working across movements to develop a shared vision of a justice-based transition to renewables – and adapt it for their own countries, regions, and struggles.

Naomi Klein: We also think that by picking up the leap name and the leap year metaphor, it’s a great way for people to organize locally and very specifically while feeling part of something global and transformational. And because the climate crisis is as global as it gets, and because we all know that it requires this scope of action, that capacity to think and act both locally and globally simultaneously is really important.

‘Breaking down the silos’ that divide issues and groups within the movement is an important principle, but challenging in practice. Traditionally, that kind of holistic approach was the province of political parties, but this project has been careful to operate outside the party framework. So where is it heading? And what role do single-issue campaigns have to play in the movement that we need to build?

Avi Lewis, award-winning director of the documentary This Changes Everything and The Take:

We chose to release The Leap Manifesto during an historic national election campaign and made a concerted effort to influence the national debate in that political moment. We were responding to what we see as a huge inspiration gap between the narrow incremental options offered by the political class and the vastly more ambitious vision that people are already articulating.

As for the role of single-issue campaigns, many of the movement groups we partnered with – like No One Is Illegal and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Canada – might look ‘single-issue’, but what characterizes their ground breaking work is a strong analysis of structural/systemic causes, and a recognition of the need for transformative change. The coalition behind The Leap works on a huge spectrum of different issues, but we all have that common, connect-the-dots approach.

But just joining up single-issue campaigns is not exactly the dynamic that has been building in North America. Instead, we are seeing place-based struggles – whether against coal in the Powder River Basin, fracking in the US Northeast, Tar Sands in Alberta Canada, or its sprawling tentacles, the pipelines – winning individual battles while linking together with each other. And then those place-based victories have been building momentum towards larger policy victories.

At the launch of The Leap Manifesto in Paris Naomi talked about the importance of ‘the yes’: a positive programme setting out what we’re for, not just fighting defensive battles with what we’re against. The Leap Manifesto articulates that. But until now, it’s been a lot easier to mobilize around the ‘no’. Why do you think that is, and why can’t we afford to let it put us off?

Avi Lewis: We’ve waited so long and done so little on actually curbing global emissions that we no longer have time left to choose: we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground while simultaneously shifting to a clean economy. In other words, the science is actively telling us that we have to fight the ‘no’ and the ‘yes’ at the same time.

Of course the ‘no’ is easier to mobilize around because people are fighting to defend their land, their water and their air. These are often life-and-death struggles. But thankfully, there is a natural symbiosis in which the momentum of the ‘no’ can be harnessed to build the reality of the ‘yes’. We’re already seeing it happen around the world: whether in the solidarity health clinics and farmers markets in Greece, or the solar projects in First Nations communities in the Tar Sands region, we’re seeing people fight with one hand while they build with the other.

Naomi Klein: But the alternatives are not at scale yet – they’re being built without the support and resources they deserve. So The Leap Manifesto is on one level an attempt to articulate the big policies necessary to take the ideas built in local struggles to the level where they would have genuine and dramatic effects on both lowering emissions and building social justice.

But one thing we are already seeing is the power of the example – community-level alternatives have an outsize impact. They give people proof that change is possible and there are better ways of doing things. They go viral, broadcasting a tangible story of transformation, laying the ground for deeper change.

We’re seeing people fight with one hand while they build with the other

And that storytelling element is also key to the leap. In putting forward a bigger, bolder vision of the world we want, we were very conscious not to just make a laundry list, but to tell it as a story. This has proven invaluable in how people absorb it, take it in, and organize with it.

I want to talk about how The Leap Manifesto was born – the initial meetings – because it’s really a very comprehensive and radical set of proposals, true to the book, but has managed to attract support well beyond the traditional left. Already it boasts over 30,000 signatures including some big cultural figures and a dazzling array of different organizations.

How to achieve that kind of breadth without diluting political content is the number one question for activists everywhere, so I’m curious about how such a broad coalition unfolded while leaving original vision intact. Did you invite people into that room who were already behind that vision? Or did you try to keep the content minimal to start with, get together the most representative team you could and then hash out the demands as you went?

Katie McKenna: The first draft of the manifesto came out of a two-day convening that we helped organize last spring, with 60 leaders from labour, green, Indigenous Rights, food justice, feminist, and migrant rights movements. We were nervous about bringing some of the people in that room together, but we embraced the idea that ‘if you’re not having fights, your coalition isn’t broad enough.’ We wanted to go broad – but keep it small enough that people could still feel like they were part of a group together, not passive participants.

The original idea for the manifesto document was to create a popular vision for a justice-based transition to clean energy that could ‘inspire the public, help shape election discourse, and fit on the back of a postcard.’ In the end, I think we hit two of three.

We hacked together a first draft of potential demands and workshopped it at the gathering. People had a lot of feedback and input. The initial format of a list of principles was rejected. We went back and forth about how much to emphasize ‘the science’ as a key opening frame, rather than justice or other forms of knowledge about climate. There was also a general feeling of wanting to focus more on the positive vision of what’s possible and how that can make people feel.

Naomi took all those notes and most of all the feeling and inspiration that we all drew from the gathering and, within a few days, drafted the first iteration of the longer document that exists today. It was a text that was more lyrical, more beautiful, but also much less ‘postcard’ length than where we started. Over the summer representatives from labour, Indigenous and migrant rights groups, the feminist movement, Quebec, and people participating through online organizing all gave input on language, length, and demands. Once we had a finished document, it went to translation – into 10 languages – and to artists whom we had commissioned to create images inspired by the text. From day one to the public launch was about 3.5 months of very intense work.

I was struck by the fact that indigenous rights are not only central, but the very first of the manifesto’s fourteen demands. Some environmental groups looking to build broad-based coalitions might be tempted or bullied into side-lining that. You’ve heard the argument, I’m sure: if you want build broad support you have to stick to the issues that affect everyone and not ‘moralize’ about the struggles of other people in other places. Obviously that argument doesn’t hold much sway with you. Why is it so important to have indigenous land rights centre stage?

Martin Lukacs, Guardian journalist and a member of the This Changes Everything team:

The dispossession of Indigenous peoples is the central and original injustice in our country, Canada. Rebalancing that relationship must be foundational to social movements. And ever more people are coming to understand Indigenous land struggles in Canada do in fact affect everyone. As Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation says in the film: ‘People are starting to realize this isn’t just “an Indian problem” – if you drink water or breath air this is about you.’

In Canada and around the world massive fossil fuel and mineral deposits are concentrated in the traditional territories of Indigenous communities. The push for extreme energy is not merely a new crisis – it’s an extension of a very old colonial pillage. No one is more impacted – and therefore up to the fight – than Indigenous peoples. So upholding and strengthening Indigenous and treaty rights is key to keeping carbon in the ground – and that of course benefits us all.

In Canada these communities are at the forefront of the ‘no’ to an extractive model of development, but also the ‘yes’ to alternative community-based regenerative economies. For instance, the community of Clyde River – at the frontline of resistance to Arctic oil exploration – is also starting a new renewable installation next year, working with Greenpeace. Because heating and energy are such huge costs in Northern communities, this project is a way to simultaneously advance climate and economic justice and Indigenous rights – and these integrated solutions is what the leap is all about.

Has there been any negative blowback because you made that choice?

Katie McKenna: Not at all. The Leap Manifesto was released on the heels of the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report. [It found that by the] 1990s, over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in government-funded, church-run schools that were designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples and sever their connection to the land. Canadians are starting to grapple with this country’s brutal history in public. The language in The Leap Manifesto didn’t seem radical or surprising in that context.

What about negative reactions to the manifesto’s 11th point, which demands full immigration status for all workers and a call to welcome migrants and refugees? The climate and refugee crises are connected, of course, but that’s one point that seems to be asking something of people, rather than offering something to them.

Bianca Mugyenyi: People are realizing that the refugee flows we’re seeing now are just a glimpse of what’s to come. Climate change and migration are intimately linked, and we’re going to see massive displacement of people caused by sea level rise and extreme weather in the decades to come, all around the world. So there’s a question facing all of us: are we all in this together?

We think most people, given the opportunity, believe that we are. You see it over and over in times of crisis, when people step up for others in their communities, but also for complete strangers. But we need our immigration, border and social support systems to catch up with this idea. The leap is about speaking to our better selves and, no: we did not have backlash to this demand.

Going back to the book, it is in itself something of a manifesto: drawing lessons from the climate justice movement and advancing many ‘yesses’. And the book’s very title sets up a clear dichotomy between capitalism and the climate. But then there’s The Leap Manifesto, which was launched not just as a different ‘brand’ but also using distinctly different language. One obvious example: it doesn’t mention capitalism.

Naomi has said several times that the book was written with a left-wing audience in mind, whereas The Leap is casting a broader net. Still, it will cause concern amongst many activists that the manifesto represents a political step back from the book; that it’s tinkering with instead of replacing the system that threatens us all. Can you give me a sense of the debates that went on around this question? Why did The Leap Manifesto make this shift away from an explicitly anti-capitalist language?

Naomi Klein: In truth we tried to stay away from jargon and labels of all kinds and we think that’s why it reads like something so many artists and writers in particular, wanted to put their names to. But it’s also true that the corporate press wasted no time in labelling the document anti-capitalist.

Avi Lewis: There was definitely a spectrum of positions among the various groups, from the explicitly anti-capitalist to the more social democratic. But I don’t remember any big debates on whether or not to use the ‘C word’ in the text. In fact, this is one of the unanticipated joys of building coalitions around the positive vision: we don’t all have to agree on the critique of the current system, nor on the ideal future system we’re working toward. We just need to agree on what needs to be done right now.

I think every single demand in the manifesto confronts a central pillar of current-day neoliberal capitalism – from so-called free trade to austerity to de-regulation, to the whole ideological and financial capture of our global political class. We have to knock down all those pillars in the process of building the world we want. I’m pretty sure everyone who signed the manifesto agrees with that. We managed to build a coalition calling for fundamental systemic change without getting bogged down in the same old arguments about revolution or reform. I personally think that was one of the great strengths of the process.

How did you hold the coalition together in the face of major differences? Did you lose any of the early partners?

Martin Lukacs: One. Unifor, the union that represents thousands of workers in the tar sands, was a major ally and organizing partner in the March for Jobs, Justice and Climate Action this past summer. The president, Jerry Dias, stood next to Indigenous and migrant justice activists, in the heart of Canada’s financial district, and that was an extraordinary moment.

We were really hoping to have Unifor be an initiating organizational signatory of manifesto, but in the end they decided they could not sign because of the call for no new fossil fuel infrastructure. But we’re still working with them and other big unions and we launched with a very strong union presence.

Leap Day 2016 is Monday 29 February. What are you all planning for this day?

Katie McKenna: Our friends at 350 Canada recently pointed out to us that this year Leap Day is 90 days after the beginning of the COP21 Paris climate talks, which is exactly the deadline Prime Minister Trudeau has set to host the first ministers conference to work out the national climate strategy for Canada. So it’d be nice to have that idea of a justice-based leap toward the renewable economy in the air as they’re meeting – because what we’ve brought to Paris is nowhere near where we need to be.

We’ve just launched leapyear2016.org and we’re hoping to see ripples of the manifesto in different spots around the world on the 29th. We already know that the nascent Australian Leap coalition is planning its first big drafting retreat at that time, and a Nunavut Leap and Maritimes manifesto are both in progress already. In the UK, they’re working on ‘The People’s Demands’. We’d love to see many more projects announced on the 29th, in whatever form.

Click here to sign The Leap Manifesto.

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Originally published by 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