Toward Mass Action in Copenhagen and the Belly of the Beast
Toward Mass Action in Copenhagen and the Belly of the Beast – Building an Anti-Capitalist Movement for Climate Justice
Climate change is on everyone’s mind. Whether you work for the Sierra Club or ExxonMobil, rallying behind the call to “fight climate change” is becoming the norm. With each dire report that comes out and every unseasonably severe storm that devastates some corner of the Earth, the reality that humans are destroying the life-support systems of this planet is becoming clear to more people.
Yet, even with so many warning signs that modern society is hurtling toward the abyss of climate catastrophe, mainstream climate activism remains dominated by watered-down notions of what is “politically feasible.” The demands of professional environmentalists are not driven by what we need to ensure that the Earth can survive, but by what sort of “request” can gain political traction; what tiny step can we get them to agree to? “No real change can happen without industry,” they say. “How can we get the corporations on board? How can we convince them that they can make just as much money off of us with wind and solar as they can with fossil fuels?”
The mechanisms for addressing climate change being pursued by governments and industry (such as carbon trading, or “greening” industries like coal and nuclear) are failing and/or are exacerbating the problem. Many “solutions” like agro-fuels are creating new social and environmental atrocities.
Governments, corporations, nonprofits and all forms of green initiatives are toting the feel-good line of “sustainable growth,” a dangerous oxymoron that justifies the status quo while giving lip service to the looming apocalypse of ecosystem collapse and agricultural meltdown.
Nowhere is this more clear than in international climate talks. The United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) negotiations around the Kyoto Protocol have been completely bought out by corporate interests and watered down to the point of uselessness. These talks no longer focus on the science behind climate change, what is at stake or what scale of response is appropriate. Rather, the focal point has become “market-based mechanisms” and getting the big corporations (and their friends in government) on board with the eventual plan. Countries that signed onto the Kyoto Protocol are not even meeting Kyoto’s meager goal of reducing emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012; overall, emissions have continued to rise.
Kyoto expires in 2012, and negotiations are already underway to determine what will come next. We can undoubtedly expect more of the same market-based crap from the next agreement, which is slated to kick off at the next major climate talks scheduled for Copenhagen, Denmark, on November 30, 2009.
Does this date ring a bell? The Copenhagen meetings, ironically, are set to commence exactly 10 years to the day after the historic mobilization that shut down the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle in 1999. Those of us who were there feel a tinge of nostalgia, along with a bittersweet reflection on the rise and fall of the global justice movement. Perhaps the overwhelming nature of the problems we face has as much to do with the near-dormancy of radical movements as political repression does.
However, momentum has been growing over the past few years, and this time, the focus is more on global climate change. Unfortunately, many of the folks who are active these days were not around for the teach-ins on globalization and neoliberalism’s roots in colonization, repression and slavery. They missed out on the mass mobilizations, direct action trainings, street scuffles, and cross-pollination of movements and communities that inspired so many offshoots of this broader movement for justice and sanity. The movement to stop climate change lacks teeth, a sense of history and alignment with revolutionary movements that have come before.
The current “green jobs” craze is one example of a solution that sounds good (who could argue with creating jobs and protecting the environment?), but on inspection, does little to challenge corporate dominance or a centralized economy driven by the whims of global trade. Is the Ford Motor Company really the best entity to build the new green world of the future, with a shift to manufacturing hybrids and other cars that get slightly better mileage? Critical questions to ask when looking at any proposed solution to climate change are: who is proposing this “solution?” Who will benefit? Who will bear the impacts and consequences?
A top-down, corporate model for “change” will never address systemic issues like over-consumption (most corporations require massive levels of consumption to exist) or the exploitation of workers and “natural resources.” It will never challenge the cornerstones of consumer capitalism that are destroying the climate-industrial-scale agriculture, centralized systems of energy production and distribution, sprawling development, etc. Unfortunately, the big greens are lining up behind such top-down climate initiatives, and they are drawing in thousands of concerned citizens and up-and-coming youth climate activists who are looking for outlets for action.
The Power Shift phenomenon is a good illustration-thousands of young people flocked to Washington, DC, last year for the biggest summit on climate change ever to happen in the US.
Keynote speakers included Nancy Pelosi and other politicians, and the conference culminated in a “lobby day” in which conference participants could “take action” by advocating for change within the proper channels. (Fortunately, there was an alternative-a few hundred people also shut down a branch of Citi.)
This year, Power Shift expects as many as 15,000 youth and students to attend, and they are considering inviting such inspiring figures as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to speak there.
Still, more disturbing than calling in celebrities to spearhead climate activism is the strategy of getting big institutions to lead the way.
Change that will actually benefit communities and ecosystems must be driven by the grassroots. Such locally-based efforts, however, are not directed by DC-based, large nongovernmental organizations. In an effort to show incremental victories and produce “deliverables,” mainstream climate activism focuses on winning small concessions from large corporations, or on number-crunching to make individual institutions, families and businesses, appear “carbon-neutral,” rather than looking at the root causes of climate change: industrialism, a culture based on consumption and a society religiously devoted to capitalism. Systemic change is not on the
Still, the recent upswing in people who are interested in taking action on climate change is proof that people do care and are increasingly more aware of the issues. People are getting hyped-up about buying carbon offsets and energy-efficient light bulbs, because these are the only solutions being offered to them. No one is telling them how to realistically make a dent in the massive amount of greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere everyday. We all have to get serious about localizing our lives, getting to know our communities and looking to the land around us to meet our needs for food, shelter, energy and medicine.
In this context, a clear, well-communicated anti-capitalist analysis is more relevant than ever. Both the climate crisis and the current economic turmoil are good illustrations that an economic model based on continuous growth is destroying our (and millions of other species’) ability to survive on Earth. Some of the US’s most mainstream newspapers and magazines are outright questioning unfettered capitalism. Where are we in this dialogue? The time is ripe for a radical intervention.
Vibrant social movements have sprung up throughout the global South. They are fighting not only the causes of global warming (fossil fuel extraction and development), but also its “false solutions:” carbon trading, agro-fuels, industrial tree plantations (some of which threaten to contaminate the world’s remaining rainforests with genes from genetically engineered trees), massive hydroelectric projects, nukes and other carbon offset projects. We in the global North have a lot to learn from groups like Via Campesina and the World Rainforest Movement, who are resisting the corporate takeover of communal lands with land occupations and mass actions against timber plantations. These and many other grassroots groups struggling for ecological justice, community control of resources, food security and indigenous sovereignty are joining forces under the banner of Climate Justice.
Indigenous groups have been mobilizing against a new UN program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). Launched in September, this World Bank-funded program would privatize indigenous forestlands and bring them under the control of the global carbon market in order to “better manage” them. At the failed climate meetings in Bali, indigenous groups pronounced that “REDD will steal our land…. States and carbon traders will take control over our forests.”
The REDD document itself admits that the program would “deprive communities of their legitimate land-development aspirations, that hard-fought gains in forest management practices might be wasted… and that it could erode culturally rooted not-for-profit conservation values.” The document does not distinguish between healthy, native forests and monoculture tree plantations. In theory, one could cut down a native rainforest, sell the timber, replant it with a Eucalyptus tree plantation and get carbon credits for “reforestation.” Around 60 million indigenous people depend upon the forest lands that REDD considers most threatened.
With much of the rationale and funding for these projects originating in the US, and many similarly destructive projects happening within our borders, an intensified movement is needed here in the belly of the beast.
One of the main tenets of Climate Justice is that change comes from the grassroots. Solutions to the climate crisis must come from communities on the frontlines who are fighting the fossil fuel industry and who are already feeling the impacts of industrial development and climate change. There are several environmental justice and indigenous-led groups in the US that are doing great work around climate issues. What is missing here is broader support for these groups and cross-issue movement building.
With the anti-capitalist movement’s tendency toward theorizing and critiquing, good old-fashioned people power seems to often get overlooked. If we are serious about making change, and serious about the fact that meaningful change happens when communities come together to solve their own problems, then we need to get off our asses, out of our cultural and ideological ghettos, and into the streets to talk with regular people about our visions for a better future.
Momentum is already building. The direction that this momentum is directed will have a lot to do with who shows up to make shit happen. Right now, there are a lot more professional environmentalists showing up to climate debates than
Now is the time to build bridges, to bring together communities and campaigns to listen to each other and make space for many opinions and perspectives. At the same time, we must establish a baseline of demands that does not include a continuation of corporate control of the planet, and does include a respect for the rights and dignity of all people and species. Such a constellation of ideas is coming together, under the umbrella of Climate Justice.
The UN meetings in Copenhagen will be huge. The Kyoto Protocol, bogged down in corporate interests and preoccupied with getting a belligerent US government on board, was a bust. What comes next is not up to the official delegates, but to all of us. With ecosystem collapse and the biggest mass extinction event since the dinosaurs upon us, we have everything at stake. It’s time to throw everything we have into building a movement for social, ecological and climate justice.
Grassroots groups around the world are already mobilizing around the Copenhagen meetings-not to get people to fly to Denmark to fill the streets outside the conference center (the Europeans will probably have that covered), but to build this movement globally locally.
In the US, a coalition of grassroots, environmental justice, indigenous and anti-capitalist groups are coming together to organize a Mobilization for Climate Justice here, where so many global problems are rooted. The particular form this mobilization will take will be determined in coming months, with input and participation from many different groups.
As this new movement takes shape, we will need to come together across lines of race, class, education, culture and geography; we will need to meet each other, listen to each other, and exercise our power together in the streets. Earth First!ers have much to bring to this struggle, with a focus on biocentrism and a skill set of direct action strategies and tactics. Wherever the US action hubs end up being for the Mobilization for Climate Justice, I hope y’all will be there.
When abigail is not organizing with Rising Tide, she enjoys getting to know the plants and mountains of Southern Appalachia.