Perspectives from the frontline
Our governments say things they don’t believe in, powerful businesses say things they want us to believe, and we say... What do we say?
It’s those three magic words that really matter, innit… Just do it!
…And those who live them: constantly conscious, extremely passionate and courageous activists who put themselves on the frontline in the fight for climate justice.
Four such activists: Jess Worth, our co-editor, Chris Kitchen, civil disobedience advocate and co-author of Space for Movement?, Merrick, involved in the movement since its beginning, and Danny Chivers, activist writer and performer, share their perspectives.
iperspace by jerik0ne on Creative Commons license.
Where have we gone wrong? Why are we failing to act on a scale big enough to fight climate change?
Jess: The challenge with climate change is that it is driven by the way our entire global economy is set up to operate. We have been proceeding on the assumption that we can use natural resources endlessly, consume as much as we like, and power everything using limitless fossil fuels. The problem is, this way of life is fuelling climate change. So we need to re-orientate our entire society and economy to shift it onto a sustainable pathway. This transition won’t happen easily or overnight, and there are hugely powerful corporations and financiers who will lose out big time from the shift and are using all their power to make sure it doesn’t happen. Added to that are psychological issues. People believe that this is the way things have to be, and any major changes will affect their quality of life, so they are reluctant to make the shifts.
Danny: We’ve known about human-made climate change for at least 50 years, and that it’s serious since the 1980s. Things that stand in the way are the same as with other big problems – governments, compromised by corporate lobbying, are not able to deal with them, politicians are not thinking in long-term, they focus on the immediate “we need jobs now”, plus messy economies, business interests... It’s not about people not knowing or not caring – polls show that far more people do want action on climate change than don’t. So the public hasn’t lost interest, it’s the mainstream media that got bored of it.
Chris: To understand why we are failing to act, it’s important to look at the root causes of climate change and how those who have been campaigning on it have directed their efforts. If we look at climate change as a problem simply of emissions and parts per million, we ignore the social relations that are behind the problem. We live in a world where the value of capital rules. Individual nation states continue to compete to outgrow each other, while the true social and environmental costs of such growth remain external to the invisible, all-powerful hand of the market. Markets and growth are tools, but are treated as ideals.
This way of thinking is deeply embedded in our political systems (including those that claim to be democratic), which do not seem capable of dealing with long-term or global issue. Unfortunately, much (but certainly not all) of the traditional green movement has had a tendency to treat climate change as separate from the political systems which created the problem. This is exacerbated by mainstream environmental NGOs, which are seen to represent the “civil society” in this area, but are highly institutionalised and focused on policy lobbying (and often compete against each other in order to secure their brand and funding).
Merrick: A friend of mine spent some time in Japan. One evening at a restaurant they were served dolphin. He explained that the dolphin is an intelligent animal which deserves our empathy and that it doesn’t reproduce quickly so cannot be sustainably harvested. His hosts entirely agreed with him but said: “The dolphin is too delicious not to eat.” We have been alienated by mass culture. We spent two million years living in small groups where we were acknowledged, and we’ve spent two hundred years living in places where most people pretend we don’t exist, and most things we do would readily be done by someone else if we disappeared. This creates a spiritual void in us, a hunger for connection, meaning, and a life that is on a human scale.
In steps consumerism, explaining that the void will be filled if only we buy more stuff. We buy the stuff and are even emptier after we find it doesn’t work. So we need bigger, shinier stuff. The best psychological analysis on Earth works for marketing and advertising, figuring our deepest desires then attaching useless clack to it. And although everyone thinks that they’re personally immune to advertising and only stupid people fall for it, we are all susceptible. We base our worth and value on stuff and body image. We have been duped into over-consuming. Even as we know it, we continue. The dolphin is too delicious not to eat.
Even your most ardent climate campaigner squanders fossil fuels on luxuries. Given the choice between stuff we like today – stuff we may well base our identity on owning/doing – versus saving us from an unimaginable fate tomorrow at the cost of all this stuff, it’s no surprise we can’t make headway. We can talk about a regeneration of community, less commuting, etc, as benefits of the low carbon society, but there are still sacrifices that everyone knows need to be made. Nobody can tell me an allotment of turnips is sexier than a fast car. Frankly, sometimes I’m amazed we’re as altruistic as we are.
Either way by Lomo-Cam on Creative Commons license.
What is the way forward?
Merrick: First up, those aforementioned benefits need to be pushed. We have to make people stop using “economic growth” as some kind of god to be served: it has to be seen as a bad thing. So instead of talking green jobs, let’s talk more leisure time. Most people hate their jobs – if you gave them the same wage without the need to turn up to work, how many would do a 35 hour week? Everyone values the security of a sympathetic community, so really, the worship of money has its Achilles heel.
Becoming a low-carbon world is not a return to 16th century pastoralism, but it does mean spending more time in your community and it requires you to act now for the benefit of it. People do already get that – they might whine about taxes but the NHS [National Health Service] is our most valued institution, and it’s straightforward mutual aid. So we have to call on that sense of responsibility – and the self-satisfaction it offers – and make us realise we’re flogging the family silver today, time to rein in if we want to provide for our children.
Jess: We don’t have much choice – the scientific evidence is overwhelming. We have to act now, or face a dire future. Luckily, making the transition to a zero carbon world in which we can live happier, healthier lives is perfectly possible. We have all the technology we need to generate our energy renewably – provided we stop wasting so much of it, and we can do this while still leaving space for poorer countries to grow and develop and lift their people out of poverty. Sustainable food, agriculture, manufacturing and transport are all within our grasp. We just have to generate the political will to leave fossil fuels in the ground and invest in the alternatives. Clearly, the politicians aren’t going to do this of their own free will – we’ve seen this from the UN climate process, and numerous failed national initiatives. So it’s all going to come down to people power.
Chris: We need to think about collective solutions, not individual response. We need to view climate change as a political problem, not a technical one. We need to use technologies new and old, but we need to use them wisely and not adopt a technologist approach. Ultimately, we will need to build powerful transnational social movements to change our direction, as a species, and find ways of organising our societies that allow for social and ecological harmony.
This is a big goal, and it will take time. How to work towards this goal will vary in different places around the world, depending on their situation and cultural context. In my view, it will require people acting outside the normal institutional channels (e.g. using direct action and civil disobedience, among other tactics). However, we also need to begin to reduce emissions in a matter of years. This means we need to use existing institutions to some extent, but in a manner that will build (and certainly not hinder) the movement for much wider change. The challenges are immense, but we must face them with passion and belief in our ability to change the world.
Danny: Political change happens, when an active minority spreads well enough to bring the passive majority with them. In the global North, people feel disempowered. But if you look at all the amazing things happening around the world – grassroots movements and individual initiatives – it’s clear that the message is actually quite popular. The challenge is, how do we link them together? We’re closer than we think to sparking a serious change, so we have to build a sense of unity: we, the active people of the world, can find an agreement. Governments can’t, but we can! We have enough common ground despite our differences.
Climate change has to leave the “environment” sphere and be put on the general agenda. People shouldn’t rely on the UN processes – it didn’t work, and it’s not going to work this time. We won’t get a sensible deal in Cancún because the industrialized nations are not prepared to make concessions and deal with historical injustices, and unless they are, the Southern countries won’t be interested. The global North has to take responsibility and start acting, and the world will follow. The only way for that to happen is public pressure, so we need a serious movement building, a strong get-together. We still absolutely have the potential to turn things around.
Least likely to by Oslo in the Summertime on Creative Commons license.
In the world of ignorance and apathy, it’s quite easy to become disillusioned and simply give up. Where do you get your inspiration to continue fighting?
Chris: From my love of people and nature. From the countless individuals before me who have given so much for the benefit of others. From my friends and their children. From anger, rage, empathy and hope. WE CAN DO IT.
Jess: I’ve been involved in the climate justice movement for years, and I take my inspiration from the amazing people around me. I have worked with activists all over the world who are simultaneously acting to stop the “bad stuff” – whether it’s coal-fired power stations, the Canadian tar sands, Indonesian palm oil or carbon trading – and demonstrating the alternatives in their own lives and communities. There have been some amazing successes – such as, here in the UK, stopping a third runway at Heathrow airport. This is the struggle of our generation, and it will involve people all over the world fighting their own battles, while being linked together in a global movement. We have a long way to go, but all we can do is our best!
Danny: I’ve never felt more powerful in my life than when I’m with other activists, who are sometimes a bit naughty, but still amazing! Inspiration comes from the people you meet – courageous, prepared for challenges, supporting each other. Yeah, I believe in people. There’s a difference between sitting there all depressed and acting. Once you do, you realize that people are not actually that selfish, and certainly not stupid. Action is the best cure!
Merrick: Easy. There is historical precedent. All the great victories of the past seemed ludicrously impossible, until they happened. As if the white South Africans would just hand over power without bloodshed. As if the slaves would be freed out of the benevolence of white folks whose wealth and privilege is derived from slave labour. We have no idea how possible we are. Sometimes we are tilting at windmills, sometimes we’re half an inch away.
The government’s secret bunker between 1952-1992 was at green alert the whole time, except for one period. No Soviet saber-rattling, no Cuban missile crisis – it was the miners’ strike. They really thought that they might’ve misjudged it and there could be civil war. From the outside, it looked a fait accompli before it began. Don’t trust the certainty of the powerful and their media. Ask Nicolae Ceausescu about that one.
And even if we fail, what else were you going to do with your life? Pick an easy option of something useless and sit there wondering what might have been? If you go for the right stuff, the odds are against you but it’s the only chance of success and you’ll have the best company along the way. The only way we can guarantee failure is not to try.