One Day Without Us: a day to stand up for migrants’ post-Brexit precarity


The banner of One Day Without Us. © One Day Without Us

On 20 February, three different events will ask for Britain’s attention and action. It is the UN World Day of Social Justice, and Parliament will be debating Trump’s visit.

But also, importantly, Monday 20 February will see the UK-wide ‘One Day Without Us’, a National Day of Action to celebrate the contribution of migrants to the UK.

It is an invitation open to migrants from inside and outside the European Union, and everyone who supports them, to celebrate the contribution that migrants make, for 24 hours.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann talks to author and core organizer Matt Carr, to find out more.

Tell us about One Day Without Us. What's the core idea?

It all goes back to a Facebook call out and discussion in October 2016, after the Tory party conference. That was the worst single display of constant xenophobic and racist messages that I’ve ever seen at any political party conference in my lifetime. It was worse than Enoch Powell back in the 1970s, in that it it was being so widely legitimised.

Minister after minister was coming forth with this stream of astonishingly xenophobic and ultimately self-destructive policies to keep foreign doctors out, foreign students out, and so on. We’d also seen this incredible rise in street racism, with a new sense of entitlement after the referendum when we started seeing again supposedly older, supposedly transcended forms of racism.

And then having that being normalised at the Tory party conference, and Labour taking quite a soft approach to it, politicians across the board were really normalising hate crime and people wanted to do something about it.

'Throughout 2016 people felt repeatedly kicked and now they are recognizing a dangerous political drift'

My proposing the idea was influenced by what I’d seen with One Day Without Us in Italy, a similar mobilisation in the States in 2006 and on a smaller scale here in 2010. There was a huge response, much more than my posts normally get! It became clear very quickly people wanted to build something big. Although the core group remains just a few new volunteers, we’ve had a lot of support from other organisations, Migrants Organise, Migrant Rights Network, War on Want: seasoned campaigners.

Early on, the idea of a strike/boycott put a lot of people off. The paradox there for us is that if we hadn’t been talking in those terms early on it wouldn’t have attracted so much interest. At the same time it ultimately became an obstacle to a really broad mobilisation though and so we responded to that. The worst allegation was that it was irresponsible to call on migrant workers to strike.

Can you say something about why that was, the unique difficulties facing migrant workers standing up for their rights?

They often have no guaranteed rights to do so, no union protection and are on precarious zero hours contracts, so it can be very difficult for them to strike even with an immediate industrial objective, let alone participate in a political strike like this.

Another thing was that a strike focus would make it impossible to get the unions on board because some of the big unions, as soon as they hear the word ‘strike’, they’d back off. Many are keen to say they stand against racism but when you start talking about migrant workers’ rights you sense a certain tone of blue labourism; they don’t want to touch that issue. That’s why we were so pleased to receive UNISON’s support.

Related: Trade unions today: rebuild, renew, resist

Now, there are a range of ways to participate and mark the day: from very safe, secure actions everyone would feel comfortable doing to more radical actions. Of course some people say you’re too fluffy and other people say you’re too radical but it’s not ours to manage; the point is, migrants themselves are leading this across the country, in all the different ways they want.

What we’ve tried to do is create a platform that brings new confidence to people who’ve been really battered for many years now. And the question of solidarity for us was crucial: that British citizens are standing with them, engaging in their actions. And that principle is really taking off.

You mentioned the new precarity of EU nationals – what’s their place in One Day Without Us?

Everyone’s vision of the future now has been altered, not just by the street racism but by the referendum, the way politicians are quite clearly using EU nationals and migrants generally as bargaining chips and scapegoats.

We had an issue early on with a lot of EU nationals objecting to being seen as migrants at all. For us it’s not a negative word, we’re trying to reclaim it, renew the dignity in it. We’re talking about migrants in the broadest sense.

We’re not interested in good migrants or bad migrants or a hierarchy of migrants. We want a space where all migrants can find some way to express what matters to them on that day.

How have you organised to create that space?

We always try and put important proposals out to the widest possible group of participants. That’s worked very organically and been one of the most exciting things about it. It’s not coming from the usual channels, using the same old language, it doesn’t feel like a sort of Old Left initiative because it isn’t; that openness and political diversity does pose challenges in terms of organisation, but has turned this into something new.

Can you give us some idea of the range of activities being planned elsewhere and why?

There are actions in at least 70 places that we know of so far. We put out a list of suggested actions for the people who had never done anything political before, but most of what’s going on now was developed by them.

At the more radical end we have Movement for Justice planning to march and shut down parts of central London. At the softer end, there’s social media activity, a unifying 1pm photo activity – people linking arms together for a photo and posting it on social media – rallies and marches, poetry slams, orchestras, a possible salsa flash mob, some really spectacular things. You can find them all on the event’s website.

There’s some groups doing human libraries, is an old conflict resolution technique where you consult a person, an ‘expert by experience’ as you’d consult a book in the library, a dialogue building exercise. There’s the graffiti wall in Norwich that they’re going to cover in solidarity graffiti before carrying it through the streets of Norwich; in Birmingham they’re hiring a bus to drive round every place where they can find migrant workers, hospitals, factories, with music and a moving celebration. We are just hearing about these things, and there are more springing up every day.

You’ve got one group, marginalised, very undervalued and made quite invisible by wider society, joined by activist groups with lots of campaign experience and because of that, higher collective confidence.

What have been some of the major challenges to organising something like this between migrants and allies? How do you manage the power dynamics between them, making sure migrants are more than tokens, but are genuinely leading the actions?

Migrant-led organisations being invited in to assume a central role was key. We were just a few volunteers, and when people ask ‘well, who are you?’ and your answer is ‘no one in particular,’ that can be an issue.

'Elite-driven globalization gives migrants and most other working people one big thing in common: we’re all expected to live such precarious lives'

We overcame it, built links and grew strong – I think it’s a sign of the times. It’s widely and deeply felt by people that we are living in what the Chinese used to call ‘interesting times’.

Throughout 2016 people felt repeatedly kicked and now they are recognizing a dangerous political drift, that’s really propelled us up and onwards.

You mentioned on the other hand a growing sense of ‘entitlement’ to bigotry since the Brexit vote, mirrored by politicians and much of the press and legitimising hate crime in the streets. What do you think is going on there at the deepest level?

For three decades now we’ve seen a relentless denigration of migrants of all kinds in this country’s media. It’s focused on different groups over that time but with very similar language, with perhaps three quarters of the press engaging in this almost daily.

And politicians respond with the need to take people’s concerns seriously without every really being honest about what those concerns are. I mean, they all want to listen to concerns about immigration but they won’t listen to concerns about anything else!

So there’s that atmosphere created by the establishment and also the economic factors: we live in a world of elite-driven globalisation leaving many people behind. (Although what’s often left out of that story is how much of it happens along racialised lines. And that’s important because while yes, much of the so-called ‘white working class’ is being left behind, it’s all relative and white supremacy is also a growing factor.)

What is important is that this gives migrants and most other working people one big thing in common: we’re all expected to live such precarious lives. Nobody can guarantee security in anything anymore, and we’ve totally lost any concept of ‘the common good’. And most people have lost sight of any vision of a better community, be it local, national or transnational.

That needs to be rediscovered and put into practice in some way otherwise we’re in serious trouble.

Racial power is once again becoming of enormous social importance. Is there a relationship between that and the precarity of the globalized system following the financial crash.

The cost of living crisis is ongoing and all signs indicate that actually all communities, Leave and Remain voters, white and black citizens and migrants, all share a sense that we are losing democratic control along with rights to housing, services and so on.

Do you think that’s also partly why so many people are falling back on older, gendered or racial forms of power and privilege, in the search for some security? And would you agree then that we can’t win the fight for migrant rights, free movement and anti-racism without winning the argument around austerity, exposing it for what it is: a timeless strategy to dispossess, divide and rule?

I do absolutely agree with that. I would add that we’re seeing older forms of racism morphing into something else.

The Institute of Race Relations released an excellent report recently showing how much street abuse and violence mirrors what politicians are saying, basically quoting David Cameron’s ‘speak English or go home.’ As if that is a major issue. (Of course at the same time, they cut back on funding English classes, so that’s the link again there.)

I once wrote a book about the expulsion of Muslims from 17th century Spain. That episode is often cited as an example of what happens when a country allows its own prejudices to take control even against its own interests.

Aside from the moral horror of expelling 350,000 men, women and children, Spain also fatally damaged itself for many years after. I never thought I’d see anything like that happen in the UK.

Such acts are usually reserved for times of extreme social crisis, like the way World War I created the climate for the rise of Nazism. Now we’ve just had an economic crisis and even that has produced an extreme and dangerous sort of hyper-nationalism.

We can’t put it all down to austerity but it has certainly exacerbated all the fault lines in society and made it much easier to scapegoat ‘the other’.

On the other hand are you wary of relying just on economic arguments about the net contribution migration makes to the economy, public services and so on? Does it risk disconnecting us from the moral obligation to protect some of the most vulnerable fleeing war and persecution, who might not be ‘paying in’ from the week they arrive?

There’s no question about that. We’ve called One Day Without Us a celebration of the contribution migrants make and yes, this has been questioned. But we’re celebrating all forms of contribution, social, cultural…

But that being said I do think we have to counter the myths about stealing jobs and houses and services, because they are myths and they do fuel hatred.

If the country isn’t even willing to accept free movement in Europe, people considered ‘like us’, it’s a very difficult case to make so we need to use every argument while always maintaining migrants should never have to justify their presence in the UK.

Your example of the Spanish expulsions made me wonder again, was the political establishment as divided over the question of Brexit as they appeared? Is it a case of: the genie’s out of the bottle and racist scapegoating, once their tool for maintaining control, has developed a life of its own?

Yes, you put it very well. Brexit was a real mess up in the sense that politicians of all parties whipped up fears about immigration and pandered to them, instead of clarifying public ‘concerns’.

A game played by the Tory party, that was essentially about internal party matters, has been allowed to throw away the country’s future. It’s like we’re dealing with a bunch of Etonian gamblers hanging out in some casino, and it was done that lightly, that arrogantly and with that level of disregard for that basic notion of the common good. Even on their own narrow terms of ‘the nation’s economic interest’, they’ve done something disastrous driven by the prejudices they themselves helped inflame.

Polls continually indicate the public think over 30 per cent of the population are migrants when the actual figure is around 13 per cent, and if they keep thinking that, you’re moving into this Trumpist world of alternative facts where what people feel matters more than the evidence.

If they reduce migration to the levels they’ve promised, Public Policy Research reported recently, as early as 2030 there won’t be enough young workers paying taxes to pay for our pensions! It’s startling how these points are completely left out of the general discussion.

What about the Labour Party? There’s been a shift recently towards ‘taking people’s concerns seriously’, blurring their position on free movement, and now leading figures in trade unions are following suit, the Unite leader for example saying free movement equals exploitation. Your thoughts?

I find it quite depressing. It’s very frustrating and their position is unclear – perhaps contested within the party. It’s what you expect from a Blairite government, we remember Gordon Brown talking about ‘British jobs for British workers’ and historically, some of the harshest immigration controls have been introduced by Labour. So we don’t necessarily expect them to have an internationalist position on free movement.

'We have to counter the myths about stealing jobs and houses and services, because they are myths and they do fuel hatred'

But it’s disappointing to hear it from people close to Corbyn because he’s made many principled statements about migration, free movement and workers rights in the past.

But yes, the unions now seem to be implying that restricting free movement will restrict exploitation of migrant workers – when in fact you could perfectly easily have free movement and crack down on exploitation. And I think really it’s just certain people looking to legitimise them pandering to what they see as ‘the white working class’ - as though the working class were only white or at least, it only matters when it is.

How do you situate One Day Without Us – and the migrant rights movement more broadly – within the upsurge of protest against Trump? And how do we keep the focus on holding our own government to account for injustices here at home?

One thing I find encouraging about One Day Without Us in terms of Trumpism is that we’re trying a lot of things similar to Cosecha in the United States, for example, and in many countries. I hope there’ll be a strong international convergence of all these new, open, diverse movements because that’s what we need.

With 20 February also being about the parliamentary debate on Trump’s visit and protests against that, there’s a danger of mixed messages.

It’s very important for us to have the rights of migrants in the UK centre stage and not have that lost in a conversation about Donald Trump. Having said that they’ve been in discussions with us about how we can support and amplify each other so it could turn out very well.

What comes next, after 20 February?

Recently a seasoned migrant rights campaigner in Birmingham pointed out to me that this is the first ever national day of action in solidarity with migrants in the UK. And that’s great.

‘What next?’ is the big question and it’s a conversation that’s really coming to us from the grassroots; people are on the move, here, and looking forward, wanting to support what other organisations are already doing and build a movement.

For us, it depends what happens on 20 February. If it turns out as we’d hoped, we’ll be carrying it forward somehow.

And lastly, let’s turn to Europe. You published the book Fortress Europe back in 2012. Can you say a little about what’s changed, particularly since Trump and Brexit? We saw last week Hungary now wants to incarcerate all asylum seekers… What lessons can we draw from what we’re seeing there?

When I was researching that book back in 2009-2011 that EU-wide system of repression was already in place – what we have now is a massive increase in the numbers. When I was travelling, even the detention centres were pretty empty. It was like a ghostly machinery of repression was sitting there waiting for whoever would come. So yes, disheartening that this repressive, often racist response has spread throughout the continent, driven not only by European powers you might expect but by new member states like Hungary. So Fortress Europe is getting nastier, the cost is getting greater, death rates rising on the journeys.

You know, Syria is really the perfect refugee crisis. With the whole country consumed by a brutal war, and no room for doubt that anyone coming from Syria is a ‘genuine refugee’. But even when presented with that ‘perfect’ refugee, in this country we still won’t admit more than a few hundred people. And that exposes the ‘bogus asylum seeker’ rhetoric for what it was: a cynical pretext.

We’ve seen some positive things thanks to social movements campaigning in different places. Angela Merkel’s admittedly limited offer was courageous and would not have happened without pressure from the German people. Looking forwards, we have to find a way to a world that is accepting of migration, not just as an inevitable fact of life and of history but as something that we don’t need to fear. We have to. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

The greatest thing about One Day Without Us and the Stop Trump campaign is that both are bringing in a whole layer of first-time activists. Your own background is in writing and you’ve also made that transition. What do you think is giving hope, confidence in our ability to create change, even at this dark time?

Well that is what gives me hope: that it’s revealed the sort of seed bed of a different kind of country that’s been ignored for a long time. I’ve been really impressed by the courage I’ve seen in people. One woman I work with was standing outside a supermarket on International Migrants Day in December, by herself, giving out sweets to shoppers and encouraging them to get involved. She was all on her own doing that for the first time in her life, and I think that’s quite something, actually.

There are so many people willing not only to challenge the treatment of migrants, but to make the links to threats against wider society, drawing parallels to the lead up to World War II which is not melodrama – it’s a very real possibility. And a great many people know that.

We just need to reach them because we could be another, very different, fairer, freer kind of society – that’s a real possibility, too.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann is communications coordinator at Right to Remain, working with grassroots groups to support 1 Day Without Us. She also works at These Walls Must Fall.

You can find events related to One Day Without Us near you, or examples of actions you might want to take, on the event’s website, or connect through the Facebook event.

Before you go...

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At New Internationalist, we have never had a rich benefactor or a media tycoon bankrolling what we do. So it makes sense for us to turn to our readers to help shape the kind of journalism that makes the case for something better.

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‘The best help comes from simple, solidarity movements’


Refugees wait outside a police station which serves as their registration centre, Aug.15, 2015, in the town of Kos at the southeastern Greek island of Kos. by Freedom House

Eleonas, on the outskirts of Athens, is home to Greece’s first official, open reception centre for refugees. Living conditions for the 200 or so residents tower head and shoulders above so-called ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers elsewhere in the country. But it’s special for another reason: it exists because the refugees themselves made it happen.

In October last year, Afghan refugees were sleeping by the hundreds in a local park. In response, the Greek government set up Eleonas – in an industrial park in Athens – but a long history of racism and abuse meant refugees were unwilling to go there. Everyone thought Eleonas would just be another detention centre.

Then the Greek Forum of Refugees stepped in. This international network of communities – from Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and beyond – worked to build trust with the newly arrived refugees, and volunteered for months to make Eleonas what it is today: the most humane official camp in Greece.

The new EU-Turkey deal has opened an opaque and industrious system of mass deportations. This is already crippling the capacity for independent volunteers to act as human rights watchdogs and establish open humanitarian spaces for refugees. In this context, the role of refugee-led organization will become more vital than ever.

Yonous Muhammadi is the Forum’s president. A mild-mannered man, he has represented refugees in the Greek capital for over a decade. He speaks with the easy frankness of someone whose authority stems from a wealth of collective experience.

Forced to flee Afghanistan while at medical college in 1997, he supported refugee communities in Pakistan and later moved to Iran, where he risked imprisonment to teach at a secret school for ‘illegal’ children. After being imprisoned for trying to return to Afghanistan, he resigned himself to leaving permanently, and reached Greece, via Turkey, in 2001.

Younus has encouraged Afghan communities in Athens to organize. They formally combined with other refugee groups in 2012 to become the Greek Forum of Refugees, which has become a powerful force for mobilizing and getting refugee voices heard. ‘All our goals are achieved by participation of refugees themselves,’ says Younous. ‘And Eleonas is an example of how important that participation is.’

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How have refugees in Greece fared through the winter months?

This winter is especially cold and conditions are really difficult. People fleeing are still obliged to arrive in Greece via the Aegean Sea, and still the EU will not even discuss safe, legal passage. Greek authorities have also been discriminating against independent volunteers. On the Greek islands, volunteers’ work is essential for the safety and reception of the refugees. They should be thanked, not arrested.

The situation at the Greek border is also really worrying. Many vulnerable people are trapped at the border in freezing temperatures. A few groups are taking advantage of this situation to rob refugees. Just recently, an attack left someone dead. That proves how little protection there is.

People stopped at the border can return to Athens, but the situation is no better here. The official reception centres will only accept Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Eritreans and Yemenis. Otherwise, unless you are an unaccompanied minor, you are sleeping on the streets or in parks with no assistance, or being arrested and taken to detention centres, where people are really afraid for their survival.

Tell us about conditions in the official ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers in Greece. In 2014, a lot of human rights groups condemned conditions as deplorable. Has anything changed?

In 2014, we had more than 9,000 people in detention, even Syrians. The numbers have dropped but conditions still do not meet the standards of human rights law. In September 2015, there was a hunger strike by refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The conditions are impossible! When you see it, you can’t believe how people can survive there.

We have reports [documenting the poor conditions]. Greek friends speak out about it – but the problem is, when refugees are freed they just want to leave because there is no trust in the authorities.

Before they even reach Greece, you know, these refugees have suffered so much, they have been attacked so many times by police at the borders of Iran, at the borders of Turkey – everywhere.

And when they go the Greek police after attacks by fascists, the police do nothing. So if there is a law broken, most of the time they don’t want to speak about that, they just want to leave.

RELATED: Humanity adrift: why refugees deserve better, January 2016, Issue 489

Reports continue to surface of abuses and illegal pushbacks by the Greek authorities at the borders. The Police deny that it’s happening at all. What are your thoughts?

Before 2014, there were huge numbers of pushbacks, not only at the Evros land border [with Turkey] but also in the Aegean Sea around the Greek Islands. We have collected witness statements from refugees themselves.

In some cases they tried to cross seven times, but every time they were pushed back – not just deported, but removed very violently. There have also been many cases of sexual abuse. And we are still getting cases like this, with authorities deporting refugees back to Turkey and saying: ‘don’t you dare come back to this border.’ People are beaten and robbed.

We have evidence of these things. But the problem is, they say, when we as refugees are speaking it is ‘not so credible’. They always say this. The Greek authorities will never accept that they have carried out a single pushback. But the research, by Human Rights Watch and others says otherwise. There are still pushbacks happening at Evros, I can tell you that.

The presence of big aid agencies in the Greek islands – UNHCR, Red Cross, UNICEF and so on – increased towards the end of 2015, but has been quite minimal given the scale of the crisis. You’ve highlighted the vital role of independent volunteers. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, the most important help comes from the simple solidarity movements. It is self-organized people trying to help. That is very important. There is no other initiative or motive behind this, they just want to help as fellow human beings. So there is no money, no salary, nothing – just humanity.

Independents are the first people on the scene to rescue and welcome refugees. UNHCR and other organizations, with all their power, are helping less than ordinary people in places like the [Greek island of] Lesvos at the moment.

How do you think the Paris terror attacks by ISIS last November 2015 have impacted refugees in Greece and Europe?

The anti-refugee and anti-migrant voices all over Europe are trying to use this to call all refugees terrorists. But the reality is they are running away from the terrorists in their own countries. And usually terrorists don’t use the refugee route. The families coming from Syria, from Afghanistan are the victims of terrorists.

We have held demonstrations against ISIS and the Taliban, and in solidarity with the victims of terrorists in France. We can understand families’ mourning because we know this feeling well. All of us have lost someone. My 16-year-old brother died in a terrorist attack, as did my cousin. It should be clear that we are running away from them and fighting against them in every way we can.

What is it like to be an asylum seeker in Greece today? What psychological pressures are people put under?

Until 2014, we were recording daily attacks on refugees. In 2010, our offices were attacked by Golden Dawn. But this issue goes beyond the fascists: the whole asylum system is a massive obstacle to integration and empowerment. Some people wait ten years for a decision, unable to imagine or plan any future because the rights they have are so limited.

The Greek state provides no support to students. We often meet people pursuing their studies without shelter or food. This is a real problem.

Victims of torture, and trafficking struggle to integrate and are particularly vulnerable because the authorities provide no access to psycho-social rehabilitation.

What is the long-term solution to the European Union’s current refugee crisis?

The problem with the EU is the powers are always trying to push their problems on to each other, especially to the outer border. There is no responsibility sharing. I have been here more than 13 years and I am fed up with this. Solidarity should be the responsibility of every country. No one wants to take the refugees in the same way that no one wants to leave their homes in the first place. The main solution is to stop the wars! Why is there this in Syria? Why did I have to leave Afghanistan, for example?

The other thing that’s important is functional, realistic co-operation with the countries that border Syria. Not like they’re doing with Turkey – it wants EU money and membership and doesn’t care about the refugees. At the moment, all the decisions the EU and other are making are in their own economic and geopolitical interests. Only if there is political will to benefit the refugees, will we be able to find a solution.

I don’t hold out much hope that it will stop. It [the West] interferes in Afghanistan – not in my interests as an Afghan – and here we are, 13 years later, thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent and what is the result? We are still hearing of cities being captured by the Taliban and others and so we have thousands of people who are running away.

Related video:

The EU deportations do not solve the problem that refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere confront, says New Internationalist co-editor Hazel Healy

2016: Time to take the leap


'Freeze tar sands expansion', Ottawa, Canada, November 2015. by The Leap Manifesto Facebook Page

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.’

So 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.

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.

RELATED: Our November 2015 magazine 'Paris climate summit' provided in-depth commentary and analysis leading up to COP21.

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.

RELATED: 'Humanity adrift: Why refugees deserve better', New Internationalist magazine, Jan-Feb 2016

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 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.

Avaaz greenwashes Paris climate agreement


Avaaz is triumphant, but the Paris Agreement promotes the kind of policies that have failed us so far, write Marienna Pope-Weidemann and Samir Dathi.

The betrayals of the Copenhagen summit strengthened the climate justice movement because it demonstrated clearly that salvation was not coming from above. We came to Paris with 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 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.’

Green-washing & White-washing

Well 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 these massive climate marches this year and last, but this movement’s centre-ground is riven with contradictions. The 2014 mobilization, for example, 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. And Unilever, a leading food monopoly with an atrocious labour and environmental record, also supported that march.

That would 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. It would also explain why Avaaz didn’t want the Global South bloc, Wretched of the Earth, leading the climate march on 29 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’s really left us speechless is 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 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 didn’t like it.)

In one sense, this is deeply insulting. Avaaz may take pride in its corporate-sponsored marches, emails and petitions, but it hardly compares to decades of mass-resistance in the face of brutal state repression.

However there is an unintended sense in which the apartheid analogy is entirely appropriate. The courageous South African liberation struggle ultimately ended with a sellout in which the forces of neoliberalism were unleashed on the most oppressed.

Avaaz asserts that “the fall of Apartheid led South Africa to the single most bold and progressive constitution in the world,” but as we know this is true only on paper. In reality it was a huge step back from The Freedom Charter, which had been the political heart of South African resistance.

Compromising on 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; all the things the climate justice movement wants for the world today; the things this crisis give us a ‘once in a century’ chance achieve.

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.

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.’

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.

Which way after Paris Agreement?


La Via Campesina’s agro-ecology and food sovereignty offers one possible path toward climate justice, writes Marienna Pope-Weidemann in part one of this two part series.

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.

A brief history of really bad ideas



Marienna Pope-Weidemann reminds us that climate justice activists are the ones with their feet on the ground.

The climate justice movement offers a wealth of solutions that never get a fair hearing. Every cornerstone of a just, sustainable future, from community-owned energy in the sky to organic agriculture in the earth, is consistently swept aside as utopian thinking.

This is particularly irritating given the spectrum of fantastical and occasionally genocidal schemes that do manage to find traction among power-hungry politicians, profiteering corporations and some truly eccentric scientists. To remind climate justice activists the world over that we are the ones with our feet on the ground, let’s take a look back at some of the worst.

Carbon pricing

Carbon pricing and trading emerged from the failure of the Kyoto Protocol to establish a proper cap on emissions in 1992. It has been the flagship free-market climate policy ever since, taxing emissions and issuing tradable pollution permits to businesses and institutions. Often, low-carbon institutions like hospitals and universities are obliged to buy extra credits while the corporations cash in.

Big Polluters have made a killing by speculating, cutting corners and generally defrauding the system, sometimes deliberately producing more emissions just so they can get paid to dispose of them. Like all free-market fixes, it’s extremely lucrative; between 2005 and 2010 the global carbon market turned a $500 billion profit.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates carbon taxes are five times too low to discourage the Big Polluters (which, given their more than $5 trillion of annual subsidies, they can afford.) But they are high enough to put a heavy burden on working people, to whom energy companies pass on extra costs. More than 1 in 10 Europeans are blighted by energy poverty, which is forecast to kill 40,000 people this winter in Britain alone. This also contributes to creating the apparent conflict of interest between the planet and the poor.

Lastly, the scheme has completely failed to halt rising emissions. That the EU’s own watchdog admits the scheme is ‘almost never enforced’ gives some indication of how seriously our leaders really take the climate threat, whatever their rhetoric. No wonder, then, that instead of falling, emissions have been rising at their fastest rate in 30 years. Really bad idea.

Privatizing the planet

Whatever the problem, selling it off is the only solution the market ever has to offer. And since the crash of 2008, politicians have been selling off public services faster than ever. The resulting devastation of our education, healthcare and welfare systems hasn’t put them off – now they want to apply the austerity model to the fight against climate change by privatizing the planet itself.

Nature is reduced to ‘natural capital’; our forests, rivers and fields become ‘green infrastructure’. And the results are utter nonsense. The UK’s Natural Capital Committee has established a price for the aesthetic value of Britain’s lakes and rivers (at about $1 billion.) But you can’t quantify beauty, measure happiness or put a price on what is priceless.

The conviction that we need to is rooted in the belief that people only value something if you slap a price tag on it. That might be true for the CEOs lining up to buy our planet but the research suggests most people deserve a bit more credit. Unfortunately, some sections of the environmental movement have adopted this language of ‘natural capital’.

As Guardian columnist George Monbiot and others have argued, in committing themselves to an ultimately doomed attempt to make big business care about the earth, these ‘mainstream environmentalists’ have destroyed their own moral authority and in doing so, undermined their ability to mobilize the grassroots. Really bad idea.

Crazy crops

Biofuels have long been pushed by big business as a magical alternative to oil and gas – even though they are inefficient, expensive and enormously destructive. In fact, the production of biofuels often emits more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels, not to mention the fact it’s become a leading driver of deforestation, reducing vast tracts of ancient, irreplaceable forest to dead land. It also gobbles up enormous amounts of water, which is exactly what we don’t want as droughts and pollution diminish this most precious resource, on which all life depends. Biofuel production has also driven up the price of grain, threatening hunger, instability and conflict.

And this is just a small part of the unspeakable havoc wreaked on food security by the globalization of industrial agriculture, which has exhausted our once-abundant planet. For example, despite controlling three-quarters of all farmland and enjoying massive government subsidies, industrial farming produces only 30 per cent of our food. In just 40 years, its senseless intensity (almost half the food produced is wasted,) has destroyed a third of the world’s arable land while somehow still managing to leave 800 million people hungry.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been trumpeted as another ‘big fix’ for hunger and climate change, despite widespread health concerns and the fact they fail the most elementary standard for sustainability: they are non-renewable. Corporations in the climate negotiations are pushing heat-resistant GMOs and ‘smart-fertilisers’. From an environmental perspective, these methods not only worsen the climate crisis, being both water and fossil-fuel intensive, but heighten vulnerability. Most GMOs are more susceptible to drought, floods and disease and so require intensive mechanical and chemical treatment to survive – which means big bucks for the agribusiness corporations that sell them. It also means peasant farmers are priced off their lands or buried beneath mountains of debt, contributing to almost 300,000 farmer suicides in India over the past decade in what has become known as the ‘GM genocide’. Really bad idea.


Like nuclear power, the science of ‘weather management’ started off in weapons development at the heart of the military-industrial complex. But since the breakdown of the COP15 negotiations in 2009, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) has resurfaced as a ‘last line of defence’ for the planet; a substitute for (and for some, preferable to) regulating emissions. From filling the stratosphere with sulphate to erecting giant mirror-roofs across the earth to reflect the sun’s rays, SRM proposals range from surreal to plain stupid.

Injecting sulphates into the atmosphere, for example, mimics the sun-blocking effects of volcanic eruptions: widely considered the most life threatening of all natural disasters due to their long-lasting and unpredictable disruption of natural weather patterns. Putting aside the question of who’d be in charge of the thermostat, we really have no idea what the side-effects might be and no way to test, since the only appropriate laboratory is the planet we’re living on.

Most SRM proposals are ‘lock-in’ strategies, meaning we start pumping out one kind of pollution to deal with another kind of pollution with no idea how to stop without frying everything to a crisp. And even optimistic projections predict SRM would fry swathes of the global South to a crisp anyway, disrupting the monsoon and ‘completely drying out’ the Sahel region of Africa, threatening 4.1 billion people. Really bad – and slightly genocidal – idea.

Letting big polluters sponsor COP21

There is no business bigger than the fossil fuel business. This is an industry with friends in all the high places, subsidized to the tune of $10 million every minute of every day and making annual profits equivalent to the GDP of France. They have 20 trillion reasons to extract every last bit of oil, coal and gas: all of them dollars.

They are not our allies. As Friends of the Earth’s Asad Rehman put it here in Paris: ‘Putting corporates in the driving seat for climate negotiations is like putting Dracula in a blood bank.’ Yet that’s exactly where they are.

Corporate Accountability International notes in its report, Fuelling the Fire: the Big Polluters Bankrolling Cop 21 that these corporations have a long history of political interference with environmental policy making. On one hand, they routinely engage in sophisticated campaigns of misinformation about climate change; on the other, clean up their image by funding COPs and joining climate marches.

Pierre-Henry Guignard, Secretary-General of the UN summit, promised this year to build ‘a very business-friendly COP.’ This is a contradiction in terms. Pretending it’s not, hides the root of the problem from the public and leads us down a twenty-first dead end. It is the mother of all bad ideas.

The power of good ideas

Within the market system, all proposals are viewed through the lens 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. It promotes the proposals which turn a profit over those that might actually help us, every single time.

To quote Monbiot: ‘What we are talking about is giving the natural world to the City of London, the financial centre, to look after. What could possibly go wrong? Here we have a sector whose wealth is built on the creation of debt. That’s how it works, on stacking up future liabilities. Shafting the future in order to serve the present: that is the model.’ It’s the model that got us into this mess and it’s not going to get us out of it.

It’s fantastical, fictitious, pie-in-the-sky fundamentalism, and our job is to expose it as such, not adopt its language and values as our own. So we need to reclaim realism, assert our own values as boldly as our adversaries, and mobilize around the principle that life – all life – is more precious than profit. The big polluters will never want to pay; so it’s time for them to get out of our way.

The youth movement strikes back


by Climate Strike

A new global youth action network – the Climate Strike – was born in Paris this week. Marienna Pope-Weidemann and Samir Dathi were there to hear their plans.

The first day of COP21 launched a new wing of the global student movement against climate change: the Climate Strike. In countries around the world, students organized walk-outs, film screenings and art performances. They have three simple demands: keep fossil fuels in the ground, transition to 100% clean energy, and support the victims of climate change.

A group of young students from five continents came up with the idea last year at the Global Youth Summit in Germany. Their grievance was simple: ‘The adult generations have promised to stop the climate crisis, but they have skipped their homework year after year.’

They have no illusions over the sell-out that awaits us in Paris. They know that even if the politicians keep their utterly inadequate promises, the world will burn through the 2 degree red line in just 15 years. So these students are committed to organizing globally to bring change from below with an escalating campaign of global strikes.

As the politicians were circling for the opening of COP21 in Paris, youth activists from Climate Strike hosted a lively participatory forum in the city. Even though 10am-9pm might have been a bit too ambitious a day for some of us, there wasn’t a dull moment. We heard voices from China to Bolivia, skyped with school-age activists in Mexico and had the pleasure of meeting Kisilu, first on screen and then in person.

Kisilu is a father, farmer and climate activist from Kenya, and the protagonist of an evocative new film screened at the forum called ‘The Climate Diaries’. As droughts and destructive floods brought him face to face with the brutal realities of climate change, Kisilu took on a leading role in his community, and a journey that began with planting trees and led him all the way to Paris, where he has been invited to speak at COP21.

‘Fighting climate change is my faith,’ he said. ‘I am a preacher. And what I am determined to tell the leaders is that they must come together now. It has taken a long time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. There are farmers who say, don’t bother to plant mango trees, they take ten years to fruit. But if we listened to them we wouldn’t have any mangoes.’

After lunch, frontline activists from across the world shared some of their experiences and led a strategy session. Small groups discussed how to engage children and young people, particularly in industrialized nations of the global North where the climate crisis still retains the illusion of being something that’s happening to other people, in places far away.

Much of this ‘gap’ between the actual and felt immediacy of the climate crisis is down to the political pollution in our mainstream media and education systems. Overcoming it is one of the main challenges for the next generation if we are to build a truly international climate movement. So, many proposals focused on how to cultivate a sense of connection with frontline communities elsewhere, from field trips and drama to connecting schools the world over with pen-pal programmes.

Paulina Sanchez, a youth activist from Mexico and one of the main organizers of the forum, explained that the strategy session was more than just a talking shop. In the coming months, organizers will be looking to develop new ways of raising awareness amongst school children and mobilizing more young people for and beyond next year’s Climate Strike.

‘We really wanted to create a free space today that brings together age groups and issues that are too often separated in the movement,’ she told us. ‘So we tried to get together new ideas from new people with the experience of community activists from the frontline.’

Clarity was another point they encouraged campaigners to consider. ‘Activists really need to simplify the language they use, not just for kids, but for everyone,’ said one young participant. ‘The point isn’t to sound impressive, it’s to be understood.’

But what everything seemed to come back to was the power of individual creativity. We heard from Xiuhtezcatl who, aged just 15, is a hip-hop activist, Climate Strike organizer, and the youth director of Earth Guardians: an international ‘tribe’ of environmental activists, musicians and artists ‘stepping up as leaders’ in this spirit. ‘In the light of a collapsing world, what better time to be born than now?’ he asks. ‘Because our generation gets to rewrite history.’

But that means letting them be its authors. Self-directed, artistic expression by young people in the medium they’re passionate about achieves two vital goals: it can be one of the best ways to communicate a sense of connection; and it demands the degree of autonomy necessary to give young people a sense of ownership over what will, if it is to survive and succeed, be their movement.

The founding students’ goal was to mobilize at least a million students in walk-outs during the summit. Clearly, an undertaking of this scale will take many more summits and much hard-graft to achieve. But their ambition matches the enormity of the task ahead. And for that, the students deserve much respect; it is exactly what is needed. The forces of capital threaten the world they will inherit, and so they must take their place at the forefront of resistance. Climate Strike has only just begun, but it is a promising contribution to the climate justice movement.