New Internationalist

2016: Time to take the leap

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Ahead of this year’s leap day on 29 February, bestselling author Naomi Klein and her team speak to Marienna Pope-Weidemann about the significance of The Leap Manifesto.

05.02.16-Leap-Manifesto-590.jpg [Related Image]
'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.

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