If you remember 2005, it was the year that Make Poverty History led to a rash of worthy commitments made by worthy people to do something about global poverty. Something similar has emerged in 2009. But this time it’s different, right? Climate change is the ‘big one’ that we really have to crack to save all of humanity, and not just those ‘poor Africans’. And we have an opportunity to do this at the December UN Copenhagen talks. But the responses are staggeringly off course. There is in fact no environmental crisis; there is only a crisis of democracy. I want to explain why this is and three ways we can get back on track.
First, we simply need a whole different mindset to understand the problem. With a problem as complex as climate change the solution is going to be complex as well. And with the sense of crisis, it is natural we want to believe in magic bullets, which will let us carry on as usual. But we’re only going to get climate change under control if we tackle the root causes. The movement against climate change can’t just be a scientific or technical pursuit. It’s about how we organise our economies and societies. And this is about politics and democracy.
Understanding how we get out of this mess requires us to understand how we got into this mess, which to paraphrase several hundred years of history, is about how a market economy emerged across the globe through a fairly bloody mercantilist and colonial economy based on enclosure and dispossession of land and the plunder of resources. It is also about understanding that the founding myth that grew out of this is infinite growth, and that our economy is now exhausting the finite carrying capacity of the biosphere and threatening our survival. And commentators from Herman Daly to Joseph Stiglitz tell us we need to restrain this market economy and bring it back within this capacity.
Understanding the problem is not just about being against the market, or being anti-capitalist. A movement against climate change also needs to be anti-authoritarian, anti-racist and anti-patriarchal. This means challenging the domination and oppression of certain groups over others, and tackling the massive gender inequalities and racism that characterise our world. Think about the role of young women in developing economies making endless consumer products, or African countries acting as resource baskets or toxic dumping grounds for the West. As the social-ecologist Murray Bookchin said, people will stop exploiting the environment when people stop exploiting each other. We need to empower and educate around these root causes. And in the run up to Copenhagen one of our main focuses should stress that market solutions are false solutions.
Second, this isn’t a movement against carbon, but one for greater equality and justice. In the West we have to acknowledge the huge ecological debt that we owe to the world. As James Hansen, NASA’s chief scientist points out, Britain alone is responsible for a lion’s share of current high concentrations of greenhouse gases from coal burning in the industrial revolution. Repaying this debt means fighting for justice for the world’s poor.
Here’s the terrible irony. The poorest that have the least responsibility for the problem have to deal with the biggest impacts, while the richest can shelter themselves from the greatest consequences. Think about what is dubbed the first climate-change war in Sudan, toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast, or people living in caravans in Hull – two years after the 2007 floods. As the sci-fi writer William Gibson said, ‘the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed’.
What’s worse is that the poorest and most affected have least access to decision making to try to do something about their plight. And the opposite holds true. Try dumping some toxic waste or building an incinerator in a wealthy area and see what happens. And if you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the rich know that their interests (keeping rich) are better served by pushing the problem somewhere else, usually overseas, rather than preventing it in the first place. This is why it’s going to be so difficult to get a global deal based on equality over the next few years.
Finally, and this is where it gets difficult – there is no environmental crisis, the crisis is the environment. As long as we see something called ‘the environment’ separate from us, we have something to use, abuse, sell, commodify, and when it’s broken, ‘we’ can fix ‘it’. While it’s separate from us, the problem is not caused by us. This has been the long-standing tendency every since the Enlightenment to objectify nature as something separate from humans in order to dominate and exploit it, rather than to see it as something we intrinsically depend upon. So how do we get out of this mess?
To begin with, we have to see that environmental protest is not really about the environment. It’s about democracy. We need a stronger, more direct version of it. So how would this work? It depends upon having a bigger idea of democracy, that direct democracy equals government plus people. In contrast, our liberal democracies are so riddled with lobby groups that there is no sense of a common good, only the private interests of those with money to shout the loudest. We need an equal seat at the table for everyone – especially frontline communities who are the ones really struggling against climate change. And more participatory democracies are more resilient as they are more responsive to unexpected problems as they occur, less reliant on the whims of leaders, more trusted, and as they involve everyone, decisions are better.
We also need to make sure that the way we respond to climate change creates a more open and equal society, not a more closed and repressive one. One worrying trend here is that our fascination with the environment has brought a fascination with austerity and rationing. Sure we have to consume less, this will restrain the market economy. Campaigns like 10:10 are a positive start. They allow us to feel empowered and take responsibility for the problems in our society. But let’s be healthily critical of it too. The kind of new green austerity drive that is fashionable these days makes us see the individual as the great solution rather than seeing the bigger picture. In this scenario, consumers are distracted and pacified, hunting out fair trade lattes while the global elite is let off the hook to yacht around the world, and plunder the world’s resources. And it is exactly the self-controlled and obedient eco-consumer that the market needs to keep on growing. It needs individuals obsessed and distracted with their own green egos rather than making connections with others or organising collectively.
The point is that 10:10 has to become 80:50 (80 per cent cuts by 2050). And the key question is, apart from wishful thinking, how exactly do we make the move from individual tinkering to structural change? Clearly there is one vision here that is, where we all contribute equally and peacefully. But we also have to be aware of more sinister paths. As good eco-citizens are we sleepwalking into future green prisons, where the EcoRepublic, as the late philosopher Val Plumwood called it, forms a khaki green, quasi-police state using restrictions to save us from climate change? Is the price of having a future, bondage by new green chains?
Resistance is fertile, not futile
So what’s the way through, avoiding both the hair-jumpered utopianism of The Good Life and dreadful totalitarianism of films such as Children of Men? As the old libertarian rallying cry goes ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’. While we need austerity in our high street spending, this is no time to ration our creativity and dissent. We need the beautiful, uncontrolled energy and potential of everyone unmediated by the state or the market. We need to see through the banal and easy green belt tightening pledges of celebrities and politicians. Sure, use low energy light bulbs or put your TV on standby. Definitely consume less. But also organise in your local community, plant some vegetables in unused land, occupy the council offices until they meet recycling targets.
The proud and long tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience in this country will be crucial in our ability to navigate the next few decades. Taking direct action has never been so urgent. Remember the old Earth First! saying: ‘the earth is not dying, it is being killed’, and those killing it have names and addresses. And resistance is fertile, not futile. When we protest, we learn, when we come together we sharpen our understanding, we strengthen civil society organisations that can push governments into decisive action. Citizens have always stood up against injustice, pushed laws and put their liberties on the line to make our democracy stronger not weaker, our laws more, not less, just. So make your role models ‘freeborn’ John Lilburne, the Suffragettes, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, not Bob Geldoff, Bono or Ed Miliband.
Protest is not about saving the planet. It’s about saving democracy. To resonate with people it has to use cherished values like equality, freedom, and be about a better deal for the poorest here in the UK and abroad. It’s about getting the growth obsessed market, the drudgery of the wage, bloated governments and careerist politicians off our backs. It’s about challenging nasty right-wing populism. Otherwise what exactly are we saving the planet for? So get passionate, get active, get uncontrolled, and get equal. Consume less, and organise more. Ration your central heating, not your desires.
Paul Chatterton is a member of the Drax 29. He is Senior Lecturer and Director of the Masters Programme \’Activism and Social Change\’ at the University of Leeds, and co-author of the book \’Do it Yourself: a handbook for changing our world\’.
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.