There is no environmental crisis: the crisis is democracy

A global climate change deal for the planet at Copenhagen needs to be about equality and freedom. Otherwise it's not a planet worth saving, says Paul Chatterton

December 6, 2009
9 min read


Paul ChattertonPaul Chatterton is a member of the Trapese Collective and set up the MA in Activism and Social Change at Leeds University

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.

False solutions

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?

Green austerity

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\’.


Paul ChattertonPaul Chatterton is a member of the Trapese Collective and set up the MA in Activism and Social Change at Leeds University


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