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A climate for change

On the occasion of mass protests at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, we should also celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Seattle protests, and the anti-globalisation movement they helped to establish

November 29, 2009
5 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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On 30 November ten years ago, I was taking part in a relatively small but somewhat riotous assembly in London, demonstrating my solidarity with the protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle. The Seattle protests in 1999 were by no means the first outing for the new movement that was then being built, but they represented a qualitative leap forward. Here, in the heart of Empire, were protests inspired by many issues, but targeted together against an attempt by the global elite to give free reign to corporations.

Well-prepared direct action played a part in the victory for the movement that Seattle turned out to be. So too did mass protest. The resistance exposed the fissures in the negotiating position of the world’s rich countries, while WTO delegates from the global South drew confidence from the movement on the streets and walked out.

As the branches of Starbucks that littered the city became the focus of some protesters’ anger at the colonisation of our world by corporations, it was clear that a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the triumph of global capitalism was not so settled after all.

Ten years on, capitalism’s future seems even more uncertain, while the success of the anti-capitalist movement (or global justice, or alterglobalisation movement, as our authors variously describe it) has been mixed. Seattle was a victory and as John Hilary explains, it has been followed by successive victories against a new World Trade Organisation agreement.

Social forums, an inspiring new invention of this movement, have helped to give sometimes insular activists a better sense of the global, and a determination not just to look at the problems but to elaborate alternatives.

As Marianne Maeckelbergh argues, the forms of democratic decision-making used in the movement have also been a real and valuable innovation with applicability beyond the confines of activism.

Yet at the same time, we are still very far from that ‘other world’ that we asserted with such anticipation was possible. Beyond the usual roll call of exploitation, oppression, war and starvation, climate change now threatens to render some parts of the planet uninhabitable. You only have to consider that a sixth of the world’s population depends on meltwater from fast-disappearing mountain glaciers to start to realise what suffering this could cause.

Neoliberalism may have taken an intellectual battering of late but its legacy still dominates global decision-making, limiting the horizons of what people believe to be possible. In such circumstances, the Keynesian model of state investment in green jobs and infrastructure, which trade unions and others are starting to pursue (see Chris Baugh, page 22) is a welcome step forward.

Yet Keynes himself was at pains to point out that his model was about maintaining capitalism, a system that has at its heart a dynamic of accumulation and unstoppable growth that now threatens the planet.

We need to find new economic models, which take forward the idea of ecological conversion to its thoroughgoing end.

Nothing like this is on the table at the UN talks in Copenhagen. In fact, as Tim Jones demonstrates in our essay this month (page 24), the global North’s response to the climate crisis threatens to pile yet more injustice on the world’s majority as it seeks to maintain our current economic system and adapt it to the demands of climate change. Should the world manage to strike any deal at all, corporate-friendly market mechanisms such as carbon trading are likely to remain centre-stage.

A previous era of global revolt, and specifically its French incarnation in 1968, produced a slogan of continuing significance in this context. We should, they said, ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’. Thirty years of neoliberalism may have rendered a world beyond capitalism a conceptual impossibility to many, but it could be that this ‘impossible’ demand is actually our only realistic chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

Despite it being dubbed ‘anti-capitalist’, many of those involved in the movement from Seattle onwards have had no clear idea of what moving beyond capitalism means. Yet one of the strengths of the movement was that it brought that question to the fore, and continues to do so in the forms it takes today, including, for example, Climate Camp in the UK.

Activists in their tens of thousands will be in Copenhagen to demand real and just solutions to the climate crisis. We should remember that they are able to mount the kind of rich protest and radical political challenge that is being planned precisely because of the movement around Seattle and what it achieved.

I am proud to be editing a magazine which took, and continues to take, the alterglobalisation movement seriously, with all its mistakes and confusions, its desperate hopes and beautiful dreams. Copenhagen marks its tenth anniversary. As well as an occasion for protest and the elaboration of alternatives, Copenhagen should be a celebration.


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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