Yesterday I stood watching the sea raging at the Welsh coast, hurling itself onto the earth as if stirred by a great and terrible grief. The weather here has been biblical these last days: howling winds, lashing rain, the river spilling its guts into the fields, dark clouds hanging low and menacing in the valley. With massacre and tragedy far away and so close to home heavy in my heart, the ill-fated climax of decades of global climate negotiations approaching and the earth raging like this, it’s all been feeling a bit Armageddon lately. Paris is on my mind.
We’ve been talking about it for a long time. Months of organising, mobilising, planning. ‘Come to Paris!’ we’ve been saying. ‘Come and take action at this crucial moment, build the movement, have the final word’.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind now when you mention Paris now are the recent horrific, brutal attacks on innocent people. Many who were planning on coming to take action around the COP21 climate talks now have fear and trepidation in their hearts.
The French government has declared a state of emergency and banned the big mobilisations – specifically the Paris march on 29 November, and 12 December (‘D12’), for which a rally and mass ‘Red Lines’ civil disobedience was planned. (Not that the civil disobedience ever had permission. That was the point.) Mass outdoor gatherings are not authorised. As the drums beat for war in Syria, everything seems to be unravelling.
But this isn’t such a surprise. We’ve been here before. Ramping up conflict and violence has often proved an effective way to defuse mass social movements that are gaining momentum. In his essay ‘The Shock of Victory’, David Graeber writes: ‘It seems no coincidence that the civil rights movement was followed by major political concessions and a rapid escalation of the war in Vietnam; that the anti-nuclear movement was followed by the abandonment of nuclear power and a ramping up of the Cold War, with Star Wars programmes and proxy wars in Afghanistan and Central America; that the Global Justice Movement was followed by the collapse of the Washington consensus and the War on Terror.’
Today the climate movement is rapidly growing again (after being destroyed by Copenhagen), and has had its own high-profile victories of late, such as the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the Arctic. Nearly 700,000 people took to the streets last year for the People’s Climate March, the biggest climate mobilisation ever. A broad coalition of groups worked together, shifting the narrative of climate change beyond environmental concern to ‘everyone’s concern’. And for the huge Paris mobilisations, an unprecedented coalition of groups from radical collectives, youth activists and faith groups, NGOs and trade unions was backing mass civil disobedience for the first time and calling for global escalation of climate action in 2016.
Similarly, the alter-globalisation movement was blossoming before 2001. In the shadow of 9/11, though, the movement withered and faded as protests were cancelled out of respect, civil liberties were clamped down on, activists were portrayed as terrorists and hearts and headlines became full of fear, mistrust and national security concerns. And while everyone was grieving and distracted, governments and corporations continued their violent power grab. Today, widespread fear, bans on protest and violent reprisals abroad play straight into the hands of those who would oppose the demands of a movement for global climate justice.
As Graeber says in The Shocks of Victory, ‘Everyone knows that faced with a broad and potentially revolutionary coalition, any governments’ first move will be to try to split it… The US government, though, is in possession of a global empire constantly mobilized for war, and this gives it another option that most governments do not. Those running it can, pretty much any time they like, decide to ratchet up the level of violence overseas.’
We cannot let history repeat itself. We cannot afford to. Whatever happens now, one thing is certain: we must not allow recent events to defeat us; we must grow stronger from them. We must defy the bans on mass protest in Paris with creativity, defiance and intelligent tactics. And NGOs and trade unions must be bold and back the calls for dissent against the corporate takeover of the COP. Now more than ever we need a movement for systemic change and global justice.
Some have questioned whether tens of thousands of people should descend on a city in mourning to start shouting about the climate when there are more immediate concerns and dangers. Is it safe? Is it respectful? Is it relevant? These are questions organisers and the wider movement has had to ask itself in the past week. And the answer to these questions is yes.
Though plans may need to change to take into account the changing context and safety concerns (about further violence from terrorist attacks as well as police), we will not be silenced. There will still be powerful action on D12 that denounces the corporate-sponsored death sentence the negotiators will announce as a success. What that looks like is still being worked out. But we will still have the final word. We will still disobey. And we will come out of this stronger.
We should not be afraid to draw the links between the attacks and climate change, widening the narrative to a much broader systemic framing. The terrorism that fuelled the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad and elsewhere is not an unrelated, separate issue from climate change. They are underpinned by the same geopolitical and economic dynamics and the connections are being made with the refugee crisis, inequality, war, colonialism, racism and fossil fuel dependency.
Our continued dependency on fossil fuels – an addiction that corporations keep us hooked on through aggressive lobbying of climate policy and the COP process – is what buys the weapons of terrorist groups such as ISIS, who make $500m a year from oil sales. In the words of former Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan, the Iraq war, with its death toll of 1.2 million, was about ‘largely about oil’ – and the consequences of that oil war flow thick and black into the terrorism of today.
It is no coincidence that French-owned energy company Total has oil fields in Syria, where French bombs are now raining. Total, which lobbies governments to hold back legislation that would protect the climate and damage the oil industry.
Many of the refugees who wash up on the shores of Fortress Europe are fleeing drought induced by climate change and violence from the terrorist groups western governments catalyse through their foreign policy.
These systemic links are being made now by people who may not have otherwise. We must continue joining these dots. The system is being shown for what it is. It is a system that allows, perversely, some of the richest to rake in profits from the tragedies of last week, supplying the violent retaliation effort with the weapons needed to fuel the ongoing spiral of violence. These are weapons bought by governments who claim there is not enough money in the bank to support the most vulnerable members of their society – governments who deny refuge to the people fleeing the violence they helped to create, the violence of the very people they condemn, and who they are now inflicting more violence upon.
People have been deeply affected by the Paris attacks, being so close to home. Fear of further attacks on western targets is high. This is on everyone’s minds now. Could we end up with a larger, broader, more diverse, more compassionate, more systemic movement for global justice after the Paris attacks? One that rejects the violent response we are seeing in retaliation, knowing that that will only lead to more violence? That is the movement we should be building, in Paris and everywhere, in December and beyond.
Oil is the keystone that can make these links clear to those that haven’t made them already and should be a key part of the narrative of the mobilisations around the COP. We don’t want their dirty oil that funds the terrorists and wrecks the climate. This is a red line for all of us.
In order to do so we must maintain the systemic frame, make these links explicit and stand in solidarity with the people affected by both the attacks and the inevitable racist backlash. Our mobilisations in Paris should be bold, defiant and rooted in solidarity with all affected by the spoils of capitalism: victims of terrorism and Islamophobia, rising sea levels, drought and extreme weather catastrophes. From the chaos of the aftermath, something new, powerful and beautiful can emerge.
Now more than ever, we need a mass movement for system change, for a just and liveable planet, for peace. A movement that rejects the power structures that fuel the wars, the terror, the climate catastrophe, the lies of austerity, the fear of nationalism, the cruelty of Fortress Europe and exposes the links between them. And at this crucial moment we have an opportunity to build the kind of movement that governments fear: large, diverse, determined, rooted in a systemic analysis, with solidarity at its heart. They fear them because they have power and can effect real change.
As I stood watching the sea and pondering all of this, the murmurations suddenly filled the sky. Thousands of starlings, swooping, diving, swiftly adjusting with each blast of wind, coming together and falling apart, flowing from perfect synchronicity to chaos and back again. And I realised that we must be like them. Swift, nimble, adaptive, responsive. In harmony with each other and the environment, free flowing from synergistic coordination to creative chaos. Flocking in great numbers. And suddenly Armageddon didn’t seem so frightening. A dark place to pass through and come out the other side rather than an end point. A man walking by sees me gazing in wonder. ‘They’re relentless, aren’t they?’ he says. I smile.