Thursday, December 31, 2009

Almost a decade ago: Alterperspective on Sustainable Development and Tree Apology

"Brundtland seeks a cooptation of the very groups that are creating a new dance of politics, where democracry is not merely order and discipline, where earth is a magic cosmos, where life is still a mystery to be celebrated...The experts of the global state would love to coopt them, turning them into a secondary, second-rate bunch of consultants, a lower order of nurses and paramedics still assisting the expert as surgeon and physician. It is this that we seek to resist by creating an explosion of imagination that this club of experts seek to destroy with its cries of lack and excess. The world of official science and the nation state is not only destroying soils and silting up lakes, it is freezing the imagination...We have to see the Brundtland report as a form of published illiteracy and say a prayer for the energy depleted and the forests lost in publishing the report. And finally, a little prayer, an apology to the tree that supplied the paper for this document. Thank you, tree."
Sith Vasvanathan, 1991, Mrs. Brundtland;s Disenchanted Cosmos, Alternatives 16 (3), p384

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reflections on Reclaim Power:

At the meeting on Monday someone in the crowd had made a comment about the march being about Turtles and Teamsters again, a reference to the battle of Seattle in 1999. These protests turned the streets outside a WTO summit into a battleground between alterglobalist protesters and US police, effectively disrupting the negotiations. But admirable as the demos at Copenhagen were they didn’t achieve that kind of momentum or impact on the conference itself.
The almost 1600 arrests since the beginning of the conference kept people away from the Reclaim Power action through incarceration and the threat of it. This highlighted some of the weakness of a movement still developing (Climate Justice Now! was only formed in 2008, nog al). At the end of the day there weren’t so many police that 1000 people could not have overcome them – but we were afraid, and not committed enough to overcome that fear. And tactically the Danish police were miles ahead of the protest movement. They used wire taps, undercover cops and had the power to arrest people at will and lock in them in make shift ‘cages’. Climate Justice Action claims that the horizontal power structure of the organization meant that the arrest of three spokespeople didn’t affect the leadership of the organization, but on the ground there seemed to be not enough communication and direction as police began to force the flow of the demonstrators. And the entire green bloc had been beaten and arrested before arriving, so depriving the demo of its most bold and experienced participants.
I was truly surprised by how scared I was the night before the march. Very little could go really wrong at the Bella Center I thought. The Danish police weren’t allowed to seriously injure us without violent provocation (of which there would be none) and being in the legal ‘blue bloc’ meant I was unlikely to be arrested. But I was still scared. It made me reflect on how brave the people who protested against the Apartheid regime (and in other times and places) must have been, as they faced a completely inhumane state and live ammunition. Protesting at international summits, by comparison, is a real luxury. One gets at least the attention of the world press.

Day Six: Reclaim Power action

Day Six

I didn’t realize how nervous I was about the Reclaim Power action until I tried to sleep. We had to be at Tangby station at 8am – due to uncertainty about whether trains would be cancelled etc the organizers had counseled us to leave a large margin of time to get there. I was meeting Karin, Freye and Matt (my ‘affinity’ group) near the central station at 6.45am. Fear of oversleeping and of the action itself meant I slept poorly.
Matt arrived at the meeting point with a banner he’d begged off some Brits. It was the Canadian flag with ‘Tar Sands – Climate Crime’ written on it. He looked younger than 18, with glasses, an oversized jacket and paltry accumulation of facial hair posing as a moustache. Karin and Freye, the Swedes, had a white banner with beautiful clouds painted on it. I don’t know what it meant.
The plan was to march to the Bella Center, where the negotiations were happening, and scale two sets of fences to disrupt the sessions and hold a ‘people’s assembly’ with delegates and NGO observers that would be staging a walk-out. Indigenous delegates had reportedly been treated with contempt and disdain, and poor nations were being undermined and sold-out, the deal was shaping up to be unacceptable to the Global South: these were to be their reasons for protest.
The message was that global citizens could reclaim power from politicians who were failing to lead, the aim was to set an example of democratic action to produce solutions to address the justice concerns of the movement.
More than statements about the procedural aspects of treaty making, the concrete calls for action of Climate Justice Now! Include:
1.Leave fossil fuels in the ground – no new prospecting for fossil fuels, no extension of infrastructure for extraction, no new investment.
2.The developing world must pay its ecological debt to the developing world – i.e reparations to the developing world by ecological destruction caused by first world industry in the form of funds for climate change adaptation and/or technology transfer.

The demonstration was split into a several blocs. The blue bloc was the biggest section and had legal permission to march to (but not into) the Bella Center. The green bloc was split into two and would move faster and more purposely, dovetailing at the fences and leading the assault over them. A ‘bike bloc’ was further supposed to flank various blocs to afford them more protection. We were all instructed to form chains along the side of the blocs to prevent the police from entering them and breaking the masses into easily digestible, arrestible portions.
We massed outside in Tanby station in the freezing cold. There was a long delay to the start of the march as police searched the truck that would be a centerpiece of the protest.
When we set off it was in high spirits. A twenty-or-so piece samba band drummed, jangled and spun in the midst of the march. Our chains flanked the road and French clowns with water pistols mocked and teased the police as they walked beside us. We chanted ‘this is what democracy looks like’, sang Bella Ciao, and shouted ‘What do we want?” – “Climate justice!’ – ‘When do we want it?’ -‘Now!’.
As we walked I wondered where the other blocs were. When we arrived at the Bella Center it seemed that blue bloc was on its own. There was then some confusion as commands were slow to filter through. It seemed like there were too few of us. Several attempts were made on the fence but soon the police began to gain the upper hand and we were being corralled away from the center.
Protesters on the front line pushed bravely against the assault made by the police, without raising their hands against them. The police moved the crowd back – as we chanted “We are peaceful, what are you?” – by beating them with truncheons and spraying them with pepper spray.
This confrontation continued for I don’t know how long, until the protesters had been pushed right back down one road and it seemed impossible to get to the fences. 200 accredited attendees did leave the Bella Center, but police refused to let them leave the compound or join the protesters. They were also denied access back into the Bella Center. A truce was called with the police and the people’s assembly was held there, around a parachute on the road.
Many of the speakers that were supposed to lead the assembly were detained in the Bella Center. Instead of hearing their words we split into smaller groups and discussed ourselves what we thought the solutions were to climate change. Spokespeople took the mikes and presented our findings back to the crowd, concerning primarily creating institutional arrangements conducive to resilient communities, and the strengthening of a broad- based movement to fight for these changes and communicate concerns and solutions widely.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day Five - Riots and Monbiot

My fifth day started getting interesting at about 11.30 pm the previous night. After the Klein/Mueller/Hardt talk in the tent people had dispersed to various venues in Christiana to watch music or dance. In the Opereaen I met up with some couchsurfers who were watching Anni Freeman and David Kovics perform. Freeman was singing songs from the 80’s: “Hey Ronnie Reagan,/ I’m black and a I’m pagan/ I’m gay and I’m left and I’m free/ I’m a non fundamentalist/ Enviro-ment-alist/ Please don’t bother me”, when we left to watch a Danish hiphop outfit in another concert venue. As we rounded a corner a fire caught my eye but I didn’t pay much attention to it until I noticed the others had stopped and looked nervous. The fire was in the middle of the public street surrounding Christiana, caused by a barricade of burning wooden frames. Men in black with ther faces covered were rolling barrels of hay towards it. “Let’s get out of here,” someone said and we started walking back the way we came. But by that time the police had already started to arrive in vans, and there were helicopters overhead. We milled around – three of the exits were blockaded thought I don’t know if it was by the rioters or the police. A flare went off , and a few minutes later another. The group was indecisive – stay to watch, or find some of the others who had headed off in the direction of trouble? My vote was strongly with LEAVE, and it got the momentum it needed when a tear gas canister got let off and people started running. Luckily, we were with a French guy who knew Christiana quite well and took us out an obscure back entrance and we managed to avoid being arrested or detained in Christiana till the early hours of the morning as many were.
The next day I attended a few Klimaforum talks – the major areas of debate seem to be the REDD strategy supported by the UN (payments to indigenous communities not to harvest from forests), carbon trading, proposals for a ‘Green New Deal’, food and agricultural production and localism strategies like transition towns.
George Monbiot spoke on a few panels. I attended one on peak oil – when it will be, what the implications are etc.
Monbiot argues that the peak oil will happen soon and that it will mean that the costs of improving and maintaining fossil fuel extraction infrastructure will be as ‘impossibly’ high as those of sufficiently investing in renewable energy technology. This reminded me of an argument made by Bjorn Lomborg (loath that I am to give him credit for anything) that the costs of the reducing emissions will be astronomical and achieve little – while massive investment in renewables will propel technologies to the point that they will be adopted without coercion.
At the end of the day it was reported that Tadzio Mueller - one of the organisers of the Reclaim Power action - had been arrested. At a meeting at Rahnhilsgade, I found an affinity group for the protest with other waifs and strays: an eighteen year old canadian boy called Mike, a fifty year old english man, a swedish goth couple, and a tall German called Lucas. We all agreed we didn't want to be on the front line.

Monday, December 14, 2009

DAY FOUR: Climate change is a class war

Naomi Klein steps onto the brightly lit stage. The crowd is crammed way past capacity, way past safety. The sides of the sky blue circus tent bulge. You can smell hash, sweat, dreads, and expectation. Another young person in black elbows past trying to get some mythical place where they can actually see the speakers. Another digital is raised in the air to capture it all. She says: “ Climate change is a class war,” and a real conversation begins.
This conversation does not delve into the arguments behind this statement in great detail. These people are in this tent, in this mad-max-y, hippified, liberated, part of Copenhagen, because they understand the ‘cruel geographic ironies’ of climate change that Klein touches on. That a small minority of people have created a huge majority of the emissions, but that the poorest, least culpable countries will bear the most dire consequences.
These people all know that if the US landmass, like that of the Maldives, peaked at 1m above sea level that this would be a very, very different conference. That 1.5C would be the target, that carbon markets would be seen as ‘the final enclosure of the last space to hadn’t been privatised’ (Klein’s words, i.e a disgrace of a solution), that we’d have wrapped this up about 5 years ago. These people know that if these talks were really capable of addressing climate change they’d turn the world upside down – because when one does the accounting for industrialization it is the North that owes the South a huge ecological (and social) debt.
But this conversation, from which I’m already digressing, rather concerned a little piece of direct action that’s planned for the 16th. Climate Justice Action is planning to march to the Bella Center, storm it and occupy it. Tonight much of what was discussed between those masses of people was the manner in which this should be done. There are many a black-clad summit hopper here – northern activists used to confrontational direct action, with communities and identities based on anarchist principles of the ilk that seek out conflict with a system they see as inherently corrupt.
But what Klein and the other speakers tried to stress is that what is being built is mass-movement, one that includes groups with very different cultures of protests, and many people form the South that have a lot more to lose from being arrested than a night in jail.
The talk ended on an uneasy note. Their leaders had made good appeal to reason and strategy, but they had been more than a few contradictory mutterings. People fled the stuffy tent. Some of them came back inside to dance to electro beats delivered by DJ covered in projected images of riot police. Some of them joined other parties in Christiana…

DAY THREE: Talkin bout a revolution

It’s fitting that it’s Christmas time in Copenhagen. At the Klimaforum, the theme is overwhelmingly RED/GREEN. It’s not in the d├ęcor, and it’s not influencing wardrobe choices - in fact it's in the speeches echoing in these halls.
Maybe its an indication that environmentalism will no longer be the middle class affair it has been for decades, and that the Marxists are starting to recognize environmental deterioration as an ‘externality’ that affects the working class and poor disproportionately.
At any rate it’s an alliance that has the power to form a powerful critique of the status quo, if only they can move away form saying things that are easy to say, like ‘mass transit systems for everybody!’ to making arguments that are grounded and resilient enough to still be worthwhile once their flaws are pointed out – a la Elinor Ostrom’s research on communal resource management.
(And I do wish green and red combined on a pallet to create a slightly sexier colour than brown. I’ll guess I’ll have to stick with the awkward label red.green).

DAY TWO: thoughts on the movement

“Ahhfterall, green is the colour of munn-neee!”. They came in a flurry of jungle green vintage shoes, boas, pearls, cream linen, English lace and racing day hats. They carried trays of cucumber sandwiches, and platters of grapes, not to mention their flutes of champagnes. The air was awash with the lilting Danish gaggle of these dozen faux Victorian ladies, the popping of corks and the fizz of bubbly., interspersed with the odd English slogan. “Stop glow-bal Whiining! – You say coal stop, we say powershop!”
This greeted me en route to the Klimaforum, a parallel conference and hub of protest alongside the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. The performance was of course highly sarcastic, a comment on the hollow enthusiasm of corporations looking for a greenwash and one of many takes on the ‘real’ agenda of the conference.
The geographer Mike Hulme in his latest book ‘Why we disagree about climate change’ (he’s a scientist remember, not an expert on catchy slogans) suggests that instead of thinking about the debate as one of ‘What can we do for climate change?’, we should view it as one of ‘What can climate change do for us?’ Hulme’s point is that this physical phenomenon has been (re)constructed in the global imagination by a smorgasbord of political actors to suit often divergent aims.
The leaflets blanketing the tables at the Klimaforum attest to this. Climate change activism is indeed a broad church and its preachers are delivering sermons across the Danish capital on a huge variety of topics, including the food industry, I.hate.nuclear, I.heart.nuclear, ecodharma, the rights of indigenous peoples, and Islam (green in so many ways!).
For most climate change is emblematic of the flaws of the current capitalism system but few can agree on the solution. Socialism? Anarchism? Green capitalism? Some pin to it their aversion to globalization and modernization, advocating localism movements like ‘transition towns’ and simpler technology. For others, climate change is a call to step up investment in renewable technologies and the economies of scale of highly densified cities.
The closer we get to contextualized solutions to climate change embodied in actionable policies, the more obvious it will become that ‘solutions’ to climate change can never please all these groups. Yet in the mean time thousands of activism are meeting and greeting in the wide streets of this placid Danish city. They will be marching together, chanting together, and freezing together.
Future conflicts of interest aside, debates which had been marginalized even from already marginalized social justice debates have come to the fore in the last three years in a way that few environmentalists would have predicted. And they have the weather to thank for it.
Whatever the outcome of the UN summit, huge momentum has been given to the green movement through the simultaneous urgency and ambiguity of climate change. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

COP15:Day One

Arriving in Copenhagen today I was once again reminded of what unsettles me about the city. Earlier this year I watched a film called “A Bothersome Man”, which was something of a Norwegian ‘Groundhog Day’ but without the charm of Bill Murray’s saggy face and with more Ikea.
The plot follows the arrival a man in a city, both of them without context. He is given a good job, an office, and a place to stay. Everyone is incredibly nice. His work is easy. He starts dating a coworker. Soon they move in together and redecorate their flat with minimalist style. There is little conversation, there are few bright colours and there are many silent smiles.
But this unnamed man begins to get frustrated with his life: the hot chocolate doesn’t taste of much, as another anonymous heretic whispers in the men’s toilet. The sex is lifeless, and, it soon becomes apparent that his girlfriend exists solely to deliberate between slightly differently shades of teal tiles.
And the ‘Groundhog Day’ drama ensues. He throws himself under a train and is merely mangled for long awhile, before being returned in one piece to his blindly smiling lady. Similar episodes repeat themselves. He cannot escape. (Almost.)
When I watched the film it didn’t strike me as being particularly amazing. It was good, but it felt a bit pointedly metaphorical, like it was trying a tad too hard to be the iconic portrayal of modern alienation etc.
But. To get back on a pristine Danish metro tube and be passing all that very stylish, very well designed, very monotonous grey city – that powerfully evoked the emotional sensation that ‘The Bothersome Man’ inspires. More too, for knowing that all the imported, previously frozen, fruit and vegetables would lack just that crucial bit of flavour, and the low rise city buildings would never obstruct that continuous grey cap of clouds.
My meditations on the placidity of the Danish capital however, were somewhat jarred by the sight that greeted me leaving Forum Metro: thirty or so tall Danish cops in dark, padded vests with fuck-off shoulder pads milling around. Several were flanking a young man dressed in jack boots , black slacks and a black hoodie, photographing his lip-curl of a smile and pushing him into the back of a long navy van.
This city in its climate summit glory, it seemed, might throw up some surprises.