Many of the pronouncements and plans advanced during the Action Strategies Working Group on day one were important, perhaps even essential, but did not strike me as particular original. The need for better networking and better education around climate change, the importance of building organizations on both a local and a transnational level, the crucial role of coordinated days of direct action around the world, the ongoing symbolic importance of global summits – these are all fairly familiar issues within the radical green movement (and, in fact, within the global justice movement in general).
What was more significant for me and I should imagine most other people was simply to be surrounded by so many activists from different walks of life. Despite the growing importance of networked technologies, I think that people remain hugely influenced by face-to-face connections. This morning I was woken up around 4am by a cacophony of dogs barking, cats mewling, and roosters crowing at the place where I’m staying for the conference. I tried listening to the BBC to go back to sleep, and happened on a broadcast about the role of book fairs. Seems that personal encounters of the type that unfold at the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs are essential, ironically, to the success of the written word. The same thing, to a certain extent, seems to me to be true among environmental activists. Simply feeling power in numbers is one thing. Drawing on the wisdom of people from completely different places (in class, race, gender, as well as geographic terms) is even more important. Just walking around the grounds of the university where the People’s Conference on Climate Change is held was an incredible experience. As one of my friends in the delegation, Byron Silva from Ecuador, pointed out, as recently as ten years ago, none of the bowler-hatted women and various other indigenous people who were ubiquitous in the university grounds and in the university lecture halls where the conference working groups were held would have been allowed onto the property. They were seen as marginal to the political life of the nation. What a massive transformation in Bolivia we are witnessing, then, as we participate in this conference.
In addition, the People’s Conference on Climate Change is also the culmination of a decade of global organizing in forums such as the World Social Forum (which began in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 2001). Indeed, many of the forms of dialogue that this conference uses, such as the speak-out format of the working group I attended yesterday, draw on this history of non-hierarchical organizing. I’ll include more reflections on the forms of organizing I see unfolding as the conference continues.
It’s also surely no coincidence that this conference is being held in Cochabamba, site of the water wars in 2000. Here, popular movements mobilized to reject the privatization of municipal water supplies by multi-national corporations such as Bechtel. The location of this conference in Cochabamba should help ensure that the voices and needs of the people of the global South are heard prominently. Of course, this is precisely the opposite of what happened in the Copenhagen conference, where backroom deals between super-powers such as the US, EU, and China excluded the populations who are already being impacted most severely by climate change.
So, being at this conference is an immense privilege and an incredibly uplifting experience. But of course that’s not enough. I tend to see social change in terms of a model of punctuated equilibrium, with grassroots organizing and popular discontent bubbling away mostly unseen until moments of revolutionary upheaval. Previous social movements such as the abolition movement, the women’s movement, anti-colonial nationalist movements, and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. took decades to achieve their goals (and, one might even argue, they still are engaged in struggle for equal rights). But the world simply does not have decades to deal with climate change. The longer we dally and procrastinate, the worse the effects of climate chaos are likely to be.
In addition, this is the mother of all crises, one that draws together all the threads of inequality and crisis that have characterized this planet over the previous three centuries or so of capitalist, imperialist development, expansion, and exploitation. So thinking about and being active around issues of climate change means being engaged with all previous progressive social movements as well as staying attentive to the many different voices that are all too frequently silenced today.