Monthly Archives: November 2011

Capitalism is Organized (Environmental) Crime

Just came from an amazing event of the South African rural women’s movements.  There were nominal speakers, but the real focus of the event were the groups of women who trooped in, dressed in traditional clothing, singing and dancing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle.  After reading about and watching films of these struggles for so many years, it was really spine chilling to have these women standing right in front of me chanting.  So much electric energy and passion.  If only these women could get into the COP proceedings, they could totally shut it down.

After this, I went back up the hill to the University of Kwazulu-Natal where the People’s Space is located to hear a teach-in organized by Patrick Bond.  As I walked in, Joel Kovel was talking about how capitalism began with enclosure of the commons and separation of the producers from the means of production. The Occupy Movement, Kovel argues, is an attempt to reassert the control over the collective means of production that were taken away from folks. Wall Street is so named because it was the site of one of the first capitalist enclosures in North America, and also of one of the first slave markets.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can vote capitalism out of power. Our only hope is to create alternative or autonomous zones within the capitalist world, which, if extended far enough, will transform our society. These are zones of eco-socialist transformation, a point of recaptured commons. These should consist of freely associated labor and anti-capitalist intention. We also need to have an eco-centric ethis: a conscious intention to heal the Earth.

Patrick Bond mentioned that one of the central aspects of debates about eco-socialism hinges on ideas of catastrophe (between David Harvey and Foster, and between Neil Smith and Joel Kovel). Joel replies that he thinks we ARE headed towards an environmental catastrophe, but that this is no different from the confrontation with mortality that all human beings have confronted. What this requires is a transvaluation of our humanity, a deeper comprehension of what it’s been like to be human. It’s a clarion call to think much more deeply about our history and our relation to nature.

To simply deny the gravity of our current crisis is just plain stupid, Kovel argues. Once you get engaged, things become very exciting. It’s the worst of times, but also the best of times. Who else has been able to rethink the entire structure of human civilization the way we need to do.

Roger asks a question about Kovel’s strategy. Not to throw classical Marxism at you, but what’s your relation to the state? In France there’s been a big debate with Badiou about how to proceed in relation to the state. Kovel replies that the state has a two-fold function: legitimation and accumulation. The latter always comes first. Social movements need to keep a cold eye on the state and make sure it doesn’t get away with anything. So this means to disengage?, Roger asks.  Yes, that’s right, Joel replies.

Audience question about the SACP. Kovel talks about how the SACP is beholden to a long tradition of productivism: the idea that communism will just perfect the capitalist system. Kruzchev’s “we’ll bury you” statement as typical of this. But there are signs of a more progressive tradition in South Africa. Kovel says that he was very heartened by a recent statement of COSATU that is basically eco-socialist.

I asked a question about the turn towards fascism as a far more immediate result of climate chaos, in other words towards the securitization of the environment.  Isn’t it likely that this is more likely outcome than autonomous eco-socialist collectives? Isn’t there a kind of teleology in your argument that autonomous eco-socialist groups will link up and form a new order? Kovel replies that history is still to be written and nothing can be assumed. We have a lot of work to do.

Next up, Michael Dorsey (Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College) presented on why these debates matter. The main point he makes is that climate change is WAY ahead of schedule. He shows lots of charts and graphs to illustrate this. Dorsey has been working with Artic Ice Institute near Darmouth, which has released a lot of information about ice thinning.

Dorsey then goes on to talk about vulnerability to climate change being concentrated in the global South, while those in the North are less vulnerable. Maplecroft Climate Change Risk Report shows that those who are getting most badly screwed by climate change are in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Andes, and the Himalayas.

Official solution is one of enclosures, either through cap and trade market approach or offset exchange approach. Both are characterized by market approaches. The capitalist is saved by doing this: Ken Newcombe (carbon marketer and World Bank Prototype Carbon Market): “carbon trading’s objective is to reduce the costs of emissions reductions for industrialized countries.”

Carbon markets are a failure: the EU Emissions Trading System has failed on a third attempt (Carbon Trade Watch, 2011).

But we also need to be worried about the devil: the money form. The Euro has fallen by by a third in recent years. UBS predicts a 70% collapse in EU CO2 prices on Nov. 19, 2011.

So, what next? What are our alternatives? California social movements rejecting market alternatives, and then WE ACT picks up this approach and takes it to a national plane. Now there’s a whole wave of legal movements growing in California.  These legal strategies have been connecting up with global strategies, such as those articulated in the Cochabamba Declaration.

Climate Justice Now! Network Principles are based on eco-socialist principles.

Q: Do we continue to move from conference to conference?

A: It’s not that hard to jam events like COP. We should be kicking up much more of a ruckus. We should be using our energy to shut this shit down not to try to make carbon markets work more efficiently. I think this is a kind of Stockholm syndrome: people like the kidnapper. Those who are inside are there to whistle blow, not to have some kind of impact. What you have to remember is that it’s 1% at COP.  There’s little difference between Wall Street and UNFCCC at this point. There is a revolving door between these characters: 1/3rd are totally in cahoots with capital, and another 1/3rd are close enough and willing to do consulting in order to make money. So 2/3rds are undermining progress, and there’s confusion in the ranks.

Roger: But we do have allies, even among traditionally tepid social actors. Example of International Trades Union Commission’s report on a Just Transition.

Michael: The poor DO care about the environment. They do more and expect more. We need to speak to them.

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One Africa

I just attended a moving speak-out at which African men and women, farmers, musicians, and youths, told Mary Robinson about the urgency with which they view climate change.

The overarching slogan was, “One Africa, One Voice, One Position.”

All these people spoke with great urgency about how climate change is already impacting them in direct ways, and how they are not responsible for this situation.  All they want, speaker after speaker affirmed, is justice.

The sense of a huge gulf between the elites and ordinary people in Africa couldn’t have been stronger.

Robinson responded by saying that she’s doing her best to persuade big polluting nations to sign up for successor agreement to Kyoto, but she also talked about the need to give the poor people of the world access to renewable technologies so that they too can participate in development.

Robinson was gracious, and her stress on development as a human right was powerful in comparison with the horrorshow going on in COP17. One might debate the adequacy of human rights as a framework, but, given the gravity of the situation, it makes little sense to split hairs.

The huge fly in the ointment, though, is that Robinson continues to argue that development and climate justice can be brought to Africa (and other parts of the world) through markets – and capitalism.  So much of her talk of human rights is just pie in the sky.

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Climate Justice Durban – Climate Finance

What is Climate Finance?  The idea behind this is that the wealthy, polluting nations of the world need to pay poorer, less polluting countries – which also happen to be the ones getting it in the neck because of climate change – so that the latter can adapt to the impact of climate change. Not so surprisingly, climate financing doesn’t exactly live up to what it’s billed to do.

This panel picked up on a discussion begun in the morning, but focused on climate finance in Africa more specifically. The panel began with a rousing choral anthem, in which members of COSATU (the South African Conference of Trade Unions) sang in stirring counterpoint with one another, ending with a powerful cry of “Amandhla – Mowetu!). After this powerful anthem, one of the singers explained that the words spoke of how we don’t like what global capitalism wants of us.

The first presenter was Liane Schalatek of the Heinrich Boll Foundation North America. Schalatek showed slides whose flow chart-like complexity illustrated the chaos of climate financing.  What’s happening is a shift from the UNFCCC, the UN system that was largely responsible for climate finance, to multilateral development banks like the World Bank and the African Development Bank.  They have set up a number of specified funds, but cause climate change through their development programs, and then also try to offset that impact through climate finance funds.

Africa as a continent is benefiting little from climate financing in general, and adaptation is not getting much support, Schalatek argued.

She also underlined that climate financing should be based on grants rather than loans, and should be seen as mandatory and compensatory transfer payments from North to South. But at the moment the system is based on voluntary payments that countries often do not come through on.

The amounts we’re talking about are approx $67 billion per year for adaption and $200 billion for mitigation. These are large sums, but are really peanuts in comparison with current EU bail-out fund. Schalatek explained that little of the money actually pledged has actually reached African countries. In addition, more is spent on mitigation than adaptation. The most money spent has been by the Least Developed Country Fund, although this spending ($60 million) has been slight. A new program run by the World Bank, the Pilot Program of Climate Resilience (PPCR), supports only a few countries, but with lots of money.  But the PPCR does not just give grants but also loans, which of course hooks countries into debt. This is unacceptable under establish notions of climate debt, and also obscenely forces people to pay for impact on their lives wrought by others.

South Africa, as a country, has profited most from Clean Development Fund. It’s getting $350 million for Eskom Clean Development Fund, which is greenwashing project to make up for and cover up the Eskom Madupi Coal-Fired Power Plant. The African Development Bank loaned Eskom $2.5 billion for this plant, a figure consistent with the fact that 84% of lending by the ADB has supported conventional fossil fuel projects.

Next up, Tricia of the Institute of Security Studies in Cape Town talked about the proposed Africa Green Fund.  This is a proposal made by the ADB to establish a fund that is exclusively meant for Africa, to manage and deliver the continent’s share of finance.  The stated goal is to support development in Africa.  Relatively little money goes at present to adaptation, although African countries have stated that this is their primary need.

The main question she posed was whether another climate fund is really necessary when there are so many already existing, most of which are highly ineffectual.  Shouldn’t we try to improve the working of existing funds like the Adaptation Fund, which is relatively democratic in terms of governance, rather than attempting to start a new one.

Oscar Reyes of Carbon Trade Watch spoke next about carbon offsetting schemes. His verdict was damning. The effort right now, he argued, is to get rid of the targets of the Kyoto Protocol, and keep the market elements. Carbon offsets are not reductions – they actually just move carbon around, according to Reyes. It usually involves large industries moving their pollution to poor areas.

Geographical concentration of where these projects happen is very uneven. Only about 2% of the projects are sited in Africa, and most of these projects are in Egypt and South Africa. Example of large factory in Egypt that is “clean,” thereby allowing large dirty energy projects in Europe to continue. A future main area of offsetting is gas-flaring reduction projects in Niger Delta. These are not projects for reducing flaring (which is already illegal), but actually these credits go to encourage expansion of the gas industry.

On the table at Durban are proposals for expansion of carbon markets into agriculture. Originally in the Kyoto Protocol, agriculture wasn’t included because no one knew how to measure carbon from agriculture accurately. Attempt here at COP17 is to put “soil” carbon trading program into place. Once more organic matter is in the soil (a good thing in itself), it just legitimates continuing pollution in North. A project in Kenya demonstrates the dangers of these programs. Half of funds go to middle men (carbon accountants and consultants); less than $1/year goes to each farmer.

One of the other factors at play at the moment is the collapse of the price of carbon. So money isn’t going to materialize.

Major battles, moving forward: it’s essential that carbon markets be kept out of climate finance, because they can often lead to collapse of financing.

In answer to a question about carbon taxes, Oscar argued that such taxes tend to be set too low to have much effect, and that, as such taxes are implemented, we need to watch carefully to make sure that they are not regressive and do not reduce people’s access to energy.

Janet Redman of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Sustainable Energy and Economy Network offered a whole series of proposals to fund climate financing: a “Tobin-tax” on financial transactions, a redirection of fossil fuel subsidies given to companies in the global North, an end to wasteful military budgets, and closure of tax loopholes. These funds could be directed towards a green carbon fund.

Redman also talked about so-called bunkers: taxes on aviation and ship fuel.  This, she argued, could be good if instituted in a progressive manner, but there’s a danger that it’ll be linked into European carbon trading network.

The forum for discussion of these proposals is Eurozone financial transactions tax, currently being discussed at G20. South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany, France and Spain are a “coalition of the willing” who are being asked to step up.

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Climate Justice Durban – Arrival

COP17 – the 17th annual Conference of Parties, aka the Conference of Polluters – began on Monday in Durban, South Africa.  The Kyoto Protocol, to which most attendee nations (but not the U.S.) are signatories, is widely acknowledged to be in its death throes.

As in previous U.N. climate conferences, civil society organizations are mounting a counter-summit, a step that is particularly important given the significant reduction in the number of NGOs allowed to register for the conference.  But will global civil society be able to exert any influence on the powerful nations of the world? How much traction can a radical anti-capitalist critique of over-development gain under current conditions of global economic crisis? Will rising inter-imperial competition between nations such as the U.S., China, and Brazil spell the end of the Kyoto Protocol and a complete abandonment of all attempts to regulate the world’s increasingly chaotic environment?

Sitting waiting to sort out housing after arriving on a red-eye flight to Durban, I met Dr. Landry Mayigane, a young veterinarian from Rwanda who is one of the organizers of the youth delegation to COP17.  He said that the young people from around the globe whom he helps to organize are feeling very pessimistic about the current meeting.

According to Landry, there is little hope that any substantial forward progress is going to come out of a meeting held under the current global economic downturn.  The point here is pretty obvious: global elites are taking the current economic crisis a pretext to impose austerity rather than – as they should – an opportunity to facilitate a just transition to a truly sustainable society.  One way that such a transition might be effected is through a Million Climate Jobs initiative – a campaign being spearheaded, at least in organizational site, by a guy I ran into last night: Jonathan Neale.

He also talked about how disillusioned many civil society organizations became after the Copenhagen climate summit.  The huge mobilization resistance groups engaged in there failed to produce any meaningful movement, and, it could be argued, the situation has deteriorated significantly in terms of international negotiations since then.  For example, Landry noted that just two days ago, the Canadian government announced that it is going to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol.

The evening ended with me sitting bleary-eyed through a meeting of the Climate Justice Network as they debated whether to back a press conference to be organized by five prominent groups (e.g. Friends of the Earth – Africa). There was quite a lot of debate about whether to move forward with this initiative given the fact that many in the People’s Space cannot get into the conference; significant numbers of people expressed concern about the impact on the People’s Space of holding meetings “inside.”  Where, some wondered, would “outside” be if “inside” was so sanctioned?  This debate I think underlines how marginal social movements (and the 99% in general) are to the entire UN process as presently constituted.

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Student Debt Campaign

The last month or so has been incredibly heady and hectic.  I’ve been working with a sub-committee of the Occupy Wall Street movement; this group has been focusing on student debt, which is set to top off this year at around $1 trillion, more than cumulative credit card debt.  It’s been exhilarating working with the Occupy Student Debt Campaign.  In literally a matter of weeks, our small group of students, ex-students, and faculty members drafted a series of pledges of debt refusal using the incredibly creative techniques of horizontal organizing pioneered by the Occupy movement.

These pledges focus on four related demands: forgiveness for current student debtors; free federally funded public higher education; fiscal transparency for private universities; and interest-free student loans.

Taken together, these demands amount to a structural transformation of American higher education, a change that would no doubt also have a strong impact globally given the prominence of the U.S. model of higher education today. 

In addition to the debtors’ pledge, there is also a faculty pledge of support for debtors, and a pledge of ex-debtors to support current debtors.  The former is particularly important, in my opinion, since the spiraling cost of the institutions at which faculty members like myself teach is linked to the student debt racket (although I should add that faculty members see little of this increasing tuition in their paychecks since most of this money has gone to adding administrators).

Last Monday, we launched the Occupy Student Debt Campaign at Zuccotti Park. Although the park is a depressing place in comparison to the vibrant spot it was before city authorities cracked down on OWS, our launch nonetheless brought a large group of protesters to the site and suggested that the Occupy movement is capable of transforming itself in vibrant ways despite the clamp-down on specific sites.

Andrew Ross, who has been a key figure in the group, explained the rationale behind the campaign, talking about how banks, backstopped by the U.S. government, make exorbitant profits from student debt, and how students and ex-students get caught in a trap from which there literally is no exit – since student debtors cannot escape their debt by declaring bankruptcy, since their debt follows them for life, and since their extended families can often inherit their debt if they die before paying it off. Then a student debtor named Pam Brown read the debtors’ pledge of refusal.  I then read the faculty pledge of support.  This was followed by some wonderful guerrilla theater, with a group of graduates being given huge debt burdens at graduation, followed by the arrival of a large check from the federal government offering free public higher education, after which the graduates throw off the chains of debt that were weighing them down.

Our campaign has now topped 1,000 signatures, a nice milestone but only .5% of the audience we hope to reach.  I hope you’ll go to the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and sign one of the pledges, and that you’ll also help spread news of the campaign through your various social networks.

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