Monthly Archives: December 2011

Oral Testimonies from the Climate Wars

Rosa Gonzalez of Green For All in Oakland was the facilitator. She began by talking about the talks. They’re very challenging. On the way into Joburg, she got into a conversation with a cabbie that underlined people’s lack of faith in any possible solutions. We need to build a movement that is inclusive and capable of forging viable alternatives. Our movement in the US has been focused on green jobs. We see that growing here in South Africa as well. What are grassroots strategies that are getting at issues around climate change that speak to ordinary people.  Let’s go around in a circle and introduce ourselves: who are you, what do you do, and what main question do you have coming out of COP17?

Photos are of members of the smaller workshop that I describe participating in later in the blog.

Aminha from Detroit works on a zero waste campaign. Detroit has the largest incinerator in the US, and there is no curbside recycling program. We don’t have a strong movement of waste pickers. We’ve made a lot of connections here in Durban and I see a lot of connections. How will those continue once we return to our homes.

Jameelah from NYC working at Center for Sustainable Energy at Bronx Community College. Trying to make buildings more energy efficient in NYC through training courses that are run with community organizations. How can we work outside established circles and create new allies?

Jean-Louise from Port Elizabeth, who works on permaculture. How serious are we about localization?

Mubali from MPumalanga. My organization is working on environmental impact assessment. Our main priority is to conscientize the masses. We feel that this system of carbon trading is catastrophic.

Pierre-Louis from Mtonjeni project, which works with boys and girls in Durban to teach environmental studies. Most people seem to be waiting for the green fund, but should we wait this way or rather create our own

Feemduma from Durban, who works on teaching life skills to young people. I’ve been struck by stories from other people here about how climate change is impacting their lives. They’ve been asking us to help them, which has been surprising to me since I didn’t think that people in the US and EU had problems around environmental issues. Even the municipalities here don’t have environmental offices – so I wonder

Abrahana from South Africa’s women and climate justice campaign that’s demanding that government create one million climate jobs. We’ve done research that shows that we can create: renewable energy, public transporrt, agroecology, energy efficiency in housing. I’m also involved in Timberwatch.

Ryan from Port Elizabeth Transition Network. We’re trying to get people to embrace concrete solutions to reduce their impact on the climate. My question would be how we can take what we learn here back home.

Greela Peterson, student in UNISA doing communication science. What interested me was the question of how we can go back to a world in which we take care of the environment, using natural products instead of chemicals. My question has to do with fact that young people are not educated about what’s going on in COP17. How can we educate young people around the country?

Amazile, a student here in Durban. It’s interesting to meet people from all around the world who are coming here. We’re suffering a lot from rural ignorance. Some people think that COP17 refers to the police.

Patrick from Mpumalanga. I’d like to respond to my sisters’ comments about townships. We need to fight against first and second economy, which leads some people to get development and others not to do so. For example, we have a policy called Black Empowerment, which means that only some get richer in this country. We must fight against these policies. I’m here representing communities affected by coal mining countries like Anglo-American in Mpumalanga; those companies are in our community just to steal our resources. Our communities have not benefited at all from what they’ve taken out of the ground, and we’ve been affected. I for example have tuberculosis but haven’t gotten any benefits from the mines. We need to educate people about what climate change is since many people here – elders in particular – don’t understand what’s going on, and can’t speak anything other than local language.

Felix from Mainz, Germany. I’ve been part of small political movements working against coal in Germany and organizing climate camps in Europe. Two questions come into my mind: are we all speaking about the same thing? Is it important that we’re united or not? And I also wonder whether we should be more radical – the march, for example, staying very much within approved route.

Musa working with old and young people in rural areas of South Africa. Poverty is a major problem in these areas.

Marcia Thomas of Los Angeles. Last year my organization gave a series of grants to small organizations in Africa that were working on adaptation processes. My interest in coming here has been on how the grassroots would tackle issues since I know already what the UN side is. It’s been exciting to go between the people’s space and ICC.

Verna Williams from Biowatch, which has a critical take on industrial agriculture. We believe in food sovereignty and agroecology. People in rural areas in this country practice agroecology, but government authorities here are handing out GMO seeds, which destroys the planet and hooks people into commodity cycle. Communities in rural areas have done nothing to contribute to climate change, and their lives are totally sustainable. But you can see industrial agriculture and transnationals making huge impact on climate, but they’ve got their talons hooked into politicians. No significant progressive political leadership at UN.

Philomen from Sasolburg. We’re surprised that SASOL is on UN negotiating team since they are polluting environment in our area. I work with an organization that studies mines, and we encourage people who invest in corporations to think about ethical issues. We’re encouraging communities to write their own stories about what’s going on. My organization has also been monitoring air quality issues in Vaal, which is one of pollution hot spots in South Africa.

Samson from Vaal Environmental Justice. My organization looks at how the South African government has failed to decentralization water resources over the last decade. We’re pushing Department of Mineral Resources, which issues licenses without thinking about impact on water. We also link these issues with climate change. My question is why we’re sitting in this room? I think we need a more radical approach towards the ICC. We need to send grassroots messages to the negotiators there. And the other question is what to do next?

Julio McQueen from San Francisco, who is here as part of the Million Person Project, which has a storytelling for change project. My questions relate to the issue of maintaining contact and momentum. And, in addition, in light of the fact that COP isn’t working as it should, how can we ramp up grassroots efforts in order to meet the scale we need.

Heather of Million Person Project and When we bring people together to tell their stories, we hear incredibly inspiring stories and we help build powerful communities. We need to build a global network of people to help one another. In this rapidly globalizing world, how will people globalize relationships and friendships?

David who comes from rural US community where land was heavily logged. In 1976 we initiated a project to restore salmon runs. Valley is now significantly reforested. Ecosystem restoration should be part of any climate jobs campaign. But problems exist outside our ability to control. Climate change, in particular, goes beyond our ability to control. Ocean currents are shifting, drought is more of a problem. We need allies, and its seems like it’s less and less likely that we’ll find them at COP.

Toni from Elokshin, representing an organization dedicated to empowering women leaders. Yesterday I went on the toxic tour and was so frustrated to see so much horrible pollution in such a beautiful place. In ICC I see huge amounts of greenwashing. I wish these big corporations could see dire circumstances we’re in. The youth where I come from are so in denial – it’s not just that the elders are keeping knowledge from us. So I’ve come here to learn more.

Will, from the US but living in Spain and working with We face a huge challenge because we’re trying to create grassroots struggles and implement them at scale that’s necessary to save the planet. What we do is try to make the invisible visible by showing that we do have a movement all around the world. Once we see one another is do powerful things. How can we surprise ourselves, just at Egyptians did when they got into the street and overthrew their dictator? How to strike the balance between essential cultural shift that’s required, since so much of the world is addressing poverty through notions of “development.” How can we lift people out of poverty without giving in to development? And how can we move forward

Nnogeni of the women’s leadership training project.

Naftali from Sassolburg. My home in the Vaal Triangle is even more polluted than south Durban. My question: can we separate nature from God? What are we going to tell our brothers and sisters when we go home from this meeting? And what are we going to tell our children?

Samantha from For years I’ve lived with a sense of how out of balance we are. Climate change presents the opportunity of remaking our world. Our leaders are governing so badly, we have the opportunity to take control of our lives. I’m also excited by idea of wisdom of elders and intergenerational linkages.

Janet from Port Elizabeth Nelson Mandela Transition Network. Working with urban poor people in the city and looking at how to establish cooperatives so that people can control their own lives. These men don’t think about climate change; what kinds of things can we put into place which are sustainable solutions that appeal to people. Also, I have students working in places like Zimbabwe, where people are unable to survive through farming today. They’re really desperate. Our organization can be thought of as prefigurative, working with most extreme forms of poverty and finding solution.

Victor from Hungarian Youth Federation. We used to have four seasons when I was a child, but now they’ve completely vanished. We have only very hot summers and very cold winters. But people of Hungary don’t seem to be very mobilized. I’ve just heard speeches about how we need to do something; I’m interested in thinking of practical strategies that I can use to help mobilize my people.

Siri, a member of Youth for Eco-Justice. We’ve been given the task of being trained here and then going home to our countries and implementing some sort of project that addresses climate change in our home countries.

Veronica from Vaal Environmental Justice Organization. We have terrible pollution there. How do we link our movements with government so that our voices can be heard?

Npumi from Mpumalanga. We’re here to talk about air pollution.

Rosa: I’m struck by the similarities around the room.  Let’s divide ourselves up into four groups. Also, the sense that we need a call to action – how do we transform talk into action? Anyone who wants to can speak directly on camera and transmit their voices to the rest of the world. 1) What innovative solutions can we come up with; 2) How do we engage affected communities, developing strategies that educate people and build leadership?; 3) How do we bring conversations back to policy makers, in general and over last two days of the COP17 conference?;  4) Next steps – how do we globalize our relationships, bring this work back home and build the movement?

I’m in group #2, which is focusing on education.  I’m putting people’s interventions in bullet points:

  • How can we talk across our differences since we inhabit such different communities?
  • There are significant commonalities because people even in the US are affected directly by climate change.
  • Also, it’s not just people in the developed world who are thinking exclusively of immediate jobs rather than issue of climate change.
  • Our education system has got to be balanced; you should be studying something that’s not just vocational.
  • Coming from a rural community, I find that people have direct experience of climate change, although we don’t always have the language to understand it. Our elders sometimes tell us that the gods are punishing us and we need to go and pray. They don’t know that it is we who are punishing ourselves. I need a language to speak to them.
  • In my organization, we play a game called “the haves and the have-nots” in which one group of people have all the resources and the others don’t have any. The outcomes are often different – sometimes people go and ask politicians for help, sometimes they organize themselves to demand change.
  • What brought you all into this struggle?
  • In my community in Mpumalanga, people are dying from the pollution created by steel companies and mines – TB, cyanosis, etc. And when open-cast coal companies do blasting, it fills the air. So we’ve started an organization, but we face the problem that air quality officers refuse to check. What resources do you need? We need to tell people that they have to stand up to the companies. People are afraid of losing their jobs, so it’s hard to get them to stand up to the corporations.
  • During the day, the mining companies in my community switch off their machines because they don’t want bad publicity, but at night they turn them back on and the air is totally polluted. We put a bucket of water in front of a hospital at night and the next day it was totally polluted. Acids and all sorts of other chemicals.
  • The mine owners bribe the municipality to stay quiet and to tell the community that their protests will make their husbands lose their jobs.
  • Yes, the same thing happened in Detroit. The local politicians took bribes, and then the FBI came in and arrested him later.
  • Now they’re introducing a secrecy bill that will stop us from getting information.
  • I’ve been arrested twice for trying to tell community about air pollution.
  • The government should be advocating for us not against us.
  • Our organization starts educating kids young. We do an after school program in which we take them around and show them how bad pollution is.
  • We’ve got 6 coal-fired power stations, and they’re opening others. And Zuma’s family members are on the boards of the mining companies, so they’re not going to do anything.
  • We’ve been trying to get the government to move the hospital.
  • We need to get musicians and other entertainers to get our message out. Song available on

Presentation from group 1: innovative solutions to meet community needs

  • People need to understand where they come from.  And young people need to understand this issue. There has to be a way to educate people. There also has to be an interaction with the government so that our voices can be heard. And we also talked about the need to speak to the business community rather than to isolate ourselves. Also, elderly people need to be involved in these discussions. Also, we should practice common resource management of resources in a particular watershed, starting with food and then going to energy, biodiversity, etc. The basis is to localize and give people the power to use their local resources. And people need to understand that they need to fight for their rights. Need to look at worker cooperatives.

Group #3: What can be done now to shift COP17

  • There are many organizations on the inside that are going to be ramping up their levels of protest on the inside. Our goal is to support African countries and other vulnerable countries who are resisting powerful countries. We’re also thinking about getting as many people involved in the speaker’s corner, particularly on Friday, so that the story of our movement can be conveyed. We need to spread the word to our movements that people need to turn up at speaker’s corner on Friday. Also, we need to think about how to link up people on the inside with those on the outside. Also, concert at Botanical Gardens tomorrow night by Freshly Ground that we’re reaching out to.

Group 4: How do we continue to build the momentum of this movement beyond COP17

  • We should all be going home and doing report backs in our local networks. Another thing is that we shouldn’t just think of ourselves as fighting against COP, we should also be thinking about positive paths forward. In addition, we should be thinking about networking and staying connected in order to reinforce one another’s work. We also share stories about people’s successes. We also need to draw people’s attention to capitalism and its infinite growth model as unsustainable. We need to put one another’s stories up on our blogs or through our networks. Each person should take back one story from here and let other people know. It’s also critical that we be aware of the kind of language we’re using so that people can understand where we’re coming from.



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Occupy COP17 & Carbon Markets

The following press release was issued today by Occupy COP17:

As COP17 draws to a close the only game in town are the market-based mechanisms that are false solutions to climate change. The same institutions, corporations and governments who have led the world into economic chaos are leading us toward climate chaos.

However, the cracks in the façade are starting to show. Carbon trading and offsetting, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) have failed to cut carbon emission, which reached record high levels in 2010, whilst further impoverishing the worlds poorest people, facilitating the largest land grab in history, destroying biodiversity and trampling the rights of indigenous communities.

In a new video released today, critics of the markets and even the architects and gatekeepers of climate finance admit to its failure.

Martin Hession, Chairman of the CDM Executive Board says:
“We have had allegations in respect of a project in Honduras, people have been killed by people associated with the CDM project…. I don’t think the CDM can take on the job of being a human rights commission, I don’t think the CDM can take on the job of resolving every social problem in every country.”

This lack of looking at climate change in the wider context of climate justice is leading to gross human rights violations as well as environmental degradation. Those involved are economists and financiers who are just looking at the numbers and seeing if they create a positive balance in their books.

As Prof Michael Grubb, Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge says:

Having created a market-based mechanism to cut carbon a lot of people seem to expect it to behave in a non-market way and deliver poverty alleviation, deliver sustainable development co-benefits, but fundamentally; you create a market, it’s behaving the way markets do, it chases where are the most cost effective things, where can they make the most profits and I think that anyone who didn’t expect a market instrument to behave in that way didn’t understand what they were doing.

So why are these carbon market mechanism now dominating the Un climate negotiations? Larry Lohmann, Co-founder, Durban Group for Climate Justice explains:
‘The biggest buyer of carbon pollution rights, these offsets bought in from countries in the Global South today, the biggest buyers are not actually polluting firms in Europe, they’re not actually the steel mills, they’re not actually the electricity generators, although of course they also do buy pollution rights, the biggest buyers are Wall St and the City of London, they’re financial actors. Why are they buying these pollutions rights? Obviously they’re not buying them because they need to offset the huge amounts of smoke coming out of their smoke stacks in the City of London, they’re buying them to speculate with, they’re buying them because profits are to be made in the trading of them. Carbon markets are not a way of solving the climate problem, the impetus for them is not coming from people who are suffering from climate change, the impetus for them is not coming from environmentalists even, the impetus is largely coming from people like Fortis Bank.’

As with all markets, the carbon market is subject to fluctuations and crashes. The price of carbon is already at an all time low, which has lead the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) to oppose the European Energy Efficiency Directive because they claimed it would have a negative effect on the price of carbon.

We now find ourselves in the insane situation where we have schemes designed to cut emissions being blocked by those whose ability to profit from climate change is predicated on emissions continuing and climate change getting worse.

There is no doubt that money is needed to tackle climate change and to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. But the volatility and single-minded nature of the markets is clearly not the way to do it. Developed nations must pay their historical climate debt, and this payment should not be in the form of loans, but rather in reparations. They may claim that there is no money available, but this is patently nonsense when trillions of dollars miraculously materialise when there own economies are in peril, only to vanish into the never-ending coffers of their financial institutions.

We support the People’s Agreement on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, agreed by more than 30,000 people from over 100 countries who took part in the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

We consider inadmissible that current negotiations propose the creation of new mechanisms that extend and promote the carbon market, for existing mechanisms have not resolved the problem of climate change nor led to real and direct actions to reduce greenhouse gases.

For more information please see:

You can see the film here:

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Toxic Tour

Today I went on a toxic tour of South Durban, one of the most polluted places in Africa. The area is home to a host of polluting industries. Foremost among these is a petroleum refinery run by Shell and a paper plant owned by the Anglo-American Mondi company. Both these plants were visible from a beautiful prospect to which we were taken by the toxic tour. After this, we continued on to another prospect that overlooks the Engen refinery:

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Our toxic tour guide, Des D’sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), explained to us that 80% of the country’s crude oil comes through Durban. The area around the refinery was industrialized in the 1930s, pushing out peasant communities and indentured farmers. The river running through the area was canalized and turned into a sluice for all the toxic effluents produced by local industries. These include not just the refinery and the paper plant, but also a huge landfill that leaches materials into the canal.

The people of this area, Des argued, are already products of displacement during the apartheid era. Now the city wants to displace them again by building a deep-water port and connections between this port and the extant one in Durban, which is already the largest in east Africa. We never thought, Des explained, that a democratically elected government could do the same thing to us as had the apartheid regime.

Des argued that COP17 has been captured by polluters. Once the conference ends, he predicted, it’ll be back to business as usual. To illustrate this point he took us to the Engen refinery, which, he explained, produces 155,000 barrels of oil a day, but has not been significantly upgraded since it was built in 1953. One of the tanks he took us to see caught fire in 2007, burning 30,000 tons of benzine. The Engen refinery is surrounded by communities whose protests have effectively shut it down numerous times after explosions and similar hazardous events have taken place. There is still no plan for emergency evacuation of the area, Des told us.

Des’s descriptions of the struggles waged by the community were made more poignant by the fact that we were trailed, throughout our toxic tour, by both state police and private security guards from Engen. As if that weren’t enough, a small plane flew round in circles over our heads during each stop. When we arrived at the front gate of the Engen refinery, the police turned out in force, wearing riot gear and with a water cannon. You can see them in the background as Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange talks about the need for a constitutional provision respecting the Rights of Nature:

Although direct action had been promised for this demonstration, in the event we simply lined up in front of the refinery and demanded that it be closed. Perhaps this was enough of an action since there were many members of the media in attendance. During one of our previous stops, I asked Des what we as international visitors and observers could do to support his struggle. He replied that they are under tremendous pressure for their work. When you’ve gone, he said, perhaps we’ll all be arrested. So it’s important that you stay in touch and continue to support our struggle when you go home.

I want to close this account of the toxic tour with some footage of Des leading chants against Engen. As Joel Kovel remarked to me, Des is a true organic intellectual. He’s also a very brave man:


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Viva La Via Campesina! Viva!

This morning I went on a march with La Via Campesina, the wonderful international peasant organization. Prior to the march, they released a press statement in which they set forth a sweeping critique of the current dysfunctional capitalist system:

La Via Campesina has called for mobilizations in Durban and around the world to demand a change of the entire capitalist system. The fight against climate change is a fight against neoliberal capitalism, landlessness, dispossession, hunger, poverty and inequality. The crisis of the planet requires that we take direct action. During the agro-ecology and food sovereignty day we will have public protest marches to the conference of the polluters, actions against multinational corporations like Monsanto undermining our seed sovereignty, which will culminate in a massive Assembly of the Oppressed to discuss ways of ending this unjust system.

Stirring and very brave words, these. Unfortunately they seem to be falling on largely deaf ears among both the global elites and the dominant NGO sector at the UN conference on climate change.

Despite this depressing background, the march was an amazing and completely uplifting experience. Here are some photos:

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The thing that makes the experience here in Durban so joyful and positive is the vibrant resistance culture that survives in South Africa. Only being present in the flesh can truly give one a sense of the electricity of being in the streets in Durban, but here are a few brief video clips that give a sense of this vibrancy. Check out the lyrics of this song, which explain why the singers are socialists:


And here’s an amazing song about solidarity:


During the march, the streets were turned into a political church, a theater of the spirit, by amazing choral singing. They also became a theater of resistance. Check out the gestures of defiance directed at our police escort:


And here’s a taste of the power of song as we marched:


Finally, here’s an example of the famous toyi-toyi, which used to scare the hell out of the cops during the apartheid era:

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The Rights of Nature

This afternoon I attended a panel about the Rights of Nature with some of the foremost international proponents of the notion:

  • Cormac Cullinan (lawyer and author of Wild Nature)
  • Shannon Biggs (lawyer and director of Community Rights Program at Global Exchange)
  • Tom Goldtooth (member of the Indigenous Environmental Network)
  • Natalia Greene (Ecuadorian activist and Political Program Coordinator at Fundacion Pachamam).

Cormac Cullinan: We have been so brought up to think that only people can have rights that the first thing we need to do is to “think the unthinkable” (Christopher Stone).  Either we humans think of ourselves as separate and superior, or we understand that we are part of Mother Earth and that our imaginations and all other aspects of our lives are deeply and irrevocably shaped by this living system called Earth. At the time that I wrote Wild Law, many regarded this as a wacky idea, despite the fact that most indigenous cultures around the planet believe in these ideas. The great contribution that Ecuador made was to legitimate the notion of Rights of Earth by incorporating them into their constitution. The discussion now shifted to whether it would work.

Today we need to find practical examples of how to implement this approach. Bolivia is following, as are some municipalities in the US. I want to touch on the political implications of this. There was a discussion two days ago led by Pablo Solon; it was really interesting to see people wrestling with these ideas. We’ve come to understand that you can’t have it both ways: either you see yourself in holistic terms as part of the system and that our world being is derived from the whole, and therefore maintaining the integrity and functioning of the whole is essential for our life being, or you view yourself as separate.

What we’re talking about here is a shift of Copernican magnitude. Of course this was initially resisted by authorities at the time. The Church made Galileo recant. Today we face a similar potential shift.

Shannon Biggs next discussed the obstacles to Rights for Nature: The biggest issue right now is that the law supports the rights of property owners. I’m working with a community in Pittsburgh which has used the Rights of Nature to prevent hydrofracking. What if our legal system saw us as a part of nature rather than above it. What prevents this is a sense of colonization. The people of Pittsburgh don’t want fracking in general, but a small number of people are getting their way in pushing it forward. When I work with communities, the biggest challenge I see is getting over the colonization of minds: people can’t believe that they can challlege and throw away laws. We need to provoke a change in this mindset. That’s 90% of the work we do in communities. 140 ordinances have been passed in communities around the US; the problem, though, is that although they’ve been passed, they haven’t been implemented.

Natalia Greene: At the moment we’re working with three communities in Ecuador. Each has been working on Rights of Nature for a long time. In a way, we’ve all been working for this for some time without using this framing. What the biggest obstacle we face? The notion that we have to develop. We need the money from development in order to fund education, health services, etc. So the greatest obstacle is our mindset. Another major obstacle is the legal profession, which has been taught that only people can have rights. But, in addition, we’re all part of this system – we’ve all ridden in a car powered by gasoline at some point.

In Ecuador, we’re also working with indicators in order to help figure out how to implement the idea. But perhaps the biggest problem is that we’re willing to see Nature as an object that can be turned into a commodity. This attitude is really shaping current discussions here in Durban. Nothing useful is going on in COP17. It’s civil society that is progressing in this regard. We need to find a way to bring us back together.

Cormac Cullinan: Cultures have always had ways to talking about something like rights. We need to decide whether we are going to keep this concept. The danger of jettisoning it is that it has gained significant traction on the international stage. There’s also a long history of Rights gaining traction in the US.  It’s a lot of more understandabe than many of the other ideas that circulate around the world.

Tom Goldtooth: A basic issue is the question of how we go about a process of cultural transformation. For example, as indigenous peoples we are confronted with Christianity’s concepts of dominion. We have to confront the way in which this concept of having dominion over the land has been incorporated into governance documents. Steve Newcombe’s Pagans in the Promised Land focuses on this issue, arguing that we have to confront our relationship to the sacred and remake this.

Cormac Cullinan: I agree that we have to change our mindset, but we also need to change the external systems that reward exploitative behavior. CEOs are working within companies, for example, that are organized according to legal systems that not only encourage but mandate exploitative behavior. This is why we need a rights based movement that is advocating a just and balanced relationship between our species and other beings.

Shannon Biggs: This is a struggle for justice against oppression. People’s movements such as the abolition movement have only ever won victories through concerted and united struggle.

We’re also honored to have Desmond D’sa here, who is Chairperson of both the Wentworth Development Forum and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. We all need to go to south Durban and stand in solidarity with Desmond and his community.

Desmond D’sa: Although we’ve got a progressive constitution in South Africa, we need to fight to make sure that Right of Nature gets incorporated. It’s also clear from this week that the people of the world have spoken, and that we are opposed to the destruction of Mother Earth. Let’s not lose the momentum and let’s not allow anyone to divide us.

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We’re fucked!

To put some perspective on the passionate calls for systemic change that I’ve been detailing in this blog, an article just ran in the New York Times announcing that “global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery.” According to the article, this increase of 5.9% is the largest absolute increase in any year since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

To underscore the gravity of this situation, various scientific bodies have released reports emphasizing that the world has only a few years left to make significant cuts to prevent run-away climate change. As a recent article in The Guardian explains,


The United Nations Environment Programme’s Bridging the Emissions Gap report shows that, even if all countries implement their emissions targets for 2020 to their maximum extent, total emissions in that year will still exceed the level required to hold global warming to the UN’s 2C goal. Further action is needed now, it pointed out, if this emissions gap is to be closed. At the same time, the International Energy Agency warned that the world has only five years seriously to start replacing fossil fuels by low carbon energy and energy efficiency. Failure to make the required investment by 2017 would “lock in” high future emissions to such an extent that the 2C goal would become unattainable.

How are the elite negotiators meeting in downtown Durban at the IFCCC reacting to this situation? According to this same Guardian article, some delegates here at the UNFCCC are arguing that a new round of negotiations shouldn’t even begin until 2015, and that the targets implemented by such eventual talks shouldn’t kick in until after 2020.

There appear to be two main sides in the conflict here in Durban. On one side are the countries most vulnerable to climate change – the small islands and least developed nations – and the European Union. This group wants negotiations on a new legal agreement to begin next year, to conclude in 2015, and to enter into force as early as possible thereafter (the EU has said no later than 2020).

On the other side is an unlikely alliance of the usual developed country laggards – the US, Canad, Russia, and Japan– and two of the largest emerging economies, China and India. It is this side that is advocating that no new negotiations should start until after 2015 at the earliest.

Given this impasse, it’s very hard not to feel that we’re all truly fucked. Of course, the real question that then arises is who is gonna get fucked first and hardest. And that question is already evident on the ground. Last night, for example, I went down to the tent where the South African Rural Women’s Movement is holding its meetings. Large groups of women were sitting there on chairs in a bright white tent watching a film on a big screen tv. The film had interviews with rural leaders who details, in a sobering parade, how climate change is already making life far more difficult for farmers in the world’s poor nations. Far from being “least developed,” which of course implies a temporal lag, these people are inhabiting a future of climate change-driven scarcity, duress, and conflict that the rest of us in the overdeveloped nations will soon come to know.

If only the voices of people’s movements that surround me were to be heard in the air conditioned meeting halls of the UNFCCC. But their cries of alarm, along with the stern warnings of scientists around the world, are falling on deaf ears. And this seems to just the beginning of the holocaust that is about to enfold the planet.

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Strategizing the International Movement for Environmental Justice

This panel was hosted by RIGAS, the Italian Network for Environmental and Social Justice. They believe that there is a real need for discussion among the various different social networks in order to work together to get out of the present crisis.

Three speakers will present: Ivonne Yanez of Acción Ecológica; Lea; Trevor Ngwane, founder of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee; Guiseppe de Riga of A Sud (Italy); Rafael Quispe ; Nnimo Basi.

Initial questions: how can we build a new theory bringing together social and enviornmental justice with the objective of creating a new society; how can we build a social movement capable of having impact on the present crisis.

Trevor Ngwane spoke first. He began by explaining that we can only win through solidarity as the only way forward. In this sense, the Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99% resonates.” The anti-apartheid struggle was won through unity of COSATU, the union movement, with UDF, the united democratic front. But more than that, the anti-apartheid movement was an international movement. In the liberated South Africa, we find we face many of the same problems of the apartheid era: the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In Soweto, after independence, we faced the problem of the commodification of electricity, with the government increasing prices and cutting people off in order to enforce payment. So we acted collectively, but we also engaged in direct action – we reconnected ourselves when they cut us off. There was a similar struggle with water, with the government installing pre-payment meters before we can get access to water. The response was to remove these meters and let the water flow.

We then generalized this under the slogan, “Free basic services for all.” This makes sense to us since many people are unemployed in South Africa. Many of those who work don’t get a living wage because of casualization of labor. Even this university is cleaned by outsourced workers, many of whom will lose their jobs at the end of this month because their contract is ending.

In many other townships in South Africa, you have “service delivery protests.” Township residents burn tires in the road, burn the major’s car and house. These same protests are happening all over South Africa, but the problem is that they are happening in isolation. People’s protests are intended to make them the first ones to receive services. These acts ARE radical, but they also eat away the foundations of solidarity. We also have big strike waves, and particularly in 2010, with the biggest public strikes in our nation’s history. But the tendency is for isolated struggle rather than solidarity. The violence in the strikes compensates for a weakness in solidarity.

We realize, though, that while we call for basic services for all, we don’t want that at the cost of Mother Earth. So we want a shift away from electricity delivered from coal-fired power plants. We therefore feel like we want to link up with environmental movements. We are the reds, and we want to link up with the greens. We also realize that we have to work with the trade unions because we need help to build houses and deliver services for other people.

We were once part of the anti-privatization forum, but it died. The movements that last longest are those with a broad rather than a narrow vision. This is because sometimes the government will buy you off. For example, the government in Johannesburg attempted to stop us by putting a moratorium on cut-offs; luckily we were able to broaden our vision to other issues like education.

Ivonne Yanez was up next. She began by saying that in order to think about the present moment we need to look over our history. In the global North, for example, struggles over land have been important. The struggle over the Tar Sands is partly about land, for example. Another example could be the struggle over labor. In the global South, struggles have been a bit different. Most of all, they have centered on attempts to preserve collective rights. In addition, they have also hinged on anti-imperialism.

Despite a history of misunderstandings, we have found ways to link up movements between global North and South. For example, Accíon Ecológica left Friends of the Earth in 2003 because we felt our struggle was different. But conditions seem different now. We see a huge concentration of power in the 1%. New hegemonies, including the rise of China and Brazil and the other BRIC countries.

What is the context in Latin America? We have socialist governments that are supposedly leaving “the long night of neoliberalism.” But these are still capitalist governments in basic ways. In addition, these countries are more or less continuing to perpetuate continuing degradation of the environment.

We’re also seeing novel social movements emerge, such as the Spanish indignados. In South Africa, the social movements are very strong, but are not articulated to one another and therefore are fighting alone.

So the main point is that we have to find common basic points in order to build an international movement. I don’t believe that climate change should be the thing that is going to unite us. I think that water will unite us. Struggles against shale gas in the US are fundamentally about water, just as struggles for pure water are fundamentally what is at stake in Ecuador. We need to make sure that progress in one area of the world doesn’t come at the expense of people in other parts of the world.

Another common issue is energy. Many of us are fighting to gain access to energy and prevent it remaining in a few hands. Fossil fuels could be a basis for common struggle. For example, I recently received an email from someone in the Occupy Wall Street movement asking about the Yasunization of the world.

Another issue is “climate jobs.” What is a climate job? A South African building solar panels with technology from South Africa and materials from China for a family in Denmark. We need to think this through carefully.

Finally, I want to finish with the notion of the Rights of Nature. As an Ecuadorian, I’m extremely proud that this right is recognized in our constitution. But is it a good idea to have a global coalition around such rights? Perhaps jumping layers could destroy a good cause. The notion of Rights of Nature is one of the most radical concepts of the last 500 years, but if we don’t understand in our communities what these rights are, we may end up in competition rather than solidarity. We need to use this concept to confront capitalism, to confront “ecosystem services,” to confront the Clean Development Mechanism.  Only then will we be able to have an international network, one that will be protected by local communities.

Maybe one other platform could be criminalization. All over the world, more and more people who are struggling against economic and ecological harms are being criminalized.

Finally, it seems to me that our struggle needs to be based on compromise and mutual respect.

Leah Temper of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who works on ecological economics. Arguing for a more activist science. We coordinate EJOLT, a science and society program funded by the EU. What can ecological economics provide to the struggle for environmental justice. Need to put political issues back inside political economy by situating struggles over environmental issues into relation with broader social struggles. Challenging, for example, the argument that in the North we are decoupling development from environmental degradation. This is totally false: exploitation of resources is simply being displaced to other countries. We analyze material energy flows in order to challenge new governance structures associated with new carbon flows. So we look at human appropriation of primary production in order to understand how biofuel directives in the EU are linked to land grabbing in the global South.

What kind of global movement can we create? At AUB, we argue for a degrowth economy. What we want to degrow are the material and energy throughputs of the economy. This involves rethinking work and returning to the commons, a re-commoning of many resources, both on the side of production and consumption. This isn’t about individual consumption decisions, but rather structural transformation of the economy. Our biggest allies are the environmental justice movements taking place in the South. Our biggest challenge is how to make links with these movements. Key here is fighting enclosures taking place in the South because of our consumption in the North.

Guiseppe de Riga of A Sud. The first thing we need to do to build a new social movement is to meditate on the crisis we face. This is a truly unique structural crisis that encompasses all aspects of the system: energy, food, economy, politics. We are not going to overcome this crisis with empty slogans or old simplistic nostrums. In order to build a new international movement we mustn’t separate radical or reformist movement, but rather engage with our specific struggles. There are three major issues to confront: the system of production, means of subsistence, and the patterns of consumption.  All over the world we are facing these three issues: environmental crimes, environmental refugees, etc. What we’re saying is that we need to develop a new model of human liberation. It’s not an issue of climate justice or social justice but democracy – that’s the main core issue of it.

Here’s an example of how democracy is at stake in this issue. We’ve all witnessed the failure of global governance in face of climate change. In Italy, we won a major victory in a referendum against the privatization of water services. We were not supported by any political parties, but rather used constitutional tools to stop the privatization of water. But it didn’t turn out this way. The results of the referendum were never applied. So what should we do now that we see that democracy doesn’t work? What is the point of all this? So the point of all this is how we can create a form of democracy that can involve all citizens. After all, are we here in Durban just as witnesses, or are we going to change the relations of power?

This means that participatory democracy needs to be part of our daily practice. This will allow us to build new languages, new forms of political practice. We also need to transform the energy system and the production system, which means its essential to talk to workers. This process may produce contradictions, but we cannot be dissuaded by such difficulties. We need to have unity in diversity.

To close, many European newspapers stress that productive forces need to hurry up because we don’t have any time. But we also have no time because we live in a society in which everything happens at the speed of light.

Nnimmo Bassey of the International Oil Watch Movement. Good evening. I’ve been yelling “leave the oil in the soil, etc.” all day, and when I got out of the cab, the driver told me to “leave the change in the cab.” We have leaders here in Durban who are nothing more than carbon speculators. So we have all these false solutions receiving the attention of global leaders (or non-leaders). So this critical issue of wealth creation without production, and continuing dispossession of workers, is fundamental for us. It means we need to challenge power frontally. As Bob Marley said, a hungry man is an angry man. Most of the people who go to bed hungry are farmers. Most of these farmers are women. They are forced to sell whatever they produce to pay for other things. So the farmers are organizing to challenge the fat cats who are gaining from farming.

What are we going to do? The Climate Justice Movement must expand its scope. We need to bring all sectors of labor into the movement, because labor will be able to challenge industry. Labor is now really ready to push for a transition away from dirty energy. This is an opportunity we have to make a shift to a new planet.

Raffael Quispe, a Bolivian indigenous leader with CONAMAQ was next, talked about President Evo Morales’s plan to construct a highway through the Amazonian rainforest. There’s a global economic and ecological crisis, a structural crisis of the capitalist model. Today it’s the emerging economies that are the new pro-capitalists, where the new extractive economy is taking hold. Before it was the big oil companies that were extracting oil from our territories, but now it’s quasi-governmental companies that are doing this. The way forward is to create a new global alliance between social movements and social groups. I’ve been to all the COPs – they’re just a distraction. The only thing being talked about there is commodification and how the elites can make money off environmental destruction.  The same thing will happen here. There will be no binding agreements for emissions reductions. So civil society and the social movements need to join together and fight to change the system.

Vilma Mazza of Ya Basta! We’re living through a time of systemic crisis of capitalism. It’s a different phase, as the near total collapse of the Euro suggests. The dictatorship of finance capital is stronger than ever. People wake up to listen to the radio not to get news about the weather but about the market, which is more unstable than the weather. This suggests that we mustn’t just adjust the system but rather transform it. All the mediations that capital put into place before – welfare etc – has been dismantled. All that’s left is the violence of capital. So we need to build a sweeping alternative. We can’t keep carrying on in the same way.

The session ended with a series of Questions and Answers that explored the limits to contemporary trannsformative movements.

Leah Temper mentioned that she has a movie dealing with degrowth.  Here it is:

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