System Change not Climate Change! Taking direct action for climate justice

Aug 7, 2010

System Change not Climate Change! Taking direct action for climate justice

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In 2009, indigenous peoples throughout the world called for a global mobilisation ‘in defence of mother earth’ on October 12, reclaiming the day that used to be imposed as ‘Columbus Day’. Responding to this call, and the demand for a day of action for ‘system change, not climate change’ issued by the global movements gathered in Copenhagen last year, Climate Justice Action is proposing a day of direct action for climate justice on October 12, 2010.

Today, we know…

For years, many had hoped that governments, international summits, even the very industries and corporations that caused the problem in the first place, would do something, anything to stop climate change. In December 2009, at the 15th global climate summit in Copenhagen (COP15), that hope was revealed as an illusion: a comfortable way to delude ourselves into believing that ‘someone else’ could solve the problem for us. That ‘someone’ would make the crisis go away. That there was someone ‘in charge’.

Today, after the disaster of COP15, we are wiser. Today we know:

- That we cannot expect UN-negotiations to solve the climate crisis for us. Governments and corporations are unable (even if they were willing) to deliver equitable and effective action on the root causes of climate change.

- That the climate crisis isn’t a natural process, nor is it accidental. Rather, it’s the inevitable outcome of an economic system that is bound to pursue infinite economic growth at all costs.

- That only powerful climate justice movements can achieve the structural changes that are necessary, whether it is through ending our addiction to fossil fuels, replacing industrial agriculture with local systems of food sovereignty, halting systems based on endless growth and consumption, or addressing the historical responsibility of the global elites’ massive ecological debt to the global exploited.

Today we know that is up to all of us to collectively reclaim power over our daily lives. It is we who must start shutting down and moving beyond the engines of capitalism, the burning of fossil fuels, the conversion of all life into commodities, and the toxic imaginaries of consumerism. It is we who must create different ways of living, other ways of organising our societies.

Today we know that climate justice means taking action ourselves.

The 12th of October: then, and now

As the COP15 came crashing down, so did any remaining belief in the capacity of UN-negotiations to implement equitable or effective solutions. As they plan to stage their 16th summit in Cancun, Mexico, it is becoming clear already that the movements will need to put up a strong fight to stop any attempt to use the UN to profit from the crisis through privatising our forests and carving up our atmosphere. But real and just solutions to the climate crisis will come from elsewhere – we must create other strategies, find other ways out of the crisis.

In the ashes of the COP15, a meeting of global movements proposed organising a global day of action under the banner ‘System Change not Climate Change’. Climate Justice Action, the network responsible for organising some of the disobedient actions in Copenhagen, took up this suggestion by calling for a ‘global day of direct action for climate justice’. Rather than once again following the global summit circus around the world, being forced into nothing but a reaction to their failures, we decided to set our own rhythm and our own schedule for change.

On the 12th of October, 1492, Christopher Columbus first set foot on the landmass that we know today as the Americas, marking the beginning of centuries of colonialism. Thus began the globalisation of a system of domination of the Earth and its people in the eternal pursuit for growth, the subordination of life to the endless thirst for profit. Latin America’s liberation at the beginning of the 19th century put an end to direct rule by foreign crowns, but failed to put an end to the exploitation of the many for the benefit of a few. Instead, this system has become ever more pervasive, reaching to the bottom of the ocean, to the clouds above us, and to the farthest depths of our dreams. This is the system that is causing the climate crisis, and it has a name: capitalism.

This day has recently been reclaimed by movements of indigenous peoples – those who first felt the wrath, the violence, the destructive force of this project – as a day ‘in Defense of Mother Earth’. On May 31, 2009, the IV Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples of Abya Yala (the Americas) called for a Global Mobilization “In defence of Mother Earth and Her People and against the commercialization of life, pollution and the criminalization of indigenous and social movements”.

Today it is all of us, and the entire planet, who increasingly suffer the fate that some five centuries ago befell the indigenous of the Americas and their native lands. Then, it was the colonisers’ mad search for the profit obtained from precious metals that drove them to wipe out entire cultures; today, it is capital’s search for fossil fuels to drive its mad, never-ending expansion, that still wipes out entire cultures, and causes the climate crisis. Then, they were enslaved and often killed to provide labour to the infernal machines of Europe; now, we are all enslaved and exploited to provide labour to the infernal machines of capital. Then, it was a continent and its people that was driven to destruction; today, it is a world and its people that is being driven to destruction. Today, we are all the global exploited.

Of course, not all life submitted to the rule of capital in a single day. Capitalism is a complex web of social relations that took centuries to emerge and dominate almost the entire planet. Nor will we bring down the entire system, or build a new world, in a single day. This day is a symbol, and symbols matter. This day is the unveiling of the root causes of the climate crisis – capitalism. It is an affirmation that – wherever you live and whatever your struggle – we struggle against capital and for other worlds, together.

There’s only one crisis

But why focus on the fight for climate justice at a time when, all around the world, people are losing their jobs, governments are imposing austerity measures, all while the banks are once again posting their exorbitant profits? Doesn’t the ‘economic crisis’ trump the ‘climate crisis’? This perspective, however, looks at the world from above and outside of it. Seen from above, there is a ‘climate crisis’, caused by too much CO2 in the atmosphere, which is a threat to future stability and future profit margins; seen from above, there is an economic crisis, which is a threat to current stability and current profit margins; seen from above, there is an energy crisis, a food crisis, a water crisis… But from where we stand, there are no separate crises. There are only threats to our livelihoods, our reproduction – in short, our survival: it doesn’t matter whether it is a physical tsunami that destroys our houses, or a tsunami of destruction wrought by recession. Either way, we end up homeless.

The reason we can’t treat the apparently separate crises as separate? They are all symptoms of the same sickness. They are, all of them, the result of capital’s need for eternal growth, a cancerous growth that is fueled by the ever-expanding exploitation of social and natural ‘resources’ – including fossil fuels. Crisis is, in fact, the standard mode of operation for this global system.

To struggle for climate justice, then, is to recognise that all these crises are linked; that the climate crisis is as much as social and economic crisis as it is an environmental disaster. To struggle for climate justice is at the same time struggling against the madness of capitalism, against austerity enforced from above, against their insistence on the need for continued ‘growth’ (green or otherwise). Climate justice isn’t about saving trees or polar bears – though we probably should do both. It is about empowering communities to take back power over their own lives. It is about leaving fossil fuels in the ground and creating socialised renewable energy systems; it is about food sovereignty against the domination of, and destruction caused, by industrial agribusiness; it is about massively reducing working hours, and starting to live different lives; it is about reducing overproduction for overconsumption by elites in the North and the South. Climate justice, in short, is the struggle for a good life for us all.

Global movements for climate justice

In April this year more than 30,000 people came together in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC). Together we produced a ‘Peoples’ Agreement’ which offered a different way forward, a counterbalance to the failure of the neoliberal market driven ‘solutions’ peddled in the COPs. Despite its submission to the UN, it was completely ignored at the intersessional meeting of the UNFCCC in Bonn, Germany.

The failure of the UNFCCC to respond to the Peoples Conference is of no surprise to us, and as was perhaps the intention of its submission, it has only further delegitimised the COP process. Perhaps most importantly, it has once again shown that it is only ‘the movement’ that can bring about real changes for climate justice. But what is this movement, and where are its edges? Movement is precisely that – movement. The movement is all those moments when we consciously push a different way of living into existence; when we operate according to our many other values rather than the single Value of capital. And now we are trying to make these moments resonate.

We invite all those who fight for social and ecological justice to organise direct actions targeting climate criminals and false solutions, or creating real alternatives. This means taking direct responsibility for making change happen, not lobbying others to act on your behalf, but through actively closing things down and opening things up. This is an open callout, we are not picking targets. But it is not a day for marches or petitions: it is time for us to reclaim our power, and take control of our lives and futures.