Friday 19 December 2014

Ending The Fast Death of the Future

Time for a Peoples CODESA on the Climate Crisis and the Just Transition

(Published online in the Mail &Guardian :

In a surprising departure from the corporate controlled narrative on climate change, the New York Times (30/11/2014), during the build up to the recent UN-COP20 climate summit in Lima, Peru, ran a front-page story in which climate experts warn:

that it now may be impossible to prevent the temperature of the planet’s atmosphere from rising by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding — events that could harm the world’s population and economy.

The surprising coverage by the New York Times  went on to suggest a rising rate of emissions has left us with two future possibilities: an unpleasant  world of climate crisis, chaos and disruption or a world with a global deal that ensures the planet is habitable. Either way the future we are facing is grim. However, for climate justice activists gathered in the people’ s space and on the streets in Lima, two decades of failing to reach a global deal required a different approach: a bold rejection of the pro-market and false solutions of the UN COP process such as carbon trading, the Clean Development Mechanism, finance solutions that fail to acknowledge the climate debt of rich northern nations and the commodification of forest land (through the infamous REDD+ scheme).  At the same time, activists have called for urgent action to advance transformative alternatives for system change as part of the people-driven just transition. The position of ‘no to false solutions but system change now’ has to be explained to appreciate why this is the necessary way forward to secure human and non-human life.

In 2000, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize winning atmospheric chemist, introduced the term the ‘Anthropocene Age’. Through this concept he has theorised an unprecendented  human effect on our planet’s life systems, equal in force and impact to a great geological event. However, Crutzen’s notion of the human as a geological force, in the Anthropocene, fails to appreciate how power works in class-based capitalist societies. Put simply, Crutzen has failed to appreciate it is not humans in general but capital that is the real geological force destroying planetary life. Capital through its organisation of production, distribution, consumption and social life, driven by the need to make short term profits, has overshot planetary limits, undermined natural cycles and threatens human beings with extinction in the context of climate change. Capital in this context has become a geological force capable of ending human and non-human life. It is wired into a systemic logic of eco-cide and is incapable of solving the climate crisis.

Moreover, over the past three decades of transnational techno-financial capitalism our world moves at a dizzying speed. Social life, history and change have dramatically sped up. This includes the super speeds of nano-technologies, fast food and hyper-mobile globalised financial flows. At the heart of this is an addiction to growth, premised on the assumption of unlimited accumulation. In this context capitalist modernity, with its mastery of science and technology, has convinced capital that it is the conqueror of nature as well as its master. As a master it seeks to reduce nature to being a commodity, while ending an alternative conception of nature: nature  as a commons. Thus, this commodifying illusion, informs the market based techno-fixes of capital, like carbon trading, which operate with the idea of no limits to capital.  Yet the world is facing finite resources, over-consumption by a few and widespread pollution of rivers, land, forests, oceans and the biosphere. Hence with capital prevailing over the UN climate process we are heading for the fast death of our future.

Finally, with the current trajectory of an increasing rate of carbon emissions,  carbon concentration (over 400 ppm) and a rapidly heating planet, climate justice movements are thinking hard about securing our common future. In this regard they seek to counter two possible futures we face. First, in various Pentagon research reports, well documented by Christian Parenti in his book  Tropic of Chaos, the Pentagon envisages a world of climate induced chaos. In this context, it seeks to use its awesome military power to discipline such zones of chaos while protecting ‘life boat America’. This is the ultimate fascist solution. Second, a view of our future argued by Rebecca Sonlit in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, recognises a pattern of human purpose and civic virtue, coming to the fore in the context of disasters like the great San Francisco earthquake and hurricane Katrina. Her book assumes the Manichean make up of human nature, with its disposition for evil and good, but she documents a pattern in which altruism and mutual aid manifests in the context of disasters. While such a view celebrates the human spirit as a means to confront the adversity of the future, and is generally a progressive response, it tends to work with an implicit fatalism and comes short in terms of grappling with the agency required for system change now.

Instead, and I would argue, a system change perspective is grounded in appreciating that the pattern of history informing our future derives from the 20th century. Essentially, the 20th century was marked by a contest between two sets of social forces, championing contrary principles: on one side social forces championing ‘competition’, and on the other, social forces championing ‘solidarity’. It is this pattern of struggle and its understanding of human nature, as socially determined, that best equips us to confront and secure the future now. It is this perspective that also enables us to champion system change alternatives in the present.

An important example in this regard is the rights of nature alternative. Its power as a transformative alternative was demonstrated in Lima, through a sitting of the International Tribunal in Defence of the Rights of Nature. The tribunal brought forth an incredible creativity by activists to demonstrate the power of this alternative. Factual testimony, rhetorical inventiveness, valorising culture and evoking lost histories became crucial activist strategies before the tribunal to expose how capital is destroying rain forests, ancestoral lands, water systems and communities, as it scrambles for fossil fuels and minerals, through predatory extractivism. Fracking in the United States, now standing  at 800 000 gas and oil wells, stood out as the source of ‘fraccidents’ like earthquakes, pollution of water resources and a second wave of  genocidal violence against native Americans. Beyond testimony, activist voices also highlighted how the rights of nature were an effective transformative discourse, providing a recourse to challenge such destructive practices, if enshrined in national laws or sub-national regulations. In seven states in the US, fracking is now banned. In short, the rights of nature alternative places a limit on capital’s avaricious pillaging.

In addition to the rights of nature, other alternatives such as food sovereignty, solidarity economy, rights based carbon budgets, climate jobs, socially owned renewables, affordable mass public transport are all adding up to a counter-paradigm to capitalist modernity, redefining a relationship between humans and nature and advancing a logic of systemic change. As part of the just transition such alternatives seek a society based on solidarity to sustain all forms of life. In South Africa the time for the just transition has arrived so we can all survive climate change. As a response to the climate crisis it affords us an opportunity to address the failings of South Africa’s  transition to democracy: inequality, unemployment, hunger, white privilege, ecological destruction and dispossession. It affords us an opportunity to build a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it, black and white, such that the wealthy pay the price for this achievement and we realise Nelson Mandela’s dream.

While the ANC state has a declaratory commitment to green growth, green jobs and even a notion of the ‘just transition’ in the National Development Plan, this is merely empty policy speak and an add-on to carbon markets, renewed extractivism (including fracking), fossil fuel energy sources, nuclear, corporate controlled renewables, export-led agriculture and  de-industrialisation of  transport and renewables manufacturing. Essentially the ANC state has surrendered to market centred green neoliberalism  and the logic of eco-cide. Hence it has shown itself incapable of leading a deep and transformative just transition. Instead, such a transition has to be led from below by forces like the NUMSA-led United Front, the emerging Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Solidarity Economy Movement, community-mining networks and rural movements. Such forces need to champion a ‘Peoples CODESA’ on the climate crisis and the just transition, before it is to late.

Author: Dr. Vishwas Satgar is a Wits University academic and an activist.  This article draws on a talk he was invited to give at a parallel event to the UN-COP20 summit on ‘Systemic Alternatives and Power’. 

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