In this blog, I consider Climate Justice and the task of reconciling indigenous beliefs with those of the dominant culture. It started life as part of a piece of work which I knew had become too ‘radical’ for its purpose but I couldn’t just delete it, so here I am, almost a year later, with another blog. For Percy.
The crux of climate justice, or indeed any aspect of environmental and social justice, is how one views humanity’s place within the global ecosystem (aka ‘the world’). Definitions of ‘climate justice’ and ideas for how it may be achieved fall either side of a fundamental schism; a split we’ve been aware of for centuries but are unable to accept, let alone repair. Regardless of their origin, the words attributed to Chief Seattle regarding the strange concept of buying land and the sacred nature of all life resonate with indigenous peoples the world over. But not with ‘us’.
From the wonderful Gary Larson
In essence, does the earth belong to humanity, or humanity to the earth? Is the planet ‘private property’ or ‘global commons’. Did we evolve here on Earth over millions of years or were we created by ‘God’ a few thousand years ago to use all of nature’s bounty? We are in the realm of beliefs and perceptions, cultural biases and blindfolds but unless we can find some way to agree on these fundamental questions, all the activism in the world won’t stimulate ordered change.
Rate of change
It is generally agreed amongst the scientific community that our climate is changing and emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as how we use the land and the oceans, are contributing significantly to this change. There’s nothing new about life leading to global change; plants spewed out tonnes of poisonous oxygen and destroyed the anoxic world in which they came to be some two billion or more years ago. Some argue that humans are doing similar and this is just a new stage in Earth history – the so-called Anthropocene. Earth systems are dynamic but in balance. Change is always accommodated in one way or another, but beyond a certain rate of change ecosystems will collapse rather than adapt in a seamless transition. And I don’t think the plants ‘knew what they were doing’!
Civilisation as we know it has come about, in part, thanks to the relatively stable global climate experienced since the last Ice Age ‘ended’ some 12,000 years ago. With the retreat of the ice, forest cover extended north, as did people. As the climate remained relatively stable, and depending on how rich an environment one found oneself in, some people began to grow some foods while still hunting for and gathering others – all food for the community. Over time, from place to place, people settled down as they were able to grow their food close to where they lived, and use the time not spent migrating to improve their lives in some way; perhaps specialising in activities other than growing food but which still benefitted the community. Making pots and clothes, or healing the sick – definitely not helping with tax returns. Improving your life and the lives of those around you is a good thing. This could be called ‘progress’. But attempts to control nature in this way will, in some cases, have failed. If too many people have forgotten the outmoded hunter-gatherer ways, the community may no longer know what’s safe to eat nor have the skills to hunt.
For how long did the memory of the ‘days of ice’ remain in the stories told by early settled farmers? When did the environment become something to be feared rather than revered? It is impossible to know what happened to stimulate a shift in culture from living in balance with nature to not just controlling, but dominating nature. Once traditional skills are lost (or insufficient to produce what’s needed), communities become dependent on food grown by others. Food which must be purchased if it is not freely given. A hierarchy evolved, and wealth became attainable by those who owned the food, or controlled its production and distribution in some way. Life became easier, so we’re told; more comfortable in harsh climates, less reliant on the vageries of nature. Meanwhile, kings could build pyramids and collect non-edibles such as gems and gold. Gone were the days of the ‘leader’ having essentially the same things as the rest of his tribe; leadership no longer implied wisdom.
For the common good?
Inequity was the topic of my last post and I believe it was born when communities stopped being able to feed themselves and had to buy food from others. To buy, one needs money or some tradable good. Ways were found to store food, but grain piles now belonged to someone – they were no longer a common good grown by the community for the community. In a particularly Machiavellian twist, those adhering to this new (unjust) way of life attested that it is the ‘only’ way to live and set about destroying other cultures. There is no one way to live – the myth that there is and we’re it is the first major barrier to change.
Moving forward in time, the Bali Principles of Climate Justice (PDF here) were produced in 2002 and state, amongst other things, that “combating climate change must entail profound shifts from unsustainable production, consumption and lifestyles, with industrialized countries taking the lead” and “this unsustainable consumption exists primarily in the North, but also among elites within the South”. The Bali Principles come from representatives of indigenous people’s movements together with activist organisations working for social and environmental justice.
The first principle is, “Affirming the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, Climate Justice insists that communities have the right to be free from climate change, its related impacts and other forms of ecological destruction.” It is hardly surprising that little, if any, change has taken place in the industrialised countries to this effect because the culture of these countries does not see ‘Mother Earth’ as being ‘sacred’. Those who do not live intuitively with the land do not understand the interconnectedness of all species – it’s just ‘woo-woo’; not founded on good scientific evidence (which must really piss off the ecologists). The dominant narrative in the industrialised countries is that other species are ours to use as we see fit and our way of life is the only way. Yet those at the bottom of the (human) hierarchy are insisting that those at the top give up some of their wealth, their comforts, for reasons that make no sense to them. Never gonna happen! Unless we alter that narrative.
The Bali Principles also state that “Climate Justice requires that we, as individuals and communities, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources, conserve our need for energy; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles, re-thinking our ethics with relation to the environment and the Mother Earth; while utilizing clean, renewable, low-impact energy; and ensuring the health of the natural world for present and future generations.” How can this be reconciled with an economic system which fundamentally requires people to consume more and more of the Earth’s resources, which has to grow inexorably, and which has never had fairness at its heart? These are the questions NGOs usually fail to answer and politicians rarely think about, let alone discuss. Although Naomi Klein’s “This changes everything” might go some way to changing our blind acceptance that capitalism is the only way to live. Let’s face it, it’s not even working if you bother to look.
Back to the Stone Age
That’s the refrain we hear, those of us who even dare question endless population and economic growth. If we do not alter our behaviour and live in a more fair and sustainable way, our systems of industry, agriculture and finance will collapse. Maybe not this year, maybe not this century but they will fail. How long do you think would be long enough to transition away from this lifestyle which causes climate change to one which won’t? How long to alter global energy infrastructure to end fossil fuel reliance? All whilst keeping most people employed, of course.
People living in the ‘Stone Age’, neolithic hunter-gatherers and farmers, grew up with all the skills they needed to make their livelihood. They knew how to feed and shelter themselves and how to make all the tools they needed for this task from what grew around them. How many readers could make a simple fork from scratch, let alone provide all their own food? The Stone Age would be a picnic compared to the chaos which would reign if the just-in-time delivery of monocrops and junk food failed to fill the supermarket shelves. Demanding fundamental social change such as is required to achieve climate justice will fall on deaf ears because industrial capitalism is treated as destiny, the one and only way to live.
In today’s conflict-ridden world, those with least power are feeling the effects of climate change already. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt but in whose interest will this adaptation be? The same authoritarian power structures that caused climate change are shaping the response to it – to protect themselves. Who will be locked out of the climate-proofed gated communities of the future?
On failure of COP
It is time that all people understand why the efforts to mitigate the climate crisis have failed to date, what needs to be done now and how the social transformation which will bring about the necessary changes works. Brian Tokar’s “Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change” aims to counter misinformation about climate change and ‘solutions’ such as carbon trading, biofuels and nuclear energy. Rather than being lured by ‘green capitalism’ and technological fixes, Tokar urges us to build a social movement that reaches to the roots of the crises. He urges us to completely transform society so that it is more about creating non-hierarchical communities based on interdependence in which everyone’s basic needs are met. Tokar (more here) provides clear insight into the failures of the United Nation’s COP process and the rise of the global climate justice movement led by those on the front lines of the climate crisis.
Some argue that the seeds of that new society are here, as witnessed in the Occupy movement (it may not be visible so much now but the people and their grievances remain) and the People’s Climate March on 21 September 2014. We are all needed in this move towards climate justice but unless we agree on humanity’s place in the world, and reconcile indigenous beliefs with those of the dominant culture, we’re on a hiding to nothing.
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is a climate justice researcher. She’s also read quite a bit of Daniel Quinn.