Blue wave needs red vision
On Saturday December 5, around 50,000 activists took part in the London ‘blue wave’ demonstration against climate change. Ben Lewis was there
Organised by the Stop Climate Chaos campaign, the protest was conceived as a way of building up pressure on the great and the good assembled for the UN climate summit in Copenhagen. The event was probably the largest climate change demonstration that London has seen and it is estimated that another 8,000 marched in Glasgow on the same day.
The SCC is essentially a lobbying group that has brought together a number of different NGOs and charities ranging from Greenpeace, through Islamic Relief, to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is campaigning for “practical action by the UK” (ie, the government) “to prevent global warming rising beyond the 2ºC danger threshold” and “to provide poor countries with the resources they need to help them adapt to climate change and follow a low carbon development path”.
These aims also found reflection in the demonstration itself. The official slogans were ‘Quit dirty coal’, ‘Protect the poorest’ and ‘Act fair and fast’. The crowd was predominantly composed of the different charities, NGOs and religious organisations, as well as a fair smattering of Green Party and Liberal Democrat supporters. Although the usual left groups and campaigns were also out in force, they were well and truly outnumbered. What was particularly encouraging, however, was that so many young people were on the march. Although many had all sorts of odd ideas in their heads, they were open to discussing big political questions around ecology, capitalism and the alternatives to it. Indeed, some of the protestors had highlighted the inadequacies of the official slogans. The Co-op’s placard originally read: ‘I vote to stop climate change’, but one had been amended to: ‘I would vote to stop climate change, but none of the parties have any solutions!’
And this is the crux of the problem. At the end of the demonstration ‘blue wave’ supporters met with Gordon Brown, who later declared his support for the protest and the drive to a low-carbon economy. So, instead of exposing Brown’s hypocrisy and his shameful record on the environment, what the protest has done, amidst quite a bit of press coverage, is to allow him to pose as a dedicated environmentalist in the run-up to Copenhagen.
Before the mobilisation at Grosvenor Square, the Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) organised a rally of a couple of thousand at Speakers Corner, prior to joining the bigger march. The CACC has slightly more radical (although at times misplaced) demands (and had to deliver them to 10 Downing Street rather than discuss them with Brown). They include: the declaration of a climate emergency; 10% emission cuts and a million ‘green jobs’ by the end of 2010; a ban on domestic flights; a 55mph speed limit; and the end of agrofuel.
As usual with these affairs, there was an enormous range of speakers, many of whom repeated the same points in a slightly different fashion. There were some noteworthy speeches though.
John McDonnell MP made a strong and impassioned intervention that highlighted the “hypocrisy and cant” of a British government that will go to Copenhagen paying lip service to emissions reductions, but which will then return and push ahead with the third runway at Heathrow: “We cannot stand by and allow capitalism to plunder our planet.”
The Liberal Democrat spokesperson for energy and climate change, Simon Hughes, was in left-populist mode – firstly promoting his credentials as a cyclist (“Three Cheers for those who have cycled here today!”), and then sermonising on how “we have not understood how people have been exploiting the world” – the “greedy” who have been “putting the interests of the few before the many” and causing “the gap between the rich and the poor” to widen. He also called for “solidarity with people who have been on the receiving end” of this – particularly those in the global south.
A member of the band Seize the Day, which provided musical entertainment, spoke of her commitment to stop flying and thus reduce her carbon footprint, even though her sister was living in Australia. She explained how difficult this was, but how she was doing her bit for future generations. There was real sincerity in her voice and her commitment was palpable. But to me it highlighted one of the political problems I encountered both in the slogans and amongst the demonstrators themselves.
There is a real danger that the question of climate change is reduced to one of moralism: individual solutions undertaken by decent, upstanding individuals who cycle everywhere, eat nice (and expensive) organic food produced locally and stick on another jumper instead of turning the heating up.
This underlines how, in the absence of a strong and politically viable left, ‘green’ and ‘ecological’ thought has become the property of the petty bourgeois economy (‘buying local’, organic food, the Green Party) and increasingly a bourgeoisie keen to pose ‘green’ in an attempt to boost profits (airlines offering an extra charge to plant a ‘carbon offsetting’ trees and other such nonsense).
The problem, which John McDonnell at least alluded to, is the system of capital itself, which treats nature not as a provider of human fulfilment that must be cherished, but as a cost-free source of wealth. The reason why, for example, workers choose to fly on their holidays is not because they are selfish, but because flying is the cheapest and quickest option for those with limited resources and limited time before they are forced to resume their wage-slavery.
This brings me to the second problem that I encountered on the demonstration, one epitomised by the slogan, ‘Stop climate chaos’. This is purely negative, and there is no vision of a completely new relationship between human beings and nature – crucially in the way in which we organise social production.
If we understand climate change as a phenomenon resulting from the skewed relationship between humanity and nature that is directly linked to the capitalist mode of production, then it becomes clear that we can not only reverse it: we can fundamentally alter our relationship with the environment and restore and enhance the riches of nature for future generations. To paraphrase the popular Weekly Worker headline at the demonstration, saving the planet necessitates fighting for a red world.
But that is not all we have to say. In addition to articulating this vision for a world based on production for need, not profit, communists must also advance immediate demands which cut against the wasteful logic of capital in the here and now. These can help to politically train and equip the proletariat with the ideas it needs to become the hegemonic class in the struggle for ecological sustainability and not simply an appendage of the petty bourgeois greens.
Against the destructive, wasteful and polluting logic of capital, communists immediately demand:
- Free urban public transport. Nationalise the land. Nationalise the banks. Nationalise the energy industry. Tax polluters. No to biofuels. No to nuclear power. Minimise carbon, methane and other such global warming gas outputs.
- For sustainable development. For the re-establishment of an intimate connection between town and country, agriculture and industry, and a rational distribution of the population. Work and domestic life should be brought closer together – concrete jungles, urban sprawl, huge farms and uninterrupted industrialised agriculture are profoundly alienating and inhuman.
- Towns and cities should be full of trees, roof gardens, planted walls, allotments, wild parks and little farms.
- Inshore seas must include wide non-fishing areas. The aim should be to fully restore marine life and thus create a sustainable fishing industry.
- Where feasible there should be the re-establishment of forests, natural floodplains, marshes, fens and heathland. Extensive wilderness areas should be created in the countryside, along with the reintroduction of the full array of native plants and animal species.