You talked last night about the need for a new coalition in response to climate change, on that could come out fighting… this is the focus of your new book, but I wonder if you are in a position to start sketching out what that might look like?
I’m not sure I’m ready to do that. The only thing I can say is that people, as you know here, people don’t get involved just because it’s climate. People go to a protest because of climate change but they don’t do what they’re doing in Wisconsin – occupying the state capital for almost a month – and this is why politicians feel they can ignore climate issues. Even the people who care, as opposed to the people that deny anything is happening, even the people who care don’t care that much! They always rank it at the bottom of a list of all these other issues. They care more about education, they care more about unemployment, they care more about health.
So obviously the task is one of integration and to show how climate is connected to health, it’s to show how a more resilient future needs an education system and to me it needs a powerful public education system. I think that there is something to learn from the coalitions that emerged around the so called anti-globalisation movement and the commonalities that emerged. I don’t think any of this is a new idea, but I do think there needs to be a really clear vision for what’s going to happen to people who lose their jobs and livelihoods, and this is something I don’t think the environmental movement has ever done that well.
There’s a lot of literature out there about what a just Transition would look like and what sort of retraining would be in place and how you get past that fear. But I think there are a lot of opportunities for the labour and environmental movements to work together…and this is why I think what you’re doing here is so important, that it’s about articulating a coherent vision of Transition that includes every sector. I think that needs to be done everywhere. Then I think the coalitions emerge really organically.
People can see their place in that vision. But obviously where unemployment is more of an issue, where affordable housing is more of an issue, those issues have to be placed more at the centre. Talking to people here, it doesn’t seem like people are all that concerned about jobs, about creating jobs out of this. Whereas I think in most parts of the world that’s the first question – how am I going to make a living? Seeing that this could be an opportunity not just for a healthier life with more community connection but that there could be more economic stability than they currently have. That would be a major motivator. There has to be a way of talking about that outside of the growth paradigm, which is why you end up just talking about everything! I don’t see how you can do this without talking about economic models and politics – it’s an intensely political thing, you are talking about capitalism.
Last night you were talking very much about the need to name capitalism and be explicit about it. The danger with that, you were saying, was that if you don’t support capitalism you by default must support socialism or communism. What’s the fourth ‘ism’? Is that what you’re trying to sketch out with this book?
What I’m trying to sketch out are the areas where we concretely benefit from dealing with climate change. I think more and more people are understanding that we have a deep crisis of inequality and what I’m trying to sketch out is how you must address inequality if you’re going to deal with climate change, both within our countries and between our countries. That is something that we don’t need to be terrified of, it’s actually something liberatory and exciting and I think that the number of people in the world who would be empowered by that vision is much greater than the number of people that would be frightened by that vision, but there are definitely people in the world who are frightened by that vision.
This is why I don’t think it serves to pretend that this is the issue that transcends all politics – it doesn’t! There has to be a redistribution of resources and the people that have the vast majority of those resources now are going to protect what they have. As soon as this starts feeling really threatening there will necessarily be some confrontations. This is what I was saying last night – the fact that American supremacy is threatened by climate action because a just climate response would see the US and other rich countries having less so that others could have more is what has stood in the way.
So what do we do about it, not talk about it? I get flack from some of the big green groups because I talk about climate debt and reparation and they say, “you’re just making our work harder, you’re just giving fodder to the right.” There is so much self-censorship around these issues. I wonder what would happen if we started telling the truth. Because this idea that we’re going to pull something over on people and maybe sneak it in – I don’t think it’s working.
Maybe it did work, but like I said, the whole discourse on the right is about how climate change is a socialist plot to bring in world government and redistribution of wealth! That’s the discussion that’s going on. We’re not in any way responding to it and laying out a world view and saying, “yeah, we do believe in internationalism and here’s why. We do believe in redistribution of wealth and here’s why we do think it will benefit your community and the vast majority of people on this planet and here’s why we don’t have to be afraid of it.”
We’re just going, “Green jobs, green capitalism, change your light bulbs, this isn’t as scary as you think.” It isn’t as scary as they think, but not because it isn’t a dramatic change. It’s not as scary as they think because we need those changes on a dramatic level in so many ways – it’s actually a gift to have the opportunity to change. But the idea that we can avoid a discussion, to me, is a failure to recognise that the discussion is happening, we’re just not participating in it, or letting them entirely define the terms of what we believe in. I don’t believe in world government but I do believe in an international climate agreement. So let’s talk about it!
One question we always get asked when we talk about resilience and localisation is that question about if Totnes, for example, were to become completely self sufficient, self-reliant, producing, say, 80% of its food seasonally around the year, aren’t you condemning farmers in the developing world to misery and so on? Our response is always that the food system that has given us the means to bring food from all around the world and to turn rural economies around the world into export economies has been a horribly disastrous process, and generally by the time an economy is air freighting its green beans to Marks and Spencers in London, something generally went horribly wrong about ten years before, and that actually what we need is a process of building food resilience in both of those places.
There is a much more vibrant food security movement in the global south.
Exactly. So I wondered what your thought were on those two things and the balance between those two things, and whether there is the risk that becoming more localised here could be detrimental to the developing world or actually if done properly could be beneficial to both parties.
I think that food security is a much more urgent issue to poorer countries. They’re already very vulnerable to the price shocks connected to the price of oil and other factors – we’ve seen food riots and it’s connected to the revolutions or attempted revolutions we’re seeing at the moment. It’s just a lie that this is some sort of precious northern issue and we have the privilege to think about it and we’re starving the rest of the world in our attempt to have more food security.
By the same token, you hear the same argument against the movements of the global south for small plot farming, ecological farming methods, saying this will not feed the world. If you want to feed the world it’s GMOs and large scale farming… these are the debates that are going on around whether Africa needs a ‘Green Revolution’. This is the oldest argument – we’re currently being told we’re part of a plot to starve Africa. But to me this is why it is important to talk about what our genuine, ecological, colonial and climate debts are to the global south, because I do think there needs to be a distribution of technology and other resources to the global south in recognition of those debts, as well as debt cancellation. We need to do this at the same time as we in the North get off fossil fuels, which of course also benefits developing countries that are highly vulnerable to climate change. Because it is true that in the absence of any kind of industrial capacity, which is the case for some countries in the world, they do have to export agricultural and other raw resources in order to buy the basics like eye glasses and we have to be aware of that. So the question is: how can that capacity be developed in low-carbon ways for all of us, and there is no way to do that without talking about historical debts and historical responsibility.
The climate crisis is not a crisis that is being felt most intensely by the people most responsible for creating it. The way we address climate change has to recognise the profound injustice of the way this crisis is playing out, and it must recognise the global south’s right to develop. We’re going to have to meet in the middle somewhere. We’re going to be growing less and there has to be room for growth in some other countries. It’s not just a matter of recognising the debts owed to the global South, it’s also about recognising the debts owed to indigenous people and descendants of slaves within the global North.
Of course this is really controversial to say. As soon as you start talking about why these persistent inequalities are in still place you come up against this central narrative of the right to reinvent yourself constantly and the right to act as if every new day is a brand new invention! But the truth is that unless we talk about the roots of inequality, we will not face the climate crisis.
For example, the last remaining fossil fuels, most of them, are on indigenous land because they’re the most remote areas, and so the fact that we have not dealt with these debts and the fact that there is so much inequality and poverty on Indian reservations in North America is the reason why some of these communities are willing to drill for oil and dig for coal, because it’s their only choice left.
I recently visited the Northern Cheyenne native reservation in Montana. They’ve been protecting their land for 60 years from coal development because it violates their spiritual beliefs, but they’ve got something like 80% unemployment, as well as massive problems of meth addiction. So finally some people are saying: “you know, maybe we’ll dig up that coal.” One of the key leaders in that community, a key leader against coal development, he said to me “I can’t keep asking my people to suffer with me”, meaning he can’t keep asking the community to sacrifice if this is the only option for getting out of poverty.
They’ve got all kinds of ideas for green development, for what they could do to create jobs instead of digging up the coal, but they can’t get the support for those projects. Why should they get the support? Well, you can’t talk about why they should get the support unless you talk about colonialism, and unless you talk about why this group of people are on that reservation, how a history of violence and theft and racism still plays out in people’s bodies and minds, and what they lost and what they’re owed. This is the hardest discussion to have, but it’s intimately connected to the climate crisis because unless we have that discussion and close these gaps, that fossil fuel will eventually be burned and it will hurt us all.
I feel like this is the moment to come to terms with our history in so many ways, because this is a crisis born of the industrial project that was fuelled by colonial extraction and mass dislocation. It all comes together with this crisis. When we talk about storytelling, all of our stories are in crisis and we need new stories about how we got here, at whose expense, who paid the price, how we’re going to do things differently. That means learning from the very people who got the worst deal out of the industrial era.