Towards Paris 2015: Some questions for how we organise in the youth climate movement

How the world responds to climate change in the next three years will shape the future of our planet. Climate change is the playing field on which all other social justice struggles are now being fought. I really feel that this is one of those “where were you” points in history. In years to come future generations will ask us what we were doing when we needed to stop the climate crisis. But it’s also a point to stop and reflect, or at least to try and get better at reflecting as we go. Some important questions for how we organise include:

  • How do we build an inclusive and diverse climate movement?

  • How do we communicate our message effectively?

  • How do we work strategically for climate justice?

These are questions I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on, and I’d like to share some thoughts here.

  1. How do we build an inclusive and diverse climate movement?

The chance to be involved in climate activism with young people across Europe is an enormous privilege which not many people get. As a young, white man who has had good educational opportunities I can expect to be very comfortable in the activism and policy spaces where the climate movement operates. I can expect to have my opinion listened to and generally respected, even if if you do not agree with me. When I enter political or policy making arenas I can expect others there to look mostly like me; white men who have had good educational opportunities. The European environmental movement is remarkably homogeneous. That is to say, those engaged often have a similar, privileged background. It is important for our work towards a more just, equitable and sustainable world to make ourselves aware of our privileges. This the first challenge I want to highlight. Our work as climate activists calls for huge changes to the way the world works in order to respond to the climate crisis. But the fact is that we are often amongst the greatest benefactors of how the world works right now. You can see how this could be a conflict of interest! Unless we are actively challenging the structures which give us our privilege then we are helping to maintain them. Practically, this means things like asking ‘why?’ when we find ourselves in rooms full of privilaged, white young people in our climate work- and then working to create more representative spaces.

Duncan Meisel of 350.org writes about the need to build an intersectional movement, one that crosses boundaries to link of all kinds of social and environmental injustices. Our responsibility as climate activists is to ensure that all those who are affected by climate change are supported and empowered to be heard in the conversation, not just those who are as privileged as us. That includes people of colour, Travellers, Roma and Sinti, and marginalised and economically disadvantaged communities. We also need to reflect on how we reinforce gender inequality and patriarchy in our ways of working. By asking this tough question we have the opportunity to strengthen our movement, support greater participation and more diverse perspectives on climate justice.

  1. How do we communicate our message effectively?

We need to tell the story of climate justice in a way that helps others to come to terms with climate change and begin to take action. We’re involved in climate activism, I hope, because we believe that climate change is the greatest threat to social justice, human rights and the earth’s eco-system ever seen. We have seen the evidence from science and believe in the need to take action. But why are so many others not active to solve climate change? I read recently in Organising Cools the Planet the theory that climate sceptics and the Right in general are very convincing because they can tell stories that provide easy solutions to people’s fears and worries. If we are going to support people to come to terms with climate change and begin to take action we need to start creating spaces in our communities where we can have a dialogue, where people can come to terms with their fears and start to embrace alternatives. This is a slow but necessary process.

We also need to think about how we communicate in our campaigns. In the UK the Common Cause research group has shown that negative messages will often fail to motivate people to change, and in fact can reinforce the negative values we are trying to challenge. Think about it: who likes to be criticised for the choices they have made? We unconsciously justify our choices even when they are unjust or unsustainable. We need to be careful about the use of ‘naming and shaming’ in our campaigning. That is necessary at times, but we need to also be able to tell the positive story of alternatives, of sustainable and just communities.

  1. How do we work strategically for climate justice?

I guess the first two questions have began to look at this last one already Here I want to share some quick thoughts:

  • Be aware of our privileges and work to create a diverse climate movement. Just solutions can only be created by including those most affected, and when it comes to climate change they are most often excluded from the debate.

  • Think about how we communicate to help people feel safe about expressing their fears and coming to terms with climate change.

  • Think about actions you can take at all levels, local, regional, national and . It is ok to want to work at different levels, but how can they compliment each other? How can we push for the same objectives no matter what level we want to work on?

  • We need more people to be engaged in more activism! In the youth climate movement we are often very good at “high level” campaigning and lobbying. That is important but it will not be effective without joining up the other levels. How do we work at local level to push up?

  • Political processes are made to seem intimidating, we need to break them down. And the truth is everyone is pretending to know what they are doing when they don’t.

  • Protest is important, but there are other tactics. Who are our allies? Enemies? Blockers? Who do we need to convince/push? What needs to happen in the background before the protest to move the political process?

  • Learning by doing is better than learning then doing. We all make mistakes.

  • Engage in dialogue, build alliances- create our climate movement!

What does all this mean practically?

Good question. These thoughts are written not to say ‘this is how it’s done’, but as part of a process of sense making I am going through. I am trying to deal with these questions in a few specific ways:

1. Working to build alliances between social justice and environmental concerns in Ireland, particularly in my work with the Community Workers’ Co-operative and Young Friends of the Earth Ireland and through my work as a PhD student.

2. Supporting a project to highlight the lack of a gender perspective in Irish environmental and climate policy and to highlight the role, voices and stories of some pretty amazing women activists in Irish environmentalism.

3. Working to find funding that could support marginalised young people, particularly from the Global South, to participate in climate activism and the UNFCCC process.

I invite any readers to reflect on these questions for their own work and feel free to get in touch, here or on Twitter (@jamiecgorman). I would be really happy to have these conversations as we organise towards Paris in 2015!

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G8 protest shows need for community focused resistance

This piece first appeared online at New Internationalist.

change not charity banner on fence

When a riot police officer eating an ice cream in the back of an armoured car pointed me in the direction of the assembling protesters in Enniskillen on Monday 17 June, I knew that while it was certainly no Battle in Seattle, this would be no ordinary G8 demonstration. Around 1,000 activists had gathered in the County Fermanagh town which was hosting the two-day 2013 G8 summit.

Global neoliberalism is moving to kill dissent with kindness, whether it’s the British government’s ‘Big Society’ or the mantra of governance and transparency in the Global South. Potentially transformative concepts are being employed to give the illusion of social change. This is why groups like Bono’s One campaign are not just arrogant, they are dangerously reinforcing the status quo of neoliberal, capitalist models of global development – not to mention their inherently racist notions of charity.

Enniskillen, on the other hand, didn’t have the polish of Bono or Bob Geldof. It was much more inspiring than that. The atmosphere was more akin to Sunday fête than the anti-capitalist pitch battles seen at previous G8 meetings. Bizarrely, a blues band entertained protesters as they assembled and curious locals sipped tea whilst sat in camping chairs along the route.

anti-fracking campaigner

The march itself was made up mostly of people from northwest Ireland and Northern Ireland. These communities have found themselves at the forefront of the fight against neoliberal unsustainability. Many had never been to a protest before their lives and livelihoods were threatened by fracking – a process which has the potential to cause large scale social and environmental injustices. Yet through their campaigning they are developing a critical analysis of power and models of development.

The march made its way through Enniskillen’s streets before travelling three kilometres to confront the £4million ($6.2 million) security cordon which separated the world from the G8 leaders. The sun beat down on the long procession as it left the town.

As speeches took place by the security cordon, about 20 protestors managed to trample the razor wire fence and cross over the barrier. They were soon facing a line of riot police.

‘Do not attempt to come any closer’ called a police officer. ‘Or we will be forced to take action.’

The word ‘action’ presumably being a euphemism for something more violent, the activists stalled and the momentum was lost. One of the stewards from the main march arrived and a discussion began. After a tense few minutes they receded, accepting the need for unity and solidarity with the community participating in the protest.

This dialogue in a mucky field in County Fermanagh was of global importance. This is a time of massive flux for social movements. Regime toppling protests are occurring all over the world, communities are questioning things which were for too long regarded as simple common sense. It’s a messy process which must begin by recognizing that none of us have the answers; we must forge them together through dialogue and solidarity.

It is only through that process that we can deconstruct the nonsense of ‘common sense’ neoliberal exploitation of people and the planet and stand with the powerful process of communities developing their own analysis of society.

In Ireland and Northern Ireland the anti-fracking community activists are posing important questions and challenging the status quo. The same thing is happening across the world, most visibly in Turkey and Brazil. Everywhere communities are reclaiming transformative concepts from neoliberalism and fighting for justice, equality and sustainability.

For anyone interested in social change this is an important point for reflection on our practice. We must ditch our dogma and hold our agendas lightly. The fires of change are beginning to glow in communities across the globe, we must continue to support these rather than trying to light our own.

G8 mobilizations need solidarity, not stage management

This piece first appeared online at New Internationalist.

While the rain barely stopped pouring, spirits remained high as activists marched, danced and sang through a highly militarized Belfast city on Saturday 15 June for the Big March for a Fairer World. Around 1,500 people took to the streets from trade unions, campaigning organizations such as Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth, and various community groups to oppose the policies and practices of the powerful G8 leaders meeting in Fermanagh from 17 to 18 June 2013.

fracking protest river

In advance of the demonstration, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) armoured cars and specially loaned British Army Land Rovers moved in convoy down every street and clusters of police officers in padded battle-dress, some with machine guns, gathered on the pavements.

Having navigated through the heavy police presence, I joined activists from Friends of the Earth who organized the anti-fracking themed section of the march. Environmentalists from across the UK and Ireland brought with them blue pieces of cloth ‘river’ with messages of defiance and hope from communities resisting fracking.

‘My daughter woke me up at 3 am, I’ve been awake since then’, said Niall Bakewell of Friends of the Earth, full of energy and while co-ordinating the chaos.

Bakewell bellowed out the words of an old Woody Guthrie song, ‘All You Fascists Bound to Lose’, suitably altered for the occasion:
I’m gonna tell you frackers
You may be surprised
The people in this world
Are getting organized
You’re bound to lose
You frackers bound to lose.

Even those of us who are tone deaf got carried away in the enthusiasm and soon we met with the main march.

As a steward I carried a small black knapsack. It contained some energy bars, a ‘pee-mate’ and some empty milk bottles, ‘in case we get “kettled” and people need to relieve themselves,’ cautioned Bakewell.

Kettling is a tactic used by police officers to control crowds by cordoning off groups of protestors. It is often used to break the spirits of activists, who are sometimes allowed to leave only if they surrender their personal details to the police.

When I explained the contents of my bag to a group of unassuming, middle-aged anti-frackers it got a nervous giggle. The heavy police presence on the streets was disconcerting even to those who grew up in ‘the Troubles’, as Northern Ireland’s 30 year armed conflict is euphemistically called.

The Friends of the Earth ‘river’ meandered through the streets, swaying to the beat of a samba band.

‘The anti-frackers seem to be having the most fun,’ noted one TV camera operator.

‘Well what’s the point in being here if we can’t have fun?’ replied a middle-aged woman from England.

After the camera operator moved on we continued talking. The woman was shocked by the heightened police presence. ‘You wouldn’t even get this with the Met in London.’ London’s Metropolitan Police are notoriously heavy handed when it comes to civil society dissent, having raided a squatted convergence space and arrested 57 activists earlier that week.

Despite the heavy police presence, the march remained peaceful and crowds gathered at Belfast’s City Hall to listen to speakers who had to shout to be heard above the sound of the police helicopters overhead.

After the march we headed back to the Friends of the Earth office. Buoyed by the solidarity and success of the day, activists from across both islands discussed how we can work together to resist fracking over hard earned mugs of soup.

I nabbed a spare ticket for the Big If concert being organized by the churches and development NGOs in the botanic gardens. I was eager to see how this stage managed NGO campaign compared to the spontaneity, energy and enthusiasm of the activism on the streets.

The Enough Food for Everyone If… campaign is run by a collation of organizations and calls for the G8, especially David Cameron, to act on hunger.

The Big If event seemed little more than a polished distraction from the real issues, and although I found myself tapping away to Duke Special and Two Door Cinema Club, and enjoying the speeches from the civil society leaders from the Global South, the whole thing felt a bit hollow.

‘Come on everybody, let’s Tweet Prime Minister David Cameron!’ called TV presenter Zöe Salmon who was presiding over a crowd which seemed smaller than the march.

Freedom to dissent now equates to a Tweet and the anti-fracking community activists who attempted to unfurl a banner were not allowed a peep. Big If organizers cornered them immediately.

‘We need to stay on-message, we can’t have other banners’, explained one of the event co-ordinators.

I declined my Big If wristband and left with the anti-fracking group. As I departed, Salmon was inviting the crowd to Tweet Barak Obama.

What’s changed since the G8 last graced our shores?

The G8 last landed on our Atlantic Archipelago for their 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. Much has changed as civil society and global citizens meet in Belfast for the Fairer World Festival and in Fermanagh for the G8 not welcome events this weekend.

In the eight years which have passed, we have been battered by the greatest financial crisis ever, while climate change continues to spiral out of control and the solutions to the converging crises fail to break out of the thinking that created it.

Yet we have been buoyed too, by movements for democracy, equality, social justice and environmental sustainability which have sprung up across the globe and show no sign of abating. There is a sense that this is part of a greater process of social change taking place around the world, from the current struggles of the Capulcus in Turkey, to the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

There has been a fundamental shift in how we think about democracy. While messy, unpredictable and hardly ‘productive’ in a traditional sense, social movements like Occupy have allowed people to experience participatory democracy in an otherwise non-participatory world. That alone is a worthy outcome.

Important critiques of patriarchy and neoliberialism continue to emerge from feminist networks in both the Global North and Global South. Ever controversial, Femen has succeeded to grab headlines, while others such as African Feminist Network Nyangoma or India’s Gulabi Gang are less well known in Ireland or the UK but equally exciting.

Indeed each of the states that make up the unelected and unaccountable G8 has seen protest, and sometimes violence, sweep their streets since 2005. The UK itself saw riots in 2011, while France has faced similar waves of violence in its ghettoised suburbs.

Even authoritarian Russia has been shaken by Pussy Riot, while in stereotypically unquestioning and ordered states, civil society is awakening: Germany’s refugee protests are challenging institutional racism; Japan is seeing a wave of environmental protest in the wake of Fukusima and Canada’s Tar Sands controversy continues.

The shift in how NGOs have approached the G8 is subtle but important. The grand demands from celebrities to ‘Make Poverty History’ have receded to a mousey ‘What If?’ which seems palatable in the current climate of austerity: There will be no cash on the table, so don’t ask.

Of course,  you can still get the wristband, t-shirt and concert tickets, but in the wake of global movements for social change the sanitised ‘What If?’ campaign feels quite tired; more a case of ‘so what?’ than ‘what if?’

And what if what’s happening organically on the streets and in communities across the globe is much more real and much more refreshing than an orchestrated camapgin by development NGOs ever could be?

Bordering on Madness

If people are people…

‘Please don’t come to Laâyoune,’ said the voice. ‘It’s too dangerous with all the secret police and army here.’ With that the receiver went dead and I was left standing alone in a dark and dusty Marrakech internet cafe. The whole incident was like a cliché from a 60s spy novel; but this was the year 2012 and very real. I had been speaking with a representative of the Polisaro Front in Laâyoune, the capital of Western Sahara.

The Polisaro Front are the government of the Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara who have been occupied, repressed and tortured by Morocco since it invaded that state in 1975. Western Sahara is recognised by the UN as Africa’s last colony. The body has deployed a tiny, under-resourced and overstretched force of peacekeepers to the region to monitor a 1991 ceasefire between the Sahrawi people and Moroccan army.

Since the invasion, 75, 000 Sahrawis remain in torturous stasis. They survive in refugee camps in the desert, physically hidden from sun-seeking tourists by the omissions of the Moroccan tourist board and a little mentioned defensive wall called ‘the Berm.’ At 2,500 kilometres the Berm is the world’s longest continuous minefield, with missiles, tanks and soldiers pointed into the desert ensuring Sahrawi subjection and silence. Reminiscent of Gaza, and the dictatorships of the Southern Cone in the 70s, this is the world’s forgotten struggle.

The Polisaro representative was right, of course. Just last year, Sahrawi community organisers attempted to join the Occupy wave which took its cue from the Arab Spring in Tunisia and spread out across the world from New York’s Zuccotti Park. Their attempts to create a Sahrawi Occupy camp resulted in violent clashes with the police ending in the burning of the camp and the murder of a number of the Sahrawi organisers by Moroccan security forces.

The Polisaro representative explained that our presence in the Western Sahara, off the usual surfers’ trails, would incense security forces and bring their unwanted attention onto Polisaro activities.  The only alternative would be to enter Polisaro controlled lands form Algeria, behind the Berm, but the border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed since Algeria supported the Sahrawi during Morocco’s invasion.

Western Sahara remains a physical and political anomaly, a tragedy evinced in daily struggle for the Sahrawi people. The possibility of visiting and learning from the Sahrawi community workers fighting for their rights in these harsh conditions is what had attracted us to get off our flight home from Liberia in the first place. Now, with the safety of the Polisaro activists uncertain it would be stupid to arrive in Laâyoune and start making political soundings that could jeopardise their safety even further.

As we left the internet cafe and faced the blinding sunlight of Marrakech we realised that we now found ourselves in Morocco with hardly any money, our plans scuppered. We decided to hitchhike to Fes, across the foothills of the great Atlas Mountains, and from there to make it to the coast and the boat to mainland Spain. This fall-back plan evolved into a wonderful experience which exposed us at every turn to the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people; loving families, retired couples, young people and children. Everyone we met was curious about where we were coming from, how we enjoyed Morocco and if we wanted to share some delicious mint tea and food with them. Being tired and hungry hitchhikers these reminders of the generosity of the human spirit kept us going. Each experience left us smiling in amazement that these strangers could be so kind.

The humbling kindness made the realities of the situation in the Western Sahara all the more strange. How could we experience such wonderful hospitality from beautiful people while the same people were supposedly happy to force the Sahrawi to live a sub-human existence confined behind a minefield, tortured and disappeared for speaking out? Being Irish I thought of our island’s perennial contestations between multiple traditions of culture and religion, all of whom call Ireland home but have different visions of what ‘Ireland’ should be.

Hence, centuries old struggles continued into modern times so that by the 1960s there was effectively a civil war between the IRA and unionist paramilitaries, often supported by the British Army and Northern Irish police. My mother tells a story about my granddad, who at the height of what became euphemistically known as ‘the Troubles’, went missing in a Protestant area of Belfast. As a Southern Catholic, he would have been expected to be in serious danger. Yet, when found, he was in a pub laughing and joking with other men from this Northern Protestant area as if they were old friends.

People are people everywhere, really quite generous and wonderful when we meet face to face. Why then do they do such terrible things to each other?

‘The other’

‘Well it was ours all along’ said one of our Couchsurfing hosts when we questioned him about the Western Sahara. Moroccan history is possibly even more complex than Irish history! Various layers of Arab empires, Berber tribes and European domination by France and Spain all lead to a history from which it’s hard to decipher in a black and white way what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. So yes, at one stage the Sahrawi peoples were under the control of Moroccan sultans. But when it comes to human rights and freedom from oppression such historical empires hardly matter. If that were the case then Sweden could lay claim to Dublin because it was founded by Scandinavian Vikings and the Irish in turn could lay claim to the west coast of English which they once occupied back when St. Patrick was a young boy.

In reality, people simply move about. For thousands of years this was done without regulation. Then borders were created as artificial and arbitrary boundaries of power which were then legitimised by cultural otherness (‘we are different from you because of x, y, z’) and inculcated with fear of ‘the other’; the enemy who supposedly sought to destroy the culture and this new imagined community now called the nation.

Today, the United States is the classic example of this. It is a nation almost entirely held together by the myth of what it means to be American- a myth which is so often defined not by what it is but by who is ‘out there’ trying to destroy it. This myth has gone into overdrive in the post 9/11 world. It holds the nation together despite huge disparities of wealth, the continued ghettoisation of people of colour and a huge oppressed working class who survive on measly wages and minimal social protection. Rather than questioning or challenging this, young guys from the impoverished and marginalised doldrums of America are encouraged to consider a career in the Army. Many of them take it up given that there are few other chances to escape. Rather than asking why they have been dealt a shitty hand in ‘the land of opportunity’ they are diverted to thinking about those terrorists who will put an end to their way of life.

But what is this ‘way of life’ only the internalised oppression of ‘common sense’ capitalist exploitation? These myths of culture and history are very powerful. They control the way in which we approach all situations because ‘history is the space in which every man [sic] approaches his [sic] consciousness’, and elite interests are the ones who decide what story the history books will tell. So we have nations-and nationalism- which protect elite interests.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century millions of the poorest British and Irish working class men fought in the British Army across the globe. They were sold a story of empire which was spun from the twin webs of ‘race’ and nationalism. This was a hideous obfuscation of the reality that British Government was a collection of extraordinarily rich men who used their army of the desperate poor to secure access to natural resources and cheap (slave) labour across the globe. They did this by exploiting the myth of the other.

In order to sustain the myth, protecting the fragile imagined community, some people must necessarily be denied membership. Those who have membership must be encouraged to feel different from those who do not. This is done by asserting that particular cultural traditions, languages, religious beliefs and in the extreme skin colour are allowed or disallowed in the imagined community. This, of course leads to racism, oppression and dehumanisation of ‘the other’. The creation of the myth of ‘the other’ perfectly suits the elites of our world, whether British aristocrats, American political classes or Moroccan kings.

By socialising the poor and marginalised who suffer under their rule to fear ‘the other’, elites can ensure that the working classes can become amongst the most violent oppressors. This can be seen time and time again. Today in Belfast Loyalists are rioting over when the Union Jack is flown on city hall. The piece of cloth is just that, nothing more, but what the fight fudges is the fact that those communities are facing increasing social residualisation in depressing council estate conditions; they are working class communities with no opportunities turning once again on ‘the other’ to protect what little they have.

And of course, our wonderful Moroccan hosts. The power of the myth of ‘the other’ is clearly at work with them. ‘Ours all along’ says the Couchsurfer, almost conscious that the history and culture are so often evoked to wrap a legitimising veil around terrible injustice. It is that creation of borders, at first imagined and then constructed with barbed wire and minefields, which allows us to justify the pain we cause to those outside our imagined community, our nation, our border.

Thus the people who showed us such warmth unquestioningly condemned the Sahrawi to such brutal torture, repression and oppression. People just like them are stationed on the Berm, are working in gulag-like prisons and are the ones who murdered the Sahrawi Occupy activists. Their actions fuelled by racism, their racism fuelled by the myth of ‘the other’.

Europe’s only land border with Africa

The air was thick with smog, billowing from the exhausts of hundreds of waiting cars which sat, engines purring, waiting for their passengers to clear the border crossing between Morocco and Spain at Melilla. The artificial glow from the floodlights high above gave the whole scene an eerie feeling as fluorescent yellow mixed with the grey haze of the cars. It was a very tense situation. Despite there being a seemingly omnipresent armed police presence, disorder reigned supreme. The border crossing seemed to bring out the worst in everyone.

Crowds gathered around check-point booths clutching passports, pushing, shoving and shouting. Some men were controlling things at the top of the mass of squabbling people, and for a fee you could get your passport to the top of the queue. Every so often someone would be angered by a supposed queue skipper and a fight would break out. The tightly packed crowd would be pushed apart with bodies and barriers crashing loudly to the ground. This violent cacophony was met with little more than a few disinterested whistle blasts from the police and a lecture on how to form a queue, which was, of course, ignored.

In the midst of this suffocating chaos, the police caught a woman who had been hiding in a car and trying to cross the border. She was dragged, screaming from the boot. At the same time, taking advantage of this distraction, a group of people started to hop the fence, perhaps hoping that at least one of them would make it. Police sprang from everywhere, whistles piercing through the shouting. At it’s not bullets, I thought.

The Mediterranean crossing is the most dangerous in the world. Every year hundreds of refugees die or disappear, presumed drowned, as they attempt to get from Africa to Europe and the chance of a better life. Yet because of the colour of my skin, an accident of birth, I survived this crossing. The absolute injustice of borders is unbelievable, and when seen first-hand at one of only two land borders between Africa and Europe it cannot be ignored. It must not be ignored! The close like between neo-colonial development models, neoliberal exploitation of the Global South and the converging environmental crisis require transformative changes.

The issue of borders is at the core of this. There is no border seperating nationalism, racism, colonialism, neoliberalism and the destruction of our environment.

Metro Eireann on the Western Sahara situation, ‘Africa’s last colony’: http://metroeireann.com/article/western-sahara-africas-last,3695

Western Sahara Resource Watch:

http://www.wsrw.org/