Climate change, peak oil and resource depletion result from the particular economic system we have adopted. The underlying logic of capitalism — the pursuit of short-term and endlessly-growing profit — exhausts, degrades and exploits those who work within this system, just as our ecosystems are being exhausted, degraded and exploited.
Our governments would have us believe that capitalist logic will solve the climate crisis. By creating a tradable commodity labeled “carbon” and renaming forests and farmland “sinks” that will allegedly offset our increasing emissions, they are throwing our future onto the market and offering assurance from unproven, unsustainable, potentially unsafe technologies.
People have often yearned to live autonomously, to voluntarily work together in small communities to organise their own society without formal government, resolving questions on decision-making, sustainable living, education, food, health, free spaces, media, cultural activism and direct action. Although communities are sometimes idealised, they have had historically to deal with such problems as food shortages and intermittent flare-ups of bloody conflict, and to require considerable physical work with neither the comforts nor the ease of mobility our consumer-based society enjoys.
Crises and the need for radical change may seem distant if we have a comfortable life. But are our lives sustainable into the future and who else do we affect by leading these lives?
Making a stand
Many of the rights New Zealand citizens enjoy now — the women’s vote, the eight-hour working day, the working-age limit — were won by force, by the massive upheaval and resistance of ordinary people.
The problems of creating radical and meaningful social change through empowered communities may seem initially overwhelming, but there is much to learn and share from the successes and failures of popular movements from around the globe.
Although charities and other non-governmental organizations outline the problems when lobbying government, they are often disinclined to challenge root causes for fear of losing membership and funding.
People are changing the world collectively, everywhere, every day, through spur-of-the-moment and planned actions: planting vegetables, holding a public music event, exposing exploitative companies, figuring out how to install a solar shower, making a banner, or pulling a practical joke to make someone laugh or think.
Activism is the assembly point where art and politics mingle and interact.
Power does not rightfully belong to governments or corporations, but to people.
When you reduce consumption — turn off the heated towel rail, recycle more, ride your bike — you are addressing climate change and resource depletion. Nonetheless individual action becomes powerful only when it is widened into a collective response.
To regain our power, we must work, plan and dream collectively. The impact of humanity is global and the environmental consequences will be felt collectively. Our response must also be collective. We must rebuild local communities and local economies, and share information with other communities preparing for the powering-down of industrial society.
New Zealand’s Government, compromised by corporate agendas — global trade and economic growth in particular — is disinclined to engage with people and unable or unwilling to make the hard decisions required for the transition to a future without fossil fuels. Having signed binding climate agreements in Kyoto, Cancun and Copenhagen, it is pushing ahead with oil drilling, motorway networks, rail closures, and subsidies for dairy and tourism — both massive consumers of fossil energy — while fossil fuel emissions are increasing at a faster rate than ever.
We are raised on a diet of strange and dangerous attitudes. Individual rights include the notion that we are at liberty to consume whatever we can afford and without limit; a lifetime’s supply of democracy is around 15 crosses on ballot papers; all we need to do is write to our political representatives and ask them to create the changes we want.
This system does not work. Policies don’t change the world — people do. The change required is somewhat larger and more radical than a change of government. The people who make real change are those who see what needs to be done and just do it, regardless of government policy.
A future of low energy, food insecurity, climate disruption and the economic and political instability that will result calls for resilient, self-reliant communities.
Perceived apathy in politics
I have been inspired by the work of David Meslin, a professional rabble-rouser in Toronto. He works to make local issues engaging and describes the reality behind “political apathy”.
It is quite common to be told that real substantial change is impossible because most people are too selfish, stupid or lazy to try and make a difference in their community. People do care. But we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by placing obstacles in our way.
The way we legislate our public spaces obstructs progressive political change. Because any signage requires consent, costs money and is subject to size and content constraints, corporations dominate the visual and mental environment. Having put a price tag on freedom of expression, we never see on a billboard the messages that need to be said, since it is not profitable to say them.
Political invitations to engage in decisions are typically not clearly communicated. You might find a small-font request for political submissions in a corner of the local newspaper. Imagine the private sector advertising this way! It just wouldn’t happen, because the company wants to sell its product. As long as invitations to political engagement are half-hearted, then of course people aren’t going to be engaged. The story is not about apathy; it is about intentional exclusion.
The news media have a crucial role in developing political change. Currently, they tend to ignore politics and focus on celebrities and scandals, and the political issues that are raised are discussed in a way that discourages engagement. For example, a newspaper’s restaurant review details location, prices and contact and website information. With the political article, however, there is no background or follow-up. The message is that readers can be expected to eat, read a book or see a movie, but not to be engaged in their community. Public media set a tone and reinforce the impression that politics is merely a spectator sport.
Leadership is another misinterpreted concept. Movie heroes summoned to save the world within a few hours hide the reality that leadership is an imperfect, unglamorous, lifelong business, the working-out of one’s own dreams of a better shared life.
Political parties — ideally entry points for people’s political engagement — have become uninspiring, uncreative organisations relying heavily on market research, polling and focus groups. They end up all saying the same thing, regurgitating what we want to hear instead of proposing bold and creative ideas. It feeds cynicism: people can smell the staleness.
One of the biggest obstructions is that groups with charitable status in New Zealand are not allowed to do advocacy work. Some of the most passionate and informed voices are silenced, particularly during election times.
Add all these barriers together, and of course people seem apathetic: it’s like running into a brick wall.
When we perceive apathy not as some sort of syndrome, but as a complex web of cultural barriers reinforcing disengagement, we can work together to identify and dismantle them. We can open up the Beehive, give charities a voice, democratise our public spaces and take action. Political engagement will lead to effective change.
Making a profound stand
Direct action directly addresses an issue of concern, as opposed to indirect or political action whereby elected representatives are asked to provide a remedy on our behalf. Direct action may aim to raise awareness, generate debate, amplify opposition voices, force a change in policy or prevent something from happening.
People typically find making submissions to political bills and processes and trying to engage in conversation with political leaders ineffective. Change requires a popular movement. People will respond when proposals are discussed publicly with sufficient time to be considered and debated.
The effort and time required to write letters and submissions, lobby local politicians or obtain signatures for petitions is immense. Often the shortness of the authorities’ timeframes precludes an adequate response. Sometimes direct action works more quickly and effectively — including breaking the law to stop corporations that are lawfully taking us over the brink.
Suicide bombings, kidnappings and firebombing are all forms of direct action; boycotts, occupations and community organising can be as well. In New Zealand, critics and the media often depict activists engaged in displays of opposition or confrontation as mindless extremists, and in so doing lure public attention away from the issue in question.
Individuals differ a great deal in attitude and approach. Extreme activists often hold very controversial views, and may refuse to work with others with a different perspective, viewing compromise as a betrayal of their principles. Extremists do generate interest and debate, whereas those who believe in gaining acceptance may end up with little or no conviction, their careers mattering more than the cause. Sceptics question the point of any action which is not widely publicised or effective beyond a short term.
But it is by uniting that a community finds a voice, informs people of its existence and shows that it is possible to stand up and challenge injustice. Taking action involves observing, exploring and experimenting; it requires spontaneity, ingenuity and creativity — and accepting a level of risk. When ordinary people come together in mutual support, their sense of a capacity to create positive change begins to effect that change.
We in New Zealand are four million people conditioned to want more for ourselves rather than to care about what is happening to our environment. Our problems are enormous and we need to change radically. Reaching people who have the wellbeing of society and the environment at heart requires urgent attention. To respond to our current system, including its conditioning effect on us, we need to be flexible and realistic extremists.
Corporations and our clean green image
People acting directly for social justice are seen as threatening because they question the legitimacy of existing power structures.
Some of the biggest profiteers, the fossil fuel companies, are attempting to steer the debate on climate change, peak oil and resource depletion. We do not need to hear more about carbon capture and technological fixes; we need to aim to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Climate change and resource depletion are directly connected with capitalism. They were born together in the industrial revolution and their stories are intertwined. We cannot tackle one without tackling the others.
We are stuck in a perception that we in New Zealand are pure and green. Thousands of people are trying admirably to make a stand to save our endangered wildlife and wild places. So far, however, we have merely made the first step or two towards restoring a safe and balanced environment. The mainstream conservation movement is in danger of losing its way, seemingly unaware of the factors which are causing our environmental crisis.
For example, we have locked up our native forests so we cannot harvest them. From one point of view, this is fantastic — but what has resulted is a massive shift to monoculturally-grown, chemically-treated timber. Even worse, New Zealanders are happily using hardwood timbers chopped from Tasmania or Indonesia — anywhere but from our own back yard. There is a disconnection between the ethics to which we pay lip service and our actual purchases.
The same goes for coal- and gold-mining and the oil fields whose expansion is proposed. As New Zealanders we are happy to increase our use of commodities, but not prepared to have our national environment put at risk. We need to connect the impact of our lifestyles with our morals.
Living in our modern built-up environment or among our recently clearfelled pastures, we have collectively forgotten our connection with nature, viewing it as something out there in a national park or a natural history documentary. Occasionally, during tornados, floods, droughts and earthquakes, our arrogance is temporarily shattered by the more powerful forces of nature.
Our current economic system offers no financial incentive for saving an endangered ecosystem or species, and we struggle to make it happen. The shift from self-interest to an interest in the common good is the collective movement on which we are embarking.
Social change and social justice
We might not often identify or acknowledge the predicament of others who do our work for us from around the world — the Indian copper miner, the Malaysian seamstress or the Taiwanese microchip maker. How do our privileges rest on the stressful labour of others? And what long-term effects do our lifestyle choices have on the planet? We have to face up to the biggest illusion of the 21st century: that the world has infinite resources and that all of us can lead a high-consumption lifestyle.
Change is coming whether we like it or not. Those who say the economic system is the fundamental cause of inequality, climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation are often dismissed as extremists. Yet this system, while failing to solve the climate crisis, is deepening poverty and inequality, because the poorest and most vulnerable people are the primary victims of climate change and resource depletion.
Addressing these problems means getting involved in the life of communities. Through direct action we can make the community-crippling capitalism sustained by governments and corporations increasingly irrelevant.
- Verson, J. (2007) “Why we need cultural activism”. Do it Yourself – a handbook for changing our world. Ed Trapese Collective. Pluto Press, London, England. Pp 171-186.
- Naylor, R.T. (2008) Patriots and profiteers: economic warfare, embargo busting, and state-sponsored crime, 2nd edition, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Canada.
- Monbiot, G. (2007) Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, Allen Lane (Penguin), London, England.