Occupy Climate Change!

 Climate Change, Occupy Wall St, sustainability, Visual Culture  Comments Off on Occupy Climate Change!
Dec 212011

Occupy climate change! Why? Because the transformations that Occupy seeks in social and economic life are the same as those needed to sustain conditions suitable for human and non-human life on our planet. So the phrase “occupy climate change” is correctly understood to mean “the political economy of sustaining the biosphere and the cultural imaginary.” This hybrid form might be called “prosperity without growth,” a way of life that promotes the greatest collective well-being without raising either fossil fuel consumption or standard models of gross national product.


Occupy COP17

Rural Women Association demonstrate at Occupy COP 17

The official UN climate change talks held in December at Durban (South Africa), known as COP17, maintained the status quo, undertaking merely to begin setting an emissions framework in 2015 to take effect in 2020. Like the police so much in evidence these days, such governance says to us “move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

In response, indigenous and first nation peoples  joined with climate and social justice activists to occupy the convention. Barely mentioned in mainstream US media, the Occupiers issued a statement read at Liberty Square, New York, on December 3, Global Climate Justice Day: “The same financial, corporate and political institutions that caused the financial crisis are poised to seize control of our atmosphere, our forests, our agricultural lands and water. We will fight for our survival and not allow the elite to enter into a suicide pact for future generations.”

It is both striking and ironic in a humorless way that Brookfield, the owners of Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square, are also planning the pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil to the US, an action that NASA scientist James Hansen has described as “game over” for the atmosphere.

Tar Sands banner at Occupy COP17

The one percent tells us that climate is a future concern, but the present must be devoted to public austerity and private profit. We retort: climate change is here, it is now, and it is the action of the one percent.

Climate change is here: the climate system is planetary in ways that humans are still learning to understand. While current predictions show that those most responsible for emissions, such as the US and China, will not be systemically affected as much as Africa and the Pacific Small Island Nations, no one is escaping the rise in intense weather events.

During Hurricane Irene, it emerged that a storm surge of only four feet over normal highs would inundate lower Manhattan. The effects of the gradual sea level rise caused by climate change render such high intensity events likely to be annual, rather than once a century. Soon, the only way to occupy Liberty Square will be to swim.

Climate change is now: 2010 saw the single greatest rise in warming gas emissions in human history. The International Energy Authority, big oil boosters in the ordinary way, have calculated that, because of new power plant construction already underway, we have until 2017 to stop the increase in emissions. The rhetoric across US politics that climate change is something we should worry about for the sake of our children or even grandchildren is, then, disastrously misplaced.

Paradoxically, the moment of eviction is the perfect time to occupy climate change. The more that our ideas, rather than our encampments, are the center of the movement, the more they need to think about the connections between the local and the global. It’s estimated that there will be some 250 million climate migrants. Across the Pacific Small Island States from Kiribati in the West to Tuvalu in the South and the Carteret Islands in the East, people are already abandoning islands and settlements.

The island of Huni, split into two by rising sea levels

Some are flooded, others made uninhabitable by the salination of the soil. We stand for their right to occupy their homes, the places where they choose to be, just as we support the right to occupy the commons.

Indeed, the political invisibility of climate change within the current system, even as the actual consequences of ongoing climate change become more and more apparent, is the refusal to accept that the planetary majority has an equal claim to the right to existence. This is the first claim in the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth made at Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2008 by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change as part of their campaign for the “decolonization of the atmosphere.”

The failure of the UN process has led to the perception of an emerging climate apartheid, in which a small minority both generates the plurality of emissions and suffers the least consequences from the resulting climate change. That is to say, it’s not a question of “making” climate change a political issue: it already is one, embedded in the patterns of global underdevelopment and oppression.

The standard developed nation mainstream reaction to such events is a ‘more in sorrow than anger’ shake of the head: and then we carry on, there’s nothing to see here. What Pacific small islands, developing nations, indigenous peoples and the global majority living on less than $2 a day have long known is that for the abstract form of finance capital we are all, to cite the Micronesian activist Juan Aguon, “disposable humanity.”

Now, after the evictions, we need to turn around, to see that the space we are contesting is an island and the waters are rising. The refusal of the global one per cent to recognize the existence and relevance of such claims is not a denial or a delusion but a political strategy and a choice. As so many have come to realize, the last best hope is the global occupy movement. It’s the G 7 Billion not the G 20 who can make the changes necessary to sustain the biosphere. No election, no cleverly worded document, no demand, no image will forestall this decision to press on regardless. It’s up to us now: then again, it always was.

NOTE: a slightly different version of this piece was published in Occupy!


The revolution intensifies

The Caesars are on the march once again. But the revolutions are not over. And just as Hurricane Katrina revealed to us certain truths about the war in Iraq and state power, so too has the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami highlighted the interface of energy and power and the need for new forms of both. The revolutions have intensified to the point where the lineaments of a different economy are visible, provoking the autocracies to demonstrate that their power is in fact simply a correlative of their ability to use force. In Bahrain, the al-Khalifa autocracy have taken the injunction “move on, there’s nothing to see here” so literally that they demolished the entire roundabout at Pearl Square.

Pearl Square (March 18): "move on, there's nothing to see here"

So taken with Rancière were the Bahraini authorities that their spokesperson indicated that the motive for the demolition was to “boost traffic,” which would now presumably be allowed to drive straight across the roundabout. Such is the dark comedy of autocracy.

Counterinsurgency redux

At the same time, seeing its game about to disappear, counterinsurgency has also made a play. From the gloomy shadows emerge  McCain–Lieberman–Kerry, the Praetorian guards, who annoyingly refuse to go into that good night. They’ve persuaded their former Senatorial colleagues Obama and Clinton that a no-fly zone will work, as long as we call Gaddafi a terrorist. The realpolitik that said we can do (oil) business with autocrats has here been replaced by the counterinsurgent mantra of the “pariah state.” The message is “the West will not stand for state violence against citizens”: except when it does, and those occasions seem strangely linked to oil reserves.

The nuclear division of the sensible

At the same time, the disaster in Japan has saddened and now terrified us all. Radiation is so unsettling both because of its invisibility and because it is the ultimate expression of the security state. There’s nothing to see here: but it’s here nonetheless.

Japanese citizens being scanned for radiation

Absolute submission is required from all, making all citizens into children faced with the apparatus that will index their status.

Surrendering to being monitored

In a truly surreal moment, Japan wheeled out its reclusive Emperor Akihito for his first televised address during a moment of crisis, as if to indicate the imperial connotations of nuclear power.

The nuclear state has always been present as a rhetorical justification for counterinsurgency, even as it has retreated from its centrality in the Cold War. Now its peculiar rhetorics are back. When Gaddafi threatened to go “crazy” if there was intervention by the West, he was not speaking clinical language, but the vocabulary of Mutually Assured Destruction: MAD.

The crisis of Caesarism in North Africa and the Gulf and the atomic disaster in Japan are further linked by the energy imperatives of neo-liberal growth. Note that the energy hungry BRIC block (Brazil, Russia, India and China) abstained in the Security Council vote on Libya. Why, after all, did Japan build six not very well designed G.E. nuclear reactors close together on the coast in an earthquake zone, if not out of the conviction that energy was indispensable? The decision was taken in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, leading to a determination that independent energy sources were indispensable.

The rioting atom

In this sense, the metonym of the current situation was the scene on Thursday when Japanese police riot control trucks sprayed water on the spent-fuel containment ponds at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It was as if the radiation was an insurgency but, lacking a direct target, the gesture appears to have been mostly futile. And is that, after all, the only option that can be found, the more-or-less random hurling of water? Once again, as we saw after Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster has become a human-made catastrophe.

A once and future slogan: Nuclear Power? No Thanks!

Of course, like everyone, I am in complete solidarity with those suffering in Japan and willing to risk their lives fighting Gaddafi. My point is that these developments are not the end of the revolution but its intensification. There’s a reason everyone (mis)remembers Marie-Antoinette saying “let them eat cake”–although, apparently, she didn’t actually say it. The very first chant used by the January 25 movement in Egypt was “they are eating pigeon and chicken, we are eating beans all the time.” That is to say, food justice and sustainability were at the beginning of this moment of countervisuality as they have always been. It has been the imperatives of the nation-state for cash and cash-crops that has always been given priority from the French and Haitian revolutions to the present. Already, Japanese milk and spinach are showing contamination from radiation, just as milk from the Chernobyl area caused the epidemic of thyroid cancer after the 1986 disaster at the nuclear plant there.

The nuclear power plant at Fukushima

This, above, is the nuclear state’s version of sustainability. Even now, hitherto obscure regulatory bodies and administrators insist that more nuclear power is the only way to deal with climate change and increased energy demands. But here the point is that we can no longer have our cake and eat it. Insanely dangerous and authoritarian power of all kinds needs to be replaced by other, sustainable means.

The following through of the “great ‘undoing'” (Gramsci) of the popular revolt is this conversion of the (food) economy to imperatives of sustainability and equal distribution. The “bread and land” part of “peace, bread, land” was what made it resonate in 1917. If this is hard to imagine, harder to visualize, that’s a measure of the long hegemony of visuality that has made leadership into a synonym for vision but renders sustainability into the impractical and the ideal.

Update 3-19

French warplanes are in action over Libya–presumably the first French military action in North Africa since the defeat in Algeria in 1962.


© 2012 For the Right to Look Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha