By Matt Byrne
In 2015, I was working in Mariupol, Ukraine, setting up office and rolling out a humanitarian response to the ugly, harsh and continuing conflict in the Donbass. Daily our team would trek towards the ‘line of contact’ separating the two warring sides, passing kilometres of WWII style trenches, and heavily fortified checkpoints packed with Ukrainian soldiers, who would go give our vehicles a quick once over before letting us through. Invariably, we found that those still living on the frontline, in their bullet pocked and shell-mangled houses, were the elderly and people with disabilities. Those, who by their own admission, had nowhere else to go, this was their home. At night, over a beer, we would listen to the shelling less than 15 kilometres away as the two sides delighted in keeping each other up all night.
In my spare time, my chosen reading material was This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. As I looked up from the pages of the book, out of my window to the industrial skyline of the city, ringed as it is by steel and chemical works all across the horizon and the port to the Azov Sea to the south, I noted the light film of black soot that covered my window sill if I left it open for the day, the giant chimney stacks perpetually spewing smoke and the soapy film that ran down the middle of the street every time it rained. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far with the book. It was all too much for me, the people of Mariupol were getting a raw deal, short-changed from all sides. I already felt small, adding climate change to the mix, made me feel powerless, useless.
Watching XR take off and command global attention, seeing non-violent civil disobedience do exactly what it is intended to do, is changing that sense of powerlessness inside me. Hearing the flimsy response of the UK authorities that police are being diverted from ‘violent crime’ in order to manage the blockades by the rebels or reading academics who recommend ‘tea fetes’ as a more viable tactic to obtain sympathetic public opinion is a testament to the work of the movement thus far. In these feather-ruffled responses, I hear a call for business as usual. But the courage of the rebels has been heard and noted with the various declarations of a climate emergency in the UK, the Committee on Climate Change’s report for a net zero carbon free UK by 2050 that they are pushing to be signed into law now, and the global surge of protest movements demanding change. These are revolutionary times we live in and it appears that a global wake-up call from the streets has put the heat under the decision makers.
In 1968, Howard Zinn, wrote ‘this is why civil disobedience is not just to be tolerated; if we are to have a truly democratic society, it is a necessity. By its nature it reflects the intensity of feeling about important issues as well as the extent of the feeling.’ He was writing about those who risked and endured incarceration by objecting to the Vietnam War but his words are as valid today as they were then, if not more so. The CCC pointed to the level of intensity seen in the recent protests as part of its advocacy for cutting carbon emissions to zero starting today.
Recently, I have participated in on UN led sessions monitoring progress towards the 2030 Sustainable development goals. Climate change and the need for action has not been neglected in these discussions. That said, as I observe the member states and participating agencies wrangle over terminology and monitoring indicators, I am struck by how this is also business as usual, very well intentioned business but far from the revolutionary type required given the emergency timeframe we are living in. The urgency is lacking. So, back we go to Zinn, who concluded; “A new politics of protest, designed to put pressure on our national leaders, more effectively, more threateningly, more forcefully than ever before is needed”. The streets rose up, the urgency appeared.
That said, I also realise to be effective you need to have rebels on the so-called ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’ You need networks of influence that punctuate all levels of the political and justice systems. You need networks that represent the full gamut of those affected by climate change; youth, the global south, diversity, ethnicity, the dispossessed. We also have to mobilise ourselves against emergent threats such as fossil fuel dominated Climate Leadership Council which lobbies for legal immunity from cases taken against them for climate and environmental damages caused by their actions.
Rolling town hall meetings were an instrumental part of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign mobilizing the great surge in grass roots support for his candidacy. Coming from Ireland, I have watched in admiration, the great societal leaps spurred through the debates and decisions taken by a national level citizen’s assembly. Public support can be mobilized and maintained through a campaign of holding local level citizens assemblies and XR has chosen its tactics wisely by adopting them.
I may be too much of a dreamer but guerrilla tactics that provide a social service like providing renewable energy to underserved public services (like hospitals or clinics) in marginalized areas can also drive the message home to people that there is a climate emergency and the system is failing us now, not at some unspecified point in the distant future. The clandestine Gap organization in Rome is exactly this, a vigilante group performing ‘illegal’ acts of repair to the cities crumbling infrastructure. Partnership with renewable energy providers, if they were willing to take the risk and it appears that a number of businesses are, could be an interesting mechanism for responding to some of the manifold grievances that are sure to be raised in the citizens assemblies that link climate injustice to social neglect and marginalization.
The people living in Mariupol, still live with ongoing conflict, landmines, shelling, dispossession, loss of income, loss of family members, restrictions on movement and hostage to an unhealthy, toxic environment. They have innumerable daily challenges to confront but with nowhere else to go it is still their home. This is our home, we have nowhere else to go. We will not be victims, if we stand together, we are strong, a better future awaits.
I am inspired and forever grateful to those that took to the streets globally to demand exactly that.