To Power

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.

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Honduran Caravan, Climate Displacement and NVCD

How do you get from those walking en masse from poverty and repression in Honduras to the US border to the effects of climate change in Bangladesh and back again? What do these two seeming unrelated situations mean for acts of non-violent, civil disobedience? For us?

Well, let’s start with this little observation; “With the rise of sea-level up to one meter only, Bangladesh could lose up to 15% of its land area under the sea water and around 30 million people living in the coastal areas of Bangladesh could become refugees because of climate change impacts.”[1] As recently as last year over 800,000 Rohingya were forcibly expelled from Myanmar into squalid camps along the coast of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. These camps are places they are now going to have to call home for a very long time.

Now turn to Honduras where the US president has used the mid-term elections to vilify the approaching 7,200 person strong caravan as a threat to national security. The idea of the caravan was developed as a direct action response by activists working on migration issues seeking ways to delegitimise the current right oriented government.[2] The organisers are probably overwhelmed at what the caravan has become, possibly even shaking their heads in disbelief. Those walking the 2446 kilometre route[3] are fleeing poverty and violence at home and dreaming of better, safer lives for their families in the US. The response from the US has been a threat to cut international aid to Honduras, as well as reinforcing military units at the US border.[4]

The EU experienced its own wave of irregular migration in 2015 and almost fell apart at the seams trying to stem the flow of one million plus asylum seekers and migrants to its shores. The EU and its constituent countries have tried multiple methods to keep people away, for example by attempting to introduce a quota system[5] to ‘manage the burden’, by doing suspected bilateral deals with Libyan militias[6] to retain migrants in countries leaving them open to risks of abuse, kidnapping, torture and being sold into slavery,[7] and through the much-vaunted but ethically dubious EU Turkey deal, which ships back one Syrian refugee who entered Greece irregularly for one who has legally entered the asylum process in Turkey.[8]

All these people have faced repeated hardship and exposure to violence and abuse at all stages of their journey. They are marching because the range of options facing them at home span from limited opportunities to generate an income to fear, torture and war. If we add the effects of climate change into this toxic mix, we can rest assured that the numbers on the move will only grow. There is already a body of thought directly linking climate change to the migration flows into Europe. Time Magazine quotes the Centre for Climate and Security as saying the “drought (in Syria between 2006 and 2011), in addition to its mismanagement by the Assad regime, contributed to the displacement of two million in Syria. That internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the civil war. Which generated the refugee flows into Europe.”[9] Having worked in humanitarian aid, I have seen that agencies are already planning for this contingency and have been doing so for a number of years now. The humanitarian analysis is not alone. The US Defence Department in 2014 labelled climate change a “threat multiplier” saying, “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”[10]

The Honduran caravan is a great example of non-violent, civil disobedience in action. Just 7000 people who moved collectively garnered (a) sustained media coverage of their plight (b) a number of  governments scrambling to manage and contain public opinion, including the Honduran State, and (c) public sympathy to a greater or lesser extent depending on which country you are sitting in but either way they have polarized the issue in people’s minds. That’s a lot of power granted to very few people, who are often travelling with little more than the shirts on their backs. The caravan is disruptive and testing the ability of opponents to function, this we can clearly see in governmental responses. The large scale migration flow into Greece and Italy severely tested the supranational EU’s ability to function and still does. That said, these movements are very high risk and can fail, in many cases ending lethally for the participants, but activists can draw significant lessons from witnessing how the actions of a few people, who in this case are the so-called dispossessed, can shake the systems of the mighty.

Honduras

Marches like this can work to shift public opinion on the thorniest of issues if those involved remain committed to the principles of non-violence. Those working to support all refugees and migrants on the move would do well to start building the case for the impact climate change is having on their reasons for leaving home in the first place. They should also seek to build alliances at all stages along their route with the broadest range of actors possible, not just the usual suspects like civil society organisations, legal groups and religious leaders but also municipalities, local business owners and small to medium enterprises, even taxi and truck drivers who often know smuggling routes and the dangers within them better than most. A broad coalition of support can protect activists from harm, motivate others to join and counter negative and alarmist arguments by those who seek to control a situation through division and fear. A broad coalition of support will legitimise civil disobedience. Some have equated the caravan with the spirit of the 1930 salt march in India[11] and though this may be a stretch it is a comparison that is not without merit.

One of the key principles of non-violent direct action is unity. Successful campaigns require the participation of a diversity of political, social and economic and groups and sectors of society, because by definition a movement’s legitimacy and strength lies in its mobilization of large numbers of civilians, this usually requires a coalition of groups and organizations.[12] That is the unity of people. The Hondurans are marching because they also have a unity of purpose that allows them to make sacrifices for goals that are meaningful to their daily lives.

Climate change will push more people to collective actions of civil disobedience in order to provide what they believe is best for themselves and their families. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that in the 6 years between 2008 and 2014, an annual average of at least 22.5 million people were displaced by the direct threat or impact of floods, landslides, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures.[13] If the sea levels rise as is being predicted in Bangladesh, the Rohingya, unwanted, stateless and unloved in their former and current homes, have little to lose in getting on the road and marching too. I, for one, hope it does not come to that and that through the actions of Extinction Rebellion, others are marching for them so they may never have to.

[1] http://www.ncdo.nl/artikel/climate-change-its-impacts-bangladesh

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/24/world/americas/migrant-caravan-trump.html

[3] https://www.newsweek.com/migrant-caravan-map-where-mexico-are-they-when-will-they-reach-us-border-1183582

[4] https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/10/20/migrant-caravan-honduras-migrants-mexico-border/1709896002/

[5] https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/many-eu-countries-say-no-to-immigration-quotas/

[6] https://apnews.com/9e808574a4d04eb38fa8c688d110a23d

[7] https://edition.cnn.com/specials/africa/libya-slave-auctions

[8] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/paradox-eu-turkey-refugee-deal

[9] http://time.com/4024210/climate-change-migrants/

[10] https://dod.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/603440/

[11] https://nonviolencejustpeace.net/2018/10/22/migrants-process-in-caravan-in-spirit-of-salt-march-march-on-washington/

[12] http://canvasopedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/CANVAS-Core-Curriculum_EN.pdf

[13] https://public.wmo.int/en/resources/bulletin/disaster-related-displacement-changing-climate

The price of failed promises in Brazil

When social reformers fail to make good on their promises, it is of little surprise that they get punished. Any legitimate State or ruling body needs to maintain the trust of its citizens in order to function. When trust is lost, the vacuum is created for the “strong man” to walk in.

I find it hard to blame Brazilian citizens for voting Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency. They, like most, want what is best for their families, peace, stability and security.  The sense of deep disappointment in the ruling elite[1], felt as much in Europe nowadays as it is Latin America, has allowed Bolsonaro to reinvent himself in Trumpian style as “not one of them”. Although in reality, he very much is one of them having been actively involved in politics since 1988.

What this means for the conservation of the Amazon, the environment and the preservation of indigenous land rights, on the other hand, is deeply disturbing. Bolsonaro has stated on the campaign trail that he would, like the US, pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement[2], ban public funding to NGOs[3] working on climate and conservation issues, allow for a rise in the rate of logging and thus deforestation in the Amazon, pave the notorious BR-319 highway that runs through the rainforest,[4] expand agribusiness in beef and soy, and possibly go ahead with threats to strip indigenous peoples of their land rights. “There won’t be a square centimetre demarcated as an indigenous reserve”[5], Bolsonaro has thundered on the campaign trail.

In an atmosphere of strong and clear public support for a hard-line figure like Bolsonaro who espouses the use of armed force to crack down on disorder, activists engaging in acts of civil disobedience must tread carefully; monitoring the level of impunity being granted to law enforcement and military units, analysing the level of public approval of government policies, and realising that the risk of being portrayed as the kind of people Bolsonaro was elected to contain and shut down is extremely high. That said, with the reductivist measures being planned that will turn the Amazon from being the world’s carbon sink into a major source of greenhouse gases, emergency and extreme measures must be taken now to resist.

Some lessons from my time in Latin America in human rights activism and non-violent resistance may be relevant here:

  1. Be leaderless. Engage and advocate regularly with the State and its enforcement mechanisms. Get your message across but show a different face each time. Leaders or appointed liaisons will be used to control the activist group through deals and promises.
  2. Stick to the script. Write an FAQ of the most challenging questions you expect to face and make sure everyone repeats them verbatim. Use your message to sell your position and polarise your opponent. Know your rights and the law.
  3. Build networks. With indigenous groups under threat, it is necessary to build national and international emergency response networks that can be activated to raise the political cost of any attempt to strip people of their land rights, intimidate or kill them, or evict them from their lands. Those living on the lands know best[6], allow them to make their own decisions. Having an international network that can reach the ears of those with vested interests in Brazil will be crucial in supporting indigenous people to protect themselves and their lands. Partner with the communities that are willing to have international outreach; map the stakeholders and those with interests and target accordingly. Do not be surprised if the indigenous groups themselves are the ones to emerge first with acts of resistance and civil disobedience, they are at a critical juncture now with the results of this presidential election.
  4. Target multinationals and businesses operating in or planning to operate in the rainforest. Analyse which methods will have the most negative impact on their brand; boycotts, social media campaigns, direct action in their physical locations, or blockades. Do your homework, analyse the context and re-analyse regularly.
  5. If the security crackdown is too severe, consider using forms of resistance that do not involve direct physical confrontation; work slowdowns can be an equally effective tactic in some circumstance and represent a low risk/high impact strategy for activists.

 

These techniques have been used by human rights defenders for decades while attempting to protect their lands and seeking to enjoy their rights under international law. The Guardian and Global witness state that from 2015 to date, “145 land and environmental defenders have died in Brazil: the highest number on Earth”.[7] The dismal scenario that is unfolding with the news of Bolsonaro’s election is that this number will only rise not fall.

A Mongabay forecast of events in Brazil’s upcoming election written at the start of 2018, painted a bleak but accurate prediction of the path Brazil has taken this year. The forecast closes being heartened to see growing indigenous and grassroots resistance continuing to develop. The piece quotes Survival International as saying:

“On the positive side, indigenous organizations at grassroots and regional levels are active and vocal in defending their Amazon homeland and, if anything, they will be more vocal in 2018. In the almost absence of the state, tribes like Guajajara and Ka’apor have formed their own groups of ‘guardians’ to defend their forest and the vulnerable, uncontacted people who live there too. We can expect to see more action from them (in 2018).”[8]

The results of the election are dispiriting for those of us who see the protection of the environment, the Amazon rainforest, and the people that live in it as necessary for the global good of the planet. Acts of civil disobedience against those institutions and corporations that seek to profit monetarily from the deforestation and destruction of the rainforest must be taken now. Strategic acts of civil disobedience that strengthen the hand of indigenous peoples defending their land, rights and heritage, could weaken the citizens’ trust that the ruling class is truly working for their benefit.

Matt Byrne

 

[1] Surveys in August 2017 found disapproval of the government to be at 83 percent, see http://dapp.fgv.br/o-dilema-brasileiro-entre-descrenca-no-presente-e-esperanca-no-futuro/

[2] He subsequently rowed back on this but it is hard to see why he would not go ahead with such a move given the swathe of other anti-conservation, anti-climate measures he plans to introduce.

[3] https://istoe.com.br/bolsonaro-diz-que-ira-acabar-com-demarcacoes-de-terras-e-financiamento-de-ongs/

[4] https://www.dangerousroads.org/south-america/brazil/2067-br-319.html

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/17/climate/brazil-election-amazon-environment.html

[6] https://c532f75abb9c1c021b8c-e46e473f8aadb72cf2a8ea564b4e6a76.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com/2018/09/12/8vxkock8bw_Policy_Brief_WCS_CDU_UMD_Indigenous_Lands_and_Intact_Forest_Landscapes_v5.pdf This study has found that at least 35 percent of the world’s remaining intact forest landscapes are managed or owned by Indigenous Peoples

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2018/feb/27/the-defenders-recording-the-deaths-of-environmental-defenders-around-the-world

[8] https://news.mongabay.com/2018/01/brazil-2018-amazon-under-attack-resistance-grows-courts-to-act-elections/

Making our power visible in the face of extinction

By Matt Byrne

I am alarmed by climate change. As I put my children to sleep, it is the one thing that truly makes me fearful for their future. The rest we can work out or stumble through but this one is bigger than us –  we need help. I can feel the alarm, hammering away inside my chest, as I hold them closer for a fraction longer before placing them down in their cots for the night.

Humans have been altering the climate for thousands of years. The advent of agriculture in the Holocene geological period (around 11,560 years ago) created the conditions to keep planet Earth in an extended interglacial. The widespread adoption of farming helped stave off the glaciers, so to speak. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution and we see some geologists arguing that we have now entered the Anthropocene period, in which mankind’s impact on the environment is the dominant force[1]. The last 100 years have seen a 1 degree centigrade rise; the heating is speeding up and we are stepping on the accelerator. I am alarmed.

Yes, we need a movement; yes, we need to resort to civil disobedience to push for change in a society where it is not truth but money that speaks to power. Those of us without access to bulging wads of cash have another currency – mass mobilisation. The question is, when so many people think that reversing climate change is an issue that is simply too big for them, on an overwhelming scale, how do you get them onto the streets? Or at a minimum, supporting those in the streets and taking the small but necessary steps towards improving the health of the planet today and every day. How do we get past the denial, the doom, the stasis?

About eight years ago I accompanied indigenous groups in Colombia reclaiming land that they had lost to paramilitary forces. Once evicted, the lands were used for palm oil plantation. The choice they were given, if any, was often a legal fiction, to have “shares” in the new palm oil company. The groups returning to their lands would mark out plots, defend it with a sign and a single piece of wire or string, a humanitarian fence if you like, to reclaim their land, their space, their freedom and dignity. It took a lot of courage and trial and error but collectively they overcame.

So, how do you get your mother, your granny, your friends, your enemies (maybe more importantly your enemies) to overcome their fears and onto the streets with you? Perhaps psychology has the answer. The unwieldy but cleverly titled book What we think about when we try not to think about Global Warming. Towards a New Psychology of Climate Action (Stoknes)[2] offers us four simple strategies to go about it:

  1. Be social. Make climate change urgent by showing its impacts on your community closer to home. The melting of distant glaciers or forest fires in California will not stress you too much if you live in Exeter. Climate change is closer, though, if we sense it in the air we breathe.
  2. Be supportive. There are positive things we can do. Prophecies of doom can and do discourage and overwhelm people. A greener earth is a healthier earth, a greener economy creates new jobs and drives creativity. Rewilding and reforestation are easy for most people to be on board with, we can be ecosystem gardeners. That doesn’t seem so terrible does it? Now, get your shoes on!
  3. Be simple. Yes, march and while on the way, recycle and refresh yourself afterwards with a water saving showerhead. There are hundreds of small nudges that can shift people’s behaviour greatly, if we identify them, we can share them.
  4. Share stories. We thrive on stories, and great stories can and do shape our identities. Find your heroes and tell everyone about them.

We need to act because all the scientific research and evidence in the world does not seem to be shifting people or policy. If that isn’t evident from the muted response by governments to the most recent IPCC report, or the downright blatant rejection by others, see the UK’s and Australia’s responses in both word and deed.

One reason is because there are two types of power here – hidden and invisible. Hidden power is the back door dealings, the lobbying, the horse trading, the old boy’s network. Such vested interests do not need evidence to operate. Invisible power is more insidious, causing the relatively powerless to internalize and accept their condition.[3] The #MeToo movement is a great and welcome example of invisible power becoming visible.

We need to act. We need to move. Moral psychology has developed the analogy of the hive. We are 90% chimp and 10% bee. In our minds, we each possess a hive switch[4] and once flipped, it allows us to transcend our individual self-interest and feel the power of the collective, the power of the group, to be part of something larger than our individual selves. We have all experienced the flipping of the switch, be it through the simple awe of nature, the ecstatic energy of dance at a rave, or through the traditional use of hallucinogens (such as Ayahuasca) to mark the transition to adulthood. In a group dynamic the flipped hive switch fosters love, trust and equality. It offers us another strategy to cement the movement through collective actions – let’s bring back raves,  forest sit-ins, you name it! I would get outside for that and I think we could convince a lot of other people to do so too.

[1] For more I recommend this; Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin’s The Human Planet. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/298/298037/the-human-planet/9780241280881.html

[2] https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/what-we-think-about-when-we-try-not-to-think-about-global-warming/ or the ubiquitous Ted Talk summary is here: https://www.ted.com/talks/per_espen_stoknes_how_to_transform_apocalypse_fatigue_into_action_on_global_warming

[3] You can download Duncan Green’s book How Change Happens for free here: http://how-change-happens.com/

[4] You can read about the hive in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind. Why good people are divided by politics and religion” https://righteousmind.com/ The last chapter will make you rethink conservatives!