To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
17 Dec 2014 19:10
Competition and solidarity as a pattern of struggle and its understanding of human nature as socially determined best equips us to confront and secure the future now as regards climate change, writes Vishwas Satgar. (Supplied)
In a surprising departure from the corporate-controlled narrative on
climate change, on November 30 2015, during the build-up to the recent United
Nations COP20 climate summit in Lima, the
New York Times ran a
front-page story in which climate experts warned that “it now may be impossible
to prevent the temperature of the planet’s atmosphere from rising by
3.6 degrees F”.
“According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping
point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought,
food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea
levels and widespread flooding – events that could harm the world’s population
This surprising coverage went on to say a rising rate of emissions has
left us with two future possibilities; an unpleasant world of climate crisis,
chaos and disruption, or a world with a global deal that ensures the planet is
Either way, the future we are facing is grim.
But for climate justice activists gathered in the people’s space and on
the streets in Lima, two decades of failing to reach a global deal required a
different approach; a bold rejection of the pro-market and false solutions of
the UN COP process such as carbon trading, the Clean Development Mechanism,
finance solutions that fail to acknowledge the climate debt of rich northern
nations and the commodification of forest land through the infamous REDD+ (reducing
emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) scheme.
Activists have called for urgent action to advance transformative
alternatives for system change as part of the people-driven just transition.
The position of “no to false solutions but system change now” has to be
explained to appreciate why this is the necessary way forward to secure human
and nonhuman life.
The real geological forceIn 2000, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist,
introduced the term “the Anthropocene Age”.
He theorised about an unprecedented
human effect on our planet’s life systems, equal in force and impact to a great
But his notion of the human as a geological force fails to appreciate
how power works in class-based capitalist societies.
Driven by the need to make short-term profits, capital, through its
organisation of production, distribution, consumption and social life, has
overshot planetary limits, undermined natural cycles and now threatens human
beings with extinction by means of climate change.
Capital, in this context,
has become a geological force capable of ending human and nonhuman life. It is
wired into a systemic logic of ecocide and is incapable of solving the climate
Moreover, over the past three decades of transnational techno-financial
capitalism, our world has come to move at a dizzying speed. Social life,
history and change have dramatically accelerated. This includes the superspeeds
of nanotechnologies, fast food and hyper-mobile globalised financial
At the heart of this is an addiction to growth, premised on the
assumption of unlimited accumulation. Capitalist modernity, with its mastery of
science and technology, has convinced capital that it is the conqueror of
nature as well as its master.
As a master, it seeks to reduce nature to being a
commodity, while ending an alternative conception of nature: nature as a
This commodifying illusion informs the market-based techno-fixes of
capital, such as carbon trading, which operate with the idea of no limits to
capital. But the world is facing finite resources, over-consumption by a few and
widespread pollution of rivers, land, forests, oceans and the biosphere.
with capital prevailing over the UN climate process, we are heading for the
fast death of our future.
The planet is heating up, fastFinally, with the current trajectory of an increasing rate of carbon emissions,
carbon concentration (over 400 parts per million) and a rapidly heating planet,
climate justice movements are thinking hard about securing our common future.
In this regard, they seek to counter two possible futures we face.
First, in various Pentagon research reports, well documented by
Christian Parenti in his book
Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New
Geography of Violence
, the Pentagon envisages a world of climate-induced
Thus it seeks to use its awesome military power to discipline the zones
of chaos while protecting “lifeboat America”. This is the ultimate fascist
Second, a view of our future argued by Rebecca Sonlit, in her book
Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
recognises a pattern of human purpose and civic virtue coming to the fore in
the context of disasters such as the great San Francisco earthquake and
Her book assumes the Manichean make-up of human nature, with
its disposition for both evil and good, but she documents a pattern in which
altruism and mutual aid is manifest when disasters happen.
Such a view
celebrates the human spirit as a way to confront the adversity of the future
and is generally a progressive response, but it tends to work with an implicit
fatalism and falls short in terms of grappling with the agency required for
system change now.
The rights-of-nature alternativeInstead, I would argue, a system-change perspective is grounded in
appreciating that the pattern of history informing our future derives from the
Essentially, it was marked by a contest between two sets of
social forces championing contrary principles: on one side, social forces
championing “competition”, and on the other, social forces championing
It is this pattern of struggle and its understanding of human nature as
socially determined that best equips us to confront and secure the future now.
It is this perspective that also enables us to champion system change
alternatives in the present.
An important example in this regard is the rights-of-nature alternative. Its power as a transformative alternative was demonstrated in Lima in a sitting
of the International Tribunal in Defence of the Rights of Nature.
brought forth great creativity on the part of activists to demonstrate the
power of this alternative.
Factual testimony, rhetorical inventiveness,
valorising culture and evoking lost histories became crucial activist
strategies to expose how capital is destroying rain forests, ancestral lands,
water systems and communities, as it scrambles for fossil fuels and minerals
with predatory extractivism.
Fracking in the United States, now standing at 800 000 gas and oil
wells, stood out as the source of “fraccidents” such as earthquakes, pollution
of water resources, as well as a second wave of genocidal violence against
Besides testimony, activists also highlighted how the rights of nature
are an effective transformative discourse, providing a recourse to challenge
such destructive practices, if enshrined in national laws or sub-national
regulations. In seven states in the US, fracking is now banned; In short, the
rights-of-nature alternative places a limit on capital’s avaricious pillaging.
In addition to the rights of nature, other alternatives such as food
sovereignty, solidarity economy, rights-based carbon budgets, climate jobs,
socially owned renewables and affordable public transport are all adding up to
a paradigm counter to capitalist modernity, redefining a relationship between
humans and nature, and advancing a logic of systemic change.
As part of a just transition, such alternatives seek a society based on
solidarity to sustain all forms of life.
South Africa’s just transitionIn South Africa, the time for the just transition has arrived so that we
can all survive climate change.
As a response to the climate crisis, it affords
us an opportunity to address the failings of South Africa’s transition to
democracy: inequality, unemployment, hunger, white privilege, ecological
destruction and dispossession.
It affords us an opportunity to build a South
Africa that belongs to all who live in it, black and white, such that the
wealthy pay the price for this achievement and we realise Nelson Mandela’s
Although the ANC state has a declaratory commitment to green growth,
green jobs and even a notion of the “just transition” in the National
Development Plan, this is empty policyspeak and an add-on to carbon markets,
renewed extractivism (including fracking), fossil-fuel and nuclear energy
sources, corporate-controlled renewables, export-led agriculture and
deindustrialisation of transport and renewables manufacturing.
Essentially, the ANC state has surrendered to market-centred green
neoliberalism and the logic of ecocide.
It has shown itself incapable of
leading transformative just transition. Instead, this has to be led from below
by forces such as the United Front (led by the National Union of Metalworkers
of South Africa), the emerging Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Solidarity
Economy Movement, community-mining networks and rural movements.
need to champion a “people’s Codesa” (Convention for a Democratic South Africa)
on the climate crisis and a just transition before it is too late.
Satgar is an academic at the University of the Witwatersrand and an activist.
This article draws on a talk he gave on systemic alternatives and power at a
parallel event to the UN-COP20 summit
Read more from Vishwas Satgar
Create Account | Lost Your Password?