South Africa

Skirting Ecocide: Alternatives to the UN, global elites and Ramaphosa

By Kevin Bloom 15 March 2018

Around the world, activists, movement leaders and the scientifically literate are organising against the traitorous climate policies of the ruling elite. Now, a groundbreaking local book, The Climate Crisis, exposes the deep hypocrisies in the system, laying out how bottom-up, earth-centric approaches are our only chance to get out alive. KEVIN BLOOM speaks to the book’s editor and compiler, Vishwas Satgar, and finds out why South Africa’s most powerful trade union is on board.

I. Collusion

What’s a techno-fix?

For starters, according to The Climate Crisis, a new book that exposes (among other things) how the United Nations is committing the most egregious act of ecocide in the history of our species, a techno-fix is not a change in the status quo. It is not a system change, a foundational change, or in any way an authentic change. A synonym for techno-fix, in this context, would be “carbon trading”. Another would be “offset mechanism”. At the far end of the scale, there would of course be “greening”.

A techno-fix, in other words, is a clever way of deflecting blame for the collapse of the natural world.

So, contrary to Anthropocene theory, which suggests that we are all responsible for the climate crisis,” writes Vishwas Satgar, the editor and compiler, in the book’s introduction, “it is actually the capitalist system and its class champions that are responsible for the climate crisis. A system that has produced a systemic problem cannot solve the problem, given that this is a carbon-based capitalist civilisation. Nothing short of the fundamental decarbonisation of production, consumption, finance and every life world on this planet will save human and non-human nature.”

If the first two sentences of this passage betray the book as a socialist’s take on the approaching catastrophe, that’s because it is. The title, in fact, is The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives. For the elite South African reader, this double publishing faux pas (i.e., the ideology and the inelegance of the title) will most likely be seized upon as a reason not to bother. But the elite South African reader, not for the first time in his life, will be missing out. Because, as this book makes clear, while the elite are busy consoling themselves with techno-fixes, the world’s (and South Africa’s) eco-activists are attempting to give us a fighting chance.

Satgar, an associate professor at Wits University and a leading voice in the burgeoning South African food sovereignty movement, has assembled a list of local and international contributors who are well-equipped to divide this “problem” into tolerable, digestible chunks. He opens the volume by acknowledging the “failures of twentieth century socialism”, most notably the anthropocentrism of Marxism – which has led directly to the poisoning of vast swathes of Russia and China – and goes on to note, provocatively, that a renewed democratic eco-socialism faces squarely the suicidal logic of capitalism “through a radical practice and conception of democracy as people’s power, mediated by an ethics to sustain life.”

How this plays out in real terms is the subject of the book’s cascading series of essays. In part one of the three-part subdivision, which begins with the macrocosmic and ends in a ruthless vivisection of the co-opted ANC government, we are introduced to the work of Dorothy Grace Guerrero, head of policy and advocacy at Global Justice Now, whose many years on the Conference of the Parties (COP) circuit places her in a perfect position to call bullshit on the UN. As the principal and only universal intergovernmental body to tackle climate change, the UN’s COP, as Guerrero points out, has presided over a sustained acceleration of greenhouse gas emissions since its inception in 1992.

Why? The asymmetry in political and negotiating power between the Global North (who have contributed most to climate change) and the Global South (who are affected most) is one reason forwarded by Guerrero. Another is the fossil fuel industry and its death-throe agenda, which in the Clinton, Bush and Obama eras was enforced behind-the-scenes at COP, but is now out in the open in the person of Big Oil’s dream avatar, Donald Trump. Then, writes Guerrero, there is the fact that parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) “do not acknowledge that the capitalist economic model they espouse and rely on is based on plunder, waste and pollution”.

Guerrero, like most contributors to the book, admits to the “utopian” element in the revolutionary call for “system change, not climate change”. But, like all contributors, that doesn’t mean she backs off. In outlining the emergence of indigenous peoples’ movements such as buen vivir in Ecuador and vivir bien in Bolivia, as well as the re-emergence of mass resistance movements in countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, South Korea and the US, Guerrero lays the groundwork for the book’s second section, which highlights the “concrete” democratic eco-socialist alternatives coming to the fore, especially in the Global South.

II. Profusion

The constitutionalisation in Ecuador and the legal recognition of the rights of nature/Mother Earth in Ecuador and Bolivia, in 2008 and 2010, respectively, reflect significant progress towards the realisation of the Rights of Mother Earth.”

So says Pablo Solón, who would know. If there’s one contributor on this list who could tell us more about COP and its lethally phony promises than Guerrero, it’s him. As ambassador of Bolivia to the UN from 2009 to 2011, he was a strident voice of protest at the UNFCCC, and helped organise the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010. In his essay, Solón identifies the “streams” in the recognition of the rights of nature and Mother Earth, which are not necessarily synonymous – the latter, he notes, encompasses both humans and nature.

First, writes Solón, comes the indigenous stream, as reflected in the traditions and visions of most indigenous communities of the world, but especially the communities of the Andes region of South America: the essence here is the focus on balance between humanity and nature, and the equivalence (or unity) of all things. Complementing this is the scientific stream, with “different communities of Earth scientists now acknowledging that the Earth behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological and human components”.

The ethical stream includes appeals to “various religious ideals,” among them the calls from Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama for humanity to honour its obligations to the natural world. Finally, there is the juridical stream, which takes into account all these elements and “seeks to insert them into a legal framework”.

It’s a potent counterpoint to the ruling elite’s techno-fix solution, which Solón dismisses as a “financialisation” of nature, and yet he is frank about the challenges — “how to strengthen and spread” the examples of local rights-based governance he espouses “to imagine the forms that Earth democracy will have at national, regional and global levels”. Solón’s essay is bookended by a cogent argument for a universal basic income grant and a deep-dive into the buen vivir (living well) movement, making a triumvirate of essays that lead seamlessly into the second kicker of the section – the sublimely titled “Challenging the Growth Paradigm: Marx, Buddha and the Pursuit of Happiness”, by Devan Pillay.

Following the line of renegade political economists such as Lorenzo Fioramonti, whose book the Daily Maverick reviewed in 2017, Pillay methodically dismantles the theory – accepted as a priori fact by the global elites – that the success of an economy can only be measured by the growth of its GDP. This devastating sleight-of-hand, which sees society perpetually serving the economy as opposed to vice versa, has been parlayed, in Pillay’s words, into the “green economy” – an attempt to “buttress the notion that economic growth can be ‘decoupled’ from resource emissions and carbon depletion”.

Pillay’s call, drawing on the examples of the Gross National Happiness index of Bhutan and the fecund anti-capital movements of the US and UK, is for global activists “to seize these moments and work to build broad-based alliances around common struggles”. A professor of sociology at Wits University and the co-editor of the New South African Review, Pillay also handily pre-empts the work of the book’s third section: how this all plays out at home.

South Africa’s current National Development Plan (NDP), writes Pillay, which has drawn in respectable intellectuals from academia and society, “contains a competent analysis of both the climate and the social crisis, and promises ‘green jobs’ and ‘sustainable development’”. The problem, he notes, is with the part of the plan that deals with GDP.

[The NDP’s] economics chapter maintains the essential neoliberal economic growth paradigm, based on the minerals-energy-financial complex. This effectively washes away the promises of decent green jobs based on renewable energy. It represents what Jeff Rudin calls ‘symbolic policy-making’ – seeming to concede with one hand, but taking away with the other – where the government talks Left, but walks Right.”

III. Solution?

And so here’s the life-or-death question: is this slippery equivocating, South Africa’s version of the techno-fix, likely to be the situation for much longer?

The Cyril Ramaphosa project is still defining itself,” Satgar said during an interview with Daily Maverick this week.

But in terms of what is coming through right now, we’re seeing some disturbing dynamics. It’s very clear that mining interests and resource nationalism is at the centre of Ramaphosa.”

Again, we’re in territory where thought patterns are so entrenched that they’re accepted as self-evident, empirical, even natural – if we didn’t have a mining industry, so this logic goes, how the hell would we create jobs and grow the economy? Mercifully, to help us out of these conceptual ruts, we have theorists like Michelle Williams, who remind us that “the extraction, production, subsidisation, distribution, and consumption of fossil fuels have shaped the political organisation of societies since the nineteenth century”. Globally, in other words, carbon is politics, and in South Africa “the growth and development of mining and coal energy reinforced each other to such a degree” that we eventually got landed with this thing (as per Pillay) called the mineral-energy complex, or MEC.

It’s no surprise, then, that the MEC, which gave birth to the labour movement in this country – and in the process created the mythos and the wealth of one Cyril Ramaphosa – has since the Mbeki era, when politics got captured by the growth paradigm, “sought to curtail democratic claims by workers”.

Mechanisation of the mining industry, as Williams points out, is another area where labour is on a hiding to nothing. Still, despite the fact that South Africa’s 2,500 hours of annual sunshine places it among the world’s top three countries for solar power harvesting, and despite the “democratic potential” of renewables, we’re stuck as a nation with this mind-bending morsel of policy – by 2030, the South African state sees itself reducing energy reliance on coal to only 65% (from the current 90%), which will be complemented by 20% from nuclear, 5% from hydro and only 9% from renewable sources.

So we can all be thankful that labour is wise to the audacity of the scam. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the largest and most militant trade union in the country – and the biggest union of metalworkers on the continent – has released two separate proposals for restructuring its own carbon-intensive sector in a way that creates jobs, deepens the democratic process and halts the suffocation of the natural world.

Numsa’s vision of a socially owned renewable energy sector concretises energy democracy and a just transition in the South African context,” writes Williams.

For example, a transition to a more just energy democracy in South Africa would entail localised production of renewables to ensure workers are involved and can shift from fossil fuel industries.”

Among other things, Numsa’s proposals allow for “energy pooling in generation, storage and supply” through “community-owned wind farms, solar parks and hydroelectric plants”.

Problem is, of course, the model calls for a government-owned renewable energy parastatal, as well as government planning and subsidies.

Brian Ashley, the director of the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town, places what is likely to be the continued fudging of the state into more dishonourable focus – according to Ashley, whose chapter is entitled “Climate Jobs at Two Minutes to Midnight”, at least 250,000 direct and permanent jobs could be created through manufacturing, installing, maintaining and extending the electricity grid to link the mooted renewable energy plants. Ashley also makes a case for expanding public transport in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and leads to the creation of 500,000 jobs.

Ultimately,” to quote Satgar, “if the entire economy is placed on a low-carbon transition and energy path, the Climate Jobs Campaign believes that over three million jobs can be created as we bring down carbon emissions and build the systems necessary for a sustainable society.”

Satgar also says we have “no choice”. As Nnnimo Bassey, winner of the Right Livelihood Award – also known as the “Alternative Nobel” – points out in chapter nine of the book, the climate crisis is going to hit Africa hardest, with food and water shortages expected to affect up to 250-million Africans daily by 2020.

It goes on. The techno-fixes of the elite, including all of Ramaphosa’s new pals at the World Economic Forum in Davos, favour “climate-smart” agriculture and “market environmentalism” over the indigenous knowledge-based food sovereignty models that allow local communities to feed themselves and protect the soil.

By now, it seems, it’s only the ruling elite and the wilfully asleep who refuse to acknowledge the ecocidal trajectory of our current path. The good news is that, last week, Satgar was invited to a three-day workshop with local trade unions to discuss the proposals in his book. The central question, he told Daily Maverick, was “how do we drive the just transition”.

We’re talking about changing systems from below, there’s no room for half-measures,” added Satgar.

Socialism has always been about workers, the excluded, the poor. This paradigm is about intersecting with their needs. It also means that the elite no longer define the conversation.” DM

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