Avoiding the post COP doldrums part II: Historical experience

II. What lessons can be learned from historical experience

A text originally sent 13th of July on the Climate Justcie Action email list.

This is the second part of my response to Anthony Kelly’s article: De-mobilisation: Avoiding the post COP doldrums. I mainly add to the historic arguments put forward by Kelly. But once again it is challenging the assumptions among many Anglo-American NGO campaigners. There is both another history and thus another future possible for the climate justice movement than that spread by the dominating Anglo-American media and NGO campaign professionals, and some insight to win from listening to them as well.

The Climate Summit and Global Warming are issues of such a magnitude that there is a need for reflections on what we have learned from earlier occasions on similar situational contexts as a Summit or from the history of earlier movements.

Kelly in his article on avoiding the post COP doldrums is effectively doing this by using the experiences from the mass nuclear disarmament movement that twice was confronted by treaties signed by the most powerful nations seemingly agreeing with some of the demands of the movement. The result was a massive decline of the movement while nuclear weapons were still maintained as a key instrument in the arsenals and continued to be spread and still poses an extreme threat to the future of mankind.

One could add though that there is a strong difference between the two occasions. While the test ban treaty in 1963 made the nuclear weapon movement passive in short time the movement inspired a long range of other so called new social movements including the anti Vietnam war movement, the environmental movement and many others. This in spite of or thanks to being often very single-issue oriented it did open many new doors as the first movement together with the non-alignment movement able to strongly question the cold war political culture stopping any system critical demands however single-issue framed they were. Thus the effect of the movement was very strong. When the same thing was repeated 20 years later by the nuclear disarmament movement the opposite happened. Once more single-issue tactics was used, complemented with a double issue of liberation within the European context meaning liberation of Communist states in Eastern Europe but not liberation in the Third World from Western domination. Especially the Women’s peace movement tried to confront this double issue limitations but were marginalized. Single issue civil disobedience was hailed also by leaders of main stream organizations in the movement. Millions turned up at demonstrations, far more than the environmental movement ever have been mobilizing. At the nuclear disarmament summit at UN headquarters in New York 1982 up to 1 million people demonstrated far more than at summits on any issue before and almost all after after. But in spite of this the movement failed and gave contrary results to what happened in the 1960s. Then the nuclear mass movement inspired and nurtured mass movement with lay people involved in a broad range of issue, in the 1980s it ended with professionalizations of the so called new social movements and the integration of the former social movements into a global sustainable development NGO industry with the linking of the disarmament movement with the development organizhations as the first step in 1987. The delinking of the issue of freedom in Europe from the rest of the world resulted in a good thing in terms of change in Eastern Europe. But at the cost of legitimating this liberation with the help of making Western domination of the third world invisible. When it comes to the issue of climate change this is not possible. The issue as such is intertwined on a global level and the effects in other parts of the world cannot be excluded.

The experience of the nuclear disarmament movement are important. But it may be of even more interest to look at the experience of the environmental movement and global negotiations on environmental issues. Both peace and environmental movements are built on class alliances as their issues are such that it effects all classes. Sometimes they are very close to governmental positions and sometimes totally in opposition not only to governments but also to the development or defense models promoted by other popular movements and governments. As such the environmental movement have strong similarities with peace movements. The environmental movement is the result of the understanding that nature and health are part of the same issue. This was an understanding that emerged in the 1960s creating a movement that united two earlier different strands. On the one hand the working class movements interest in public health, on the other hand upper class and some middle class interest in conservation. The understanding of the interconnectness enabled a movement to emerged that in local conflicts was carried by a broad alliance of classes with many working class participants on the countryside or in urban areas, often women. But the national organisations became dominated by middle class.

The first UN Conference on Environment

When the environmental movement were rising the response by the established political system was to organise a UN Summit which was held in Stockholm 1972. The outcome of this Summit called United Nations Conference on Human Environment was the establishment of UNEP, United Nations Environmental Programme based in Nairobi and that ministries of environment and similar environmental governmental bodies was established in a few years time in over hundred countries.  Due to third world questioning there had also been an environment and development preparatory meeting in Founex that resulted both in a continued discussion on alternative development as well as more established aid and growth centred theories later becoming central to international environmental negotiations.

The environmental movement reaction to the response was diverse and yet effective. The main stream conservationist organisations were mainly ignorant as their politics was to depoliticise environmental issue and thus they saw a parallel scientific UN process as more interesting than the official political UN Conference in Stockholm. The stage was left for others to fill. Here the Anglo-American environmental movement leadership with some hippie activists hoping for a mass youth event with 10 000 participants formed a strong group. They were challenged by the Stockholm local direct democracy and environmental group Alternativ Stad in an alliance with the Swedish popular movement culture who also linked up with radical activists from the third world. Then there were also the Marxists and the strong Anti Vietnam war movement.

The Anglo-Americans had a biologically and morally centred cosmology with some extreme views that were considered as main stream. Thus Friends of the Earth distributed 2.5 million copies world wide of the book Population bomb which explicitly propagated coerced mass sterilization in the third world to save the environment. This eco-fascism as well as other aspects of a depoliticizing Anglo-American cosmology as expressed in e.g. Limits to Growth was effectively confronted by the alliance of Swedish popular movement culture and 60 third world activists invited by the Swedes. The kind of arguments that was put forward in the FoE book Population bomb and in milder form in the official FoE book Only One Earth was totally marginalised and today Friends of the Earth has completely changed its cosmology on this point putting social justice and changes in the political system as central and biological ways of looking upon social conflicts nor framing environmental issues mainly in an individualistic moral perspective.

Thus with the main stream conservationist organisations marginalizing themselves, the main environmentalist ideology promoted by Western media marginalised by popular movements and third world activists the situation was somewhat volatile. The Marxists were mainly interested in everybody using as radical ideological language as possible and then only of their own kind. The did not even want to link to the third world activists present and were uninterested in contributing to the building of an independent environmental movement. Instead they focused on the ecocide in Vietnam successfully together with main stream Swedish popular movements that were equally upset about this mass destruction of forest killing also the future of the people. The hippies allied with the official US delegation and organised a demonstration against whaling, an useful target as no US whaling industry existed with economic interests. They were able to attract some hundred participants while the demonstration against the Ecocide in Vietnam attracted some 7 000 demonstrators. The third world activists were able to make a lot of influence on the different meetings that took place but propaganda from the Marxists made their organizational weak and almost no follow-up took place. It would take until the start by Friends of the Earth Malaysia, consumer organisations and other movements in the South of the Third World Network in 1984 until a strong third world voice on environmental and related issues again could be heard.

The final outcome was anyway strong. The official negotiations had very little interest, The follow-up process for NGOs gained less and less interest for each year that followed. The setting up of governmental and UN official bodies did not impress very much. It was of course a step forward that authorities were created for environmental protection, but at this time environmental issues was regarded as important by the movement that this did not impress much.

The most influential group became the anti nuclear disarmament movement and especially Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom WILPF. They confronted the technological single issue approach of many environmental organisations by questioning that so many promoted nuclear power as an environmental alternative to construction of dams. It was also these female peace activists that had strong enough position in the established political system and broad enough social interest to be able to pressure the government to fund the third world activists to be able to participate at the Stockholm conference.

Thus what happened is that before the Stockholm conference nuclear power was seen as a solution by many environmental organisations and after almost everyone turned against nuclear power and an independent anti nuclear power movement emerged in Europe, North America and Latin America that was crucial in questioning the dominant Western development model whether it was administrated by capitalism or planned economy states.

Together with movements as the three huggers in India starting in 1973 this created a lot of environmental protests as well as construction of collective alternatives all over the world. From 1977 an onwards single-issue campaign networks also began to emerge at the global level starting with IBFAN, International Baby Food Action Network, PAN, Pesticides Action Network and WRM, World Rain Forest Movement. In Sweden the anti-nuclear power movement also initiated international struggle in Europe against acid rain and together with environmental organisations set up the International acid rain secretariat. Together with other efforts this resulted in negotiations helped by UN Economic Commission for Europe to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions which was fairly successful.

The environmental movement was quite successful in addressing some of the most pressing concerns at least in rich countries. Also a system-critical work was promoted. Especially in the South were the environmental problems were put into a social context of global justice and questioning of the present world order. But also to a less degree in the North. In Eastern Europe environmental issues became important in the struggle against communist party regimes and in Northern Europe the development model promoted by European roundtable of Industrialists (ERT) were challenged. Inspired by the three huggers movement in India a Swedish three hugger movement emerged to stop the motorway plan promoted by ERT along the Northern West coast of Sweden. Mass civil disobedience resulted in 400 activists sentenced for attempting to block the construction of one of the proposed ERT motorways in the biggest political trial in modern Swedish history. The action failed and so did the attempts to build a coalition with other popular movements against all the plans of ERT which included not only building motorways but also reduction of social welfare and deregulation of transfer of capital and trade. The trade unions nor the left in Sweden or elsewhere in Europe were at this time in the late 1980s not interested in common struggle for social and ecological justice. They were focused on their concerns for questions concerning redistribution of wealth and not in the issue of challenging the power of business and questioning the present development model.

But some years earlier the Swedish environmental movement had initiated the European Youth Forest Action which was able to make actions in both Eastern and Western Europe in 1986 and build a lasting youth action movement. In the other Nordic countries mass movements were influential. In Denmark by stopping nuclear power and mobilizing thousands of local alternatives saving energy and building wind mills, in Finland by protecting the forests and lakes and in Norway y organizing massive civil disobedience against the building of the Alta dam in the middle of the Samic land, a protest that had to be repressed by sending every 7th Norwegian policemen to the remote area in Northern Norway to brake the resistance. In Germany the environmental issue continued to cause severe conflicts with almost 700 people in prison for political protests in 1987 in the many struggles against different stages of the nuclear power cycle. The radical protests also resulted in a growing concern in the parliamentary system with new green parties establishing themselves and new environmental management professions getting wider support.

The second UN Conference on Environment and the global sustainable development NGO industry

Once more the politicians in the established system of governments and parliaments saw the need to respond to this rising concern for the environment from a radical movement and their sympatizers. Once more a UN Conference was called upon but this time more prepared by both governments, the industry and NGOs.

For the task it was necessary with both governmental and civil society leadership. As in many cases during the cold war social democrats in Nordic countries were suitable for the task. Perceived as having a standpoint sometimes between the blocs and having long time social demo0cratic rule the Nordic countries had a far larger share of leadership in international institutions in these days than what can be understood only from the very little number of inhabitants or there rich but rather small economies.

The Woman for doing the job was Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norwegian prime minister, who learned the political skills in here struggle as environmental minister against the mass civil disobedience movement to stop the Alta dam building. Brundtland became chair of the World Commission on sustainable development that in 1987 published the book Our Common Future, also named the Brundtland report. This report became in practice a UN report and the ideological frame for the UN Conference on Environment and Development which was planned to take place 20 years in Rio de Janeiro after the first environmental summit in Stockholm.

The core idea of the Brundtland report was sustainable growth. The theoretical argument for this concept was that one could replace one technology with another more environmentally friendly technology thus using less resources and still get the same or even a lot more out of them than before. Such an argument can easily be supported by examples from human history but are false on two grounds. Firstly because if one can point at some examples it does not say anything about the possibility of changing most of technology or a whole technological system. Secondly and more important it is false to believe that a technological change even in more limited examples have taken place without a simultaneous social, economical and political change. The whole idea that technological change is something separate from the rest of society have no theoretical basis.

Thus the core concept of the proposed environmental strategy was devoid of intellectual content. This was glossed over by using the concept of development. Equally socially neutral as sustainable growth sustainable development was the key tool for framing the sustainable growth strategy. All conflicts here and now could be postponed into the future when development and growth could take care of the problems.

This became a winning concept. The third world elite was by this means taken on board by a concept which had been used by both themselves and those politicians in rich countries who claimed interest in developing countries and different kind of development according to what at the moment was seen as important. But far better. The concept was also useful on the most local level in any society for the elite. It embraced environmental concern while at the same time taking all teeth out of the issue by a sustainable development concept were environmental issues should be balanced with other concerns in such a way that growth was promoted. The concept sustainable development was so successful that it became the over-arching ideology for all development issues and organisations as EU.

The success of this empty concept was than filled with the full recognition of business as a key partner to achieve sustainable growth and thus sustainable development. Who could be better suited for this than the industry well-known for their interest in growth? Last time in 1972 the strong influence from business circles was kept secret and no official process including industry took place. Mikael Nyberg wrote the book Green Capitalism twenty years later showing how influential business anyway had been in establishing the conceptual frame work of the first conference with the conference secretary Maurice Strong from a Canadian energy corporation in the leadership. This time business were allowed in the open inside of it all and officially in the process. Maurice Strong was chosen once more as secretary for the governmental conference. For the parallel civil society conference one of his Oil corporation directors colleagues was chosen as coordinator.

With concepts as stake holder and NGO other concept as social movement was to be replaced in an orderly world were everyone was presented as winners if they participated in the sustainable development process. Problems should be avoided simply by – avoiding them. Why think when one could act? All focus should be directed towards win-win solutions.

This was magical. To many that had used years of struggle in a long battle in the environmental movement here came the time to make something out of your private cultural capital at the same time as a mushrooming of environmental departments and programmes at both public and especially private sector showed progress.  This type of change are partly necessary. It is not possible for a social movement to mobilise all people on all issues all the time. That certain problems raised by a movement is taken care of by professional routines in government or corporations are not necessarily bad, quite often it can be good. But that the core of the environmental movement was lost when it could not stand up against the sustainable development ideology was a true problem. Even Noah, the radical Friends of the Earth group in Denmark now in a key position for global climate justice initiatives at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen that time lost its perspectives. Noah labelled its work group on global environmental issues preparing for the coming UN conference the Brundtland group. The Brundtland ideology was successfully marginalised only in Finland among Western countries by popular movements, a country where new social movements emerged late but in a more integrated way with each other than in most other countries thus still having capacity for jointly challenge the new integrated ideology coming from the established system.

The ideological success was combined with an equally successful organizational model. As indicated already the new point was to take everybody on board. The choice seemed simple. Either be part of the process and influential or marginalised. Instead of opposing the environmental movement make them part of a common project. At the same time invite business to do the same and all other actors one could think of.

This model got its strength from a shift in the neoliberal ideology. In the beginning of the 1980s the formula had been that market relationships should solve everything. Now one understood that there was a more effective way to marginalise the power of the state. That was to include so called non-governmental organisations in the process. With this organizational model in mind and the strategy to solve problems by sustainable development through sustainable growth the established political system was prepared to make a new attempt at taking control of the environmental issues.

But models needs carriers, preferably actors perceived as being independent from the state and preferably also from business. Here the key actor became what is labelled as development organisations. This kind of organisations have their strong base in the North and are centred around a concept of development of other countries, not the society were they are based which is considered not to be included in the work area of development organisations. This kind of globally dualistic kind of organisation became the prime tool to integrate social movements behind the new organizational model for global governance. It started with the peace movement lumped together with development NGOs in 1987 with a meeting on disarmament and development the same year the Brundtland report was issued.

The grand test became the UN Conference on Environment and Development also called the Rio conference in 1992. Here 118 heads of state, numerous business people and 20 000 NGO people met to find a model for cooperating to support sustainable development. An what a success. In 1972 women and youth were it he leadership of joint popular movement initiatives that made independent activities were the dominant Western discourse was challenged or organised demonstrations. This time the popular participation was orderly sectorized with women separate in their part of the process and youth allowed to make actions delinked from other groups efforts in their sector. There was a lot more talk about  women and youth, and a lot less influential. Especially there was a lot talk about local action which meant that there was a total interest of the local environmental groups in the Rio de Janeiro state. 80 local environmental groups were organised in APEDEMA-RJ who had a central role in initiating activities for NGOs and social movements during the summit. They had longed for the moment when 20 000 activists from other parts of the world would come to Rio to discuss and cooperate with them. But this did not take place. The NGOs were interested in sustainable development programmes and stake holder processes. This meant on the local level to cooperate in win-win cooperation with all sectors of society. For the local environmental groups there were no interest.

With the sustainable development formula everyone had their piece of the cake in the documents coming out of the Summit, the Rio declaration and Agenda 21. The magical bullet that should be the motor behind sustainable development was free trade. In the Rio declaration  it was even stated that environmental concerns should not be a trade barrier. The established political system built on postponing conflictual issues by glossing them over with concepts of sustainable development and sustainable growth had their winning tactical policy for promoting their strategy and business loved it while the environmental movement and the development NGOs mainly went along. The non-binding Agenda 21 was supposed to solve both environmental and social concerns with the help of 150 billion US dollar in additional development aid. The youth environmental movement protested but in their corner and the radical environmental groups were to badly focused and organised to challenge the dominant new cosmology.

In spite of that for the first time since development aid was counted in the 1950s there was a decrease the year after the Rio conference and very little was achieved the model became a success anyway. A range of conferences on different subjects as human rights, social development, women etc. was organised under the sustainable development conceptual frame work with a big participation of NGOs and business whenever they liked. The trick to get everyone along was simple. In spite of lower development aid levels in general more and more according to the neoliberal paradigm was channelled through NGOs. Thus the piece of cake for NGOs were growing while the aid in general became less. With new seemingly ambitious goals new models were constantly presented. The lower levels of development aid was glossed over by th fact that private investments were growing in the South as if private investments and aid were similar kind of money and especially as if private investments to a few countries as China was the same as promoting sustainable societies in most of the third world. At the Social Summit in Copenhagen 1995 the goal was not any longer raising the level of development aid but to guarantee that at least 20 percent of the development aid went to social expenditure. The NGOs had learned quickly to become realistic and played along with the new tones to state relative goals instead of general goals in absolute figures. Five years after the Rio conference the development aid instead of being raised with 50 percent to achieve the goal set by UN already 1970 and fund Agenda 21 the development aid was reduced by a third. Main stream NGOs were busier than ever to participate in diverse process and stake holder conferences on one issue after another avoiding to analyse why the whole sustainable strategy was failing.

Thus one can see the results of how the environmental movement related to international negotiations as more problematic the experiences of the peace movement with nuclear disarmament treaties.

The class struggle in the South challenge the sustainable development global governance model

There was one problem for the NGOs and especially for the development NGOs.  That was the class struggle in the South. In this class struggle emerged new strong organization as Via Campesina for family farmer, indigenous  movement often as expressions of the same rural classes and anti debt movements. This in spite of that peasants represent a smaller and smaller part of the world population and that class struggle according to both NGOs, mass media and governments to not talk about business was something totally outdated.

With the Zapatista uprising in 1994 against the North American Free Trade Agreement a completely opposite strategy from the Rio conference was clearly expressed. In 1998 Peoples Global Action against ”free trade” and WTO started in Geneva. It was anti WTO, anti NGO and anti EU and other institutions built on the idea to promote market economics according to corporate interests. It was dominated by the mass movements from the South but there was also Friends of the Earth from Finland and Sweden and squatters from all over Europe as well as farmers. The illusion that the organizational model of stake holder processes would save the environment and create social justice was broken.

What happened now shows that the NGO system is not working in the same way as government. It has a intermediary function and as such can easily become coopted by resourceful governments and business including media. But it is also possible to influence this system by popular movements. In short time the NGO shifted positions. From being part of any process and legitimating it as long as they were invited and given resources to be part of a dialogue they had accepted it. Now they shifted opinion with the help of the Southern mass movements and some NGOs in the South as Third World Network. The multilateral agreement on investments that was a new aggressive tool by governments support Northern transnational corporations to establish new open markets in the south was rejected by all, NGOs and popular movements. When also the French government said no in October 1998 MAI was a failure. Now popular movements and NGOs also started to be against becoming part of a new process, the expansion of WTO. Once more some 1500 popular movements and NGOs said no while Peoples Global Action started international action days getting more and more support for street action against economic interests. With the Battle of Seattle 1999 the old organizational model from the Rio conference seemed to have lost.

It made new attempts. The ten year follow-up conference on sustainable development in Johannesburg 2002 was no success and soon forgotten in spite of large number of participants. The mass movements in the Johannesburg suburbs aligned with Via Campesina groups and other popular movements from the rest of the world in organizing protests. The consensus that seemed to be the result out of the Rio conference could not be established again.

But one more great attempt was made. When environment was not the issue anymore to create a successful carrier of hope behind governmental messages poverty became the new formula. UN set up the millenium goals with the goal to reduce poverty by half until the year 2015. Once more sustainable development was part of the ideology behind the goals out of which many was important to peoples daily life as access to clean water. But the underlying concept was once more geared toward the way the global economic system was modelled by the World Bank and other institutions controlled by Western countries

Now once more in its most brilliant and charming way the NGO system rallied behind the latest governmental concept. With the help of generous governmental funding the so called non-governmental organisations started the Making Poverty History campaign. The numbers of participants in different activities were as high and impressive as ever. Nothing seemed to possibly go wrong. Media and governments liked the campaign that in the fore front used media attuned celebrities.

There was only two little problems. The new concept to reduce poverty by half with British prime minister Blair and US president in the leadership for a programme that at its basis had the global economic institutions controlled by Western countries was a model from the very beginning to fail. Out of this could come some details of importance but no real step forward in really crating a more just economic world order which is necessary to stop poverty or even reducing it with half.  Secondly the price for having celebrities in the forefront was that the spokespersons for the campaign in the public eye became these celebrities.

It all ended in a disgrace for the NGOs and more so for the people in the third world that very much needed true debt cancellation and other measures so they are not made poor. The outcome of the G8 meeting at Gleneagles in Scotland became a great media success for Blair and Bush. They presented some plans for reducing debt that never really materialised in any strong way and for the third world nothing really changed. The celebrities and spokespersons for Making Poverty History talked about historic success of Blair. End of story.

Tord Björk

active in Friends of the Earth Sweden

July 12th 2009, Kristianstad

Link to Anthony Kelly’s article: De-mobilisation: Avoiding the post COP doldrums http://www.thechangeagency.org/01_cms/details.asp?ID=110

No Comments

No comments yet.

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI