Are we in the most widespread protest wave in US history?

As Black Lives Matter protests multiply across the country in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, people are asking how to place the massive public reaction into historical context. Subjectively, the current protests can feel like another element in a long series of protests memorializing Black deaths at the hands of the state and private racist acts—“A decade of watching Black people die”—and simultaneously like “a watershed moment” that “changes everything,” as new and unexpected parts of US and world society are joining in the resistance to racism and police violence. It’s in that context that the first quantitative counts of the George Floyd protests are circulating now.

Writing in the Washington Post, Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman call the current protest wave “the broadest in U.S. history” and note that, “People have held protests in all 50 states and D.C., including in hundreds of smaller, lesser-known towns and cities that have not been in the spotlight during previous nationwide protests.” Of course, “broad” is the a measure here because, so far, largest is off the table: many protest waves have involved larger overall numbers of participants and certainly there have been many larger single events than the impressive rallies this week, which have reached the tens of thousands in Minneapolis, Houston, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. And of course, no prior protest wave has had to overcome the challenge of pandemic-induced social distancing.

So the measure has become less about the sheer number of people involved, and more about the number and diversity of the locations we are showing up to protest. So how do we measure that and how can we be sure? Unfortunately, there is no single long-term data set on protest participation, despite the recent hard work of the Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC)—founded by Chenoweth and Pressman—since 2017. Before that time, we have to rely on historical and personal memory, which can often mean we forget the more distant past and discard events that don’t fit well into longer narratives.

The data from the CCC show events in 538 distinct US municipalities so far (and more are on the way). (To calculate this number, I ran a uniqueness filter on city and state from the May and June spreadsheets for George Floyd events.) A tracker from USA Today names 700 localities in the United States. These are very high numbers, but of course they reflect both the increased willingness and ability to rapidly organize protests and improved means for researchers to find them. Zeynep Tufekci makes a compelling call in her book Twitter and Tear Gas to avoid purely numerical comparisons across different decades: “seemingly similar outcomes

“seemingly similar outcomes and benchmarks—for example, a protest march attended by a hundred thousand people—do not necessarily signal the same underlying capacity to those in power when they are organized with the aid of digital technology as they do when they are organized without such supporting tools.

Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017, p. 192.

Instead of measuring outcomes, Tufekci urges us to look at the “onerous labor and deep organizational and logistical capacity to make things happen,” which had to be built before marches could exist in the 1960s, but which now tends to be constructed on site after a movement has gone viral and found one another in the streets. She proposes we should look at narrative capacity—“the ability of the movement to frame its story on its own terms, to spread its world view”; disruptive capacity to “interrupt the regular operations of a system of authority”; and electoral or institutional capacity “to keep politicians from being elected, reelected, or nominated unless they adopt and pursue” desired policies.

It may be too early to tell whether participation in 2020 is truly more widespread than in past events, or to measure the depth of commitment and sophistication of the current movement, but what I want to do here is lay out some other protest waves that we should have in mind when looking for comparisons:

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Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Bolivia’s Organic Grassroots

Just published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Bjork-James, Carwil. 2018. Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Boliva’s Organic Grassroots (full text). Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 23, no. 2 (July): 363–82. Abstract: Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical […]

No, TIPNIS solidarity isn’t a “conveyor belt” for US-backed regime change

An article published Monday in CounterPunch has resurfaced a narrative that frames Bolivian indigenous and environmentalist movements (particularly the campaign in defense of TIPNIS) as a stalking horse for United States-backed efforts to remove and replace the Evo Morales government. The accusation is false, although like many conspiratorial narratives it weaves together facts, half-truths, inventions, and genuine moral feelings into a plausible narrative. Since the particular narrative involves a solidarity letter that I largely drafted, and it keeps cropping up even after six years, I will address it here.

The allegation that opposition to the Evo Morales government is coordinated by the United States (or the domestic right-wing opposition) is rooted in a real history. US government opposition is real and well-known. Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) and Morales’ Chapare cocalero base were principal targets of a US-backed drug war, which they resisted. When the MAS-IPSP emerged as a political force, the United States government acted to resist its rise, supported his opponent in the 2005 presidential election, and encouraged establishment political forces when they regrouped in a separatist movement governing between four and six of Bolivia’s nine departments. That campaign fell apart in the September 2008 political crisis. So, wariness of the US government as a nexus of opposition is understandable.

However, the Bolivian government has indiscriminately accused large mass mobilizations from below and from the left of being right-wing- or US-controlled fronts. In 2010 and 2011 alone, the government alleged that the CIDOB indigenous confederation, the Potosí regional strike (in a region that voted over 70% for the MAS-IPSP), and the general strike by the Bolivian Workers Central (the national trade union confederation) were all covert attempts at a coup and fronts for anti-Evo conspiracies. A Google search for “Evo Morales” “ve conspiración” derecha reveals more recent examples of allegedly conspiring groups: cooperative miners, Achacachi peasants, opponents of the election procedures for the judiciary, and former Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena.

Given the president’s life story, I empathize with his tendency to see a conspiracy behind every opponent. But empathy is not validation.

Here’s why these charges are baseless in this case:

The lowland indigenous movement was not, and is not engaged in regime change, nor has it ever posed an existential threat to the Morales government. This should go without saying, but a movement whose force is primarily moral self-sacrifice, demonstrated through arduous cross-country marches, hunger strikes, and vigils is not going to expel Morales from power. The solidarity efforts that paralyzed several regions of the country with general strikes in late September and early October 2011 were aimed at winning a protection law for TIPNIS, legislation that required votes from MAS-IPSP representatives. There’s no regime change here at all.

The notion of outside control over a highly arduous form of protest like the CIDOB/CONAMAQ marches has always been absurd. The risks and effort involved cannot be bought, certainly not by the kind of organizational training initiatives that USAID provided to CIDOB well before the march. The decision to begin the march, and to continue with the march in the face of tear gas and mass arrest, was made by these movements themselves.

The United States government, alleged by this narrative to be coordinating opposition to the road, has never opposed the TIPNIS highway, nor has it coordinated any significant press push around the issue.

The international solidarity campaign for TIPNIS was built around movement-to-movement contacts between activists outside Bolivia and inside Bolivia, drawing on a long tradition of solidarity with both the anti-imperial vision of grassroots protest in Bolivia and global efforts for environmental sustainability and indigenous rights. The September 2011 letter spoke directly from that position:

As supporters of justice, indigenous rights, and environmental sustainability on a global scale, we have closely watched events in Bolivia since the turn of the century. We have observed and supported Bolivian social movements’ challenges to neoliberal economic policies and to the privatization of water and other natural resources. We value the proactive diplomacy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia in
supporting the rights of indigenous peoples, meaningful and effective responses to climate change, recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and formal acknowledgement by the State of the rights of ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.
We have also watched with great interest and respect as Bolivians sought to incorporate these principles into their Constitution of 2009 and their national laws, including the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth. We are pleased that Bolivia has proactively asserted the place of international civil society in the global debate on climate change, particularly in Copenhagen and by hosting the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in April 2010 and we look forward to participating in the 2nd Summit next spring. However, the country’s pioneering work on all these issues also comes with a great responsibility. Bolivia’s continued ability to press forward this vital agenda will
be affected by its consistency and moral credibility on matters of human rights and environmental protection.

Solidarity campaigns with TIPNIS have in all ways been much stronger and larger within Bolivia than outside of it. The letter’s 59 foreign signatories and two Bolivian signatories reflect nothing more than that it was an international solidarity letter. At the same time as we were finding signers for the letter, street protests occurred in eight of nine departmental capitals, a 24-hour general strike of the COB labor union confederation was held in solidarity, and department-wide strike was held in Beni. The Beni Civic Committee coordinated a general strike and coordinated road blockades in the capital Trinidad, Santa Rosa, San Borja, Riberalta, and Rurrenabaque. The Beni strike extended through a third day, with the participation of unions of teachers, bank workers, shopkeepers, and health workers. On that third day, September 28, the Bolivian Worker’s Central called for a general strike, which affected nearly all major cities and in the tradition of “mobilized strikes” generated large afternoon rallies. Attendance was estimated at over 10,000 in La Paz and in the town of Riberalta, Beni. In Cochabamba, teachers, university students, and municipal workers blockaded major avenues while the public transport system observed a general closure. When the march finally reached La Paz in mid-October, tens of thousands of Paceños lined the route or joined in, while the capital city’s Mayor gave the marchers a key to the city.

Stansfield Smith writes in Counterpunch that “all international issues can only be understood in the context of the role and the actions of the US Empire,” but what he effectively means is that all domestic issues in Bolivia are international issues. And, in his view, they can only be understood as struggles between an “anti-imperial” government and critics who are presumed to be tools of imperialism. We have seen that the government freely makes such accusations, often against former and future allies, without evidence. In the case of Bolivian lowland indigenous movement and critical domestic NGOs, accusations of conspiring with foreign powers have become a mechanism of control. Pretending that we are resisting imperialism by ignoring grassroots social movements does a disservice to the real work of solidarity.

Feature photo by @MiriamJemio

Chris Dixon’s Another Politics: A vital introduction to North American radical politics today

I’m reposting my review of Chris Dixon‘s excellent Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements. If you want to understand my politics, and the activist experiences it grew out of, reading this book would be a good place to start. The review originally appears here in WIN Magazine. WIN just published its final issue, which includes an amazing look back at debates within organized nonviolence in the USA over the past 90 years. Another Politics is available directly from the publisher.

Book Review

Another Politics 9780520279025Over the past two decades, a certain kind of radical politics has surfaced and resurfaced, most recently within the whirlwind of activism that made up the Occupy movement. As the movement spread and encampments grew, occupiers sought to deepen their critiques and build democracy amongst themselves. Participants looked beyond a single demand to a systemic challenge, through which “all our grievances are connected” — confronting a multiplicity of forms of power, while insisting that the very process of confrontation must be rethought as well. Chris Dixon has assembled a number of self-conscious practitioners of this critical, bottom-up, and egalitarian politics, which he calls the anti-authoritarian current, in a remarkable and many-voiced synthesis of their praxis.Read More »

Martin Luther King Jr., revolutionary

446px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_4A revolutionary is one who self-consciously advocates collective action to remake a society’s defining institutions through unconventional action, from below. Not just in the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was one such revolutionary.

Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1963:

Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s third revolution—the Negro Revolution—had begun.

For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface. Reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789, the streets had become a battleground; just as they had become the battleground in the 1830’s of England’s tumultuous Chartist movement. As in these two revolutions, a submerged social group, propelled by a burning need for justice, lifting itself with sudden swiftness, moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger, created an uprising so powerful that it shook a huge society from its comfortable base.

Never in American history had a group seized the streets, the squares, the sacrosanct business thoroughfares and the marbled halls of government to protest and proclaim the unendurability of their oppression. Had room-sized machines turned human, burst from the plants that housed them and stalked the land in revolt, the nation could not have been more amazed. Undeniably, the Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. He was well trained in service and, whatever the provocation, he neither pushed back nor spoke back.

Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper. The storm clouds did not release a “gentle rain from heaven,” but a whirlwind, which has not yet spent its force or attained its full momentum.

Martin Luther King, 1968:

There is a second group of young people, presently small in number but dynamic and growing. They are the radicals. They range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated because the roots are in the system rather than in man or in faulty operations. This is a new breed of radicals. Very few adhere to any established ideology or dogma: Some borrow from old doctrines of revolution, but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of the new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. … Ironically, their rebellion comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality and met tenacious and vicious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam war and experienced futility.

In their concern for higher social values [the radicals] were thwarted by a combination of material abundance and spiritual poverty that stifled a pure creative outlook. And so they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order. … Their radicalism grows because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only its social system but the evils it contains. … Whether they read Gandhi or Fanon, all the radicals understand the need for action—direct, self-transforming and structure-transforming action. This may be their most creative collective insight.

This second passage comes from “A New Sense of Direction,” one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. If you want to read one piece on MLK’s strategic thinking, after a lifetime of organizing, this is it. On the other hand, if you want to read a whole book, buy Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr, and donate it to a library when you’re done.

See also: Martin Luther King on Riots and Property Destruction.

Marriage is a political binding spell…

Marriage is a political binding spell. It obliges the state to not ask you to testify against one another, the boss who doesn’t respect your love to provide health care for your partner, the florist and the venue owner to treat you equally, the immigration inspector to see you as family. No love should be denied these powers.

And,

These protections should be spread far more widely. Collectivities of dissent should be spared grand juries. Health care should be for all, gay or straight; married or single; salaried, waged, or unemployed. Love in all its forms should be regarded as a blessing, celebrated by neighbors and friends, and honored by strangers. People should find their homes regardless of borders.

This week’s demands on marriage equality are just small asks compared to these. But they’re so easy to say yes to.

xo

I don’t usually repost my comments in the world of social media, but since a couple people asked… I live between a circle that has come to celebrate LGBT equality, with this week’s cases as a big symbol, and a circle where the priority of marriage for LGBT movements has long been rightly questioned. I hope this very short piece challenges people in the first circle to expand their demands and visions, and those in the second circle to embrace the limited but daring requests being put forward this week.

p.s. See also: Caitlin Breedlove, Thoughts on the Supreme Court & Gay Marriage: “I believe the way forward is not the same old fight of picking sides. The question, instead, becomes: how do we move from the push for a US-based civil right for some, to the struggle for liberation for all?” Shay O’Reilly, LGBT Activists Look Beyond Marriage To A Bigger Gay Agenda. Laura Flanders, Take the Oath: A Critic of Marriage Gets Teary: “…if we care so much about loving and honoring and comforting and cherishing someone else, what if, as a society, we took that oath to one another?”

Big Plans: Scientists, indigenous people urge new frameworks for development

Last week, a group of scientists and development experts and the Colombian indigenous confederation each urged a fundamental rethinking of the priorities for planning “development”* in the twenty-first century. The technical experts published their perspective in a commentary in the prestigious journal Nature,Sustainable development goals for people and planet,” while the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia published a report called Another Vision, Indigenous Peoples and the Millennium Development Goals. (coverage from Intercontinental Cry). Both texts are intervening in the global discussion on the next version of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Outside of the United States (where this kind of international planning is treated as purely a foreign policy matter that won’t affect our future), the MDGs are taken as a general yardstick for directing aid and setting policy objectives, with goals like achieving universal access to primary school and eliminating extreme poverty that may change hundreds of millions of lives. Since I write from the USA, however, let’s pretend that this is just an intellectual discussion for how to think about the world. Even from that perspective, the scientists and the indigenous people raise some really important questions.

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The most powerful forms of worker action, illegal in the USA

The worst active anti-union law in the United States was not Scott Walker’s recently passed assault on collective bargaining by state employees, but a law that makes many of the most powerful ways for workers to fight back against such a law illegal: the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (wikipedia). That law makes many practical collective responses used by unions around the world illegal acts (technically “unfair labor practices”) in the United States. Nearly all of these are recognized as part of the fundamental right of freedom of organizing, recognized by international conventions to which the United States is a signatory. Among these actions are:

  • Jurisdictional strikes—A strike to demand that work be performed by members of the union
  • Wildcat strikes—Strikes called from the workplace floor, for new demands or in direct response to events
  • Solidarity strikes—A strike by one workplace in solidarity with a strike at another
  • Political strikes—Strikes in support of demands that extend beyond a single workplace, such as the minimum wage, overtime rights, or national health care
  • Secondary boycotts—The refusal of workers at one company to handle goods from another company during a strike there
  • Secondary picketing—Picketing (say be striking workers at one workplace) intended to get workers at a second shop to engage in a secondary boycott

If you haven’t worked for union or gone out on strike, you probably have never heard this list, and the first items that are illegal probably sound like basic elements of free speech. Harry Truman, whose veto of the Act was overriden, would agree with you. He called the law a “dangerous intrusion on free speech.”

Today, as union members, people who believe in the right of workers to represent themselves, and people who hope for a better life for themselves and their communities debate how to respond to Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Wisconsin, far too many effective forms of nonviolent collective action require formally breaking the law. Increasing numbers of union activists have brought up the general strike, a coordinated work stoppage by multiple unions, and ideally the public at large, as a means of exerting pressure. General strikes are in fact ideal ways for workers to press demands on a government: Spanish and Italian workers have repeatedly pressed for wage increases through general strikes; Bolivians have used general strikes for a broad range of goals; the French used them to oppose raising the retirement age; and most of Western Europe established the worker protections they enjoy under threat of general strikes. It is indeed an exciting time now in Wisconsin because this extremely powerful tool is being broadly considered. However, incorporated unions have to consider the legal risks in not just calling a general strike, but in taking steps beyond wearing a common color in solidarity (one of the other proposals being planned right now). Meanwhile, right-wing opponents are covering this debate under the headline, “Socialists, Unions Plotting Illegal Strike in Wisconsin.”

We should remember that illegal does not mean immoral, or wrong-headed. Like the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike and the right to strike together to press common demands are basic forms of democracy; they are rights that everyone has, as even our government has recognized at the international level. Rolling back laws that turn rights into crimes should be on our agenda, whether those laws are from 2011 or 1947.

CMPCC: Root Causes of Climate Change are Capitalism and Culture

Big conference, bigger questions

Tuesday at the CMPCC was the first day of truly massive events, besides the 17 (+1) Working Groups (Mesas de Trabajo) which themselves reached up to 500 people each. Yesterday morning was devoted exclusively to a massive opening ceremony held at Tiquipaya’s stadium. The New Bolivia has a combination of faces: the grassroots movements gathered in a stadium face, the indigenous tradition face, and the we’re running the state face. All three were on display in the pageantry of yesterday morning: dozens of banners and hundreds of wiphalas (indigenous flag of the Andes whose rainbow colors symbolize inclusion) marked the first side; the ceremony was inaugurated with requests for permission from Mother Earth and Father Cosmos; and Evo’s entrance began with a massive salute from hundreds of red-coated soldiers.

The content of the speeches was more interesting (Evo’s personal content was extended and rambling, but had its good moments which are already beginning to be overshadowed by tactless and factless comments about male sexuality and European baldness), and led into the afternoon session on “The Root Causes of Climate Change.”

The morning speeches were marked first by representatives of five continents (no one from Australia or Antarctica) addressing the summit: Faith Gemill (a Gwich’in from Alaska) spoke about a shared need to decolonize indigenous peoples; a member of the European Parliament’s left-green alliance said that the summit has allies on the European left willing to challenge the Copenhagen Accord; Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth-Nigeria/International called for an end to fossil fuels (“Keep the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, and the tar sands in the lands”) and a rejection of false solutions; Suma Dutra argued that more than 90% of her native India has not been part of the new fossil-fuel-dependent economy and that this majority is waking up to the issue; and Eveldina Mazioli (Brazil) spoke to the systemic change towards small-scale agriculture advocated by Via Campesina, one of the world’s largest and most dynamic transnational alliances.

This brought us to Evo, who addressed with props differences between the capitalist and indigenous way of life. What I found striking was the personal animus involved on the part of people wanting show they are “better than” indigenous people, by using commodities. Contrasting a ceramic, fancy china, and plastic plates, Evo pointed out that capitalism/consumerism encouraged people to leave behind the plates that return to being earth when they break, in favor of modern versions that contaminate the world around them.

The massively attended afternoon session on “Root causes of Climate Change” kept its focus more exclusively on capitalism, with activists, a sociologist, an ethicist, and a vice president all framing the issue. Real aspects of capitalism are driving factors in the global ecological crisis: the quest for expansion, relentless incorporation of resources into the economy, an inability to settle for sufficiency, the promotion of consumerism as an economic strategy, treating environmental costs as externalities, and on and on.

Of course, however reasonable it is to put capitalism at the center of the ecological crisis, doing so raises more questions than it answers. Let me put this another way for people who aren’t as skeptical of capitalism as I am: suppose we accept that the dynamics of capitalism are provoking a crisis in the liveability of the planet; and that those same dynamics make any kind of solutions extremely difficult. What other questions does that raise?

First, what kind of economic and social systems might substitute for endless growth? How will they provide incentives for a “people-centered economy”? Unlike when I was growing up, the other possible are less unified, but far more diverse. The plural left here in Bolivia is one example of the kind of diversified solutions: nationally direct industries function alongside communal indigenous economies, and small and massive cooperatives. What is not capitalism is many things.

Second, how in the world does the political groundswell needed for real transformations get built? Third, what alternatives? (This is the easy one, actually: There’s a ton of movement, planning, and visioning work done on this question.)

Fourth, and most complicated, given that capitalism isn’t going anywhere in most of the world for at least a few decades, how much inside-capitalism response to the climate crisis is necessary? This may be the hardest question, since capitalism and its critics will have to work together to solve one of the most difficult technical and social problems ever, even as the critics remain skeptical that an end to the crisis is possible through such cooperation.

Beyond our economic system (as if that were a small matter), I think we have to ask real questions about the other issues raised by our five continental representatives.

Culture: We are talking about a real ethical transformation, built atop many cultures that have got used to relentless consuming more as a chief measure of personal status. And we’re also talking about internalizing all the consequences of our decisions for other people and the planet in our economic and social choices. What in the world will that look like.

Colonialism: The power states exercise over indigenous peoples, and that a powerful few countries exercise over the rest ends up being a key factor in climate change. The oil and mining industries operate through inequality between regions of production and consumption. Simply put, the kind of people who drive SUVs wouldn’t put a conventional oil pit in their backyard to do so. Instead they rely on less fortunate communities to supply the fuel, and pay the price. The one nice thing about this arrangement is that confronting it creates a virtuous cycle. To the degree that drillsite and fence line communities demand respect or gain in power, the whole system gets an incentive to switch to green ways of being. The difficult part is that very real systems of power have to be challenged in the process.

False solutions: In the short term, there are both real and false solutions to climate change. Some things will in fact slow, and one day reverse, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Others won’t. How do we tell the difference? And how do we stop the false solutions from being implemented? This is extremely important in a “flexible” climate change regime like the one that exists since the Kyoto Protocol: any country can pay another to implement a cheaper false solution, and avoid real emissions cuts in return.

Finally, in writing this I feel torn geographically. Half of these questions may seem un-askable in the United States. They are daily matters of discussion in movements here. And from the looks of the conference not just here. The thing about the global climate crisis is that it makes asking difficult questions a necessity. Since the 1990s, the small island states of the world have regarded these kinds of global discussion as life or death matters, because they are: they might be literally underwater without comprehensive solutions. In recent years, much of Africa (facing desertification and major food production loss) and countries like the low-lying, very-dense Bangladesh (not as low-lying or dense as the Netherlands, but money works wonders) have been added to the list. In circumstances like these, you must move very quickly along a chain of logic like this: “If capitalism is the problem, what might be the solution.” Or along a different chain of logic: “If the global economy can’t feed over one billion people, what good is it?” Part of seeing this week’s conference for what it is, is to recognize that thousands of people from movements across the global South, and some of the North as well, are here asking themselves just these kinds of questions. It may be a while before such questions seem reasonable to North Americans, and longer before they seem practical. This post hopes to make that possible.

And here we go… (How we got here)

The inauguration of the climate summit is happening right now. This summit comes 115 years since ahead-of-his-time scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could change the climate.By 1970, an observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, had over a decade of observations showing that Co2 in the atmosphere was steadily rising (the annual cycle comes as the seasons change and plants take in and release carbon dioxide, like a global breath). The cause? Burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

By 1988, the global importance of rising CO2 was clear, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded to coordinate scientific work on the subject and explain the results to policymakers. The IPCC, and its regular reports are one of the most comprehensive joint science projects ever. Listen to grad student Rachel Pike explain how it works. In 1992,at the Rio Earth Summit, a treaty making process called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change started to make international agreements to avert dangerous levels of climate change. The industrialized countries pledged to stabilize their emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Most lied.

By 1995, the IPCC was ready to conclude that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” This cautious statement reflects the extreme complexity of the the many factors involved in human impact on the climate, (summarized in this graph). In fact, scientists thought they might not have definitive certainty until 2000, but detailed regional modelling, and the fact that 1970s-era pollution laws reduced the masking effect of soot and other pollution (which briefly cool the Earth before they fall to the ground, leaving the warming greenhouse gases to linger in the atmosphere for centuries) made the issue apparent by the mid-1990s. A continuing series of record-breaking temperature years helped to make the case:

Global temperature record since the 19th century

In 1997, the Clinton-Gore administration pushed hard for a range of “flexibility mechanisms” to be included in the Kyoto Protocol, most of which allowed rich countries to pay poor ones to make reductions for them. Greenpeace and other international NGOs calculated that loopholes in the Kyoto treaty, such as military bunker fuels, transnational plane flights, and “Russian hot air” (the right of Eastern European countries to claim credit for the emissions they weren’t making after the post-Soviet collapse, and sell it to others who were emitting more), amounted to more CO2 than would be reduced in the first place. Despite this weakening, the US failed to ratify Kyoto, saddling the rest of the world with a weaker treaty not accepted by the world’s largest polluter.

Efforts to extend and fix Kyoto continued through annual meetings of the UNFCCC conference of parties (COP), and US efforts to weaken the accord continued even as it ignored the Protocol. Finally, last year, a deadline loomed at COP15 in Copenhagen. The US opted for a second track of negotiations with a handful of highly polluting countries and produced the Copenhagen Accord. The COP as a whole merely “acknowledged” the Accord, and the word “failure” hung in the air. If the UNFCCC process is to be resuscitated, the next chance will be at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico this December.

Bolivia, which played a key role from the environmental side in Copenhagen is hosting this week’s World Peoples’ Summit to give the process a push, and create a space for planning both inside and outside strategies on global environmental issues. I’ll be spending a lot of time in the Strategies for Action working group seeing what participants think might be a Plan B if the international impasse continues.