By Nnimmo Bassey
We frequently hear calls for system change at public mobilisations, in conference halls and even in negotiation halls. The calls come as slogans, they come in anger and they come as a strong rebuke to the systemic scaffold on which our pains, exploitation and denial of voice and rights are hung.
Sometimes one gets the impression that this system that must be changed is chameleonic and could stand for any system that one may be grinding against. In other words, it lends itself to being used as a broad slogan that could swing in any direction. We can understand this in the sense of a manipulator and beneficiary of a crooked system presenting himself or herself as an agent of anti-establishment. Obviously, this is not what we are concerned about.
The necessity of system change is inescapable because the present system is dependent on the extreme exploitation and enslavement of nature and labour while denying its inherently unjust core. We are in the dying days of a civilisation driven by fossil fuels. This end is not coming merely because of the recorded and predicted severe species extinction, or by peak oil. No. Its end is being heralded by a looming climatic catastrophe and by the reawakening of social forces realising that slavery persists as long as the enslaved is unaware of his state. Our urgent task is to reclaim the future and this will not be attainable if the current system persists.
We borrow the words of Oilwatch International to further highlight the unacceptable realities that necessitate system change: There are similarities in the current pattern of resource exploitation in countries of the Global South, and affected peoples in the rest of the world which reflects historical legacy of disempowerment of peoples, plunder of natural resources and destruction of environment, [we] considers the recognition of the right of peoples to self-determination and cultural integrity as primary in the resolution of environmental problems.
Green was once a colour. Now it is a market tool! Today it has turned into an anaesthetic or a silencing code that ensures that harmful market mechanisms are foisted on Nature and we are generally lulled to accept that Nature cannot be protected unless financial value is placed on her. Market environmentalism has thrown up a plethora of instruments such of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), REDD plus, emissions trading schemes (ETS), clean development mechanisms (CDM) and the like.
The Rio + 20 summit of 2012 served as a platform for the elevation of the concept of Green Economy as a major plank for global environmental governance, especially including with regard to climate change. The concept permits the financialization of everything including very basic cycles of Nature such as pollination. With climate change action boxed as a matter of means of handling carbon emissions, the world conveniently ignores the root cause of the crises: the origins of the emission. And so, all focus has been on symptoms rather than the cause. This is why anyone would accept that “a tonne of CO2 not only equals any other tonne of CO2 no matter where it was emitted but that other greenhouse gases can be counted in CO2-equivalents.”
Climate change negotiations offer us a clear lens of seeing that market environmentalism approaches are merely means of escape from responsibility and measureable action. They push the duty for climate action into the realm of bad fiction. A look at the Paris Agreement reached at COP21 reveals that the major cause of global warming, fossil fuels utilisation in production and transportation is not recognised in the process of tackling global warming. And as noted above, the notion that any carbon emitted anywhere can be offset by carbon absorbed anywhere else has led to the rise of the concept of net emissions and may offer polluting nations the ultimate escape hatch through which they would keep their levels of pollution and consumption, while grabbing lands, forests and water bodies elsewhere to compensate for their bad behaviour.
Green economy is a neo-liberal idea that hoists the financialization of Nature and carbon offsetting as ideal tools for nature protection. Truth is that it has been cooked up to entrench current capitalist production modes and power relations where might is right. Poor, vulnerable and cash strapped nations that contribute little or nothing to global warming are made to see the trickles that drop into their empty bowls from market mechanisms, while citizens are displaced from their territories and are literally forced to bear a disproportionate level of real climate actions. This entrenched unjust situation is neo-colonial and imperialist. It upturns every notion of justice, including the very basic common but differentiated responsibilities anchor of earlier climate negotiations such as the ones that threw up the Kyoto Protocol that is now literally on tenuous life-support.
A just climate regime ought not to scratch for funds to tackle the emergencies already throwing up climate refugees. A clear solution for climate finance based on the overall premise of social engineering for system change was agreed to by peoples of the world at the Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.
The Peoples Agreement reached at the Cochabamba conference demanded that countries cut their emissions by at least 50 per cent at source in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2013–17), without recourse to offsets and other carbon trading schemes. In terms of finance, the Peoples Agreement demanded that developed countries commit 6 per cent of their GDP to finance adaptation and mitigation needs. It was also affirmed that there is a climate debt that must be recognised and paid. The payment of climate debt is not seen as a mere demand for reparations, but principally as a means of decolonising the atmospheric space and redistributing what meagre space or carbon budget is left as industrialised nations have already colonised 80 per cent of that space. It is also a means towards obligating humans to take actions to restore disrupted natural cycles of Nature
It is now general knowledge that to keep temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels at least 80 per cent of currently known fossil fuels reserves must be left untapped and unburned. The troubling issue is not only that this is not being discussed at the climate negotiations, but that new reserves are being hunted for and extreme extraction methods such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are being intensified. This is a clear throwback to fiddling while the city burns.
The system is so locked in on its fossil path that the mention of crude oil, coal or fossil fuels in general is a taboo to be avoided at all costs. The insistence that fossil fuels will remain a major part of the energy mix of the world for the foreseeable future appears to some of us a confirmation of wilful myopia among negotiating nations.
The fact that fossil fuels are not renewable does not deter the fossil addicts. In order to remove the cloud of dust (and doubt) over fossil fixations, the industry came up with the term clean coal. They also came up with the notion that carbon pollution can be tackled through carbon capture and storage or sequestration. The other array of options includes types of geo-engineering that could either shield the earth from the sun or get the oceans to absorb more carbon. These are all ways of resisting the need for change and ensuring business as usual while selling unproven technologies. The best outcome of this scenario is to postpone the evil day and build an uncertain future for our children. Unfortunately, that day cannot be postponed much longer except the world wishes to take a plunge back into more brazen levels of barbarism.
Centrality of Nature
The call for system change is a call to a common-sense path that would secure the survival of the human race. It is also a call for humans to recognise their humanity as just one of the species on planet earth. Studies and observations have shown that species stand better chances of survival when they cooperate, live and work in solidarity. This is the kind of benefit humans derive when we work in solidarity rather than in competition. This is the way to build an equitable future when we build bridges and not walls; when we give up some space and allow others to breath. Clearly, the current system of explanation does not support cooperation and cannot offer an acceptable future.
The Earth speaks. The sky speaks. The trees speak. All of Nature speak. Communication is a vital tool for survival. Let us take one example of how certain trees in the African savannah communicate in order to avoid having their leaves eaten up. Researchers found that when giraffes start to eat the leaves of umbrella thorn acacias, the trees released some toxic substances that offended the taste buds of the giraffes. That was direct defence line. Beyond this, the researchers noticed that the giraffes would skip the next umbrella thorn acacia trees, move by about 100 metres before resuming their dinner.
Why did they move over such a distance before resuming their feast? This is the explanation (Wohlleben, 2015): “The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signalled to neighbouring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on.” Trees communicate by a variety of other ways, including through their roots systems, affirming metaphorically that indeed, it takes roots to weather the storm. It also validates the old saying that a tree does not make a forest even though this is falsely claimed to be possible through monocultures and plantations.
We speak of the gifts of Nature as re-sources. Yes, re-sources, intentionally hyphenated because we are not speaking of commodities, but of the vital need for humans to return to source, to reconnect to Nature, to think of the source before lifting the chisel, hammer, shovel, drill or rig. We have to stand in humility before Nature, recognise our finite place in her and affirm that the harm that we have inflicted on Mother Earth has been driven mostly by the creed of market fundamentalism that has grossly alienated us from Nature.
Re-source democracy is a call for the recognition of the rights of Nature, including her right to regenerate and maintain her cycles. It is built on a clear understanding of the uses and intrinsic values of the gifts of Nature. It calls for our understanding of the harmful impacts of human activities to the climate, the planet and all the beings inhabiting her. Re-source democracy demands the interrogation of the meaning of progress and development towards the end of helping us draw the line between what we can accept or reject in our environment. Navdanya further gives clarity to this idea: ‘We need a new paradigm to respond to the fragmentation caused by various forms of fundamentalism. We need a new movement, which allows us to move from the dominant and pervasive culture of violence, destruction and death to a culture of non-violence, creative peace and life…the Earth democracy movement…provides an alternative worldview in which humans are embedded in the Earth Family, we are connected to each other through love, compassion, not hatred and violence and ecological responsibility and economic justice replaces greed, consumerism and competition as objectives of human life.'
Current dominant development modes are energy intensive and require more and more re-sources to generate that energy to keep the machines rolling and to feed the appetite of humankind for consumption and for cash. The ‘resource’ conflicts and wars we see today in the world can be grouped as fights to grab resources or to keep others from grabbing the resources. Some are also wars to attenuate efforts of certain nations to build up their societies and peoples. There appears to be a struggle to have a monopoly over what development means, who can aspire to it, who should be developed and who should not. This warped prepositions have led to the manifestation of extremely primitive warfare being conducted with highly sophisticated hardware, including drones, underscoring the paradox of what civilisation really means.
These conflicts and the harm will intensify as the non-renewable re-sources run out and as habitable environment for the reproduction of renewable re-sources reduce. Toss into that volatile mix the rise of authoritarian governments with peculiar notions of national sovereignties and we will have a wild world devoid of rules. Wars powered by greed and faulty relationships with Nature’s gifts do not end easily and nations never really win such wars and conflicts. The winners invariably are mercenaries, war contractors, other multinational extractive companies and weapons makers/dealers.
Convergence of Movements
System change will be birthed by a convergence of movements. It will not be a matter of either or, it will be a matter for all. The silos delineated, owned and protected by environmental, political, social, religious and sundry movements must be broken down. We have to continually remind ourselves that we do not lead one-dimensional lives but that our lives and realities are formed by a web of relationships, issues and realities. As these issues are never one-dimensional we require diversity of approaches to effectively confront and overcome them – with the diversity of movements coalescing around common organizing principles. For example, in the case of ecological resurgence, movements can come together using the Precautionary Principle as a pivot. Another basic impulse will be the recognition of the leadership of communities of peoples – especially indigenous women – on the frontlines of ecological defense and system change struggles. These brave souls are engrossed in building webs of struggles and laying down their lives in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. We pause in honour of their spilt blood and undying memories.
System Change will not be Negotiated
The present fossil-based civilization is running out of gas and its terminal point is imminent – whether planned or not. Our task is to hasten the demise of this destructive system where unjust relations are seen as opportunities for amassing profit and where life means nothing before the altar of capital. This is the time for drastic actions to bring about ecological health for all our communities and relatives on planet Earth. It is a time when we urgently need to change the narrative that we can measure well-being by aggregating gross (mark that term) domestic products. The struggles of First Nation brothers and sisters in North America, the Ogoni in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, the Yasunidos of Ecuador and many others show that the battle can be tough and abrasive. But we have no options. Industrial growth societies have been built on the platforms of gross injustice – including by slavery, colonialism and disruption of thriving socio-economic systems through structural adjustment dictates of international financial institutions and undemocratic, self-appointed, groupings such as the G8 (or 7) and G20 and others like them.
In the words of legendary Wangari Maathai, “For decades, Africa has been urged to emulate this financial system and practices acquired from the industrialized world. While this structure enriched the West, practicing it without caution has only impoverished Africa.” For the preservation of humankind on planet Earth, systems like these and their power-relations cannot continue to exist.
We are conscious of the fact that those who benefit from the unjust, disruptive and unsustainable system will not listen to logical needs for system change. They have heard it over and over again. They simply cannot bear to think of anything other than their privileges and acquired levels of comforts. It is a system that throws up a handful of men that have more financial means than billions of men and women. It is a system where the poor, no matter how wise, cannot sit on the official negotiation tables. It is a system that believes that with financial means one can make a dash for safety on another planet or meteorite if apocalypse happens. It would have been a make-belief world, where its horrors were not rooted in reality.
History will judge the present generation very harshly if a transition is not urgently made to a Life-Sustaining Society – a society that is not hierarchical, but one in which humans and the environment are linked, not ranked. This society will come about only if we stand together with Earth Protectors and denounce the criminalisation of dissent and the constriction of democratic space that is fast becoming the norm.
A cardinal hurdle that must be crossed for needed radical change is the great shift in perception, a shift of values and narratives. It is time to speak up and let a thousand solutions bloom. It is no time to be silent, because, as Frantz Fanon stated in his resignation letter to the French colonial government, “There comes a time when silence becomes dishonesty” and, if you permit me to add, cowardice and accommodation of injustice. We need to “redefine our wealth and our worth. The reorganisation of our perceptions liberates us from illusions about what we need to own and what our place is in the order of things. Moving us beyond tired old notions of competitive individualism, we come home to each other and our mutual belonging in the living body of Earth.”
System change will not be negotiated. A ravenous capitalist system in its twisted struggles to stave off imminent implosion will not give up its powers of control and parasitic existence. System change will come about when the power of We the People becomes a rallying call and a pivot f action. We the People can redefine energy and own our clean, localised, energy generation and production systems. We the People can reclaim our streams, creeks and rivers and deny industry their privatisation and use as sewers.
As the saying goes: freedom is not something that is given, it is taken. System change will either be intentionally engineered or it will erupt through a global revolutionary moment. Change will come as fists burst through the cracks in the pavements just like saplings —spring from hardened soils.