• The Productive but Incomplete ­Encounter Between the Social Movement and Ecology

  • By Hervé Kempf | 16 May 13
  • One high point of the World Social Forum (WSF) that took place in Tunis from 26 to 30 March was the presence, for the first time in the Forum’s existence, of a Climate Space.

    This discussion space was open to activists engaged in ecological struggles as well as many Tunisians taking part who wanted to know more about the issue. This WSF was thus the opportunity to start connecting the social struggles, which make up the core of its culture, with the ecological issue. However, this connection was seen to be anything but simple, due both to the difficulty of bringing together different cultures and the uncertainty about what strategy can bring the climate issue to the forefront of the world political scene.

    This article will try to analyse the problems raised by the Forum’s having taken ecology into account. It is based on two workshops organised by Transform1, on several workshops taking place in the Climate Area and on conversations with some Forum participants.


    Neoliberal revolts and policies

    The gravity of the ecological crisis is unfolding in the context of an increasingly acute social conflict: Everywhere in the world the same neoliberal policy (which can just as well be described as neo-capitalist) is being applied. It aims at dismantling the institutional forms of collective security (the right to a job, social security, the public management of healthcare and education, etc.) and at privatising collective goods so as to extend the market to as many areas of activity as possible. In Portugal, for example, as Member of the European Parliament Aida Sousa stressed: ‘the National Health Service has been dismantled although it was one of the main gains after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974’2. This is, in fact, the generalised application of Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’3:  The leading capitalists are taking advantage of the weakening of their societies due to the crisis to apply capitalist dogma even more vigorously.

    However, in many countries more or less organised and lasting popular resistances have been set in motion. Without listing them all, we can at least mention Portugal, where mass demonstrations on 15 September 2012 and 2 March 2013 forced the government to step back from its plan to increase wage earners’ social security contributions while lowering contributions from firms; Italy where voters massively rejected the policies carried out by a former employee of Goldman Sachs, Mario Monti; Greece, which is in a permanent state of instability; Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Croatia where major protest movements have taken place; Quebec, where the ‘maple spring’ shook society in 2012. Nor should we forget Tunisia, where part of the political agitation is due to the fact that the Islamic government is continuing the neoliberal policy of the former dictator Ben Ali.


    Linking the environment and social struggles through the idea  of the ‘common good’

    The ecological issue is hidden by the intensity of neo-capitalist policies and of social resistance. However, the same logic of privatisation of common goods is at work in the environmental area, and sometimes it sparks off vigorous struggles. For example, an important movement developed in Greece against the extraction of gold in the Chalkidiki peninsula4; in Tunisia the ecological movements are worried about the uncontrolled development of schist gas5; in India several projects for electric-power-generating plants, both thermal and nuclear, have aroused strong popular resistance6; in Canada the ultra-reactionary Harper government is basing its development policy on the ecologically disastrous oil sands.

    The debates in Tunis also showed the political dead end of the ‘extractivist’ policies pursued by many progressive countries in Latin America, which base their development solely on the exploitation of their natural resources. This policy tends to subordinate these countries’ development to the international markets dominated by the most powerful: ‘Germany is closing its own coal mines but is importing coal from Columbia’, Wilson Arias, a Columbian member of Parliament, remarked. ‘This “extractivism” is threatening us all to the extent that its impact on the environment isn’t assessed.  The mining industry is the worst sector ecologically and also in terms of wages. The fiscal policy adopted to attract investments condemns us to being eternally colonised.‘ One participant stressed: ‘Ecological common goods have become the government’s adjustment variable.'

    Our hypothesis is that the social ‘common goods’ (education, healthcare and culture) are covered by the same principles as ecological  ‘common goods’ (air, water, forests and other land) and that capitalist policies are similarly attacking them. Therefore the struggles to preserve social and natural common goods could logically be combined.


    Climate activists without a strategy

    As far as the Climate Space was concerned, the atmosphere was one of uncertainty. True, a decided advance had been made over the last few years, remarked Maxime Combes, a member of Attac France: ‘The movement around the Climate Conference at Copenhagen in 2009 made it impossible afterwards to talk about climate change without raising the social issues.’ It was then that the slogan ‘Climate emergency, social justice’ established itself.

    Nevertheless, the failure of negotiations at Copenhagen (confirmed in succeeding years at Durban and Cancun) and the severity of the economic crisis have pushed the climate question into the background of public awareness. ‘There is a huge discrepancy between what the scientists say (we have ten years in which to win the climate battle, i.e. reduce the greenhouse gas emissions) and what has been done’, said Jean-Michel Etcheverry, an activist of the Basque ecological group Bizi. ‘We are losing this battle.'

    Not only is the climate question failing to really win much public support but capitalist principles continue to be predominant in the institutional regulations of the issue. Thus despite its self-evident failure, the carbon market remains the predominant model – a climate alibi can, for example, be used to finance industrial plantations in Latin America or Africa and facilitate land seizures, observed Wilson Arias.

    In this regressive situation, the climate movement (which is in any case very weakly organised) seems divided and for the moment quite incapable of dealing with the issues that are arising. Should it continue to focus on the climate conferences annually organised under the aegis of the United Nations7? They have been the traditional venue for the big environmental NGOs to try and influence the governments and raise public awareness. They have also been a source of important information. However, in view of diplomatic stagnation it is doubtful whether it is worth investing more time and energy in them. Another question is what attitude should be taken toward China. This country has become the prime emitter of greenhouse gases, but it remains, in terms of per capita income, a country of the South (that is, underdeveloped). Should we accuse China and put it on the same level as the United States or continue to treat it as a country of the South?

    Moreover, the climate movement is hesitating between several tactics. For US activists like Bill McKibben (one of the leaders of the opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, who was  not present at the WSF) a visible enemy must be targeted – in fact the oil companies – which would make it possible to concretise the climate question for public opinion, which is normally too abstract to engage most people.8 Some activists from countries of the South, such as Pablo Solón from Bolivia, feel that the agricultural and food-supply question should be emphasised by showing that climate change is threatening the safety of food supply. Nimmno Bassey, the Nigerian president of the International Federation of Friends of the Earth, prioritises the struggle against extractivism.9 Others privilege the critique of the financialisation of nature. No overall strategy has been established.

    Moreover, Maxime Combes asks: ‘Should we launch a worldwide campaign specifically on the climate or see to it that all social campaigns include the climate issue?’

    For lack of an international strategy capable of mobilising people, a pragmatic idea seems to be emerging: the necessity of focusing on ecological transition rooted in local regions.


    From local alternatives … to a global strategy

    For example, as a British representative of Friends of the Earth explained, there is work being done in the United Kingdom to go toward local control of the production and consumption of energy. In Berlin, a struggle is under way to return the railway and electric network back to the local government; this has a more global dimension, explained Tadzio Müller, a researcher at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation: ‘The debate in Germany is about what Kind of transition should be attempted so as to go towards a system of renewable energy: should it be run under the control of communities and municipalities or in the form of big projects run by the major companies?’ We could also cite the increasing number of associations linking consumers and farmers so that they can be supplied directly and shut out the distribution systems. Mátyás Benjik, of Attac Hungary, pointed to the development of local currencies and the taking over of bankrupt firms by their workers. Elisabeth Gauthier, of Espaces Marx, emphasised that people are beginning to organise themselves in order to survive, as can be observed in Spain10 and in Greece.11 The idea of collective ownership of everyday machinery can also be promoted, as was suggested by Søren Bo Søndergaard, a Danish Member of the European Parliament: ‘For example, do we really need an electric screwdriver in every household when they are only used once a year on average? Could we not set up a “library” of objects that people can come and borrow when they need them?’

    This idea of grass roots alternatives often leads to concrete local changes. They are also attractive because they enable those who commit themselves to it to really assess the efficiency of the action taken, whereas the overall climate issue seems too global for people to feel they can have any weight in dealing with it.

    Difficult connection

    There is another dimension that seems essential in these localised practices: They often  mingle an ecological approach with one of social change, even if this is not always formalised. The connection that is so difficult at a theoretical and global level between the ecological and the social questions becomes significantly more natural and easy in concrete practices.

    Moreover, as the Swiss activist Olivier de Marcellus stressed: ‘We can mobilise people around local problems, but it is hard to get them to make a global critique of capitalism’.

    Indeed, we cannot really do without a global understanding of the crisis taking place. While it seems to be understood by all the components of the alter-globalist movement that the ecological struggle and resistance to capitalism are inseparable, this does not necessarily lead to a unified discourse. This is also the more so that the spread of unemployment can seem to contradict the ecological analysis, which tends to recommend lowering greenhouse gas emissions and thus energy consumption.

    In a workshop organised by Transform! on ‘changing the economic logic’12, a thesis I presented stimulated what I would call a significant debate. I proposed to analyse the present historic moment as the convergence of the crisis of the means of subsistence on a planetary scale with the new and mass character of the ecological crisis.13 The conclusion was that in the rich countries (essentially western: Europe and North America but also Japan and a few others like those of the Persian Gulf) the average level of power and material consumption will and must diminish. The ecological situation does not allow a convergence at a world level with the present level of consumption in Europe and North America.

    This is explicitly part of any policy of regaining democratic control of the banks and financial markets as well as a drastic reduction of inequalities. However, in my view, these policies have to be part of a new ecological economy that must take up the goal of lowering average material consumption in the rich countries.

    In fact, this idea did not provoke direct opposition. Thus Søren Bo Søndergaard observed: ‘it is evident that there is great waste of energy’. However, Asbjørn Wahl, a Norwegian, trade unionist,14 said: ‘We may be able to agree to reduce consumption but you can’t mobilise people for this. How can we convince people? In Norway the issue of under-consumption tends to be dealt with in a moralising way.’ Undoubtedly, the need to reduce energy and material consumption is becoming visible to the middle classes of the rich countries, but we must link this perspective to positive alternatives, showing that it is not a matter of making  ‘sacrifices’, but of designing another world that is compatible with ecology, with justice and so with peace.

    One way of getting around the obstacle is, according to Jean-Marie Harribey of Attac France, to understand that ‘we are no longer in a period in which Keynesian mechanisms work’.15 In other words, we cannot get out of the present economic crisis, even after having taken control of the financial system and the currency, by an economic policy of restoring consumption – the left must revise its traditional logic.  In Harribey’s opinion ‘improving the quality of life cannot be done simply by increasing wages or more consumption; rather, it is a matter of healthcare, education and retirement pensions. We must play down the question of purchasing power’.


    Ecological transition

    Thus, at the grassroots level, working together with workers’ organisations, that is, the trade unions, is indispensible. ‘Trade unionists must be involved in the discussion to understand how they could ignore the issue of the climate and the environment – which is absurd’, said another participant. However, some original approaches are emerging: ‘The ELA trade union has started thinking about what an ecological transition for the Basque Country could be’, pointed out Jean-Michel Etcheverry.

    What conclusion should we draw from these discussions in a fascinating Forum that took place in the invigorating atmosphere generated by thousands of curious and stimulating Tunisian participants. Here are some ideas:

    • The rapprochement of the social movement with the ecological question is beginning to take place.

    • However, the movement for climate justice does not have a worldwide strategy – for the moment the campaigns that are taking place have a regional character, adapted to the different preoccupations of the populations of different geographic settings.

    • The exhaustion of the capitalist system is evident in the Northern countries, but also the exhaustion of the consumer society, to the extent that the left must abandon the goal of increasing the general standard of living, which has become a lazy argument.

    • The gravity of the ecological crisis requires a reforging of economic principles.

    • The notion of ‘common goods’, both social and natural could be the pivotal point of this reforging.

    • However, the ecologists, and more broadly speaking the alter-globalist movement, must formulate and carry out positive alternatives capable of convincing the mass of citizens of the benefits of exiting from capitalism.



    1. “How to define a new democratic goal in the face of austerity policies and authoritarian forms of government”, 28 March, and “What change of economic principle to meet social and ecological needs, and make cooperative come alive? An alternative to the logic of competitiveness” 29 March.

    2. Alda Sousa, “What is happening in Portugal?” Reporterre, April 2013. http://www.reporterre.net/spip.php?article408

    3. Naomi Klein, La stratégie du choc (The shock doctrine), Actes sud, 2008.

    4. ‘Eldorado Gold’s big Greek mining problem’, The Globe and Mail, 27 April 2013. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/eldorado-golds-greek-mining-problem/article11584840/

    5. ‘Gaz de schiste : “Cinq emplois pour 1.000 cancers”?’[Schist Gas: ‘5 Jobs for 2000 Cancers’?] Basta, 28 March 2013. www.bastamag.net/article3004.html. See also the facebook page ‘Contre le gaz de schiste en Tunisie’ [Against schist gas in Tunisia], http://www.facebook.com/pages/Contre-le-gaz-de-schiste-en-Tunisie/262199670540731

    6. ‘India playing risky games at nuclear parks’, Inter Press Service, 25 March 2013, http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/03/india-playing-risky-games-at-nuclear-parks/

    7. Conference of parties at the United Nations Convention on climate change adopted at Rio in1992.  See pp. 37 and 55.  http://www.cop10.org/

    8. Bill McKibben, ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math’, Rolling Stone, 19 July 2012.

    9. Azam, p. 43.

    10. ‘Fábricas recuperadas y autogestión en la nueva realidad de España’, José Luis Carretero Miramar, ICEA. French translation: http://www.autogestion.asso.fr/?p=2458

    11. ‘Du champ à l’assiette, en Grèce, les initiatives se multiplient’ [From the field to the plate: In Greece initiatives are proliferating], Association pour l’autogestion,  Roxane Mitralias, March 2013. http://www.autogestion.asso.fr/?p=2690

    12. ‘What change of economic principle to meet social and ecological needs, and make cooperative come alive? An alternative to the logic of competitiveness’, 29 March 2013.

    13. This analysis is made in detail in: Hervé Kempf, Fin de l’Occident, naissance du monde (Seuil, Paris, 2013). Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and Hungarian translations are underway.

    14. Author of The Rise and Fall of Welfare State, Pluto Press: London 2011. See the review in Transform : www.transform-network.net/journal/issue-112012/news/detail/Journal/asbjoern-wahl-on-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-welfare-state.html.

    15. Jean-Marie Harribey is the author of La richesse, la valeur et l’inestimable: Fondements d’une critique socio-écologique de l’économie capitaliste, Les Liens qui libèrent: Paris, 2013.