Reflections on Climate Camp… oh, and capitalism.

7 Sep

I have been meaning to write this post for ages, as it’s been a couple of weeks now since Climate Camp. But somehow life got in the way, and I didn’t know exactly what I would write. My mind has been turning over the experience, over and over, and I think it is starting a thought process that may take a while to unravel.

It was my first Climate Camp and it fit quite neatly into my preconceptions and expectations – decisions made by consensus, workshops on various issues, ceilidh nights and police. All present and correct. But there were some unexpected bits as well.

I am not sure I heard the words “climate change” more than once during the time I was there. This wasn’t because of any scary “he-who-must-not-be-named” Harry Potter thing, but because I think for many of the activists there, it truly wasn’t at the forefront of their minds. What they were thinking about and talking about, was anti-capitalism. System change, not climate change.

A couple of years ago I would never have identified with an anti-capitalist or anarchist label. I remember going on a march at the European Social Forum back in 2008 and I was truly intimidated by the anarchist “Black Bloc”, all wearing balaclavas with their fists in the air. I still would be. The aggression and the general feeling of being “anti” anything without proposing an alternative turned me off. Plus, capitalism is the only social structure I have ever known, I didn’t really understand so much what it was possible to change, and why. I knew I wanted a kinder, fairer version of capitalism than the one we have now (I had read Jonathan Porrit’s Capitalism as if the Earth Matters) and felt pretty satisfied in my vision of the future.

However a few months back, I was invited to a lecture given by the social theorist and geographer Professor David Harvey at LSE. IT WAS AMAZING. I sat enthralled for an hour, listening to an incredibly well-reasoned argument drawn from his book, The Enigma of Capital, about why capitalism can never work. Please watch the very accessible animated video of one of his talks at the RSA below to hear it from the man himself!

I announced to everyone the next day that I was anti-capitalist. I talked to anyone who was moderately interested about it. I made it an ambition to learn more about it, and about capitalism too, pre-Thatcher to see what the deal was.

So, as you can see, I ended up coming to Climate Camp on a fairly similar political page as everyone else. Except for the whole climate change thing. Right now, I agree with David Harvey and I hope that we can work towards a system that is fairer for everyone. I felt that most at Climate Camp were fixed on that goal and were prepared for a struggle that would take their whole lives, and beyond, to achieve. But in terms of climate change, we just don’t have that time.

So the dilemma I feel that we’re faced with is this – my gut feeling is that, given the short time frame, we need to work with the current system and do everything we can to mitigate the effects of climate change in the next 5-10 years.

But. What if that sets us on a trajectory that we can’t pull back from? What if working with the system, and allocating everything a price – our air, our trees, our water, our land – is just about the worst idea we could ever have had, and legitimising it now means that we’re forever stuck with it?

It feels like we have to choose between two evils – a society that is less impacted by climate change but deeply unequal, or one that is more equal in the long-term but has had to see a great deal of suffering to get there.

Am I wrong? I hope so.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

7 Responses to “Reflections on Climate Camp… oh, and capitalism.”

  1. rogerthesurf September 8, 2010 at 4:29 am #

    Most so called “failures” of capitalism can easily be traced to distinctly non capitalist interference in the capitalistic process.

    Good examples of “non capitalism” include Soviet Russia and Mainland China between 1950-1978.

    Where abouts does your concept of a “fairer” society stand?



    • hannamade September 8, 2010 at 9:34 am #

      Thanks so much for your comment. As you can see, I am no expert and am just open to learning more about it. But I think you can critique our current model without assuming that the alternative is some kind of communist dictatorship. Even Ed Miliband has been talking about a “kinder” version of capitalism.

      As for a fairer society, I simply mean one where it isn’t just a tiny percentage of the global population that reap society’s benefits. One that is more equal. I don’t think this means getting involved in some North Korean dance routine, I just mean a world where the circumstances in which we are born do not necessarily dictate our quality of life.

      I look forward to educating myself further… I would be particularly interested in hearing more about what you say here – “Most so called “failures” of capitalism can easily be traced to distinctly non capitalist interference in the capitalistic process.”. Can you give me specific examples?


      • rogerthesurf September 8, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

        You may be aware that a cornerstone of capitalism is the doctrine on relying on the free market.
        This doctrine encourages that governments should only interfere with the market in the case of “natural” monopolies such as utilities etc and be aware and break up “unnatural” monopolies as in your country (USA?), Standard Oil was dealt with by the Sherman Act.
        This doctrine also has responsibility for true democracy as people if left uninfluenced will “vote” using their personal resources, rather than have a government tell them what to purchase (government spending tax payers money). This guides the economy to the best path for everyones prosperity.
        If you doubt this, simply take a look at the US and UK economies which are increasingly socialistic and compare with Mainland China which having learnt the hard way, has embraced the free market absolutely since about 1978.
        History has shown that government interference in the free market(this is what I mean by “non capitalistic intervention) generally causes more harm than good.

        A recent example which is probably the major cause of the current recession is the interference of the Clinton Administration in the sub prome mortgage market. On the face of it at the time, it seemed a good thing to do, allowing more people to own their own homes etc but the number of subsequent defaulting loans almost brought down the whole banking system of the US and effecte the whole world.

        You will read that the US Government gave little choice to it’s agencies but to give out imprudent loans, which would never have happened without government pressure. i.e. the president’s political wishes.

        More commentary is found below.

        The extreme example of communism where all decisions are made by the government and none left to the market are illustrated by Mainland China 1950-1978 and Soviet Russia. These countries simply descended into starvation and poverty in spite of (maybe) the good intentions of their leaders.

        A good book for you to read would be “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman.

        I like this article by a local Ex MP of my country who spent his younger years in parliament trying to raise the situation of the working class in my country, but in later years realising that he did more harm than good



        Hope this gives you something to contemplate on.

  2. hannamade September 9, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    Hi Roger, thanks for taking the time to leave these comments. I have to say though that I don’t think the free market if left to its own devices is the best way, and it seems to me that the recession was caused to a significant degree by the increasing deregulation of the banks and therefore less government intervention. You use examples of communist states and criticize them for starvation and poverty, however you don’t acknowledge the millions of people in a similar situation currently, and quite a few of them in developed, “successful”, capitalist economies. I also don’t see how we can continue to talk about the free market and economic growth, when we are currently using up our natural resources at a rate much higher than our environment can sustain. I think anyone who looks at the reality of our situation must at least acknowledge that we need a sustainable way forward. I have just bought Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth and am looking forward to reading it – perhaps you would find it interesting too.

    • rogerthesurf September 10, 2010 at 5:36 am #

      I thought you wanted some advice and therefore I would expect you to at least be courteous enough to study all the references I gave you.

      ” it seems to me that the recession was caused to a significant degree by the increasing deregulation of the banks and therefore less government intervention”

      If you think and read more carefully, you will remember that I said in order to have a free market, a government should prevent monopolies. The “deregulation” you mentioned was a removal of previous regulation which was put there after the great depression to limit banks from being able to integrate vertically, and limit any monopolistic activity.

      As well as that the banks were forced to take on loans that were not prudent and were given government backing to do so. Hence the current situation.

      I think that the Michael Basset article is particularly relevant given your current thinking.

      ” You use examples of communist states and criticize them for starvation and poverty, however you don’t acknowledge the millions of people in a similar situation currently, and quite a few of them in developed, “successful”, capitalist economies”

      Once again read Michael Basset’s article carefully. If you want to help these people, the best thing you can do is get the economy working. If your government taxes the populace and then tries to give that money away, it simply makes things worse.

      Now this is obviously completely contradictory to everything you have been told, so I suggest you keep an open mind and research enough to use your own brain in this matter.

      Socialism is very seductive, because governments promise “free” this and “free” that, but the fun of it is that nothing is free. Governments simply take money/resources from tax payers, spend maybe 50% of it in “Administration” and give it to other people who they feel are deserving.
      It is that 50% loss or dead money that simply makes us collectively poorer.

      However we are getting into economic theory here, so my suggestion is that you should enroll in a reputable university and study economics for a few years and make up your own mind.

      Only then will you be able to understand and criticise Tim Jackson’s contructively. (To try and prohibit economic growth has a whole string of consequences, including helping those poor people you appear so concerned about)

      I will not reply again but I urge you to study hard (like I did) so you can have constructive beliefs.



  3. stater of the obvious September 10, 2010 at 1:38 am #

    Actually, the central injustice of capitalism is pretty simple. It is this:

    Those with money to spare (owning class) are able to “buy” the work of those who need to earn money to survive (working class).

    By doing so they not only control our working lives (a large proportion of our time), they also make a tidy profit without lifting a finger, making themselves richer and perpetuating the inequality. The “free” market makes the rich richer, and the powerful ever more powerful.

    Hannah, as for your (important) question regarding the apparent dilemma – to focus on system change or climate change – I don’t believe that climate change can be solved while a tiny elite wield power.

    It’s nice to think that we could avoid climate change without having to confront and overthrow the powerful, but it’s wishful thinking. I think we have to focus on system change. I think this requires a willingness to move outside our relatively-privileged comfort zones, recognise those already most oppressed by this system, and follow *their* lead.

    In building a genuinely radical movement of this sort we would also achieve short-term victories by scaring the elites enough to motivate them to throw us a few crumbs by way of reforms.

    To summarise, if we prioritise climate change while neglecting system change, we get neither. Our movements get co-opted into initiatives which make society less equal and less free, while climate change itself continues apace.

    If we go for all out system change, we not only build a fairer and more equal future, we actually stand a better chance of scaring the rich and powerful into making genuine concessions that will limit runaway climate change.

    In that sense I’d argue it’s a false dichotomy.

  4. rogerthesurf September 10, 2010 at 5:39 am #

    Sorry for
    ” Governments simply take money/resources from tax payers, spend maybe 50% of it in “Administration” and give it to other people who they feel are deserving”

    Please read ” Governments simply take money/resources from tax payers, spend maybe 50% of it in “Administration” and give the remaining 50% to other people who they feel are deserving”

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