Editorial - Friend or Foe

Originally published in May 2010.

At the end of March, the Daily Mail published a story intended to discredit the Climate Camp. It ‘revealed’ the identity of one of the Camp’s two delegates flying to Bolivia to attend the ‘World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth’, called for by president Evo Morales. The story got re-published on Indymedia, later hidden by the site admins, attracting a storm of furious responses, with many registering their disgust at Climate Campers going to Bolivia.

Objections, however, were not based on the political decision to engage with state representatives and NGOs but rather upon the method of travel these delegates had chosen, flying the 6,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean! Some repeated the Daily Mail’s claims of hypocrisy, remembering the 2007 occupation of a site near Heathrow and Plane Stupid’s arguments against ‘unnecessary’ flights.

In SHIFT, we have always explored the problems of the ‘don’t fly’ argument, trying to show that fighting against individual lifestyle choices falls shorts of anti-capitalist politics. The resurfacing of the aviation debate again demonstrates this tension, as it misses the key political questions surrounding the Bolivian conference in Cochabamba.

Our interview with The Cornerhouse in this issue highlights the fact that fetishising CO2 leads many climate activists into the same impasse as UN negotiators and carbon traders. An analysis which puts the focus on carbon, and not on the flows of capital which produces it, will ignore questions whose solutions are vital for the creation of a truly radical movement. In this case, debate about methods of transport stifled discussions about the purpose of the conference and the broader question of alliances with state actors in general.

In this issue of SHIFT we thus seek to ask the question of alliances. The COP15 counter-summit saw the emergence of arguments for diagonalism; that is, a critical engagement with specific states and other organisations and institutions within them. But are these likely to reproduce the tensions and problems seen within both the World and European Social forums? Do the specificities of climate change, the issue around which new movements are emerging, provide new answers to the old question of political alliances? In times like these, just who can we rely on?

The carbon-centric focus of the debate that emerged around the sending of Climate Camp delegates to Cochabamba is, for us, a good example of how climate activists have a tendency to set up barriers to their aim of movement building through their ‘political’ focus (state intervention, lifestyle changes that are only realistic or desirable for the already wealthy). As we have argued before, calls for change that are motivated only by the desire to reduce carbon emissions often result in the perceived necessity of austerity measures or state-sanctioned controls. Working with the state or more mainstream organisations on environmental issues may then seem like an attractive solution.

But if we understand climate change as a social problem, as a by-product, no doubt, of the capitalist system, the appeal of joining forces with the state, or with its liberal apologists, becomes absurd. Conceptualising climate change as part of a broader system of environmental and social injustice does, however, points us in the direction of new allies; those who are disenfranchised and disempowered by capitalism, those who have lost control of their lives and of their relationship to their environments.

So, for us, the question of friend and foe is not first and foremost one of strategy or organisation, but of politics.