Thursday, December 24, 2009

Copenhagen: Final thoughts... for now.

Hello dear friends, and happy christmas eve to those celebrating this day!

The other day I went to Solstice on the beach, where I was reunited with my commuity for the first time since returning from Copenhagen. It felt so wonderfully warm, even plunging into the December waters of Ocean Beach, to be so held and received with kind words and attention. People were careful not to overwhelm me (we’d just gotten off of the plane at midnight the day before), but overall, there was one question that seemed to be on everyone’s mind: what did I think about the summit, going forward? Was it a success or a failure?

The question kinda stumped me at first, not because I haven’t been thinking about it incessantly since the end of the summit, but because I think there are so many people more qualified to give that diagnosis than I am. I’m not a political expert, and there are many people in this community who are much more informed than I am. I listen to my Democracy Now in the mornings are read the Nation now and again, but I don’t feel like politics is something that I study. Beyond that, I rather feel, for the most part, that its impossible to really know how one moment in time fits into the larger web until we look back decades later. All of that aside, getting the question again and again helped me refine how I was feeling about the whole thing, going forward.

A friend of mine posted on my Facebook page, “I hope you enjoyed the sites in Copenhagen, since the rest of what happened there was a complete flop,” or something to that effect. This friend, actually, is one of the people I mentioned above – someone who is much more informed than I am. But, even so, I must respectfully disagree. I don’t feel like it was a total flop, nor do I feel the overwhelming disappointment many of my fellow American activist brothers and sisters seem to feel in Obama. Perhaps that’s because I never believed he would go to Copenhagen there are promise a reduction to pre-1995 levels of CO2 emissions or that he’d promise hundreds of billions in reparations to the G-77 nations.

What happened in Copenhagen seems to me to be what usually happens at any major negotiation: a bunch of people got together with a common goal that they want to achieve while each attempts to maintain their place (or advance it) in the pecking order as a whole. Obama, like all the leaders of the world, wants to help heal climate change, but not at the cost of the financial wellbeing of his country, which in our current model is completely relational to the financial wellbeing of other countries.

There’s both the happy and the sad in the final outcome of the conference. The happy is that they don’t seem to be talking about Cap & Trade as the end-all-be-all solution anymore, and the industrialized nations do seem to understand that they have a role to play in paying for the developing nations to skip all of those dirty technologies that we employed while rising to the top. The quickly-developing nations seem to realize that their growth must be tempered by what the planet can sustain. America, the grossest polluter in the world, is finally taking a role in the international negotiations around climate change – rather than continuing to deny the science behind it. And yours truly had the opportunity to march with an amazing samba band for hours every day, learn about European political organizing, and be a part of something that overall was personally very fulfilling and amazing to witness.

The sad is that although we could be well on our way to solving the problem tomorrow if we wanted to, we’re not going to (if the US, for example, simply reallocated its defense budget for one year, we’d have all of the clean technologies we need and the money to pay people to install it all). It’s also sad that our global leaders have decided that a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature is acceptable. Perhaps they simply found it inevitable at this point. Who can say?

Although I make myself out to be rational and realistic, there was a part of me that dreamed that Obama would go in there and say something truly revolutionary to protect the earth, make grandiose promises in line with my own dreams for the earth. But even if he had, he’d be lying. He doesn’t have the power to fulfill those kinds of promises just by saying that’s what will be – its our congress that makes those kinds of decisions, at least, for now. He could promise the world, but in the end, without congress on board, it would all be just a lot of hot air.

Here’s the part that you might not like.

When Obama was elected, he was very clear: there are a lot of changes that we need to make on the horizon, changes that he wanted to make, but in order to make them happen he needed us “to make him do it.” Although some would argue that the rhetoric around Obama’s victory being a win that came from grassroots organizing was simply that – rhetoric – I think there was something undeniable about the way that he mobilized people to work for creating the change they wanted to see in the world. But since then, especially around the issue of climate change, what have we done? Are we “making him” address this crisis the way we want him to?

I don’t think that we are. Two weeks ago I went to two supporting actions leading up to the Copenhagen summit in the Bay Area: one in San Francisco on November 30th, the anniversary of the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle, and one a week later at the Chevron corporate offices in San Ramon. Although spritely and passionate, neither action was notably well-attended. In fact, they were both much smaller than I had envisioned, especially the one in San Francisco. San Francisco, where were you when we were out in the streets, trying to let the Powers That Be know how deeply concerned we are about climate change, how much we want our nation to do its part in the global dialogue about it? In London, 20,000 people came out (a conservative estimate – it was 40,000 by some estimates) the day that Copenhagen started. There were more people who live in our area and who went to Seattle ten years ago then the number that came out to voice their desire and conviction in the streets.

I know that direct action isn’t the only want to act for climate justice (or any other issue) and that many of us do different things all the time to try and be a part of the healing of this earth. What I want us to ask ourselves, however, is whether or not the things we are doing are things that Obama could in any way know about. If I go to the store and buy energy-efficient light bulbs, is that something that is likely to be a part of “public outcry” about climate change? If I donate to the Sierra Club, how sure am I that some of that money goes to a campaign out climate change? In other words, how are our actions “making” Obama and our congresspeople address this issue in a way that will be truly transformational, powerful, ground-breaking -- in other words, effective?

One of the things I realized in Europe is how repressed we in the United States are, certainly by our police forces, but also by our culture. In Europe, the radical left is not nearly as marginalized and disregarded as it is here. It is regarded as a valid political force, just as any other. When I’m here, I often hear a lot of questions about political action and its value, such as “Why would I bother going out there in the streets? It doesn’t make a difference, anyway. It’s just a bunch of vain, futile yelling.” I can’t imagine that anyone would question whether or not the civil rights movement or the suffragists were wasting their time out there in the streets. So I don’t understand why its so different with climate change? The only thing that I can come up with is remembering the way the oil companies and other big corporations were able to manufacture doubt about climate change for years, calling it a “controversy” when there was none, and I wonder if the same thing is happening with civil disobedience as a whole.

I know many people think to themselves, “But, I’m not an activist like Riyana.” The truth of the matter is, it’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve begun to feel any comfort at all with that label as a part of my identity. For a long time, I didn’t consider myself an activist even when everyone else was referring to me that way, and I certainly don’t see myself doing anything that everyone else couldn’t do. But beyond that, I don’t need others to do what I’m doing. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground – and to fight for climate justice. Many of them are much less glamorous and much more effective than going to a big protest once or twice a year. I totally salute the people that work tirelessly, day in and day out, for what they believe in – at nonprofits, through political art, as teachers and organizers. I think the many ways we engage in this issue, as long as they are effective, passionate, and most of all, conspicuous, fold together and merge into one thing – into one movement, a powerful and diverse force for change.

I heard a story recently about a woman who started to take one day off a week to make soup for homeless people in her community. At some point, people started to hear about what she was doing, and they began sending in donations to help her with her work. Every time, she sat down and took the time to handwrite the person a letter in response. They’d come home and find it in the mail, and when they opened it, their own check would fall into their laps, along with a short note: “Make your own damn soup.”

Now, that’s a bit more harsh than how I’m feeling, and believe me, we very much appreciate the many people who contributed financially and energetically to our work. But I do hope that my posts about Copenhagen have helped to activate some of you to find your own way to be a part of this movement, because I think that what we need in these times is public outcry. Next year, when the COP 16 (UN Climate Change Summit) will be held in Mexico City. What will you do in the next 365 days that will help “make” Obama speak more powerfully, with the true authority that comes with being backed fully by his people, about what we’re willing to do to help save the earth and her people? What will we as a people do? Who will join us in the streets, and write letters, and sign petitions, and fundraise for non-profits that actively work for climate justice, and boycott Chevron, and all of the things that need to be done now? And when it comes to that time, will you join us in Mexico City? Will you rise up in the streets of San Francisco, or wherever you live? What will you do to be part of the earth rising?

Rising, rising, the earth is rising;
Turning, turning the tide is turning.

In love and solidarity,

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this! Thank you for your work. You inspire me to do more.
    -Carol from MA