Reflections on the Cochabamba climate summit

29 April 2010

After last week’s climate summit in Bolivia, it is now possible for the governments to express the agenda of the social movements and the world’s most threatened peoples within the next official climate conference in Mexico.

The Cochabamba Summit turned about to be a very good conference and this was not only due to the number of participants. Around 33,000 people attended, more than a double of what the organizers were expecting. Around 10,000 participants came from countries other than Bolivia.

The discussions were also very good. It was extremely difficult to produce 17 group documents, as well the final Peoples’ Agreement document, in just three days and making decisions collectively, rather than in small meetings. We managed and now we have a Peoples’ Agreement as an alternative to the so-called Copenhague Agreement. It is now possible for the governments (so far only the ALBA governments, but hopefully others will come on board before the next climate summit) to express the agenda of the social movements and the world’s most threatened peoples within the official Cancún Conference.

The importance of global environmental issues can hardly be overestimated. I would like to highlight just two reasons. The first is obviously the fact that we are facing a crisis that threatens the survival of humankind, even life on planet Earth. The second is the fact that the struggles for environmental or climate justice have managed to bring together most of the most important issues/struggles of the last decades (justice/equality, war/militarization, free trade, food sovereignty, agribusiness, peasants’ rights, struggles against patriarchy, defense of indigenous peoples’ rights, migration, the critique of the dominant Eurocentric/colonial patterns of knowledge, as well as struggles for democracy, etc., etc.). All these issues were debated on Cochabamba and, to some degree, present in the Cochabamba Peoples’ Agreement

There are however several issues which I think are potentially quite problematic.

1.    The first one is the fact that worldwide resistance has to a great extent assumed the way the environmental issues have been framed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel as issues of “Climate Change”. I believe that once the problem is defined as “climate change”, it is fairly easy to take the further step of limiting the discussion to the increase in average temperature. This tends to narrowly frame the debates in terms of how to limit carbon emissions without questioning anything else. Thus there is no debate on the limits (or terminal crisis) of a patriarchal anthropocentric civilization based on the radical separation between humans and the rest of the web of life, a civilizational project based on the idea of unlimited growth in a limited planet. Thus, for example, instead of discussing the need to do away with a transportation system based on individual/private cars, the debate is limited to alternative energies to keep (and give a new green and profit push) this unsustainable mode of transportation intact.

This has made it possible for corporations, most governments and most of the scientific/technological community to search for technological (technological fix) and market solutions to the “technical” problems we now face.  Climate change is indeed a huge issue, but it is part of the widespread destructive consequence of development, progress and unlimited growth in this profoundly unequal world. These are not basically technological or market issues. It can hardly be expected that the same science/technology, the same dominant patterns of knowledge, the same market systems that have led us to the current crisis are going to offer any meaningful alternatives.

Thus the struggle against climate change (“Change the system, not the climate”) at the same time has to struggle against this limited, narrow corporate framing of what is at stake. 

2.    A second issue is the way the debates in Cochabamba defined capitalism as the main cause of climate change/environmental destruction.  I fully agree that capitalism is incompatible with the preservation of human life on earth. Capitalism is an unlimited growth system. There can be no such thing a steady state capitalism, or capitalism with negative growth. Unlimited growth is not possible in a limited planet. Thus any alternative has to be a non-capitalist alternative.

However, when the discussion is limited to “capitalism”, two problems arise. The first is the way this can be used by so-called socialist governments or projects to wash their hands in relation to their own responsibility.  (If capitalism is to blame this is not our problem, we are constructing socialism).  We know that Soviet socialism was in many ways even more destructive for the humans and environment than capitalism. The alternatives necessarily have to be both anticapitalist and radically critical of the dominant patterns of civilization. This critical civilizational dimension tends to be obscured when the problems are framed in terms of the unique responsibility of capitalism. This is, for example, the case of Venezuela today where the emphasis on the responsibility of the North, especially the United States tends to obscure the consequences of an oil-based model of state socialist extractive development.

A second related concern is the fact that this one sided emphasis on capitalism can lead to assuming that these problems can only be dealt with in a non-capitalist society (i.e. in socialism), after a revolution, or after there is a socialist or progressive government in power.  I had a feeling that this was common sense among many of the participants of the Cochabamba summit. This would be going back on the huge political and cultural transformations that have occurred since the fall of the Berlin Wall, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in worldwide resistance to capitalism.  New ways of doing politics, based on plurality, diversity, horizontality, on the idea that state power is important but only one of the multiple dimensions of the necessary social transformations that occur (not after capturing the Winter Palace but here and now), have been created worldwide over the last two decades. The World Social Forum process has made an enormous contribution to this new political culture. If adherence to “socialism” becomes once again the criteria by which to judge the value or contribution of subjects, struggles and social movements, much of this recent valuable experience will be lost.
 
3.    There is also a need to be aware of problems that might arise as a consequence of the “call for the building of a Global People's Movement for Mother Earth” included in the Cochabamba Peoples’ Agreement. Many social movements see this as not needed, as unnecessarily overlapping with existing networks and articulations, or even as a potential threat to the autonomy of social movements if the ALBA governments attempt to control this Global People's Movement. This needs to be dealt with great care in order not to disrupt the necessary alliances between movements and some governments in the continued struggles for climate justice and everything else.

Also in organizational terms, some Latin American movements have already expressed their concern that Europeans might want to impose the Copenhague "Klimaforum” model on the Cancún mobilizations, model seen as somewhat alien to the experience of Latin American social movements.  This need not be a motive for conflict, but there is a need to take these sensibilities into account in the process toward Cancún.

About the authors

Edgardo Lander

Lander is one of the leading thinkers and writers on the left in Venezuela, both supportive and constructively critical of the Venezuelan revolution under Chavez. He is actively involved in social movements in the Americas that defeated the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

He is a member of the Latin American Social Science Council’s (CLACSO) research group on Hegemonies and Emancipations and on the editorial board of the academic journal Revista Venezolana de Economía y Ciencias Sociales. He is currently part of the steering committee of the Hemispheric Council of the Social Forum of the Americas. 

Among other publications, Lander has written and edited: Contribución a la crítica del marxismo realmente existente: Verdad, ciencia y tecnología; La ciencia y la tecnología como asuntos políticos; Límites de la democracia en la sociedad tecnológica; Neoliberalismo, sociedad civil y democracia.

Recent publications from Environmental Justice

No fracking way

A briefing that explores how a trade agreement currently being negotiated between the US and the EU could open the way to multi-billion euro lawsuits from companies wanting to expand “fracking” for shale gas and oil.

COP19 Guide to Corporate Lobbying

At a time when genuine progress towards real climate action is more vital than ever, this guide exposes how the corporations most responsible for climate change have taken over this year’s UN climate talks.

Beyond Development

Latin America is at the forefront of thinking on how to build a new sustainable economy that rejects consumerism and extractivism. An exciting compilation on new ideas such as Buen Vivir that are reshaping the global debate on how to live in harmony with each other and nature.

The Sugarcane Industry and the global economic crisis

An examination of ethanol production in Brazil, highlighting the role of financial capital, the territorial expansion of agribusiness and the impacts on labour relations and indigenous peoples and peasant farmers.