Democracy and the Environment / The Environment as a Social Movement

At the weekend I was part of the ‘Occupy London’ protest, one of 900 ‘Occupy’ protests that took place in over 80 countries on Saturday the 15th of October.  Although mounted police prevented access to Paternoster Square (home of the London stock exchange) after an injunction stated the land to be private, the protest continued successfully on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral – and camps remain there today.  Like the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest in America and the ‘Indignants’ protests in Madrid which started the movement, the protestors are determined to stay until they are heard.

Regular jibes are made at the protesters: ‘Anti capitalists with their Starbuck mugs’ was a snide comment bouncing around the web on Saturday.  One of my friends challenged me for being at an ‘anti-capitalist riot’ (poor guy had read reports on the day from ‘The Sun’ for some reason…) and keeping in touch on my smart phone.  But for me, certainly, and, I thought a lot of the other protesters – this wasn’t (isn’t) about anti-capitalism.  The ongoing protests are about inequality, about being one of the citizens (one of the ‘99%’) who does not benefit from the way society is stacked, and about feeling that you don’t have a voice.  Many of the protesters had signs that mirrored my own banner: ‘Democracy not Plutocracy’.  You don’t have to be making an anti-capitalist statement to say that the money in the system is preventing it from operating in a democratic way.

The other reason I was there, of course, was the environment.  The reverse of my banner (which, unfortunately, was violently seized by a police officer as I tried to leave the protest) simply read: ‘We need Climate Justice.  Stop the Tar Sands’.  A more convoluted version was going to read: ‘I have to believe that if Obama’s hands weren’t tied by the oil lobbyists, he would have stopped the XL Pipeline already’.  Unfortunately, I resisted writing this because it was much less punchy – though technically, I felt it got to the point. But the words ‘Climate Justice’ do hold considerable meaning.  They reflect the fact that our global system (under scrutiny by all the protesters) is failing to protect the interests of most of the international community.  Hundreds of thousands of people are already being affected by climate change and that number only stands to grow.  The malevolent irony of this commonly known fact is that it is the poorest parts of the world that stand to suffer the most – while the richer, polluting nations, which caused the problems and have infrastructure in place to protect themselves, will be the least affected.

Despite that, my protest was not only on behalf of other citizens of the world but also for the average Britain, American, Canadian etc.  As explained in a past blog, if President Obama gives the go ahead to the tar sands, he is giving the Presidential seal of national interest. But in which American citizen’s interest is it to continue America’s dependence on oil and advance climate change?  The US has already been victim to unusually violent storms and unpredictable weather patterns that typify some of the dangers climate change can bring.  Besides, one of Obama’s election promises was to end the US dependence on oil.  Once again we have returned to the issue of democracy.  How are the environmentalists among us meant to be represented if our chosen candidate is unable to follow through on his promises due to ‘economic’ interests?

Returning to the UK, although we may not have seen the violent weather conditions that some parts of America have faced over the past few years, we have not remained unaffected – nor will we remain so.  Although we may have been celebrating our collective good fortune as a heat wave swept across our country at the beginning of October, we would all have been lamenting had the food needed for consumption in this country had perished because of it.  It is a very real outcome of climate change: that as severe weather conditions pervade across what are, currently, efficient food-producing areas, crops will fail and those of us who have known an age of plenty, when potatoes came from Israel and tomatoes arrived from Spain, will have a nasty shock. Hopefully, because of the UK’s geographical location, as well as its infrastructure and modern technologies, this will not mean the island will starve.  But in other parts of the world climate change already means famine and starvation – and wars for resources.  This is not in anyones interests.

So, although the ‘Occupy’ protests are a social movement, they demand a political climate where environmental injustices and the sustainability of our society can be addressed. The issues are interlinked.  It is time for us to stop thinking of environmental issues or protests as ‘Other’ or removed from the goals of humanitarian protests.  After all, climate change is a man-made problem, with the potential for realising huge, human casualties – very soon.  Admittedly, in London I was one of the few holding a banner with any allusion to the environment, but I know that in America Bill McKibben and the 350 Organisation have been supporting the Occupy Wall Street Protests.  Bill was recently arrested, along with 1,000 other protesters, in the Tar Sands acts of civil disobedience outside the White House.  This was a two-week sit in – a very similar protest to the social protests currently going global.  These similar acts of civil disobedience reveal that many people are unhappy and want change and addressing environmental issues must be part of that change.


About EcoTheme

Welcome to EcoTheme. I’m from the the county of Dorset in the South West of England. Having studied environmental ethics and written a Masters dissertation on the ethics of sustainable living I now work with Campaign against Climate Change and Greenpeace. I started EcoTheme to present discussion and views on things going on in the environmental world. It should become clear through my posts that I believe our environmental problems to be the most pressing matters of the day – not simply because I place value in our natural world but also because it is the platform on which all life depends.
This entry was posted in Climate Change, Justification - and Morals. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Democracy and the Environment / The Environment as a Social Movement

  1. Of course, in reply to your critics and countless idiots of this type, it doesn’t follow that if you are opposed to capitalism that you are opposed to technology, neither does it follow that you are opposed to democracy.
    Similarly, there is nothing inherently wrong with using any of the tools available to bring down an oppressive, unjust or dangerous system or institution (iPhones, blogs, social networking sites, all good).
    As to Starbuck’s Coffee, yes it would be nice to have the ability to drink coffee that wasn’t sold by a multi-national corporation, but we don’t have an awful lot of choice under global capitalism. Maybe I should do something about it. Oh look, I am.

    Good work, by the way.

  2. Aubrie says:

    Thanks for using the time and effort to write something so interesting.

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  3. EcoTheme says:

    Great comment! Thanks Paul!
    I was enjoying writing this blog, it was completely unplanned and without any form of decided structure – but when I got to the end I started pondering whether the social vs environmental problem could be dissertation worthy… But I did also wonder whether I could make it span 12,000 words minimum. Any thoughts?

    • Not sure what you would want to argue in the dissertation. Pushing an interpretation on the ‘Occupy’ Movement might be problematic. Some current strengths of the movement include its resistance to articulating fixed demands, which can then be managed, dismissed and trivialised by those they are opposing them, and the clear diversity of interest groups who have mobilised under its banner. It might be somewhat awkward to push forwards with the prioritization of the environmental. You would find allies, but it might be a little too forced. Someone like Murray Bookchin would read this in the opposite direction, viewing the social and economic inequalities as the main drivers of the environmental mess. How goes the MA?

  4. EcoTheme says:

    I wouldn’t really plan to bring the Occupy protests in at all, but some kind of examination of the relationship between social injustices (inequality etc) and their role in bringing about environmental injustices (like your Bookchin example) – which we then differentiate into the camp of the Other (environment/purely the concern of environmentalists) – despite human origins and victims. Not really sure, just got my brain whirring a bit! The MA goes well – lots of work, I will send you an email update!

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