Posted by: Jon | 06/04/2011

Resistance is Fertile

In the final chapter of ‘World on the Edge’, his most recent big picture analysis for a sustainable Plan B, Lester Brown reiterates the need for a wartime scale of mobilisation if we are adequately to confront the severity of human ecological overshoot and escalating climate chaos. He asks “What contributions can we each make today, in time, money, or reduced consumption, to help save civilisation?”

Some would answer him that we are already making steady progress. Many of us have changed our light bulbs, some have invested in solar panels, and the three ‘Rs’ of sustainable consumption  – ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ – are now firmly embedded in our collective consciousness, if not always in our daily practices. A few hardliners have even committed to some additional ‘Rs’ – such as to Refuse (social pressure and the temptations of advertising), to ‘Repair’ (rather than renew or replace) and ultimately to ‘Return’ (our waste to the earth as ‘food’).

But Lester Brown reminds us that these virtuous but relatively trivial changes are nothing like enough. Global carbon emissions are still rising, consumption is still growing, and, after three decades of squandered opportunity, the scarcest resource of all now is time. Repeated incongruities between the rhetoric and actions of our leaders and manipulative disinformation campaigns by powerful oil and coal interests have undermined such meagre top-down efforts to engender public engagement as have been attempted, let alone the prospects for a widespread public mobilisation anytime soon. If we are ever to achieve the necessary scale of social change, then those of us who have comprehended the enormity of our predicament must do much more now than simply seek to inform and persuade. We must be willing to actively  ‘Resist’ the intractable forces that are marshalled against us.

The problem of engendering a ‘wartime scale of public mobilisation’, as envisaged by Lester Brown and many other environmentally informed communicators, is that it assumes collective determination to defeat a commonly recognised external enemy. In the historical period that they refer to, the enemy was Nazi ambitions for supremacy. Today it is the dire predicted impacts of runaway global warming and our rapid overshooting of the planet’s ability to sustain us. But, even as late as 1940, not everyone in the free world regarded Nazi Germany as an enemy – in fact, surprising numbers sympathised with the Nazi cause. It was only after political leaders had committed our nations to war that the Nazi foe became a common foe and populations truly did mobilise together. In much the same way now, many remain unconvinced that global warming, resource depletion and ecological degradation constitute a threat – or even are a cause for concern. More worryingly, by their procrastination and failure to take, as in wartime, an unequivocal stance, our governments seem equally uncertain.   

Even worse for our hopes for mass mobilisation, our current response suggests that, even were we all agreed that our crisis is real and urgent, we in our affluent democracies are not, as we like to imagine, free citizens who will easily resolve to combat an external enemy together. We are much more like nations already under occupation – by an enemy we prefer not to acknowledge but clearly evident all around us. Because the enemy is in our own desire to maintain as long as possible the status quo that is our lives today. It is in the resilience, despite resurgent financial turmoil, of an unsustainable model of economic growth that we are reluctant to abandon because it has so materially enriched us in recent decades. It is in the short term and little differing agendas we still require of our main political parties and in our eschewing of any real political opposition.  It is in our blind faith that, despite the slow-down of overall technological advances since the 1960s, the burgeoning communication technologies we use to distract and entertain ourselves can somehow also miraculously provide for our basic sustenance into the future. In short, the enemy lies in our apparently non-negotiable intent to continue our lives as undisturbed and abundantly provided for as in recent decades we have become accustomed. The enemy is us. How do we begin to mobilise against ourselves?

In 2007, the French writer, Marc Lévy, published “Les enfants de la liberté”, an account of his father’s youthful experiences in the Resistance in Toulouse during the Second World War. The book, a bestseller in France and in its later English translation, is prefaced by an excerpt from a letter written to the author by his friend, Emmanuelle Dancourt. She wrote:

“I like very much that verb, ‘to resist’. To resist what imprisons us, to resist prejudices, hasty judgments, the desire to judge, everything that is bad in us and cries out to be expressed, the desire to abandon, the need to make people feel sorry for us, the need to talk of ourselves to the detriment of others, fashions, unhealthy ambitions, prevailing confusion. To resist, and…to smile.”

The majority of us, whatever our political persuasions, have an ambivalent attitude towards ‘resistance’, not least because of how it challenges our need to feel our lives are stable, ordered and secure. We shy away from confrontation and upheaval and we usually take the path of least resistance. Most of us were shocked and upset at the gratuitous batoning of Ian Tomlinson who, unwittingly caught up in the London G20 street protests in 2009, wanted only to reach the safety of his home. But, as reasonable people, we were also able to sympathise with the forces of law and order who, after all, were under a lot of pressure that day.  Similarly, we might applaud from the sidelines the direct action of the young idealists from UK Uncut who set up impromptu crèches in branches of Mothercare and Barclays Bank or are arrested in Fortnum and Mason for protesting government sanctioned tax avoidance whilst our essential public services are being cut. But we are less certain about the ‘domestic extremists’ who sabotage Vodaphone’s cellphone network or conspire to close down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station. Idealism has its place, we feel, but in the real world we do depend on our mobile connection and we do all need coal-fired energy to maintain our daily routines. The Trades Union Congress rally in London a couple of week-ends ago was acceptable to most because it was legitimate and family-friendly and the Government had already made clear that it was not going to change anything, least of all to bring down industrial civilization. But what if the relentless march (or goose-step?) of industrial civilization is the problem and needs to be resisted because it shows no signs of changing itself?

Amongst the most striking aspects of Marc Lévy’s true tale of the résisteurs in 1943 and ‘44 is how astonishingly young they were (mostly teenage boys and girls) and how disparate their backgrounds (Hungarians and Poles fleeing ahead of the Nazis; Spanish refugees from Franco’s regime; Jews, both French and foreign, practicing and non-practicing, all gone to ground in Vichy France). And also how very, very few of them there were.  Lévy makes clear that most of the population of this ‘free’ unoccupied zone of France wanted only some kind of normality to persist in their lives and, for them, the activities of this youthful Resistance were disruptive, irresponsible, illegal and unpatriotic. Active collaboration with the Nazis was, of course, commonplace amongst the French authorities under Marshal Petain’s puppet government; the prefectures, judiciaries, functionaries, police service and so on, and also amongst some individual French citizens. But the discomfiting fact of mass passive collaboration by the French populace at large was rewritten very deliberately after the war by President De Gaulle so as to restore the national pride and unity needed to rebuild the country. Unlike Germany who, as the losing side, was early on compelled to examine its societal complicity in the excesses of fascism, it is only recently that writers like Lévy have caused France to confront this troubling period of its history.

For those of us whose national histories have not included living-memory experiences of oppression under an alien power, I suggest that the social history of an occupied Britain or USA might actually have been very similar to that of occupied France. For it is our human rather than our national characteristics that cause most of us to want to keep our heads down and ‘go with the flow’. This is nowhere more evident than in our present lack of engagement in the ‘war’ against climate change.

As it turned out, the wartime stories of the USA and Great Britain do prove that concerted national efforts can be engaged for the good of the world at large. Lester Brown points with some hope to the astonishingly rapid mobilization that Americans achieved in 1942 to fight and help win World War Two; a massive scale of industrial and social reorganization that took place not over the period of decades we have had to vacillate about global warming, but in only a few short months. Car factories switched to producing tanks and fighter aircraft, a corset manufacturer made grenade belts, a roundabout factory turned out gun swivel mountings, and ordinary people dug victory gardens, forewent driving for pleasure and cheerfully accepted government regulated food rationing. In her thoroughly researched and inspiring book, ‘Sucking Eggs: What your wartime granny could teach you about diet, thrift and going green’, Patricia Nicol tells the same comparative history of Britain’s Home Front during the war years.

It may be that a coordinated government-led mobilisation is eventually how we will overcome our present widespread disbelief and denial and rally to the cause. More likely we will do what humans seem to do best and wait until crisis is undeniably upon us, then somehow try to muddle through. But whatever our eventual response, combating climate change and resource overshoot are not efforts that will be measured in four or five years of shared sacrifice, hardship and austerity before we can breathe again and resume our normal lives. If, as our present complacency suggests, we must go beyond irreversible tipping points before we can be universally persuaded to act, then any subsequent efforts – including acts of resistance – will anyway be futile. But whatever we choose to do, the future will be an experience unlike any past that we have known and there is no adequate historical precedent to guide us into it. The time for Lester Brown’s ‘wartime mobilisation’ – and, failing that, for enlightened individuals to embark on active resistance – is right now.

I am in England at the moment and recently attended a Crisis Forum workshop on Climate Change and Violence. There I met Dan Glass, a likeable and articulate young activist whom I suspect in another time and place might have volunteered with the Toulouse Brigade. Dan gave a presentation on his work with So We Stand, a popular education initiative campaigning for Climate Justice and against social inequalities which he sees as an entrenched barrier to changing the prevailing status quo. His uncompromising delivery raised some eyebrows amongst the mainly middle-aged academics and public health professionals who made up his audience. Dan did not provide his CV which includes arrest and trial in 2009 for conspiring to shut-down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station and supergluing himself to the sleeve of the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, whilst receiving a green award in 2008. He is one of those whose forthrightness in confronting the system makes other of us more moderate activists less certain of the effectiveness of our week-end food gardening squeezed in between our business-as-usual jobs and collecting the weekly provisions at Tesco. Our uneasiness is echoed by the judge who pronounced that, although Dan and his colleagues have acted on impeccable moral grounds, the law is the law and he must still hand down a sentence. For Dan and others like him, where the law, the system, the status quo is so evidently wrong, it must be openly resisted for how else is it to be changed?

As one whose life-long default inclination has been to trust in societal institutions and who is still disconcerted by realisation of how badly they are failing us, I am inspired by the youthful idealism, vigour and courage of this tiny but growing active resistance movement. As I passed through Central London last week, I searched out the roundabouts, traffic islands and patches of waste-ground clandestinely cleared of litter and planted at night by an army of guerilla gardeners, inheritors of a ‘70s grassroots initiative from California that has in recent years re-emerged as far afield as Paris, Berlin and Moscow. These mostly young people are undeterred by prohibitive health and safety regulations and threat of local authority prosecution from acting to improve their communities. For them, and for everybody else who benefits from safer, more attractive streets where people linger to talk to one another, such acts of resistance are not futile, but fertile.

I will soon be back home in France and embarking on my own small act of dissent. The law, until recently vague in this area, now requires that we install a septic tank and prohibits our reed-bed waste system and composting toilet. On the face of it this law is sensible in seeking to protect groundwater in rural areas where there is no municipal sewage treatment facility. But studies show that a vast proportion of septic tanks are improperly used and leak untreated sewage which combines with fertiliser run-off in streams and water courses to cause a serious and recurrent problem of toxic algae blooms along our local coastline. Whereas the only output from our own home-made closed-loop system is pure water and clean compost. Nevertheless, we have received an official letter demanding that we ‘regularise’ our arrangements. If we were simply to shrug and comply, we could make life much easier for ourselves. But by resisting we can draw attention to the inadequacies of the existing top-down regulations and perhaps break ground for the legitimisation of a more sustainable alternative.

Similar acts of resistance from the margins challenge the momentum of the mainstream elsewhere in the world. With little publicity and slender resources, Steve Marsh, a small organic farmer from Western Australia, is presently waging a David and Goliath battle against the legal might of Monsanto whose GM crops have invaded his farm. More famously, Dr. James Hansen, leading climatologist and head of the NASA Goddard Institute, was arrested whilst protesting mountain-top coal mining in Kentucky. In the UK in 2009, Tim Nicholson, sacked for refusing to compromise his green views at work, won the right to sue for unfair dismissal after a judge ruled that environmentalism has the same weight in law as religious beliefs. And the desperate act of resistance of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself in Tunisia last January, has ignited a popular uprising that is now impacting on the whole world. 

But, under the guise of reasonable balance, even the most independent of mainstream media reporting reinforces doubts in our minds about the intent of such dissenters. Surely, to be credible, climate scientists must remain dispassionate and politically non-partisan? Haven’t we been told that GM crops are our only hope of feeding the starving in the world? And what might be the hidden motives of those Islamic rebels in Libya?

Perhaps such impassioned bottom-up activism would not seem so controversial or so radical to us if Lester Brown’s prescription for what he calls the ‘sandwich’ model of mobilisation – in which “mounting grassroots pressure… merges with a national leadership that is similarly committed” – were actually underway. But governments, democratic or otherwise, show few signs of supporting any but the least threatening of grassroots initiatives for change; on the contrary many would argue that civil society’s freedoms to act directly is increasingly being curtailed across the world.

More realistically perhaps, Brown also anticipates that mass social change might only result from a real life crisis, an ecological equivalent of Pearl Harbor. But, however it plays out, he reminds us that “During World War II, the military draft asked millions of young men to risk the ultimate sacrifice. But we are called on only to be politically active and to make lifestyle changes.”

By the same token, a modern resistance movement – in our Western democracies at least – might lead to public opprobrium and fines or even to short prison sentences, but does not entail the risks and hardships endured by Marc Levy’s father and his young comrades in the Toulouse Brigade. They lived daily not only with hunger and deprivation, but with suspicion, condemnation, fear and loneliness and the ever-present threat of betrayal by an anonymous neighbour for whose ultimate liberty they were risking their lives. Many met ends of protracted torture and summary execution at the hands of their fellow citizens before they attained the age of twenty.

So, to continue with Lester Brown’s wartime analogy, it seems to me that, regardless of our very different circumstances, the modern counterparts of those wartime resisteurs are the controversial but dedicated young people who hand out campaign leaflets on our high streets and facilitate educational workshops at Climate Camp; who picket outside Top Shop or play mini-golf on the runways of Aberdeen Airport; who suspend banners from the chimneys of Kingsnorth power station and who are sometimes extreme enough to shatter the windows at their local branch of Vodaphone (though taking every care that no bystanders are hurt in the process). For the most part they are following their consciences and acting with the purest of motives. It is they and their children who will spend their lives coping with the future we are leaving for them and too many of the rest of us who have still to own up to our complicity. Our desire for calm and order might cause us to disapprove of the burdensome cost of policing their marches and clearing up after their disruptive publicity stunts. But these are as nothing compared to the catastrophic scale of future social upheaval they are acting to avert.

Like Emma Dancourt, I too have grown fond of the verb ‘to resist’. It is a proud and forthright verb, not in the least skulking or subversive. For those of us who have recognised the enemy and how deeply it is embedded in our daily lives – in the jobs we do, in our educational curricula, in our consumption habits, in how we entertain ourselves, in the media that informs us, in our too often narrow and blinkered Western worldview – it is incumbent upon us now to actively seek it out and resist it wherever we find it.

Resist –  1) to stand firm (against); not yield (to); fight (against)  2) to withstand the deleterious action of; be proof against  3) to oppose; refuse to accept or comply with  4) to refrain from, especially in spite of temptation.

 

Update 11th July 2011:

Here is a link to ‘Just Do It. A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws’, a new anthropological documentary by Emily James that explores the motivations of non-violent direct activists in the UK by following the resistants of Climate Camp and Plane Stupid over the course of a year. Released in the UK last week, I believe it will be launched in France (and Europe) in September.


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