We frequently hear calls for system change, at public mobilisations, in conference halls and even in negotiation halls. The calls come as slogans, they come in anger and they come as a strong rebuke to the systemic scaffold on which our pains, our exploitation and the denial of our voices and rights are hung.
The necessity of system change is inescapable. The present system is dependent on the extreme exploitation and enslavement of nature and labour, built around an inherently unjust core. We are in the dying days of a civilisation driven by fossil fuels. This end is not coming merely because of the recorded and predicted severe species extinction, or by peak oil. Its end is being heralded by a looming climatic catastrophe and by the reawakening of social forces realising that slavery persists as long as the enslaved is unaware of his state.
As Oilwatch International highlight, there are:
‘similarities in the current pattern of resource exploitation in countries of the Global South, and affected peoples in the rest of the world which reflects historical legacy of disempowerment of peoples, plunder of natural resources and destruction of environment, and [Oilwatch] considers the recognition of the right of peoples to self-determination and cultural integrity as primary in the resolution of environmental problems.’
Our urgent task is to reclaim the future, and this will not be attainable if the current system persists.
Green was once a colour. Today it has turned into a silencing code that lulls us into accepting that Nature cannot be protected unless financial value is placed on her. The Rio + 20 summit served as a platform for the elevation of the concept of Green Economy as a major plank for global environmental governance, especially with regard to climate change. ‘Green Economy’ permits the financialization of everything, through a plethora of instruments such as those intended to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD, REDD plus), emissions trading schemes (ETS), clean development mechanisms (CDM) and the like.
Green economy is a neo-liberal idea that hoists the financialization of Nature and carbon offsetting as ideal tools for nature protection. It has been cooked up to entrench current capitalist production modes and power relations where might is right. Poor, vulnerable and cash-strapped nations that contribute little or nothing to global warming see the trickles that drop into their empty bowls from market mechanisms, while their citizens are displaced from their territories, forced to bear a disproportionate level of real climate actions. With climate change neatly ‘boxed’ as a matter of means of handling carbon emissions, the world conveniently ignores the root cause of the crises: the origins of those emissions.
This entrenched situation is neo-colonial and imperialist. It upturns every notion of justice, including the common but differentiated responsibilities anchor of pre-2011 climate negotiations.
A just climate regime ought not to scratch for funds to tackle the emergencies already throwing up climate refugees. A clear solution for climate finance can be found in the Peoples Agreement, which demands that countries cut their emissions by at least 50% at source between 2013 and 2017, without recourse to offsets and other carbon trading schemes, and that developed countries commit 6% of their GDP to finance adaptation and mitigation needs. The payment of climate debt is not seen as a mere demand for reparations, but as a means of decolonising the atmospheric space and redistributing what meagre space or carbon budget is left. It is a means towards obligating humans to take actions to restore disrupted natural cycles of Nature
Climate change negotiations offer us a clear lens to see that market environmentalism approaches are merely means of escape from responsibility and measureable action. A look at the Paris Agreement reached at COP21 reveals that the major cause of global warming – fossil fuels utilisation in production and transportation – is not recognised in the process of tackling global warming. The notion that any carbon, emitted anywhere, can be offset by carbon absorbed anywhere else has given rise to the concept of net emissions, offering polluting nations the ultimate escape hatch through which to retain their levels of pollution and consumption, while grabbing lands, forests and waters elsewhere to compensate.
It is now well known that at least 80% of currently known fossil fuels reserves must be left untapped and unburned to keep temperature increases to below 2°C. What’s troubling is that not only is this not being discussed at climate negotiations, but that new reserves are being sought, and extraction methods are being intensified. A clear throwback to fiddling while the city burns.
The fact that fossil fuels are not renewable does not deter the fossil addicts. In order to remove the cloud of dust (and doubt) over fossil fixations, the industry came up with the term clean coal, and the notions that carbon pollution can be tackled through carbon capture and storage or sequestration, or through types of geo-engineering. These unproven technologies are all ways of resisting the need for change and ensuring business as usual. The best possible outcome would be to postpone the evil day and build an uncertain future for our children. Unfortunately, that day cannot be postponed much longer.
Centrality of Nature
The call for system change is a call to a common-sense path that would secure the survival of the human race. It is also a call for humans to recognise their humanity as just one of the species on planet earth. Studies and observations have shown that species stand better chances of survival when they cooperate, live and work in solidarity rather than in competition; when we build bridges and not walls, when we give up some space and allow others to breathe.
The Earth speaks. The sky speaks. The trees speak. All of Nature speaks. Communication is a vital tool for survival. Let us take one example of how certain trees in the African savannah communicate in order to avoid having their leaves eaten up. Researchers found that when giraffes start to eat the leaves of umbrella thorn acacias, the trees release some toxic substances that offends the taste buds of the giraffes. That was a direct defence line. The researchers noticed that the giraffes would then skip the next umbrella thorn acacia trees, and move by about 100 metres before resuming their dinner.
Why did they move over such a distance before resuming their feast? This is the explanation (Wohlleben, 2016):
“The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signalled to neighbouring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on.”
Trees communicate by a variety of other ways, including through their roots systems, affirming metaphorically that indeed, it takes roots to weather the storm.
We speak of the gifts of Nature as re-sources. Yes, re-sources, intentionally hyphenated because we are speaking not of commodities, but of the vital need for humans to return to the source, to reconnect to Nature, to think of the source before lifting the chisel, hammer, shovel, drill or rig.
Re-source democracy is a call for the recognition of the rights of Nature, including her right to regenerate and maintain her cycles. It is built on a clear understanding of the uses and intrinsic values of the gifts of Nature. Re-source democracy demands the interrogation of the meaning of progress and development, to help us draw the line between what we can accept or reject in our environment. Navdanya further gives clarity to this idea:
‘We need a new paradigm to respond to the fragmentation caused by various forms of fundamentalism. We need a new movement, which allows us to move from the dominant and pervasive culture of violence, destruction and death to a culture of non-violence, creative peace and life…the Earth democracy movement…provides an alternative worldview in which humans are embedded in the Earth Family, we are connected to each other through love, compassion, not hatred and violence and ecological responsibility and economic justice replaces greed, consumerism and competition as objectives of human life.’
Convergence of Movements
System change will be birthed by a convergence of movements. It will not be a matter of either or, it will be a matter for all. We have to continually remind ourselves that our lives and realities are formed by a web of relationships, issues and realities, and that we require diversity of approaches to effectively confront and overcome them – with the diversity of movements coalescing around common organizing principles. For example, in the case of ecological resurgence, movements can come together using the Precautionary Principle as a pivot. Another basic impulse will be the recognition of the leadership of communities of peoples - especially indigenous women - on the frontlines of ecological defense and system change struggles.
System Change will not be Negotiated
The present fossil-based civilization is running out of gas and its terminal point is imminent – whether planned or not. Our task is to hasten the demise of this destructive system, in which unjust relations are seen as opportunities for amassing profit. This is the time for drastic actions to bring about ecological health for all our communities and relatives on planet Earth. It is time to change the narrative that we can measure well-being by aggregating gross domestic product. The struggles of First Nation brothers and sisters in North America, the Ogoni in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, the Yasunidos of Ecuador and many others show that the battle can be tough and abrasive. But we have no options: industrial growth societies have been built on the platforms of gross injustice.
Those who benefit from the unjust, disruptive and unsustainable system – the handful of men that have more financial means than billions of men and women – will not listen to logical needs for system change. They have heard it over and over again. It is a system where the poor, no matter how wise, cannot sit at the official negotiation tables. It is a system that believes that, with the right financial means, one can make a dash for safety to another planet if apocalypse happens.
History will judge the present generation very harshly if a transition is not made to a Life-Sustaining Society – a society in which humans and the environment are linked, not ranked. This society will come about only if we stand together with Earth Protectors and denounce the criminalisation of dissent and the constriction of democratic space that is fast becoming the norm.
It is time to speak up and let a thousand solutions bloom. It is no time to be silent. System change will come about when the power of We the People becomes a rallying call and a pivot of action. We the People can redefine energy and own our clean, localised, energy generation and production systems. We the People can reclaim our streams, creeks and rivers and deny industry their privatisation and use as sewers.
As the saying goes: freedom is not something that is given, it is taken. System change will not be negotiated. Change will come as fists burst through the cracks in the pavements just like saplings spring from hardened soils.
This is an abridged version of the Keynote Presentation given on February 15, 2021 at the Ecological Challenges Conference 2017, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Read the full paper here.
 Peter Wohlleeben (2016) The Hidden Life of Trees – What they feel, how they communicate. Vancouver: Greystone Books. P7
Photo: Cochabamba Bolivia World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 2010 [The City Project via Flickr].