Australia: Climate Change, Social Change conference attracts hundreds
By Viv Miley
October 8, 2011 -- Socialist Alliance -- More than 500 people gathered in Melbourne over September 30 to October 3 to take part in four days of stimulating talks and discussion at the second Climate Change Social Change conference. The conference, which featured five plenary sessions, 39 workshops and more than 90 speakers, was organised by Green Left Weekly, Socialist Alliance and Resistance. Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal also sponsored the conference.
The conference brought together activists, academics and unionists from Australia, Asia, North America and the Pacific to share ideas and experiences from the movements for Indigenous people's rights, against environmental destruction, for women's rights, for queer rights, for peace, social justice and workers’ rights.
The conference opened with a September 30 public meeting. More than 360 people crowded into the Carrillo Gantner theatre at the University of Melbourne to see the opening presentation by US author and academic John Bellamy Foster. His talk was titled “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe”.[Watch it HERE.]
Foster, editor of Monthly Review and co-author of What Every Environmentalist Needs to know about Capitalism. said that even as far back as the 19th century, scientists and ecologists were becoming aware of the damage being done to the environment by the expansion of industry and capitalism. These ideas were further developed by Marx and Engels in works such as Capital and Dialectics of Nature, showing that concerns about environmental destruction are far from new.
Foster then went on to plot the trajectory of capitalist expansion throughout the 20th century, showing that the technological innovations that developed along with global capital can lead only to an accelerated rate of environmental destruction on a scale previously unseen.
Foster said the environmental movement needed to challenge the capitalist economic system that is the root cause of global environmental destruction.
The first sessions of the conference began on October 1 at Victorian Trades Hall, where the opening plenary heard from several international activists.
Australians for Palestine’s Samah Sabawi spoke about the campaign for justice for Palestine. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre’s Nala Mansell-McKenna discussed the struggle for Aboriginal sovereignty in Australia.
Pakistani lawyer and activist Sonia Qadir spoke about the fight against fundamentalism in Pakistan. Australia Asia Worker Links’ Piergiorgio Moro spoke about the need for movements to relate to the working class and support workers' rights internationally. Resistance’s Duncan Roden spoke about the fight against racism in Australia.
Many of the speakers noted that different movements around the world are raising similar demands, reflecting the awareness that people across the globe are all coming up against a common foe.
A major workshop on green jobs and workers’ rights featured a panel of trade unionists: John Parker, secretary of the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council (GTLC); Dr Helen Masterman-Smith, a labour movement researcher, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) climate activist and sociologist from Charles Sturt University; and John Hawtin, a union activist, environmental campaigner and Resistance member.
Parker said unionist in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley are planning for a transition to a green, job-rich economy. He outlined the work the GTLC is doing on developing a just transition plan.
Masterman-Smith outlined the NTEU’s position on climate change, including its policy on emissions reduction targets and its critique of the use of market mechanisms to halt climate change. Hawtin spoke about the campaign to green the grid in South Australia, particularly in the town of Port Augusta.
The campaign, supported by Climate Emergency Action Network in South Australia and Beyond Zero Emissions, is to replace one of the Port Augusta coal-fired power stations with a solar thermal plant — a transition that would create many jobs and satisfy up to 40% of the state's electricity needs.
Dave Kerin and Balrama Krishnan from the Earthworker cooperative presented another important workshop. It looked at the practical steps being taken by cooperative members and unionists in Victoria to launch a grassroots renewable energy manufacturing plant to step in and fill the breach left by the refusal of governments to subsidise renewable energy.
Another keynote speaker, Ian Angus, Canadian author and editor of the website Climate and Capitalism, gave a feature presentation on “How to make an ecosocialist revolution”. He put forward his case for what ecosocialism is, how it must combine the best insights from ecology with Marxism’s analysis of capitalism.
A workshop on the struggle against nuclear dumping on Aboriginal land heard from three activists, Dianne Stokes and Kylie Sambo, traditional owners from the Muckaty community in the Northern Territory, and Nat Wasley, from the No Waste Alliance. They discussed the campaign against a proposed nuclear dump site in Muckaty.
Stokes spoke about her people’s deep connection to the land and her community’s opposition to the nuclear dump plan. Wasley said the nuclear waste dump plan was roundly criticised by the then-opposition Labor party when it was first mooted by the former Howard government. Today Prime Minister Julia Gillard 's Labor government is pushing the plan, despite opposition by local indigenous groups and the Northern Territory government, among others.
The workshop also heard from Rodney Augustine, an activist campaigning against the expansion of the Kimberley gas fields in Western Australia. Parallels were made between the two campaigns, how divide and rule was a common tactic and how family members were pitted against one another to allow the respective developments to take place in exchange for access to funding for basic services.
The workshop finished with Kylie Sambo performing a rap written about the campaign against the Muckaty nuclear waste dump.
The conference also included discussion around the growing campaign against coal seam gas. A feature workshop heard from Lock the Gate Alliance’s Drew Hutton, Stop CSG Sydney’s Jacinta Green and Friends of the Earth Melbourne’s Cam Walker.
Other workshop sessions discussed topics such as whether nuclear power can help solve climate change, saving the forests and the different campaigns taking place to protect old-growth forests, sexism and young women in activism, the new people’s democratic movement in Malaysia, climate change and health, international queers rights campaigning and the “Indignado” movement in Spain.
A new documentary film by Resistance activist Simon Cunich — called Growing Change was launched at the conference. The film looks at the global food crisis, and explores how the changes in food production in Venezuela could provide a guide for making the production and distribution of food more equitable and sustainable.
Then in the final afternoon workshop session on October 3, Victorian secretary of the Communications, Electrical and Postal Union Len Cooper chaired a question and answer session on the environmental and financial crises with John Bellamy Foster, which was hosted by the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
The discussion included what to do about the prevalence of business unionism in Australia, the nature of the housing industry bubble, the need to connect the roots of the global financial crisis with the roots of the ecological crisis, and the state of the US labour movement.
The conference wrapped up on Monday evening at the Bella Bar at Victorian Trades Hall, where thanks were made to the international guests and conference organisers and greetings were given by the international guests all before finishing with singing the Internationale, with the international guests singing in their respective languages.