Beyond Copenhagen: left alternatives to capitalism

Copenhagen, December 12, 2009. Photo by Lauren Carroll Harris.

By Lauren Carroll Harris, Copenhagen

"Can a finite Earth support an infinite project? The thesis of capitalism, infinite development, is a destructive pattern, let’s face it. How long are we going to tolerate the current international economic order and prevailing market mechanisms? How long are we going to allow huge epidemics like HIV/AIDS to ravage entire populations? How long are we going to allow the hungry to not eat or to be able to feed their own children? How long are we going to allow millions of children to die from curable diseases? How long will we allow armed conflicts to massacre millions of innocent human beings in order for the powerful to seize the resources of other peoples?"

-- Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, speaking at COP15, December 16, 2009

December 19, 2009 -- Climate change is beyond an environmental issue. In Copenhagen, tens of thousands of ordinary people have come together to discuss what the UN, governments and corporations cannot -- to agree on and enact real solutions to the environmental crisis and all its associated issues, including food, land and water security for the Third World; compassionate responses to climate refugees; bridging the gulf of inequality between the global North and South, and the preservation of the rights of workers in unsustainable industries.

All these issues have been forced onto the global political agenda -- for some time at least. Before Copenhagen, it was the global financial meltdown that put the word ``capitalism'' back into the everyday vocabulary. Now in Copenhagen, many are explicitly discussing the issue of how to remove the causes of climate change -- the capitalist system and its structurally unequal ownership and distribution of natural resources and wealth -- root and branch.

In the words of one Klimaforum09 participant, "We need to think strategically about how to build a movement that can take power from a system that is completely unable to solve this crisis, a world that values its economic system over its ecosystem. We need to build a movement and a system that can give us all the things that they [the government leaders at COP15] can never give us."

Denmark `worst possible host'

A session entitled "Capitalism and the Climate Crisis: Left Alternatives" featured a range of left and socialist activists. Per Clausen of Denmark's Red-Green Alliance criticised his government's use of carbon offsets to falsely heighten its carbon emissions-reduction targets. He said that emissions must be reduced in a real sense, "not drowned in a sea of quotas", and that despite Denmark's reputation as a ``green'' country, it "has proven itself to be the worst possible host of the climate summit. First, [Denmark] backtracks on the demand for a legally binding agreement. Second, [Denmark] has sold out on the demand that rich countries must reduce emissions by between 55 and 40% by 2020." 

Marisa Matias, a member of parliament for Portugal's Left Bloc, criticised how the mainstream has adopted the language of the environment movement, but in a diluted manner, stripped of all meaning and divorced from a rigorous examination of the crisis' real problems, and consequently, real solutions.

"Environmental crises are viewed as technical, as externalities -- 'there's a problem in the water, in the soil, in the air' -- and separated from their social origins. Over the last two decades, [the words] 'sustainable development' have been integrated into the discourse of every party, every government, but they have an empty significance.

"We must see environmental problems in the realms of social and distribution problems, and that means ecological and social justice as the solution. It makes no sense to talk about nature without talking about society and who has control over natural resources", Matias said.

Vestas example

The "Left Alternatives" panel also included Ian Terry, a former Vestas employee and member of the British Socialist Workers' Party. Vestas is a Danish wind-turbine manufacturer that recently sacked hundreds of staff at a turbine factory on Britain's Isle of Wight. Terry explained the signficance of the Vestas workers' campaign to save their jobs, and how it offered unique opportunities to make links between the erosion of the environment and workers' rights. "We were told that our jobs were secure, the industry was booming and we wouldn't be worrying about the recession. Three weeks later they told us we were all going to lose our jobs. At the same time [Britain's Labour government] was claiming to be creating 400,000 green jobs. So we occupied our factory. 

"What I experienced [during the factory occupation] was amazing, a coming together of environmentalists, socialists, trade unionists and the local community. And for me it solidifies the argument that capitalism is the same problem -- for the working-class movement and for the environment movement. 

"Although we didn't actually save our jobs, the media reported quite kindly and widely. It wasn't just the left media, everyone picked it up because it was an environmental issue... What we're doing now is working on the million green jobs campaign. We've set out where we can create jobs in green energy, the insulation of houses and public transport. There are many people in the UK right now who are jobless. We've been able to build pressure, talk in workplaces, in factories that are closing with people about the links between capitalism and the climate. The workers movement must link up with the environment movement.

"After `The Wave' [a 50 000-strong demonstration in London on December 5] and after Copenhagen, quite clearly there are alot of people coming together [to demand action to stop climate change]. It's not an abstract issue -- we've had thousands of people on the streets. We're arguing for a socially just future, not just a future where we survive. That's where the organised left has got to play a part [in relating to the broader environmental movement]. The green jobs campaign does [make those links] by uniting trade unionists and environmentalists. We strengthen each other", said Terry.

Another campaigner involved in the British Workers' Climate Action group pointed out that so-called "green companies" will, by their nature, be more interested in capitalising on a growing market opportunites and prioritising profit over the environment and their workers' rights- - for Vestas, "wind turbines are just another commodity". 

Market solutions rejected

Many conference participants labelled efforts to impose market solutions -- such as offsetting carbon emissions in the first world with "carbon reducing" projects in the Third World that have been shown to trample on the rights of labourers -- as a re-colonisation of the global South.

Another activist pointed out that in a recent study, two-thirds of Clean Development Mechanism projects in Europe failed to reduce carbon emissions, and some even increased emissions. However, carbon trading continues to be advocated as a solution to climate change by pro-business governments, as the carbon market is worth US$1.2 trillion a year, according to British economist Nicholas Stern.

Instead of market-friendly solutions offered from the top down by the richest countries, who are refusing to equally redistribute the wealth and resources that empower them, there was a consensus that genuine grassroots democracy could restore capitalism's chronic ecological and social imbalance. 


Roberto Perez, a Cuban biologist and activist, spoke to Links about some of the ways in which Cuba has begun to mend the ecological rift while developing the living standards of its citizens. Having a collective rather than a private, market-based approach to agriculture has built a sense of community among people, and gone a long way to ensure the country's secure access to food.

"Our urban agriculture receives a lot of support from the local and central government. In 1990, when there was no food, it took us a while to realise that the most reliable way to get food was to grow it ourselves. Not many people reacted like that, they were thinking that something might come, that the market will come up with something magical. The market hasn't come up with any solutions in Africa. So the government said, 'let's organise this''', Perez explained.

"Government support came in the form of giving unused and underused land for agriculture, training more than 12,000 technicians and farmers, funding and the creation of 3000 agricultural clubs for children. Because education in Cuba is free, studying permaculture is free.

"Some of the lessons learned include the importance of equal distribution and access to land. In Cuba, most [industrial] property ownership is collective. We prefer to give access to the land and to production to the people everywhere -- small scale, large scale. There was the political will and support, the Cuban government didn't have much money, but it organised a lot.

"Now we have small farms on workplaces that provide lunch for their workforce. We have 300,000 home plots of land. And we have the urban collective gardens.

"Many people think that as consumers, they have the power to choose. But what do consumers choose? What is in the supermarket. You can choose between brands A, B and C. But out of that, what can you choose? If you grow your own food as a society, that's power. There are many people who don't want people to recover that power", Perez pointed out.

Socialist example

Perez believes this model of sustainable growth can be replicated in other poor countries. "Cuba shows the scale you can do this on. [Our socialist, sustainable agricultural and social system] is not marginal, it's not an eccentricity. All the countries that are facing these crises can do this. We found a way. It's not perfect. We are growing, planting the future. The past is fossil fuels, the past is inequality."

The official Copenhagen process has backfired -- rather than being a show of global leaders' political resolve, the talks ceaselessly teetered on collapse. A leaked UN report shows that the deal on offer [in the finals day of the talks] would lead to a disastrous temperature increase of three degrees Celsius. On this final day of negotiations, the absence of an agreement that legally binds developed countries to warming of two degrees Celsius or less has rendered hollow the hardline rhetoric of leaders like US President Barack Obama, British Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

These leaders' assertion that their actions and emissions pale in significance to those of large developing nations like China and India appears more withered, pathetic and inexcusable than ever before. Copenhagen has revealed that the power of the rich and the few is shakier than it seems, that the planet and its people are not compliant with further inaction, and that the climate justice movement is increasingly prepared to step in where global leaders have failed.

Roberto Perez from Cuba: Let's put people's power on the agenda at Copenhagen

By Lauren Carroll Harris, Copenhagen

December 18, 2009 -- The UN COP15 Climate Summit in Copenhagen has dramatically revealed a growing divide between the poor countriesand rich countries. The rich countries' development has depended their on exploitation of the Third World and the environment. Many Third World delegates to the COP15 talks have dismissed the global North's proposals as too little, too late. Green Left Weekly spoke to Roberto Perez, a Cuban biologist, permaculturalist and activist, at the alternative people's summit Klimaforum09 about how the social movements can make the most of COP15's likely failure to make a real climate deal, and turn it into an opportunity to force action that is needed to stop global warming and start creating climate justice.

"With COP15, everybody knows that there are so many powerful interests working behind the scenes to prevent what everybody knows is absolutely necessary for the planet. But it is very different to acknowledge this fact, and to call COP15 a failure. Let me explain why.

"The COP is one of the biggest spaces for countries to express their ideas. But a few people from a few [First World] countries do what they want, destroy the planet and they don't want to repair anything, they don't want to pay anything. Right now, they want to download all of that responsibility onto the poor people of the planet... Many powerful people are trying to shut up many other voices."

Perez believes COP15 and its surrounding protests are revealing the real interests of the leaders of the wealthiest countries, and powerfully exposing their reluctance to upset the corporate interests of those who profit from inaction. "Some powerful people want to commodify climate change ... and commodify the air, to set up carbon trading. [COP15] can bring back to the negotiating table the people who have been running from Kyoto. Once [the rich countries] come here they have to be seen to share responsibility."

However, Perez is still sceptical of what the UN summit alone can achieve. "If you ask me, there won't be more commitments than the ones that have been announced. Copenhagen was negotiated many months ago. Many months ago people were working behind the scenes and saying, 'We're willing to go to this point' [with a target for reducing emissions]. There is a small range of negotiation. But if [an emissions reduction deal] is achieved, it will be the first time we have something to strap them into, something signed.

"The commitments at the end of it, if we're lucky, will be not enough to save the planet. But [the rich countries] will be trapped for the first time. Is it the agreement that we need? No. Is it the agreement that we want? Not quite. But [COP15] is a huge possibility for us to come together, for us to have this Klimaforum, to have more integration. The Group of 77 has 149 countries represented, and they're keeping their discussions open, while most of the other countries are behind the scenes negotiating. [COP15] must take into account even the opinions of Third World countries and tiny island states, the non-aligned people.

"The other thing that is very important is the money. And the money is what really really hurts the rich people. The more money they have, the more stingy they get, and the more reluctant to give anything. It's not about development anymore, it's not about helping or transferring technology [to those who need it]. There's a big crisis right now" and the First World needs to repay the Third World for its historical responsibility for the the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's about saying [to the First World polluting corporations and nations] `You did it. Repair it for the people who you are putting in danger'. How much [should the reparations be]? Trying to calculate something that is priceless is very difficult, but you can try. The European Union has made an announcement of US$10 billion. That's a starting point, it's a framework" for pressuring governments to take further action. "But the real framework is not about the United Nations, it's not about creating a new body to adminster that money. The money needs to be funneled directly to the communities, directly to people" so that communities can democratically decide how best the reparation money is spent, rather than top-down decisions from ineffective and exclusive global bodies or corrupt governments.

"Especially we must take into account the increasing numbers of climate refugees. They're losing their countries, period. And they didn't do anything.'

This is an opportunity to force a global platform for those in the Third World, who are already being disproportionately affected by climate change, to force a platform for "the voice of Cuba, the voice of ALBA [the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a solidarity-based alliance], the voice of the small island nations. Maybe we are not the most powerful, we're not the biggest, we don't have that many resources, but at least we're saying, 'We're here. We're all citizens of the planet and we all have the right to live here. So why are we gonna be flooded? That is deeply unfair, that is criminal.'"

In response to the silencing and marginalisation of Third World delegates and the UN's clear inability to provide a deal that can stop a full-scale climate crisis, said Perez, "ordinary people are saying, 'Right, let's fix it'." The United States' refusal to commit to binding targets is angering the international community and has the potential to trigger action from ordinary people who see the impotence of waiting for their leaders to act. "I think that in the First World, there are a lot of people waking up, saying 'Look, what's wrong here?' There were groups that were isolated and are now converging, convinced that it's if there is climate change, then the answer needs to be social change, not just technological change.

"The powerful people on this planet are very scared. Even when they don't show it, they're very scared. They consume the planet, but the planet is crumbling in their hands. And people are saying `enough, that's it'. If I believed this would be a failure, I wouldn't waste my time coming here."

"If so many thousands of people came here, this cannot be a failure. It's a way of saying 'We're here, we're watching you, be very careful of what you do and what you say'."

[Lauren Carroll Harris is a member of the Socialist Alliance of Australia, in Copenhagen to report on the climate talks and protests for Green Left Weekly.]


Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: "There is no alternative". She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still prevails.

I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: "Home of the Brave?" which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

John Steinsvold

Perhaps in time the so-called dark ages will be thought of as including our own.
--Georg C. Lichtenberg