Readers in America are unlikely to have heard about it, a very broad coalition calling itself the “Peoples of the Global South” has recently published a “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transiton from the Peoples of the South” that does deserve to be widely read and studied. It is a radical and highly idealistic work that calls for a complete overturn of our current political and economic institutions, in order to build a completely new set of ways of living and being, in which all peoples will be respected and not exploited economically.
These folks understand that the Climate Emergency is real. It is happening now, people are dying and communities are being disrupted now in countries around the world, and this huge problem demands a serious response that does not just continue the oppressions in government and inequalities in economics that plague us today.
My task today will be to convince you that this work is a necessary goal, one that will take every day of all the rest of all of our lives if we are to even get close to achieving it.
Realism and Idealism
As a writer and as a citizen trying to do my best for a better world, I have long been aware of the huge gulf between our individual and social idealisms, our hopes and projections and plans and daydreams of “if everybody would just do this”, all these visions that give us hope on one side, and the histories, cultures and attitudes that have resulted in the powerful economic and political institutions that bind and prevent us from achieving those idealisms, standing in our way on the other side.
“Everybody” will never agree to do anything in unison, people who control huge economic activities will always have more influence over governments than ordinary citizens, in too many countries toxic political organizations exert a selfish power over governments, and even the minority of citizens who want to build a better world will always be divided by attitude, history, personal ideologies, and their individual needs to take care of their families, emergencies and problems.
In my experience, being “realistic” rather than “idealistic” has always proven to be much more effective in working to meet a particular goal – whether that’s maintaining your family, getting a job, building a business, or working with others towards a fairly specific political outcome.
So on my first reading of the “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition” I was overwhelmed by the height of the idealisms that were being expressed. For example, here is the 3rd paragraph of the Manifesto, essentially calling for a complete overhaul and overturning of all our institutions of economics and government.
“The engines of this unjust status quo—capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and various fundamentalisms—are making a bad situation worse. Therefore, we must urgently debate and implement new visions of ecosocial transition and transformation that are gender-just, regenerative, and popular, that are at once local and international.”
Yes, they seem to be calling for an end to capitalism, yes, they seem to be calling for all the people who have privileges in our existing institutions to shed those privileges for the benefit of others less well-off than themselves. And my first thought was, ‘How completely unrealistic, they basically need everyone in the world to change their personalities, attitudes and behaviors.’
Yet the more I read and the more I considered this “Manifesto,” the more I realized, how completely necessary their idealism has become. We are very likely to poison our planet, very soon, to the point where we cannot live comfortably upon it any more. We need to take serious action against climate change, otherwise our surviving children will likely be hungry vagrants, foraging in the ruins of our privileges.
Dealing with Climate Emergency will almost certainly prove to be the Life or Death question of all our lives in the future; will it hit us in 5 years, 15 years? Nobody knows, but I’m not betting we still have 20 years to act before the disasters are hurting us every day.
Do you understand this problem, or are you one of the deniers? If you understand the problem, you need to share the idealism of the “manifesto,” because we are not going to slow down or prevent climate change with the half-hearted, unenthusiastically financed, lightly enforced plans and goals that the biggest governments and corporations can agree on –- that they can agree on only because none of their own privileges are seriously affected.
I can list the histories, the attitudes, the institutions, all the things that make government-supported late-modern capitalism nearly impossible to change in any serious way – yet that would leave me a depressed pessimist. I need to have optimism in my life, I need to believe that if millions of young (and old) people could organize and act with enough focus and determination, we could bring about a more fair and balanced civilization we can all be proud of. We need the idealism of the Peoples of the Global South.
The Mountains We Must Climb
The size of the problem confronting all the world’s peoples can be seen by my attempts, in what follows, to give the briefest possible summary of the major points raised by the “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South.” You should read the whole document, it’s not long; over 30 organizations are on a “short list of organizational sponsors,” (I am not familiar with most of the names, they seem to be activist, charitable and academic organizations working on social justice issues, and you and I as individuals are invited to add our signatures as well).
The Manifesto begins by noting that the Global North and Global South approach the situation from entirely different histories and attitudes. “In the context of climate change, ever rising energy needs, and biodiversity loss, the capitalist centers have stepped up the pressure to extract natural wealth and rely on cheap labor from the countries on the periphery.” The awareness of the Climate Emergency is causing the North to increase its need for raw materials such as cobalt and lithium.
Trade officials in the North can talk about “establishing responsible, sustainable, and transparent supply chain” trade agreements for these raw materials, which nevertheless act to “protect and enhance corporate power and rights, “ while the pressure for raw materials leads to externally-financed new extraction and processing facilities, leading Southern nations into debt that requires even more raw material extraction. All of this represents a new form of colonialism, for the Peoples of the Global South.
Southern nations must also face their own problems: “Corrupt elites in the Global South have also collaborated in this unjust system by profiting from extraction, repressing human rights and environmental defenders, and perpetuating economic inequality.”
At the heart of the Manifesto in several places, the authors make it clear that they envision a radical transformation of our current economic infrastructure.
“Minor changes in the energy matrix are not enough. The entire energy system must be transformed from production to distribution to consumption and waste. Substituting electric vehicles for internal-combustion cars is insufficient, for the entire transportation model needs changing, with a reduction of energy consumption and the promotion of sustainable options.”
“The energy transition should be part of a comprehensive vision that addresses radical inequality in the distribution of energy resources and advances energy democracy. It should de-emphasize large-scale institutions—corporate agriculture, huge energy companies—as well as market-based solutions. Instead, it must strengthen the resilience of civil society and social organizations.”
They also understand that this process of transformation is not “just” economic: “Rather than solely technological, the solutions to these interlocked crises are above all political.” They see this process as incorporating “radical, democratic, gender-just, regenerative, and popular “ types of values, they proclaim that “Energy is an elemental and inalienable human right, and energy democracy should be our goal.”
While they understand that the struggles are political, the authors seem to be very clear that there will not be one big political organization or one political theory or ideology to guide this work of transforming our relationships to energy and social organization. They know that their “ecosocial alternative is based on countless struggles, strategies, proposals, and community-based initiatives” and also comes from “the lived experience and critical perspectives of Indigenous peoples and other local communities, women, and youth throughout the Global South.” In short, the authors of the manifesto clearly see that there must and will be a wide variety of groups and coalitions, who may not agree with one another on every possible issue, working towards common goals: “We make an explicit call to continue political coordination among the peoples of the south while also pursuing strategic alliances with critical sectors in the North.”
One Step At a Time, Climbing These Mountains
The “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South” did leave this reader with the impression of a having a strong perception of their goal, while leaving the means of reaching these goals to a few general statements. Yet if we understand that we, the eight billion individual and highly disparate people on the earth, are indeed creating our futures (and our history) with every one of our thoughts and actions in every minute of our life, the message and the path should also be quite visible.
Each and every one of us who wants to avoid climate disaster, must be ready to work, to give, to connect, to sacrifice, absolutely as much we possibly can, every day and every night, and most likely for the rest of our lives. We are indeed fighting for the futures of every person we love and honor.
It will be the hardest and most challenging work we will ever undertake. In the first place, today in 2023 we are faced with strong social forces that are anti-democratic, dictatorial, socially backwards and economically selfish, who are convinced they are winning the future for themselves, and they hate and wish to crush our visions of green transformation and economic democracy. The current governments of Russia and China, controlling billions of people and a large part of the Asian landmass, are the most important enemies of any kind of transition or evolution, and their behavior demonstrates how they are willing to kill any community and destroy any infrastructure, to use all their military and dictatorial powers, to prevent any change to their power and privilege. Too many other governments are almost as bad, and some small long-established dictatorships may be even more controlling of their citizen’s thoughts and actions.
Even in the USA, it is possible Climate Emergency deniers may win the next election. Many of us here are already quite fearful that we aren’t doing half enough to prevent and heal the Climate Emergency (that the USA is more responsible for creating than any other nation). We fear that if we halt even today’s small efforts, the Climate Disaster involving billions of deaths and loss of the infrastructure of ‘modern civilization’ will be the ugly end of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives.
To counter these immense obstacles to human progress and survival, we are going to have to learn and grow and organize and work as much as possible. We are going to have learn new ways of talking to our fellow-citizens, some new ways of helping them realize they have a choice of intentionally sacrificing some of their privileges and conveniences in a purposeful manner.today and tomorrow, or having those privileges and conveniences torn from them in unexpected and very painful ways, destroyed forever by the unpredictable outbursts of the Climate Emergency a few years from now, if they try to ignore the problem.
We are going to have find new ways of communicating with our fellow-citizens that it is probably more important to our future happiness to be helping build communities and to organize for change, than to focus only on amusing ourselves with the latest technological distractions. We need to learn how to use our activist organizations for persuasion that goes beyond basic protest. Those of us in the Global North need to learn how to control our individualism and egos to work effectively in mass organizations, to learn how to support community efforts that we personally may not totally agree with 100% of the time.
In pursuing the idealistic goal of economic democracy, the first 95% of the work is going to be political. As an economic historian, I do believe that markets are social creations that reveal the psychological and political values of the societies they exist within; in modern societies, changing economic behavior almost always involves changing government regulations; these will be inch-by-inch, step-by-step struggles, involving all types of businesses and types of governments. We will also need to work on changing the social attitudes that underly government regulations, which is an even more subtle and long-term crusade.
This political work in a long-term crusade for idealistic goals is probably always going to be frustrating and difficult, we are going to have to work for short-term and intermediate-term goals that do not fully reflect our ideals, the forces of backwardness and selfishness will be fighting us at every turn, there are going to have to be compromises with more powerful and less idealistic political forces. It seems likely we will have to learn how to work effectively in such situations, making the compromises (that provide at least some help to underprivileged communities) today while spreading the message of the greater transformation that is needed.
The Climate Emergencies that are already occurring are already creating victims and refugees who require immediate relief, and it will be very important for us who wish to create something better to improve our skills at providing that immediate relief – no matter how much that hurricane or fire or heat-wave is disrupting all aspects of society and community. My realism and pessimism is envisioning scenarios where severe weather emergencies are creating tens of millions of refugees both within nations and crossing borders – when a major food crop fails. Is there anything we can be doing today to prepare us to be able to provide relief in such circumstances?
And yes, to undertake the level of commitment and work that will be necessary to live up to our idealisms, we will all need to learn more about our own selves: how and when to work for the future we need, and how and when to work on supporting the families and communities that support us, and how and when to work on balancing and giving support for our own bodies and our own psyches. We are complex beings, we humans, and we do need some measure of distraction and amusement to help keep ourselves ready for those moments when our lives depend on attention and action.
I can’t accept it – the disruptions of the Climate Emergency are already here. It’s true, as of today no major city in the American East Coast or Midwest has yet experiencing a life-threatening heat wave; that will change, perhaps in the next 2 to 5 years, and American attitudes may start to begin to accept the reality of the Climate Emergency. I was glad to see the first article talking about an issue I have been considering for several years: real estate properties along America’s coastlines have been the most popular and expensive for decades, they have been prized assets, but they are going to become liabilities for many privileged people, and American attitudes will begin to change.
It is going to be a long journey, our future dealing with Climate Emergency. Again, it is going to be the hardest work we undertake, it is probably going to be harder in the real future, when disaster and emergency may be striking us every week, than in our most pessimistic imaginations.
We will indeed be working to save our own lives, our own families, and to do that well, we must also save the whole darn World. We need the idealism of the Peoples of the Global, South, and their vision of a global economic democracy, to inspire us and guide us – combined with our own best realistic understandings of which tasks and battles are required right now, and which can be postponed for another day.
We can only make it one step at a time. Those steps need to begin as soon as possible.