Friday, 15 May 2009

Pup Tents in the Bush

The Age of Stupid

It’s like looking through binoculars, observing people on a far off beach, running around in circles, fixated on the small area of sand under their feet, as a tsunami races towards the shore.

- Pete Postlethwaite in the movie The Age of Stupid

NEXT month The Age of Stupid begins its run in New Zealand cinemas. Produced by New Zealander, Lizzie Gillett, directed by Franny Armstrong of McLibel fame, and starring the veteran English actor and Oscar nominee, Pete Postlethwaite, this powerful docudrama about climate change is set in 2055 and features a doomed archivist searching and re-searching the record of the early 21st Century for something which might explain his species’ imminent extinction.

"We wouldn’t be the first life form to wipe itself out," muses Postlethwaite’s character, "but what would be unique about us is that we did it knowingly. I mean, what does that say about us? The question I’ve been asking, is why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance? Is the answer because, on some level, we weren’t sure if we were worth saving?"

Armstrong’s movie is but one aspect of a much wider campaign of global consciousness-raising leading up to the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. Screenings of the film in the UK are being used to generate a heightened sense of urgency on the climate change issue, and to enrol a much broader cross-section of the public in the sort of protest and advocacy activities usually restricted to the more marginal (and marginalised) activist groups of the ecological vanguard.

In the vanguard of the vanguard, so to speak, is the "Climate Camp UK" movement, a sort of alternative-camping-trip-encounters-anarchist-teach-in-turns-into-non-violent-protest-outfit which began with a "gathering" outside Britain’s largest coal-fired power station at Drax in West Yorkshire in 2006. A year later in was making world headlines by erecting a protest camp only metres away from Heathrow Airport. And, just last month, during the G-20 summit, Britain’s Climate-Campers were again in the news for attempting to set up their pup-tents in the heart of London.

Clearly inspired by Britain’s hippy-campers, a small group of local eco-anarchists calling themselves "Climate Camp Aotearoa" (CCA) chose Anzac Day weekend to organise their own "gathering" at the historic Taranaki Maori settlement of Parihaka.

In the search for "climate justice", CCA insists that: "change comes from the grassroots". Citing the "Save Happy Valley" anti-coal campaigners as "a wonderful example of a campaign targeting the root causes of the problem by by-passing the political circus of climate politics and aiming at keeping fossil fuels in the ground where they belong", the organisers of the gathering identified nine potential targets for "non-violent direct action".

They are: the proposed gas-fired power station at Kaukapakapa in the Rodney district; the Central Plains Water scheme in Canterbury; the proposed new cement works at Weston in North Otago; the Transmission Gully project north of Wellington; the Huntly power station; the proposed pylon-carried electricity transmission line between the Waikato and Auckland; the planned expansion of Auckland Airport; Solid Energy’s "Happy Valley" coal mine on the West Coast; and corporate dairy farming all over New Zealand.

"As this new movement takes shape," CCA declares, "we will need to come together across lines of race, class, education, culture and geography; we will need to meet each other, listen to each other, and exercise our power together in the streets."

Inspiring sentiments, and yet, I can’t help thinking that setting up one’s pup tents on the Parihaka marae, miles from anywhere, and expecting participants to accept without question the rather arcane (and to most folks just plain weird) "rules" of "self management" and "conducting collective meetings and discussions", is a pretty odd way of reaching out to the masses.

If you really want people to come together "in the streets", why not hold your gatherings in the main centres – where most New Zealanders live? Why set up a decision-making process in which just one person’s objections can stymie the wishes of an overwhelming majority. Why tell people that they mustn’t applaud the contributions of their fellow participants, insisting, instead, that they use "silent hand-clapping" – a technique which apparently involves "waving your hands when you agree".

Isolating people in the bush; requiring them to renounce conventional forms of human interaction in favour of a range of imposed and unfamiliar behavioural routines; getting them to participate in a succession of pre-arranged and highly tendentious "games": I’m sorry, but it all sounds uncomfortably like the behaviour of a self-selecting political cult – not a mass movement. What's truly depressing about CCA’s dotty organisational style, however, is that I’ve seen it all before, more than twenty-five years ago, just as the anti-nuclear movement was reaching its crescendo in the early 1980s. Writing about a group styling itself Peace Movement New Zealand (PMNZ) for the magazine New Outlook in 1983, I was particularly intrigued by the group’s ingrained hostility towards the methods of mass politics:

"The preferred method of operation … is the slow building of a network of kindred spirits and affinity groups. This cannot happen if the movement is swamped with people anxious to join up: large numbers of people inevitably have differences of opinion too stark to be resolved by consensus."

When I asked one of PMNZ’s non-violent activists if she believed her peace group would ever achieve the same degree of co-ordination and public impact as the anti-apartheid movement, she replied: "Oh no, we’re very different from HART. HART is a very hierarchical, top-heavy organisation."

It’s enough to turn you into a conspiracy theorist. Here’s poor old Planet Earth getting hotter and hotter, and the people who claim to be her best friends all evince a pronounced disinclination to organise humanity in ways that just might get the heat turned down. Perhaps, as Pete Postlethwaite says in The Age of Stupid, at some level, the CCA activists don’t actually believe the human race is worth saving.

Which is why, rather than the hippy-campers of CCA, it’s one of New Zealand capitalism’s most effective champions – Gareth Morgan – who deserves the silent handclapping of Gaia and her multitudinous brood.

Morgan’s courageous endorsement of the science behind anthropogenic climate change in The Listener and The Herald on Sunday has done more to advance the cause of reducing global warming than any number of "self-managed" pup-tents in the bush.

This commentary was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 14 May 2009.


giordano bruno said...

Back to the 70s. In those days of 707s to Kashmir, we spent hours agonising about politics vs 'personal transformation'. The "values" party was one good product of those times, although I recall irritated discussions with its pioneers "the name 'Values' assumes that everyone knows and holds your values".
I felt the same about Obamas "change"
Overall the 'personal transformation' was a bust. I actually left a Manhattan career because 'money isnt that important'. seems daft now.
Meanwhile Graeme Hart can close down an entire Waikato town with one signature.
Somehow I'm pleased to see that 'old' money Todd family is still #2. My father was Charles' GP. I recall doing the 'ton' on the Wgtn motorway in Charles' Bently with the wacky old guy rather unsteadily at the wheel.

SeaJay said...

Hi Chris, I can't find an address for you so I will post this out here.
If you get a spare moment could you take look at the link below? Of course anyone else is welcome to it. In the spirit of Editing the Herald and Speak Your Branes

Anonymous said...

The next proposal for a climate camp would be perhaps in Mt Albert - opposing class antagonist and enemy of Mt Albert and South Auckland - Melissa Lee's road to nowhere.

Anonymous said...

never has the following quote been so applicable;

"What has stymied effective climate action so far, in short, is not lack of ideas, inspiration, alternatives, initiative, knowledge or experience. It is rather the way political and social power is organized, and the way large numbers of people, and especially the middle classes on whose passive consent many political elites [thats you trotter] are dependent, have been made forgetful about what they already know, ignorant about what already exists, and divided from the movements and processes that are already working toward a solution."

Larry Lohmann - 'Carbon Trading: Solution or Obstacle?'

After Nine years in power your party has facilitated one of the most dramatic increases in any nation's greenhouse gases in the history of humankind with absolutely nothing whatsoever to show for it in terms of suitable legislation for combating it. Nine years of, we're working on it, Nine years of policy that suited those who were causing Climate Change while stifling any semblance of peoples action on the issue.

After watching your commentary on the Climate Crisis over the past year or so, it is painfully clear that your ignorance of the where and when the global Climate Change movement has flourished puts you in no position to be advising anybody as to what needs to be done here in New Zealand.

The fact is that the thin edge of the movement that you yourself are riding in your columns has its roots in the UK social justice movement. The Camp for Climate Action and those involved [especially Rising Tide network] have completely transformed the issue in the UK, the US and Australia and although there is a way to go in terms of addressing the Root causes of Climate Change, this particular arm of the Climate Change movement has undoubtably been the driving force behind taking Climate Change as an issue back to people and out of the hands of people such as yourself.

Im very sorry to hear of your lack of faith in democratic decision making and peoples ability to change their world but there ARE ways to make progress on issues like Climate Change without relying on those who caused it to solve it. As some sort of pseudo working class hero, you yourself should understand that it has always been the people most affected who have been the ones to sucessfully stand up and get politically/actively involved in making the changes neccesary to secure a just future for themselves.

Heres to Trotter being as incorrect about this incredible project as he has been in so many other of his inflammatory diatribes on the NZ 'Left', but most of all heres to Camp for Climate Action Aotearoa making a similar impact on the Climate Movement here as has been achieved in the 8 other countries where such Camps have sucessfully been at the forefront of a movement for Climate Justice that has consistently showed the World that nobody is more qualified to bring about the changes neccesary to avert Climate disaster than those on the frontlines of its impacts.

And if you think thats inspiring take a look at whats happening in Copenhagen right now as a result of peoples Climate Action.

For more information about Climate Justice, social justice and how the path toward both are intimately intertwined take a look at the articles on the following page

Anonymous said...

"Morgan’s courageous endorsement of the science behind anthropogenic climate change in The Listener and The Herald on Sunday has done more to advance the cause of reducing global warming than any number of "self-managed" pup-tents in the bush"

Trotter; if you seriously think that dragging us back ten-years into a debate about the science can be passed off as some sort of a step forward, id hate to see what your idea of a step backward is.

Perhaps you should stick to writing about subjects that others at least think you understand - evidently; climate change and how to tackle it ain't one of them.

Chris Trotter said...

So very, very angry Anonymous – and so very, very wrong.

The middle classes you so despise have been searching for a political vehicle for registering their concern over climate change ever since those two wicked representatives of the “political elites” – Al Gore and Sir Nicholas Stern – steered the Climate Change Debate squarely into the political mainstream about three years ago.

If you were willing to raise your head above the level of the snuggle-pit occasionally, you might have noticed the dramatic rise in the volume of climate change denialist propaganda since the release of An Inconvenient Truth and The Stern Review.

Why? Because the work of those two “elitists” has crucially shifted the debate away from the sort of people and groups for whom “feral” is no longer an adjective but a lifestyle, and towards the sort of folk politicians actually listen to.

Climate Camp activism has its place, of course, most especially in countries like Britain, where, with a population of more than 60 million to draw from, quite substantial “gatherings” of political pixies and goblins can be arranged. New Zealand’s smallness, however, militates strongly against the feral mode of organisation ever amassing more than a few dozen of these interesting folk.

And that, really, was the point of the above posting.

To give the politicians of the Left the extra-parliamentary heft that they need to effect real change, a mass movement to fight global warming is required. Such movements are built by people, and operate according to behavioural codes, that the average man or woman in the street can relate to – and that doesn’t include angry eco-anarchists with a penchant for wearing German army-surplus jackets, Palestinian scarves, while covering their faces, bandit-style, with black bandannas.

One of the most puzzling aspects about the surge in public interest in the global-warming issue is that it has not brought about an equivalent surge in support for the Green Party. In my opinion, this is a reflection of the lingering suspicion most voters still have of the Greens mode of political organisation, which, with its consensus-based decision-making and Morris-dancing, is more than a little akin to the even more off-putting style of the Parihaka Climate Camp organisers.

Though no “working-class hero”, I have worked with enough working-class New Zealanders to know that if you tried to get them to applaud their mates by waving their hands in the air, they’d almost certainly start waving their fists under your nose. Having their lives dictated by middle-class people with hidden agendas and the political power to over-rule the wishes of a clear majority is, sadly, nothing new to them – and not in the least empowering!

Gareth Morgan deserves the praise of those involved in fighting global-warming not because he brought himself up to speed with the science, but because, having done so, he used his considerable influence over middle-class New Zealanders to reinforce the message that action is urgently required. By lending his support to the cause, he dealt a substantial blow to the denialists – whose venomous response once again demonstrates just how effective the interventions of the “political elite” can be.

Few countries have a more powerful denialist lobby than New Zealand (in fact, this country is distressingly over-represented in the world-wide denialist fraternity). And nothing pleases these miscreants more than to see protest action against global-warming restricted to the pixies and goblins of feral politics. So long as her rescue lies in the hands of bearded wild-men and patchouli-soaked earth mothers, Gaia’s temperature will continue to rise.

Give me Al Gore, Sir Nicholas Stern … and Gareth Morgan any day.

Joseph said...

Hi Chris

Socialists and trade union activists also travelled to the Parihaka gathering. The first thing we argued about was the need for consensus decision making- it can be potentially conservative. When it comes to voting for strike action, the 80% in favour don't knuckle down to the 20% who want to scab.

However, once we overcame these organisational differences, there were things to be gained from the gathering. Comrades from Socialist Aotearoa presented a session on Workers, Unions and Climate Change, which you seem to not have been informed about, Ach well.

Socialists are concerned to build a mass movement, that involves as many people as possible. Here is a streategy position paper you might like to feast on.


Anonymous said...

Its also interesting that Al Gore endoreses (as does James Hansen) direct action against the root causes of climate change (coal being the one those two have talked about the most)

(below is from the legal defense used sucesfully in the UK for coal power station action)

'Professor James Hansen, a NASA director who advises Al Gore and is known as the world's leading climate scientist.

Hansen told the court that more than a million species would be made extinct because of climate change and calculated that Kingsnorth would proportionally be responsible for 400 of these. 'We are in grave peril,' he told the jury. He said he agreed with Al Gore's statement that more people should be chaining themselves to coal-powered stations. 'Somebody needs to step forward and say there has to be a moratorium, draw a line in the sand and say no more coal-fired power stations.'

Ancient Dan said...

How much longer will it have to get colder before you mob figure it isn't getting warmer

Chris Trotter said...

About as long as it takes you to work out the difference between the weather and the climate Ancient Dan.

Anonymous said...

Given the old left's current inability to do much more than gather a few moaning minnies together for a beer here and there, I don't really take your criticisms (and silly stereotypes) of 'eco-anarchists' movement building very seriously, Chris.

From your comments, I don't think you know much about consensus decision making, but the 'hand waving' thing is a way of communicating support without wasting time - we've had enough of people, often old lefties who like the souind of their own voices, taking up 20 minutes of a meeting to say "I agree".

And, by the way, Parihaka isn't "in the bush" (not much bush left in the midst of miles of dairy farms) or "miles from anywhere", it's slap bang in the middle of Parihaka. People do live in Taranaki, you know. Perhaps you meant "miles from the nearest Labour party office"?


Sam Buchanan

Ps. I like Gareth Morgan as well.

Chris Trotter said...

Frankly Sam, I'd be a little peturbed if the eco-anarchists started paying heed to "old lefties". It would mean we'd all have to get off our ever-widening bums and get back into the fray. No fear of that while you're all busy hand-waving in the middle of a cow paddock though. We Old Lefties can drink our beer and whinge away in peace - confident that we're not going to interrupted anytime soon by effective political organising.

Anonymous said... - get involved and put input into the next venue if you have suggestions.

There are Auckland and Wellington climate camp groups and meetings etc.

Anonymous said...

At least give up the prejudices and stereotyping Chris:
"German army-surplus jackets" (that was a 1980s thing).
"Palestinian scarves" (that was a 1990s thing)
"covering their face swith black bandannas.
black bandannas" (Currently being critiqued and going out of style).
"Morris-dancing" a 1970s thing.
"feral is no longer an adjective but a lifestyle"
Never heard of it in NZ - isn't "feral" an Australian thing?
"bearded wild-men and patchouli-soaked earth mothers" more 1970s and 1980s things.
"pixies and goblins" no idea what you're on about.

Joe Buchanan