Two sides of the same struggle

Panel debate organized by Motmakt

I believe that if we create a political and social system based on people having more influence over big and small decisions, that is to say more power to control their surroundings, we will also create a society in which people want to take responsibility for and protect.

Our political system, parliamentarianism, and the economic values our society is based on – economic growth, as dictated by capitalism – arguably make it difficult to put effective climate change solutions in place. 

Socially just society

It is possible to create a more democratic society than the one we have today. Norway does not have the longest road to influence and participation, and we have a relatively open society. However, there are things we can do to create an even more inclusive and socially just society. The Norwegian society, like large parts of the world, has a political system that keeps people at a remove from decision-making, and creates a feeling of powerlessness. I believe a huge amount of willingness and commitment can be found in the general population; we see this all the time. The challenge is channelling this power in a beneficial way.  

People, not market

The fact that economic growth and profit are seen as the highest goal and the measure of a society’s success is, in my opinion, a major cause of the climate troubles that the world is facing today. Integral to this mind-set is a use of resources that is incompatible with an ethical and environmentally friendly way of life. A few international traders are allowed to make money in ways that are not sustainable. Things are made to be sold, not to last. Needs are created, and lives are based on an artificial system of expected earnings and resources. Whole countries and continents are controlled via loans and the unreasonable expectations linked to them.

Most people here would probably agree with this worldview.

This brings us to the root of the matter: what can be done to change the way we structure our society, and what can be done about the enormous climate change we see every day?

And can these two things be combined, in the way that the title of today’s debate suggests?

I strongly believe that these two things can be combined. It is not only possible to combine these things, it is absolutely necessary.

Possible solutions

There are many strategies to choose among on the road to a more environmentally friendly society. Irrespective of which strategy one chooses, you will have to relate to current strategies, values, and political system. Whether we use the system to create influence, distance ourselves and offer other alternatives, or drop out entirely – we are relating to the current system. 

Personally, I could never be a member of a political party, particularly with the intent to become a member of parliament and make changes from within. Not to take anything away from those who have chosen this strategy. It has to be said that small parties often play a pivotal role in cases relating to oil extraction and use of renewable energy. It is also useful for interest groups to have these parties in parliament. I just do not see this as the best strategy. I believe that it is easy to be caught up by power struggles and the written/unwritten rules in this way. My experience is that many parties, perhaps most parties, are forced to swallow their pride and make compromises that they would not otherwise have made. In other words, one is constantly forced to prioritize, and policies can become half-hearted. 

I have more belief in outside influence, even though this too has its limitations. I also believe in creating alternative ways of thinking and organizing. 

Through my work at ZERO, I try to actively influence decision-making. However, this will often be in standalone cases and decisions, and we have to relate to “the powers that be”. Even so, I think our work is worthwhile. Small steps can be important, and by being an independent and neutral voice (campaigning just on climate issues), we can make a difference. 

Nevertheless, it is important to see the bigger picture. In NC we are trying to do this by presenting alternative ways of thinking, for example ideas relating to direct and inclusive democracy: smaller constituencies, greater focus on cities, cooperation between cities, closer infrastructure, some decentralization of industry, energy and power, shorter paths to decision-making, ensuring that people are heard – these are central ideas in this context. 

There are examples of cities, areas, and workplaces that have used tools to ensure that people participate in decision-making and shaping their lives and the environment in which they live. Cities in Brazil have used inclusive budgeting for some time, workers have occupied their own places of employment, or whole societies have decided to try popular assembly.  

I believe that such measures are a step on the way to a more democratic society, and because I believe in humankind, despite everything, a more climate-friendly society. 

So, by working to change societal structures, by promoting inclusion, equality irrespective of ethnicity, gender, religion, and class, you are also in a way working for the climate issue. The way we treat one another is reflected in the way we treat our natural environment.  

There are also many international currents that in my opinion are cause for hope. When the dominant political ideologies, capitalism, enormous imbalances of wealth and power, and our choices have consequences such as unfathomable climate change, poverty and despair, there will be a call for change. People have simply had enough, and as a result, huge movements with vast potential are rising up. 

This is no trifling matter, and these sorts of movements and rebellions will do a lot of good. They will raise awareness on every level, and can lead to change if there is enough pressure. 

It is a shame that movements such as World Bank/G8/IMF demonstrations, the “Occupy” movement, and the uprisings in EU countries and the Arabic world seem short-lived and disorganized. Sometimes, these movements are even swallowed up by the very structures they were opposing. Because of this, we need to think more about dominant political systems that feel like good alternatives to parliamentarianism and social democracy. 

We also need people to be heard, not least on climate issues. For better or worse, environmental activism has been professionalized, thereby becoming more distant from the people. Words and actions are worlds apart.  

The political system is too focused on election cycles. Politicians will say and do almost anything to be elected. If people demand more climate-friendly policies, then this topic will be more visible in election campaigns and in wider political rhetoric. At the same time, people will not understand the severity of the situation if political and professional promises of emission cuts and measures to secure renewable energy, energy efficiency, better public transport etc do not result in concrete action. “If the politicians do not care, why should I?” This becomes an evil circle. 

Climate challenges will not be solved in the large international climate negotiations either. 

International agreements and systems such as quotas will not solve the challenges. We do not seem able to attain an international agreement that is ambitious, binding, and that has sufficient measures to create real cuts. It seems strange to base everything on the whole world agreeing on something so vital, especially when polarization, needs, power and profit are so closely interwoven with it all. 

Especially after COP15 in Copenhagen, where we had built up commitment and will to change, firm in the belief that we would see positive results. Many of us are still disappointed, and trying to build ourselves up again. This has led to more people pointing to alternative solutions; everything from «The coalition of the willing», bilateral agreements, different sources of funding, cross-sector cooperation, etc. 

I believe, as you might have noticed, in taking small steps. Let us use every possible solution, including technological solutions, or solutions in which industry and business play a major role. The most important thing is that we break global and resource-eroding social structures into smaller systems of every kind. People must be allowed to have direct influence. Not just so that it looks as though people are being included, but so that people actually are being included. 


Editorial Comment

This is New Compass speech in a panel arranged by "Motmakt" April 2013