by nathan thanki
In my previous post I alluded to some exchanges of ideas in Lofoten at the Young Friends of the Earth Europe camp. All of last week, including during both 25 hour train, bus, and boat journeys, we’ve been attempting to initiate and contribute to frank discussions on the perceived divide between “international” and “grassroots” activism.
Now it is clear that those of us working at the “international” level (which includes, but isn’t limited to, the UN climate talks) adopt certain grassroots techniques and discourses. We also share the criticisms of climate diplomacy that have turned so many away since the Copenhagen talks in 2009. The UNFCCC is not the place that will generate the solutions we need. But it is far from dead. Policies, good and bad, will be decided regardless of whether or not activists are in the negotiation halls in Durban, Doha, or elsewhere. It is equally clear that many grassroots movements which are seemingly local use narratives that appeal to a global audience. Feeling isolated in your struggle is disempowering – better to invoke the commonality of our struggles. From even these cursory observations, we see that the simple dichotomous view of “international” vs “grassroots” activism makes less and less sense.In one “workshop” about 40 of us shared what frustrated us and what we appreciated about our own and each others’ social and environmental activism across the spectrum. We had first tried to identify where on the spectrum we devoted most of our energies as individuals and networks. In the exchange, grassroots efforts were noted to be sometimes parochial, overly rooted in place in a way that can lead to xenophobia, and unaware or unchallenging of the systemic drivers of the climate crisis. Yet we also noted that grassroots work is effective in that we can actually achieve wins there. It is (according to us) fresh and creative, full of truly compelling stories, and is where power is built. At the other end of the spectrum, international work was seen to be overly conceptual, alienating, dishonest and reinforcing of unjust power structures. On the other hand, it can connect the dots between the many local manifestations of a global problem, and encourage unity. The type of policy translation that Third World Network and others do can enrich grassroots work with greater, necessary, geopolitical context. With that context, our Nigerian friends fighting REDD projects can see that such projects are part of a push for market approaches to tackling climate change which is part of a larger still neoliberal agenda.
This discussion is obviously an ongoing one which needs much more input from all of us. In spite of day long train rides, we did not manage to exhaust the topic–and probably never could. There is a tension that probably needs to be held, without resolution, for us to remain dynamic and responsive in the work we do.
What we did manage to do in our brief time together was to map some of the connections between our groups: what we are all working on, who we are working to mobilize, and who we partner with. It was an insightful exercise that the international youth climate movement would probably benefit from doing more often and more thoroughly. We also began (stress: began) to plan actions we can collaborate on during the Global Month of Action against dirty energy/for community renewables. Although we’re not going to give anything away on a publicly accessible site, those actions will span a wide range: blockades, twitterstorms, teach ins, op eds, occupations, rallies, political assasinations (jk!) and everything in between. There’ll be action at fracking sites and within the halls of the UNFCCC. From divestment campaigns, to Balcombe, to Lofoten, to the UNFCCC, to the Niger delta, to Northern British Columbia, to global and national powershifts, we are fighting the same climate fight.