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Keeping Paris in perspective on the journey to system change

After spending nearly three weeks in Paris around COP21, I had to leave on Friday 11th – one day before the big final day of action. My destination was an inner transition facilitation course in rural England, a stark contrast from the chaos of a squat shared with 60 other activists in a disused factory in urban Paris. Many asked me why I was leaving just before the major finale, and I answered that I trusted that me going on this course was my contribution to the larger story at this moment. But there was clearly still a part of me that did want to be there in the midst of the action. All day on Saturday I struggled to be present at my training, feeling a real urgency to go and check the internet to see what was going on in Paris. However, when evening came and I finally did so, what I found left me with a deep sense of emptiness. Huge newspaper headlines greeted me with the “success” of the climate deal (see my colleague Maddy’s blog to find out why this is an illusion) and barely a mention of the massive protests that some of the people around me had been pouring their bodies, minds and souls into for the last few weeks.

This moment of reality check, of seeing from the outsider perspective, provoked me into a sudden process of re-visiting my own values. Whilst I had walked into Paris three weeks earlier with clarity that neither the COP itself nor the mobilisations around it would constitute major turning points along the road to system change, at some level I had clearly got sucked into that whirlwind of excitement and adrenaline that comes with intense activism. But this moment of realisation – of seeing what this looks like from the standpoint of any other person reading the news – pulled me suddenly back. I was reminded that I need to let go of grand expectations and remember that building the deep transformational change needed to respond to the severity of the climate crisis is much bigger and broader than just these mobilisations and “moments”. That it really involves a long, gradual process of building up a new version of our reality day by day, from the roots up.

Yes, these moments can serve to galvanise the movement, to inspire us, bring us together, and send us home feeling part of a stronger movement. And Paris was successful in that. This was the main message of the Red Lines action on December 12th, which had the slogan “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. And over the two weeks of COP, as many have reported (including Maddy again, and Jess Worth and Danny Chivers from the New Internationalist), it was evident across many spaces that there was some really positive progress in terms of movement building and developing a stronger and more coherent collective narrative.

However, I did feel that large parts of the movement are not really engaging with some of the more challenging questions that we need to face if we really want to see deep systemic change: Why are the vast majority of people in our wider societies still not engaging with these issues? What are the underlying values that sustain the current system? How would those need to shift in order for the system change we believe in to be possible? And as an activist movement, to what extent are we really moving towards shifting those values? Or do our own actions on some levels actually replicate and even reinforce those values? Are actions that leave people stressed, exhausted and without time for human connection, really reflecting the change we believe in?

The good news on this front was that there is more and more emphasis on building alternatives to the current system. As in previous years, in Paris the message of “System Change Not Climate Change” could be seen and heard everywhere. And there were many spaces and events that were sharing and exploring autonomous initiatives that have the potential to form part of that shift. The Global Village of Alternativesrun by Alternatiba during the middle weekend of the COP was one example of this, and at the parallel Peoples’ Climate Summit, almost half of the self-managed events were focused on solutions, ranging from community energy initiatives and just transition, to agro-ecology and co-housing. However this is not what makes it into the mainstream coverage of what’s going on at COP. And even on the ground, the initiatives on show in these diverse spaces around the COP don’t truly reflect the scale of the rapidly growing movement of people building alternatives in their local communities across the globe. So when we think about where to go next as a movement, as well as connecting up grassroots resistance struggles I also see great potential in beginning to put more energy into building bridges between efforts to build alternatives, integrating them better into the narrative and giving them more visibility.

Learn about how the concept of community has become embedded in the Casa de los Ningunos, and how the principles represented by their ideas of “community” support their vision for radical social change. Photo: Jocelyn Kellenberger
At The Democracy Center, our contribution to this process is our latest project: Abundance for Everybody: tackling climate change and exploring ways to live well in urban Bolivia. We have been listening to and learning from La Casa de los Ningunos, an experimental community project in La Paz, Bolivia, where a group of young urban activists have come together to experiment with finding new ways to collaborate and coexist amongst themselvesand to share those experiences with others. Originally motivated by their concerns about climate change, their work started off centred around a conscious food project which focuses on promoting awareness of the environmental, social and economic impacts of food as a path to awakening a more critical view of our concept of progress and development in general. Now they also integrate experimentation with reciprocal economic arrangements, such as work exchanges and the gift economy, and they particularly focus on building a new set of values, based around sharing and collaboration instead of competition, as a response to the root causes of injustice. And fundamentally, they consider this work to be profoundly political. As one of their members says: “That’s why we need community, because in community you can set up all the necessary structures. You need education, food, economy. And that is political. Because the political is not about political parties, it’s about how you structure your society, even your mini-society of four people.” We invite you to explore more about the Casa on our new micro-site, which we hope will also provide some food for thought and insight around the questions posed earlier in this blog.

So my conclusion around COP21 is that overall we are heading in the right direction and we can look back at Paris and feel positive about the progress made in terms of building the movement and shifting the narrative. But as we look forward, with this wind in our sails, let’s not be afraid to also step back for a reality check and look at those underlying questions with a critical eye. And let’s start giving more priority to the projects that are working to build the alternatives, as they can offer experiences and sources of inspiration to help us build a deeply coherent and collaborative movement that genuinely embodies the “system change not climate change” that we all dream of.


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