A just transition or just a transition?

7th December 2011 by

Otesha team member Hanna Thomas, who is lead organiser of the East London Green Jobs Alliance, has been writing in the Occupied Times – the newspaper produced by the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp – and warns that the Occupy and green movements must not assume complacently that equity and the move to a green economy will go hand in hand.

A major criticism that has been levelled at Occupy LSX is that the movement has become an umbrella for too many issues. “What do they want?” our mainstream media asks, as a stroll through the camp makes it clear that democracy and corporate greed are not the only issues being debated. Linger around St. Pauls, or peek your head into the Tent City University, and you will soon find yourself debating and discussing issues of mental wellbeing, gender equality, class, the environment, parenting, and the role of religion, amongst many, many others. However, rather than betray a lack of focus, to me the diversity of topics being discussed means something quite different – that our movements for social and environmental justice are growing up, that we are seeing connections and joining the dots between issues, and that we recognise that we are most powerful when allied.

There is much that we can learn from each other, and the global Occupy / Indignados movement has provided us with the perfect opportunity to compare notes. What’s working, what isn’t? Are our demands aligned, and does that even matter? However, there is one area of discussion that certainly needs to be addressed by the environmental and Occupy movements together, and that is ‘what does transition look like’? We say that another way is possible, but what journey do we have to take to get there? How can we work together towards building a new low carbon economy, one that incorporates values of social justice, equity, and democracy? Of course, this conversation is already well under way in many countries across the world, but different elements of our movement are in danger of pulling in very different directions. You might not think it, but transitioning away from a pollution-based economy and transitioning away from our current capitalist model do not necessarily have to have much in common.

Let’s not kid ourselves – the new, low-carbon economy could be one that retains all of the inequities and corporate greed of our current economic system. One where companies profit from the transition, while workers are stuck in green McJobs, doing the essential work of decarbonising our energy systems and retrofitting our homes but in a vicious circle of low pay and few opportunities for progression or training. Nor does the anarcho-marxist model of transition away from a capitalist state make any promises to those who are currently most underserved by our current society. The end goal may be distribution of wealth and workers’ rights, but the requisite insurrection and ensuing chaos that it takes to get there may only end up harming those that need the most help. Indeed, members of our unions are concerned that significant periods of economic restructuring in the past have often happened in a chaotic fashion that has left ordinary workers, their families and communities to bear the brunt. Indeed in the UK, many individuals and communities are still paying the price for the rapid shift away from industrial production over the last 30 years.

Perhaps there is a middle way, one that respects workers’ rights, the rights of the poor, and our planetary boundaries. This is where the idea of Just Transition may come in handy. Just Transition is a framework for a fair and sustainable shift to a low carbon economy, proposed by trades unions and supported by environmental NGOs, that seeks to prevent injustice becoming a feature of environmental transition. Just Transition recognises that support for environmental policies are conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families.

The framework is not foolproof – it does not deal with the capitalism question, nor does it a build a comprehensive vision of a new world. Questions about growth, nuclear, and means of production go unanswered. However, it is the beginning of an essential conversation about how we can create a new system that is both economically and ecologically viable.

What is not questioned is the speed at which we must act. The need to transition away from our current economic and social model in this country and the rest of the developed world is an urgent one. We are experiencing rapidly rising levels of inequality and, according to the IEA, we have only an estimated 5 years before the fight to mitigate dangerous climate change becomes a fruitless one.

Yes, the challenge ahead is immense, but so is our movement. Who would have thought, just one year ago, that the world would be engaged in a global conversation about corporate greed and the terms of democracy? A fair society that respects our earth may seem out of reach, but that is all the more reason to keep striving for it. As David Harvey has said, “Of course this is utopian!  But so what!  We cannot afford not to be.”

Twinkle twinkle little fingers – consensus in action

7th November 2011 by

For the first time recently I’ve taken part in meetings (one small, one very large) where decisions were made by consensus. That’s not to say ‘We turned up and happily it turned out that actually we all agreed, so that was nice and easy’. Rather it means that we were making decisions under a formal ‘consensus decision-making process’ with particular ways of operating and reaching conclusions.

An Occupy LSX general assembly in progress using consensus decision-making

As someone who had only had experience of this through one workshop at a conference, putting it into practice – and using it with others to make important decisions – was a whole new bag for me. So this post is not a 101 in consensus decision-making, because I’m still learning, but more a ‘How it was for me’.

But essentially, the basic principles include having no votes where a decision is decided by majority – any decision made has to have the buy-in of everyone. And that really means everyone. A ‘no’ is in effect a block, or a veto, which sends a message that “I am so unhappy with this proposal that I would feel unable to stay in the organisation/camp/etc if it goes through”, and this can be exercised by even the smallest minority present (though there is an unwritten rule that anyone should limit themselves to one or two of these in a lifetime).

The 'I agree!' twinkling-fingers signal

To try to avoid blocks, however, there is a whole menu of ways to facilitate genuine discussion, listening and negotiation, much of it communicated via hand signals while speakers talk so that the meeting’s general warmth or coolness towards what’s being said can be gauged quickly, or so the type of intervention someone wants to make (clarifying question, direct response, technical point, and so on) can be understood by the facilitator.

That’s not to say it’s a quick process! Even those who are passionate about the value of consensus decision-making admit that it can take frustrating long hours to reach consensus even on simple matters. And a skilled facilitator seems to be really key.

So my first active experience was in an Otesha team meeting recently. We are keen here on using non-hierarchical structures and processes wherever possible, and it’s something we try to pass on also to the people who take part in our Cycle Tours, so it makes sense that we use it ourselves.

My next active experience of consensus decision-making was very different from our small Otesha team meeting. This time I was sat on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in a very large, diverse crowd, gathered for one of the twice-daily ‘General Assemblies’ of the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest camp. [Anyone, by the way, is allowed to turn up for these open-air meetings and contribute to decisions made about how the camp is run and what its strategy should be.]

This was an extraordinary experience. In a large crowd, the use of hand signals, and the eagle eyes and inclusive instincts of a skilled facilitator, seem even more (or perhaps just differently) important. [Here, there was a microphone (unlike Occupy Wall St which uses a ‘human mic’ technique thanks to a police ban on amplifiers).]

Josie Long addresses Occupy LSX

It was deeply impressive. This time it was held very efficiently and quickly because it was to be followed by a scheduled roster of speakers for a rally (including Otesha’s patron, Josie Long, who was as funny and passionate as ever). But that does not mean that dissent was stifled.

One or two voices objected to a proposal to pay travel expenses for Occupy representatives from other parts of the country to visit London, because it had not been made clear what proportion of the camp’s finances this might swallow up. These voices were heard, and in fact the rippling sea of waggling up-turned fingers showed it was a popular point, so the decision was deferred until better financial information would be brought to a future assembly.

Fascinating was that this all took place open to passers-by, tourists on open-top buses, any Londoner within earshot. And as many of the speakers pointed out, the stereotypes and insults flung at the camp by sections of the media often dissolved for curious visitors when they saw the collective discipline, inclusivity and openness with which decisions are being made in the lee of St Paul’s. Consensus decision-making is at the heart of the Occupy protests, not as a nice add-on but as an integral part of their agendas in itself, as the core of what is an experiment in finding alternative or deeper modes of democracy and organisation. That the protests do not have one hard and fast agenda is criticised by outsiders. But ‘the process’ is the agenda: experimenting in how society can feel its way to alternatives that just might work better than current systems.

So how did I take to it? Well, the positives:

  • It felt good to have a recognised process that values everyone’s views – something that can act against the conscious or unconscious shouting-down, pulling of rank, brandishing of expertise, machismo or bias in favour of extroverts that you might find (and probably have found) in standard meetings.
  • It makes sense to have a process which seeks everyone’s buy-in to a decision, even if for some that means ‘It’s not my favourite option, but I’ll accept it for the good of the group’, because it seems obvious that this stands a better chance of there being good morale, and therefore of loyalty and low turnover of staff (if it’s a ‘staffed’ organisation in question).
  • If people feel they and their concerns really will be listened to and so they really can speak their minds, important information is likely to be brought out and discussed that might otherwise have emerged later in a way that causes problems.

The negatives?

  • I’ve got a nagging feeling that it doesn’t eliminate the various ways in which we human primates will ruthlessly try (consciously or unconsciously) to ensure we get our way, whether by body language or anything else. This is where even a skilled facilitator will have to work hard to be very aware and find ways to circumvent these tendencies.
  • Sometimes I might find I’m not ready to have an opinion on something but am expected to give my view. We might all have different ways of mulling over a subject, and not everyone will deal well with being called upon to think aloud in company in this way and express thoughts that might not yet be fully formed. On the other hand, it can be good for those of us less comfortable in thinking aloud to actually do it, practice it and become comfortable, to ensure we are being active rather than passive.

I’m sure I’ll come across lots more positives and negatives as I get more experience in this way of working.

Occupy LSX at St Paul's. Can this many people really reach consensus?

As one Occupy Wall Street participant has pointed out, the movement has been confounding those who assumed it might be impossible to operate consensus models on this scale. The camps may fail or ‘succeed’, whatever that means. Their methods may be flawed in many ways. What is clear is that for those with direct experience of the camps, whether as a one-time drop-in or a pavement-hardened camper, they have already scored a success of kinds by demonstrating for many for the first time the thrill of finding they are capable of joining with others to participate in experiments in direct democracy. They are often messy, often frustrating, but they prove the falsity of claiming that there is no alternative to current systems.

From St Paul's to St Hilda's, food sovereignty in action

25th October 2011 by

What is it that links an international gathering of peasant activists at the House of Commons, the tent city of the ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’ protest at St Paul’s Cathedral and a modest, local community food co-op event in Tower Hamlets, east London?

At first glance it’s hard to see a common theme. But I was lucky enough to attend all three in the last two weeks, and I can’t shake the thought that there were common threads linking these unusual and sometimes wonderful assemblies.

The parliamentary gathering was held by War on Want to mark Food Sovereignty Day. I wrote about the concept of food sovereignty in my first Otesha blog post: as a movement it aims to return control over and access to land, seeds, water and other inputs to smallholder farmers and away from corporations, so benefiting peasants, the environment, consumers’ health and sense of connection to their food, and local cultures.

Deeply impressive leaders and farmers from peasants’ and landless people’s movements, from Mozambique, Brazil, Cuba and Sri Lanka, spoke powerfully about their efforts to rescue their livelihoods, dignity and prosperity from the grasp of profit-focused agribusiness. But while these struggles, and the concept of food sovereignty, are often seen as issues of the global South, many at the meeting made the case, too, for a food sovereignty movement in countries like the UK.

And so Reclaim the Fields, an offshoot of the peasants’ organisation La Via Campesina, has plans not only to make connections with Young Farmers organisations in this country in a bid to engage with them about access to land and the future of food-growing, but also, more radically, to stage land occupations next year, echoing the invasions of unused, privately owned land by Brazilian peasants thrown off their own land to make way for corporate plantations.

So what on earth has this debate got to do with the Occupy LSX encampment? It’s not a link I crowbarred into being by myself. In the meeting in Parliament one speaker made the point:

“The Occupy movement and food sovereignty are both all about revolting against a particular kind of capitalism.”

Luis Muchanga, a peasants’ leader from Mozambique, made a similar point:

“The neoliberal model deciding how we produce our food has failed.”

Graciela Romero of War on Want:

“Food sovereignty is about economics, politics, democratic control.”

John Hilary, director of War on Want:

“We need a change to the system. It’s political. It’s about where the money goes and where the political classes put their money. And why the organic and natural movements are marginalised. The globalised food system revolves around increasing trade in agricultural products, and so food is reduced to a commodity, like a car. A commodity whose production is controlled by the major corporations who have benefited so much from this system. … Food sovereignty puts trade back in its proper place: people’s needs before capital’s needs and profit’s needs.”

With this ringing in my ears, I was excited by the connections being made between the food sovereignty and Occupy movements. But would the Occupy protesters in turn see any importance to their own agenda of the issue of control over food and land?

I decided after I left the Palace of Westminster to cycle up to St Paul’s and see for myself what was happening there. And I was impressed to see the links to food and land also being made explicitly in the shadow of St Paul’s.

'In the UK, 1% of the population owns 70% of the land. We, the 99%, own less than half the land owned by the 1%.'

This flyposted image made the point directly: here, in the UK, there is staggering inequality in land ownership and therefore in access to land (the basis of all life and all prosperity).

This feels like a time for sometimes surprising connections and alliances to be made. People from top to bottom have had their faith in our current systems shaken, and this makes fertile ground for new ideas and creative challenges to a system that appears to have lost much of its legitimacy.

But where is the relevance of the Tower Hamlets community food co-op I visited the week before last? Well, a food sovereignty movement for the UK would not only look like confrontation, land occupations or high-level policy debates. It would have to be rooted in every community, at the truly grassroots level, and be expressed through a whole constellation of community-level initiatives. It has been dawning on me that the Tower Hamlets event at St Hilda’s East Community Centre was a brilliant example of this.

A weekly food co-op was showcasing its work enabling local people to buy fresh, affordable vegetables without having to visit the supermarkets, a boost to their health but also to the community, bringing people together who might not otherwise talk to their near neighbours.

The Women’s Environmental Network had a stall, and were proudly showing off their new seed library, from which local people will be able to take and contribute fruit and vegetable seeds, again putting control of food directly into ordinary people’s hands.

A wall display encouraged people to use post-it notes to mark their community food initiatives on a map of the borough. In this inner-city area, the map was filled up.

Here, at St Hilda’s, in its modest way, without protests or occupations, but with an equally powerful message, was food sovereignty in action.

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