The crisis and the change-makers

In the face of the world’s urgent economic and environmental problems, political leadership is failing. But from the ground up, new tools of understanding are emerging to fill the gap and point a way forward.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 November 2011

The world’s financial crisis is deepening, and protests are spreading across the world in the face of increasing marginalisation. As these processes unfold, it is increasingly obvious that political leaders are bereft of ideas about how to address the problems - and, even more stunning, find it impossible to comprehend that fundamental change is needed (see "A world in protest", 17 November 2011).

In parallel with these economic and political failures, authorities are incapable of recognising the approaching crisis of environmental limits with climate change at its heart. There is little hope of the climate-change summit in Durban on 28 November - 9 December 2011 setting even modest targets for the coming period, and negotiations on a post-Kyoto treaty will probably extend over several years before coming to a conclusion. Thus, the next treaty is unlikely to come into force much before 2020 - at least a decade too late in relation to what is needed.

In addition, the overwhelming scientific case on climate change (and those engaged in research, dialogue and policy about how best to understand and cope with it) are faced with attacks from campaigners seeking to deflect attention from the core issues (see "The climate peril: a race against time", 13 November 2009). The mass release of another tranche of emails and documents hacked from the University of East Anglia is timed to sabotage the Durban conference, a direct echo of the pre-Copenhagen "climategate" in December 2009.

The problems are intensified by the clear disinterest in climate change among many governments, for example the Conservative-Liberal Democrat one in Britain. The public language aside, ministers’ off-the-record comments are hostile to any action to cut carbon emissions, and they regard the modestly positive decisions of the predecessor (Labour) government as little more than annoyances. Chris Huhne, the minister responsible for climate-change policy, may be well-intentioned but he does not direct policy in the ways needed.

Indeed, most political leaders across the world have "turned off" climate change - a tendency that also reflects the persistent influence of the powerful fossil-fuel industry. in near-permanent alliance with free-market think-tanks.

The ideas

The combination of the global financial and environmental crises makes for a bleak outlook - at least at the level of political leadership. The primarily technocratic responses to the eurozone problems, with non-elected officials appointed to head governments in Greece and Italy, show little awareness of the scale of the problem. Both the endemic failings of late-stage free-market capitalism the global dangers of climate change need a far larger, more radical and imaginative response.

In short, change has to come from elsewhere and this will have to be mainly in the form of sustained pressure from below. This in turn makes it essential that there are many resources of innovative thinking which can show multiple ways forward - especially over the absolutely crucial period until the mid-2010s.

Among the existing, valuable examples are the New Economics Foundation's The Great Transition project and the Oxford Research Group’s work on Sustainable Security. There is also a healthy revival of cooperative organisations (see José Domingo Guariglia, "Co-ops: 'A Compelling Model of Economic Enterprise'", IPS/Terra Viva, 29 October 2011; and Elizabeth Whitman, "Frustrated with Big Banks, More Turn to Cooperatives", IPS/Terra Viva, 10 November 2011).

The diverse and widespread protests against the inequities of the current market system and its political masters - such as the demonstrators in Egypt, with their extraordinary courage - are hugely significant. But far more is needed, and as this understanding spreads so will the relevance of ideas rooted in non-violent social change through people power.

The change

Two timely additions to the corpus of writings on this theme could help to accelerate the process. The first is Tim Gee's book Counterpower, which presents a coherent and positive view of how change can be achieved (see Tim Gee, Counterpower: Making Change Happen [World Changing/New Internationalist, 2011]).

The idea of “counterpower”, at the centre of the book, is expressed by the author thus: "When governments, corporations or other ruling institutions yield power, it is not through the goodness of their hearts. It is to save face when the people have already claimed power". He develops this theme in a highly readable and in many ways inspiring text that draws on a wealth of examples.

The second contribution is by April Carter, one of the world's leading scholars of non-violence. Her book People Power and Political Change (Routledge, 2012) looks rigorously yet sympathetically at the many examples of people power over the past forty years: from Iran in the 1970s, through Latin America, Asia and east-central Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, to the Arab world in 2010-11. 

The main focus of the book is society-wide reactions to undemocratic regimes; what makes it particularly valuable is the that this is extended beyond the level of the nation-state to encompass transnational trends - including the use of new media, an approach of increasing resonance and relevance. But April Carter also frankly examines the failures and the multiple problems of translating protest into genuine and transformative social and economic change, an approach that reinforces the authority of her analysis.

In their respective activist and more academic perspectives, the books of Tim Gee and April Carter complement each other beautifully. Together they are powerful tools for understanding the change that has to come - and how it will come.

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