Most of COP26 is spectacle: on both the inside and the outside of the official proceedings, the point is to be seen to be there.
We talk a lot about visibility, and representation; of voices that should be heard. The substance of what they are saying, however, often seems to be overlooked.
As I write this, the most famous young person in the world has just delivered a blistering critique of carbon capitalism; referencing its roots in colonialism, in George Square.
It’s hard to recall a point in recent history when one individual has held such sway over a particular issue – in a manner that is so vocally anti-capitalist and so deeply unwilling to acknowledge the validity of established systems and ways of doing things.
But the strange thing about the enormous success of Greta Thunberg is that all of her righteous rage, damning critiques, and call-outs are, indeed, heard. From Davos, to the UN, to George Square, everyone hears, and to a certain point presumably understands, what she is saying; but the response remains the nodding, concerned, indifference of business-as-usual.
What was remarkable about today’s Friday for Future march through the centre of Glasgow was not just its scale, but the fact that a protest that has brought together so many children and young people was addressed with such profoundly subversive messages.
The overarching theme was essentially revolutionary – a tone that is perhaps easier to strike when talking to the young.
Mass revolutionary struggle has not been on the horizon of our politics for some time: this, ironically, makes the rhetoric of revolution easier to reach for.
The powerlessness of the young makes the whole exercise feel safe; especially in the short term. The obfuscation of much of the COP26 negotiations is a testament to this intergenerational disenfranchisement – our entire framework for dealing with the climate – the concept of ‘net-zero’ – is essentially a gamble on the living that we all have left to do.
Carbon offsets allow companies to continue emitting today while paying for it by planting forests tomorrow, untried and untested technologies are proposed as workable solutions now in order to maintain the status-quo.
But the open truth that everyone can see and hear is that business as usual continues; primarily because it doesn’t view the competing spectacle of protest as a threat. It goes on, listening, listening, listening , and doing nothing. It views all forms of exchange beyond its own narrow market-based practice as inevitable and inherently virtuous; only a child, or the perpetually immature, could think otherwise.
The process that is currently taking place in Glasgow is an old and world-weary one: horse-trading, haggling, bluffing, the behaviours that have defined capitalism from its inception.
In contrast, Sofia Gutierrez brought the open wound of violence inflicted upon environmental defenders in her native Colombia to George Square: ‘For us fighting is a need and not a choice … people don’t have time for fear because they need to fight back. Fear isn’t allowed to be felt when you have a gun to your head.’
At any age, I don’t know if we can look at such trauma and fully take it in. But we are implicated: in as much as we have some form of agency and freedom to act. As Gutierrez added (with exaclty the kind of fearlessness she referenced in the Colombian context) all of this suffering is created ‘so once again the global north can get rich.’
This is the voice of one who is fed up of merely being listened to.
‘COP will end and you will all go back home and continue with your lives but I hope you don’t, I hope you always have in mind what countries like mine are facing every day. Because we need for you to end what you started,’ she concluded.
In a square that has seen its fair share of violence over the years, these disconcerting words often seemed to silence rather than mobilise the crowd.
Another speaker, from Namibia, addressed the leaders at COP26 directly: ‘your wealth is built on the blood of our people and we want change, we will not give up.’ It was hard not to wonder what the statues of the colonialists in George Square would have made of this remark.
The strength of this rhetoric points to the fact that ‘people power’ is beginning to reach an impasse. Because, as Thunberg herself made clear in her remarks: ‘behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.’
The global school strike or ‘Friday’s for Future’ movement that has been mobilising young people for several years is both mainstream and radical. But it may be reaching a watershed moment: the wrath of the dispossessed can never be contained.
What happens to that movement as it matures will revolve around the question of global solidarity. If a generation in the global north does heed the words spoken today, it might go home after COP26 fed up of a thin normality of receding possibilities and look to greater acts of disobedience instead.