In the early hours of 13th November human and environmental rights defender Alessandra Munduruku’s home was invaded. Having made the case against the ongoing depredations visited upon forest peoples’ territories at COP26 in Glasgow three days earlier, on stepping off the plane she became a target once again.
The case reminds us that the continued push to extract resources is a fundamentally violent process. Incited by the rhetoric of Brazil’s President; attacks on Indigenous Peoples have increased markedly in recent years.
The acceptable face of resource extraction that COP26 showed to the world is only a mask for this darker day-to-day reality in the Global South. The wealthy few driving the climate crisis remain content to inflict personal suffering alongside the growing indiscriminate consequences of fire, flood and the decimation of irreplaceable biodiversity.
Back in the leafier parts of Glasgow, there was disquiet as the summit drew to a close. Alongside the exhilaration of an environmental movement that had flourished in the city, there was anguish when some residents in the city’s affluent West End awoke to find the tyres of their SUVs deflated; the victims of a copycat action inspired by a passage in Andreas Malm’s book How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
In the wealthiest corners, even a minor inconvenience visited upon another’s property is responded to as though it is a grievous wound. But the inane comments of the conspicuous carbon consumers in response show that we are perhaps closer to a generalised climate conflict than many people want to admit.
SUVs are a token of survivalist, neo-colonial fantasy that has spread like a virus amongst those with large disposable incomes. To drive one is not simply to endanger local children, clog up urban space and defile the air, it is also a response to a world of mass displacement and dispossession. It positions the owner on the opposing side of the fence from those millions fighting daily battles for survival and security.
While the 1% arm themselves with private islands, yachts, jets and subterranean bunkers, the affluent middle classes purchase these small assault vehicles in imitation.
At the closing night of the New York Times Climate Hub, a haven for concerned liberals close to the official summit, civic dignitaries, government ministers and precocious young folk mingled with those able to fork out a £2,000 ticket and assorted hangers-on.
The hubbub of networking, wine and canapés were rudely interrupted by the arrival of the ghost at the feast. The enormous puppet in the likeness of a Syrian child refugee, Little Amal, burst into the hall. She then careered through the middle of the gathering, dragging a dead, charred tree behind her, splitting the crowd as she did so into two groups: many awkwardly avoiding standing on a temporary woodland artwork installed for the newspaper’s stay at SWG3.
Was history made in Glasgow? After change was once again deferred, the can kicked down the road once more and the familiar recriminations hurried out, the short answer is ‘no.’ But perhaps the examples above remind us that history often arrives with a visceral intensity, unexpected and unannounced, calling upon us to pick a side.
Making history through diplomacy implies grand progressive leaps: but there are also lurches that cannot be reversed.
There is plenty to be alarmed about when it comes to the impact of non-human forces: the compound climate disaster currently unfolding in British Columbia, for example. But climate and resource-based conflict are at the heart of what many are already confronting. This will increasingly come to define politics in order to fill the vacuum left by the gridlock of multilateral diplomacy.
Because COP incorporates the language of internationalism, and invites some of the world’s most compelling voices to talk of unity in the face of the crisis, we forget that the true significance of diplomatic failure in Glasgow. Namely, the possibility of unthinkable levels of mass violence returning within most of our lifetimes moving still closer.
While a descent into armed conflict and resource wars are not inevitable: a telling taboo at such summits is the obvious link between the dominance of a nation’s fossil fuel sector and its possession of a vast military machine. The ‘armed lifeboat’ is already the de facto policy of the world’s richest and most militarised nations and in these countries, the carrying out of the most basic humanitarian acts have become deeply politicised.
The intricacy of the COP summits are partly designed to defer the ultimate moment in which we all ask each other which side we are on. But, like other chronically flawed diplomatic processes, the tactic of hoping that a belligerent aggressor – the fossil fuel industry and its state sponsors – will gorge themselves sick and then roll over, is ill-advised.
The problem isn’t just that the wrong people are in the room, it’s that attempts to reach agreement are stewed in demonstrably unfit ideas. Thus we hope that a generation of leaders brought up to believe the basic organising principle of society ought to be the growth of private wealth will risk their own political fortunes by confronting its power. We hope that a class educated in the narrow pursuit of self-interest will stop equivocating on the future of successive generations. We wait to see if politicians reared on the mantra that wealth trickles down would rather watch their homelands inundated than redistribute the plunder evenly.
In verse as sharp as a November day in the North-East Atlantic, Scots Makar Kathleen Jamie imagined the River Clyde itself taking revenge on such inter-generational violence towards the young, with a biblical prophecy: ‘fail them, and I will rise.’
The key verse, however, comes a few lines earlier: ‘and sure, I’m a river,/but I can take a side.’ The theatrics of the summit failed in their original intent then: the divide was palpable enough to be placed on the poetic public record.
Maybe some of the old ghosts of that river – blood-red revolutionaries and slaves chained below decks – did indeed return to haunt proceedings with an age-old question on their lips. Which side are you on?
Photo: Agisilaos Koulouris/COP26 Coalition