By Yash Tandon
Why has the left’s climate activism so far failed to force governments to change course? A self-consoling answer is that the left’s vision on climate change (CC) is not realisable in the short term. CC is a long-term project. This explanation, unfortunately, is not self-consoling; it is self-deluding. The truth is that the left does not know what it wants out of CC.
I illustrate this in relation to but one dimension of the problem – that between the south and the north. There is much confusion among the left, especially in the West, over what the people in the South want out of CC. For the people of the South CC is a significant issue, but it is one among several other, even more urgent, issues related to immediate survival. For a rural household in Uganda, for example, sustained more often than not by an aging woman whose older children have gone to the city to look for work, the choice between protecting the woods or cutting the trees to secure fuel for immediate needs is, to say the least, not something on which she wants advice from a CC activist.
The essential survival needs – access to food, water, housing and cheap energy – are the daily, hourly, preoccupations of the bulk of the people in the South, not excluding big countries such as India and China. It might be argued that that is what people all over the world want – in the US and Germany just as much as in Egypt or South Africa. Yes, but there are enormous differences. It is commonplace to state the obvious – the US and Germany are industrialised economies whereas Egypt and South Africa are at best semi-industrialised.
But there is something even more fundamental than the economic. The vital difference is political. The US and Germany are independent countries – the people are struggling against their own governments. Egypt and South Africa, on the other hand, are neo-colonies – here the people are still fighting for liberation from the clutches of imperialism. They struggle against their governments (like in Tahrir Square), but behind their governments lies American, European and Japanese – in other words, imperial – power. This fact is never fully understood either by the left in the West or by its several variants in Africa.
Some clarity of thinking on this matter is emerging, ironically, as a result of recent events in Europe following the financial/economic crises. The people in Greece have taken to the streets to fight their government against austerity measures only to discover, through praxis, that they are fighting against even bigger forces embodied in the European Central Bank, the European bureaucracy and the International Monetary Fund. People in Africa have a similar experience for decades through the ‘structural adjustment programmes’ and austerity measures imposed on them by the IMF and the so-called ‘donor’ credits, which are euphemistically called ‘development aid’. In fact, imperial capital has been sc***ing Africa since its partition by European colonisers following the fatal Berlin conference of 1884. For Africa, liberation from the Empire overrides all other issues. To view CC as an isolated issue, as the left CC activists tend to do, is dangerously myopic.
The African left activists who make common cause with the left in the Empire on CC should look at the broader landscape. ‘Know thyself’ sounds a simple prescriptive adage, but under it lies a profound crisis of identity of ‘the left’. The left in Africa needs to know where it comes from and where it must go.
Yash Tandon is a writer on development theory and practice, chairman of SEATINI and senior adviser to the South Centre.