Paris: the Untold Story

cop21The last time I filed from Paris I was covering the Spring Collections. It’s a long way from where I am now, perched on a high stool in the lounge of a reconfigured hostel by the Gare du Nord, discussing Why the Message Doesn’t Get Across with a sociologist called Jean-Baptiste.

This is a report about COP21 that didn’t make the headlines, nor even the small print, when for two weeks in December, thousands of activists, campaigners and grassroots communicators converged on the capital to disseminate their messages of defiance, hope and renewal, in spite of a heavily-policed clampdown on gatherings and demonstrations.

 ‘Refresh the climate, rewrite the story’

I’ve never seen so many people online in one room before – blogging, tweeting, texting, emailing, Skyping, videoing  –  and it’s only 7am. Six hundred of us are having breakfast in the co-working space of the alternative media hub of Place to B. We know we can’t just fix the climate by twiddling with the temperature dial as 197 world leaders are now doing at Le Bourget. We know we need to address its deeper causes; a debt-bound economic system, the myth of progress and our millennia-long separation from wild nature on which we depend for everything.

redlines2The millions of grassroots responses around the planet are too small and undramatic to fit into the dominant mainstream narrative. Nevertheless we’re busy sharing them across tables – stories about restoring soil, challenging fracking , bearing witness from communities under fire and under water. None of us are here just for ourselves. We are speaking on behalf of organisations and networks which have brought us together in a way that no conventional social meeting or workplace could ever do.

The first thing you notice is that everything connects. The second that there’s no hostility.

‘What I am waiting for is sincerity’, says Jeremy from the BBC, as we discuss how the story we’re here to rewrite looks more like a global communications system, firing on all cylinders. What I’m waiting for is a way to frame my convincing argument, my pitch. But I can’t. Because when push comes to shove what really matters is something that bears no relation to a newspaper opinion, and it’s hard to describe how it feels when suddenly you don’t have to fight the person you are talking with anymore.

When you realise you are not on your own.

Boulevard Voltaire

Ten thousand people are holding hands along Boulevard Voltaire. Angels flex their wings, a stream of bicycles flies past, a brass band plays; a newt-headed man from the occupation at La Zad gives an interview to a citoyenne with a video camera. Vans of riot police wait in side streets for the clashes that will come later in a flower-strewn Place de la Republique. I join the human chain between a row of Tibetan men, one of whom hands me a badge saying ‘The Third Pole’, and feel strangely at home.

Afterwards I step back into the calm, cobbled back streets of Paris on a Sunday. You could think nothing had changed if you look at the cafes and shops and knobbly plane trees. You could think that nothing had changed when the demi-gods at Le Bourget congratulate themselves on coming to a historic agreement.

It may appear to be the same but it isn’t the same behind the facade. The Tibetan plateau, the biggest reservoir of fresh water outside the Arctic and Antarctica, is warming at twice the global rate. We have been living as if our fossil-fuelled lifestyles have no consequences, but the consequences are now blowing back towards us. Some of us are no longer looking at hemlines.

Rue de Dunkerque

cop21 Revolt_Design_1I could report on the Climate Games, the People’s Assembly, the Global Village of Alternatives, the documentary Demain, or any number of the workshops, talks or actions that are taking place on the edge of the official negotiations, but I have decided to stay here in the Place to B’s Creative Factory, where I work with an opera singer, two dancers, a novelist, an anthropologist and a cartoonist amongst others to create projects that explore ways to Dismantle the Buying Imperative.

There’s a challenge we all face with this rewrite. We’re  embedded in a culture of market fundamentalism, just as we are in the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change. A capitalist economy is our default common ground, no matter how connected we are to ‘nature’. It’s hard to communicate without feeling the pressure to convince and propagandise in a way that goes against our craft. It’s hard not to sound like an ad.

Scientists plea for their terrifying data to be rendered into an acceptable narrative for people to ‘get’. We know we need a story that holds a ‘radical dreaming’ and touches the hearts of people, and that climate change is a symptom of a cause that corporate media cannot admit. Industrial civilisation has brought the living systems on which we depend to a breaking point – systems that do not operate according to our 21st technology, 18th century reason, nor our 4000 BC sense of godlike control.

In the COP21 deal there are blue sky pledges but no mention of how carbon reduction might be achieved on the ground in a world where everything we consume is made possible by oil. The obvious ‘solution’ to power-down our whole way of life was never on the table. At the COP21 ‘fringe’ however it’s clear we need to do exactly that, and undergo what some call decroissance (degrowth). To walk in the opposite direction of Empire.

This story is made up of humble things: of cargo bikes and community orchards, of handmade bread and local assemblies, big picture vision, small everyday actions, a tale of sharing and restoration and sincerity and many other things besides. It doesn’t fit into a hash tag. It takes time to listen to. It challenges all the assumptions we were taught by our parents and teachers, and most avowedly, by our governments. There is no happy ending.

But there is [*] a door to the future we can open that doesn’t depend on a mythical technology, that recognises, unlike the agreement, the rights of indigenous peoples, the forests, the oceans, all creatures: a culture that not only engages in letting go of its addiction to energy, but also in dismantling its powerbase from within, divesting its sense of entitlement, of superiority over all species, its extractive ego, its will to conquer, its baseline hostility.

On the walls of the bar there are small messages written by thousands of individuals to everyone in Paris. They are written on bunting (from Scotland) and coloured ribbons (from USA). The people were asked:

What do you love and never hope to lose to climate change? 
– The Great Barrier Reef 
– My country, Syria
– Kindness between strangers.

Here’s mine:
The sound of a robin singing in midwinter.


Comments (7)

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  1. john young says:

    On the excellent Keiser report on RTS he along with the very able Stacey Herbert blew the fracking issue out of the water,it is apparently very very costly and toxic to boot.

  2. David McCann says:

    I know this may sound a bit trite, but surely there is someone in the movie industry who could make a feature film about the plight of the planet.

    1. Darby O'Gill says:

      David, try googling HOME the documentary. Its the next best thing and a thing of real beauty.

    2. SimonB says:

      There’s many a film made to highlight the issues and encourage change – the problem is the lack of attention they receive, drowned out in an ocean of vacuous commercial fodder engineered by the few for the masses. A few films I’d recommend all available on Youtube which would open a Pandoras Box to other discerning links… yet ultimately we need to go from passive to active, from digital back to the Real World:

      Ethos – Time to Unslave Humanity
      The Corporation

  3. john young says:

    David the Kogi people of S America put their plea more eloquently than anything I could contribute or any other that I know of,check them out these indigenous peoples have more knowledge of mother earth than all of our so called civilised nations,then again they are not interested in making a buck or two.

  4. Mathew says:

    The Paris COP marks the end, for me, of any hope of leadership on climate change at the Governmental/UN level. It also marks the first outright lie that I’m aware of that has come from the COP meetings. We are all used to the lies and misinformation coming from climate deniers but now we have had the 1.5 degree target beamed across the world as if it was a realistic, do-able goal. It is not. The laws of physics do not allow for it given the emissions we have already put into the atmosphere. I read an article recently that suggested 1.5 could be reached as early as 2024!
    I voted Yes in 2014 and I would vote Yes again, given the chance. However (and please don’t stone me to death for expressing this opinion) the issue of Independence pales into insignificance compared to global, environmental collapse. We are now in an emergency situation and with every day that passes, with every storm rolling in off the Atlantic, every millimetre of sea level rise, every forest fire, every extra acre succumbing to drought, Scottish Independence loses relevance. The UK state will no doubt fail at some point in the future and the First Minister can then jump up and raise her or his fist in the air and declare Independence, but it’s most likely that Scotland at that point, will be no more viable than UK. It could well be that Scotland claims Independence at just the point when Nation State geo-politics fails completely.

    1. John Page says:

      A very thought provoking post. Much as I loathe Westminster and want to break from it, you may well be right in that we
      should be planning on a local (and maybe regional) basis for the profound shocks to come……
      So stoning to death not appropriate.

      John Page

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