COP Resistance Report 4: Life and death in George Square

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.


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  1. Jim Ferguson says:

    I wish the next generations success with their Green Revolution, we tried for a socialist one against Heath and Callaghan, Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Brown, yet they only seemed to get stronger in spite of the best efforts of many. Remember the forces of the state are often not your friends. Be strong and fight the carbon capitalists with everything you’ve got. Optimism, hope and radical vision are key. Simultaneous Insurrections of every possible kind are necessary to win.

  2. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    It is easy, as you say, to reach for thew rhetoric of revolution from our armchairs, our couches. The discussion must be about how to bring this absolutely necessary revolution about. It starts with political structures and assumptions. The Corbyn phenomenon was a first and key indicator, for which the Labour Party was completely unprepared, and consequently fought tooth and nail, bringing about its own demise, for all practical purposes (it speaks but does not act).

    The new potential Corbyns – all of the possibles – must now be nurtured and trained up by a quiet revolutionary cadre, so as to bring about the revolution by peaceful, but determined and assertive political means. The current generation of ‘adults in the room’, must support and nurture new forms of leadership (foreshadowed by Corbyn). The Corbyn policies were supported by ‘the people’ – it was the political class, cynical, managerialist and nihilist, seeing its own demise, which simply could not bring itself to believe in the possibility of such necessary change.

    And it is the people who must themselves decide to bring about the necessary change. The revolution must be based on citizens deliberating together, and it is to that end that all revolutionaries must bend their efforts.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      The Corbyn policies were supported by ‘the people’…

      And yet they were roundly rejected at the polls, especially in traditional ‘working class’ constituencies.

      ‘The people’ don’t want the hassle of participative democracy; they want charismatic leaders who can tell them what they want to hear and administer their lives (health, work, security, education, leisure, etc.) through a bureaucratic state, while they get on with spending their disposable incomes.

      Corbyn was hardly a charismatic leader. Labour’s problem is that it doesn’t do charismatic leadership.

      1. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

        Charismatic leadership is a snare and a delusion; leadership should emerge. Those who voted in a Conservative government voted for ‘charisma’.
        Remember how skewed the field is, but sclerotic political traditions and the conditioning of the mainstream media, as well as the deliberately impoverished state of education for so long, has rendered the voting population (at least in England) politically disabled.

        This is not democracy – it is oligarchy.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Indeed, but the fact remains that charismatic leadership is what ‘the people’ vote for. It maybe shouldn’t be like that, but it is. Populism rules!

          You’ve also got to remember that we’re experiencing the end times. Our civilisation is about to crash and burn, and we stand in need of salvation. Everyman and his dog have flocked to Glasgow to demand that our leaders act immediately to deliver that salvation. History shows that the end times are particularly susceptible to the emergence of charismatic leaders and Anhänger (‘adepts’).

          1. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

            ‘Only at the precipice do we evolve…’ Do we assent to ‘crash and burn’, fatalist to the end, or do we adapt? We do have a choice, which is what CoP26 is about, even if our political leaders are incapable, because of the limitations of their political roles, to effect that change within the current paradigms. We make and remake the conditions of our world continually, day by day, through our own choices.

            We could decide to change our ways….

          2. Mons Meg says:

            But are we, ‘the people’, any more capable than our political leaders of effecting that change from within the current paradigms by which we and our world is constructed? Can we, for example, escape the motif of apocalypse that frames our current discourse around climate change and our corresponding response to it? Isn’t that motif the moteur that drives our fatalism in relation to the matter and our impulse to seek out charismatic leaders who promise to deliver us from it?

            Surely, the first task in overcoming our sclerosis and remaking the conditions of our world is to deconstruct the paradigms that set us in our ways? That is, to practice immanent critique continually, day by day, in our daily lives, our politics, and our art?

      2. Blair says:

        In Corbyn’s first stab at a general election, he came quite literally a few thousand votes in the right places away from being able to form an albeit very tenuous government, with his lack of traditional tubthumping “charisma” (see serial loser Neil Kinnock as his anthesis) as a motivating factor for many of the people that came out to vote for Labour that otherwise bad no interest in voting. Two years later, and two years of constant media drubbing, smearing, and a position on Europe (forced by his eventual successor) that put Labour at odds with democracy (like it or leave it) and a significant portion of its fragile voter base. The media decide what “charisma” means- note their attempts to provide robo-Theresa with some sort of discernible personality. The PM disgusts me, he appeals to a certain segment of the population and all those with a class interests in Conservative politics fall in line even if they dont think he’s all that wonderful- charisma doesn’t factor into it, he has a friendly media and enjoys very little real scrutiny. Also consider Nicola Sturgeon- is she particularly charismatic as a leader? She has a certain PR skillset but I wouldn’t say so, yet she holds together an incredibly diverse coalition of political viewpoints within the SNP and its voting base that really only agree on one thing (or simply believe she represents a better option than the alternatives).

        1. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

          For example:

          James Butler in LRB:
          ‘[Perry] Anderson’s argument can be taken further. If the scale of the environmental revolution is on a par with its antecedents, its effects should be felt at the organisational foundations of human society itself; it would be odd to expect the certainties of historical socialism – about technology, industry, or even the means and agents of revolution – to be the only things to survive. From this perspective, what is perhaps most remarkable about the past decade, as the catastrophe has made itself known in fire and flood, is that political parties, states and even the intellectual categories used to analyse them have remained largely unaltered. Over the past decade they have seemed to fracture without truly breaking. It’s hard to imagine these conditions can endure for another decade’.

          1. Mons Meg says:

            Indeed, Anderson (along with Žižek) has argued (e.g. in English Questions and A Zone of Engagement) that the environmental revolution through which we’re currently living is a defining feature of postmodernity to which the traditional paradigms of the ‘Left’ need to adapt if it’s to remain vital. That’s largely where I’m coming from.

            Corbyn (and Sanders) made a feint in this direction with the so-called ‘Green New Deal’. However, even as the intellectual case for ‘world communism’ – a global bureaucracy that plans, expropriates, and rations according to need rather than merit – becomes more plausible on ecological grounds, it remains politically unpopular within the demos as it’s currently constructed.

            But who knows how this construction might change as the crisis deepens to produce the ‘epistemological break’ or ‘rupture’ in which (Anderson anticipates) the environmental revolution will culminate?

  3. Justin Kenrick says:

    Excellent piece.

    Either way, the future is today:

    – we take the power to make it together,
    – or we’re broken by clinging to powerlessness.

    The former is challenging and costly – personally and politically.
    The latter blankets us in a comforting collusive half-dead half-life.

    So many people in so many places have had to have the bravery and honesty to try.
    Do we dare join them?

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