Climate justice and the commons

Climate justice and the commons

~ by Massimo De Angelis ~

I would like to share some reflections on climate justice and the commons after reading the book The Age of Climate Justice by Paola Imperatore and Emanuele Leonardi (L’era della giustizia climatica) (Orthotes, 2023). It is an agile book that offers an important contribution not only for its historical and political reading of the metamorphosis of the idea of climate justice, from the 1990s when ‘climate governance’ and the system of the annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) were born, and 2019, the year of climate strikes.

In this time span, there are numerous references to tipping points, narrative frames by the mainstream, and the calibration of regulatory interventions for the sole purpose of subordinating the demands of climate justice to the maintenance of a system that produces climate injustice. But Imperatore and Leonardi’s book is also important because it situates the condition of our time as disenchanted with the death grip between ‘political progressivism’ ­­­– which recognises the anthropogenic origin of global warming – and economic neoliberalism – which posits market mechanisms as the primary means of solving the emissions problem (a problem for which the capitalist market itself is responsible), a grip that has characterised these 30 years.

In this parabola, succinctly but illuminatingly described by the authors, a form of transnational climate governance has been consummated that, despite the promises, protocols, agreements, and mechanisms set up over decades of negotiations between governments, is responsible for a massive increase in emissions: in 30 years of governance, emissions have increased more than in the 240 years from 1750 to 1990, whereas they should have decreased or at least reached a plateau! The disillusionment of the climate justice movement is thus the realisation of a massive failure of governance, although a cynic might suggest that it was not a failure, if as a measure of the success or otherwise of a policy we consider the preservation of capitalism in the face of a climate crisis that capitalism cannot address in its entirety because it is itself the main reason for its origin. But from the perspective that puts Gaia, and social and environmental justice above capitalism, it is a failure. This failure of governance, long anticipated by many critics over the years, now seems to be clearly apparent to all. However, this could be the starting point for a new phase in the climate justice movement.

It is difficult to follow the trajectories of global climate governance – even through the critical eyes of the authors – without feeling a claustrophobic sense of despair growing within. Yet, from the second chapter of the book one senses an opening, as if an open window lets in fresh air, a leap in the framing of the problem by the movements. A perspective opens up, a possible constitutive horizon of a new collective subject, a subject that creates itself through the plurality of a convergence. The authors note the emergence of a new political space through the evolution of the climate justice movement from the climate strikes of 2019 to the convergence process of workers’ and environmental struggles of 2022 in Italy. This new political space is the result of a number of factors.

First, a shift in perception within the movement and the narrative regarding the sense of climate justice. To climate injustice seen solely as a relationship between rich and poor nations, between those who pollute or have historically polluted more and those who must foot the bill in terms of the climate crisis, in recent years a class consciousness has been added preponderantly, namely the fact that within each country the rich pollute considerably more than the middle class and the poorest. And so, thinking about a new model of life, of social cooperation, which is necessary to tackle the climate crisis also involves the redistribution of resources. Thus, commenting on a graph from Oxfam’s 2020 ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ report that gives us a clear sense of what the deep inequalities in CO2 emissions are, the authors conclude: “a) the poorest 50 per cent of the population would be entitled, in a situation of complete ‘carbon’ equality, to double their emissions; b) the median 40 per cent would certainly have to revise their way of consuming, but this would mostly be a matter of shrewdness – certainly not impossible upheavals to enact; c) those who would literally have to upset their habits only the – relatively – few people at the top of the income pyramid” (64-65). Let it be very clear, then, that the ecological transition requires that the poor become less poor and the super-rich (much) less rich! Second, the emergence of a mass ecological movement in France – the Yellow Gilets – as a response to the top-down attempt of the ecological transition to make the impoverished middle classes pay for the failure of climate governance, has set a limit in the activists’ awareness: no, we do not address the ecological transition by further impoverishing our living conditions.

And so, the authors remind us, this is the context within which the reasons of work and climate begin to come closer, to recompose themselves, in a process that overcomes the false opposition between the two, as if they were two simple sectoral issues. On the other hand, work and climate are themselves two declinations of a much broader field of social practices, i.e. two issues that concern social reproduction in the broadest sense within a social system of dependence on money in which we live by work because it gives us income, which allows us to acquire the means necessary for life. But we also live in ecological systems because us humans (including ‘post-humans’) are also earth, stars, air, water and microbiota. Life is the whole that is made up of ecology and work. But life also passes through gender relations, through ‘race’ and migration relations, and through discriminatory and oppressive violence of all kinds. That is to say, it passes through the conflicts of the measures of things we give to social practices, to questions of what, why, when, how much, where and who, questions whose concrete answers depend gradually on the positionality of subjects within the systemic hierarchy, on their power relations.

Recomposition between the different movements means that each side takes political charge of the problem of reorganising the whole. This creates a synecdoche effect, whereby a word with a broader (or lesser) meaning is used to describe the part (or the whole), which is even more general than that proposed by the authors. They note how from 2019 “we say ‘climate’ but we mean ‘ecology’, in general: the part for the whole. It is a way of transforming the climate movement . . . . into a sounding board for all demands for environmental justice’ (59). But if it is true, and not only desirable, that a recompositional process is taking place between the ecological question and the labour question, it is also true that the convergence of different movements requires broadening the sense of the whole, of which each movement feels part. We say women’s struggle, we say migrants’ struggle, we say climate justice struggle, we say labour struggle, we say income struggle, we say students’ struggle, we say doctors’ and nurses’ struggle, we say precarious workers’ struggle, we say transsexuals’ struggle, we say lesbians’ and gays’ struggle, we says peasants’ struggle, we says peasants’ struggle, we says workers’ struggle, we says indigenous peoples’ struggle, but we mean reorganisation of the relations of production and reproduction of life, of the forms of social cooperation, that is, of social reproduction in the broadest sense. Recovering the sense and the horizon of a general transformation of our common being and producing together, of its purposes, of its modes, is not to subordinate a part to the whole, but it is to share the creation of the whole starting from the different subjectivities, and this is the only way to overcome the fragmentary nature of positionalities and their oppositions that have always been imposed from above by power hierarchies, and mainstream media narratives.

So convergence! What does convergence mean? Having a common direction. In the book, the authors give us a picture of the convergence between ecological movements and the workers of GKN, a company in the automotive sector in Campi Bisenzio (Florence) that was brutally closed in 2021 by the British financial fund that owned it, with the dismissal of all 400 workers by simple email. The factory collective was able to build unprecedented alliances with ecological movements. Such alliances are not only understood by the principles of solidarity between different struggles, in which one movement takes to the streets to support another in its specific struggle. Convergence between struggles means constructing a commons from a situation, that is, from a knot of seemingly unresolvable contradictions within the dominant interpretative and narrative cage. To build a commons is to construct a system of productive and reproductive relations where a plural and porous community rethinks together the categories of ‘labour’ and ‘factory’ within the challenges of ecological transformation, mobilises knowledge, including and not only of academic researchers, pools resources, creates projects, and offers proposals and projects that can make different instances of struggle congruent, starting from the context in which they find themselves and the forces they have at their disposal. Building a commons is first and foremost a rejection of the corrupt, divisive commons, the creator of continuous hierarchies and exclusions that is imposed on us as a condition of our social cooperation. Secondly, it is a plural project – from given conditions – of a new way of producing and reproducing. Thirdly, it is a process of doing and acting in common that takes the form of the world we hope for, where we are not simply means, mere functions to be subordinated to a higher end given by power, but ends in themselves. We can therefore only hope for the establishment of a hundred, a thousand, a million convergence processes, processes that seek to take up the knots of social cooperation again.