Sunday, November 15, 2009

Learning From COP15

The UN Climate Change Conference upcoming in Copenhagen Dec 7-18 has already spawned a lot of activity, activism and reflection, including the International Wake-Up call sponsored by and the Bill McKibben-inspired Oct 24 Day of Action sparked by  Both of these actions were largely directed at political leaders and governments, urging them to sign on to binding and equitable emissions targets at the conference.  Most of the coverage of the conference has been pessimistic, and leaders have now officially announced that no agreement would emerge from the meeting. (Andrew Revkin at DotEarth suggests, somewhat paradoxically, that there may be a bright side here, since it will free up those actually involved in the negotiations--as distinct from national leaders--to address some of the tougher questions). 

The lack of a binding treaty has got to be disappointing, but it may be worth exploring a different angle.  The format of the international conference developed in the age of newspapers and mass media: a centralized "summit" event, designed to focus all eyes on the actions of world leaders.  That ceremonial framing was always a bit misleading (there were always "backstage" negotiations), but as the complexity of world issues, and the number of actors involved, increased, the conceit of a single "event" making news--let alone History--started to seem pretty threadbare, unconvincing even to those committed to reporting it.  Disappointment became part of the expectation, and cynical observations began to be built into the parade ("Look, the emperors have no clothes!").  In this scenario, all the associated hoopla is literally beside the point, a "pretext" doomed to irrelevance.

But what if the associated hoopla were--or became--the main event?  What if the parallel organizing enabled something unforeseen to emerge, an alternative mode of cooperation that bypassed the official channels of representation?  The model here is the World Social Forum, which developed out of anti-globalization protests, as a counterweight to the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland.  (The latter was never an official gathering, but still....)  From protest to coordinated action: there is already a People's Climate Action network in place in Copenhagen alongside the official conference, designed partly to defuse and partly to harness grassroots activism/protest (Disruptive protest is expected, but PCA is trying to channel creativity).  From negotiation to open-ended conversation:  all sorts of initiatives are linking up, or in, or to, this network, outpacing the leadership and starting to learn from, and inspire, each other. 

Such activism doesn't lend itself to traditional media "coverage" and definitions of "news."  Rather than letting itself be passively "covered," it seeks to use media to enhance involvement.  It is relatively uncoupled--for both good and ill--from the narratives of interstate relations, and the imagined communities of nations.  It has been theorized in academic terms as "global civil society," and envisioned in leftist circles as "the multitude."  Both phrasings inherit overtones of the political spaces they mourn (the corridors of power, the streets of cities), but those spaces box in what is better considered as emergent practice. 

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