16 Dec 2009
A Personal Report from Ben Brangwyn at COP15
I’m finding that Copenhagen has a very intense and charged atmosphere, and largely positively so. Transition Network and the transition ideas have a good visibility over here, with involvement in at least 7 workshops and a steady stream (and occasional tsunami) of people from all over the world to our stand in the Expo area, interviews with several of the excellent broadcasting outfits (PositiveTV and ClimateTV) and a screening of “In Transition 1.0” in the main hall at KlimaForum.
It may be worth giving a quick explanation of how the whole Copenhagen circus is organised, because it’s not always been that clear. The highest profile event is the official COP15 negotiations in the Bella Centre, a lifeless concrete block towards the outskirts of Copenhagen surrounded by security, housing both official delegations from all the countries that could afford to come, representatives of NGOs, pressure groups and lobbyists – this is where the legally binding agreement will be hammered out, or not. Parallel to this is the KlimaForum09, held principally in a huge sports and events centre in the middle of Copenhagen, with an overwhelmingly colourful programme of workshops, forums, screenings, meetings, exhibits and debates. It feels to me like a cauldron of creativity and hope, with an edge of despair and desperation.
The most bizarre and incongruent aspect of KlimaForum09 is apparent only when you travel from one side of the building to the other. The route takes you through a glass walkway where your gaze is drawn down towards the totally unexpected scene of palm trees, a labrynth of blue water pools, multi-coloured buoyancy aids and several hundred adults and kids happily splashing around in a high energy, high carbon, totally unsustainable microclimate, apparently blissfully unaware of what’s going on around them. It’s a paradox that must leave the people from the vulnerable countries reeling.
And “reeling” would be an apt description of how I felt after two of the most intense conversations I’ve had here. The first was with a Ghanian man at our Expo stand. He was hoarse from having regailed a hall of activists with accounts of what it’s like to be suffering at the front line of climate change. The overconsuming west has discovered and stolen their diamonds, gold, valuable metals and minerals and Ghana is still crushingly poor. To top that, he tells me that they’ve now discovered oil, and will be taxing its extraction by the oil companies at 10% (Norway taxes it at 70%). The facts themselves don’t bring the reality of the picture to life, but when he tells me how a mining outfit found gold in a nearby village and “had to” level the local school to make way for the extraction infrastructure and “repaid” the community by building a school for them 25 miles away, the picture starts getting a lot clearer. And if that wasn’t enough, now the west has effectively stolen their liveable climate. For me, witnessing this man and his non-accusing demeanour, as I quietly add up my lifetime’s contribution in flights, furniture, food, fuel and steel consumption that looks like it might just have sealed the fate of children who will die of hunger and inadequate sanitation, this is a crushingly shameful experience.
Having barely recovered from that, I’m then approached by two Nigerian men who, beneath their genuine demeanour of cooperation and friendliness, have an anger and frustration that’s barely hidden. As they explain how CO2 pollution is just another in a series of devastating acts of pollution that brought by the extreme consumptive patterns of “developed” countries, the list only comes to life when they give an account of the daily search for safe drinking water in the Delta region (an area highlighted in Age of Stupid). You can’t take it safely from the wells because of pollution and the drops in the water table. You can’t take it safely from the rivers because they’re polluted. You can’t take it from the sea because it’s saline and desalination is so energy intensive. And you can’t take it from the sky, because the gas flaring pollutes the skies.
I hope desperately that the depth of accountability that I personally feel for all of this, that the work I and my colleagues devote ourselves to, that the determination we bring to transitioning out of these ways of living that are crushing humans and biodiversity so comprehensively are somehow evident to them. I can’t tell though. I can’t see a damn thing through the tears of shame that are welling uncontrollably.
And why would I want to control them? If we don’t let that shame well up, if we don’t acknowledge the message it tells us about being out if integrity with deeply held beliefs, if we don’t let it energise our actions and determination, if instead we just swallow it, then we’re doing ourselves, our sense of humanity and our fellow beings on this planet a deep disservice.
Transition’s objectives of having a positive impact on social justice is implicit, rather than explicit, and I understand why some people don’t see it straightaway – hell, sometimes it feels hidden even to me. It’s a familiar pattern – I witness and feel another being’s pain at our unthinkingly consumptive patterns of behaviour, I start to beat myself up about not doing more, and then eventually apply some intellectual recognition of the benefits an ubiquitous fabric of transitioned communities will bring to these all-too-familiar horror stories. And at that point am I heartened by the work we’re doing, filled with the faint hope that our heartfelt intentions will have the effect we transitioners dream of.
And it seems right now that here in Copenhagen, more than anywhere, one of the key assertions underpinning Transition is more appropriate and potent than ever. If we wait for the politicians, it’ll be too little too late; if we do it as individuals, it’ll be too little; but if we do as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
Over, but not out.