Power to the People: Time to Take it Back

By Rebecca Smith

 Say you want a revolution

We better get on right away

Well you get on your feet

And out on the street

– John Lennon, Power to the People, 1971

The 1960s and 70s was an era punctuated by protest and civil disobedience – against the American war in Vietnam, and to advance women’s rights and civil rights for black Americans. These direct actions were huge, they were successful, and they had lasting results.

John Lennon sang about harnessing people power to create revolution, and a deranged psycho snuffed him out. This 1979 murder pre-empted the grand-scale snuffing out of people power movements by the psychopathic entities known as corporations in the 1990s, at a time when civil society began seriously mobilizing against the environmental destruction waged by the global elite.

Those of us who are old enough remember the huge civil society rallies outside the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 – when we were led to believe our dear Leaders gave a shit about our concerns for a healthy environment. Twenty-three years later, despite our enthusiasm for action, climate change is on an upward death-spiral, set to incur a six degree temperature increase by 2100; the lungs of the earth are being ripped out to make way for our insatiable demand for meat and cheap palm oils; and the sixth great species extinction is in full swing. How have we found ourselves in this most impotent and supine position, and how can we reclaim our collective power?

Momentum builds

The publication of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 alerted the world that the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s was anything but green. Crop yields increased extraordinarily thanks to the use of petrochemical-based agricultural methods, at the cost of wildlife, soils, water and a toxin-free environment.

Civil society was further mobilized when the public realized emissions from British smoke stacks were causing acid rain that was poisoning remote lakes in Sweden and dissolving the marble cultural heritage of Europe in the 1980s. It was about this time that serious rumblings about the ‘greenhouse effect’ of carbon dioxide emissions were filtering form scientific journals and entering the popular lexicon.

By 1988, Green was the Big Thing. Everyone I knew was changing their light bulbs, riding bikes and fantasizing about owning the precursors to the Prius. Some of us composted, and some eschewed air conditioning – even in the intense tropical heat; whole new product lines were going Green – because Green consumerism was going to save us too.

We were worried about rainforests being destroyed and the lungs of the earth disappearing, and with them countless undescribed plants, animals and forest peoples. People rallied the world over when Swiss activist Bruno Manser called out the rampant destruction of Sarawak’s rainforests and the dispossession of the Penan people by ruthless Malaysian logging companies.

Momentum stalls; destruction rages

Then the good news came that international agreements would be made by all countries in the world, because their leaders had listened to the will of the people, which decreed we all wanted a clean earth with wild habitats where indigenous people could live in harmony and we’d all have a good quality of life. The success of multinational corporations to mute our voices and co-opt our passions meant that Bruno Manser’s disappearance and probable murder in his beloved forests in 2000 registered barely a blip on our collective radar.

Our achievements over the last 40 years since we became environmentally aware have been remarkable. Half of all non-domestic animals have disappeared from the planet, ocean life is now on the brink of collapse, we are barreling well over 2 degrees of global warming, tropical rainforest cover is down from 8% in 1989 to just 2% now, and 60% of our ecosystem services have disappeared. How did this happen?

And how the hell have greenhouse gas emissions risen 52% above 1992 levels when governments have been pledging to keep them at 1990 levels since the Rio Earth Summit.

The answer lies in neoliberalism, the ideology that has engulfed the planet through globalization and corporatization of resources, services and government.

In the grip of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism dictates that the free market knows best and government should step back from regulation and service provision. Once the preserve of a few crackpot economists in the 1970s, free-market economics is now the dominant paradigm that will not give up its stranglehold on all major global institutions, and that includes the institution of civil society.

Remember those Occupy protestors, claiming that ‘the 1%’ ruled the world? And that the ‘revolution would not be televised’? Well they were right on both counts – huge demonstrations in multiple cities all over the world were not televised by the mainstream media, and the 1 per cent of richest people/corporations own the rest of us. While this might seem a standard glib statement made at, say, an Occupy rally, the fact is there is truth to this claim.

In 2011, complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology found 147 corporations ultimately control 40% of global wealth. Unsurprisingly, most of the top 20 were banks. The Swiss group found “transnational corporations form a giant bow-tie structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly knit core of financial institutions,” creating an economic super-entity.

Our politicians have gifted extreme power to corporations – they made the laws that established corporations, and the laws that allow them to run roughshod over us all. When it became apparent that people power might actually work to hinder the onward march of corporate power, the corporates grew wise from their failure in the 70s, and dreamed up the solution: that corporations need a social licence to operate, and you the people will vote with your wallet to pull them into line. You or the institutional shareholders, whose only motive is profit. Occasionally enough of you won’t purchase a particular item on environmental or human rights grounds, so the shareholders will demand the company add a green veneer to win your dollars back again.

The co-opting of a movement

People power was fomenting just prior to the Rio Earth Summit, where environmental laws finally became fully internationalized and climate change was recognized with pledges to take action and keep emissions the same as at 1990 levels. The UN was already being stacked with market economists, who appointed Canadian oil magnate Maurice Strong to run the Rio show. Strong learned from the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983, where delegates demanded that multinational corporations be held primarily responsible for ozone depletion, global warming, toxic contamination, pesticide proliferation, international trade in hazards and other practices which threaten human health and the environment, and sidelined civil society groups from the Rio Summit.

Strong and Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny embraced transnational corporations as the centrepiece to environmental recovery, and formed the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to hold court at Rio. The huge corporations had special access to the Secretariat while civil society groups where locked out, and unsurprisingly market-based solutions were recommended with the line that the environment could be saved by economic growth.

Ludicrous, but for some reason most environmentalists fell into line and voraciously pushed the economic-growth-and-market-mechanisms-will-save-us mantra that has stuck with us ever since.

The Big Green groups that dominate the environment movement are embedded and wedded to Big Business, and while asking us to send them money, change our lightbulbs or take some trips by pushbike, they baulk at seeing the elephant in the room – that overconsumption fueled by demands for continued and increasing economic growth is at the heart of our environmental woes. What is worse, these Big Green groups act as though There Is No Alternative (‘TINA’ – a phrase  and its acronym beloved by old soak Margaret Thatcher, who also famously said “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families”), when in fact the alternatives not only existed, they also worked.

Civil society backs down

We as civil society have passed the ball to the polluting corporations, and allowed them to set the parameters of discussion. We believed the mantra of ‘sustainable development’ lodged in the public consciousness since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, and some still believe this despite the continuing downward trajectory of planet earth.

We have allowed Big Green groups to drink, dine and collude with Big Business leaders while shafting any meaningful action needed to change the trajectory. Radical reimagining of the way we live – with radical simplification of lifestyles – would result in the radical plummeting of corporate profits and power.

Way back in the 1920s, young jailed Italian communist Antonio Gramsci described the process whereby institutions such as government, media, schools and churches make us acquiesce to our own oppression as hegemony. There is no need for costly wars and destruction of infrastructure (set to be privatized) when the powers that be can convince us to vote for policies that are against our own interests, and accept them meekly.

The current era of the power of corporations can be termed the ‘sustainable development historic bloc’ whereby we the public have been sucked in by the corporate nonsense of ‘sustainable development’ in the period since the Rio Earth Summit. Since then, and despite ostensible laws, corporate profits have skyrocketed and the environment in all areas has degraded to a point that many systems are on the verge of collapse.

Shifting the parameters for action

There is an alternative.

I have thought long and hard about a solution to our ecological crisis, and I have seen successful movements and feel-good but useless movements. Last year 70,000 people signed a petition to save the Great Barrier Reef from being smothered in dredge spoil. That’s a lot of signatures or emails, and it was presented to the decision-making body, which duly ignored it. People held peaceful approved demonstrations that made them feel good, but did not achieve anything else. I was there with them.

Contrast this with mass civil disobedience against coal-seam gas at Bentley last year, or the Goongerah old growth forests in East Gippsland. Civil disobedience on a large scale forced some people to take notice, and while notice was being taken, the media spotlight homed in on evidence of corruption (Bentley) and governmental lies (Goongerah).

Successive governments have criminalized all actions that actually have an impact and stop environmental destruction.  So as well as being creative, people power will have to accept that clicktivism is not enough, and that a critical mass of us are going to have to take one for the team.

The lesson of corporate cooption of people power since the 1990s is that corporates were never out to work in partnership to save the planet; they only ever wanted to neuter you – and they did. The time has come for people power in the form of direct action, and bugger the consequences, because the consequences of doing nothing are catastrophic.

I leave you with a quote from famous civil disobedience aficionado and many-time jailbird, Martin Luther King Jr:

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.


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