Benjamin Fogel on COP 17 fiasco in Durban, South Africa.
COP 17 drags on. Everybody would rather be somewhere else. When last Saturday’s protest march of around 10,000 people reached Durban’s ICC, the venue of the UN environmental conference, suits rushed out with iphones and blackberries. They seemed desperate to escape the boredom inside for a little local singing and dancing. Some delegates even pushed past mounted police to join the protest. The media was out en masse too. There were bored German, Russian and US TV crews alongside indie media like Democracy Now, with Amy Goodman in the flesh.
What struck me most is the overwhelming NGO presence. Liberal NGOs like WWF and Greenpeace alongside the admirable 350.org, recently responsible for blocking the keystone pipeline between Canada and the United States, as well as several local social movements, Abahlali baseMjondolo and local COSATU branches. Before the big march last weekend, COSATU promised 65 bus loads of people but only several hundred from the National Union of Mine Workers and the Union of Municipal workers actually showed up.
I will got out on a limb and declare the protest a complete failure. It was a feel-good ritual designed to placate the democratic conscience of the media. Maybe even a sideshow to cheer what’s left of the delegates souls. As much as it was an incredible feeling being part of a such a large scale protest, it did nothing to interrupt the seamless transition to planetary destruction. Fully paid up elites don’t notice memorandums and marches. If they did there would be genuine commitment to solving the environmental crisis. It would be treated like the planetary emergency it is. Which it isn’t.
The march was even listed as part of the COP17 official schedule available to all who visit the minimalist Eco-friendly corporate expo abutting the ICC building. It’s set up so corporations can ‘greenwash’ their images in the Durban sunshine. You can sit outside at rustic wooden tables and drink solar powered cappucino. Local businesses are trying to get in on the action. Florida Road is the ideal setting for the solar powered cappucino scam. You can find it all over Durban’s premiere dining strip. Along with Christmas lights and regular coffee. Delegates might prefer getting drunk on exorbitant craft beer within the walled off Durban “Green Zone” while toasting the future success of “Green Capitalism”. For the less distracted, it’s hard to ignore the tilt and glide of cctv surveillance systems monitoring every movement or the riot police outside.
Back at the conference, South Africa’s Foreign Minister, Maita Nkoana-Mashabane, gave a truly forgettable speech. The only surprising thing about it was that she didn’t receive any audible booing. There was even lukewarm applause from the NGO types. Alex Lenferna, on the shadow team of the official SA negotiation team, later told me they were shooting for “complete neutrality” on all the important issues. Just what’s needed right now as the planet heats up inexorably. Even a COSATU leader privately acknowledged there was a lack of working class or even civil society presence on the official negotiating team. Although both COSATU leaders I spoke to were loathe to criticize the government’s negligible response to climate change.
Then the person Business Day described as “the affable Costa Rican” – the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, gave us a master class in empty rhetoric. She stood atop a media truck and told us a folksy yarn that began with schoolchildren and ended with her urging us all “to do more and then do more again”. Lukewarm applause except for some enthusiastic Greenpeace folk at the front. Applauding the very people fucking over the planet with dumb wasteful shows like COP17 designed to put off real action on climate change, environmental destruction and pollution with predetermined impasses. You can hear air conditioning units hum outside the compound, sparing insiders the Durban humidity.
So vague feel-good rhetoric prevails at COP 17. A passive acceptance of the status quo. Sitting there I wanted us to chase them back to their fortified compound, charge the gates Bolshevik style, and, at the very least, occupy the minimalist Corporate Expo center. Last Saturday, the protest reached North Beach where a woman seized the loud hailer and told us to “occupy” the space, an officially sanctioned grass bank about a kilometer from the conference. The UN even laid on some DJs to spin tunes. It was utterly sickening.
Clearly protests have been institutionalized and defanged at big events like this. They are empty rituals for the world’s media to paint a scenario of democratic inclusion and vibrancy while our collective future hangs in the balance. Getting permission to Occupy something, to a soundtrack, isn’t what the Global revolt of 2011 is about. Institutionalized dissent on this scale is disheartening. It diminishes radical potential. That alone plays into the hands of an increasingly authoritarian ANC who want COP17 to be another safe little showcase for their willingness to comply with global elites.