An interview with Larry Lohmann from The Cornerhouse

Shift interview Larry Lohman about the politics of climate change and the politics of carbon fetishism. Originally published in May 2010.

You are a member of The Cornerhouse which had a presence on the big ‘economics panel’ during the Blackheath Climate Camp in 2009. Yet, few climate activists will know much about your organisation. Could you introduce it, and the work you do, to us?

We are three people, three activists – all with different experiences. My colleague Nick [Hildyard], who you heard speak [at Blackheath], he’s been an environmentalist since he was a teenager and then became an expert on dams and dam struggles several years ago – and he’s still on call for this kind of thing. He also works on a range of other issues now, like finance and trade, the BAE corruption case, the Balfour Beatty corruption…

My colleague Sarah [Sexton], like me, had experiences as an activist in Thailand in the late 80s and early 90s. She works on issues of public health, pensions, the intersection of finance and pension issues, genetic engineering, both human genetic technologies and also agricultural.

My background is as an activist in Thailand for a number of years during the 1980s. I came to Britain after that and worked with Nick and Sarah almost from the beginning. In Thailand I was working on dam issues and land right issues, forestry and rights to nature kind of issues. I continued that when I was working in the UK. I got dragged into climate issues through this because of the intersection between climate politics and land rights politics when it became clear in the 1990s that under the guise of this techno-ecological approach to climate there was a way of annexing land and resources in the Global South in particular. So the more I got involved in climate politics the more I became aware that there was a gap certainly in the mainstream green-environmentalist approach to climate in Europe – and the more I looked into it the worse it seemed.

At some stage you also worked for The Ecologist magazine but then left. Was this also because you felt that there was a gap in mainstream green thinking?

Yes, that awareness was always there, but it sort of became unbridgeable in the mid 1990s. I originally came over to work with Nick who was working on The Ecologist, and Sarah also did for a couple of years when she arrived from Thailand. In a way of course we wanted to hang on to The Ecologist because we were a bridgehead that was respected by the mainstream green movement, which allowed us to approach social and political issues more. For us that was the value of The Ecologist magazine.

The founder of the magazine, Teddy Goldsmith, decided for some reason that he wanted to come back to the magazine which he had basically left for many years. I think he was egged on by his friends saying ‘these crazy lefties are taking over this august magazine’ and Teddy should do something about it. It was something like that. So it became an intolerable situation and we all had to leave.

The contentious issue there wasn’t climate change though?

No, the issue was basically racism and alliances with the far Right among the environmental movement, which remains a serious tendency in amongst certain sections of the green movement.

Was that related to arguments for population control?

Population certainly played a role, but it went beyond that. It was partly a question of viewpoints on population and so forth, where our view was completely antithetical to the view of Teddy or to that of the mainstream greens. But it was also a question of alliances and loyalties. For a lot of people in the green movement, the idea was that they were green, neither right nor left.

This is still the case today, for example George Monbiot at a Climate Camp saying that we should make alliances with people from right across the spectrum to push the climate stuff through as it is so important .

In the abstract I can certainly understand the need to be strategic and tactical about these things, but you have to look at it on a case by case basis. In Teddy’s case, he accepted an invitation by this extremely far right-wing intellectual think tank in Europe called GRECE to speak at one of their anniversary celebrations. That was a bridge too far for me, because it undermined our work. If people know that somebody connected with us was actually speaking at a meeting of these kind of intellectual racists in Europe, then we can’t do our work, we can’t make any alliances and we can’t be trusted. This was a question of practical politics. And we still have problems with this. Most of the mainstream green movement does not understand this issue at all, so we try to avoid the issue because whenever it comes up we always get faced with people saying ‘oh, you just had a personal disagreement with Teddy Goldsmith’ or ‘you didn’t like his politics’ or something, but it’s deeper than that. It is a question of alliance building and whether you build alliances or not with crackpots and racists.

As you say, you have moved on. Now the focus of your work is based around this concept of ‘carbon fetishism’, which for us is an important concept that the green movement, whether it is mainstream or radical, hasn’t really grasped yet. Could you start describing what you mean by ‘fetishism’?

This goes back to the elementary point that climate change is not a technical or purely physical-scientific issue. It’s not a question of teaching people in power about science. It’s a deeply political issue connected with questions such as ‘who has used the atmosphere in the past; who is using it now; for what purpose’. It’s connected with the whole history of fossil fuel exploitation in all respects, not just the climate respect. All these issues are unavoidable; equality, distribution and exploitation – the climate issue is all about that. It’s all about health, it’s all about anti-militarism, about connecting with the movement against militarisation of society. You can’t really deal with that kind of issue without looking at it in this way, without building alliances without that perspective in mind. I don’t believe a climate movement will be effective unless it does recognise that the issue is a political and social issue in that way.

And I think this continues in some sense to divide what we conventionally think of as the green movement. As you were implying, we have to think about which kind of alliances will be most effective in the climate debate, and this is not necessarily going to be with the a-political wing of the green movement. We have to recognise that sometimes our biggest problems are with our green colleagues, who sometimes are big fans of carbon trading. Because of their political analysis they think this is possible and say ‘you guys just wait around for the revolution and the revolution will never come’, this kind of familiar rhetoric. I think, for years we tried to see if this situation could be improved and if alliances could be built with people who don’t have our political analysis. But now, without rejecting this entirely out of hand, it is more important spending our time building alliances with labour unions, with indigenous peoples who are seeing the effects both of climate change and of the mainstream solutions to climate change impacting on their daily lives; building alliances with small farmers and with the world majority in the Global South.

These are the alliances which are most important in the long term. Also making alliances across issues, across national boundaries as much as possible, but recognising that a lot of the issues are pretty much buried intensely within certain local or national boundaries, but trying to work with that and working people whose issue is not necessarily climate change. I think the case of Ecuador is fairly clear: the local activists, a lot of the indigenous people, the municipal governments and so forth in the area, they are not climate change activists; they are concerned with the effects of the oil industry on their land and on society, and if this intersects with the climate issue and we can help make it intersect all to the good, but we have to recognise that it’s connected not in a purely theoretical way but in a way that you have to take into consideration in building alliances and in recognising the deeper nature of the climate issue.

I want to come back to the term ‘fetishism’. You seem to borrow it from Volume 1 of Capital. Even in the progressive climate movement, Marxism plays a minor role. So could you justify the use of that term and explain how it helps us understand these issues.

I like to experiment and learn, so I’m always looking for new ways of understanding things that I haven’t quite come to grips with. And I’ve known for a long time that I haven’t really come to grips with Chapter 1 of Volume 1 of Capital in a proper way because, although it is probably one of the most analysed passages in academic history, it is still very difficult to get a grip on the depth of Marx’s thinking in terms of this very complex process of fetishism. It is not a voluntaristic thing , it is not an ideology, it’s something which is embedded in everyday practice. Understanding fetishism helps us understand that climate change politics is not a question of calling all the world’s leaders into a science classroom and giving them a lesson about science. Commodity fetishism goes much deeper than that into practice.

It’s useful to explore partly because fetishism not only characterises the carbon market approach to climate in which you have a complex process of commodification but also deeply affects green politics in a way by which the fetish distracts your attention from the central relations that you need to talk about when talking about the climate issue; instead you focus on numbers and on things which begin to have dominion over you.

It seems to us that the central tenet of the notion of fetishism is to create equivalence; the idea that you compare different gases, different places and locality through an idea of carbon equivalence. That has led to solutions such as carbon trading which is mostly opposed by the green movement, yet mostly opposed because of an understanding of the ineffectiveness of the market rather than because it is seen as fundamentally a wrong principle.

Yes, fetishism is not recognised as part of the problem, but I think it is part of the problem. If you expend all this effort to create all these magical objects like emissions reduction units, or AAUs [Assigned Amount Unit cap], or 350 parts per million CO2 and start treating these in your everyday practices as magical objects which somehow will guard you against everything then you are prevented from dealing with the political and social relations that really matter.

We are reminded of the Climate Camp’s day of mass action – the Swoop – last year which was preceded by an online vote to decide its target based on ‘this one emits this much yearly’ and ‘this one emits that much over its lifetime’.

You can understand this, but yes it’s a problem and a good example of this fetishistic approach.

What kind of strategy would you suggest instead?

The strategy has to centre around building alliances with rather different social movements that are intent on structural change away from fossil fuels and away from the structure that fossil fuels represent in terms of being one of the central tools in the exploitation of labour and so forth.
You can’t just talk about emissions as if it were a matter of molecules. You have to bring in these social relations. What are emissions in the context of a ‘commons regime’? What are emissions in the context of a regime of unlimited capital accumulation benefitting a small minority? That’s different emissions, different carbon, the molecules are different in their social and political meaning. This is not a formula; we have to be open to different kinds of languages that express such points in a way that lead to structural issues.