Blog 5 of 5 in UKYCC's Systems Change Not Climate Change blog series. Click here to find the first four blogs.
Systems change is no small topic. It requires stepping outside of the daily box, to fix our sights firmly on the bigger picture and how we can get there. Our fourth blog in the Systems Change series looked at just that - some of the big ideas that might have that potential to reframe and restructure our social, economic and political order.
The problem is, when faced with statements about the globe-encompassing challenges we face, and some ideological notes on what could be done about them, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s a task to not let this make you feel like the problems are too big, too entrenched, and the visions too vague, too distant.
So for this reason it’s hugely important to talk about the thousands of actions, projects and initiatives taking place across the world that challenge the status quo by their very existence. Communities from the heart of the Brazilian rainforest to the Manchester suburbs are practicing alternatives that could one day be the norm. What’s more, there is huge potential for the strengthening of those actions on a wider scale, as well as the introduction of new ways of doing things.
Systems change as a daily struggle in the global south
In the global south, systems change has been far more present in the narrative of social movements and in the practices of communities, than in the north. It is hard to do justice to the sheer number and diversity of initiatives, ideas and projects challenging capitalism in this half of the hemisphere, so we’ve tried to raise a few that come to mind, recognising that this will be incomplete.
For starters, the philosophies of Buen Vivir in Latin America, Ubuntu in Southern Africa and Ecological Swaraj in India all share a deep understanding of our connection to one another and the environment. Unlike many communities practising alternatives in the Global North, those studying and working under these philosophies challenge capitalism at its core - they resist the marketisation of nature and challenge the weak notion of sustainable development. Perhaps even deeper, they challenge the entrenched western notion of individual wellbeing - Buen Vivir for example subjugates the rights of the individual to the rights of the community and the environment. It is not about ‘good living’, but about living in harmony.
Most importantly, unlike the more theoretical development of alternatives in the global north, these philosophies are already being lived, and many have been practiced for centuries. Some have found their way into laws, such as Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth, based on an indigenous Andean spiritual worldview which sees humans as equal to all other entities and positions Pachamama, the earth deity, at the centre of all life. The preamble to Ecuador’s constitution states a wish ‘to construct a new form of citizen co-existence, in diversity and harmony with nature, to reach ‘el buen vivir, el sumak kawsay’. Though of course legal change is just one thing (and it by no means ensures safety for the environment or indigenous communities - see Ecuador’s new attempt to expand oil and gas production), if we’re looking for alternatives, we don’t always need to turn to the textbooks - just look at what’s already happening.
On a more practical level, and as an antidote to the global epidemic of land-consuming, chemical-dependent industrial agriculture, agroecology is on the rise - particularly in the global south. Agroecology prioritises native and climate-resilient crops and the expansion and safeguarding of forest ecosystems, ensuring long-term biodiversity protection and carbon sequestration. It also puts power back into the hands of those living closest to the land, for example with communities in India preserving not only nature, but local livelihoods and knowledge through establishing networks of seed keepers and organic producers. This helps farmers avoid the prices dictated to them by the big six agrochemical companies who control 60% of the global seed market and 75% of the global pesticide market.
Agroecology is a bottom-up struggle and is deeply political - many communities resisting state or corporate land grabbing put agroecological principles into practice when fighting for their rights. In Thailand for example, the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand (SPFT) have been challenging the centralised, capitalised form of food production by calling on the government to recognise the community land title, which sees land as the foundation of life and as a fundamental right of peasants to access. There is much to learn here when it comes to how communities resist corporatisation and state power in the Global North, and much by means of supporting and amplifying these struggles.
The commons, and alternatives in the Global North
In much of the Global North, where capitalist lifestyles have become the norm, communities have also been creating alternatives from the ground upwards, challenging the privatisation agenda with shared and common ownership models of investments, food, knowledge and other resources.
In the UK for example, influences such as the Transition movement are slowly transforming many towns and villages to ones that prioritise local currencies and mutual banks that invest locally, and kick out companies and chains. Since its founding, the transition movement has expanded from country to country, with communities resisting top-down structures through permaculture, community transport networks and finding new ways of organising from the bottom up. Co-ops and DIY workshops have multiplied, while community growing initiatives work to bring a distanced relationship with food back into vision, and serve the wider community. Community energy initiatives are springing up all over the place, bringing the notion that ‘the future is decentralised’ ever closer.
As the world gets more urbanised, cities are experimenting in all kinds of new, participatory and radical ways of organising. In Brazil, cities following in the footsteps of indigenous methods have shown the world that putting municipal budgets in the hands of the people is the best way to be truly redistributive and benefit the many over the few. The challenge now is to amplify these alternatives, so communities are empowered to take it on themselves.
Global North governments playing catch up
At the political level in the Global North, the will for systemic change has been lacklustre, and most of the time resisted. There have been some attempts to challenge the growth-at-all-costs ideology with laws like the Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales, which for the first time hopes to enshrine wellbeing at the forefront of policy. However, this law only focusses on future generations, rather than the wellbeing of current generations who are facing the direct impacts of climate chaos, capitalism and colonialism right now.
Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, has taken a step forward when so many western governments are going backwards. In announcing NZ’s first wellbeing budget, she has, in the words of a fellow UKYCC-er, “taken a deliberate step away from humanity’s relentless obsession with profit exhibited by leaders across the world”. Of course it will need work, but it shows that change at the political level, even in governments entrenched in a global capitalist economy, is possible.
We know we can’t wait for governments to change their minds, but fortunately this year movements across the Global North are beginning to rise up, joining those in the Global South who have been fighting for systems change for a long time before us. Youth strikers are calling for a Green New Deal, championed by the Justice Democrat Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. While there has been legitimate criticism that an inward-focussing Green New Deal would reinforce the same structural racism and colonialism that previous economic models have created, there is great potential in a radical, internationalist, and post-extractive Green New Deal, that many are working towards. The very idea that economic alternatives are back in public conversation and being actively demanded by social movements in the Global North is a positive step forward.
So now what?
In this completely incomplete blog of alternatives, it is important to note just how much hasn’t been mentioned. Fortunately, we have a range of upcoming guest blogs to feature from authors highlighting alternatives and the struggles against the system in their own community, so watch this space.
As for what you can do, it’s difficult to be prescriptive. Several things though do come to mind - join a local community initiative that’s challenging the system from the bottom-up; join a social movement or organisation that is deeply critical of the system, such as Reclaim The Power (see their recent Power Beyond Borders camp for some inspiration), or call for a more overtly structural perspective from within your organisation. Work across movements - seeing them as separate keeps us divided, and at worst undermines each other. And whilst the efficacy of individual change is limited, it certainly isn’t futile. Some of the principles from the degrowth movement are great starting points for how to live with a greater systems focus. For example, the principle of frugal abundance encourages a reduction in consumption to find pleasure in non-consumptive ways, such as in social relations and simple pleasures.
Perhaps most importantly, educate yourself. There is so much out there - particularly work from communities, scholars and individuals within the Global South or oppressed groups in the Global North, who have been at the sharp edge of systemic violence for centuries - that can help you to zoom out and challenge the cause, rather than the symptoms.This series has served several purposes - for those of you who are new to seeing the climate crisis at a more structural level, it has hopefully been the start of a journey. For others, it may just be showing why those of us in UKYCC want to take a more systemic perspective to our campaigning. Crucially though, it is incomplete. Wherever you are in the journey, we have a lot to learn to make our activism intersectional, our campaigning structural, and our goals big, not partial. May the rest of that journey be full of inspiration, wins, new alliances, and also discomforts, challenges, and losses. Ultimately, it is only through linking our struggles that we can truly start to dismantle the system that is causing all of the crises we face. Until we win!