Degrowth and Decolonisation in the Red Zone

Hello world. Welcome to Glasgow. Welcome to Scotland. We are drawing on Glasgow’s radical past to inject hope and urgency into the moribund COP process.

YOUR VISION OF our country may be an idealised one of lochs brimming with salmon and glens filled with deer, but in reality we’re a petro-chemical economy being held ransom by the British State. Our most famous icons and exports – our salmon and deer and grouse – are really symbols of a country disfigured by landed power. We remain a semi-feudal nation with one of the most unequal distributions of land ownership in the world.

In Gaelic, Glasgow means ‘Dear Green Place’, but Glasgow was also known from the 19th century as the Second City of the Empire, a city that became synonymous with massive expansion, global trade, industry, invention, and shipbuilding.

For almost 200 years, the statue of the celebrated Scottish inventor and engineer James Watt has stood in George Square. Every schoolchild is taught about the invention of the steam engine in 1776, which was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution across the world. What’s less well known is that Watt’s father was a slave trader, a colonial merchant who subsidised his son. The development of the steam engine was funded by slavery. Watt himself was involved in colonial commerce and played a direct role in the trafficking of enslaved people.

With Glasgow playing host to the COP in 2021, we have historical symmetry. It’s more of a loop than a continuum; as the world faces climate catastrophe, the same city that was pivotal in the Industrial Revolution, colonisation, and Empire is the city that must now be the pivot towards decolonisation and degrowth.

Mirroring the challenge facing humanity itself, the city of Glasgow needs to find ways to move beyond the old story that it has become defined by. This is not just about moving beyond an industrial legacy and identity; it’s about moving beyond a history of violence and ongoing destruction. Like the abandoned coalfields that pockmark Fife and Ayrshire, the empty docks that still line the Clyde speak to communities left to mass unemployment and intergenerational trauma. For Glasgow, and for the rest of us, degrowth is about finding ways of living and being beyond our obsession with productivity and consumption and GDP. It’s about working towards a radical transformation of our society to one which serves a new function: supporting the flourishing and sustaining of life.

The path towards this transformation or ‘transition’ is faint and hard to make out. Any movement of change left to market forces motivated by profits and constrained within the economics of globalisation – a political and economic ideology based on exploitative practices towards people, land, and nature – will follow the same inevitable path to destruction. After a year in the trauma of the pandemic, the climate crisis came to Europe. Extreme weather visited the Global North with an unrecognisable summer of flooding, wildfires, and extreme heat. Even the most complacent were woken from their slumbers to confront a present and future of climate emergency that can no longer be ignored. We are heading full steam into a world of fossil-fuel expansion and mass extinction of species, including our own. As the IPPC report stated, we are living in “code red for humanity: the alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable.”

Yet, incredibly, the Prime Minister – of the UK government Scotland did not elect – is preparing to sign off on a new drilling permit at Cambo oilfield, west of Shetland.1 If approved, Cambo would produce 170m barrels of oil and would deepen the climate crisis for decades to come. [2] It is a staggeringly backward move, an exercise in futility and, ultimately, a crime against humanity. In Scotland, we don’t have full democratic control over our future path, and in this situation there is an echo of the climate predicament. In a world where greenwash and disinformation dominate, it’s easy to feel alienated and see only the futility of the process.

The COP26 Coalition joined calls for the summit’s postponement, stating:

“As the clock ticks on this crucial decade, rich countries must commit to doing their fair share of climate action, cutting emissions to zero and paying their carbon debt to the global South. This is the bare minimum needed to pave the way for a successful COP26, yet the COP Presidency is far from showing such leadership […] From climate to Covid the UK has shown it is willing to sacrifice those worst off to shore up huge profits for the few.” [3]

The challenge is not to be consumed by the huge gravitational pull and distraction of COP – its hype, its false hope, its unreality, its greenwashed credentials and stagemanaged accords. The challenge is to organise within communities and resist the police state, to speak the truth, to cultivate outrage, to create a rupture, to challenge inevitability, and to imagine, articulate, and build different futures. Our humantiy and our home is under threat.

BEING HUMAN

IF, AS THE IPCC stated: “All pathways begin now and involve rapid and unprecedented social transformation”, then Glasgow has a radical political history to inspire the movement.

Glasgow is not just a city of Empire built on exploitation; it is also a city built on struggle. Whether it’s Mary Barbour’s rent strikes or John Maclean and Red Clydeside in the early 20th century, Jimmy Reid and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders of 1971, the anti-Polaris and CND movement, the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign, the anti-apartheid movement, Pollok Free State in the 1990s, the Kenmure Street protest of 2021 or the countless unsung pockets of radical and inspired action in the communities that make up the fabric of the city, there is much to learn from Glasgow’s radical past.

Other sources of local inspiration include Jimmy Reid’s Rectorial Address to the University of Glasgow in 1972, a speech that has had reverberations and resonance down the years. He could be speaking to us directly today:

“Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies. […] Reject these attitudes. Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.”

Some of the critique of the climate crisis turns on humanity; claiming, with the spectre of ecofascism looming, that “We humans are the problem.”. The answer for Reid is not less humanity but less capitalism. The power structures that have emerged threaten and undermine our hard won democratic rights. His words echo down the ages:

“Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision making by the people for the people. This is not simply an economic matter. In essence it is an ethical and moral question, for whoever decisions in society ipso facto determines the social priorities of that society.”

Our global economy is structured so that disproportionate, dangerous, and unprecedented amounts of wealth and power are centralised and held by the people and multi-national corporations involved in excessive extractive industries driving climate breakdown and ecosystem collapse. They are taking decisions which are not in the interests of you, me, or the billions of people and diverse ecosystems on this planet. In degrowth, we have an opportunity to transfer power away from those bodies towards more democratic structures and processes that centre care and lifesustaining work. We need to shift towards an economy away from growth-at-anycost to an economy that is feminist in the sense of the late Scottish economist Ailsa Mackay [4] and as outlined by Maria Mies [5] :

“The feminist project is basically an anarchist movement which does not want to replace one (male) power elite by another (female) power elite, but which wants to build up a non-hierarchical, non-centralised society where no elite lives off exploitation and dominance over others.”

We also need new mechanisms to sustainably ‘govern the commons’, as sketched out by Elinor Ostrom [6] – which include restoring our oceans and the atmosphere in service of the greater good. Any framework for transitioning to an alternative economic system that does not account for the massive global restructuring of power relations needed – and which does not understand this as a political project – will not deliver the transformation that is needed for everyone – human and more-thanhuman – to live well and flourish on the planet we call home. 

We present to you LESS’s ‘Code Red’ issue not simply as a response to the COP, but as a space for voices from the centre to the margins of the struggle for climate justice, degrowth, and decolonisation.

Benjamin Brown makes the case for shutting down the Mossmorran Natural Gas Liquids plant in Fife. Paul Routledge, Gehan Macleod, and David Lees write about the GalGael Free State as an autonomous zone near the ‘blue zone’ where climate talks are talking place. Luke Devlin interviews Craig Bryce about rebel DIY housebuilding and the autonomy that comes with building collectives. Rhyddian Knight interviews David Blair about the ark he built on the Cowal peninsula to highlight the plight of coastal communities. Peter Kitelo Chongeywo of the Ogiek Indigenous Forest Peoples of Mount Elgon, Kenya, sees climate change activism in the UK as fighting for all our tomorrows. Kate Chambers writes about the need to decouple social mobility from resource consumption. Mark Langdon reflects on education for transformation as a crucial tool in a time of ecological and social crisis. Svenja Meyerricks interviews climate justice activist Nomalizo Xhoma in Johannesburg about the COP and community struggles in South Africa. Catriona Spaven-Donn argues for commons food systems that are grounded in collaborative relationships between plants and fungi. And, finally, Vishwam Heckert reflects on the need to unlearn Empire and abstraction and disconnection by unlearning the embodied and psychic habit of separating ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘me’ from the ‘world’.

The Dear Green Place is the perfect venue for COP, where all the contradictions and complexities of our past, present, and possible futures are laid bare. Glasgow is a site of both colonisation and decolonisation, imperialism and anti-imperialism. It is a city disfigured by poverty and scarred by violence, exploitation, and trauma. It is also a city of resistance, hospitality, political radicalism, and hope. From Glasgow, we need to forge a world where we are no longer “the victims of blind economic forces beyond our control.” [7] 
 
The choice is endless growth of global capital or life on earth. It’s a choice we are each going to have to keep fighting for every day.

COP DISTRIBUTION

For details of how to subscribe to LESS – and where our current distribution hubs across Scotland are – go here.

If you’d like to act as a distribution hub in Glasgow during COP 26 email us at less@enough.scot to request a bundle. We will also send out a limited number of copies to folk who can’t get to any of the pick-up.


Notes

1 Oliver Wright (2021, 13 September) ‘Boris Johnson to support more North Sea drilling despite climate pledge’, The Times. Available at: thetimes.co.uk/article/boris-johnson-tosupport-more-north-sea-drilling-despiteclimate-pledge-bpczs388g
2 #StopCambo: stopcambo.org.uk/why-stopcambo
3 COP26 Coalition Political Statement. Available at: cop26coalition.org/resource/ cop26-coalition-joins-international-callfor-cop26-to-be-postponed-cop26-coalitionpolitical-statement/
4 See: Jim Campbell & Morag Gillespie (eds.) (2016) Feminist Economics and Public Policy: Reflections on the work and impact of Ailsa McKay. London: Routledge.
5 Maria Mies (1986) Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. London: Zed Books. (2014, p.37)
6 Elinor Ostrom (1990) Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge Univesity Press
7 Maree Todd MSP (2016, 5 January) Letter, Ullapool News. Available at: facebook.com/ MareeToddMSP/posts/186546431701344

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