I dunno about you, but on world terms, 2016 has been a spectacularly bad year in politics, for the planet and for the big names of our time, plus lots more reasons I don’t really need to recount. Two weeks into the new year, there’s a couple of things I can’t help but want to share.
(Strangely, it’s learning of the passing of Mark Fisher that’s leading me to publish this now, and to bring my thoughts of restarting a blog into action. Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, when I first read it during the winter of 2011/12, helped me understand the power of writing to change how we think and act in the present – the power of articulating what we’re up against and to insist that there are alternatives to the politics of austerity and dehumanization. It also helped me realize that an important part of that alternative is to think out loud and sustain a critical conversation. Rest in power, Fisher, and thank you for helping me understand the powers that shape society.)
So where are we, in 2017? Let’s start on the borders of Europe.
One year ago, as the clocks turned midnight from 2015 to 2016, I stood in the midst of a refugee camp in Lesvos, in Moria, huddled around the flames of a bonfire with a group of refugees and volunteers. Next to me was an Iranian ex-soldier who had escaped the army to avoid killing civilians, a man whose short friendship marked me deeply in the days I was there.
He was singing in the circle. The song tore through all the absurdity and inhumanity in the refugee camp, touching a place in my soul where it still shivers every time I think of that moment. Grief, healing, frustration and hope, were woven together in the tones of the song and the strength of his voice, as an expression and a gift to us who stood nearby. As midnight came and went – it’s precise timing insignificant here – a small party with drumming and dancing played out in the background. Looking into the flames, I made a small wish to the new year, a wish that this year would bring something better for my new friend, for his nephew, and for numerous other people on the road away from war and to safer shores in Europe.
That was a year ago. I know he arrived in Athens. But like most of the other people I met in the registration lines or in the camp at Moria, I have no idea what happened since. My hope and my silent prayer to him and his friends and family seems so futile, so small, compared to the walls and borders they were up against.
And as this year begins, the borders in Europe are closed, the dream of freedom and peace put in reverse for millions of people. The Norwegian government is returning minors to countries they’ve never been to. The war in Syria and the civilian casualties are beyond what I can fathom. The rhetorics of public conversation have taken a steep turn to the far right, and here in our superprivlieged and safe fortress on the northern top of the world, our politicians have made a point to “deter” people from coming, as if they were only hunting for economic opportunity and not fleeing a terrible war.
Add in the chilling turn in politics in the UK, where I’ve lived half my adult life, the rise in hate crimes there and in the US after the election, and the recent events in mainland Europe, and the future doesn’t look promising.
All the same – this is no time for despair. This is no time for giving up, or feeling helpless, or gloomy.
This, my friends, is when we organize.
We organize not because we think there’s a silver lining to save us, be it from the dangers of climate change or the presidency of Trump, but because we know the only thing that’ll help other humans, the planet and future generations, is hard work. Not alone, but together.
A person alone in a storm doesn’t hold much hope if s/he has to tend the fire, get more wood, find food and water, and guard a place from the dangers of the night and the strength of the wind and rain. A group, together, can divide those tasks between them and play to each other’s strengths. It sounds so simple it’s almost laughable. But in our time of isolation and individuality, we forget that we depend on each other and that there are things in the world greater than us.
In 2017, this is the main thought we should hold in our hearts and minds: that we stand, and work, in solidarity.
But where, or how?
Just look at Standing Rock. Look at how a small group refusing to have a pipeline through their lands swelled to a movement and still kept their core, how the whole world paid witness, stood in solidarity, and forced a delay to the pipeline by putting bodies, tipis and their peaceful and prayerful resistance in the way of the construction work. How solidarity actions across the world made banks withdraw their money – or at least start that process, even if capital is slow to move. It’s not a complete win yet, but the water protectors have most definitely turned the odds around, and made us all open our eyes. They’ve opened peoples eyes to a new recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples in their areas and in the US more widely, and an acknowledgement that continued colonialism concerns us all.
If Standing Rock has moved you, I urge you to also look outside of that one battle, outside of that one place. I urge you to look at how history has treated people differently. I urge you to look at how a new network of infrastructure, extraction and pipelines are planned across indigenous land all over the world, how insufficient or non-existing consultation and lack of respect for a «no» bulldozes over rights and livelihoods. How «green energy» cannot be green unless it respects the people on the lands on which it is built. We have to understand: respect means more than just «listen to». It means respect, full stop.
There will be lots more cases similar to Standing Rock in the coming years. Some are already unfolding, and it’s important that we as citizens, as human beings, as friends, mothers, fathers, workers, students, academics and more, educate ourselves on what is going on (for example, The Standing Rock Syllabus is a great place to start. And if in Scandinavia, start looking beyond the news headlines on the resource conflicts in Sápmi and know that Tråante 2017 is happening this year).
We need a transition, but we need it to be a just transition which also provides for future generations. To do so we need to work together – in unions, movements, institutions, political parties, in public debate and in alliances. To paraphrase Fisher from an event in London in 2012: we don’t have to all agree on everything, but we have to coordinate. Some of the unions in Norway have joined with environmental organizations and religious societies in the alliance Broen til framtiden (Bridge to the Future) to demand 100 000 climate jobs. They certainly don’t agree on everything. But they coordinate to work together where their interests overlap: more jobs, less emissions. That’s a very important way forward.
I don’t see a reason to give in to despair, because I see people across the world who are rising to the occasion, whether in response to the situation of refugees in Europe, the scary prospect of their incoming president, or the (lack of) climate policies in their home countries. Some have spent a lifetime working for a better future, others are taking their first steps in response to recent events. All of them, of us, are needed.
There is so much hope out there, but it’s not the kind of hope where you can lean back and watch others fix things for you. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and the greatest tribute to their efforts is to do the same in our time. 2017 needs to be that year where – after so many of the great ones have left the stage – we come into ownership of what it means to bring that heritage forwards. It’s you, me, us, making it happen.
If that means to risk some comfort zones, so be it. Here’s to a year for making a difference.