True ‘People Power’ needed to fight climate change

Dealing with climate change – the biggest environmental threat faced by the planet today – requires building up a mass movement at the grassroots across the developing countries of the global South.

Such a movement might be unpopular not only with the Southern elite but also with sections of the urban-based middle class sectors that have been the main beneficiaries of the high-growth economic strategy that has been pursued since the early 1990s, a leading southern activist cautioned in Rome last week.

Speaking at the Greenaccord Media Forum on 10 November 2007, Walden Bello, Filipino academic and executive director of the Focus on the Global South (seen in photo below, on the right), dismissed the notion that Asian masses are inert elements that uncritically accept the environmentally damaging high-growth export-oriented industrialisation models promoted by their governing elites.

“It is increasingly clear to ordinary people throughout Asia that the model has wrecked agriculture, widened income inequalities, led to increased poverty after the Asian financial crises, and wreaked environmental damage everywhere,” he said.

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People in the South are open to an alternative to a model of growth that has failed both the environment and society, he said. For instance, in Thailand, a country devastated by the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and wracked by environmental problems, globalization and export-oriented growth are now bad words.

He added: “Thais are more and more receptive to the idea of a ‘sufficiency economy‘ promoted by popular monarch King Bhumibol, which is an inward-looking strategy that stresses self-reliance at the grassroots and the creation of stronger ties among domestic economic networks, along with ‘moderately working with nature'”.

But the southern countries cannot and must not rely on their elite to provide leadership, he said. “What is clear is that in most other places in the South, one cannot depend on the elites and some sections of the middle class to decisively change course. At best, they will procrastinate.”

The fight against global warming will need to be propelled mainly by an alliance between progressive civil society in the North and mass-based citizens’ movements in the South.

Delivering the Lectio Magistralis to conclude the 4-day international gathering of journalists, activists and experts concerned about the environment, Prof Bello traced the evolution of social movements on environment and public health in East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia over the past few decades.

Read the test of a similar talk given by Walden Bello at the Trans National Institute in October 2007.

Prof Bello acknowledged that the environmental movements in the South and North have seen their ebbs and flows. “As with all social movements, it takes a particular conjunction of circumstances to bring an environmental movement to life after being quiescent for some time or to transform diverse local struggles into one nationwide movement.”

The challenge facing activists in the global North and the global South is to bring about those circumstances that will trigger the formation of a global mass movement that will decisively confront the most crucial challenge of our times.

And climate challenge is one among several challenges we confront today.

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Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account

People power India photo courtesy TVEAP image archive

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