Dimitri Roussopoulos asks us, in this keynote speech given in Oslo, September 27, 2014 at the “Ecological Challenges” conference, to consider the historical record of the State management to protect the natural environment from being damaged. He goes on to discuss political and social ecology and the pivotal role of building genuine and democratic cities through popular movements and municipal politics.
Consider the historical record of the State management to protect the natural environment from being damaged. The first State pollution agency was established over 150 years ago, and it is now over more than a century since the first international environment agreement between nation-States was signed. In more than 20 years before the publication of the Brundtland Report, more than 130 nation-States created environmental agencies; more than 180 international agreements were signed; and the United Nations has long since created a global environmental agency and programme. Yet the results of this flurry of activity ostensibly intended to reverse the advance of ecological destruction are far from satisfactory to say the least.
More than 44 years after the Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in 1972, and years after the Copenhagen conference as well as the more recent Rio+20 conference, the discourses seem to enter into proposed political actions without being able to radically transform developmental trajectories of contemporary societies. Globalized capitalism persists in its historical expansion over the entire world economy, in spite of accumulated evidence of the destructiveness of such economic growth and its developmental consequences and despite a remarkable diversity of experiments across the world that have upheld the importance of ecologically-sound systems.
In the aftermath of the Copenhagen Conference on global climate change, which once again demonstrated the incapacity of the current economic and political system to be reworked, thoughts and engagements at the edge of politics and ecology more than ever are being called on to answer present and future challenges. The strategic goal of such ‘political ecologies’ seems to feature two dimensions, a negative one toward extinction, and correctively a positive one of building collective and political tools for a common life.
What has been the response of citizens to the ecological crisis?
By the end of the last century, few speeches made by the heads of States of the ‘developed’ nations would fail to evoke the environmental crisis, and corporate executives began to declare themselves committed environmentalists. But it is one thing to establish and sign international treaties, national laws, and promote environmental ministries and agencies; it is quite another to effect the concrete changes in attitudes, practices and institutions necessary to resolve the ecological crisis. It is true, to date; there have been environmental improvements, at least temporarily, in a few critical areas. But overall the scientific indications paint a very grim picture, in particular as regards the basic changes in the world’s climate and its increasingly visible consequences.
The world’s virgin forests are being lost at an increasing rate and the largest portion of the degradation is in Canada. No longer is Brazil the main villain in the struggle to stop forest destruction. “Canada is the No.1 in the world for the total area of the loss of intact forest landscapes since 2000.” said Peter Lee of Forest Watch Canada in an interview, mentioning fires, logging and energy and industrial development. (www.globalforestwatch.org) Scientists discovered that the pace of decline is accelerating with more than 104 million hectares – about 8.1 per cent of global undisturbed forests – lost from 2000 to 2013.
The best indicator is Nature itself. It is clear with each passing month exactly how much trouble we are in. There is an endless series of ever more dramatic teachable moments. The north has heated up more dramatically than any place on Earth. The physics of climate change make evident that the poles heat faster, an entirely different condition is the result than even 10 years ago. The Northwest and Northeast passages open up almost every summer. The summer of 2014, the Northwest Territories of Canada had fires that were biblical in dimension.
A new study recently in the Proceeding of the U.S.National Academy of Sciences suggests that the oceans have been surprisingly static since 4,000 BCE. But that changed 150 years ago. There are two main forces that can drive sea levels higher. One is something called the thermal expansion of ocean water as it warms. The other is an influx of additional water, ushered into the sea by melting ice sheets and glaciers. Just look at Miami or the Maldives. And the ice sheets are melting at a faster rate than previously understood.
Despite the substantial growth of environmental awareness among people throughout the world, the health of the Earth continues to deteriorate at an unprecedented rate. Clearly, the attempts at the State management of the environmental crisis have yielded results which are questionable at best and we must conclude that for genuine reversal of global patterns to occur, more far reaching political and economic changes in the dominant institutions of our society must be made. These fundamental changes must, moreover, be undertaken by the current generation, as it may be too late for the next. Whether this generation will indeed be willing and able to take the necessary actions ‘from below’ that our ruling elites have demonstrated themselves reluctant to take remains an open and urgent question. But in the last 40 years or so, many citizens of countries, East, West, North and South have become acutely aware of the immediate and long-term consequences of environmental deterioration and have begun to organise in one fashion or another in response to the plight of the Earth. And it is precisely to the variety of forms of popular responses to the environmental crisis that we can briefly turn our attention.
For example it was estimated in 1983 that the British environmental movement comprised some three million members (almost six per cent of the total population), making it the largest movement in that country’s history.
It is also important to realize, that environmental activism is not a phenomena exclusive to the advanced industrial nations. There were in recent times, more than 25,000 environmental organisations worldwide, according to U.N.estimates. Other estimates state that there are over 100,000 such organisations, with 100,000 million members, in the ‘developing’ nations alone.
From the mid-1960s into the 1970s a new generation of organisations emerged which created a tide that dragged along the older established organisations. The moralistic preservationists and the utilitarian conservationists now had to share the stage with the new activists who became skilled lobbyists and public opinion leaders. This new social movement is far from homogeneous, embodying a variety of ideological tendencies.
Like other social movements of the period, the new activism was a response to powerful historical forces developing before the 1960’s. Substantial changes took place in industrial societies after the Second World War which ushered in a period of intense economic growth resulting in a more widespread material affluence and reinforcing a naive belief in perpetual and penalty-free economic expansion. A near pathological consumerism fed a reckless materialism, so that the U.S., for instance, with six per cent of the world’s population was producing and consuming over one-third of the world’s goods and services by 1979. And yet there was discontent, especially among youth. For in the midst of this affluence many moral contradictions were apparent.
The resulting environmental movement was not, of course, all of one piece. One of the largest movements in human history it took root in various countries and drew on diverse political traditions. It was bound therefore to comprise a variety of ideological tendencies.
Before and during the 1960s a number of organisations emerged such as the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, and many similar associations who loved nature and wilderness. There we find the desire to preserve ‘the great out doors’. These parts of the movement led to the establishment of a variety of regional and national parks in several countries.
As this tendency dove-tailed into a broader environmentalism which includes Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Pollution Probe, the essential approach was and remains dealing individually with one crisis point after another. This approach tends to concentrate on bringing about small but urgent changes to the immediate order of things. Taken alone, however, these intense but circumscribed efforts tend to draw attention away from the need for changes in our society’s basic institutions of power. The result is that the larger picture gets lost; the forest cannot be seen for the trees. One difference between this movement and the conservationalists is that it does not shy away from mass popular actions as a means of pressure of the power structure.
We then have a series of other tendencies, which we cannot deal with in depth here. These include environmental populism from the Boy Scouts to church groups. There are the adherents of Deep Ecology, Bio-regionalism, and Eco-feminism. Each one of these schools of thought and action has a weak perspective regarding social and political change.
This brief map of some citizen responses to the environmental crisis must now be completed with a discussion of what is arguably the more coherent currency with the ecology movement, political ecology.
Political Ecology and Social Ecology
The main difference between environmentalism and ecologism is that the latter presupposes substantial and radical changes in our relationship to the natural world and in our society. Environmentalists, take a managerial approach to the crisis around us in the belief that these can be solved without fundamental changes in present values or in the current patterns of consumption and economic production of goods and services.
Political ecology advances the idea that the science of ecology itself cannot be divorced from and indeed imposes certain political conceptions. For example, inasmuch as the ecological crisis affects the Earth as a whole isolated attempts to solve the problem cannot but fail; there must be coordination of efforts and this on a global scale. Thus the Green parties throughout the world evolved ideas in part as a critical response to the limited impact of environmentalism as well as the failure of Marxism and social democracy to transform society. In addition to introducing programmatic innovations, Green parties which emerged in the 1980’s also represent a certain departure from the traditional political parties in their emphasis on other forms of political culture.
Time does not permit a thorough critical review here of the Green parties and their experiences and influence, but the spectrum of Green views ranges from light green (principally reformers who advocate compromise and engaging in electoralism to ‘get things changed’) to ‘dark Greens’ who are more fundamentalists, red Greens, and anarcho-Greens who emphasize grassroots activism – combined with selective electoral participation understood primarily as educational activity – and who synthesize radical politics, feminism and anti-militarism.
A principal critique of the Greens is that in their majority they fail to develop a sufficiently profound critique of the limits of liberal democracy and parliamentarism. Consequently they do not possess a radical understanding of the dynamics of State political power and the present system’s capacity to co-opt forces of opposition.
We then have the Eco-socialists, in their many varieties, which include the eco-social democrats, who seek to blend environmentalism and “democratic socialism”. All social democratic political parties, attempt to integrate environmental concerns into their programmes now. However, the programmes of these parties are anchored in the metaphysic of the State, and consequently they maintain that a necessary condition for environmental protection is the election of social democrats to central political power. The unsatisfactory record of these parties in various countries speaks for itself.
Included under this rubric of eco-socialism is the eco-marxist attempt to synthesize Marxism and ecology. Remaining within a broadly conceived Marxist theoretical framework, eco-Marxists continue to focus on political economy. While taking their distance from Marxist theories which assume the limitless abundance of nature and the celebration of productivism they attempt to move beyond reductionist analyses of the primacy of the economic. The eco-Marxists are still inclined to regard change at the point of production as the motor of all social and political change. In their analysis of the lamentable environmental record of the former State socialist bloc, the eco-Marxists ascribe the blame to Taylorism and the wholesale importation of the Fordist model of industrial organisation. Eco-Marxists remain uncomfortable with a dominant accent on decentralisation and the local as the locus of political action and social development.
By far the most sophisticated and interesting group in the eco-socialist category are the European libertarian eco-socialists, among whom are the authors of the eco-socialist manifesto Europe’s Green Alternative. They envision a continent of autonomous regions, rather than nation-States, which are economically decentralised, shaped by feminist principles and built upon social structures which are not based on the arbitrary exercise of power. They maintain that eco-socialist change cannot be brought about by the State and they advocate citizen control of the economy. Their manifesto is well worth a careful reading.
In many of their declarations and proposals these libertarian eco-socialists display an affinity with social ecology. They stop short, however, of embracing the municiaplist approach to ecological and social change integral to social ecology. Although libertarian eco-socialists in Europe reject the nation-State in favour of a continent of regions, they fail to identify a specific configuration of social, political and economic institutions as the potential foundation for radical social and political change they set as their goal.
Rooted in a rich philosophical framework which is reflected in its politics, it is both comprehensive and systematic, representing the greatest advance in 20th century radicalism.The progenitor of the theory of social ecology is Murray Bookchin, who for over many decades laboured brilliantly to lay the foundation of this philosophy in which history, technology and urbanism are interwoven.
Social ecology is a critical social theory, conceptualized as a critique of current social, political, economic and cultural anti-ecological trends. It espouses a reconstructive, ecological, communitarian, and ethical approach its perspective of transforming society.
Social ecologists advocate an outlook on issues, which promotes direct democracy and confederal associations of citizens. As a body of ideas social ecology envisions a moral economy based on its municipalisation and which moves beyond scarcity and hierarchy, and seeks to move towards a harmonization of human communities with the natural world, eliminating exploitation of human by human, while celebrating diversity, creativity and freedom.
Social ecology suggests that the roots of current ecological and social problems can be traced to hierarchical and exploitative forms of the current organisation of society. It contends that the systematic presence of hierarchy and exploitation cannot be resisted let alone replaced by individual actions such as the State management of environmental problems or by ethical consumerism but must be addressed by collective political activity grounded on a nuanced ethics and a radical democratic programme of fundamental social and political change. The complexity of the relationship between people and nature is emphasized along with the importance of establishing mutualistic social structures that takes into account the need of a co-operative society.
Social ecology’s social component comes from its position that nearly all of our ecological problems stem from social, political and economic problems. These problems in turn arise from the manner our society is organised thus leading to domination through hierarchy and exploitation of humans by humans. Social ecologists argue that apart from those produced by natural castrophies, the most serious ecological dislocations of the 20th and 21st centuries have as their cause economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others. Present ecological problems, it is maintained, cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with the need to radically transform society.
An additional word about context
Since the late 19th century, into the 20th and 21st centuries, as the result of wars many without precedence in their destructiveness,and with colonialism, imperialism and their consequences, millions of people have been driven from the southern hemisphere to the north, and from east to the west. Massive immigration consequently is a phenomena on a huge scale as never before. Consider the fact that during the first six months of 2014, over a 100,000 people (and many lost at sea) have crossed the Mediterranean moving northward and now find themselves in camps in southern Italy banging at the doors of European countries wanting to get in. This phenomenon of immigration has in turn contributed to large scale urbanization, so that cities both in the northern hemisphere as well as the south have become bigger and bigger cities. The impact of these mega-cities on the world economy has placed them on the same playing field as the 400 multi-national corporations, and the few nation-States, that dominated the global economy. I am referring here especially to the 40-60 major cities, particularly the 40 so-called global cities which are engines of ravenous material growth, with doors open to social advancement for some on the one hand and high level of inequality and massive concentration of poverty on the other. The current global trends in urbanisation and globalisation imply nothing less than, first, the urbanisation of poverty and social exclusion, and second, the creation of ecological urban cancer zones and important partners in the war against and the ongoing exploitation of Nature.
The geopolitical centrality of the City today
The aspect above is related to the environmental crisis. There is however another aspect, which follows, and that is the role and importance of cities in social revolts; let’s examine both these aspects more closely. Since 2003 over half of humanity – 3.5 billion people – lives in cities. By 2055 an estimated 75 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Cities today occupy just 2 per cent of the Earth’s land, but account for over 70 per cent of both energy consumption and carbon emissions. Cities have a disproportionately large effect on climate change contributing as much as 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. These United Nations facts have important consequences for us.
Cities are, and will continue to be, at the nexus of the global crises related to the economic recessions, energy insecurity, water scarcity or flooding, high food prices, vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. All this and more while at the same time, we are also experiencing the greatest migration in history from rural to urban areas, as noted earlier.
Cities, consistently undermined by nation-State governments for reasons of power politics, have been under funded, underrepresented in the upper circles of the power elite that determine ‘national priorities’ and this applies to regional urban agglomerations also. The result is cities, big and smaller ones have serious problems of political legitimacy, and they are weak and face large-scale disinterest by citizens, without the will to transform themselves into democratic arenas for citizen participation in decision-making. The sense of community is being hallowed out of neighbourhoods as the city experiences large-scale urbanisation.
Urban management as such is an issue. Collapsing infrastructure is an issue, as are the daily impact of climate change, inefficient public transit, water security, waste management, and energy and fuel waste, overflowing landfills, flooding, and water and air pollution, noise pollution, with serious effects on public health. Capitalist urbanization, whether State sponsored or corporation driven simply cannot handle the urban crisis, which in turn substantially aggravates the environmental crisis. Cities appear locked into unsustainable modes of urbanisation.
The other side of the economic coin is that cities develop a critical bearing on the future of the planet; cities of the world’s emerging economies are becoming the drivers of the world economy while the planet’s resources are rapidly being depleted. Thus the built environment and the proliferation of slums add to the environmental cannibalism of the large cities of the north.
The Political Economy of Cities
Over and above the very heavy footprint on the Earth’s environment that is the current lot of cities and urbanization, the economic place of cities in the world economy must be taken into account.
Jane Jacobs was almost the first to research and demonstrate that it is urban areas that drive and in fact dominate the economies of large regions. She showed that ‘national economies’ are largely mythical constructions, and that regional economies, urban based, represent the real economic driving forces. Saskia Sassen has taken this thesis even further with her research which demonstrates that today, ‘global cities’ are in fact the dominate conduits through which the transnational corporations determine the rise and decline of the world economy. David Harvey in his numerous books places the city at the heart of capital accumulation and class struggles. Cities are central to struggles over capital and the frontline for strategies over which controls of access to urban resources and which dictate the quality and organization of daily life. This is his basic thesis supported with considerable historical evident and contemporary analysis. Harvey notes: “Conventional economics routinely treats investment in the build environment in general, and in housing in particular, along with urbanization, as some side-bar to the more important affairs that go on in some fictional entity called ‘the national economy.’ The sub-field of ‘urban economics’ is thus the area where inferior economists go while the big guns ply their macroeconomics trading skills elsewhere.”
In this important new book, ‘Rebel Cities – From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution’, Harvey, an urban geographer, covers the ‘The Right to the City’ thesis and movement in history, from Henri Lefebvre to political economy , and does so from a libertarian Marxist perspective. He then singles out ‘Rebel Cities’ by detailing the reclaiming of the city for anti-capitalist struggles, and notes: “The history of urban-based class struggles is stunning. The successive revolutionary movements in Paris from 1789 through 1830 and 1848 to the Commune of 1871 constitute the most obvious nineteenth century examples. Later events include the Petrograd Soviet, the Shanghai’s Communes of 1927 and 1967, the Seattle General Strike of 1918,the role of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, the uprising in Cordoba in 1969, and the more general urban uprisings in the United States in the 1960s, the urban-based movements of 1968 (Paris, Chicago, Mexico City, Bangkok, and others, including the so-called ‘Prague Spring,’ and the rise of neighbourhood associations in Madrid that fronted the anti-Franco movement in Spain around the same time. …”. More recently we have seen mass protests in Tahir Square in Cairo, in Madison, Wisconsin, in the Plaza del Sol in Madrid and Catalunya in Barcelona, and in Syntagma Square in Athens as well as revolutionary movements and rebellions in Oaxaca in Mexico, in Cochabamba (2000 and 2007) and EL Alto (2003 and 2005) in Bolivia…”. Throughout the book, it should be noted, Harvey acknowledges sympathetically, the analysis and insights of Murray Bookchin.
Space limitations do not permit here a detailed presentation of the economics of urbanization, and the central role of cities in the world economy. Suffice it to note two related considerations.
The ‘Global Index’ an important analytical tool in economic analysis, lists 66 cities as global cities which drive the world economy. The paucity of actions to deal with the world-wide environmental crisis shown by national governments at the recent Rio +20 summit forced even U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon to state that “our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.” For the first time, the term ‘governmental stakeholders’ when referring to local and sub-national governments is being used in the U.N. There is talk of revising the U.N. Charter, with a Local Government Chamber to the U.N. General Assembly. The Council of Europe already maintains a Congress of European Municipalities and Regions, and the European Union maintains a Committee of Regions. These are some indicators that the power elites are being forced to adjust their understanding of the huge historic changes taking place.
Sadly the political implications of the analysis outlined above with which radical social change can be given a ladder are side-tracked by established Left orthodoxy. The city as a geopolitical terrain for the challenging of global capitalism and the State seems to have bypassed most of the Left including the anarchist Left. This Left is invited here to consider the reflection of urban sociologist Robert Park who wrote about the city, “Man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. This, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” Harvey uses this quote.
Applied Social Ecology
In the face of these and other contradictions in the urban world I will give you one important case study of applied social ecology, perhaps it’s more important laboratory to date.
Montreal, an island city, with a population of approximately 2 million, and the greater Montreal region adding up to 3 million in total. In this city, during the late 1960s, the urban new left practiced its theory of community organising and participatory democracy. This new left urged the radical decentralisation of the city, from City Hall to the neighbourhoods. It argued in favour of establishing decision-making neighbourhood councils of citizens. The inspiration for much of this approach for a new politics came from Henri Lefebvre and his articulation of ‘The Right to the City’, and his assertion that the real politics are ‘the politics of everyday life’. Louis Mumford was also an important influence. The approach to the realities of the neighbourhood and the city was also informed by social ecology. And most importantly Murray Bookchin.
The Practice of Social Ecology
I want to suggest that one of the most important laboratories of social ecology is Montreal.
During the 1960s two fundamental ideas around which fundamental social change was to take shape were community organising and participatory democracy. Community organising was the effort by new left activists of that decade to help create forms of democratic grass roots organisations based in neighbourhoods which would empower ordinary people. Key to community organising was the equally important concept that of community which is meant to generate a self-awareness and territorial identity.
Participatory democracy was and is a critique of liberal democracy, which is a form of consenting democracy whereby people are called upon to cast a ballet and vote for this or that candidate or political party from time to time. Participatory democracy was and is advanced as a politics of citizen participation whereby ordinary people decide and resolve the problems of daily life. These two ideas, community organisation and participatory democracy which go hand in hand were anchored in a restoration of a sense of community and were intended to give a new definition to the notion of citizenship, urban citizenship, offering all a new locally based identity creating a new politics and political culture. This attempt to democratize public life was a need to democratize all power, including that dark area where the central State closely guards for itself, that is the forming of defense and foreign policy, an area the 1960s peace movement wanted to open up. The interest we had in wanting to change society was for both for global and local reasons.
During this decade in Montreal, we were influenced by the analysis and ideas of Henri Lefebvre, who taught us the centrality of urban space in which the politics of daily life are mostly played out. We were also influenced by Paul Goodman through this critique of urban life as articulated in the book he wrote with his brother entitled ‘Communitas’, and the ideas of Jane Jacobs who in a series of books and articles on neighbourhoods and cities dealt with the political economy of cities and taught us that our ideas of community were restorative and very relevant. Jane Jacobs also taught us that economic growth was mainly generated by cities, and not by national economies over and above cities. By the end of the 1960s we discovered the works and the personage of that towering genius, Murray Bookchin, who taught us radical history, ecology, and plunged us, deeper into the phenomena called urbanisation and its negative effects in deforming cities today and in particular during the historical the rise of industrial capitalism.
In the year where the world came closest to a world revolution, a major real estate company, Concordia Estates Ltd., announced that it would demolish a six city block neighbourhood in downtown Montreal, and build in the name of urban renewal, the city of the 21st century. Drawing inspiration and guidance from social ecology in part, a very militant urban struggle unfolded which involved door to door campaigning with information sharing, petition collecting, organising public information meetings, demonstrations, squatting, sit-ins in the offices of the speculators, hunger strikes, occupations of emptied neighbourhood residential buildings, arrests of some 59 activists, jail and a trial by jury which was won by those arrested. The struggle ended without an initial success. But it started over again a few years later using a different strategy which kept a high level of mobilisation of citizens, young and old. This time the strategy used was to confronted heavy traffic on residential streets. Once again the neighbourhood came together to resist and fight, this time against City Hall. To be noted is the organisational form of the struggle, which was with street committees, each with its personality, consciousness-raising perspective. The street committees would blend together from time to time into street occupations. The most celebrated street occupation took place in November 1978 in the middle of the municipal elections, when rush-hour traffic was blocked for some two hours. City Hall decided to have no one arrested.
Finally in 1979, 11 years later, having used all forms of struggle and coalition building, we won. With some $30.7 million of public funds we bought up most of the six city block neighbourhood. The final edges of the struggle involved a fight with an internal group of aspiring yuppies. Recall that we wanted to create a cooperative community of non-profit cooperatives, based on affinities in various parts of the neighborhood. We wanted to abolish private property, and profit making through real estate speculation. We wanted to restore the sense of community through actively engaged citizen participation whereby the principles of democratic self-management of property of buildings and land, would become a real living daily experience. The yuppies wanted the opposite, private ownership of houses and real estate speculation. In a series of bitter fights we drove them into the ground, isolated them until they were marginalized and defeated. Thus we established the largest non-profit cooperative housing project in North America for low-income citizens based on a land trust wherein all the land is owned in common. Imagine an entire neighbourhood where buying and selling of property is not permitted. This accomplishment co-habits alongside market capitalism. This process of social reconstruction resulted in a federation of 22 self-managed non-profit housing coops and non-profit housing associations, housing over 1100 persons, with 616 residences of various sizes in a heritage neighbourhood in the downtown of the city.
Once this battle was behind us, and the renovation work of all the 146 buildings was completed, and we re-occupied our homes, militants asked the question, what next? While we tried in the interim to build a social ecology politics, we built a left-green municipal party, (the first of its kind in North America) which presented candidates during the elections of 1990 and 1994, but the experiment ended in failure. In the elections we had three of our 21 candidates (10 women and 11 men) who came second. But in an electoral system which is not based on proportional representation we hit a blank wall. It was also a political period when a political left-of-center party ruled City Hall, and the political culture of Montreal could not appreciate another political party further to the left, advocating social ecology, which proposed the radical decentralization of power, decision-making neighbourhood councils with citizens actively involved. The political party called Ecology Montreal, even though our membership base included several hundred activists could not break the barriers. So we had to re-think our strategy and programme.
In 1994-95 we decided to enrich the political culture of Montreal by undertaking a programme of ecological education including some social experiments, and thus I helped establish before and during 1996, with a couple of years of preparing groundwork, an Urban Ecology Centre based on social ecology. It’s objective was to focus on all major issues of the urban question through the lens of social ecology. Several key projects and programmes were established. Included in our approach was a major educational programme during 11 months of the year, a bi-lingual alternative newspaper published every two weeks delivered free in the whole downtown core of the city, with a readership of 38,000, experiments in roof-top gardens, alternative traffic designs, and a persistent political engagement to influence various public policies at City Hall and in the boroughs. By 2006, it had a staff of some 12 persons, with a budget of $400,000. It is today a major actor in the larger Montreal region, having organised five citizens’ summits from 2001which brought together over 1000 citizens at the last summit in 2009, networking concerned citizens on a variety of social issues and actions across the city. The Urban Ecology Centre in association with other civil society organisations had advanced a citizens agenda which argued that an ecological city and a democratic city is the pivotal foundation of social and political change and that these two dimensions must go hand in hand in any radical reform of society. Thus the Urban Ecology Center of Montreal (www.ecologieurbaine.net) built on community organisation and participatory democracy, helped create significant shifts in the consciousness and political practice of many other organisations and movements, helping to create a self-conscious civil society. How? It brought together citizen activists who by 2009 advanced a ‘Citizens Agenda for the City we want’ pushing it forward during that fall’s municipal elections. Today the Urban Ecology Center of Montreal has outreach in several other cities in Canada, and has a staff of 15, with an annual budget of $1.5 million. Not only has it influenced the environmentalists to take serious the urban problems surrounding them, but has also influenced from 2001 to 2006 especially the political culture of the city. It helped legitimize the social movements and community organisations that constitute the core of Montreal’s civil society; it raised the idea of human rights and the city, so that a Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities now exists as a legal city bylaw, protected in the constitution of the city. This Charter which has received considerable international recognition through UNESCO and U.N. Habitat, as well as other international organisations has also been emulated by Mexico City and other cities, thus enriching the programme of the ‘Right to the City’ movement world-wide. This Charter empowers citizens to engage in deciding on as well as influencing directly urban public policies in between elections. In addition the citizen rights are protected by the legal services of a municipal Ombudsman. The place of citizens in the process of public consultation is assured by an Office of Public Consultation. Both of these municipal institutions are publicly funded but arms-length from City Hall. In the interim many communities in the city, as well as Milton-Parc, have undertaken civic struggles on a variety of urban ecological issues, often resulting in significant popular victories.
The idea of participatory democracy is found everywhere in the popular culture in Montreal. Other neighbourhoods practice it through important defensive campaigns against urban deterioration with a pronounced attention to social ecology in many instances. The anarchists of Pointe St.Charles/St.Henri are another recent pole of grassroots activity, who have also been influential in having published through Les Editions Ecosociete (which I helped establish some 15 years ago) various works of Murray Bookchin and social ecology.
Since the beginning of the 21st century all this community based organisation and activity has had an impact of the municipal government. A number of democratic reforms have resulted in creating openings which have been critically occupied in part by civil society. The ‘Right to the City ‘and ‘Take over the City’ is a discourse of the urban left in many cities and has been popularised. A fundamental re-definition of citizenship is underway whereby many citizens consider themselves first and foremost citizens of Montreal, more than citizens of a nation. The envelope of democracy is constantly made larger, with citizens initiating public policy instead of simply lobbying politicians. The whole idea of intermediaries is challenged as seeds of direct democracy have started to sprout. When recently more than 29,800 Montrealers signed a petition demanding participation in decision-making (specifically on the issue of the need for urban agriculture) and not simply supporting a statement making a request to politicians to change course on this or that given topic, a political electric current was visibly transmitted. The public desire to have citizens involved in economic decision-making and participatory budgeting with a movement directed towards economic democracy is slowly becoming an important political mix. People’s impatience with the status quo and the political and economic establishment is clearly in evidence. This deep desire for fundamental change burst forth massively with the general strike of students in 2012.
From local to global: student strike to a social revolt
The general student strike involved some 170,000 university and college students. On March 22, 2012 (a symbolically choosen 22 March, the date that launched the historic student movement in Nanterre which in turn led to the larger general in France); some 150,000 marched through the streets of Montreal against a proposed State increase in tuition fees. On April 22nd, Earth Day, however, 200,000 youth and others marched again in the streets of Montreal, but the agenda had widened into environmental and social demands, in addition to a freeze of tuition fees. On May 22nd, more than 250,000 people from all walks of life, young and old, all colours and political stripes, left-nationalists, anarchists, trade unions, community organisations, ecologists marched together for a broader list of social demands. They also marched against a new repressive law, Bill 78, imposed by the provincial government, a significant imposition on civil liberties. On this march a huge number of marchers turned left instead of right at rue Jeanne Mance and Sherbrook streets, thus committing a massive act of civil disobedience against Bill 78. On June 22nd and on July 22nd mass marches again took place. Parallel to these mass marches a social revolt began to emerge in scores of neighbourhoods throughout the city as thousands of citizens at 8 pm every night came out onto their neighbourhood streets to bang pots and pans in protest expressing their sympathy with the mass marchers.
Over 3000 marchers were arrested in various acts of resistance, as police used tactics imported from the US and other countries to repress the street actions. Solidarity actions with what was happening in Montreal and elsewhere in Quebec spread to New York, Chicago, Paris and other cities. The earlier Occupy Montreal movement and the anger it expressed against the plutocracy was integrated in the new social revolt and it re-emerged with a bang on the streets and neighbourhoods of Montreal.
The point in recounting in outline form the year 2012 is to demonstrate that this social revolt had deep roots in the community organisations that are implanted here and there. It is important to note that this social revolt was anchored in a communalist sentiment and identity. Throughout the strike and its accompanied actions, all decisions where taken in general assemblies in each college and university, using the decision-making process of direct democracy. This politics was shown more generally during the mass demonstration in the streets on June 22nd when a pamphlet was widely distributed, titled ‘Manifeste pour one Democratize Directe’, subtitled ‘behind representative democracy, there is an oligarchy hiding’. The pamphlet authored by a number of anarchists affiliated to neighbourhood associations states: “…The solution to get out of the current crisis is democracy, the only, true, real: direct democracy – or self-management – in which citizens’ exercise power directly. We need to re-build general assemblies, popular councils, participatory budgets, self-managed cooperatives, the use of referenda so that our society can orient itself from the base and horizontally.”
On 12 July, Classe the largest and most militant of the three student unions that drove the strike, published in a French-language daily the following remarkable manifesto, called “We are the future” : ‘The soil of Quebec is shaking under the marching feet of thousands. A force once underground, in a frozen consensus, has now surged forward this spring. This force has involved students, parents, grandparents, children, workers and the unemployed. What started out as a student strike has now become a popular struggle…we have touched a much deeper malaise, we have uncovered a deep political problem. It is a problem that affects all of society. It is thus important to speak to the root of the problem and give substance to our vision.
Our vision is that of direct democracy, present at all moments. It is a democracy that is present in all assemblies: at school; in the workplace: and in the neighbourhoods. It is a vision that foresees the engagement of everybody in politics permanently at the base of society as its primary venue…Our democracy does not make promises, it acts.
Their vision, their democracy, is called representative, and we ask who it represents.” What follows in this manifesto, is not only a critique of liberal democracy, but a general analysis of the dimensions of social injustice, environmental degradation, a social alternative is envisaged concluding on complete gender equality. The manifesto concludes thus: ‘If we have chosen to strike, it is because we have chosen to fight for ideas, to create a social force…because together we can accomplish a great deal…. Everywhere new democratic spaces are being created, which have to be used to create a new world…This is why we make an appeal for a social strike that is why we choose the street… .”
The red cloth square of the student movement which adorned the garments of many thousands in 2012 has become an international symbol, often combined with a slice of black. The political culture has shown to have changed. Provincial elections were held with the strike ending. The government was defeated, and new government froze the student fees but proceeded to make other mistakes, and so its rule was short, and it too was defeated in another general provincial election. The new third government is carefully walking on eggs. It has forbidden fracking, and indicated that it will bend to public will by objecting to a pipeline coming through Quebec carrying Alberta’s tar sand oil. It has also told an oil company to shut down a proposed port on the St. Laurent river which was meant to export the oil from western Canada. Small reversals and victories, but the storm clouds are still on the horizon.
Before concluding this portion, let me add a few new vitals. Several years ago, I help create the Institute of Policy Alternatives of Montreal (IPAM), an urban think tank, as a supplement to the Urban Ecology Center here. IPAM (www.ipamontreal.org) is focused on the entire metropolitian region (city-region) of some 88 cities and towns of various shapes and sizes. In 2010 we organised an Agora (a citizens summit) on the need to envisage an urban development plan for the city-region as a whole. It worked and we thus influenced the drawing up of an overall overview which now includes major environmental issues, public transportation and housing concerns. The amazing feature of this and the follow-up experiences were that once again we proved to politicians and journalists that citizens are interested in the larger picture and want to influence public policy if given the opening to do so with their ideas. The Agora idea has now become institutionalized in the bi-annual programme of the metropolitian administration, where progress or lack thereof is publicly scrutinized. IPAM’s regular roundtables also bring to the attention of civil society actors important urban issues. For example, the Quebec government decided some time ago to build two super hospitals and thus close down five existing hospitals. One IPAM roundtable created a consensus that the five hospitals should remain in the public domain (the provincial State was leaning toward selling these off to the real estate industry) and that further these sites should serve the common good, especially social housing. By 2014 this prespective has gained considerable traction with much agreement in the arena of public opinion and even amongst the local political elite. Here again, the important notion that prevailed was ‘no to private property’, yet another step to the municipal or community ownership of land. Thus the ideological hegemony of private property has been eaten away at.
On these reconstructed sites, it is hoped that ecological building will take its place and a broad range of community organisations are working away at advancing alternatives uses of these public spaces.
The ecology of politics
The undersoil of the new political culture is still fermenting. The politics of the sixties, nurtured by social ecology, created and re-creates a vital public sphere based on cooperation and community, and it is driven by features of direct democracy, and as Bookchin has argued such politics does not exclude, and indeed requires that citizens ‘take over the city’ with a new municipal agenda, forming a new municipal administration of directly mandated elected delegates from the neighbourhoods of the city. Montreal, thanks to the urban left and historical circumstances, is the most decentralized city in North America, with its 19 boroughs, with 19 borough councillors, and 19 borough mayors, each with its own budget, open monthly to citizen scrutiny. Each council meeting begins with a citizen question period, which turns out to often be volatile.
All these changes have taken decades of community organizing, bringing citizens together in networking assemblies or summits, coalition building and spreading the vital need and importance of horizontal decision-making by citizens, and remaining ever vigilant at the emergence of hierarchy and authoritarians. Transforming urban society and establishing a new harmony with Nature, a social ecology perspective, is now on the agenda. In a city which has published more books on social ecology and books by Murray Bookchin, in French and in English, than any other city, and in a city which has activists who understand that in socially transforming urban life, we are well placed to then establish a new relationship with the natural world, we claim that this laboratory deserves to be duplicated rapidly elsewhere. This can be the birth of the new politics with the city as the geopolitical fulcrum. We have to go beyond web-sites, blogs, pamphleteering, book publishing, and conference organising. What is needed is that the new politics be experimented with on the ground. The road is long however, and what is required is patience and the seizure of all opportunities to breech the power structure and open the doors and windows to the citizens of the city. This perspective marks us in different political colours to those of the eco-socialists, many of whom may stand in the way forward. What is needed, sisters and brothers, is the political will to organise the new politics, the ecology of politics.
As regards the major battle against climate change, we must be very careful not to be deluded by the consequence of mass demonstrations. As important as the September march of 400,000 in New York City was, the police kept marchers away from the United Nations buildings, which was the main key target. And the attempted occupation of Wall Street by a small group of 3000 demonstrators speaks volumes showing the distances between various wings of the environmental and social movements. And while Naomi Klein participated in both demos, in her latest book, she names the system of capitalism as the system to change, but she falls terribly short of how to do this politically. We need to imaginatively and eloquently intervene in this struggle to identify the roadmap before us now and in the years ahead.
In Montreal, we have begun, and we will and must continue to push forward. We invite all of you, listeners and readers, to join up in this surge and agenda. Next stop, the World Social Forum meeting where thousands from across the planet will converge, where this agenda will be discussed and debated.