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Ecology Councils: Grassroots Climate Strategies from Mesopotamia

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August 21, 2023
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cross-posted from Towards Autonomy


“The councils have always been undoubtedly democratic, but in a sense never seen before and never thought about.” ~ Hannah Arendt

As Greece and other parts of the world are once again engulfed by wildfires, while almost each day a new heat record is reached, an increasing number of people are realizing that the effects of climate change are here and are changing the face of our localities, while years of neoliberal policies have left preventive public services underfunded and ill-equipped for the disaster periods to come. It is also becoming crystal clear that there seems to be no plan for action to stop the forthcoming catastrophe. The summits of the ruling classes—the so-called COPs—have been widely recognized as failures.

Of course, we must not be surprised by the failed attempts of global elites to successfully challenge the climate crisis. The results of the COP summits so far, and predictably of those to come, have been and will continue to be deadly inefficient because these are meeting spaces for the top echelons of the world. And the decisions that must be taken in order to avoid climate catastrophe have to do with drastic measures towards de-growth, overturning the power discrepancies that allow the very existence of elites—in other words, nothing short of radical social change. Those who attend the COP summits, as part of the world elites, have no interest in such a perspective, and prefer instead the cosmetic measures that don’t endanger the continuation of business-as-usual. Only the common people, those who already suffer the consequences of the growth-infused climate change, have the interest and will to make the hard decisions necessary to avert the upcoming catastrophe. That’s why social ecologists have always insisted that ecological solutions require direct-democratic means.

Where can people meet each other and seek collective and pragmatic solutions to an existential problem that puts in danger their livelihoods? Some may propose the scale of the Nation-State, but as C.L.R. James, one of the greatest anti-colonial thinkers of the 20th century, said, a radical, essentially revolutionary, social change cannot be achieved on the national level. More specifically, according to him, the national quality of the state must be destroyed; that is to say, the revolution has got to be an international revolution.

This corresponds especially to the approach needed for successfully tackling climate change, as both for-profit capitalist globalization and national-centered statecraft both tend to divide people. The natural world does not recognize borders, be they based on national belonging or on class position. Thus, its preservation requires their abolition, something that will require the replacement of current institutions with new ones that will allow for the emergence of a genuine public space open to all. As C.L.R. James suggests, no one can know for sure what the new institutions will look like, but according to him, we can inform our visions from the highest peaks of the past as a guide. For James, such were the institutional forms of the public assembly and the council of delegates, such as those that have manifested amid popular uprisings. These seem like more suitable political forms for our crisis-ridden age.

According to Hannah Arendt, the historical origin of the party system lies in Parliament, while the councils were born exclusively out of the actions and spontaneous demands of the people. For her the council form is the only known democratic alternative to parliamentarism, and the principles on which the former is based stand in sharp opposition to the principles of the latter in many respects: first and foremost being, as Arendt insists, that the councils control their delegates, instead of being represented by them. On the other hand, she notes that one of the great merits of the institution of the council is its great inherent flexibility, which seems to need no special conditions for its establishment except the coming together and acting together of a certain number of people on a non-temporary basis.

The creation of local ecology councils, transnationally interconnected with each other, could be an immensely important step towards developing sustainable answers to climate change. And this is not some far-fetched proposal coming from nowhere, but a very real strategic approach implemented in different parts of Mesopotamia, where the environmental movements have been feverishly nurturing the emergence of the grassroots institution of the ecology council for the preservation of communal livelihoods.

Mesopotamian groups sought to advance a structural alternative to the ongoing environmental degradation in Northern Kurdistan (Bakur), going well beyond the path of single-issue campaigns. Thus, they offered us a glimpse into how a really democratic dual power can be established that seeks to open real public space where all members of a given locality can participate, and then to connect such spaces for decisions to be taken for the trans-local level. It must also be noted that the ecology councils in Mesopotamia were developed with the scope of belonging to all of the social base, rather than being a hub for ideological sectarianism—something that might shock activists in other parts of the world. But we must always bear in mind that the only way to politicize a population and instill in it a passion for democratic participation is to give it space to self-organize and self-emancipate. And this is exactly what has been happening for some years now in different parts of Kurdistan, with the most notable case being that of Rojava.

Such strategy derives from the understanding that those who live close to the land, and not elites hidden in their remote offices, have the most intimate experiences with local natural systems, but also from recognizing that the problems that plague each locality are interconnected. This implies a radical alteration of the way our societies are governed, shifting decision-making power away from elites and towards the grassroots. We cannot expect anything of essence from heads of states or capitalist interests. Our hope lies in each other and in the grassroots worldwide. This is what we should advocate for and nurture whenever we see it emerging from popular action.


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