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“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 1

This article starts “The People’s Climate” blog series by Heather Menzies, author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good: A memoir & a manifesto.

In Reclaiming the Commons, I praise Bill McKibben and as Luddites for our times for championing limits on energy extraction.

~ Heather Menzies



# One: On why a “People’s Climate” works, but only so far.
If you’d marched to the UN shouting “the people’s climate” 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have made sense like it does now. Two things have changed.

Back then, scientist-experts informed government decision-makers who spoke and acted to defend common-good things like the climate and the environment on behalf of people and the planet. Sometimes they needed a nudge from opposition parties and civil society groups, but that generally moved things along, sort of; though the crisis kept deepening, becoming more palpably obvious too. Now civil society groups –the people– are taking the initiative, informing themselves of the science and telling decision-makers what to say and do, NOW. The fate of the earth, and of its climate is no longer a scientists’ or official policymakers’ issue. It has become a people’s issue.

Secondly, environmental catastrophes of the past emerged from the environment itself – meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, mini-ice ages, etc. This time, it’s ‘man-made,’ as Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her acclaimed book, The Sixth Extinction. To be more precise, today’s climate crisis is the product of modern, generally carbon-based industry, and the corporations who run them, generally for their own profit-making priorities. But deepening inequalities have sharpened public perception of other them-us dichotomies, making it easier for more people to say: It’s OUR climate, not something that corporations can simply abuse and abandon! It’s time for us therefore to have a say in healing it so that our children and grandchildren can breathe, and live!

So now what? In the next few blog posts I want to explore this. Because climate is “atmospheric conditions” and “the people” similarly amorphous, I want to ground ‘what’s next’ in place and habitat, and the institutions of responsible government through which the people’s climate priorities can be articulated into actionable policy.

It’s all about living within the carrying capacity of the living and lived-in environment. And that’s what economic governance in the days of the pre-modern commons was all about. Remnants of this common-good regulation extended into the early decades of the new industrial economy. For instance, there were limits set on the number of looms a single cloth manufacturer could operate – to help sustain the local socio-economic habitat of the craft-scale cloth industry in which families’ household economies ran on the work of a single loom. In the early 1800s, however, industrial corporations had achieved enough lobbying power that these regulations were rescinded. This deregulation (of a scale equivalent to free-trade agreements of today) triggered the Luddite movement. This movement was not anti-development or anti-progress as such, though that’s how it has generally been depicted. As I quote British historian E.P. Thompson in my new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, the Luddites “saw a role for capital in society, but within limits,” limits hinged to the carrying capacity of environment and habitat.

In Reclaiming the Commons, I praise Bill McKibben and as Luddites for our times. “They’re not trying to stop progress,” I write (pg. 189), “only redefine it as informed by the carrying capacity of this precious, fragile planet on which we all, and all progress, depends. The new normal is trying to inculcate is like that of our ancestors in the community and land-based economies of their day: regulating the pace and scale of economic activity so as to sustain relations within the local habitat. It simply made sense to do this. It was normal.

This is the new normal, the new common sense that the people who rallied under “the people’s climate” banner last year are claiming for us today.

Next: A fable for our time, with teeth, to help change the prevailing ‘common sense.

Comment from Bill McKibben: “many thanks for this! translating that energy into something real is the next great step!”

Response from Heather: “Glad to think I might help channel this fine energy into actionable policy, Bill. Thanks.”