Some thoughts on the green debate- Globalsapian exhibition review

Just got back from Globalsapiens exhibition at CADS in Sheffield, which is free and well worth a look if you want to pass some time on a rainy August afternoon. However, whilst it is heartening to see many DIY anti-capitalist projects springing up in various ways across the city, I do have a few criticisms. These criticisms are to do with the political message in some of the art on show here, rather than the art forms or technique, and as exhibitions such as these explicitly aim to mix art and politics, I do think they are relevant. But really, the criticisms extend beyond this exhibition, as some of the political prescriptions put on display in Globalsapians are very fashionable in certain circles and repeated by many on the left. I just want to reiterate the exhibition itself is very good, it’s refreshing to see art in a down-to-earth, un-intimidating space; I particularly enjoyed the large Picasso-esque paintings.

A video piece called ‘Globalsapiens conference 2011’ featured three people discussing current issues. It was when they got to talking about climate change and ecological problems that I really started to listen; then I saw some of the literature that went with the piece, it was full of facts about cigarette butts and how they are the number one culprit in terms of litter pollution worldwide. One of the men on-screen was talking about how bullshit it is when you go to the cinema and you see those rancorous adverts telling you that if you buy pirate movies then you are funding terrorism blah blah. He is absolutely right to take issue with this hyperbole which aims to terrify/bully people out of buying cheaper commodities in order to keep the massive movie production companies in profit (I digress though, intellectual/creative property rights=another topic for another time…) However the on-screen man only highlighted this advert, to counter it with something along the lines of “Never mind pirate movies, what about all the evil brands people buy, these people who every time they go to the cinema, buy a coca-cola. If we all just stopped buying these brands…” it went on in this vein. The message in the accompanying literature was of the same kilt; stop throwing away your ciggie butts and we can help change the world. Whilst I am well aware of the evils of multi-nationals and brands such as Coca-cola and Nike; of sweatshops and the horrendous working conditions of those who make clothes for our high-street; of plastic bags and battery-farmed chickens, I don’t agree with reducing such global problems to individual life-style politics and proclaiming that these problems can be solved if we all just stop buying shit and start recycling everything. Let me say here that I’m not being blasé about ‘green issues’ and as an active Marxist, I am seriously committed to fighting to save our planet. But it seems to me, it is currently a la mode to say it is us as individuals who consume too much, are greedy, and need to change. We are told to turn down our heating and use less. A trip to Beanie’s Wholefoods will see lots of smug looking hippies/students putting their organic, free-range, vegan items in their bag-for-life. However, snide comments or self-righteous looking -down on those who don’t follow this often expensive life model, belies an incorrect analysis of the our current ecological situation: ECOLOGICAL PROBLEMS ARE NOT PRIMARILY ABOUT WHAT WE CONSUME BUT RATHER HOW WE PRODUCE.

There are different things to be drawn from this in tackling climate change. Firstly, it proves that even those who recycle and re-use with the best of intentions because they’re told it’s the thing to be done, unfortunately are contributing only a negligible amount to saving the planet compared to those who never re-use/recycle. If you are seriously concerned about ecological issues you’d be better to take direct action- help with campaigns where possible, such as ‘the one million green jobs project,’ go on any demos that try to prevent new supermarkets being built in your local area, campaign for supermarkets to stop producing plastic bags and so on. Do all this and you may help force through some important reforms. But ‘climate change’ will forever remain a threat under capitalism. As stated above, it is the means of production that is the problem. We need to organize and fight for a system change in order to prevent climate change. As the Globalsapiens exhibition  claims to be ‘anti-capitalist’ and includes a piece that displays simply “Note to self: what I need’s a revolution not a relationship,” I assumed we were coming from the same place: capitalism is evil and nothing short of a revolution can save our planet. Yet if you follow the prescriptions proposed in the exhibition to their logical conclusion then you are left with, at best some ‘green’ reformism, at worse a rather exclusive lifestyle, advocating holier-than-thou consumer politics. It is a useful myth of capitalism that we as consumers have choices and can change the world. What the ecological debate is often lacking is class consciousness; it is not us as consumers, but us as WORKERS that can overthrow this brutal system of oppression and exploitation and create a new system based on need not greed. Only after a revolution will people and nature stop being exploited and destroyed.

This exhibition made me think of the sharp end of some of the very common ‘green snobbery’ I have witnessed. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, whilst I was in The Green Field at Glastonbury. I was taking shelter in the Small World tent  from the unrelenting pissing-down rain to slurp a cup of chai, there was a really shitty folk band on. Everything about them screamed Trustafarian-the dreadlocked hair, posh accent and home-made clothes. And then, my suspicions were confirmed when, between songs, they omitted a tirade of abuse against anyone who shopped at Tesco. I never thought I would be wishing that lot to just shurrup and play another dreadful song but there I was. They were talking about how anyone who shopped at Tesco may as well shoot themselves in their right foot, and how you can’t progress without your right foot and how they’d like to do the shooting for you if you shop at Tescos. What about the single mothers I thought, or the low-waged workers, who are forced to source out the cheapest place to shop in order to feed their kids, to survive. Tesco however despicable a business, does offer competitive prices that are appealing to many, that’s why its in business after all. Don’t blame and bemoan the often working class people who shop at these places, we are the last people to blame. Don’t frown upon those who shop at Tesco out of economic necessity, don’t even frown on those who shop on Tesco just because they like it. This attitude betrays a complete lack  of class consciousness. People like this are particularly infuriating. Direct your abuse at the owners of Tesco, lobby them, campaign against them, occupy a Tesco store if you must but DON’T DARE blame the people at the bottom of the pile. Those who are forced to eat the shitty mass-produced food Tesco offer; those who are forced to compete for soulless jobs there and are then exploited by the owners of Tesco; those who have got a million-and-one more pressing things to consider than buying organic. That will teach me for hanging out in the green field I guess. Bloody Hippies.

If you are passionate about ‘green issues,’ like I said take direct action concerning our environment, but don’t just stop there. Support workers struggles, support strikes-think of all the energy consumption prevented from a day of closing down a factory/office block!!! Have conversations on pickets about environmental issues. Win people over through debates and conversations and encourage people to be involved in green trade unionism. There has been clear evidence from organizations such as The Carbon Trust that most businesses could save a fifth or more of their energy consumption through low-cost measures, however without involving workers on the ground green measures will never get pushed through in the workplace. Why? Because the capitalist bosses who own the means of production are all about short-term profits. We must not forget or downplay the strength of the working class who hold the only key to banishing capitalism forever. You may not think you need the lumpenproletariat in your ‘green army’ but you do. Your fight is their fight and vice-versa how ever different you talk/dress/eat/shop. Just look at the recent Arab Revolutions for an idea of worker’s strength. As long as there are imperialist wars, as long as we all submit to market logic, as long as power and wealth is concentrated into the hands of an elite few, and the worker is alienated from her labour, we will never see a truly green society. This is why, I would rather focus my energy on building a mass movement of workers, rather than donate to Greenpeace or waste time hating myself for drinking coca-cola or shopping at Topshop- not because green issues are not a priority for me, but exactly because they are. I do have slightly more sympathy for people who genuinely mean well and try to reduce their carbon footprint etc etc, I am more angry at the governments and big businesses who shift the blame onto individuals and avoid taking responsibility for our eco-sytstem. We can recycle all we like but the big companies will continue to pollute.

I just thought it was worth a quick word on this subject. A deeper and broad-minded analysis of the current situation is needed here, as opposed to participating in blame culture and individualizing politics. That only serves to divide us and distract us from the real culprits. I feel the focus in art&political exhibitions/debates/events really need to focus more on the rational and only solution to ecological issues- kick out capitalism, revolution, mass movement of organized workers. This takes the doom-and-gloom hopeless, helpless We-can’t-do-anything-to-change-the-world out of the equation. This world-analysis is actually incredibly positive, it sees the  entirely-possible human potential for change and proudly believes in humanity. For if you see things in this socialist light, you declare, it’s not us the masses, the majority of the world who are greedy and lazy and apathetic. After all if it’s our individual greed and unquenchable thirst for consumerism that’s the issue here then why do the capitalists have to spend so much of their precious money on advertising- which surrounds us daily, saturates our consciousness and brainwashes us to buy products – if we were naturally greedy advertising wouldn’t be needed at all! Its not our consumption which drives the system, it’s rather the unceasing demand to turn money into capital and back into more money which is gobbling up the planet. To survive, capitalism by its very nature has to produce waste. Lets keep the green movement broad and inclusive- link up all the struggles-economical/ecological/political, let’s see the whole picture, learn from each other, and then and only then will we save the planet.

Martin Empsom is a great authour/activist around green issues (I’ve nicked some of his ideas here), and another book called “Stop global warming change the world” by Jonathon Neale goes into much more detail and smashes many commonly-held myths re: global warming.

One Response to “Some thoughts on the green debate- Globalsapian exhibition review”
  1. Martin says:

    Good article. It can be sometimes hard to challenge these sort of autonomist ideas without being sympathetic to the frustraitions which bring people to them, and I think this manages to make the criticism without alienating the ideals behind it, but also being hard on the reality of where it leads (condescending bullshit from hippies 😛 ). In fact, art is a very good place to open these sort of debates up. I tried to re visit John Holloway’s work again the other day out of interest, and I couldn’t deal with it – had to put down the book. The arguments just don’t stand up, and ultimately it come across offensive, and it’s so frustraiting as I realise the ideals behind it – they just fall so short!

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