Evental Turning Points in History: The Flotilla, and What it Might Mean for Climate Activism

by Tristan on June 6, 2010

in Civil disobedience, Ethics, International relations

One thing environmentalist advocates have hoped for is that some environmental catastrophe might be interpreted as a call to action against climate change. It’s not a bad idea, but it suffers from a problem. While global warming does increase the frequency of catastrophic events, no particular event can be specifically linked with that increase in frequency – and therefore no particular environmental disaster can easily stand as a call to action.

Up until recently, the plight of the Palestinians has suffered from a similar problem – while the increasing violence and oppression of the state of Gaza might be recognized as a fact by Palestine’s supporters, those who wish to reserve judgment on the issue could look at any particular instance of violence and interpret it as justified in its particularity by Israel’s precarious situation in the middle east. That is, until recently – the murder of ten unarmed humanitarian NGO workers on a vessel carrying goods currently being barred entry into Gaza by an illegal blockade is not easily interpretable as justified by Israel’s “threatened” status. As The Globe and Mail put it:

Israel’s claim this week that its soldiers killed nine civilians in self-defence on an aid-to-Gaza flotilla it had boarded is at best tone deaf. It strains credibility. You attack unarmed ships at sea and when people resist, shoot them and then blame them. It’s beyond Orwellian.

More significant than the Globe’s analysis, is the fact Israel is being criticized in the mainstream press at all. This novel event signals the importance of the event reported – in it, Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people has exceeded the ability of western business interests (represented in and by The Globe and Mail) to continue to stand by and mouth approval. In this event, the value of opposing barbarism exceeds the value of maintaining the status quo, no matter how profitable the current situation.

The importance of Margaret Atwood’s change of feeling with respect to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians can not be underestimated either. As Canadian cultural figures go, they do not come much bigger than Atwood. And in her position as Canada’s preeminent writer, her introduction of the notion of “Israel’s shadow” is not likely to fade away after this first mention – it will likely become an enduring term in the political imaginary.

“The Shadow is not the Palestinians” but “Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.” It seems to me this is the key to what has changed and poses a new problem for Israel. The core for anyone examining the situation with a fresh eye, isn’t what “they” – Palestinians – are doing to Israelis; it’s what Israel is doing to them.

But what does this event have to do with burying coal? Precisely this: that in an era where disaster, not reason, is the event of politics, the purposeful production of disaster towards one’s own ends is the preeminent form of political change. This does mean “make a disaster – make change”, because the grounds, the conditions for the disaster must be adequately laid, and the disaster must be produced in such a way that it can not be re-adapted, re-interpreted back into the dominant narrative.

But isn’t there an obvious contradiction here – while it is feasible enough to provoke a state into killing you, isn’t it illogical, impossible, to provoke such a crisis that would relate to global warming and the need for drastic reductions in carbon emissions? I think this contradiction appears only if our notion of disaster remains needlessly narrow – politics is after all not about the disaster itself, but how it is produced, displayed, re-produced etc…. And, climate change mitigation is not only about the environment, but about humans living in the environment, and the moral demand to produce a future where humans can continue to live in their environment. The violent actors, therefore, under the optics of climate change, are emitters – but more importantly, those emitters which are not “policy takers”, but rather who have more power than governments, whose influence produces climate change denial, and who are not simply people with bad consciences, but structures which disallow people from acting on conscience at all (i.e. shareholder capitalism).

We can thus think backwards to the kind of event one would need to produce, from the evental transformation we need such an event to produce. Perhaps most essentially, we need to reconsider why we are at home with living in a society so deeply hypocritical, and why we are unwilling to change the structures that reproduce that hypocrisy. The event can not be violent – both because of the hypocrisy inherent in violent action acting against violence, and because of the trivial ease of trivializing violence. And yet the event can not be merely peaceful – because hypocrisy always wears the face of peace – it is essential that the flotilla met the IDF and not an Israeli public relations team. The event must be, above all, provocative – both in the sense that it should provoke an unjustifiable response, and in the sense that the unjustifiability of that response should be provocative of a change in attitude towards the political situation that made such a response normal. Ideally, the provocation would require the Globe and Mail to respond with a critique of our Prime Minister like the recent one:

And in this situation, who is a real “friend of Israel” – as they say. Is it Margaret Atwood, who raises questions and doubts, or Stephen Harper, who encourages Israel along the same perilous route that brought it to this point?

What events could shift the public imaginary with respect to climate change policy? The BP oil spill is perhaps an example of an immediate tragedy as part of oil extraction whose true disaster is long term. Perhaps police oppression of climate justice activists at the coming G8/G20 could be a political event to show up the hypocrisy of the current systems. The key, I think, is to allow the reception of an event in such a way that the long term catastrophe can be seen reflected in a particular happening – this may be the key to real political transformation surrounding carbon emissions and their unimaginable impact on our future.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan June 6, 2010 at 11:50 pm

It is worth noting that the first quote in this post is from an opinion piece by Rick Salutin. It doesn’t necessarily represent the editorial stance of The Globe and Mail.

Milan June 7, 2010 at 12:44 am

This Economist post considers the Gaza flotilla as a kind of theatrical act, and highlights how only Israeli violence made it effective:

“But here’s the thing: the violence employed by those 30 protestors is what achieved the Freedom Flotilla’s goals. No metal pipes, no Israeli shooting. No Israeli shooting, no dead protestors. No dead protestors, no recall of the Turkish ambassador or emergency UN Security Council meeting. The protestors who swung those pipes risked their own (and others’) lives; some of them are probably dead now. And, unlike the ones who joined arms below deck and sang “Kumbaya”, they succeeded in weakening the international negotiating position of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians, placed the Gaza blockade on the international agenda, and may ultimately topple the Israeli government. Lesson: if you’re willing to die for your cause, punch a soldier in the face and try to get him to shoot you. It’ll get you a lot further than stuffing flowers in gun barrels.”

Perhaps police oppression of climate justice activists at the coming G8/G20 could be a political event to show up the hypocrisy of the current systems.

I don’t think these media scenes can have any effect anymore. These clashes have happened at countless international meetings now: G8 summits, UNFCCC conferences, WTO meetings, etc. The media covers it because violence always draws eyeballs, but neither the protests nor the police responses change anyone’s opinion about anything. They are just part of the backdrop now.

Milan June 7, 2010 at 12:50 am

It is also worth mentioning that the flotilla hasn’t produced any concrete changes in anyone’s policies yet. There has been some diplomatic umbrage, but it remains to be seen whether anything will actually change in Gaza, Israel, or the region as a result.

Several different outcomes could have some importance for this agitating for political action on climate change. In the end, the flotilla could have no real effect. It could have an effect that those who launched it would approve of. Or it could have an effect contrary to their wishes.

Most likely, it will just end up being part of the general amalgam of events that have an influence on the politics of the region, leaving it difficult to disentangle how things would have been had it never been launched.

Tristan June 7, 2010 at 1:11 am

“the flotilla hasn’t produced any concrete changes in anyone’s policies yet.”

Egypt?

“Egypt said it was freely opening its border with Gaza for the first time in more than a year to allow in humanitarian aid, setting off a mad rush to the crossing by thousands of residents, while an Israeli official said there is an “ongoing dialogue” with the international community on how to expand the amount of goods entering the area.”

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37442104/ns/world_news-mideastn_africa/

Tristan June 7, 2010 at 1:15 am

“This Economist post considers the Gaza flotilla as a kind of theatrical act, and highlights how only Israeli violence made it effective:”

Who ever thought anything other than this? Who thinks politics is ever anything other than theatre?

As for “only” Israeli violence made it effective – sure, as how it actually played out. But, if a ship had made it through, that would have been pretty meaningful, even in the absence of Israeli violence.

Certain actors in the IDF don’t seem to approve from stepping back from the self-reported desire to be perceived as capable of acting as “a lunatic state” and “as rabid dogs” during the Gaza massacre. The existence of group of Israeli naval officers who have come out against the raid, the cover up, and the avoidance of an international inquiry demonstrates a lack of unity in the IDF on willingness to commit war crimes.

Milan June 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm

In a climate context, the only direct actions I can think of that bear much resemblance to this Gaza situation are attempts to shut down coal-related facilities like power plants, railroads, and coal export terminals.

In those situations, it is hard for me to see why a violent response from the authorities would boost public support for fighting climate change. As long as the general public basically sees these facilities as necessary, violence directed against those opposing them seems likely to have limited political relevance.

Milan June 7, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Once the general public has accepted that the claims of a particular group are genuine, seeing violence done against them by the state or private actors with opposing interests may galvanize public support.

Right now, however, there isn’t public support for leaving fossil fuels buried. People are too married to the conveniences and benefits they provide, insufficiently concerned about climate change, and too wary about whether alternative forms of energy can ever provide the sort of lives they want.

Tristan June 11, 2010 at 10:37 am

Are you sure there isn’t public support? I’ve never seen you cite a poll on the issue.

Milan June 11, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Polls are a poor way of evaluating real support. First, it is easy to manipulate how people answer by phrasing the question different ways.

Second, people always claim to be more generous than they really are. Ask how much aid we should send to Africa, and they cite some big number. Ask them to actually pay and they won’t.

The lack of public support for moving beyond fossil fuels is demonstrated by the unwillingness of the general public to give up the advantages they provide, the low ranking they give to environmental issues compared to other concerns, and their continued support for politicians and parties who talk about being concerned about climate but take no real action on it.

Tristan June 11, 2010 at 2:02 pm

“Polls are a poor way of evaluating real support”

“the low ranking they give to environmental issues compared to other concerns,”

How do you know this, if not from polls?

Tristan June 11, 2010 at 2:03 pm

“the unwillingness of the general public to give up the advantages they provide,”

When was the general public given an opportunity to give up this advantage?

Milan June 11, 2010 at 2:47 pm

When polled, people respond in ways that they think will make them look good to the pollster:

“Of course I would vote for a black candidate! I’m no racist.”

“I am intensely concerned about the situation in Darfur! I will write to my MP about it!”

“Of course we need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and deal with climate change!”

People have genuinely distorted perspectives on things like how much they give to charity. Also, it is completely painless to give an answer in a poll that would be painful to give in real life.

Milan June 11, 2010 at 2:49 pm

When was the general public given an opportunity to give up this advantage?

Every time they could have voted for a candidate serious about climate change but didn’t; every time they ignored an oil spill and maintained a lifestyle reliant on petroleum; every time they decided to get a less efficient furnace or home, rather than pay more up front.

The basic character of our society is a reflection of the willingness people have to continue to tolerate fossil fuel dependence, as well as their unwillingness to take or accept serious actions to reduce that dependence.

Tristan June 11, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Good thing capitalism doesn’t produce desire before it produces products…

…oh wait.

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