Neighbourhood movements are essential for saving the planet
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
When it comes to protecting the environment, large scale movements are struggling, while local initiatives are thriving. Neighbours are the ones best placed to lead the fight for our planet.
The Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport project in Western France had been widely criticized: many politicians deemed it a “useless project” as there was already an airport in Nantes, just 26 km away. Zoologists and botanists worried about it’s impact on biodiversity, as it was to be built in wetlands, declared a “zone of natural interest” for their exceptional flora and fauna. Environmental institutions and even the EU released reports denouncing the project’s ecological impact.
And yet it wasn’t the EU, nor experts that finally succeeded in getting the project cancelled in January 2018. It was an eclectic group of neighbours. Farmers that refused to leave the site after receiving compulsory purchase orders for their property. Young environmental activists that moved there to live in makeshift treehouses and in abandoned farmhouses. Older members of the local community that live nearby and gave donations of money and food to keep the movement afloat. Together, they turned the site into Europe’s biggest political squat.
After the project was formally abandoned, hundreds of people turned out to celebrate the end of the project, despite the torrential rain. They marched through the fields and woodlands, to the sound of victorious brass bands. Dozens of legs poked out from one long, bright yellow centipede costume, a reference to one of the little, endangered insects that lives in the area. The joyous atmosphere came as a reminder of how important neighbourhood involvement is in saving the planet.
Large-scale initiatives are struggling. Even before the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement it seemed unlikely that all parties would respect the non-binding agreement. The UN climate conference is still the most important international meeting on the environment, but ecologists have less and less faith in it. “The UN conference has started to seem less like a forum for serious negotiation than a very costly and high-carbon group therapy session,” writes prominent environmental campaigner and journalist Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything, “a place for the representatives of the most vulnerable countries in the world to vent their grief and rage, while low level representatives of the nations largely responsible for their tragedies stare at their shoes.”
The planet is in such danger, it requires us to question the very model we live by, the “grow-or-die” principle that is the heart of our economy. But the fact is, powerful institutions from states to corporations are too invested in today’s extractivist and capitalist system to be able to make the huge changes necessary. In a grow-or-die economy, multinationals can’t be expected to think about green before growth. And politicians rely on these multinationals to generate employment, and ensure their reelection.
And so, says Naomi Klein, “To solve the climate crisis, we need to change the person that wields power, a shift away from corporations and towards communities.”
Neighbourhood movements aren’t determined by profit, and find other rewards in going green.
Germany’s rapid transition to solar and wind power was largely helped by the fact that in hundreds of cities and towns, citizens voted to take their energy grids back from private corporations, and decided to make their energy green so as to have a healthier country.
At Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the activists found new ways to live as a community. “We’ve used our time to invent new ways of living, and fight the forms of oppression that exist in the outside world,” says a shy, skinny 25 year old, who declines to give his name.. Residents debate every aspect of their existence, and take decisions by unanimity. They have set up a feminist committee and organic farms, a pirate radio station, a weekly vegetable market, a bakery with bread made from homegrown flour. Produce is shared or sold for whatever the buyer can afford.
Notre Dame des Landes is part Woodstock, part futuristic utopia. There is even, in one remote corner of the forest, a group of hunter-gatherers. “The first oppressions came with farming, which lead to property, which in turn lead to exploitation, poverty, patriarchy…” explains Alice, who is part of the small tribe. “To make a better world, we have to question everything we take for granted.” she continues, earnestly.
What the squatters rejected was not just the airport, it was the “l’aéroport et son monde”, the airport and its world. The project became the symbol of everything they rejected : inequality, capitalism, globalisation, the destruction of the environment, intensive farming and the rise of the individual over the collective. The squatters wanted to find new ways of living that were more respectful of the environment, and of each other.
Climate change could be a galvanising force for communities, pushing them to build societies that are not only safer from extreme weather, but fairer. Neighbourhood initiatives are already cropping up all over the world, from urban farms to repair cafés, from community wind turbines to local currencies.
For corporations, questioning everything is terrifying. For communities, it is exciting.