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COP17 Durban

Solar Powered Cappucino

by Ben Fogel / Images by Dave Durbach / 08.12.2011

COP 17 drags on. Everybody would rather be somewhere else. When last Saturday’s protest march of around 10,000 people reached Durban’s ICC, the venue of the UN environmental conference, suits rushed out with iphones and blackberries. They seemed desperate to escape the boredom inside for a little local singing and dancing. Some delegates even pushed past mounted police to join the protest. The media was out en masse too. There were bored German, Russian and US TV crews alongside indie media like Democracy Now, with Amy Goodman in the flesh.

What struck me most is the overwhelming NGO presence. Liberal NGOs like WWF and Greenpeace alongside the admirable 350.org, recently responsible for blocking the keystone pipeline between Canada and the United States, as well as several local social movements, Abahlali baseMjondolo and local COSATU branches. Before the big march last weekend, COSATU promised 65 bus loads of people but only several hundred from the National Union of Mine Workers and the Union of Municipal workers actually showed up.

I will got out on a limb and declare the protest a complete failure. It was a feel-good ritual designed to placate the democratic conscience of the media. Maybe even a sideshow to cheer what’s left of the delegates souls. As much as it was an incredible feeling being part of a such a large scale protest, it did nothing to interrupt the seamless transition to planetary destruction. Fully paid up elites don’t notice memorandums and marches. If they did there would be genuine commitment to solving the environmental crisis. It would be treated like the planetary emergency it is. Which it isn’t.

COP17 Durban

The march was even listed as part of the COP17 official schedule available to all who visit the minimalist Eco-friendly corporate expo abutting the ICC building. It’s set up so corporations can ‘greenwash’ their images in the Durban sunshine. You can sit outside at rustic wooden tables and drink solar powered cappucino. Local businesses are trying to get in on the action. Florida Road is the ideal setting for the solar powered cappucino scam. You can find it all over Durban’s premiere dining strip. Along with Christmas lights and regular coffee. Delegates might prefer getting drunk on exorbitant craft beer within the walled off Durban “Green Zone” while toasting the future success of “Green Capitalism”. For the less distracted, it’s hard to ignore the tilt and glide of cctv surveillance systems monitoring every movement or the riot police outside.

Back at the conference, South Africa’s Foreign Minister, Maita Nkoana-Mashabane, gave a truly forgettable speech. The only surprising thing about it was that she didn’t receive any audible booing. There was even lukewarm applause from the NGO types. Alex Lenferna, on the shadow team of the official SA negotiation team, later told me they were shooting for  “complete neutrality” on all the important issues. Just what’s needed right now as the planet heats up inexorably. Even a COSATU leader privately acknowledged there was a lack of working class or even civil society presence on the official negotiating team. Although both COSATU leaders I spoke to were loathe to criticize the government’s negligible response to climate change.

COP17 Durban

Then the person Business Day described as “the affable Costa Rican” – the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, gave us a master class in empty rhetoric. She stood atop a media truck and told us a folksy yarn that began with schoolchildren and ended with her urging us all “to do more and then do more again”. Lukewarm applause except for some enthusiastic Greenpeace folk at the front. Applauding the very people fucking over the planet with dumb wasteful shows like COP17 designed to put off real action on climate change, environmental destruction and pollution with predetermined impasses. You can hear air conditioning units hum outside the compound, sparing insiders the Durban humidity.

So vague feel-good rhetoric prevails at COP 17. A passive acceptance of the status quo. Sitting there I wanted us to chase them back to their fortified compound, charge the gates Bolshevik style, and, at the very least, occupy the minimalist Corporate Expo center. Last Saturday, the protest reached North Beach where a woman seized the loud hailer and told us to “occupy” the space, an officially sanctioned grass bank about a kilometer from the conference. The UN even laid on some DJs to spin tunes. It was utterly sickening.

Clearly protests have been institutionalized and defanged at big events like this. They are empty rituals for the world’s media to paint a scenario of democratic inclusion and vibrancy while our collective future hangs in the balance. Getting permission to Occupy something, to a soundtrack, isn’t what the Global revolt of 2011 is about. Institutionalized dissent on this scale is disheartening. It diminishes radical potential. That alone plays into the hands of an increasingly authoritarian ANC who want COP17 to be another safe little showcase for their willingness to comply with global elites.

COP17 Durban

*All images © Dave Durbach.

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  1. screaming doc hansen says:

    Note the arms race on the M4 in from King Shugga for these last few days. Instead of sharing a ride, our political masters are coming in for the final sessions at subunity passenger : vehicle ratios because of the lead motorcycle with siren, the lead 4×4 with blue light, the actual merc and then the tail 4×4 . Or am I just imagining this ?

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  2. Benjamin says:

    that’s the sort of shit I was hoping to see.

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  3. Benjamin says:

    also @screaming doc hansen they are extending the service to business people of the common or garden variety too. Or so my sources tell me.

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  4. Lee says:

    Staying home on your couch and joining Avaaz.org would have more impact by the sound of thing…

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  5. sara says:

    This writer clearly knows nothing about politics – the UNFCCC is the most politically active body raising alarm about climate change and instigator of the Kyoto Protocol

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  6. Benjamin says:

    and if you had been following COP17, you would now be asking what Kyoto Protocol?

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  7. futureherenow says:

    @ sara clearly does not understand anything about politics because while the UNFCC says lots of stuff, the UN itself is so deeply compromised by its stance toward corporate members and funding that it has basically left the door open for the conservative corporate political nexus, fixated on fossil fuels, to continue to disrupt and undermine every single COP meeting. Which is why they are known as conferences of the polluters.

    Sure UNFCC says lots of stuff but they too are very conservative as to the real impacts of GHG on climate change. I guess they have to be with the conservative/ libertarian wingnuts out there but the reality is they dont set the terms on anything.

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  8. Caryll says:

    Leigh and Friend:in my experience, most (many?) ipnitocials really are sincere as well as ambitious. They think that they can do it all, and keep everyone happy. They think that there is a middle ground with which even the extremes will be happy, if the extremes will only give it a chance. Of course, this is usually fatally over optimistic.We, those of us watching and not participating, tend to assume that ipnitocials are cynical instead of naive. And, of course, some of them are (Nixon springs to mind there are others). But I think that there are many who are completely genuine in their attempts to please everyone and they believe that they can really do it. They believe that their charm, their personality, their ability to sit people down and talk sense to them (what Weber termed Charisma) allows them (and only them) to change the terms of the debate. But of course this will only work out if they are in power, in the position to work their charms and so they are willing to say and do what it takes to get elected because then they will be able to fix everything and create the compromises necessary to make everyone happy ..and, usually, some one/group ends up being very disappointed, because the charisma isn’t enough to create 500,000 jobs, for instance.Now, the people around those ipnitocials usually are the cynical ones the ones who see that charisma, and attempt to use it to achieve certain goals usually one of the extremist positions. Or, sometimes, just personal aggrandizement ie, to get rich personally. Which is usually better for the country as a whole. Sorry for the cynicism.

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