Transport needs and Climate Breakdown as 25,000 march through Dublin


As part of the global climate strike about 25 thousand students marched through the center of Dublin city. This was one of many demonstrations that took place around Ireland, even the small dormitory towns around Dublin like Maynooth had their own demonstrations. So the actual numbers protesting in Ireland was probably in the region of 40,000.  In this piece Andrew looks at how collective action can halt Climate Breakdown using the example of the need for transport to illustrate why individual consumer choices cannot fix things.

Watching the march one of the things that struck an observer was all the handwritten signs that certainly indicated quite an awareness of what the core issues around Climate Breakdown actually are. Worth mentioning as we've seen an awful lot of cranky old white men in the Irish media over the last couple of weeks trying to suggest that the young people taking part in these mass protests don't understand the issues or were being tricked by adults. One powerful answer to that is just to watch this video and watch all the different signs and different slogans that people have created themselves.

The Irish government's complete lack of seriousness about the climate crisis is shown by the fact that the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar chose this of all days to cut the ribbon on a runway being reopened. Air travel of course is one of the things people focus in as a cause of a climate change / climate breakdown. The reason for that is it's a significant enough percentage on its own, around 3.5%, but also it's one of those things where a very small number of people are causing a huge amount of damage. An awful lot of the damage of air travel is  from people who are travelling multiple times each year.

That air travel figure is one illustration among many of why it's a mistake to talk about halting climate breakdown in terms of getting people to make different individual consumer choices. In fact most of the damage is done by a very, very, small percentage of the world's population, these are the world's wealthy.  In the UK for instance 10% of people account for 50% of International flights.

We already know the wealthy don't particularly care about the rest of us because they have created and maintain an economic system in which a huge percentage of the world's population are extremely poor.  So while on the individual level you or I might decide to try and completely avoid air travel that makes very very little difference if the wealthy take 6 or more trips a year. We’ve got a fairly narrow elite that are traveling multiple times per year who won't change their behaviour because frankly they don't really care that much about how or whether the rest of us live. This also isn't a question of the  rich simply being immoral - they are but it's more a case that an awful lot of the Climate Breakdown causes we face need systematic collective change. Climate Breakdown can't be halted at an individual consumer level.

Collective decisions making not individual consumer choice
You can see why this is the case if you look at transport. Ireland has a pretty terrible public transport system as it's expensive, it's quite often slow and it also doesn't really connect areas up very well. It tends to just connect city centers up with the suburbs because it's set up to facilitate working and shopping. The national train network is is both slow and expensive.  It also only connects Dublin to each of the regional cities. It doesn't even really connect them to each other. So we've created this transport system in Ireland where a lot of people are quite dependent on having a car and are often unable to choose an alternative way of getting around.

Now we know cars cause a huge amount of climate damage so the government's proposed solution to that - which is no solution whatsoever - is to simply try and replace the mechanical petrol and diesel cars on the roads with electric cars. On one level you might think that an improvement because obviously emissions from electric cars are lower but what it also does is ensure that in fact lots and lots and lots of new electric cars need to be built. The process of constructing those results in the production of huge amounts of a climate change gases and uses up materials some of which are in short supply and/or have polluting extractive processes. What we need to do in terms of transport is not an individual consumer choice of what sort of car people drive but rather a collective choice made by society that we're going to have a very good public transport system.

An effective public transport should be free and able to get people where they are going regular & fast enough that there is almost no need for individually owned cars anymore. We need a collective transport system where the private car becomes a kind of oddity of the late 20th century. A weird symptom of the hyper individualism that capitalism encouraged and which almost wrecked the planet.   In the cities this means a system that is not just about getting people from a suburb into the city centre but that connects the entire city up so that visiting a friend on the opposite edge of the city is as easy as driving there. And we need a rural transport system that enables people to rapidly reach every village on the island, and runs late enough to help revitalise rural social life.

Although in the US or Ireland this probably sounds hopelessly utopian the reality is that such systems have already existed and we tore them up.  Ireland had a fair more extensive island wide train system in the 1910’s, you could even get to Achill island by train.  Trams ran out of Dublin to Howth and the foothills of the Dublin mountains so people could escape the city at the weekends.  Outside of the global north transport systems that connect up everywhere are common as there are no other options.  Trains & buses run between cities and towns, shared taxi’s run the same routes with greater frequency and connect up towns to villages.  These are a necessity of relative poverty, many people can’t buy and run a car. The pressures of poverty mean they certainly have significant flaws not least pushing drivers to cramming too many people in and driving for too many hours.  But they prove that  a properly funded system could ‘abolish the car’, even more so when you consider that the technological developments of the last decade cover the final set of uses.  If you need to transport an elderly relative for a hospital appointment or move a load of furniture to a new home you could rent a vehicle suitable for that for the time it takes, such schemes often using electric vehicles already exist.  Which in any case is a lot better than trying to use the ‘family car’ for all those purposes when it’s too small for some and too big (and therefore wasteful) for others.

This is a very different idea the government goal of replacing our current fleet of fossil fuel cars with a similarly sized fleet which incidentally would require 2.6 million electric cars in the south alone.  That sort of consumer choice approach to Climate Breakdown might reduce running emissions significantly but it requires a huge use of energy and raw materials to make all those cars.  A process that will involve the production of lots of greenhouse gases, around 8.8 tonnes of CO2 per car so some 22 million tonnes in all which is more than current transport emissions for over a year. 

Car use is already very inefficient in terms of transporting people in comparison with trains or buses, most cars bringing people to work only carry one person which at the same times a bus will have 50 on board.  The electricity used to drive an electric car still has a high proportion (70% in 2017) coming from fossil fuels so the emissions from 50 single person electric cars taking 50 people to work will be very much larger than a 50 seater diesel bus.  And while each of those cars will sit unused for the rest of the day the bus will continue to run back and forth meaning the emissions from the manufacturing process per person transported will be minuscule in comparison with a car.  So why on earth are we talking about replacing single user petrol cars with almost as inefficient single user electric cars rather than a really good collective public transport system?

The level of collective decision making we need here extends beyond the type of vehicles but also what sort of transport infrastructure we build.  In particular government priority for a very long time has been to prioritize private cars on roads over pedestrians, cyclists and bus and train passengers.  Tram tracks were torn up, footpaths narrowed or never built, bus corridors a recently hotly contested introduction and cycle lanes seldom much more than a line of paint.  In the last decades a lot of money went into building motorway connections between Dublin and the other cities around Ireland but almost nothing into train lines.  As a result the trains are expensive and no faster than driving.  They should be making inter-city journey’s at a fraction of the cost of a car and at 2 to 3 times the speed which incidentally would also relieve some of the housing pressure in the big cities by making it possible to reasonably commute from much further away. Putting money into fast train lines rather than motorways is an excellent example of how meaningless a ‘consumer choice’ approach is to Climate Breakdown.  This decision to fund one over the other cannot be made by individuals but only through collective decision making.    The decision to give space on a city transport route to pedestrians, cyclists and buses rather than a car lane for individually owned cars cannot be made by a consumer, it has to be a collective decision.  Organising rather than shopping choice is what we need.

Why the consumer focus?
  So why is it that there is such a big focus on individual consumer choices as a way of combating climate breakdown? Well one of the reasons is that at first it seems like an easy solution to people not used to working together as a group to win change.   On your own you can decide to buy one product rather than another and that gives us a sense that we're doing something meaningful. Probably most people reading this are already making some choices along this lines, cycling rather than driving, avoiding flying where possible, eating less beef or even going vegan, avoiding ‘fast fashion’ and so on. I've made changes myself to the way I live and that's because I want to contribute as little as possible to making Climate Breakdown worse.  I don't want to be somebody who's accelerating climate change but I recognize that what choices I make will have very very little impact, indeed no measurable impact in terms of where the planet is going to find itself in 10, 20 or 30 years time.  For the reasons already outlined the really meaningful changes have to be changes we make collectively, that we make as a society. But there are other reasons why the individual consumer choice gets pushed and the main other reason is ideological.

We live in a society, a neoliberal society, where the whole idea that society could make, indeed should make decisions is is looked down on.  People coming together to educate each other, talks things out and then perhaps vote on a range of options is seen as impossible, as something not to be attempted outside of the occasional referendum. Instead we are told that left to itself the market will make wise decisions. That if we allow the free hand of the market to operate it will somehow magically make decisions that will avoid climate breakdown or that will supply housing - to take an example where it's very obviously not happening in the current Irish context. You might wonder where does this idea that the market can be a solution come from, in particular when in the context of housing and climate change it very obviously hasn’t been working and time is running out.

Why is it the case that what we are told are intelligent people, media commentators etc continuously put forward this idea that the market can do something that it very blatantly isn't. The reason is basically down to the fundamental nature of the society we live in. Taking a step back and looking at that society we see that a very small percentage of people control almost all the wealth in our society and that this control means that while we call the society we live in a democracy the reality is that they make all the key decisions.  Those people don’t want us making decisions.

We have little say but much potential power
In work for instance most of us have no say whatsoever in terms of how things go. We've no say over what's produced, why it's produced, how much its sold for etc. That's made by the people who own the company. Those people often don't even work for the company we're in. They are often just shareholders, meaning they just collect a percentage of the profits made every year because they own those shares. That's quite a strange system and under the threat of climate breakdown its a disaster as shareholders want to make profits, not protect the planet.

OK you might think, there is no democracy in work and we do spend a lot of our lives there.  But once we turn 18 we do get to vote for politicians.   But what determines who wins an election is very is very often how the media covers them, right? And most of the media is owned by the same very small amount of rich people who own the wealth in society. When you look at the data in fact you realize that elections are nearly always won by the candidate who has the most money. That's the main determining factor in who rules us.  So in work it's the case that we live in what is really a dictatorship, we don't really have a say about how work runs and then society as a whole turns out to be also run by the same people.

Effectively the super wealthy buy politicians, sometimes very literally in terms of bribes, sometimes less literally but still as effectively in terms of control of the media and who gets donations. So the decision making system we have means the people who are producing the vast majority of climate change gases have by far the loudest voices.  These are the people who control and profit from the companies and corporations which produce the vast majority of climate change gases.  So you've got a very small percentage of the world's population, we're maybe talking less than 1% here, maybe 0.1%, and they get most of the wealth that's generated by the processes producing climate change.

It gets worse though.  This group, the super wealthy also have the least interest in minimising the extent of climate change. If you take the example of rising sea levels the rich have the money to move.  Indeed they have the money to buy a house on wherever the beach is going to be at its new sea level. Some are experts in making a lot of money from property speculation so who knows they might well make a lot of money from property speculation around sea level rises. The vast majority of the world's poor on the other hand don't have any of those choices. Lots of people cannot escape rising sea levels because they live in in places almost entirely comprised of low-lying land as in Pacific Islanders or in countries like Bangladesh where there's a lot of rivers and little available land. They also can't escape the effects of sea level rises because they don't have the money to move somewhere else and in any case border regimes won’t allow them escape.

For a lot of the rest of us it's not quite that severe but it is the case that we already can't afford housing, that we are already stuck paying way more rent than what we can actually afford and that as things get disrupted, as areas go underwater moving for us is a much bigger deal than it is for wealthy people.  Of course the sea level rise will be slow and over many decades, I’m using it here for illustration.   The much more worrying thing that's already happening is rising food insecurity. The changing climate means that food crops that were once reliable are sometimes failing or delivering reduced harvest, and that's really affecting the poorest people in the world who are very much dependent on subsistence farming to eat. The rest of us, we see food prices increasing, perhaps we see we have to switch from eating one thing to another thing as a consequence of that but a lot of the world's population are dependent on growing their own food and if the crop fails they don't necessarily have the means to purchase something else. They become dependent, perhaps on UN relief funds, and if that fails to arrive they literally face the threat of starvation.

This is already happening,  there are already a lot of people living in food insecurity due to failing crops and becoming dependent on UN or whatever other relief agencies provide food.  For years the number in food insecurity decreased, with economic crisis and climate breakdown this is no longer true and is rising since 2015.  The UN said last year that more than 820 million people did not have enough it eat.  This is roughly one person for every nine on the planet and one baby in 7 is now born underweight.  

That's the planet we've already created and climate breakdown is going to escalate food insecurity considerably in the next decades. In terms of human impact it’s probably the most devastating short term outcome, although it will be obscured by the civil conflict and wars that will accompany it.  There is good evidence that the 2011 Arab Spring insurrections were in part generated by escalating costs of the main food stables.  In other words the first mass movements of climate refugees have probably already happened.

If you look at the denialism commentary from the angry old white men in the media I referred to earlier about the movement to halt climate breakdown you'll see that the same collective V consumerist ideas I write of here, but from the opposite angle. Because what you'll often see is they'll try and rubbish the dedication being shown by the activists who are coming out and organizing on the street by suggesting that instead they should be not using their mobile phones, or that there parents shouldn't be driving them to school in the morning or that they shouldn't be taking a holiday. A whole range of things that are precisely intended to try and push people away from the collective solutions we need and towards individual consumer choices.   So the message that's been put out in the media, and again the media is controlled / owned by the super wealthy, is that instead of taking collective action, instead of collectively organizing together instead of talking about what solutions we need together, what you should do is retreat back into the home. Go back to being an individual, go back to making consumer choices.

Profit, consumerism and divide & rule
The capitalist system is also well capable of making profits out of consumer choices. Lots of people may stop eating beef or drastically reduce the amount of it they eat because of the proportionally huge amount of greenhouse gases beef results in.  There is a good argument for making a collective decision to drastically cut beef production for that reason and for all remaining production to be low intensity grazing based that aids in soil regeneration.  But that’s a collective decision that can be made, capitalism has no problem with individuals cutting down on beef because it can sell them other products. And then it can probably sell more or less the same quantity of beef to other people, perhaps at a slightly reduced cost, perhaps at the same cost with more spent on advertising.  The individual consumer route in other words might well have no useful impact on climate breakdown at all.

But of course on this particular issue and plant V meat based diets in general we’ve already seen that partly to keep us divided and partially to create market segments the capitalist media will be very happy to stir up antagonism between those two groups because they know if they can create a fight between vegetarians and meat eaters then both those groups become distracted from the common danger of Climate Breakdown we face. A lot of vegetarians probably already know multiple reactionary uncles who will make a point out of extra meat eating to annoy them.  The media already regularly publish ‘beef to be banned’ clickbait articles to drive traffic to their sites for ad purposes and  if you look at the commentary underneath those clickbait articles you'll see an endless pointless fight between vegans and those who think their heads will explode if they 24 hours without feasting on flesh.

You'll see the same sort of fight before that between car drivers and cyclists and again this often comes from a media click bait, a deliberate attempt to sort of set people who aren't really against each other against each other. When the reality is that the change we need isn't going to be made simply by more people choosing to become cyclists, that's great if they do that, but actually needs to involve a whole reworking of what we understand by transportation. That's switch I talked about earlier from individual car culture to collective forms of public transportation, trains in particular, buses, cycling and collective systems of being able to use shared cars. Instead of having a discussion about the need for this transformation and how it might be organised in the media what we see endlessly is this attempt to set the needs of one group of people against another group of people.

Escaping the trap, effective action
So how do we escape this trap? We escape this trap by coming together, we escape this trap by taking it part in collective action and climate strike marches are a start to that process of collective action. They are bringing people together, people are talking to each other while they march, people are getting a sense of common purpose. And even more importantly big march's give you a sense of collective power. You see how many people are thinking the same sort of thing and will got act.  You realize you have a part to play together and there's even a collective sense of oneness that you get in a football or other sports crowds. So they often provide a very good start point but I think the thing we've got to be clear that are only a start point.

Back in 2003 ahead of when the USA invaded Iraq there were absolutely enormous demonstrations all around the world and in particular in the countries that were heading to war. Hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people came out on the streets and said we do not want this war.

Even Dublin saw a demonstration that was probably four times bigger than the Climate Strike march. At least a hundred thousand people marched through Dublin that day in 2003 and they were specifically saying we don't want to have a part in this war. The part that we  were and are being pushed into in America’s wars is refuelling warplanes at Shannon. But the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said he'd have been on the demonstration himself if he wasn't busy and ignored the demand to stop refuelling. They are well used to contain mass popular protests in the form of marches. We might start with a march but that has has to go somewhere else before it loses momentum, we have to escalate. We need to come together and think about what else can we do, what other possibilities exist, how do we force them to pay attention to us. In 2003 that meant organising mass trespasses at Shannon airport as others snuck in at night and damaged planes.  For the while that real momentum existed they had to stop refuelling there but that was a brief moment as once war officially started most people stopped marching.

In the context of Climate Breakdown the answer is not the one most people first think of. The answer is not electoral politics. I've already talked about the way that's controlled by the super-wealthy but beyond that in Ireland we see a very good example in the Irish Green Party of how toothless and useless electoralism is. The Green Party have been in power, they were part of the government back in the  late 2000s.  Importantly they were part of the government when there was massive opposition to the opening of a new experimental gas refinery at Rossport. There were huge community mobilizations against that, people resisted that refinery over the course of a decade and  the Green Party were in power at the end of that process, at the time that they saw the deployment of the Irish Navy, two gunboats, hundreds of Gardai and even elements of the Irish Army. This saw the illegal preventive arrest of activists and their detention in Mountjoy jail to prevent them taking kayaks out into the bay. Before the Green Party went into government they'd stood alongside the protesters, in power they were part of the government that suppressed and even illegally jailed them.  That is the reality of electoral power and what it does to the good intentioned.

What we can do is move from these marches to programs of direct action where we actually target the industries that are producing most of the greenhouse gases. In the Irish context for instance it means if they give a go ahead for the LNG plants on the Shannon, which will result in the importation of lots of fracking gas that we physically put ourselves in the way and stop the construction of that plant. You can apply the same sort of thing to road projects. We must identify areas where we ourselves can come together in huge numbers and stop those projects going ahead.  That’s called Direct Action because the action taken has a direct impact on stopping what we are against.  We are not reduced to pleading with politicians to act for us.

We can also do things that are somewhat more indirect but still quite effective like bringing cities to a halt, and that's been happening already to an extent, but somewhat on the symbolic level.  Through methods of mass power forcing a change of policy we gain an understanding of our own power.  We come to to see that if we come together we are perfectly capable of running society and that we want to do it on a very different basis to that very, very tiny percentage that currently run everything. We can take power ourselves, we can collectively come together, we can run our workplaces, we can run our communities and we can set a very very different set of priorities than the current system which prioritizes profit above all else. 

It's great to see the huge numbers that have started to mobilize, what we need to think about is what we're going to do with that mobilization and the answer is to radically transform society, top to bottom, in a revolutionary sustainable way.

Words: Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter)