How do we build a climate movement that can win?

By Lisbeth Latham.

The unprecedented glacial melting, diminishing sea ice shelves, and extensive fires globally have fuelled growing existential angst around the looming climate catastrophe. This angst has been a major source of the emergence and growth of the climate strike movement globally which has seen millions of people drawn onto the streets with the strikes on September 20 and 27.

Growing numbers of people – particularly young people – have become aware of both the depth of the crisis and the refusal of state actors or the fossil fuel industry to take serious steps to address climate change. This has given rise to the urgent question of how and in what circumstances the necessary changes can be made, particularly around energy use, to halt the planet’s slide into irreversible and escalating climate change.

Yes, socialism is the solution, but so what?

Arguing for ecosocialism is not enough

The response to this crisis from many revolutionary organisations has been to make arguments against the capacity of the climate crisis to be addressed within the framework of capitalism. Of course, the Anthropocene began with the start of the industrial revolution and has been driven and accelerated by capitalism’s inherent drive to constantly expand and increase profits.

It is also the case that an environment-focused socialised economy would be able to mobilise both the population and the economy to meet the challenges confronting the planet in ways unimaginable in our current context.  However, as Marx argued, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

In almost no country do we have a revolutionary government. As a consequence of the betrayals of social democracy and Stalinism, and the social defeats in the face of triumphant neoliberalism, almost nowhere on the planet are there the social forces or leadership required to carry out the necessary revolutionary process to achieve such governments.

Given this reality, arguments that capitalism can’t address the crisis give the impression that the task of combating climate change is utopian and something that has to be put off to some unstated future – something that ends up sounding a lot like capital’s dominant response to the crisis.

Can the climate crisis be addressed under capitalism? Frankly, who knows, and it doesn’t matter. Capitalists and their representatives in government act to defend their interests, which is primarily achieving constant growth in profits, but ultimately is about maintaining a stable system within which capital accumulation can occur.

Divisions on climate action among capitalist class

This means that sections of capital, particularly those not tied to the fossil fuel industry, have the potential to view action to address climate change as being in their own interests – hence the thousands of companies encouraging their staff to participate in the climate strikes. Obviously this action has a range of motivations, including for some cheap greenwashing PR.

However, a number of capitalists may actually be confronting the reality that the climate crisis will disrupt capitalist accumulation. They too may see the planet dying and might come to the conclusion that there is no planet B, or they may see ways in which they can profit from transformations in the economy.

The current solutions gaining traction internationally around combatting climate change are notions around a Green New Deal, alluding to Roosevelt’s New Deal response to the Great Depression, and the reproduction of the Second World War industrial mobilisations that massively expanded productive forces in war industries to support and sustain, particularly the US war effort.

While both these examples highlight how the economy can be mobilised to transform and defend the economy and society, they are also examples of capitalism and capitalists mobilising to defend the capitalist system from an existential threat.

In both historic examples, working people played a key role in seeking to ensure that saving the system had some benefit for the popular classes in society – rather than simply re-securing the conditions for capitalist accumulation. This resistance took the form of building and renewing unions, fighting for improvements in wages and conditions, in government projects ensuring that workers were paid union rates, and attempts to shift some of the war profiteering into improved wages and conditions for workers in war industries.  

More importantly, what can be achieved under capitalism can’t be prejudged. It is a consequence of the conjunctural balance of forces – between what the ruling class believes is necessary to concede to maintain order, and the consciousness and confidence of the popular classes to carry forward the struggle.

In the wake of the mass strike and protest wave in France during May and June 1968, employers offered massive wage increases to help enable the ending of the strikes. While these wage rises would have eaten considerably into company profits, it was a small price to pay for saving the capitalist system.  

During the development of his Transitional Program, Leon Trotsky held discussions with US Trotskyists about the intents and purpose of the program. Part of this discussion focused on the extent to which the demands, particularly the transitional demands contained within the program, were achievable under capitalism. In addressing this point, Trotsky made it clear that what could or couldn’t be achieved could not be prejudged, but also that what does or doesn’t seem possible is a consequence of the march of events and dynamics of consciousness and working-class power.

This approach is also consistent with Lenin’s discussion of the development of class consciousness through the lived experience of workers and poor peasants during the Russian revolution of the unwillingness of pro-capitalist forces to deliver on the Russian revolutionary forces’ demands of peace, bread, and land rather than the specific limitations of the capitalist system itself.

Formulating immediate demands

The real and immediate challenge facing socialists (and anyone who genuinely is concerned about the environment) is not the struggle to convince people of the necessity of socialism, or even the need to change the system – but the need and possibility of achieving immediate concrete action to confront the climate crisis.

After decades of inaction and backsliding, this may feel impossible, and as the climate moves closer to tipping points it may mean even more rapid transformation than the movement’s current demands of no new coal, oil and gas projects; 100 per cent renewable energy generation by 2030; and funding a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and communities. 

These demands appear radical and potentially impossible at the moment, but they are more likely inadequate and too slow given the urgent need to not only stop the release of more carbon into the atmosphere but to massively increase the planet’s capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere – and to reverse the other practices destroying the biosphere, particularly the massive waste of water and the use of toxic chemicals associated with both mining and industrial agriculture.

It is in this struggle for such demands that the limitations of capitalism in the struggle to save the planet will be highlighted, particularly in confronting market-based solutions aimed at creating new speculative markets rather than achieving serious reductions in carbon emissions and extracting carbon from the atmosphere.

There is also a pressing need for industrialised countries to fundamentally address our consumption patterns (which are promoted and encouraged by the capitalist system) to more accurately reflect the resources available to the planet as a whole, at the same time as the living standards of the global south need to be uplifted to overcome poverty caused by centuries of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism.

More important than the development of demands that could potentially address the climate crisis is the development and escalation of the movement. Although this youth-led movement is remarkable and extremely inspiring, it still remains far too small and intermittent in its mobilisation to build the level of pressure necessary to force action by governments on the climate.

A focus on the struggle to build the movement and achieve immediate demands to address and redress the crisis confronting us – rather than simply posing abstract arguments for socialism – is far more in keeping with the socialist tradition and is the only way to build a movement that can win.

Lisbeth Latham is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow her on Twitter @grumpenprol.

Channeling anger into action on climate change

By Damien Thomson.

Anger is generally characterised as a negative emotion, but I’d beg to differ. Social movements need anger. Anger motivates. It unites. Last week in climate politics gives us a lot to be angry about.

Monday

At the United Nations headquarters in New York, the UN Climate Summit took place. It was convened by United Nation’s Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for a very specific reason – for countries to boost their climate ambition. 

The summit was nothing less than a flop. Mr Guterres wanted countries to come forward to make bold statements, calling it “a summit of action plans not platitudes”. He wanted countries to outline their carbon-neutrality plans, stop harmful subsidies, and end coal. He wanted big, and he got miniscule. 

This wasn’t one of the regularly scheduled climate summits; it was specifically a purpose-made opportunity for countries to show that they are responding to the climate strikes and committing to renewed, more ambitious climate action. 

The highlight of the summit wasn’t any announcement on renewed climate ambition from any country; it was, once again, Greta Thunberg. This wasn’t just any of Greta’s speeches, where she has shown stark tone and sharp attacks. This was in the context of a failed climate conference, one where world leaders did not rise to the challenge, not in the slightest.

When she said “how dare you”, it wasn’t hypothetical or poetic, it was really addressed to the crowd of leaders who were sitting on their chairs, preparing for their mediocre climate announcements later in the day. Her raw display of anger wasn’t some dramatic culmination to spice up her speech (she’s been on the road for a year delivering harsh speeches), it was unveiled emotion. There was nothing performative about it.

To sit in front of these people, knowing that a special moment and space has been created to allow them prove themselves, to show they’ve listened to the people, and then to know that they weren’t going to rise to the challenge – no wonder she was steaming with anger. It even got Donald Trump’s attention, who spitefully called Greta a “very happy young girl”.

Could it be that Greta’s angry speech was indeed the most productive thing to come out of the UN Climate Summit?

Wednesday

Later in the week the IPCC published its third special report in a year (there have only been four previous to that since 2000). The latest report was a study on the Ocean and the Cryosphere, the frozen parts of the world. 

Valérie Masson-Delmotte, one of the lead authors of the report, commented at the report’s launch in Monaco that “climate change is already irreversible… due to the heat uptake in the ocean, we can’t go back”. If this doesn’t make your jaw drop, then you need to read this sentence again. 

For a long time, climate change was spoken about as some future apocalyptic event, to take place at least the day after tomorrow. Now we are finally talking about how we are being affected by climate change today on a regular basis. What’s really terrifying, however, is that the feedback loop is already activated. This is the threshold past which the climate spirals beyond our control and global warming accelerates, no matter what we try to do. It’s like we are filling a bath full of water and eventually we break the knob and have no way of putting it back on. 

And while this news is horrifying, there’s also reason to be angry. European Commissioner’s welcomed the newest IPCC Special report in a joint press statement – ‘nice’ you may say, but considering that the “save the oceans” hallmark of the Commission over the past five years was just a proposal to ban plastic straws, it’s clear they haven’t gotten the message. Our ocean is dying, and we are continuing business as usual, while alarm bells ring on clogged ears.

Greta spoke at the UN about the “fairytale of eternal economic growth”, while the Commission starts work on its Green Deal for Europe – with high expectations of it being a ‘green Growth package with a funny label. Instead of a press statement “welcoming” the terrifying scientific analysis, we need a recognition that we are on the wrong track and we need radically new climate politics. Otherwise, they’re not really listening. 

Friday

The second global climate strike took place, finishing a week of student-led climate strikes that mobilised more than 7.6 million people across the world – the largest climate demonstrations in history.

Four million people took to the streets on Friday September 20 ahead of the UN Climate Summit, and more than three million protested on September 27. How many more need to pick up their placards to get the message through?

The next real chance to boost global climate ambition and for world leaders to show real commitment to climate action is at COP25 in Santiago, Chile. That won’t be until December. Given that the special UN summit on boosting ambition barely raised an eyebrow, what expectations can we have for COP25, where parties will only be threshing out the technical details on implementation of the Paris Agreement? What more can civil society be expected to do to put raising climate ambition on the agenda? 

So if you’re still in that phase of climate grief where you feel trapped in sadness or denial, it’s time to move on to the phase of anger. This is the productive phase that will lead us to the streets and keep the pressure on. 7.6 million, we learnt this week, is not enough to get world leaders to act. We need more people to be angry.

Keep being angry, keep building momentum.

Damien Thomson is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow him on Twitter @dmacthomais.

Save Our Sperrins: Water, more precious than gold

By Niamh Ní Bhriain.

The hills of the Sperrins in County Tyrone are criss-crossed with natural springs that flow off the western slopes towards the River Foyle, while to the east they meander down to Lough Neagh. This endless trickle of water recalls the natural order – water belongs here. But the people of this remote area are struggling to protect it from an impending and devastating gold rush.

Gold deposits

In the 1980s, geochemical surveys confirmed substantial gold deposits in the hills of county Tyrone. Mining companies were however reluctant to exploit the undeveloped gold seam because of the volatile political situation and ongoing armed conflict.

Fast forward 30 years and Canadian mining company, Dalradian Gold, has submitted a 10,000 page planning application to develop an underground mine, estimated to be the seventh largest in the world.

A cocktail of cyanide, mercury, toxic waste and sinkholes

The technical jargon and the enormity of the proposal in the planning application makes for arduous reading. The mine initially envisaged the construction of a cyanide processing plant, a mercury smelting furnace, a toxic waste storage dump, contaminated water storage ponds, a waste water treatment plant and an explosives store, all in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty and within one kilometre of Greencastle primary school and sports grounds.

On 13 August 2019, Dalradian announced that it no longer plans to use cyanide, that the ore would instead be exported for treatment elsewhere, but did not mention where.  The possibility remains that the cyanide processing will simply be displaced to some other corner of the globe and some other community will be left with the consequences. Similarly, the company could not confirm if mercury would be used – a significant detail considering the dangers associated with metal poisoning.

Cyanide or not, other problems remain. In a village in county Monaghan at least three sinkholes have opened recently as a result of mining activity leading to the evacuation of homes and the local school, road closure rendering local businesses inaccessible, and the GAA grounds were permanently destroyed by a large crevice that extends across the entire sports pitch.  

Save Our Sperrins protest
Protestors from the Save Our Sperrins campaign

Dalradian maintains that the impact will be minimal. The entrance will be shaded by trees, the building infrastructure will be similar to local farm sheds, and grass will be sown on top of the dump creating a nice new green hill for the Sperrins – albeit a toxic one – so, nothing to worry about it would seem. [The author contacted  Dalradian for further information and its Public Relations representatives had no information about whether mercury would be used or not but were clear that the visual impact would be minimal.]    

Pacification and resistance

Save our Sperrins (SOS) organised to peacefully resist against the advancing gold rush. To date 18,500 objection letters have been submitted to Derry’s Strategic Planning Division. But organising to protect the environment has come at a price. Some protesters have been subjected to acts of intimidation, smear campaigns, verbal abuse, physical violence, and death threats.

The role of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has raised serious concerns that it is dedicated to protecting the company rather than “keeping people safe”, as its slogan suggests.

Protestors described intimidation, surveillance and interrogation by police officers. Rumours suggesting the protestors are dangerous dissident republicans who may be hiding firearms in their protest camp may have been initiated by the police, according to protestors, who prefer not to be named. In one particular case, the police allegedly tried to bribe a protester to become an informer to alert them of any “trouble”.

The author conducted interviews with a number of protesters in July 2019 but will refrain from naming them here for their own safety. Statements to support these testimonies appear on the Greencastle People’s Office and the Save our Sperrins Facebook pages. The author repeatedly contacted the PSNI for a statement regarding their policing of the mining situation   but did not receive a response.

In 2016 the PSNI invoiced Dalradian Gold for approximately £400,000 for their role in escorting explosives related to mining operations. The lines between public policing and private security become dangerously blurred when a state police force can invoice a private company for services provided.

Who then are the police actually serving – the corporation or the people?

What emerges is a pattern of police intimidation, harassment, surveillance, and the blurring of the lines between public policing and private security that exemplifies a global model of policing extractivisim through the pacification of resistance. Pacification, which is often misrepresented as security, encompasses an attempt to police the contours of discontent by shutting down progressive spaces that endeavour to challenge corporate power through legitimate, peaceful resistance.

What next?

With no sitting government in Northern Ireland, Brexit looming large, and the value of gold on the rise as fears grow of another global recession, no one knows exactly what will happen next.

One thing is clear though: the spirit of resistance is palpable in the hills of Tyrone, where the water runs clear and is worth more than gold to the people. They are prepared to protect it.

Niamh Ní Bhriain is coordinator of the Transnational Institute’s War and Pacification programme. Photos by Niamh Ní Bhriain and Lorraine Ní Bhriain. Follow the Save Our Sperrins Facebook page here.

‘Change the System’ is core demand of climate strikers

By Damien Thomson.

Around 3,000 students gathered outside government buildings in Dublin and towns across the country on Friday (May 24) to demand rapid and radical action on climate change. This is the second international strike co-ordinated by Fridays for Future – a global movement of climate protest. 

Speaking to some of the teen strikers, it’s clear that young people are ahead of the politicians on climate change. I say that not because they possess some extra knowledge (which may also be the case!), but because they acknowledge climate change as a political problem, not a technical one. 

The student demands call for radical state involvement in the economy to deliver a predictable, accountable and fair transition to a ecologically safe society by 2030. Core to their movement is the idea of standing up for their futures and how securing a safe future for young people is the government’s responsibility.

The immediacy of the effects of climate change, in that the picture is so grim for the lifespan of today’s young people, is clearly the greatest motivation with mobilising young people to take direct action. 

Fourteen-year-old Grainne O’Sullivan from Bray (pictured above) told me: “Politicians aren’t doing anything about this. It’s our future that they are taking away from us and that’s not fair. We are going to have to live with this and they are stealing our future.” While telling me about the demands of the Fridays for Future Movement, Grainne lamented that “one hundred corporations in the world are responsible for 71 per cent of our emissions, and it shouldn’t be that way, we should be using renewable energy”.

Beth Doherty (15) from Balbriggan told me how climate breakdown comes down to “the way our society is structured. It makes it impossible to live sustainably, and we are calling for the government to put legislation in place that changes those structures.”

We are not reaching our climate targets, Beth says, because “our government does not see this as a priority.” Noting trends to individualise climate action, Beth added: “If you are passionate about changing your individual lifestyle choices, then you should definitely consider getting involved in political action and getting involved in demanding systemic change too.” 

Eighteen-year-old Dan Drum (pictured above) spoke of how “we have already achieved a small goal of getting the government to declare a climate emergency”, but we want “our economy and ecology to work in sync”. We need to have “climate change-responsible production” and “a climate change-responsible economy”. Dan says that “once economy and ecology come in sync, huge change can be made”.

Meadhbh Bolger from Friends of the Earth Europe, who was also at the strike, notes how young people are mobilised because “leaders are not doing near enough”. 

“We can’t have an economy or any sort of working society without a healthy planet, without using resources in a sustainable way… everything is interlinked and connected, we need to change all sectors of our society and economy. It’s not just about climate change, its about changing the system of how we produce, consume, and operate as a society collectively.” 

The demands of the young people are reasonable, not radical, if we maintain the basic aim of securing a safe future. The Irish government, and government leaders across the globe, have been abdicating on climate change, pushing it into the market for the so-called invisible hand to solve. Young people, however, do not buy this approach. They want predictability. They want assurance. They want their state to do everything within its powers to stop global warming now. 

Is that too much to ask? 

Student climate strikers’ demands

Below are the demands of the Friday’s for Future movement, and the next global climate strike is planned for September 20 this year. 

  1. The Government ensures all fossil fuels are left in the ground and should not allow any new fossil fuel infrastructure to be built and that Ireland uses 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
  2. The Government declares a climate emergency, communicates the severity of the ecological crisis to the general public and reforms the primary and post-primary educations systems to address the need for ecological literacy. The government must prioritise the protection of life on Earth, taking active steps to achieve climate justice.
  3. The Government makes transitioning to a CO2-neutral Ireland socially fair. We demand of the government that it takes its responsibility seriously and avoids having regular citizens carry all the burden towards transitioning to a sustainable society.
  4. The Government implements all the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change. As this is a climate emergency, we demand that the recommendations be implemented immediately.
  5. The Government creates and enforces stronger regulations on corporations that are causing the climate crisis and ensure a transformation to reduce emissions from agriculture in Ireland.
  6. The Government implements a Green New Deal and ensures that after leaving school, all young people in Ireland can have livelihoods that don’t damage the Earth.

All photos by Damien Thomson. Damien Thomson is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow him on Twitter @dmacthomais.

Climate Emergency Manifesto launched by the European Left

By Damien Thomson.

On Tuesday 16 April, Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the Environment Committee in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, calling for “Cathedral Thinking” on climate action – a reference to the huge and immediate mobilisation of empathy, panic and money at the sight of the Notre Dame in flames. The real panic, she said, should be about the “house on fire” – the planet – leading to a mobilisation of funds, emergency emissions reductions and state-led direction of the transition.

Today in Strasbourg, the Left group in the European Parliament GUE/NGL (European United Left/Nordic Green Left), has launched a Climate Emergency Manifesto ahead of the European elections taking place at the end of next month, firmly marking Just Climate Action as the group’s number one priority.

The manifesto, which explores six overarching demands for effective climate action, comes off the back of two recent developments: the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report from October 2018 strongly pushing for policymakers to limit global warming to 1.5°; and the global social movement known as ‘Fridays for Future’. These two developments have shaken the political foundations of the European Union (EU) in particular, and called into question its climate credentials. 

Climate emergency demands emergency response

The latest IPCC report paints a dark picture of the current pathway we are on. It gives us less than 12 years to enact “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” to every aspect of the economy to stay below 1.5° of global warming. We are already at 1° of warming above pre-industrial levels, and at 1.5° the chain reaction of climate catastrophe will be unleashed as we surpass the tipping point. We are already in climate chaos at cliff-edge: the emergency brakes need to be activated now.

At the 24th UN Climate Conference held in 2018 in Poland (COP24), Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action, stood up on a platform with the Canadian environment minister and other posing ministers to hold a big banner stating ‘High Ambition Coalition’. This was their way of trying to affirm that they are the leading parties at these high-level climate negotiations – leading for higher climate ambition. Needless to say, no-one was really convinced. 

The EU’s feeble attempt to promote itself as a global climate leader looks even more pathetic now in the context of over one million students across the globe coordinating a world-wide strike on 15 March 2019.

These young people are clearly not impressed with the self-congratulating Commissioner Arias Cañete’s level of ambition, nor of any state that claims it is doing enough. After all, the CV which qualified him for the portfolio he runs is based on his family ties to the oil industry itself. The next global strike scheduled for 24 May 2019 will set the tone for the European elections, demanding that radical climate action is on the agenda. 

As students gathered last month with their placards and chanted in more than 1,000 locations in over 100 countries worldwide, there wasn’t any rallying to congratulate the EU or the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ Ministers. Nor did young people chant “Carbon Tax Now” or “Secure the Rulebook!” They demanded climate justice.

The manifesto presented today by GUE/NGL is a response to this call and is commensurate to the demands of the striking youth.  A central demand to the global movement is a declaration of climate emergency – to effect an emergency response to an emergency situation. This manifesto is the Left’s way of hitting the panic button and declaring a climate emergency, as well as putting its climate commitments out there before the elections for all voters to see. 

Left approach rejects the market’s pseudo-solutions

The anti-capitalist Left has a nuanced approach to climate action – one that is clearly distinct from the Greens and Social Democrats, and of course, the Liberals and beyond who always appropriate the language of climate action to cover up their prioritisation of profits.

The Greens and Social Democrats prize the market and economic growth just as much as Conservatives, and consistently vote for the liberalisation of the EU energy market for instance, withdrawing the directional control of the energy sector away from elected governments.

Any real Leftist would reject this. We demand that governments are behind the wheel on the transition rather than watching markets fluctuate, and crucially, we are the only ones that reject the perpetual growth mode – the root cause of the climate crisis.

By removing the responsibility of climate action from governments and lawmakers and placing it in the invisible hands of the market, the Greens and Social Democrats have actively played an important role in this climate disaster.

While their intentions may well-motivated, the Greens have been the driving force in pushing climate responsibility off the desks of world leaders, by pushing for the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) carbon market, commercialised energy markets, the monetisation of pollution and carbon pricing – all policy recommendations from the fossil fuel industry itself. 

Climate crisis requires anti-capitalist action

The conclusion here is clear – only by being anti-capitalist can one be a climate activist. Anything less than this is the preservation of the status quo. Greening capitalism is indeed the most sinister form of climate action delaying. 

The manifesto launched by the Left goes to the very heart of the economic model that has created climate change. Overturning global capitalism may not be realistic within the next 11 years, given how it morphs and self-replicates in the search of commodities, but the forces of capitalism can be resisted. It is precisely here – in counteracting capitalist forces – where an effective response to the climate crisis lies. 

Keep fossil fuels in the ground

The solutions to climate change must come from outside the capitalist framework, beyond the logic of a market transition.  This is why this manifesto is about directly regulating the fossil fuel industry – keeping fossil fuels in the ground and phasing out their use altogether with strict time-bound targets.

It is about massive public investment, matching the financial responses already seen at times of war, responding to terrorism, or saving the banks. It is about regulating sectors to ensure sustainable practices, stopping the wild flurry of extraction and environmental abuses produced by capitalism. The Left is the only group bringing forward this critique and this response.  

Core to this manifesto, and a prism used throughout it, is that of the principles of climate justice. For the Left, these are not just pretty words to speckle our manifesto – they are guiding tools and tests. We stand for climate policies that empower communities, not debilitate them. We stand for a rights-based approach to climate action, including a right to renewable energy. We want an integrated sustainable development approach to climate action – ensuring the fight against climate change interlinks with the struggles against poverty, gender inequity and socio-economic inequalities. 

Just and effective climate action is our number one priority, and anything less than this is a climate crime. 

A copy of the manifesto in English can be found here. Other language versions can be found on the GUE/NGL website

Damien Thomson is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left and the climate campaign coordinator for the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament. Follow him on Twitter @dmacthomais.

Period poverty, women’s health and the environment

By Meadhbh Bolger.

For much of their lives, half of the world’s population need menstrual products to live a decent life, yet many cannot afford them. In the Irish state, they cost an average of €100 per woman per year – and their use, particularly of disposable products made mostly of plastic and a concoction of chemicals, comes with concerning impacts on the environment and on women’s health.

In Northern Ireland and Britain, sanitary products are still subject to a VAT tax rate of five per cent until 2022. Costly, dangerous and with periods often still mired in shame and stigma, the question of access to safer alternatives is a vital environmental and social justice issue to tackle.

Thankfully, as a society – in Ireland, Europe and globally – we are slowly becoming more open to having conversations and initiating actions to address period poverty and access to safe and environmentally friendly menstrual products.

There are inspiring initiatives like Homeless Period Ireland, The Red Box project and Plastic Free Periods; conversations and action at the political level on reducing the environmental impacts of menstrual products; increasing access to products for the most vulnerable; and pushing for regulation on concerning chemicals that make up menstrual products and end up in women’s bodies. The introduction of a period emoji this month is another step forward in normalising conversations around periods.

We need to work together on multiple levels:

  • Access to basic essentials for all – period poverty is real.
  • Ensuring safe products – women need to be in control of what we are put in our bodies.
  • Looking after the planet – making reusable menstrual products more widely available and accessible.
  • Smashing the shame, stigma and taboos around periods.

‘Period poverty’ is real

A survey in June 2018 showed that half of Irish teenagers struggle with the average cost of €10 a month to buy tampons and sanitary towels. The most financially deprived women in the country – including those on direct provision, those in shelters or those who are homeless – are forced to choose between basic essentials.

Initiatives like Homeless Period Ireland are doing fantastic work to tackle this period poverty, and supply menstrual products to these women and girls, and similar initiatives are in action around Europe. Furthermore, on 4 March a cross-party group of female politicians joined forces to propose legislation in the Dáil, urging free menstrual products for women and girls in direct provision, homeless hubs and schools.

What is going into our bodies and who profits from it?

Disposable menstrual pads are made of up to 90 per cent plastic and can contain chemicals like BPA, phthalates and petrochemical additives. These are known endocrine-disrupting substances, linked to heart diseases, infertility and cancer.

Phthalates, which are also a common ingredient in tampon applicators, are known to disrupt hormone function and may lead to multiple organ diseases. A recently-published French investigation confirmed the substances, including these toxic chemicals, released from menstrual products are absorbed by the body.

Women deserve to know what goes into our bodies, but the multi-billion-dollar industry that manufactures feminine and other hygienic products and profits from them, succeeds in making us believe that disposables are not only the most convenient and affordable option, but that they also have no health or environmental risks.

Manufacturing companies are not legally required to disclose all of the ingredients in their products. These gaps in regulation need to be closed and products tested and regulated for safety concerns. Organisations and politicians are pushing to make this happen, for example, through EU legislation to remove hazardous chemicals from all menstrual products and ensure chemicals used are fully disclosed.

Disposable pads and tampons harm the planet

Disposable menstrual products are essentially single-use plastics. In fact, they have recently been defined as such under EU law. During her lifetime, a woman will have her period for up to 3,000 days, the equivalent of 8.2 years and typically will use up to 16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products – enough to fill two minibuses.

Pads and tampons are the fifth-most common type of waste found on Europe’s beaches, having been flushed down toilets. It can take over 100 years for them to break down, whether in landfills, on illegal dumping grounds, or in seas and oceans. They also block sewage systems. All in all, they have a short lifetime yet a significant negative impact on the marine and other environments, including releasing hazardous chemicals and adding to microplastic pollution.

Better alternatives?

What alternatives do exist? There are actually all kinds of safe plastic-free and toxic-free options available in various shapes and sizes to suit women’s needs and match their comfort level: ultra-absorbent “period underwear” that can be washed and reworn, menstrual cups that can hold three to four times more blood than a tampon, washable organic cotton pads, and EU Ecolabel-certified disposable menstrual products (if reusables are not an option).

But these items aren’t always available, and awareness of them remains low. In addition, reusable period underwear takes a long time to dry, and menstrual cups need to be washed out with warm water every four to eight hours — something that may be difficult for women during the workday.

A major barrier to choice is the upfront cost of these products. However, although they do cost more initially (potentially being a barrier to women already experiencing period poverty), over a woman’s lifetime they are much cheaper than disposables. A single menstrual cup costs around €34, and each pair of period underwear can cost around €30, with multiple pairs needed for one period cycle. Overall, using reusables costs just six per cent of the of the price of disposable menstrual products.

Women who are in the financial position to be able to make a choice need to be better informed: we need more transparency about what is in these products, and more openness when talking about them and periods more generally. Periods are not something that should be kept hidden, and menstrual products are not things that should be quickly used and disposed of without thinking of the harm they cause to women’s health and the environment.

That said, obviously women who use tampons and pads cannot be labelled as plastic polluters when realistically, alternative safe and environmentally friendly options are simply not widely accessible, affordable and usable for all, particularly for women and girls who experience period poverty or are on low incomes. This makes the battle against period poverty – and poverty in general – all the more important for women’s health and the environment.

Meadhbh Bolger is a resource justice campaigner with the environmental and social justice organisation Friends of the Earth Europe. Follow her on Twitter @MeadhbhBolger.