On my first evening in Paris for the COP21 climate summit, I eat at an Indian vegetarian restaurant close to Gare Du Nord, and over a mixed vegetable dosa I observe a table of climate activists across the restaurant, some from India, others from a northern European country the name of which my eavesdropping doesn’t manage to ascertain. They are meeting for the first time, having worked together remotely, and far from the corridors of power, as global leaders meet on the other side of town. There are many groups of people like this – people who are not waiting for our leaders to make or not make the planet-saving decisions we need, using the space of the COP to organise, to internationalise, to bring together the environmental struggles and community building they have been doing day in, day out, for all of the years of the failed COPs.
I’m not in Paris to attend the official COP, and traveling here with my 7 month old baby my participation even in the alternative events and protests is secondary to her overwhelming needs of eating, sleeping and nappy changes. So I’m not only far removed from the locked down aircraft hangar in Le Bourget where the leaders of the world will make decisions about the survival of our planet, but on the edge of even the fringe. But in-between making bottles of milk and carrying a stroller up and down hundreds of Metro station stairs, I see some things which are more interesting than the centre. Like the concept of the edge in permaculture, the space where cultivation gives way to the wild place where anything can happen, perhaps the edges of the COP have more potential for real change than the centre.
I begin my week by arriving at the small apartment I’m to be sharing with a bunch of people from several Art Not Oil collectives from different countries, including Liberate Tate and Occupy Museums. They have used the occasion of the COP to organise their own weekend of meetings, taking the opportunity for the first time to internationalise their movement and plan a joint talk and action. The action takes place at the Louvre, to pressure the museum into dropping its sponsorship by the oil companies Total and Eni. A small group goes inside and smears oil on the floor while those of us outside spell a message with black umbrellas, and sing. It is my daughter’s first foray into art activism and we help out by hiding the banners in her pram, and join in with the singing, which she enjoys immensely.
There is so much going on despite and around the edges of the COP that it is easy to get overwhelmed with the many spaces, talks, workshops and actions. The first day I plan too much and forget to eat. After that I calm down, trying to balance political involvement with some relaxation and seeing old and new friends. I go to a packed-out Naomi Klein talk, where she makes the important point that people power changes things and it will be our movements that fight the corporations and governments who try and slow progress on climate change. On the panel, German activist Tadzio Mueller talks inspiringly about resistance in Germany to lignite mining, and the community-led renewable energy revolution there.
I’m staying in Boulevard de La Chapelle, a working-class and primarily migrant area. In the wake of the terrible attacks in Paris, followed by the Front National’s successes in the first stage of the elections, the COP is being played out amid a war by the authorities on Muslim communities, many of them living in the poorest and most socially excluded parts of Paris; the fault line between the different societies that occupy this city clearly exposed.
It is often said that concern for the environment is a luxury, middle-class concern. This is clearly not the case when it is the primary concern of those who live on and depend on the land and the ocean for their way of life. However it is sometimes hard to connect climate change to the geopolitical issues of the day, and this is brought home to me very personally during my week in Paris. The day after I arrive, I receive a Facebook message from a cousin I have never met before saying he is in Paris and would like to meet. My father is Syrian and I have many, many cousins whom I only have contact with on Facebook; many of them have been displaced by the war and are now scattered across the world.
I arrange to meet my cousin in a nearby cafe. He is staying on the outskirts of Paris, in refugee accommodation in the banlieues. It is wonderful to meet him. I’ve met so few of my fathers family and my cousin hasn’t seen a family member besides his wife and daughter in several years. Despite having been on the move for a long time, I find him optimistic about his future in France, though he is worried about the current situation and the Front National. He is fluent in French and English and has good qualifications and skills, and is clearly a very resilient person, but is worried for others who don’t speak french and who have had terrible journeys, for those washing up on the coasts of Greece. He tells me that he and his wife are expecting a new baby, to be born any day now! I’m thrilled for them, and by the level of optimism and belief in the future this must take. For people who are refugees, in the midst of war, displacement and a new country and identity, to bring a new child into the world is amazing. I only hope that the discrimination and current suspicion of refugees and migrants isn’t too hard for him to overcome.
Later that day, I meet up with my friend Sue, who has just arrived from London, at the Climate Action Zone. We attend the action briefing for the big ‘Red Lines’ protest to take place the following day. Then we meet Chris from Transition Totnes and all head across town to a Transition Paris gathering. It starts with a workshop from Lara Freitas of Transition São Paulo about community engagement and the different aspects of sustainability that exist in our lives (ecological, educational, spiritual, economic etc). I have to confess that I don’t fully engage in the workshop as it coincides with my baby having dinner, milk, needing a nappy change and finally going to sleep. But she is fast asleep in time for the pot luck dinner and I am able to catch up with some of those in Transition Paris groups, as well as others from further afield. As ever, it is lovely to meet fellow Transitioners and hear of their communities and successes – like the repair cafe which ran in Paris for two years. It is also a great comfort to hear that others experience the same ups and downs of group energy that we all inevitably do.
Saturday is the big protest day. We start bright and early attending a very special ceremony outside the Pantheon, inside a circle of pieces of Arctic ice that have been brought from Greenland by an artist. On the final day of the climate summit, we are asked to summon our future ancestors and feel rooted into the earth beneath our feet. We also hear a sermon from the brilliant Reverend Billy (one of our lovely flat mates for the week). Billy is not a real reverend, but a performer in the role of a TV evangelist/Elvis style who preaches to stop shopping, in Times Square, Starbucks, and all around the world. His sermon starts with the slogan ‘Earthallujah’ and helps focus our minds on what is at stake that day and the direction humanity needs to take.
Mid-morning, I leave to meet the rest of our ‘baby-bloc’ – friends who are also participating with babies; we want to attend the big day of action and feel safer all together. Baby Isaac has the best placard (yes to nappy change and system change, no to climate change!) We join around 10,000 others between Arc de Triomphe and Arche de la Défense for the ‘red lines’ action. It features a moment of silence for the victims of all wars, including those who have suffered because of climate change – a sobering and powerful moment where we lay red flowers in the street. Then we make our way to the Eiffel Tower for the final demonstration of the day, organised by French civil-society groups.
At the Eiffel Tower, news starts to come through of a climate deal from the COP of a target of 1.5 degree temperature rise. This sounds like amazing news. Many big NGOs welcome it, but people around me do not feel the same way. It transpires that there are huge faults with the deal – it is not binding enough meaning governments will need to be held to account by civil society. Also, the current targets mean we will fall far short of what is needed to achieve even 2 degrees, and the rights of indigenous people are not protected. So it is a moment of hope, when the whole world has agreed, but will require constant action and vigilance on the part of those who are not in the conference rooms to make it happen. Moments later I receive a text from my cousin – his new daughter has arrived in the world, wonderful news. I hope for her sake and for the next generations of all species that we are able to hold our leaders to account and make the changes we need for our planet. And I know that my faith and my energy will be with the people on the edges – Transition communities, art activists, the thousands of people in the streets of Paris and other cities who will demand and work to create change.
Sara Ayech is a founding member of Transition Dartmouth Park in North London and a Campaigner at Greenpeace UK. She is currently on maternity leave and looking after her 7 month old daughter and 9 year old son.