A Nation of Shopkeepers?

With the climate talks now monopolized by senior political officials, and NGOs essentially excluded from the process of consultation, we decided to hit the streets of Copenhagen to gauge the reactions of ordinary Danes to the do or die event happening in their midst. But on a bitterly cold and damp winter day, the prospect of staying outside for more than a few minutes was simply too unappealing. The result? Talk to people working in the various stores lining the main route from our flat to the central train station about their thoughts on climate change, COP15 and the violent reactions of police to recent protests, particularly yesterday’s melee at the Bella Centre where the official meetings are taking place.

Reactions were mixed on some of these items but less so on others. And some of the responses came to us as a surprise, while others were probably expected. It is certainly the case that the climate change conference “is all anyone is talking about right now,” said a manager of a women’s clothing shop, a women in her mid-50s.”It’s entirely unavoidable,” said another, the owner of a local groceria, “unless you choose to shut off the TV.”

The biggest point of agreement was that although the police’s rough tactics have been discomforting, they have been mostly justified in using heavy force. Video footage from various protests and police raids of activists over the course of the last two weeks leave little doubt about the willingness or ability of the Danish police to use strong-arm tactics against (mainly youthful) activists. Check out the clips from my previous post, and here are two new ones:

Source: EUX TV

Source: CYDCopenhagen

If the local retail sector is anything to go by, the heavy-handed police tactics seem to be accepted as both inevitable and unavoidable, particularly against those who are seen as “trouble-making outsiders,” as one merchant put it. As for the conference, those we spoke to saw it chiefly as an inconvenience at best, and disruptive at worst. Business has been bad because of the global recession, but at this time of year there should at least be a faint hope of an uptick in sales as people warmed to the season of gift giving.

“Why not hold it in January, after the Christmas season when we hope to do significant business,” said the owner of a local flower shop, a man in his late-30s.

“My customers are scared and not spending any money. This conference has been a nightmare for my sales,” exclaimed another.

“All I care about is paying for my electricity, paying my staff their salary, and providing for my kids. I have no time to think of anything else,” stated a third.

And the issue of climate change itself? Danes have an international reputation for being easy-going, compassionate, tolerant, and (most environmentally telling of all) bicycle loving. Even in sub zero temperatures with a generous coating of snow on the ground, Copenhagen is full of cyclists riding to work, to shop, and to school.

If nothing else, this should be a nation of people keenly interested in climate change and its mitigation. Although the issue did spark some interest, for the most part the general view from the petite bourgeois class is that people have enough on their hands worrying about getting by and making a living on a daily basis. “Honestly, I don’t give it very much thought,” said the clerk of a high end furniture store, a man in his late-20s. “Of course, it’s important to be worried about the climate, but we have other problems.”

As for concern about the impacts of climate change on the developing world (a dominant theme of the talks)? It barely registered on the radar. For us this was both surprising and disquieting, but it was a consistent thread in the discussions nevertheless.

When Napoleon Bonaparte dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers, he meant to suggest that because they were fixated on short term financial gain, they would not offer much resistance when push came to shove. But as he learned to his regret, shopkeepers can be highly resistant.

Although we are careful to avoid generalizing from these discussions to the broader population, there’s a potential lesson to be learned for the climate change movement and their supporters in the political class: it is important to continue making the case that climate change is fundamentally a moral and social justice issue that has far-reaching and dangerous consequences, particularly for vulnerable people in the developing world. However, it is also crucial to pay attention to the concerns, economic or otherwise, of ordinary citizens in those countries that will bear the lion’s share of the financial cost of fixing a problem that they may well only be partially responsible for creating. The longer climate change is treated as an either/or issue, the longer it will take to mobilize the domestic support in those countries that have the power and ability to make a difference.

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1 Comment

Filed under Activism, climate change, Environmentalism, Everyday Life, Politics

One response to “A Nation of Shopkeepers?

  1. Michael Dorland

    Two things: First, the woman on the bicycle looks like she is wearing sandals! A hearty breed, those Danes.
    Secondly, and the problem with many plans to change the world, however well intentioned, is that for most people, after job and family, there’s not a whole helluva of a lot of time for thinking and research and understanding complex stuff. See Lippmann 1922. So I don’t find the responses you got from the average Danes at all surprising.

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