A Point of View: What do climate change and terrorism have in common?

A French vigil attendee and a climate change marcher

To see the link between two great dangers facing humanity, look to Paris, says Sarah Dunant.

Last Sunday I was one of an estimated 50,000 people who took to the streets of London on the climate change march. As ever, it was a very British form of protest - a mix of rousing politics (What do we want? Change. When do we want it? Now!), iconoclastic humour, with placards ranging from the "One-Man Anti-Diesel League" to a "There Is No Plan(et) B" and exuberant dress and performance, a float with polar bears belching fake snow, musical bands and leftover Notting Hill costumes, exotic dancing birds, their meaning morphing effortlessly from carnival celebration into endangered species. It was a fitting mixture of passion and protest directed at the world leaders gathering in Paris, a city at this moment fragile from a different threat of extinction - the threat disseminated by terror.

There are many ways in which the two - climate and terrorism - are connected, or rather interconnected, as is everything in our globalised world. The last time I protested with so many people on the streets was 2003 against going to war in Iraq, a war so evidently misguided that it was clear to many of us then that our government was lying, either to itself or to us - hard to know which was worse. It was a game changer in terms of British democracy, effectively putting a whole generation off organised politics. There were a number of "Don't bomb Syria" placards marching last Sunday, recycled no doubt from the smaller march the day before. It's still unclear exactly what impact the British bombing in Syria will have, but what I do know is that it was our disastrous intervention in, and occupation of Iraq, with no follow-through game plan which helped create the firestorm out of which the present threat of IS was born.

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Sarah Dunant
  • Sarah Dunant is a writer, broadcaster and critic
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT

The planet. Protest. Paris. Terror. The connections go deeper. Map a chart of increasing carbon emissions on to that of post-war economics and you get an unholy alliance of our appetite for oil and the movement of the tectonic political plates of power, as Western money poured into the Gulf States, in particular the hugely repressive Saudi Arabia. Add to that our lucrative sale of arms - a way to get some of it back - and join up the dots, and you can trace a line between the iconic American gas guzzler with some dapper ad man at the wheel and the under-the-radar growth, export and financing of Wahhabism, the medieval form of Islam whose extreme religious clothing is a threadbare covering for violent territorial expansion. All of which may be hindsight, but not entirely rocket science.

Protest. Petroleum. Paris. Terror.

Let's stay with Paris.

A vigil in Paris with a sign reading "We weep but never fear"

Though there are many capital cities in the world feeling their own vulnerability right now, the symbolism of Paris as the target for terrorism is deep and painful, though also in its way darkly magical. Because here is a European city with a history at least as long and powerful as any madness which is now attacking it. Here is a city that in its very soul understands the word terror, which in the 1790s on the bumpy road to democracy invoked that very word against its own citizens. Here is a city which also seems to have an umbilical cord to beauty and intellectual courage. A city which can take the most mundane aspect of existence - the clothes that we put on our back - and make us understand them for what they really are - a statement of identity, personality, belonging - for good and for bad. A city where the wealthy once wore outrageous garments summed up by wigs so outlandish and insulting in their conspicuous consumption that the only way to stop them seemed to be to cut off their heads. Yet in the same city women used fashion as a weapon of quiet patriotism during the dark days of World War Two occupation and when the world stumbled back into life after that war, it was the Paris catwalk which defiantly summed up the joys of normality through the excess fabric of Dior's full skirts and the "New Look".

Dior's 'New Look' after World War Two Dior created the "New Look" after World War Two, pictured here on Barbara Goalen

And here is a city so intellectually alive that it was the birthplace of two of the 20th Century's most challenging philosophic and academic movements - existentialism and deconstruction. Though France must now be asking herself difficult questions about how far her uncompromising attitude to religion has fuelled a level of racism and discrimination when it comes to her Muslim population, in the 1930s when intellectuals like Sartre stared into a godless void without blinking, and turned philosophy into art with works like his novel Nausea, they showed, in my book at least, a courage as impressive as any religion, whatever its hue, might claim for its martyrs.

Close to half a century later, deconstruction did the same thing for our embedded notions of value and culture, stripping away layer after layer of form and historical context until it seemed to be questioning the very meaning of meaning. Though I might have got that wrong, since I found large tracts of its linguistic roadmap almost impossible to follow. Still, to have travelled the route at all reflects an intellectual curiosity and determination.

Which brings us to Paris in 2015.

A man walking in front of "Pray for Paris" graffiti

Indiscriminate acts of terror work like an earthquake on our consciousness. There are aftershocks, which keep the fear fresh even if they are not as deadly, and for the longest time afterwards the ground does not feel entirely safe under your feet. I have been on a number of rush-hour tubes in London over the last three weeks, and with my nose pressed hard against the window staring out into the dark tunnels, I have found myself going to an even darker place in my mind. I don't need to tell where that is for you to imagine it too.

Clearly, clearly, the most courageous, the most defiant thing one can do, is to stay on the train, to return to normal, go back to life as we are used to living it - shopping, driving our cars, taking holiday flights, turning on lights and turning up the central heating as winter sets in. Business as usual. That is our defence against terror.

But here we uncover the final deeply ironic connection between terror, Paris and protest. Because if we really want to address climate change, and if Paris is going to take the lead in doing so, then from now on it can't quite be business as usual. From our dependence on cars and the next holiday flight, to the storage of a million selfies in a cloud that may be invisible but which is greedy for energy - we need to accept that the future, even with new technology, might not be as easy as the past. For too long when faced with the threat of doom as to what was happening to the planet, many of us - humans aren't good at long-term planning when it affects their comfort or accumulation of wealth, that's how we got into this trouble in the first place - instinctively denied it or looked the other way. Another version of terror paralysing?

The London climate change march

So let's try and put all this together. How do we find a sense of potency in the face of terror, how do we embrace life when threatened with death, how do we champion our future against those who claim they will just carry on dying until they win? Perhaps what is needed is mental as much as military action. For us in our minds to stand up and confront movements like IS. To look at them for what they are - just another bizarre twist in the bloody cause and effect journey of human history, and to focus our energy and determination instead on the more important business of making sure that we still have a history, bloody or not, in 100 years' time.

I can see one bright light here. It was those same young people - my own children were among them - so disillusioned with protest and traditional politics after 2003 that many of them turned their backs against any parliamentary route of change - who, looking around London on Sunday, made up a large slice of the demographic of that climate change march. A generation that in many ways is critical of what their elders have - or haven't - done still has the energy and passion (alongside a few of us on our Zimmer frames) to make sure that we keep holding our governments to account.

"Paris: Act Now" said one of the banners I marched behind for a while. As all those cosseted world leaders look out at the streets from their bulletproof windows on the drive from the conference centre to their hotels, I'm sure they cannot help but think about the frailty of human life around them. And their responsibility to preserve it.

Protest. Terror. Paris. I don't think the climate negotiations could be taking place in a better city - do you?

This is an edited transcript of A Point of View, broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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