Which way forward for climate movement?


At the Paris climate talks in December 2015, the world’s governments—dominated by those who contribute most egregiously to global warming—acknowledged the need to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels but refused to commit in a meaningful way to the necessary reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Major U.S. climate action groups laid the groundwork carefully in the period leading up to the talks, working hard to prepare the ranks of the movement for the near-inevitable failure to mandate the drastic and immediate changes in energy production and conservation that are necessary to stave off catastrophic environmental degradation.

Back on Sept. 26, the national group 350.org, for example, launched a campaign perspective called the “Road Through Paris” at a major Brooklyn Academy of Music event that presented the Paris talks as just a stop on the journey toward a major spring escalation of climate movement activity. During this video-streamed event, Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben projected the kind of movement that would be necessary to force governments and corporations to keep fossil fuels in the ground and maintain human solidarity in the face of the climate disasters that are already unfolding.

Such a movement, it was emphasized, needed to see the fight for a livable climate and the fight for economic and racial equality as so deeply intertwined that in some sense, the climate movement would become a “movement of movements.” The challenge before us, they argued, was so immense and unprecedented that the only realistic perspective for change lay in the creation of a movement so broad and powerful that the slogan that rang through the canyons of New York at the September 2014 People’s Climate March—“To Change Everything It Takes Everyone”—would become an accurate prescription for our work.

It takes everyone

Two months out from the Paris talks, and despite all the preparation to avoid to a slump, the U.S. movement is lacking dates for the kind of national united action that could build on past movement successes like the Peoples Climate March, which put nearly half a million people into the streets. In that effort, and subsequent regional actions like the Toronto “Jobs, Justice, Climate” march of June 2015, organizers demonstrated that unprecedented numbers of people, including front-line communities, unionists, immigrant workers, and mainstream faith communities were ready to engage in protest.

These actions demonstrated that armed with the perspective that it “takes everyone,” the day when the movement in the United States could literally put a million people in the streets to demand an end to the predatory and life-threatening fossil fuel economy is at hand.

Such a movement, necessarily built from the bottom up by the assembling of local, regional, and national coalitions around demands hammered out in meetings that can involve increasing numbers of representatives and activists from many different milieus, is, historically, the kind of operation that creates political spaces habitable by those taking their first steps into climate action. They are the kind of actions that have the most potential to bring new social layers, more powerful social layers, into motion.

Once a date is set for a common set of mass actions six months or so in advance, the promise of unity, and, thus, numbers that can demonstrate majority support for emergency measures, can inspire activists in every region of the country to go deeper and deeper into uncharted organizing territory, feeling some urgency to appear before union meetings, churches, neighborhood groups, school groups. A predictable multi-year calendar of dates for united mass actions can structure and regularize these pushes outward to broaden the movement, to unleash the power of the newly engaged, renew the pool of activists, and accelerate the development of new leaders. So why isn’t there a call for a big spring mass action?

“Direct action” a substitute for mass action?

 In part, the major climate action organizations in the United States are not convinced that a regular calendar of united mass actions are central to movement-building in the manner described above. The general attitude seems to be “been there, done that.”

The People’s Climate March, whose organizers unfortunately eschewed the process of struggling over demands in deference to pro-Democratic Party institutional sponsors, is rightly but one-sidedly remembered as lacking in political teeth. Instead of thinking about alternative ways to organize mass demonstrations that can continue the process of broadening the movement while at the same time insisting on its independence from the Democratic Party and on a democratic process that guarantees the selection of appropriate demands, many organizations are turning back to NVDA alone for the coming period.

A united-front mass action around clear and principled demands regarding fossil fuels and renewable energy does not have to devolve into a “big tent” absent real politics. On the contrary, the U.S. antiwar movement of the Vietnam and Iraq eras, the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, and many other broad historic movements for social change demonstrate the viability of this strategy.

Yet, 350, for example, has set it sights on mobilizing not the million or more that one might expect after the experience of the People’s Climate March, but only “tens of thousands of people around the world” in actions that “disrupt” the fossil fuel industry’s power (see BreakFree2016.org). Organizers are focusing all of their resources and energy on direct actions in which a relatively small number of activists would participate—several thousand each at about ten major global sites of extraction, including several in the United States. One of the models for the Break Free of Fossil Fuels effort is the August 2015 “occupation” of an RWE lignite coal mine in western Germany by 1500 protesters.

The strength of these actions, projected for the week of May 7-15, is that there will be concerted, press-worthy spectacles, coordinated internationally, that highlight some of the most important greenhouse-gas-producing industrial sites in the world and their impact, especially on the peoples of the global South. Organizers argue that the civil disobedience will “reflect the scale and urgency of this crisis in a way that governments can no longer ignore.”

Activists advocating this singular focus for the spring also are convinced that the sight of 10,000 individuals willingly engaging in action that makes them subject to arrest will inspire greater engagement in the climate movement.

While it may be true that these theatrical and compelling direct actions will create some new activism in the United States, it is not true that witnessing the arrests of “good people” will naturally lead to growing and broadening the movement in the places where social power is the greatest. Neither is it necessarily seen as more threatening—and more likely to produce concessions—by the powers that be. Why is this so?

Movements force concessions from governments when they are perceived by the elites as potentially threatening to the stability of the social order. The definition of social order in capitalist society is the ability to make profits over the long term and to maintain a monopoly on political power via mainstream political parties controlled by big business. “Direct action” protests, in contrast, are generally aimed at changing the minds or policies of legislators, and the capitalist parties they serve, via displays of personal individual sacrifice, including spending a few days in jail or paying a fine.

The very logic of appealing to legislators, rather than threatening them with signs of a growing and mass rejection of their authority on energy matters, is flawed. Neither do activist arrests necessarily inspire others to get more active and committed. The manner in which the spectacle of civil disobedience affects potential activists is very much shaped by class and race and very specific historic experience.

Working-class struggle in history

 Looking at history, civil disobedience actions have been singularly ineffectual in mobilizing large numbers of working people, including the ranks of organized labor, to engage in political protest. For many rank-and-file workers, civil disobedience is associated with their union mis-leaderships’ failure to organize genuine fightbacks against the bosses and austerity measures. It has become commonplace for AFL-CIO officials, who have repeatedly refused to try to mobilize labor’s collective power against companies demanding concessions or state governments gutting collective bargaining, to take the staff out for civil-disobedience actions and arrest as a photo opportunity.

For working-class militants who yearn to see their potential power unleashed, CD or NVDA, do not necessarily suggest a new political seriousness or an escalation of the struggle. For many in the African American community, the spectacle of mostly white, middle-class activists acting as if a symbolic arrest is particularly meaningful is just an irony of the racism of a system that keeps one in three young Black men—to great impact on their standard of living—in the criminal justice system at all times.

For immigrant workers, many of who are climate refugees without papers and for whom arrest will likely lead to a deportation that might mean the loss of their children or spouse, the most effective moment of struggle was their 2006 collective action of millions in a day of action that they called a “strike.” The question that climate activists must grapple with today is how to build a movement that masses of working people and the oppressed layers of society can claim as their own.

If we are to build the “movement of movements,” or a movement that links the struggle to reduce global warming with the effort to get economic justice for those most vulnerable to the predatory fossil-fuel-driven capitalist economy, we must become sensitive to the history and logic of traditionally working-class forms of struggle, forms that are rooted in collective power, unity in action, and the avoidance of unnecessary risk until the moment when the base seems strong enough to prevail.

Generally, in the current period, the main task naturally centers on building huge demonstrations in the streets. Much later, after broad layers of the working class become deeply involved in protest, they might employ more decisive tactics, such as long-term strikes and plant occupations—which workers used to great effectiveness in organizing the industrial unions in the 1930s.

It is important that activists enter the spring protest season with eyes wide open and in a consciously analytical frame of mind, so that when it is over we can soberly evaluate the entire experience as a movement.

March for a clean energy revolution

One opportunity to make progress toward a greater understanding of the power and necessity of broad, politically independent, mass actions will be the July 24 March for a Clean Energy Revolution called by the Americans Against Fracking coalition. The march will take place in Philadelphia a day before the opening of the Democratic National Convention. The march is expected to mobilize thousands of protesters from East Coast communities, including Pennsylvanians whose lives have been disrupted by the fracking of the Marcellus Shale gas fields. It will demand a ban on fracking and other extreme fossil fuel extraction, a halt to the expansion of fracked gas pipelines and power plants, a ban on the export of liquefied natural gas, and a quick and just transition to a 100% renewable energy economy.

Activists who use this call to demonstrate the importance of mass action to broadening and growing the movement will also be making a contribution to the strategic discussion to come.



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