By Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew
This coming Sunday, September 21st, is the People’s Climate March in New York City, here in San Diego, and elsewhere around the world.
The organizers hope that it will be “an unprecedented citizen mobilization” occurring “[a]s world leaders meet at the United Nations climate change summit” while marchers demand “the world we know is within our reach: a world with an economy that works for people and the planet; a world safe from the ravages of climate change; a world with good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities. . . . Other marches will take place around the world as we collectively call on our leaders to act on climate change.”
More specifically, according to the organizers in San Diego, the march is happening to “call for solutions that work for people and the planet – a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewables and energy efficiency, and a just and sustainable economy. We will press our elected leaders to implement a strong Climate Action Plan for San Diego; develop sustainable water policies; build affordable mass transit and facilitate healthy communities; and support green jobs and clean energy.”
That’s a tall order and it might be easy to greet it with a resigned sigh. Indeed, in an era of environmental crisis the problems we face can seem overwhelming. Scientists are warning of a “sixth extinction” and we are barraged with stories about historic drought conditions, catastrophic fires, rising seas, ocean acidification, and more.
When you read article after article with scientist after scientist warning that we may be approaching the “tipping point” with regard to climate change, it can seem dire indeed. In fact, it’s hard not to let the pessimism of one’s intellect overwhelm the optimism of the will.
With that in mind, we were recently invited to give a talk at a forum sponsored by San Diego350 on the history of activism and its implications for the movement to address climate change, a task that put this very challenge to us quite directly.
Our response to this challenge was to note how improbable many of the goals of past struggles must have seemed before they were accomplished: abolishing slavery and upending the core of the American economy; achieving full citizenship for freed slaves; granting full economic and political rights for women; legalizing gay marriage; bringing American workers from a place where they had absolutely no rights in the workplace and no voice whatsoever in politics to the heights of the New Deal era. The list goes on and on.
The seemingly impossible has been accomplished many times by people with very little power.
When people have accomplished what was once seen as impossible it has usually not been the result of a thoroughly planned, gradualist agenda put forth by some organization or the noblesse oblige of the powerful. Rather, it has, as scholar Dan Clawson argues, usually been the product of an upsurge of unexpected activism from below—when a spark ignites a larger fire that consumes the historic moment.
What can we learn from past victories by labor, civil rights, and other activists?
The neoliberal gospel that the market is the only thing that truly matters in human existence is a central obstacle to achieving economic and environmental justice.
1) You need an adequate map of power in order to diagnose the problem and work to end it. As W.E.B. Du Bois once observed, you need to properly analyze your burden. That means engaging in a clear-sighted analysis of existing power relations and honestly assessing the terrain—how does the system work and who are your allies and adversaries? For a successful movement against climate change this means understanding the root causes of the crisis we face.
2) You need to realize that, as Fredric Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” Oppressed people were never given anything out of the goodness of the hearts of the powerful. The history of political liberation and progressive change is a history of struggle. Conciliation does not work without pressure. This does not necessarily mean violence, but rather a principled insistence on speaking the truth to power and disrupting the system in order to create space for change.
And there will always be pushback.
For instance, in both the labor and environmental movements, the neoliberal gospel that the market is the only thing that truly matters in human existence is a central obstacle to achieving economic and environmental justice.
The notion that consumption is the answer to all human needs is a core ideological justification of the system that treats both people and the natural world as nothing more than resources or commodities.
Add to this the fact that there is a multi-billion dollar corporate network that serves both as a propaganda mechanism and a political machine. To give an example: the Koch brothers aren’t interested in having a reasonable chat about our issues; they and their allies are bent on preserving and expanding their power.
And it’s not always going to be easy to know who is really on our side. According to a first-of-its-kind report on corporate funders of climate change denying politicians, many publicly “greenwashed” corporations are saying one thing in their PR statements and doing another with their money:
According to the report, climate change deniers have received more than $641 million in campaign contributions from U.S. businesses and their employees since 2008, with 90 percent coming from sources outside the fossil fuel industry. UPS has donated nearly $2 million, while Microsoft has kicked in $1.07 million. Other million-plus donors include AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing, Citigroup, Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, Pricewaterhouse & Coopers, WalMart, Verizon and Wells Fargo, all of whom have publicly embraced the reality of climate change, environmentally responsible policies and the need to reduce emissions.
In addition to right-wing billionaires publicly championing climate change denial and green-washed corporations funding politicians who do the same, there is an equally dangerous tendency in neoliberal Democratic circles to fall for the easy corporate-friendly techno fix to climate change that fails to address the root of the problem.
This is nicely exemplified in a recent Business Week piece hailing California’s efforts to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gasses, which noted our state’s efforts and gushed that, “California’s progress didn’t require technology breakthroughs, massive paradigm shifts, or onerous consumer sacrifice. Most of the reduction in carbon pollution has been achieved through energy efficiency.” Hence, the piece goes on to argue, changes in consumption and growth are not necessary. We can continue business as usual if we are just more “efficient.”
Without letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, it should be pointed out that this is a dangerous notion to put forth at a time when we are breaking records for greenhouse gas levels and scientists are telling us that “we are running out of time.” In sum, half measures, however well meaning, just won’t do the trick.
Which leads to the third main point.
3) Any successful movement to address the looming threat of ecocide must also involve an accompanying revolution in values (a “paradigm shift” to use the phrase Business Week would like us to think is unnecessary). As Naomi Klein put it when speaking to one of Canada’s largest labor unions last year:
The case I want to make to you is that climate change—when its full economic and moral implications are understood—is the most powerful weapon progressives have ever had in the fight for equality and social justice.
But first, we have to stop running away from the climate crisis, stop leaving it to the environmentalist, and look at it. Let ourselves absorb the fact that the industrial revolution that led to our society’s prosperity is now destabilizing the natural systems on which all of life depends.
So we really do need to change the game and start moving in a radically different direction if we want to save the future. Klein more thoroughly elaborates on our present situation in a recent piece in The Nation where she observes that:
Our problem is that the climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment in history when political and social conditions were uniquely hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude—that moment being the tail end of the go-go ’80s, the blastoff point for the crusade to spread deregulated capitalism around the world. Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.
This deeply unfortunate mistiming has created all sorts of barriers to our ability to respond effectively to this crisis. It has meant that corporate power was ascendant at the very moment when we needed to exert unprecedented controls over corporate behavior in order to protect life on earth. It has meant that regulation was a dirty word just when we needed those powers most. It has meant that we are ruled by a class of politicians who know only how to dismantle and starve public institutions, just when they most need to be fortified and reimagined. And it has meant that we are saddled with an apparatus of “free trade” deals that tie the hands of policy-makers just when they need maximum flexibility to achieve a massive energy transition.
Confronting these various structural barriers to the next economy is the critical work of any serious climate movement. But it’s not the only task at hand. We also have to confront how the mismatch between climate change and market domination has created barriers within our very selves, making it harder to look at this most pressing of humanitarian crises with anything more than furtive, terrified glances. Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real—let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.
Thus we need to reinvigorate the collective spirit, rebuild effective public institutions, and challenge the prevailing market fundamentalism of our age. We need to rethink the progress narrative, address over-consumption, slow down enough to observe the natural world, act locally—be where we are physically and psychologically–and come to realize that we are now in a world where there is no “away” for us to put the pollutants that are killing the planet—and us.
A central part of this revolution in values is a real love of nature based in a rootedness in place and a deeper understanding of our interrelationship with all that is. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in his recent book Love Letter to the Earth:
Many of us are lost. We work too hard, our lives are too busy; we lose ourselves in consumption and distraction of all kinds and have become increasingly lost, lonely, and sick . . . This alienation is a kind of illness that has become an epidemic . . . [O]ur addiction to consumerism, to buying and consuming things we don’t need, is causing so much stress so much suffering, both to ourselves and the Earth . . . Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.
This kind of revolution of values combined with a movement that looks to have hard conversations, builds alliances across interests, finds fertile intersections where environmental and economic justice meet, and uses a toolbox approach toward tactics—both reformist and radical, electoral work and direct action—is the answer.
Central to this task is taking the time to build real community that is more transformational than transactional. This means challenging ourselves to live more simply and gracefully on the earth and developing a sense of self that is large enough to include animals and the natural world. It means consuming less and loving where you are more. It’s a big job, but to quote Walt Whitman, “Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams/Now I wash the Gum from your eyes/You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.”
The People’s Climate March San Diego will be on Sunday, September 21, 2014. Folks will gather at City Hall at 12:30 to call for a strong Climate Action Plan, stop at the American Plaza / Santa Fe Station to highlight transportation alternatives, and end at the County Administration Building Park, where marchers will hear from local leaders. For more information, go to San Diego350.
Kelly Mayhew is a co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and co-editor of Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting. She teaches English at San Diego City College and lives in Golden Hill with husband Jim Miller and their son Walter.