Putting the life back in science fiction

So about the Climate Strikes
September 28, 2019, 3:19 am
Filed under: livable future, Speculation, sustainability | Tags: ,

Note that I’m more a consumer of nonviolent strategies and tactics than a practitioner, at least at this point.  However, I did participate in the climate strike on September 20, and I’m concerned that this movement is not going to work.  This isn’t to discourage the people fighting for action on climate change to stop working.  Rather, it’s to get them to start working much, much smarter.

My critique comes from Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution.  Popovic is one of the people who founded Otpor! and helped overthrough Milosevic in Serbia.  Currently, he helps train nonviolent activists in similar situations through the group CANVAS.  In Blueprint he critiqued the Occupy Wallstreet movement of a few years ago.  Unfortunately, the Climate Strike seems to be drawing its DNA from Occupy, and it seems to share the same weaknesses.

Here’s part of Popovic’s take on Occupy, from a much longer critique: “A mass demonstration, as anyone who has ever organized any successful campaign will tell you, is the last step you take, not the first. You urge the masses to march in the streets when you know you have enough of the masses on your side, and only when you’ve already done all the preparations necessary to bring your campaign to a showdown. The big rally isn’t the spark that launches your movement. It’s actually the victory lap. Our friends in Egypt realized this very well; they had organized for nearly two years, used lots of leaflets and street theater, and won lots of small battles, and only when they were certain that the moment was right did they rally the troops to Tahrir Square, where they ramped up the demand for Mubarak’s resignation.

“To many outsiders, it seemed that the Egyptians’ magical tactic of occupation was all that was needed, and activists across the world scrambled to get as many people as possible to march in the streets à la the Egyptians. From Cairo to Madrid, from Frankfurt to Damascus, the story had been distorted through breathless media coverage, and everyone, it seemed, got the completely wrong impression of what had taken place. All anybody would have to do, the story went, was occupy some main square for long enough and Santa Claus would descend from the North Pole with whatever you wished for, whether you were asking for Assad to step down or more financial regulation.

“That’s why I was worried about Occupy. It seemed to have taken the wrong lessons from the Arab Spring and elsewhere. And not only did it begin as a mass gathering, but it quickly lost whatever organizational unity it had through all sorts of internal discussions, clarifications, and the inevitable bouts of infighting.  As a result, its philosophy was muddled, and the only way it could go was down.”

The Climate Strike, by naming itself after a single tactic and not being clear about its goals, seems to be following in the footsteps of Occupy, rather than those of Otpor, and I think that it’s a mistake.  There is no single tactic, nonviolent or violent, that will guarantee victory.  Heck, Gene Sharp, the Machiavelli of nonviolence, identified 198 nonviolent tactics back in the early 1970s, and the field has only blossomed since them.

Sharp, and his disciple Robert Helvey, who helped train Otpor and many other activists, advocate a radically different approach, one that they take from military planning (Helvey was a special forces colonel in Vietnam before doing a heel-face turn and becoming a nonviolent activist).  Helvey believes in “reverse sequence planning.”  Start with a goal (“goose egg” in his military parlance, for the circle you draw around the spot you want to conquer), then work backwards sequentially from that goal until you connect up with where you are now.  Reverse your analysis and you’ve got a plan.  Obviously said plan won’t survive contact with reality, but it helps you work out what you need to do and possible problems before you encounter them.  Hopefully reality won’t surprise you too badly.

Anyway, what’s the goal of the Climate Strike?  I dunno, I just went out and marched like I was told to.  It’s certainly not a victory lap.  The only tactic seems to be mass protests, but what’s the strategy to reach those goals?  That’s not apparent.  Note that the strategy doesn’t have to be secret, and in fact there are some advantages to publishing it, as it allays fears that the nonviolent movement is a stalking horse for something nasty.  It also allows decentralized movements to coordinate actions and pick up the pieces if leaders get arrested or assassinated.  Were there years of preparation prior to the Climate Strike?  Not that I saw.

So turning this around, what’s the goose egg for the climate movement?  Presumably it’s decarbonization by 2050, starting with a massive decrease in carbon emissions over the next ten years.  Unfortunately, there’s (probably) no secret cabal of carbon emitters to be overthrown, so it’s not one goose egg, it’s hundreds of them: hundreds of major corporations and every country in the world not just committing to decarbonize, but doing it.  Still, this is at least conceptually doable.  Each one is a separate campaign.  Start with the easy ones, the tiny countries and environmentally aware companies, make fighting climate a routine part of a growing alternative economies, and work up from there to build the campaign infrastructure to tackle the major powers,  corporate, governmental, and military.   Indeed, the more players that get pulled away from a petroleum-based economy and integrated into alternative economies, the weaker the remaining groups become (except in military terms, as I suggested previously).   The diversity of tactics required for these diverse campaigns is extreme, and I don’t think simple mass protests are going to be the panacea.  Instead, as Popovic suggests, they’re going to be the victory lap for major changes in governance.  To pull the others away from the global carbonizing economy, it’s going to require everything from street theater and reformist activism, to boycotts, to (probably) doxxing and other online activities, criminal prosecutions, lawsuits, as well as construction of working alternative economies that bankrupt the holdouts.

It’s easy to say, hard to do.  I’m happy to play my part, but as a mediocre organizer, I’d argue that the people we most need to bring into the climate movements are the born organizers and change-makers, so that they can get educated and start putting the networks together.  Hopefully the climate strike is pulling these people in, because at this point, that’s the best I can do: hope.

Incidentally, you can read much of Sharp’s and Helvey’s work for free at the Albert Einstein Institution, and if you’re interested in nonviolence, there’s no finer library to start reading in.   I’d also STRONGLY recommend Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution, although you’re going to have to buy that one rather than read for free.


6 Comments so far
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Yes and no on your analysis. Although we supposedly know the top 100 CO2 emitters, almost all fossil fuel companies, under the present political, legal, and economic systems we have they are not only able to continue their business model, they are duty bound to their shareholders to continue to do so. Targeting them is futile. What must happen is that their business models become illegal. That requires political change. The climate strike is just one facet to changing this system. Despite the rhetoric, politicians follow, they don’t lead. They need to see which direction is becoming prevalent. Self-preservation will force them to adjust. Thunberg is the titular spokesman and is focusing the heat on those political leaders. The schoolkids staying out of school on Fridays is disrupting an institution and acting as a constant reminder that they want change.

I don’t know if it will succeed, but we are aware of the consequences of failure. It may require more drastic measures in future.

Comment by Alex Tolley

There’s some interesting realignment about what the duty of corporations is. See https://www.businessroundtable.org/business-roundtable-redefines-the-purpose-of-a-corporation-to-promote-an-economy-that-serves-all-americans. The Business Roundtable now argues that corporations have a duty to all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Reportedly they’re facing pushback, but if they’re serious, this will change things quite substantially.

The problem with generalized disruption is that there’s no end where protestors declare victory and go home. Eventually, something breaks, and a really powerful example of how this can go horribly wrong are the Tiananmen Square protests. I’d simply suggest it would be better to break the extinction rebellion into a bunch of campaigns and go after them, rather than striking and hoping for the best.

Comment by Heteromeles

To a large extent that is exactly what the climate strike is, though – a symptom of a much larger movement. It’s also both a rallying cry (literally, to use that word in its archaic sense), and a reassurance. Part of the point was/is to reassure all the people who are constantly told that only a few freaks oppose “this whole nonsense about warming” but it’s pretty hard to do that when there are huge rallies asserting the contrary. We’re using both sides of the “for every protester there are 100 quiet supporters” – saying to the PTB “50,000 people in the Domain means a million supporters in Sydney”, but saying to those million “you are not alone, you are not the only one who’s worried, you’re not the only one who wants action”.

What I saw was a whole range of different environment groups working up to the strikes, with efforts ranging from just including it in their newsletter to active recruitment for a group attendance to paying organisers to go along. One visible symptom at the rally in Sydney was the Greenpeace-branded shade marquees scattered about the Domain, but obviously we also had a big stage, PA system, portaloos, first aid tent, lost parents location and so on. That stuff doesn’t just happen.

I got at least four different invites/reminders from different groups, as well as attending organising meetings (and I am involved with a fair few groups that don’t have my contact details (because many are anti-privacy activists)).

Comment by That Moz Guy

Like your take on this. I was involved in occupy, and now work with the local democrats. A few thoughts based on my own experiences: I haven’t read Popovic’s book yet, but his analysis seems accurate–I remember the endless debates over symbolic minutia, dominated by a few “personalities” with strong opinions but not stomach for actually organizing anything. Occupy dissipated due to lack of cohesiveness but I would less on the plan and more on the planners–are there leaders with credibility taking responsibility for providing direction? The Million Women March movement started out strong but fell apart because the leadership turned out to have ties to an antisemetic extremist, and that destroyed their credibility. Black Lives Matter seems to have stronger legs, and that’s because the movement’s leaders are all connected through a support network that has generations of experience putting people on the street,and leveraging that to get results.

Right now most of the energy behind the progressive movement in the US seems to be directing itself into the political process, pushing the Democratic party to the left and supporting candidates like Sanders and Warren (not unlike what the Tea Party did with the Republicans 10 years ago). Progressives in the US are mostly focused on the economy and human rights, however, and not the environment. Mass environmentalism in the US is still focused more on conservation than global warming, and the school strike movement, while it has some modest traction here in the states, suffers as you say from a lack strategic vision. To change this, a credible leadership needs to offer a plan.

Mass action in the US can’t resemble that of Egypt, or the color revolts, because we actually are a functioning democracy (so far) and most people want to protect/refine the current system rather than overthrow it and start over.

Comment by Demarquis

All good points. I totally agree that the lack of organizers is a huge problem. For example in Bill Moyer’s schema (the social change activist, not the media star Bill MoyerS), I’m what’s known as a reformer/policy wonk, not an organizer. It’s frustrating, because I’ve little innate talent for organizing the actions I see as necessary. But we’ve got to find the people who do have these talents and get them trained, educated, and working. This is where the industrial Dark State creeps actually do extremely well: they’re funded, organized, and doing their job quite successfully (cf: Koch Brothers and so on). In effect, this is a nonviolent war, and it needs to be organized more-or-less as such.

I disagree that the progressives are all focused on human rights and the economy. The ones I know (yes, a small set) are very tuned in on environmental issues. They’re not sophisticated about them, but they know they’re important. The problem is getting people to be able to talk about climate change without everyone getting depressed by where we actually are, and the unreality of socially-polite talk about this emergency does make effective action harder than it needs to be.

As for the nonviolent political action, you’re right and wrong, I think. Normally (per Popovic, which I think you’ll actually enjoy reading), the idea is to pull the pillars of civil support away from a problematic government until, like a classic temple roof with no pillars supporting it, it crashes, at which point you’d better be ready with a new roof to prop up. With the climate, we’ve actually got to pull the political support pillars away from horrendously destructive capitalist industries, until they crash, AND we have to be ready with alternative industries when they do crash, so that we don’t crash civilization any faster than it already is. That’s kind of what the Green New Deal is aimed at, so that’s where I’d point people. The pulling the supporters of problematic institutions away from them is the key element that’s common to both the extinction rebellion (hopefully) and the color revolutions.

Comment by Heteromeles

Think: If similar rallies get attendance numbers higher than voter participation rates, might that not help change things all by itself?

It undoubtedly requires a different formula to pursue citizen activism in China and other significantly repressive regimes for the foreseeable future. That said, in less repressive regimes a long-term problem has been things like the FBI and the CIA infiltrating and conducting surveillance of environmental groups. Even when they don’t use riot squads to arrest everybody these kinds of “policing” perform baseless arrests and prosecutions of key figures, and put very many people on no-fly lists without charges. This has played out similarly in the UK and other countries which nominally allow freedom of association and expression, as part of the long and dark history of policing as enforcers of property rights and elite privilege. Against that kind of threat it becomes imperative to launch massive rallies beyond the scale at which authorities can arrest everybody, or mark them all on the suspicious radicals list. Another vital purpose is shifting the Overton window against the well-funded movement to stall progress led by PR bullshit, “think tanks,” and astroturfing: Most of the problems are never treated as environmental crisis news in the media unless rallies attended by millions push it into the news. Other purposes include providing entry-points for recruitment and fundraising by the smaller organizations working on the individual goals, convincing politicians to show up and be persuaded that global warming is not an issue for hot air and empty platitudes, practice with inter-organization planning and networking, and recruiting businesses, religious organizations, and other non-environmental groups into both visible and tangible support for advancing environmental causes.

Comment by anonymous coward

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