What next for the U.S. climate movement?

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For years, we’ve argued for a mass movement that goes beyond white middle class environmentalists and embraces working people, people of color and First Nations people. Now that such a movement is beginning to emerge, where it is to go?

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A contribution to a much-needed discussion on how to move forward …


by Ben Silverman

Ben Silverman is a member of the International Socialist Organization in New Jersey. He blogs at The Red Plebeian

Last month the largest climate change march and demonstration in U.S. history was held in Washington DC. Organized by Bill McKibben and 350.org, the Forward On Climate march brought in as many as 35,000 people in the freezing cold  to demand urgent action by the government to prevent catastrophic climate change and to halt construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. This represents a huge step forward for the environmental and climate justice movements, for which Bill McKibben and the people in 350.org deserves my honest respect for pulling this off. But this also brings out incredibly important strategic concerns for the movement.

For years, those such as myself have been arguing for the need for a mass grassroots movement to confront the political and corporate power structures that are leading our planet towards ecological annihilation. A movement that breaks out of the white middle class environmentalist cul-de-sac and embraces working class people, people of color and, importantly, First Nations people, in their struggle. Now a movement such as that is beginning to emerge, but the question becomes where it is to go?

This here is a very rough sketch of my ideas at the moment, and much like my earlier post on the labor movement, it should not be considered as a definitive program of action but more of an attempt to pose the question. What is to be done?

First off. I believe it is now self-evident to all those who are seriously concerned about the environment and climate catastrophe, that no single approach or tactic is going to cut it. This is particularly true for the variety of “personal is political” “reduce my own greenhouse foot print” lifestyle approaches, but is also true for the variety of others. Our goal – and here just speaking in regards to the climate change issue – needs to be nothing short then the speedy and drastic cut in all greenhouse gas emission across the board and the elimination of all greenhouse gas emitting fuel/energy sources in the quickest possible amount of time. The strategies and tactics we use need to flow from this level of urgency and scale of our task.

So this means just personal solutions will not work, writing our congressmen will not work, lobbying will not work, ridding our bikes will not work, small affinity group actions will not work, direct actions blockading coal trucks will not, disrupting gas company investor meetings will not work, and even mass mobilizations and protests will not work. But all (or most) of those combined, being carried out simultaneously, on an ever escalating scope and scale, with tens of millions of people, and dialed up to 11, just might work. The approach I wish to suggest is one that doesn’t focus solely on this or that tactic, but aims to pull off both and then some. Nothing should be off the table because we have very little time left to play with.

So embedded in this idea – which I guess in militaristic terminology could be described as firing all of our guns at once across the whole line on full automatic – is the idea of building this into a mass movement. We need to be engaging and incorporating into this struggle millions and millions of people, people who haven’t normally been involved with environmental politics before but who have just as much to lose from climate catastrophe of the most committed of eco-activists. This means having mass outreach and educational campaign that aims to reach out and work with all sorts of people.

There is a lot of misconception and oil company propaganda that needs to be fought against. So have teach-in events at churches, synagogues, mosques, community centers, schools. Hand out leaflets on street corners and shopping centers, even gas stations. Inform people about how much money in tax breaks these gas companies are getting while they keep on upping the cost of a gallon. Don’t guilt-trip drivers, anger them, educate them, agitate them, organize them.

Target everything and everything you can. One of the problems with 350.org’s current approach is that it focuses so much on getting universities and other institutions to divest from gas companies. On one level this can become an important thing to rally around and it may get some real victories which are critical. But Exxon-Mobile will never stop being itself just cause a bunch of colleges divested their endowments from them. We can’t waste our time on just symbolic victories, we desperately need real victories. So yes, divest from Exxon-Mobile, but also march on their headquarters, protest their board meetings, disrupt their investor meetings, hound their execs at every opportunity, and carry out actions that target and humiliate all those bribed politicians they have in their pockets as well.

But don’t just focus on this or that fossil fuel company, focus on all corporations. Force upon every single one of the Fortune 500 the demand that they adopt extreme targets and the measures needed to reach them, to cut their greenhouse gas emissions drastically. Protest them relentlessly until you shame every one of them into submission, then move onto ever other company or institution in the land.

At the same time even more strident demands need to be forced on every town, city, county and state. Has your city council adopted merciless goals of reducing the whole city’s emissions? No! Well then give them no peace. Bring down the entire might of community and neighborhood power down on their heads until they give in. If they aren’t doing enough to meet those emission goal, well then surround the city hall with tens of thousands of people and not leave until they either step down or promise  to do better. Now do the same on the state and national levels and we are starting to get somewhere.

What I am imagining here isn’t a thousand pin-pricks against the gasoline power structure, nor even a swarm of activists buzzing about their heads. I am imagining a tidal wave of a millions strong mass movement, stretching from one end of the country to the other, that’ll sweep them off the face of the earth.

But even this will not be enough. For I am convinced that the only answer to the addressing ecological destruction at its source is on the structural level, capitalism. This rough sketch of an idea of a approach for the environmental movement – which I hope will aid in the starting of a conversation – is not so much aimed at saving the world but at buying us the time we need in order to save the world. The task of uprooting this destructive system of capitalism is a difficult and long one, the revolution will not be tomorrow, but the continual obliteration of our natural environment will be. We fight, or we die.