This text emerges out of the experience of organizing against climate catastrophe over the years, in a variety of forms but often focusing on direct action—e.g. blockades and other forms of direct intervention in, and disruption of, the economic machine that is killing everything. Initially, it is presented as a response to debates about an ostensible conflict between organizing actions that are symbolically meaningful and broadly accessible vs. organizing actions that are maximally disruptive, and therefore sometimes both more difficult and more secretive.
Nothing about this debate is particularly new—the symbolic/accessible vs. effective/challenging binary is familiar in any number of organizing contexts. But the fact that the dialogue is so familiar, while the reality of climate deterioration is so wholly and fundamentally unprecedented, is a central point of contention. The purpose of this text is not to argue a position within this somewhat weary debate; rather, the repetitive clash of this putative binary indicates a need for synthesis and systemic examination.
First let us examine a few demographic and cultural factors relevant to the this inquiry. In the United States, people who actively focus on climate tend to be people who are suffering less social, racial, and economic injustice than many others. This is an unsurprising state of affairs for a crisis which, however much it may be so dire as to almost defy overstatement, nonetheless still has a far lesser immediate impact on the lives of marginalized people than many other forms of injustice. Many of those who are mobilized around climate have a distinct cultural trajectory in which the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam war were two central efforts which developed their political consciousness, and which continue to inform it most powerfully.
As will be the case with anyone who has experienced a powerful, broadly impactful social movement, many cite elements of one or both of these them as potentially useful in climate work, or simply suggest we emulate these movements outright. Disregarding the antiwar movement for the moment, this emphasis on the civil rights movement will be our point of entry into the symbolic/accessible vs. disruptive/challenging binary.
The great impact of the civil rights movement is often invoked in strategic debates with an admonishment that could be justly paraphrased thus: “What is this obsession with blockading things, with trying to stop things for as long as possible, with locking people to things and putting heavy things in the path of evil? You don't really expect to win some sort of physical struggle with corporate and state power, do you? Where is the broad moral appeal, which engages everyone? Don't you see how idiosyncratic and inaccessible what you are doing is?”
This tendency to reference the civil rights movement while simultaneously arguing for political action which is unintimidating and effortlessly accessible would seem—at the risk of compromising any hope of a tone of diplomacy or academic detachment—to embrace a contradiction so manifest and absurd as to strain the limits of credulity. It is as if people have extracted from a seminal struggle against injustice a single, core tactical precept—radically simplified and bereft of any context which gave it meaning—that people sitting down places until they're arrested is inherently, inexorably a mechanism for profound social change.
It isn't. The power of the actions that were taken against racial injustice in the 1960s was not derived, as is so commonly mentioned in critiques of the “blockade mentality,” from their capacity to physically challenge or overcome oppressive forces. Nor, however, did it derive from the inherent, quasi-magical power of sitting down on someone else's floor. It derived from the prodigious bravery, clarity, and moral fortitude required of black people to openly defy a system, by the most deliberately vulnerable means possible, which remorselessly and with equal openness threatened their lives, and was (and still is) based on their suffering, exploitation, and death.
It was a profound expression of what is most beautifully human by people subject to an intergenerational, institutional assertion that they were somehow less than human. People had to fear for their lives, and people had to die, because those were very clearly the stakes involved in confronting the system in that manner, by those people, at that time. It perhaps belabors the point to say that folks from comfortable backgrounds staging a sit-in or some other action for which they know they will be treated very gently does not automatically invoke the same scope of courage and defiance.
If climate activists who are suffering the least in this system wanted, as is commonly asserted, to emulate the civil rights movement in some meaningful way, they could perhaps profit from asking themselves some form of the question: “What could I do—considering my own life's trajectory and the political-ecological situation we find ourselves in—that would express the same magnitude of defiance, that would shatter the social consensus to the same degree, and that would require the same level of commitment and fearlessness as a black person sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter?”
In very few cases, I suspect, would the answer consist of going to an easily accessible place and committing an extremely modest legal infraction.
The human mind absolutely revels in binaries. Anthropologists like Levi-Strauss have analyzed everything from ceremonial attire to clan structure and spoken of the human mind's seemingly inexorable need to perceive the world as a set of structural and logical oppositions. Thus, having described this ostensible symbolic/accessible vs. disruptive/challenging binary, and having critiqued one emphasis, it would be natural to assume this text is intended as a vindication of one logical opposite over another. Lock enough people to enough things—taking elaborate technical measures to make it take a few more hours for the police to cut them away, perhaps—and we just might save the world.
But of course these tactics have been employed for a long time without demonstrating they represent any greater a magic bullet than an extremely watered-down version of the Ghandi-King praxis. Moreover, the critique is certainly valid that focusing on technical sophistication in direct action risks getting lost in a minutia divorced from a legitimate calculus of fundamental social change.
Many of us acknowledge that ostensibly logical or factual debates are often essentially conflicts of unspoken values, with facts marshaled, post-hoc, to reinforce a position which one's values incline one to adopt. A debate about the risks presented by climate change evinces this character very clearly. Debates about social movement strategy unceasingly take on this character as well. As we are confronted with strategies that conflict with core assumptions we have about the world, we risk descending into the underlying—and often unanalyzed—emotional/perceptual framework that informs our political perspectives. The consequent vociferous defense of one's strategic paradigm almost invariably requires hyping its effectiveness to an unjustifiable extent.
But of course, however emotionally engaging these exercises might be, we're all perfectly aware no one's approach represents a particularly clear path to victory. And as the global social-ecological trajectory careens wildly into utterly, absolutely uncharted territory, many of these dialogues—which often recapitulate common themes of strategic divergence—risk losing relevance altogether. As we progress into a situation with no precedent, it is worth asking ourselves if our actions, as well, should be fundamentally different from what has been done before.
In certain respects, those who wake up every day—or at least many days—wondering how to shift our climate trajectory bear something akin to a secret wound. We feel the burden of a growing catastrophe which is rapidly undoing much of what is good and beautiful in this world, but we also witness the world going about its business with astonishing nonchalance about this Great Dying we are entering. It would be wrong, of course, to say only a few understand the scope of the crisis—at this point in time that is no longer the case. It might also be plausible to say few have truly internalized the scope of the crisis in an emotionally and intellectually integrated fashion. This is understandable, albeit far from desirable: the scope of the crisis and the forces arrayed against us are so vast as to be paralyzing.
Bear with me for what might appear at first like a pure digression into behavioral biology: This failure to psychologically integrate the current moment evinces a common theme in response to crisis in many animals. One can see it in prey animals as their hunters descend upon them and they undergo the freeze response to fear. Their bodies stop moving and their eyes glaze over, their mind traveling as far from the scene of the horror as possible, which they can no longer cognitively process. The fight is over before it begins.
But not always. The famed animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz wrote about this many years ago, describing how some animals, unable to flee and vastly overpowered—a rat cornered by a cat, for instance—instead choose to turn and fight.
And sometimes, the vulnerable animals beat the strong animals. ~30% of all cougar deaths, in one Idaho study, were from prey who fought back. Of course, the deer and elk who kill cougars are vastly outmoded in a physical contest, and of course the cougars who die this way have prevailed against many other deer and elk. But sometimes one is so crazed with a will to live that it kills its attacker.
In other cases the smaller animals show larger animals such fearlessness, such fervor in confronting them, that the bigger animal simply flees. Wolverines chase bears away from carcasses, and a resident rufous hummingbird chases birds many times his size out of my back yard.
When I observe small animals confront large animals and win—whether in physical combat or a combat of will and courage—I think I am witnessing something that can be roughly translated into words as: “Very well, since you have put me in a position where I risk destruction otherwise, I will now reveal to you the terrible greatness of my being. You are larger, but do you possess this fighting spirit which animates me? Do you have the will to fight one who is beyond fear?”
In many cases, the answer is no.
I want to make a bold statement, and without going into unnecessary detail, justify it simply by saying that I experienced extreme institutional abuse as a child—abuse I had no choice but to confront—and a particular experience I had during that time informs this proclamation.
Power can be broken, when one possesses nothing else, by force of truth and will alone. Power can be broken because power—in the sense of a hierarchical force which commits injustice—is weakness in an artless disguise. It has guns and bombs but not the strength to confront its own visage. Power dies when those who confront it love justice more than they fear death, because for all its bravado the fundamental impulse that underlies it is fear.
If making statements about not fearing death with respect to climate action in a developed nation strikes you as terribly uncivilized, be as offended as you need to be, but understand being horribly uncivilized is precisely the intention. Civilized discourse is unbecoming of we who live in a dying world.
If we acknowledge that the power of the civil rights movement derived largely from the courage it demonstrated, rather than asking ourselves how we can best emulate it in a radically different social-political context, perhaps we should ask ourselves what we could be doing that best expresses, that acknowledges the truth most clearly, that this catastrophe has no parallel or analogue. Noting that many who should at this very moment be screaming in rage instead have the dazed look of animals giving into their attackers, perhaps we should ask ourselves what we can do to convince them instead to fight. In so doing, we may also have to question whether our own actions do not have the appearance of small rituals performed by those who are, for the most part, also looking away, so overwhelming are the odds and so terrible the circumstances.
Because courage—within an integrated social context, which allows one to commit courageous acts with the knowledge that they comprise part of a broader and ultimately more coherent force—is just as contagious as fear, perhaps we should do this: Be like the little animals that turn around and fight when they have nowhere left to run. Find the truth which when spoken breaks power, because it is a truth so prodigious it breaks our fear, and we become the greater adversary.
Because what does it mean to say the world is ending, that the catastrophe is without precedent or analogue, and then do the same things activists always do? Doesn't it give the impression, no matter how unequivocally interdisciplinary panels proclaim the end times are upon us, that things couldn't really be that bad, when those who are supposed to care the most take tepid action? Are we not reinforcing the social consensus—that somehow everything will be fine, that somehow fossil fuels are still okay—when we speak unconvincingly, with anything less than holy rage?
If you are skeptical perhaps of this particular brand of fiery rhetoric, if you are thinking perhaps still of our small numbers and the overwhelming challenge we face, bear in mind that ecological and social systems are coupled. One system can't change without changing the other. And bear in mind also that because what is happening to life on earth is unprecedented, at some point—granting the delay has been prolonged and tragic—the social response to this crisis will take on a fundamentally different character than struggles of the past.
Of course, this could come when people essentially have no choice but to deviate from their existing behavior and commit to struggle of one form of another, or it could come at some point when simple knowledge of the scale of impending and occurring horrors overwhelms them, or both. It could come very late. Perhaps many more feedback loops will be irrevocably in progress. Perhaps—however much it hurts to say—most of what we love will be dying. Perhaps we will be fighting at that point against another end-Permian, the so-called mother of all extinctions, when living systems were so altered and impoverished that the sky changed color and the oceans were inhospitable to most life because of the post-collapse ascension of a few species of toxic organisms. Perhaps we will be fighting for an end-Permian, with at least some biological material persisting to regenerate beauty, complexity, and sentience, against a lifeless ball of rock battered by storms.
There will always be something to fight for. No matter when it happens, at some point it is almost inevitable—or at least very, very plausible—that mass discontent and political mobilization around our collapsing life support system will emerge.
What will it look like? Because I am personally fond of biology and systems theory, I could reference the nascent interdisciplinary journal The Anthropocene Review in order to describe how radically the world is changing, and thus how little our expectations, grounded in a vanishing status quo, apply to what is happening right now. I could say its contributors describe the current rate of extinction as greater than for any of the five previous mass extinctions in earth's history, how geological epochs can now be conceived by examination of the “techno-fossil” record, and how the current age began with the detonation of the first nuclear bomb. I could mention they characterize only three fundamental eras of life: The unicellular, the complex multicellular, and whatever is happening now. I could even say they question whether the “technosphere,” with which the biosphere is now utterly entwined, should be thought of as a system embedded within human society, and a vehicle for the needs of human society, or should be thought of as a fundamentally autonomous system, just like in the science fiction movies.
Someone else, with a different orientation, would characterize it differently. But the point remains that the world is very radically and nonlinearly changing, towards states we cannot predict, and human behavior inevitably with it. If we predicate our actions on what people seem to find unintimidating now, our actions are morally vacant, because it is manifestly obvious this is woefully inadequate. But if we model actually behaving as if the imperative to address the crisis is as great as it is, as qualitative shifts in people's willingness to fight for the world occur, there will be a movement for them to join instead of a container we have made to uselessly envelop their rage.
Who we are is innate, and who we are is environmental. While it is advisable to always seek truth beyond one's current scope, everyone's political strategic paradigm is to some extent a cultural contingency and a product of their unique experience in a given environment. Different environmental contexts give people different unique abilities and also present distinct impediments.
Those less abused by the power structure—because they face fewer chronic, consuming adversities—are better positioned to think systemically about things which do not pertain to their immediate wellbeing. They are thus better positioned to be emotionally affected, and compelled to action by, the knowledge that as decades and centuries progress, climate chaos will drive a majority of life forms extinct or make vast portions of Africa unsuitable for crops.
However, precisely because they have been less abused by the power structure, they are also somewhat poorly positioned to confront it. In fact, they have a tendency to try to reason with it, even in cases where power has made it abundantly, eminently clear it is immune to reason. Those who have suffered less have all heard that it is their moral responsibility to listen to the experiences of those for whom injustice has been more grievous, and it is. But it is also a strategic imperative to listen to those who've known more egregious abuse, because from them can be learned a truly fundamental antagonism to the power structure, held deep in one's being, which this moment very clearly demands of any sane person.
For those who have condescending thoughts about people from more challenging background's inability to integrate into society, now that the world's ending, an opportunity presents itself to overcome one's assimilation and transcend your conditioning, just as they have expected of others in the past.
Of course, it is not enough to merely be fervent. We must be both powerfully fearless and assiduously strategic. At the risk of autobiographical overindulgence, I want to tell one story from my childhood, in greater detail than the one so vaguely alluded to before, or the point will be utterly lost. We will then attempt to converge on a synthesis of the arguments put forth thus far into some form of a strategic whole.
When I was eleven years old, I witnessed a horrible act of violence against my mother by the man she was married to. This was not the first time I'd seen such abuse, but it was far more severe than I'd ever witnessed before, both in terms of physical severity and the extent to which her husband simply lost himself in cruelty. One could describe it as a qualitative shift. While it was happening, I did absolutely nothing. I did not speak a word or move a muscle. I did not intervene in any fashion. I simply watched.
That night, I made my peace with long-term incarceration. Boys are locked up for killing their mother's abuser far more commonly than many people realize. I was not naive about the consequences. Despite my tender age, I'd already known many school expulsions and long-term, institutional attempts at behavioral modification. I was on probation. I knew perfectly well the power structure would treat me with no more humanity this time than it ever had before, but the truth of my conviction negated fear.
I gave him one chance. The next morning, I took the biggest of our knives from the kitchen and intercepted him on his way to work. I told him to look at the knife. I wasn't sure I could defeat him in a fight, even with a knife, so I made it a point to tell him I was simply going to cut his throat in his sleep, with that very knife, if he ever hit her again. I told him he'd never know when it was coming or if what I was saying now had all been fleeting bravado. But I assured him one night he would simply die. No histrionics. No shouting. No breaking things. No discussion, even.
I never saw him hit my mom again.
Some particularly avid adherents of nonviolence are doubtless appalled by this apparent glorification of child-on-stepfather knife violence (or in any case the threatened prospect of it). Some of you are doubtless wondering how many times I am going to make the point that a more physically powerful adversary can be overcome by greater moral strength. The purpose of the anecdote is neither to offer a perspective on violence per se nor to reiterate what has already been said. The point is simply that I waited.
I was eminently familiar with the dynamics of adult rage. I knew perfectly well that at the moment he was hitting her, there was absolutely nothing I could do to communicate with him sincerely or coherently. I knew that no amount of screaming insane hyperbole, or indulging in an exchange of tough guy bravado, no amount of wild gesticulation and shattering of household items, would reach him. I knew the rhythm well. So I waited until he'd calmed down, gotten some sleep, and was ready to drive to work and get on with his life. And then I told him I was going to kill him.
This evil could not have been prevented had I feared fighting it. This evil certainly could not have been prevented had I chosen to reason with it, to appeal to it on moral grounds. This evil could not have been prevented had I simply acted on the powerful emotional impulse of the moment rather than taking my rage and utilizing it in a strategically cogent manner. In order to prevent the evil, it was necessary to be both fearless and calculating.
Just as debates involving our core values, and the political imperatives they translate into, are often so emotionally potent so as to negate any prospect of legitimate dialogue, they can negate our ability to be truly strategic even when there is no debate. We should always ask ourselves to what extent our political strategies are simply expressions of our inclinations, divorced from the actual external context in which they are supposed to operate.
The anarchist who knows with absolute certainty that all we need to win is to gain the courage to strike the match or throw the brick and the liberal who insists on conciliatory gestures to those in power, while people die in the streets and the acidifying ocean rises up to devour the burning earth, perhaps have more in common than they think. What they might share is an insistence on a political praxis which is based less on a sober analysis of the actual vicissitudes of the situation they wish to affect—which, at the risk saying something trivial, has everything to do with the course of action most cogent to take—and more on their core values. This is certainly not to say that people are not capable of analyzing their actions, but simply that, much as we use language without consciously considering the rules of grammar, the analysis is heavily informed by unspoken biases and parameters.
This is illustrated, for instance, by the common referencing of the movement against the Vietnam war, one of the other fundamental drivers of political awakening for many now involved in the climate movement, as a strategic imperative to emulate in addition to the civil rights movement. What is curious about this is that, while the relative scale of the accomplishments of the civil rights movement is a subject of rich and ongoing discussion, it's difficult to imagine many people would seriously argue that the American anti-war movement succeeded in ending it. What makes it doubly curious is that the alternate strategy to sit-ins and mass protests of the Vietnamese people—protracted, bloody conflict—so decisively defeated American power.
Naturally, the hackles of the avowedly nonviolent are again raising, and again, I am not making a case for armed struggle per se, because it is not abundantly clear that in this situation that would be the most effective course of action. I am merely repeating the point is that there is no universally salient strategy based solely on moral imperatives and one's existing cultural framework. One must be meticulously aware of the specific nature and structure of the situation and the mechanisms for intervention. We cannot simply focus on building a mass movement (which does, incidentally, appear to be happening). We must also focus on what a mass movement should actually do. It will matter.
What could be described as bold, strategic action in the United States might be pointless suicidality elsewhere. What could be a powerful direct action campaign on federal land might be far less effective elsewhere. All of these things matter, in extraordinary detail. Direct action often works best when it simply moves the world in the direction the actionist wants, ignoring formal channels of political power (because that is when it is most threatening to power), but it cannot afford to be ignorant of the mechanisms by which those formal channels might respond or acquiesce.
The Landless Movement in Brazil, the MST, is a salient example. Their fundamental tactic is simply to ignore the government's promise of land redistribution and occupy the estates of the wealthy. The tactic might fare poorly under other circumstances—a military dictatorship, for instance—but by simply claiming land, the landless compel the government to enact the reforms for which it has a mandate but cannot instantiate on its own, for lack of will and moral clarity. One could perhaps think here of the innumerable emissions reductions targets set by governments of various scales the world over, bold aspirations without particularly clear mechanisms (even if you read the interminable pages of techno-gibberish and market babble some governments devote to the matter) for achieving them.
Applying this broad framework to the question of the ostensible symbolic vs. disruptive binary, the essential point to be made is that the choice to be physically disruptive, at least for some of us, is not an incoherent emotional impulse but is based on a sober strategic assessment. Hanna Arendt's banality of evil—the notion that atrocity is fueled not by cabals of diabolically cackling madmen, but by unextraordinary people who find acquiescing to or participating in evil to be useful in pursuing their incredibly prosaic imperatives—is certainly salient to the logic of climate chaos.
While fossil fuel corporations and many of their allies in political office do indeed emulate comic book villianhood perhaps better than anyone else, much of the calculus that has allowed the powerful to dully acknowledge climate horrors while continuing to perpetuate them is also fundamentally a result of the simple fact that they are faced with the choice of doing something hard—decarbonizing—or doing something easy—perpetuating the status quo. More than hard, of course, the work that must be done is in fact a feat of astonishing proportions.
The strategic calculation is this: We can help make this very difficult path a great deal more appealing by making business as usual much more difficult than it currently is. It is very obviously only one part of a larger strategy, but this is why getting in the way absolutely does matter. It is a logic entirely distinct from showing up and getting arrested as a form of demand. It assumes demanding something from, or making a moral appeal to, those in power alone is futile. Because it is not as if government and corporations do not understand, in at least some cases, the gravity of the climate crisis. Many do—undoubtedly many politicians know more about climate than many climate protesters—but they simply find it too inconvenient, too complex and messy and confusing, to do what is moral.
Making it more messy and inconvenient to act immorally is the job of mass direct action—and exactly how it is done, under what conditions, matters tremendously for this reason. Because how it is done helps determine the money they have to spend, the time they have to use spending it, the police they have to mobilize, and the time their operations are shut down. How it is done determines the fearlessness we must possess, which allows people to see a greater truth and shatters the social consensus on fossil fuels. But how it is done also determines how they have to deal with it, and the sad truth is that for many in power, tremendous impediments—in addition to great moral imperatives—are required to break their will to do evil.
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I’ve been doing an informal survey since Occupy, which seems to confirm my hunch. My activism experience has been paralleled by personal experience within my family, namely with a beloved older sister who is still in denial about the abusive nature of our mother. Even though I can see a compelling need to believe in a happier version of the story than we actually experienced as children, it’s still hard for me to accept her inability to admit the truth about our family. Our dad was rarely home (who could blame him?) and when he was, he was drunk. Being adopted, I was the one who bore the brunt of our mother’s rage. I was the family scapegoat, which in turn led to rebellion, which became its own justification for more abuse. My mother didn’t stop beating me until I was 14, when I finally grew big enough to threaten her with a cocked fist. I don’t advocate violence either, but I do know that the threat of it was the only thing that stopped her.
I devoted many adult years to therapy and a deep search for understanding. My experience has somehow given me not only the strength to face the truth, but an insatiable, abiding hunger for it, while my sister, who was the apple of my mother’s eye and a more or less perfect vision of middle class virtue, has not been able to comprehend that the long-term effects of a violent upbringing are with us still. Even though I’ve encouraged her to remember our past, believing it’s beneficial to be honest about it, she is very resistant. My two sisters may have only been mute witnesses to our mother’s battering of me, but I can see traces of our collective past in the choices we’ve all made these many years later. My big sister is now 65, an avowed spiritual seeker. Yet, she will not deal with the shadows; only the “light” makes it past her censors. She seems terrified of knowing the truth. In other respects, she’s a very inquisitive, open and intelligent person. But when it comes to us, we’re the model for duality. She herself is the personification of positive goodness… while I don’t get such kind treatment. I’m “negative.” Why? For audaciously acknowledging the things she dare not.
I’ve elaborated more than I’d planned to because I see a real correlation here. This mirrors a lot of conversations I’ve had, or tried to have, with middle class friends about politics and activism. People don’t want to know. Like my sister, they actually try to turn the conversation around so that I’m the bad one for even bringing it up. Well, it is some comfort to know that I’m not the only truth-teller ever accused of being “negative!” It’s a terrible sin in our society these days to criticize power. Freethinking is not exactly encouraged. What’s more, you might get your head shot off or get thrown in prison if you’re not careful. They’re watching the company you keep.
When it comes to advancing the struggle for actual, effective change, what I’ve written might help explain my reluctance to rely on or expect much from people raised in the American middle class, people for whom class is also a taboo subject. Others who are already engaged in diverse human rights campaigns seem a better place to find like-minded people for building coalitions or unity, such as #blacklivesmatter. We don’t have to explain, or have to prove to most Blacks or Native Americans or LGBT activists that our culture is rapacious, or why Hillary Clinton is not an option, Trump notwithstanding. She will never be rich enough to stop stumping for oil and gas empiricism.
I know this is likely to anger some younger middle class activists, and in your defense, I would add that these days, younger people are much more aware than your parents, who are likely from my generation. In our defense, please remember that we had the singular good fortune to have grown up during the one great flowering of real equality in our history, or something that looked an awful lot like it to us, so it’s not an abstract notion. We don’t want our bubbles burst or our well-earned (we are told) comforts called into question.
I will only add one final note, and it’s pertinent to my understanding of this issue. I think it lends a note of universality. This is about another leftist filmmaker from the era I was just discussing:
“The late 1960s and early 1970s were the era of the so-called “student movement.” Pasolini, though acknowledging the students’ ideological motivations, thought them “anthropologically middle-class” and therefore destined to fail in their attempts at revolutionary change."