I wrote rather sympathetically last week about the activities of Extinction Rebellion in the UK. This week, I am pleased to hear there is also a “rebellion” underway in New York City and in other cities in many countries around the world.
I am less happy that I had to learn about the New York activity from a Brit.
Why Can’t I Hear You?
I am unhappy that Extinction Rebellion isn’t making the American news, at least not the PBS Newshour, which I watched last night. You’d think that organized street protests, including civil disobedience, in one of our largest cities would be an important story. You’d also think that semi-coordinated protests in multiple countries, including the UK, Poland, and Sweden would be considered important, too. Apparently not.
The failure to cover this sort of thing has, intentionally or otherwise, direct practical results; those of us who care about climate change end up thinking we’re alone. And we all know how hard it is to stand up when nobody else does.
I am also unhappy that I didn’t hear about the New York rebellion ahead of time from organizers. It’s true I’m not part of the US branch of XR. It’s also true that I have not gone looking for this sort of news in the last few weeks. But time was that I didn’t have to look–I didn’t have to be on the right lists. Invitations to upcoming marches circulated freely through the more liberal corners of Facebook or arrived through aggressive SPAM emails. That time appears to be over.
XR is a little different that the People’s Climate March, of course in that XR is all about civil disobedience, which requires careful organizing, special training, and at least some degree of secrecy from the authorities before hand. I wouldn’t expect an XR action to be widely publicized ahead of time, nor would I expect open invitations to go out to just everybody.
But why is XR acting alone?
Why isn’t 360.org, or other similar organizations, organizing conventional demonstrations simultaneously as a form of signal boosting? Why aren’t we all out in the streets–and why aren’t the people with the ability to call for mass demonstrations not doing so? Do we want our leaders and our neighbors to believe Americans don’t care about climate?
Can You Hear Me?
I’m not an organizer, OK? I don’t have the gift for that sort of leadership. But I do have a blog. I can say a few things, and I might be heard.
And what I have to say is we are not using all our available tools to the fullest.
There are those who say mass demonstrations, such as protest marches, don’t change anything. Well, they don’t change anything all by themselves, no, but historically they’ve been a big part of the Civil Rights movement, the LGBT rights movement (hello? Pride!), the Arab Spring, and the successful Estonian bid for independence from the Soviet Union. Somewhat less sympathetically (from the perspective of most readers of this blog, I suspect), public marches have been a time-honored tool in the arsenal of terror of the Ku Klux Klan, and public rallies played a role in the later electoral success of the Tea Party.
Simply put, the proposition that “marches don’t matter” is not supported by the evidence.
Mass demonstration serves to show political will to leaders, offer encouragement to participants and sympathizers, and create networking opportunities for participants. After the People’s Climate March, the American news media started taking climate change much more seriously, presumably because journalists realized people really wanted to know about climate.
But for some reason, there are no more big climate marches. There have been a few events in DC that were not well publicized and whose leaders clearly did not expect large turn-outs. And there have been a number of distributed events consisting of hundreds of small, local events–with the result that each local news program treated its local event as an isolated story while ignoring the existence of the others.
Even those stopped with COVID-19. Black Lives Matter did not stop, but that’s because BLM is seen as a matter of life and death.
Climate change is a matter of life and death, too.
The term “civil disobedience” is applied to any non-violent political action that involves deliberate risk of arrest, but there are actually two kinds and they are very different.
Upping the Ante, Upping the Volume
Two people could stand in front of a business and accuse it of “greenwashing” (performing a few pro-environment actions to distract from deeply anti-environmental policy) without anyone really noticing–or caring. Now, if those two people instead get almost naked and bathe in a tub of green water in front of said business, they will make the news (weird naked people usually do) and probably get arrested. Folks will notice. Folks may even care.
Such a bath occurred this past week as part of the UK’s Rebellion.
Public protest is all about getting attention, and a small number of people can get a lot of attention through what amounts to street theater. Getting arrested, or risking arrest, is simply a way of forcing the authorities to join in the show and further amplify the signal. If legal peaceful protest can work, then so can can illegal peaceful protest.
But it’s important to recognize that they are basically the same strategy.
Defeating the Empire by Ignoring It
“We will defeat the British Empire by ignoring it” is a quote from the movie, Michael Collins, in which it is written by Eamon DeValera from prison. Whether DeValera actually originated the quote I have not been able to confirm–there are people online who think he did, but I don’t know whether any are authoritative. Anyway, it’s a great quote.
DeValera (the character, if not also the real man) didn’t mean peaceful civil disobedience; Ireland fought for independence quite violently. What he meant was that he and his colleagues would act with the authority of a real government over a sovereign nation regardless of whether the British government considered them such.
In a very similar way, Rosa Parks acted like a human being when she refused to give up her bus seat, as did John Lewis and his colleagues who sat down at segregated lunch counters and waited to be served. They did not wait for the white power structure to acknowledge their humanity, they just acted on it.
To defeat by ignoring means to act as though one has already won, and to keep doing so regardless of how violently your enemy objects. Whether you are violent or non-violent in the process makes a difference morally and perhaps strategically, but John Lewis had more in common with Michael Collins than with the public bathers I mentioned earlier.
It’s not that such strategic ignoring will always win. It won’t. In fact, people who engage in it tend to be beaten bloody and/or shot to death. Sometimes they win anyway, sometimes not, and historically the wins have often been mixed–only part of Ireland won its independence, and the success of the American Civil Rights movement is still incomplete.
But demonstration is all about getting attention. If you can’t, then you lose. But when you ignore the Empire, if it ignores you back, you win.
The 50 simple things YOU can do are not going to save the Earth, although they may help. But large-scale or deep efforts to ignore the Empire also involve lifestyle change. Rosa Parks not getting up was a lifestyle change on her part. The transition towns are another example of lifestyle change.
A transition town is, ideally, a community that has made whatever changes are necessary to get off fossil fuel entirely. In practice, it is a community that has an active movement working to make those changes.
For an individual or a family to get off fossil fuel usually requires money–money to buy land, money to purchase food and other resources through alternative sources at premium prices, money to avoid most kinds of paying work. And such individuals end up becoming oddities whose lifestyles don’t spread very far. The power of the transition town concept is that it creates a new world that everyone can participate in, including the powerless and disenfranchised. A fully-realized transition town would be a place where a low-carbon lifestyle is simply the default option, the simplest, easiest, cheapest way for residents to get through the day.
I don’t think there are any fully-realized transition towns yet. I think that the minute a community of any size does fully transition, the Empire will notice and will act.
Electoral and Legislative Politics
The end game for climate action requires government leadership. There are indeed people, in multiple countries, working both to both elect real climate hawks and to usher meaningful climate legislation through the system. We have had some successes. We have had some failures. The best demonstrations and “ignorings of the Empire” have worked to support such efforts.
Coordinated, Multi-Pronged Effort
A coordinated, multipronged effort–the use of all the tools together–is the real tool I don’t see in use.
What I’d like to see, personally, is a widespread, insistent transition town movement, defended and furthered by civil disobedience of both kinds–including actions to shut down pipelines, mines, propaganda machines, and other examples of that which we ought not to tolerate. I’d also like to see mass demonstrations providing political cover for both their less-than-legal colleagues and pushing for meaningful climate legislation.
I’d like to see more active cooperation between environmentalism and other movements, in recognition that virtually all other causes (human rights, healthcare, the economy, national security, world peace, etc.) depend on a stable climate for ultimate success.
I’d like to see the same kind of disciplined, organized long game played by our adversaries, frankly. The Nazis and the Climate Denialists have together made amazing strides to normalize the previously unthinkable and to cast doubt on the previously obvious until the future of American democracy and even life on Earth are in serious doubt.
Why are they beating us?