by Steve Chase
Minds of the Movement
August 22nd, 2017
A few weeks back, I sat in a movie theater watching Al Gore’s new movie about his efforts to avert climate chaos through citizen education, lobbying, and high level negotiations. The film is funny, heartbreaking, insightful, scary, and, even hopeful at times. Yet, I’m not sure that Gore fully understands what is involved when he compares the global climate protection movement to historic US social movements for labor rights, women’s suffrage, ending legal Jim Crow segregation in the South, and promoting gay and lesbian rights.
These social movements were successful because they combined “normal institutional channels” of activism—which Gore advocates—with a strategy of nonviolent civil resistance and mass mobilization through strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, and other tactics—which Gore ignores here. He does not even mention his marching in the giant climate march in New York to impact the policies of the UN, let alone discuss more daring efforts like the native Water Protectors struggle to stop the Dakota Pipeline, or 350.org’s coordinated “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” civil disobedience mobilization in May 2016. Those creative actions involved hundreds of thousands of concerned people on six continents nonviolently disrupting the global fossil fuel industry.
Fortunately, there is a good resource available that applies a civil resistance framework to addressing climate change. It is the new book Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual, written by documentary filmmaker, labor historian, and organizer Jeremy Brecher. The author has walked his talk, organizing with the Labor Network for Sustainability and being arrested in the early White House sit-ins against the Keystone XL pipeline. In 2015, he wrote an online book entitled Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival in which he tried to sketch out an effective, long-term strategy for the global climate protection movement. His new book updates and develops these ideas further and it is a worthy and timely read.
What is his big idea? For Brecher, “climate insurgency” means moving beyond “climate protection strategies that operate exclusively within the framework of conventional electoral politics and lobbying.” It means adapting Gandhi’s civil resistance strategies used to end British imperial rule to now address unaccountable government and corporate criminals pushing climate chaos. Brecher calls on all of us to transform ourselves from “climate worriers into climate warriors,” people who are ready, willing, and able to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience and escalating civil resistance tactics, “ranging from sit-ins to general strikes and from boycotts to dual sovereignty and parallel governments.”
This may sound extreme, but scientists’ predictions for climate change are incredibly dire, and the lives and livelihoods of present and future generations hang in the balance. As Brecher also notes, “The political systems of the most powerful countries are dominated by fossil fuel interests” and “are supported by institutions, corporations, and constituencies that fear the consequences of a transition to a fossil-free world.” Our choices in this situation are do nothing, only use our very constrained normal channels of institutional change, build strong nonviolent civil resistance movements, or engage in sporadic political violence in the hopes of achieving climate justice. The option that has had the most success under the circumstances of a “democracy deficit” is civil resistance (though normal channels can aid in this work).
Brecher’s book picks up on this important fact and even points to specific examples of the kind of civil resistance actions that can show us the way forward. In his opening chapter “This Is What Insurgency Looks Like,” he presents a global snapshot.
In the Philippines, ten thousand people marched and rallied demanding the cancellation of a six-hundred-megawatt coal power plant project. In New Zealand, protesters blockaded and shut down Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington branches of the ANZ bank, which had $13.5 billion invested in fossil fuels. In Indonesia, banner drops brought a coal terminal to a standstill, and three thousand people held a “climate carnival” at the presidential palace demanding a move from coal to renewable energy. In Germany, four thousand people shut down a large lignite coal mine for more than two days. In Vancouver, Canada, more than eight hundred people held a sit-in and a kayak swarm at the tanker terminal for the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline. In Turkey, community leaders led a mass action at a coal waste site calling for a halt to four fossil fuel plant projects planned for the area.
In the rest of the book, Brecher explains in clear ways just how civil resistance could be developed further and made a core strategy of an effective climate justice movement. In future posts, I hope to explore some of his most important strategic insights in greater detail. Right now, I just want to urge people to read this book!
Steve Chase is a long-time activist, educator, and writer. He was an editor at South End Press for many years, the founding director of Antioch University’s master’s level activist training program in Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability, and is currently ICNC’s Manager of Academic Initiatives.