The Age of Protest is Over: We Can Organize Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis.
In the dismal wake of COP26 Glasgow, which was little more than an exercise in global gaslighting by politicians and their corporate sponsors, Dr. Bruce C. Glavovic raised an important question: why continue to issue scientific reports on the climate at this point?
It would be wise for climate activists to ask themselves the related question, for the same reasons: why continue to put so much time and energy into protests and campaigns directed at government and industry? If Greta can’t get them to take the crisis seriously, what is the point of marching in the streets or otherwise making a spectacle of our fervent demands?
Is it working???
The Environmental Movement: Forty Years of Failure?
As an exemplar of the Baby Boom generation, one who had devoted his adult life to eco-activism and, more recently, climate psychology, I was given the opportunity recently by the Sustainability Institute at Penn State to tell my story of growing up in a world shaped by unresolved generational trauma and the “Great Acceleration” of the Petrochemical Age, which rather quickly ripened into a war between humans and Nature. A poignant question was raised in the panel discussion that followed my talk: what does the Baby Boom Generation have to offer the younger generations of activists who now face the very real prospect of an unlivable future because of our pathological unresponsiveness to the existential threat of global warming and mass extinction?
So here is what I want to say to those who are inheriting our broken world. To begin with, mea culpa. My generation is largely responsible for the mess we find ourselves in, and your generation is right in refusing to accept the inheritance of accumulated traumas that your parents have tried to pass down to you. But please don’t chuck the baby out with the disgusting bathwater. Many of us old Boomers have been on the frontlines for decades now, whether with Earth-Firsters in the woods, speaking truth to power in the courts, working to rid public lands of cows, or fighting pipeline expansion as allies for Indigenous tribes. For the most part, our movement has been an abject failure. All things considered, we are much worse off now than when most of the existing environmental laws were passed back in the 1970s.
Everyone is familiar with Einstein’s definition of insanity: trying the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. That might be a good definition of environmental protest: march, get arrested, petition your government, repeat. If anyone had any illusions that somehow the climate movement would succeed where others have failed — in forcing our political representatives to stand up to their industrial overlords — the recent COP26 fiasco in Glasgow — on the heels of the IPCC telling everyone that, as a matter of science, “time’s up” — should have disabused them of that notion. Joe Biden’s actions since then, especially in response to the Ukraine War, only serve to bing that point home. Politicians have no intention of threatening the profits of the military-industrial complex, Big Ag, or fossil fuels in anything close to a timely manner.
So to say to the younger generations that 40 years of protest has failed to move the ball of ecological degradation and greenhouse gas emissions is not to say “Give it up — we tried, you can’t succeed where we’ve failed.” In truth, I’m a great fan of the Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future. Instead of resignation, what I’m suggesting is this: “Please don’t keep doing what we’ve been doing for 40 years, and expect a different result.” Because our legacy is not simply one of failure. There is one great success that we have had, which you have helped solidify, and because of that there is a real opportunity to build a successful climate movement on the funeral pyre of our failures.
The Real Moral Majority
What is that great success, you ask? Our once radical opinions, ideas, and attitudes about the nature and scope of the threats posed by industrial civilization are now mainstream. Listen:
A CLEAR MAJORITY OF PEOPLE IN THE CIVILIZED WORLD AGREE WITH US!!
While you wouldn’t know it from mainstream corporate and social media’s obsession with polarized binaries, the truth is that, according to extensive polling in advanced economies recently conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, “four in five people are willing to make changes to how they work and live to help reduce the effects of global climate change.”
WE ARE THE 80% in the world on the climate issue. While it is closer to 70% here in the U.S., that is still a substantial majority — and it’s been a fairly consistent super-majority now for several years.
My takeaway message to young people is this: STOP PROTESTING AND START ORGANIZING! Protesting does not change politician’s actions, though it does change public attitudes. And the public is now with us on the need for radical changes in response to the existential threats of global warming and mass extinction. As political scientist C.J. Polychroniou pointed out in the wake of Glasgow:
“People everywhere are waking up to the realization that they must fight to organize the world in such a way that there is a sustainable future for humanity and the planet.”
Instead of focusing so much time, effort, and energy (and funders $$) on the things we all hate, it is time to shift our focus to organizing around the things we love, things that will make a real difference in the way we inhabit our world. Like food, an area of activism that holds the greatest potential to transform our societies and our relationship to the planet in the near term. If we can succeed in re-establishing a ‘culture’ of eating (“agri-culture”) to displace, over time, the ‘big business’ of shoving unhealthy food down our throats (“agribusiness”), political leaders will have no choice but to follow our lead.
If enough people became active in organizing food choices, beginning with public outreach at farmer’s markets, establishing community gardens, and continuing with food co-ops and connecting local growers with kitchen tables via “CSAs” (Community Supported Agriculture), we could thereby ‘demand’ (via consumer choices) a wholesale shift from poisonous Big Ag mono-crops to smaller, and more nutritious, organic producers and other forms of ‘regenerative agriculture.’ The carbon drawdown that would result from such a shift is a promising, and likely necessary, piece of the climate puzzle.
But what about factory farms — a huge driver of extinction and global warming. Well, here’s another surprising statistic: According to fairly recent polling from the think tank Sentience Institute, about 70% of us agree that “factory farming of animals is one of the most important social issues in the world today,” and half of those polled support a ban of factory farming!
But look: 75% of us say that we usually buy humane animal products, while in reality 99% of farmed animals live on factory farms!
This cognitive disconnect shows the untapped potential for activism that is focused simply on educating people about where their food is coming from. We need a campaign, led by youth on social media and supported by apps, that encourages everyone to become ‘more mindful with every mouthful.’ After all, the reason that rainforests are being leveled in the Amazon, in Indonesia, and increasingly now in Africa, is to grow crops for use in factory farms (or palm oil for junk food). We are long overdue for a sustained mass boycott of factory farms, specifically, and Big Ag more generally, which in turn will create consumer demand for a return to a more humane family farm culture, as well as plant-based meat substitutes.
The takeaway here is that, because of pervasive social media, the development of apps, and prevalent public attitudes, there is tremendous untapped potential for a creating new climate-aware culture that wields the one true power that government and industry cannot take away from us: consumer power. It is called consumer “demand” for a reason, but at present only seems to be utilized by cancel culture. Petitions and protests change virtually nothing. It is time to organize around boycotts, not marches.
Doesn’t it seem like the activist community has all of its eggs in one basket? Where are the large green groups leading campaigns to change diets and lifestyles? Aren’t those the actual sources of greenhouse gases? Put your funders’ money where our mouths are! Everybody gotta eat! A healthy diet for a healthy planet. Why is that so hard to organize around? We are 80%!
Finally, I would point to Standing Rock in encouraging young activists to learn from the example of Indigenous leaders by becoming Earth protectors rather than fossil fuel protesters. The difference is much greater than mainstream environmental groups seem to appreciate.
In order to survive the climate and biodiversity crises, we have to begin restoring degraded ecosystems. Part of that involves regenerative agriculture and returning lands to nature and to Indigenous peoples. But a larger part, perhaps, involves changing parochial and public attitudes towards how we interact with wildlife and natural habitats. In both the mountain states of the West and the grasslands of the Midwest, people need to learn to co-inhabit natural spaces with keystone species, like bison, wolves, and beavers.
Recognizing the critical importance of ecological restoration in drawing CO2 down from the atmosphere while we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, UNESCO is starting to implement an “Earth Guardian” initiative that works with young people to increase our understanding of local ecosystem values, and eventually change our relationship to the land and its natural inhabitants. While the initiative is beginning with UNESCO sites around the world, the intention is to eventually expand into every ecosystem, empowering all citizens to repair our relationship with Mother Earth, to become Earth Guardians.
When it comes to healing climate trauma, a relational issue for which fossil fuel emissions and habitat destruction are merely symptoms, visionary leader Dr. Christina Bethell says that “we are the medicine.” Dr. Bethell is a national leader in the development of policy, practice and research applications of population health at John Hopkins, and an advocate of evolutionary community building. One of her good friends and collaborators, IPCC social scientist Karen O’Brien, has written a book on ‘quantum social change,’ a new way of organizing as quantum activists, and echoes Bethell’s idea in the title of her book: You Matter More Than You Think. As Dr. O’Brien says:
“If there is one thing that emerges from the inquiry presented in this book, it’s the idea that we are underestimating our collective capacity for social change.”
Another great organizing tool that is freely available online is called: Connecting the Dots: A Roadmap for Critical Systemic Change
What forty years of protesting has taught me in relation to the climate crisis is this: we are all we’ve got. Stop protesting — most people already agree with us. Start organizing — most people are ready for change. It’s time to progress from emotional reactivity in relation to the things we hate, to rational responsiveness in relation to the things we love. We have the power now to create a new, ecological culture. Together. And it’ll be a lot more fun than marching, locking down, and getting arrested — I promise you!
The opportunities for organizing around these kinds of empowering initiatives are virtually endless and open-ended. Young people have become much more savvy about organizing social networks than the rest of us, and since they have the most at stake, it makes sense for them to lead this culture-creating movement. And Indigenous people have a storehouse of valuable knowledge of the lands we all now co-inhabit. We need to follow younger people, listen to Indigenous people, and commit ourselves to becoming indigenous to Earth.