On movement goals, climate change, and what to do

Published online 8 March 2015.

This diary was provoked by a short article in Common Dreams, “On Climate, Humanity Must Rise Up Against ‘Collective Shrug of Fatalism,” by staff writer Jon Queally.

Overcoming “fatalism” about climate change is of course important — but a more important goal of climate change activism is to project the right motivation (thus Queally’s word, “fatalism”) to attract a critical mass of activists and thus to constitute a global movement.  Telling people that climate change will result in the doom of civilization is a fair enough thing to do, by itself, but it doesn’t provide them with appropriate motivation to seek efficacious solutions or to, in Naomi Klein’s words, “save the climate.”

Importantly, Queally’s short article is more generally about Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, which contains a number of ideas for providing the appropriate motivation to motivate activists to “save the climate.”  In that book Klein implies that, as people join social movements and become motivated activists, the movements will at some point come together around the issue of climate change.  Thus the climate change movement is to work with already existing motivations of activists.

Here I hope to push Klein’s argument a bit further than Klein herself did.  I believe that bringing movements together can be facilitated by suggesting a movement goal beyond that of merely improving the character of more capitalism.  The movement goal I have in mind starts, but does not end, with the concept of “food sovereignty.”  I will explain below the fold.

At any rate, Queally’s piece in commondreams.org starts by discussing the renewed commitment of The Guardian to publish pieces about climate change, thus to overcome fatalism about it.  But Queally’s piece is also about a draft version of a movie, currently being made by Klein’s husband, as a sort of follow-up to Klein’s book This Changes Everything:

According to sentiments shared by Rusbridger (the current editor of The Guardian) and expressed in both the film and the book, Klein and Lewis argue climate change, if properly understood, “could become a galvanising force for humanity” if a more appropriate response can overcome the pervasive denial, fear, and helplessness associated with the issue.

Much of the small segment of the movie which is embedded in Queally’s piece is about tar sands mining in Alberta.  To be fair, the movie segment does recommend, through Klein’s voice, a broader goal: that a number of other movements all join together in a climate change movement:

“What if,” she asks, “we realized that real disaster response means fighting inequality and building a just economy – that everyone working for a healthy food system is already a climate warrior? So too, are people fighting for public transit in Brazil; housing and immigrant rights in the United States; battling austerity in Europe; extraction in Australia; pollution in China and India; environmental crime in Africa; and the bad trade deals that lock in all these ills everywhere.”

Klein thusly suggests that we bring together a wide variety of social movements under the climate change banner — she even wrote a piece on “Black lives matter,” titled “Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate.”But not all protest movements are equally effectual.  Protest movements are fine.  But protests, by themselves, are often relatively ineffectual when placed in relation to the enormous amounts of energy which goes into making them happen.  Let’s say you can get thousands of people into the streets, all yelling the same thing at once.  Then they go home and business as usual continues on its merry way.  What was accomplished?  Thus Scott Walker: “If I can handle 100,000 protesters, I can defeat ISIS.”  Attention Walker: it’s not that you “handled” them, it’s that they didn’t achieve what they set out to achieve using the methods they selected.

Electoral campaigns are fine too.  But electoral campaigns which merely promote the lesser of two evils are not effective, or even important.  From that earlier diary, of 2010:

The problem with “lesser of two evils” voting is that it cedes the high ground that can be gained from having expectations of government.  All the “lesser of two evils” really has to do is to be less evil — actually doing good does not have to be a prerequisite for obtaining (or maintaining) political office.  If you vote “lesser of two evils,” then, your politicians are beholden to you for nothing.

And I don’t think it’s climate change, moreover, that is the main object of public attitudes of fatalism, or even of the “pervasive denial, fear, and helplessness” cited in Queally’s short article as regards abrupt climate change.  Rather, it’s capitalism that inspires popular fatalism, fatalism that centers around the question of what to do that doesn’t just preserve the dichotomy of “capitalism vs. the climate” that is the subheading of This Changes Everything.  Or at least this is the fatalism common among those who don’t assume that a mild carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme or a cheaper solar panel will solve all our climate change problems (and Naomi Klein is not one of those people).In this regard it may be useful to invoke the Naomi Klein of This Changes Everything who dared to finger capitalism as the problem.  More specifically, we should invoke the Naomi Klein of This Changes Everything who wrote a chapter in opposition to “extractivism,” which she described as a “nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking” (169).  Creating a world that does not depend upon “extractivism” should be our first task.

So what to do?

Last Friday Naomi Klein had an extract from This Changes Everything published in The Guardian.  The excerpt expresses, in general terms, what needs to be done to avoid the disastrous future predicted in extrapolations from climate change science:

There are ways of preventing this grim future, or at least making it a lot less dire. But the catch is that these also involve changing everything. For us high consumers, it involves changing how we live, how our economies function, even the stories we tell about our place on earth.

In an essay (“Crossing the River of Fire,” Monthly Review February 2015) defending Naomi Klein against her “liberal” critics, John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark choose the right quotes of Klein’s book, to suggest a new logical foundation for our way of life:

For those imbued in the values of the current system, she writes in her book, “changing the earth’s climate in ways that will be chaotic and disastrous is easier to accept than the prospect of changing the fundamental, growth-based, profit-seeking logic of capitalism.”

They also argue:

We need therefore to reconstruct society along lines that go against the endless amassing of wealth as the primary goal. Society must be rebuilt on the basis of other principles, including the “regeneration” of life itself and what she calls “ferocious love.”

This prescription for humanity is also not as specific as I want, however, as a suggestion regarding “what to do.”  Perhaps thinking about “saving the climate” through visionary postcapitalist “doings” can start from a key phrase from Via Campesina: “food sovereignty.”   (This is now a hot topic in certain academic circles: see the special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies, volume 41 number 6 (2014).)As suggested in Philip McMichael’s “Global Development and the Corporate Food Regime” (Research in Rural Sociology and Development 11:269-303), a statement from Via Campesina proclaims that “food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own agriculture and food policies” (286).  The idea behind food sovereignty, fundamentally, is that control over the world’s food is to be placed in the hands of autonomous (and consensually constituted) small groups, specifically small-scale organic farmers and other food growers, as opposed to being centralized in the hands of capital.  More broadly, the goal suggested here is that genuine autonomy begins with local, community control of the basic necessities of life.  Toward this end, Jason W. Moore (2014) suggests that “food sovereignty” could be a fundamental element of a “socialist world ecology,” while the UN suggests that small scale organic farming is the “only way to feed the world.”

My suggestion is that, as a goal which can be implemented immediately while being combined with other, movement oriented, efforts in the ways which Naomi Klein is promoting, “food sovereignty” can be generalized to other necessities.  Water sovereignty, for instance, would suggest autonomous control of local water resources for the drinking-rights of locally-based (i.e. not in corporate headquarters) individuals; sleep sovereignty would suggest the right to sleep in one’s local habitat without having to pay a member of the gentry for that right.

The next step, of course, is climate sovereignty — suggesting the control of energy resources in local hands, and away from fossil fuel multinationals.  In each case we build an ecological basis for collective life away from dependency upon capital.  As Klein argues, we need to “leave extractivism behind and build the societies we need within the boundaries we have — a world with no sacrifice zones” (187).  I think this the way to do it is to start from “food sovereignty,” and to think outward.

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