Last year, my good friend, comrade and mentor David Solnit penned an article called “Organizing to win.” In it, he lists five lessons learned over years of organizing against corporate power, war and empire. They are particularly relevant in the age of Obama since instead of flocking to a false political messiah, we need to build our own power. These are important points that need to be stated over and over, particularly in the context of the climate justice movements.
1. Uproot the system
Climate change is not the only issue on the table when it comes to human activity putting too much carbon in the atmosphere. We’re also dealing with a whole range of issues that includes oil wars in the Middle East, human right abuses in places like Indonesia, Nigeria and Ecuador, environmental injustice in Richmond, California, mountaintop removal in Appalachia, oil sands extraction in Canada, big banks financing polluters, carbon trading and the list goes on and on. Furthermore, fossil fuel rich areas are often those most affected by poverty and unemployment. In Appalachia, the coal-producing counties are the poorest. In the Niger Delta, the majority of the population lives in poverty with no social services infrastructure and high rates on unemployment. Why are oil and coal companies making billions from their “black gold” while the locals remain destitute? This is not just an environmental issue, but an economic, social and justice issue as well. Most of these problems are perpetuated by the corporate and political systems that allow them to continue to exist for the benefit of the wealthy elite.
With such a complex integrated problem, we need a holistic organizing approach that allows us to “think globally and act locally.” Every day, we see symptoms of the system that causes climate change and climate injustice, but need to connect them. Single issue organizing and advocacy dominates our political culture, but we need to move past it to build networks and movements that are global, support one another and fight for solutions and justice at every possible opportunity. There is a wide-range of creative grassroots movements spanning the globe promoting systemic alternatives. As activist-author Patrick Reinsborough said “many of us work to strengthen our vision of a movement of movements, we need tools to recognize each other, build solidarity, and share our over lapping visions.“
2. Organize strategically
We’re at a pretty dire time in our history. The planet is dying, the climate is being polluted by carbon emissions from fossil fuels and communities all over are being exploited and poisoned by the extraction industry. We need actions that compliment ongoing campaigns with long term (full of vision) and short term (achievable) goals. Whatever tactic is used (street theater, teach-in’s, direct action, marches, etc.) it needs to be within the context of an ongoing campaign. The challenge of organizing for change is to clearly define and publicize very understandable goals.
In southern West Virginia, Climate Ground Zero is the direct action component in a campaign with a long term goal to stop mountaintop removal, and a short term goal to save Coal River Mountain (amongst many others). Groups like Coal River Mountain watch (CRMW) and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) (working within a broad network of local, regional and national groups and individuals) participate in the same campaign with grassroots organizing, sustainable jobs projects, litigation, and lobbying and strategic media communications. When Climate Ground Zero activists use direct action to shut down a mining site it’s very understandable what their goal is–shut down mountaintop removal. Likewise when CRMW and OVEC utilize their tactics, it’s also very clear–shutdown mountaintop removal. It’s all part of the same ongoing overarching campaign.
People directly asserting their power can win change and shift underlying power relationships. During the 1980′s the U.S. based Central American Solidarity movements (which included a Pledge of Resistance) and the anti-Apartheid movement spent more time building people power instead of focusing on flashy media-centric actions. The results led to thousands in the streets committing non-violent civil disobedience, campus boycotts of South African supporting business, networks of church, labor and human rights activists working together and eventually an undermining of U.S. policies in Central America and South Africa. In recent years, this has been the case in places like Chiapas, Mexico, Cochabamba Bolivia, Buenos Aires and Immokalee Florida.
Our goal is to build powerful movements around climate justice. To do this, we must create directly democratic, participatory organizations and assert our power from below to force changes or remove those who have taken power from above if they refuse to make needed changes. Whether we have a Democrat or Republican in office, strong movements are what either pushes the Democrats (depending on your perspective) or resists the Republicans. One clear lesson Solnit shares with us is “If movements do not articulate our own people power based strategies to realize change, activists will be demobilized every two or four years as people get drawn into the official channels for change — national elections.”
4. Experiments in the laboratory of resistance
There is not a formula for winning campaigns and making change. What worked in Seattle in 1999 and in Cove/Mallard in 1996 won’t necessary work elsewhere tomorrow. Our actions and campaigns are experiments in a laboratory of resistance. Repeating the same ones over and over makes it easy for the authorities to counter them and demonize them (black bloc, puppet parades, reclaiming the streets or Seattle style shutdowns.) The value of any experiment comes when we analyze and reflect together on what worked and what did not and why. As Joshua Kahn Russell says “praxis makes perfect.”
We’ve seen folks call for the “Seattle-ing” of Copenhagen and taking many other environmental struggles of the past to current situations. Many within our movements tend to miss the forest for the trees and delve too much into tactic vs. tactic discussions. There are a variety of tactics that work and don’t work in any given situation. We need to create a culture of creativity, reflection and analysis that allows us to experiment with new tactics and strategies.
Our culture is made up of stories. Battles for social change are our stories competing with the stories of the power-holders. They use their stories to control, while we use ours to liberate.
Currently, the story being told around climate in the United States is strong on lobbying, elections, the climate bill and Obama’s empty election promises to do something about climate change. These are memes which have been easily hi-jacked by corporate lobbyists and public relations people. It’s time to assert our own stronger stories about ordinary people taking action in places like West Virginia and Richmond, California against powerful corporations that are destroying the environment and their homes.
In the introduction to Mike Roselle’s “Treespiker” he describes the book as a collection of stories told around the campfire about struggles he experience as part the environmental movement. Most of these “campfire stories” are ones that don’t make it into the mainstream media, but are the important stories about ordinary people joining the fight for environmental and climate justice. Now, Roselle and folks all over Appalachia are living and telling new campfire stories in the fight to end mountaintop removal.
What stories will you be sharing?
In 2009, we saw the climate justice movement grow exponentially, from the Capitol Climate Action to the coalfields of Appalachia to COP15 in the streets of Copenhagen. Now in 2010, we poised to grow even stronger and face some difficult challenges. We can no longer wait for politicians to not deliver; we have to take direct action against the root causes of climate change. We won’t stop until they do.