My journey in the movement has been one of critical engagement with the status quo, my peers, and my assumptions. Strategy sessions, marches, actions, speeches, lobby meetings, countless emails and googledocs, rallies, conversations, books, and periods of reflection have constructed the vantage point from which I write today. This is a lengthy post. In it, I will recount personal experience and observations, present the bones of a theoretical framework for redirecting our movement, offer a critique of current strategies, and begin a conversation on what would constitute an effective strategy. It’s probably a bit much for one blog post, but I hope that you will take the time to read it and offer your perspective on the topics at hand. I write out of love and respect for the many amazing people who have shaped me and my work to this point.
In August 2007, I participated in the Sierra Student Coalition’s annual leadership gathering, Shindig. At Shindig, I connected with dozens of inspiring youth leaders from around the nation. Leaving that week I saw myself as one person in a network of groups and individuals leading the way to a carbon-free future. I knew that by organizing our fellow students and communities to demand clean energy from the powers-that-be we could secure a sustainable and prosperous future. It was with this conviction that I returned to Michigan and threw myself into my new role as student coordinator of the Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition on the eve of Power Shift 2007.
On an unusually warm November 5, 2007 afternoon I stood with thousands of young people on the capitol lawn in Washington DC. Proudly, we wore prop green hardhats and waved “no new coal” signs as we listened raptly to the rousing speeches of Carol Browner, Edward Markey, Van Jones and others. Following the rally, the hundreds-strong Michigan contingent marched to the office of the aging John Dingell, who’s chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was identified as a barrier to progressive climate legislation. One-hundred-and-fifty of us packed a room with his staff and voiced the urgent need for climate solutions and investments in greening Michigan’s decrepit industrial infrastructure. Despite the energetic optimism of the day, I boarded the bus back to Michigan asking myself “what if all of the organizing effort channeled into creating that weekend had been channeled into transforming our communities?” and was troubled by a thought I was unable to articulate at the time: by organizing Power Shift 2007, our movement invested more energy in projecting the image of young people demanding change, than it did in actually creating change. I was entirely complicit.
A period of burnout followed. Thankfully, with burnout comes questioning and reflection. As I learned more about climate change and the physical and social infrastructure at its root, my old assumptions crumbled, making room for the emergence of new understandings. My definition of the crisis our movement must address expanded to the ecological crisis, of which climate change is one intensifying variable. The ecological crisis, however, is facilitated by the exploitative flow of power within society and the greater biosphere. These power dynamics emerge from cultural relationships of alienation, which in turn stem from consciously-and-unconsciously-held collective metaphysical assumptions about the nature of ourselves, our fellow humans, and our biosphere. Together, these construct the foundation of systemic exploitation between humans and of the biosphere.
This introduction has presented glimpses of catalyzing moments and ideas that led to the formation of the backdrop upon which I work today. In the following section I ask: if this is the crisis we face, where does it point us? What are practical considerations for the path ahead? In answering these questions, I will discuss the operation of cultural relationships and collective metaphysical assumptions and strategies for changing them. This however will bring us to a dilemma: cultural relationships and metaphysical assumptions change over a long timescale, while averting the worst of the climate and ecological crisis requires swift action. I will attempt to resolve this dilemma by forwarding a new approach to movement strategy which emphasizes tactics that halt destruction of the biosphere and reshape the flow of power in society.
A Primer on Collective Metaphysical Assumptions, Cultural Relationships, and Flows of Power
An example of a metaphysical assumption is “I am separate from the biosphere.” Whether or not it is consciously articulated, such an assumption is reinforced on a daily basis – chasing success in an office building, finding pleasure on a TV screen, and enjoying “nature” because it exists apart from the “real world” of modern life. When such an assumption is commonly held, it becomes a collective metaphysical assumption: “We are separate from the biosphere.”
Cultural relationships reflect collective metaphysical assumptions. The alienating collective metaphysical assumption of separation from the biosphere is reflected in our cultural relationship to the biosphere – exploitation and domination. In turn, this is manifested by the flow of power between society and the rest of the biosphere: systemic physical degradation and liquidation of ecosystems for resources. This is not to say that all members of our culture seek to dominate the biosphere, but that on the whole our culture exploits the biosphere because of alienated collective metaphysical assumptions.
Cultural relationships and collective metaphysical assumptions form and change in response to persistent conditions. Our culture creates its own persistent conditions, such as a constant electricity supply, which shape and produce new collective metaphysical assumptions. Thus, collective metaphysical assumptions and cultural relationships reinforce one another as they co-evolve.
It is also important to think of interactions between assumptions, culture, and power in terms of race, gender, class, and other oppressive expressions of hierarchy.
The Conundrum of Transforming Cultural Relationships and Metaphysical Assumptions
The purpose of transforming cultural relationships and metaphysical assumptions is to create a world in which the wrongs of the past are unimaginable. Many political movements have stated cultural change as a goal; some have created it. The abolition, feminist, and civil rights movements all achieved measures of equality, but have not fundamentally altered the flow of power in society. Branches of the environmental movement seek to foster cultural changes such as increasing conservation, or environmental awareness. While noble goals, these too fall short of transforming cultural relationships or the metaphysical assumptions that facilitate systemic destruction of the biosphere. I have seen calls for deep cultural transformation in our movement, but few discussions of how to bring it about.
Perhaps the sparsity of “how to”s on cultural transformation is indicative of the cultural transformation conundrum: there is no recipe for the cultural transformation we seek. If someone tells you there is one, don’t trust them. The best we can strive for is to create conditions from which non-alienating metaphysical assumptions can emerge to create cultural relationships that shape mutually empowering flows of power in society. It is up to us to imagine the conditions under which such a transformation could occur.
Attempts to transform culture without altering the persistent conditions that create and reinforce metaphysical assumptions will fail. Such is the fate of utopian movements. The hippie movement sought to bring about a cultural revolution of peace and harmony, but aside from its persistent drug use, did not employ tactics to alter the persistent conditions that shape people’s lives. The daily experience of reality is a far stronger force than the idealistic messages, whether from the mouths of hippies or youth climate activists.
To begin the conversation of what conditions could spur the emergence of non-alienating metaphysical assumptions, I’ll offer two ideas. First, the most important units of social organization could be federated neighborhood-sized communities. The cultivation and preparation of food is a part of every person’s daily routine. Both of these ideas would emerge not from a movement’s utopian ideals but as adaptive strategies to changing conditions; in this case the adaptations would be in response to the decline of nation-states and industrial food production.
The Urgent Long Term Change Dilemma
Clearly, creating the conditions for the emergence of non-alienating collective metaphysical assumptions is a long term endeavor – perhaps measured in centuries – but climate change and ecological collapse are happening now. We are in a dilemma. By focusing solely on long term transformation we will miss our window of opportunity to avert the worst of the ecological crisis. By focusing on short term mitigation, we will only slow the ecological crisis and fail to address the flow of power in society. As a movement, we must adopt tactics that directly halt destruction of the biosphere and create momentum towards reshaping the flow of power in society.
Such a focus would entail a radical departure from our current movement strategy. Our movement has three fatal flaws in our strategy for bringing about sustainability. Each merits in depth discussion, but at this juncture I will only identify them.
1. Our movement has focused on mobilizing a small constituency of socially conscious people with privilege (like me) for whom the status quo promises shelter from the worst of the ecological crisis. There is no urgent impetus for them to affect revolutionary change.
2. Alchemy, a predecessor of the scientific method, was a medieval practice in which people tried impossible feat of transmuting common materials into valuable minerals, such as led into gold. Our movement structures its strategy around alchemical assumptions about the interaction of advocacy and power. For example, if our goal is an ambitious and binding climate treaty and we gather 25 million petition signatures, generate 5 million phone calls, thousands of press hits, hold citizen lobby weeks, wine and dine key climate champion senators, publicize studies on green jobs, release green job video advertisements, and hold photogenic citizen day of action, there is still no reason to think it will produce the desired result. A leap of faith stands between our tactics and our goals.
3. The dominant economic and political institutions create the ecological crisis. Yet our tactics, such as legislative advocacy, consistently legitimize the institutions, flows of power and assumptions that produce the problem in the first place! Even if by chance our alchemical metaphysical assumptions proved true, and we brought about the creation of an ambitious and binding climate treaty, the result would be the mere slowing of climate change and the ecological crisis. We base our tactics on utopian dreams of what the state and economy could be rather than holistic assessments of what they are and how they act in the world.
Each of these flaws will prevent us from reaching our near term goals of mitigating climate change and staving off the worst of the ecological collapse and fail to put us on the path to long term transformation.
As a movement, we must develop adaptable long term strategies to halt destruction of the biosphere and reshape the flow of power in society by exploiting vulnerabilities in the physical and cultural infrastructure that maintains the status quo. I hope that this essay can spark discussion on what such a strategy would entail. Lets start with direct action.
The term direct action is often misunderstood as illegal actions. While direct action can at times fall outside of the realm of state-sanctioned actions – such as a blockading access roads for equipment on strip mines – but what distinguishes direct action from indirect action is the way in which the action uses power. Direct action is when an individual or group uses its own power to affect their desired change. Indirect action is when an individual or group tries to influence power they do not control (such as activists trying to influence state power) to affect the change they want. One can ask their grocery store to carry organic foods (indirect) or one can grow their own (direct).
Direct action strategies can combine economic development projects that increase a community’s capacity to meet its needs with its own resources and power with actions that physically reduce dominant political and economic institutions’ capacity to expand the exploitative flow of power and destruction of the biosphere. If effectively employed and proliferated such a direct action strategy has the potential to profoundly alter the flow of power in society.
It is important to note that our movement is not necessarily the most powerful engine of change in the time ahead. Indeed, today we are a blip on the political radar. We make it look sort of democratic. Don’t get me wrong, I love us, but with love comes honesty. From the Tea Party Movement to the World Trade Organization, many are actively planning the world of the future. In addition to these institutional forces, we know that the centuries ahead will be characterized by increasing climatic variability and geopolitical destabilization. In developing strategies for bringing about favorable conditions for non-alienating metaphysical assumptions, we must consider the dynamic interplay of state and non-state actors seeking to expand or maintain power in the face of an increasingly inhospitable world. The shifting terrain ahead will bring challenges and opportunities for direct action interventions and our movement and we must be poised to make the most of them.
To abandon all indirect action strategies would be FOOLHEARDY in the extreme. Current strategies to end mountaintop removal, which combine direct and indirect action tactics, seem to be gaining ground and moving dominant institutions towards a ban on mountaintop removal. However, strategies such as those employed by the mountaintop removal abolition movement must be better oriented towards building momentum towards our ultimate goals, otherwise, we’ll find that the draglines are right back at it come the next political cycle.
Risk Inversion: A Cogintive Barrier
I use the term risk inversion to convey the following observation. It feels safer to use ineffective tactics that keep us on track towards ecological collapse than it does to use tactics that have the potential to reshape the flow of power or directly halt destruction of the biosphere. Guaranteed loss feels safer than taking a chance at victory. In order to create and employ a direct action strategy, we must dismantle this cognitive barrier. Lets start a conversation on where this barrier comes from, how it operates to persistently disempower change agents, and how we can incorporate practices for overcoming it in our organizing.
There is much more to be said and considered about each of the topics discussed in the post. Please join the conversation, online here, or email me email@example.com.