Why Confronting Climate Injustice is Solutions Work

Lately in the climate movement I’ve been encountering an idea I believe is based on flawed assumptions: that the only real “solution” to the climate crisis is promoting clean energy and efficiency, while avoiding “problem-oriented” approaches like shutting down existing coal plants and stopping tar sands pipelines.  According to this way of thinking, the climate movement’s best bet is to focus almost exclusively on saying “yes” to things we want, and seldom or never say “no.”

I fully recognize the tremendous importance of working with communities to implement clean energy solutions.  I have huge respect and admiration for people who dedicate themselves to this kind of work.  If that’s your calling, I’m behind you 100%.  But I can’t and won’t agree that having people who are willing to take a principled stand against dirty energy is any less a part of the solution than implementing alternatives to fossil fuels.  We will never build a real movement for climate justice without being willing to say “no.”

If you don’t believe me, imagine what would happen if every US climate activist focused only on renewables and efficiency, while declining to speak out against unjust energy.  The result would be a heyday for fossil fuels.  Relieved of the inconvenience of people willing to stand in the way of injustice, coal companies would finish blowing up the last Appalachians and converting the Powder River Basin to a wasteland.  Largely unopposed, Big Oil would build its long-sought network of pipelines linking the Canadian tar sands to US refineries, solidifying US oil dependence for the next several decades.

Meanwhile we’d be installing lots of solar panels and wind turbines.  But it wouldn’t matter much, so long as fossil fuel companies could go their way unopposed and externalize the costs onto others.  When seen as one wing of a broader movement that also includes confronting injustice directly, renewable energy solutions are hugely powerful.  But if the climate movement becomes unwilling to condemn injustice where it exists, all the solutions we implement are for nothing.  They’ll be swept away in the tide of dirty energy infrastructure fossil companies would build without principled opposition from our movement.

Perhaps more to the point, people on the front lines of the fossil industry’s expansion can’t afford a “yes-only” solution to climate justice.  If you live at the site of a proposed coal export terminal, simply promoting clean energy isn’t a full solution to your problem.  That won’t make the immediate issue of a pending dirty energy proposal go away.  I’m unwilling to abandon solidarity with front line communities, with the vague promise their problems will be alleviated “someday,” when the tide of clean energy finally overwhelms fossil fuels completely.  For many people at the front lines, this day will come too late to save their livelihoods, health, and ability to survive.

No social movement has achieved success without directly confronting injustice.  Where would we be if leaders of the Civil Rights movement had avoided talking about segregation for fear of being called “too problem-oriented”?  What if Gandhi had decided condemning British rule would make the India liberation movement seem “too negative”?  Every movement must identify just alternatives while standing in the way injustices that exist.  Abandoning either side of the equation won’t get us anywhere.

Gandhi urged his followers to harness the power of Satyagraha, translated as “truth force” or “soul force.”  Acting with love and compassion, the Satyagrahis used nonviolent resistance to clog the wheels of the British empire, openly defying an unjust system while showing the way to a society based on moral values.  When arrested by the British in 1922 and tried for his “seditious” critique of the empire, Gandhi made the case for non-cooperation with injustice.  “In my humble opinion,” he testified during his trial, “non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”

I can think of no better advice for the climate movement, where solutions will be found in standing up for clean energy while standing in the way of unjust systems.  Individual activists may of course decide to focus on one or the other piece of this equation.  But in losing sight of the need for both, we can only become ineffective.  Gandhi’s movement liberated India by offering solutions while steadfastly opposing injustice.  Our movement must do the same thing.

Are there any Satyagrahis out there?

4 Responses to “Why Confronting Climate Injustice is Solutions Work”


  1. 1 hannamade Jul 17th, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I have soul force tattooed on my wrist. Thanks for reminding me why! Great post.

  2. 2 timothydenherderthomas Jul 21st, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Hi Nick – I love following your posts.

    I wanted to say first that I agree with your general argument (that solutions and strong moral stances against problems go hand in hand) very strongly. I think it’s really unfortunate that some people, including some in the solutionary networks I’m a part of, talk about solutions while trying to skirt around the fact that the whole point of solutions is to outcompete the systems that are problems. I think this should be the design of any effective solution.

    Second, I wanted to note that I think the analogy/ approach you put forward obscures how “anti-” work can be counter to the process of building long-term solutions if practiced poorly. As a reciprocal of my earlier statement that every solution should outcompete the problems, I strongly believe that any fight against a problem should be designed in a way that creates space for a real solution to outcompete it. Gandhi and the Indian Independence did this very effectively, as have many other social movements. I actually don’t think our movement is doing this very well. Here’s why:

    In most movements, activation of a mass group of people (eventually, a societal majority) is brought about because they have a clear and common understanding of a solution (a future that is better in some way) and are being repressed from enacting it by some outside force. The people Gandhi helped activate had a lived cultural experience of what it meant to make salt and their own cloth and all the other features that made up economic independence in a Indian culture, and British Imperialism was directly and explicitly preventing them from enacting that. The behaviors and activities that we are trying to get a societal majority to adopt are unfamiliar to many and are still understood by the majority (in my opinion inaccurately) as insignificant and excessively costly. The knowledge and behaviors of interdependent, sustainable, people-oriented economies have been suppressed structurally by the economics, infrastructure, culture and politics that have emerged from a dirty energy economy over two centuries to the point where few alive have any experience of them or sense of cultural tradition in them (not to negate the experiences of all the folks who have this, I’m just talking about vast majorities). Moreover, it seems to me that the vast majority in this country are dependent and embedded enough in an economy reliant on dirty energy (to the extent that they feel their daily needs, jobs, and lifestyles depend on it) that threats to the system feel like threats to them. My thinking here is that we need to provide people a clear vision and lived experience of what a better system would look and feel like before they will be willing to switch courses en masse.

    Basically, what I’m arguing is that when fighting the bad things through whatever tactic (lobbying, court suits, civil disobedience) causes a lot of ordinary people to feel like you are threatening their way of life and ability to make a living, it’s not helping the movement. If it seeds power over what the alternative is to decision-makers who don’t have out interests at heart (see all the coal plants on campuses and in communities being converted into natural gas plants), we’re expending energy and momentum on victories that retrench the power of the status quo and defuse our focus on the real wins. When we can fight the things we don’t believe in with enough compassion, clarity, and positive vision for where we need to go instead that it rallies people who could otherwise become opponents around a clear vision for a better future and builds the mandate for solutions that create real benefits for people who participate, then we start to shift the balance of power, turn the tide of public opinion, and build the inclusive, just, green economy that we’re seeking.

    I suspect public opinion against coal and other dirty energy sources may be more unanimous in Western Oregon than lots of other places, so if you/ anyone doing this work have a clear mandate where you really ARE bringing a societal majority along, that’s great. Working in my context, where communities are still quite mixed in their views on the essentialness of coal, nuclear etc, and the possibility of a clean energy future, it takes a different approach. As a facilitator, organizer, and entrepreneur, I have to think about what’s going to move the most power towards the solutions in ways that undercut the problems without creating backlash that moves more power to the problems. I’d encourage you and everyone to check out a recent update on what that looks like: http://solutionaries.net/2011/07/18/worried-about-defecits-and-unemployment-community-powered-energy/

    If you/ other readers think this would be a good discussion to go public, I’d be willing to post these thoughts/ my original blog on IGHIH. I just wanted to start more direct since I really respect what you’re saying and don’t want to detract form it/ initiate antagonistic conflict.

  3. 3 grey away Jul 21st, 2011 at 4:52 am

    Thank you and good writing in it for me

  4. 4 nickengelfried Jul 21st, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Hi Timothy,

    Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response! You make some great points, and I think I agree with all or almost all of what you’re saying. I’m also glad of the chance to continue the discussion because (as I’m sure you know from experience), it’s pretty hard to treat a complex issue like this in one blog post and keep it down to a length people will actually read :)

    I agree (and correct me if this is a wrong interpretation of what you’re saying) that historically there’s been a tendency among some folks who work to stop dirty energy, to get too caught up in the immediate problem of stopping a bad project and forget about the need to articulate a long-term vision for a sustainable future. As you say, this is something our movement needs to do better – perhaps especially in parts of the country where green energy and sustainable economies are even newer ideas than in the Pacific Northwest.

    I love the work groups like Grand Aspirations do, partly because they are creating such good models for the future that people like me (who are more involved in fighting dirty energy) can point to. I’ve been in situations where I was talking about the need to eliminate coal power in Oregon during a media interview, and brought up projects Grand Aspirations is involved in as proof that we really don’t need to rely on dirty coal plants anymore. I think this is an example of how these two types of work can compliment one another.

    I problem, I believe, arises when people engaged in either of these two essential prongs in the climate movement forget that the other kind of work is also important. When activists fighting dirty energy forget the need to articulate their vision of the future, that’s a problem. Similarly I’ve encountered individuals who, in embracing pro-clean energy work, fall into the trap of dismissing the fight against dirty energy as unimportant or irrelevant. Obviously individuals have to budget their time and may choose to focus on one movement prong or the other (as I myself have done). But it’s my hope that we can all remember both sides of the solution are necessary.

    One way I’ve started thinking about the climate movement is that both fighting dirty energy and pushing for sustainable economies can truly both be considered “solutions” work. However the former focuses on short-term solutions, while the latter deals more with long-term solutions. Both, of course, are necessary. If there’s a proposal to build a coal export terminal in your community, the only viable solution in the short term is to fight it – whether through the legal process or direct action. In the long term however, we need to be building the sustainable economies that will make reliance on coal unnecessary.

    Continuing this line of thought, if we forget about short-term solutions we’ll see a flood of new fossil fuel projects break ground, taking our economy two steps backward for every step we take forward. Meanwhile neglecting to implement long-term solutions (as you point out), means we run the risk of shunting the economy from one fossil fuel to another without making much real systematic change.

    Thanks again for your thoughts above, and for such a great discussion about our movement!

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About Nick


Nick is a freelance writer, climate activist, and a graduate student at the University of Montana. He got his start in activism by helping to establish a new campus recycling system at Portland Community College; since then he has organized to stop fossil fuel projects and open up space for clean energy in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Nick is currently working with activists throughout the Greater Northwest to protect Northwest communities from coal export projects. When not in school or organizing for a clean energy future, he can be found hiking in the natural areas around Missoula, bird watching, or writing a novel.

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