Tackling The Climate Catastrophe Strategically
Success Comes From Strategically Organizing the People, Not From Begging the Elites
If you like to ask or beg your oppressor to go easy on you, then you do not need to read this article. And if you like to do what makes you feel good at the time, irrespective of its strategic impact, then this article is not for you either. My interest in tackling violence, in whatever form it takes, has always been to take action myself that leaves the perpetrator powerless (but, hopefully, a convert too). I also like to be strategic so that the impact of my action is long-lasting (in fact, preferably permanent) and structurally reduces the violence in our world. Here’s how I work.
I never vote or lobby elites, nor do I participate in actions designed to do this, such as the recent People’s Climate March in New York (and elsewhere). For critiques, with which I largely agree, of this type of action, see the recent articles by Chris Hedges ‘The Last Gasp of Climate Change Liberals‘ and kat yang-stevens ‘Quelling Dissent: How The Big Greens Contain & Dissolve Resistance.’ Fortunately, some of the groups that organised other events around the People’s Climate March are politically savvy.
One of the other problems with mass mobilizations of this nature is that they put too much emphasis on numbers. Estimates suggest that up to 30 million people worldwide mobilized on 15 February 2003 to protest the impending war on Iraq. What did it achieve? Numbers are politically irrelevant unless strategically deployed.
In brief, my analysis, reinforced by decades of casual observation, is that lobbying elites is a complete waste of time and that a strategy that focuses on engaging ‘ordinary’ individuals and a diverse range of grassroots groups to take action in the desired direction is far more effective. Why?
Mainstream political processes are usually described as ‘democratic’ which means that they are supposed to be responsive to and representative of the popular will. When they were originally created this was usually the explicitly stated or implicitly presumed aim. However, with the passage of time and the steady rise of corporate power, corporate money has corrupted the ‘democratic ideal’ so that the ‘people’s representatives’ are no longer responsive to the people.
Corporations (using their elite fora, industry organisations, front groups, think tanks, political and judicial lackeys, lobbyists, ‘philanthropic’ organisations, corporate media and co-opted NGOs) long ago seized control of governments and key international organisations, such as the United Nations. And other powerful non-state actors, including particular religious elites such as Zionism, the Vatican and Wahhabi Islam, exercise disproportionate power in certain contexts too.
In essence, this means that elites will continue to encourage us to ‘exercise your democratic right’ to vote and to lobby them because once our political effort has been so channelled, our dissent is easily dissipated and ignored. Conservative political ‘action’ groups of various kinds often play a part in drawing us into using ineffective strategies and we need to be aware of the part they are playing on behalf of elite interests even if, sometimes, this is simply the result of an inadequate political analysis rather than something more sinister.
So what can you do to take strategic action yourself in relation to the climate catastrophe? Any reputable analysis of this ongoing disaster always identifies carbon dioxide and methane emissions as primary drivers of the problem. So one vital part of what you can do is to boycott products that produce carbon dioxide and/or methane in excessive quantities: for example, don’t travel by car or aeroplane and don’t eat meat. Or, if this sounds beyond you in the short term, tackle these and all other environmental problems in a systematic and strategic manner by joining those participating in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth‘ which outlines a strategy to reduce consumption in seven key resource areas by 10% each year for 15 years while increasing your self-reliance, in 16 key ways, also by 10% each year for 15 years.
The Flame Tree Project was inspired by Mohandas K. Gandhi who identified the environmental crisis decades before it became an issue in the West, and who lived his own life in extraordinary simplicity and self-reliance, symbolised by his daily spinning of khadi. ‘Earth provides enough for every person’s need but not for every person’s greed.’ He also invited us to powerfully follow our conscience, reminding us that ‘Hesitating to act because others do not yet see the way only hinders progress.’
But, critically important though he believed personal action to be, Gandhi was also an extraordinary political strategist and he knew that we needed to do more than transform our own personal lives. We need to provide opportunities that compel others to consider doing the same. Rather than spell out how climate activists might do this here, I would like to illustrate this with a simple example.
In 1988-1990 I was involved in the campaign of the Melbourne Rainforest Action Group (MRAG) which had about 70 members attending weekly meetings using consensus decision-making and processes to ensure balanced gender participation. We decided not to waste one moment lobbying politicians to end the import of rainforest timber from South East Asia. We wanted to be effective.
Instead, we developed a nonviolent strategy that involved doing many highly disciplined and completely transparent nonviolent actions. This eventually even won the support of the police who reached the point of refusing to arrest us in most circumstances, thus giving us the opportunity to review our strategy and adopt new tactics when we judged arrest to be strategically useful. Our fundamental message was always: ‘Don’t Buy Rainforest Timber’. If we blockaded a rainforest timber ship in the Yarra River – see, for example, ‘Nonviolent Struggle for the Rainforests‘ and ‘Rainforest Ship Blockaded and Picketed‘ – which provided great visuals that even the corporate media couldn’t always ignore, our largest sign always said ‘Don’t Buy Rainforest Timber’.
We also liaised extensively with other interested parties, particularly the local Wurrundjeri (indigenous) people (to whom we ‘paid the rent’ for our use of their land), the police (to whom we always told the truth about our planned actions), port authorities and fellow activists of various persuasions. We spent time liaising with fourteen key trade unions which got tug boat crews refusing (for 24 hours for each ship) to staff the tugs that ships needed in order to dock, waterside workers (longshoremen) refusing to unload the ships for at least 24 hours, truck drivers delaying driving the timber away from the dock, builders labourers refusing to use any imported rainforest timber on building sites….
And we convinced groups like timber merchants and local hardware store owners to refuse to stock the timber, mainly by asking teachers to ask school students to write letters to them. Obviously, too, droves of consumers and builders chose our recommended sustainable timber alternatives, about which we prepared a short booklet, as well. If you are interested, the 15 minute video of the MRAG campaign, which includes some dramatic footage of nonviolent actions, is included on my website.
In 2014, there is no government ban on rainforest timber imports into Australia. Since 1991 (after the campaign ended), rainforest timber imports into Australia have been at 10% of their pre-1989 level (although there has since been a progressive substitution of paper imports which a new campaign needs to address).
If you were designing a strategic nonviolent action campaign to encourage people to reduce their consumption and increase their self-reliance to help save our climate, with whom would you work and what would be your strategy? If you want suggestions for this, the 12 point strategic framework in the book ‘The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach‘ will be useful; cheap, second hand copies are readily available.
If you were planning a nonviolent action, do you know how to maximise its strategic impact? For help with this, see ‘The Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions‘. Do you know why and how to liaise with the police? If not, see ‘How To Do Police Liaison.’ And here’s a 17 point checklist to make it extraordinarily difficult for the police to use violence at your nonviolent action and to ensure that it is strategically counterproductive for our opponents if they do so: ‘Minimising the Risk of Police Violence‘
Finally, if you would like to see your efforts within the context of a worldwide movement to end all violence, you are welcome to consider signing the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World.’
In summary, saving the climate is like saving the rainforests: fundamentally, we must reduce our consumption, particularly those of us who live in industrialised economies. If you are not willing to do this, as Gandhi did, do you feel that you can credibly ask others to do so? Gandhi led by example. How do you lead?
And as for lobbying elites? To me, it is an act of disempowerment. What do you reckon?
Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?‘ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpre