Skip to content
View Featured Image

Three Tactics for a Stronger Climate Movement

2prIn January, the Sierra Club reversed a 121-year-old ban on civil disobedience to reflect the urgency of climate change. The move presents an opening for radical groups to try new tactics like the three discussed here.

[Sierra Club President Michael Brune is arrested near the White House on February 13 after participating in civil disobedience. Photo by Christine Irvine/Project Survival Media.]

On January 22, the Sierra Club announced that it would engage in civil disobedience for the first time in its 121-year history. It did this in an effort to stop the expanding extraction of fossil fuels that threatens our world with catastrophic climate change. On February 13, the group followed through on this promise when members of the group, including Sierra Club President Michael Brune, cuffed themselves to the gates of the White House in a protest demanding that President Obama reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.

As the group wrote in its press release for the action, “Climate change threatens the health and security of all Americans, and action proportional to the problem is required—now.”

Moderates and radicals work together in a symbiotic relationship, and the perceived distance between them gives the movement power.

For decades, the Sierra Club has represented the essence of moderate, establishment environmentalism. Traditionally, its tactics stopped at strictly legal methods of winning support for its causes, such as writing letters to elected representatives, petitioning, and holding permitted rallies. Suddenly, the urgency of climate change has led the group to tactics that approach those of more militant groups, such as Rising Tide or RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival). Its tactics remain entirely nonviolent, which is a strategic as well as moral decision for many groups, as nonviolent movements tend to gather more widespread involvement rather than scaring people away from participating.

While the Sierra Club’s single action doesn’t yet place it in the same league of activism as these groups, it does help to normalize breaking the law for justice, which has important implications for groups that have long counted civil disobedience among their tactics. Looking at how radical and moderate factions interact within movements will help to explain why.

A symbiotic relationship

Imagine for a moment that you are an organizer with what we might call the “Sierra Club 1.0”—the old organization that had a standing rule against civil disobedience. Now imagine that you are trying to negotiate with a local government to protect a certain forest. You limit your actions to calling meetings with local officials, pressing your members to call and write to their representatives, and running publicity campaigns to inform the public.

More radical groups must decide how to keep pace with the moving center.

Meanwhile, you’re aware of a more radical group fighting for the protection of the same forest. This group has no ban on nonviolent civil disobedience; in fact, it makes up much of what they do. While your members are writing letters, this group’s members are locking themselves to logging equipment. They are camping out on platforms high up in the forest. They are blocking traffic in front of the local officials’ offices.

What does this mean for you, as a Sierra Club organizer? You may find the members of that group strange or hard to understand. But from a strategic point of view, they are an enormous help because they make you seem reasonable and moderate. Local officials don’t want to talk to the tree-sitters, so they’re happy to come and speak with you instead. This is what sociologists have called the “radical flank effect.” It occurs when the presence of a movement’s radical wing causes moderates to gain credibility and leverage because the movement’s opponents see them as better negotiating partners.

Sociologist Herbert Haines argues that the radical flank benefits the whole movement because “radicals can provide a militant foil against which moderate strategies and demands are refined and normalized—in other words treated as ‘reasonable.’ Or, the radicals can create crises which are resolved to the moderate’s advantage,” meaning that radicals focus attention on the situations that most urgently require action. Radicals may also push the movement to escalate in certain ways or lead the way into new territory.

In short, moderates and radicals work together in a symbiotic relationship, and the perceived distance between them gives the movement power. The radical flank had a positive effect in the feminist movement during the late sixties and early seventies when its strong critiques of gender roles made tougher laws against sexual violence and harassment of women seem reasonable, on the labor movement in the early 20th century when the “threat” of socialism made its demands seem realistic, and in the Civil Rights movement when the actions of the Black Panther Party made Martin Luther King Jr. a desirable negotiator from the U.S. government’s point of view.

How can the environmental movement respond to the Sierra Club’s policy change?

But when the moderates take up more radical methods themselves, as the Sierra Club did last month, that shifts the center around which “moderate” and “radical” are defined, so that actions once seen as extreme become normalized in the public eye. This means that more radical groups must decide how to keep pace with the moving center, and increase the movement’s impetus by escalating their own tactics.

Escalating actions is necessary for the climate justice movement because, as it stands, we’re not winning. The Keystone XL Pipeline would represent a major setback for climate justice—as NASA climate scientist James Hansen says, it would act as “the fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet,” eradicating our chance of ever mitigating the effects of climate change. Fracking operations, legally exempt from the Clean Water Act, have spread throughout the country. Mountaintop removal is poisoning watersheds with toxins like arsenic and mercury. If the climate justice movement is to succeed, then, it must do more than it is currently doing and escalate its tactics.

What should this “escalation” look like for nonviolent groups? At certain points in history, this question has led some groups to adopt tactics that carried harsher penalties, like the attacks on logging equipment pursued by the Earth Liberation Front. However, groups that publicly claim responsibility for their actions and in which the identity of participants is known could not engage in such tactics in a sustained way, even if they felt they were beneficial. Lengthy jail sentences would make it impossible for public activists to continue their efforts, and would scare people away from the struggle. How, then, can the radical, above-board front of the environmental movement respond to the Sierra Club policy change?

The ideas below don’t form a comprehensive list, of course. Rather, they’re intended to catalyze serious dialogue about which tactics will be most effective in a movement whose center has just taken a giant leap toward radicalism.

Merge resilience and resistance

Escalation does not necessarily mean devising new tactics—it can also mean enhancing and deepening the ones that are already working. Occupation, one of the most direct tactics in the radical’s toolkit, can be deepened until one’s life becomes indistinguishable from one’s political work. At this point, a campaign will have become more truly sustainable because people will be less likely to grow exhausted by the struggle to support themselves with jobs outside of their political work—their political work itself will help to support them. Moreover, that work will bring their desired world more clearly into focus for observers as well as participants, drawing more people into the movement by embodying the desired change.

Compare the Zapatistas’ successful reclamation of land with the Occupy movement’s tent encampments. Both used the tactic of occupation, but in different ways. During the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1994, the indigenous Zapatistas reclaimed traditional lands that had been stolen from them in colonial times and occupied by wealthy ranchers. They began to farm and live on these lands. They also created community-based governmental systems autonomous from the federal government. Occupy’s physical encampments, meanwhile, were largely symbolic, keeping the movement’s message in the public spotlight but not necessarily aiming to create a world in which the movement forms permanent outdoor villages. The Zapatistas used the same tactic in a more direct and effective way by permanently reclaiming something fundamental to their existence. This does not mean that Occupy didn’t use the tactic effectively; it simply shows how the same tactic can be used in a dramatically escalated way.

Zapatista school
A Zapatista school where internationals can study Spanish or Tzotzil. Photo by Steev Hise.

How could we take one of our tactics—say, standing in the way of a tar sands pipeline—and deepen it like the Zapatistas did? One possibility is to merge protest activities with resilience-based efforts, like community-based ways of providing food, housing, and social interaction. Recent examples of resilience projects include the urban gardens movement, Transition Towns where communities seek to wean themselves off fossil-fuels, and free schools in which people gather to share knowledge and skills.

Some of this resilience-based resistance is already happening in camps organized by indigenous peoples, like the Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation in British Columbia and the Red Lake nation in Minnesota, which are each defending their land against Enbridge pipelines. The Unis’tot’en camp plans to build permaculture gardens and pithouses—dwellings dug into the earth and covered with a roof—this spring to stop seven potential tar sands and chemical pipelines from traversing their land. Red Lake is building permanent structures like houses over an existing pipeline for the purpose of shutting the pipeline down, due to safety requirements that prevent these structures from being built over it. These structures will likely serve as community spaces where people congregate as well, building energy and resolve. Radicals around the country need to take their lead and figure out how to turn daily living into part of their resistance, so they can build a more energized and effective movement.

Imagine if, when blockading a pipeline construction site, radicals invited the whole community to a festival on the site? Instead of a few people locking down, what if the community barricaded the area and held a dance party or a carnival, reclaiming it as a community space for direct democracy, food growing, and celebration? When resilience becomes a key characteristic of the space, joining together to defend it will become less scary and more joyful. People could use the space to construct their own cooperative forms of alternative energy, like community-owned wind power systems. As the movement nourishes the souls of participants more fully, its passion, energy, and numbers will grow, just as the round dance protests of the indigenous rights movement Idle No More have caught on like wildfire throughout the continent and beyond. And in the process, we’ll be forging the alternatives that are absolutely crucial for subverting corporate attacks on the land, air, and water.

To do this, we need to unite with all the people leading radical resilience-building efforts, who may be deterred by a negative perception of protests. There are vast numbers of people working to construct alternative systems who don’t join in such things as marches, sit-ins, and direct actions. We need to change our rhetoric along with our actions—instead speaking about “resisting,” we need to speak about “reclaiming” and “rebuilding.”

Adding community-building elements to our work would not only help provide for the needs of daily life, they’d forge stronger feelings of solidarity, a sensation of togetherness that gives identity and confidence to a group. As Palestinian exile Mubarak Awad says, the “tactile experience of solidarity”—the feeling imparted only by vibrant communal experiences—gives a movement passion and vitality. It helps drive mass actions and reclamation of community control over resources and laws.

By combining resilience and confrontational activities, radicals will make their movement irresistible. In doing so, they’ll also make it self-sustaining because it will draw in more people, while igniting increasingly effective actions that build morale and heighten vitality.

Creating beautiful (yet militant) trouble

The more radical groups have often been the ones most willing to make a spectacle of themselves in the public eye. In the past, this has included holding public filibusters of private meetings, holding “search and seizures” of official documents, or posing as corporate representatives and saying the things we wish they would say. These tactics take guts, artistry, and the willingness to risk making a fool of oneself in public. By engaging in the unexpected through what a recent book called “acts of beautiful trouble,” radical groups have been undermining powerful people by catching them off guard.
But now, the Sierra Club—and the somewhat-more-edgy—have embraced this “beautiful trouble” with their arrests in front of the White House. Thus, radical groups are being cued to ramp up their trouble making, engage in riskier artistic stunts, and to encourage more moderate groups to up their game with noisier, more spectacular symbolic actions—or even spectacles that confront power directly.


Rebel clowns
Two rebel clowns confer behind police lines. Photo by visual rebellion.

Activists who engage in such actions should be aware that they include risk, just as lock-downs would. Art is not necessarily safe just because it’s not a traditional form of “serious” action. But if the number of people participating in such actions grows, everyone involved may be safer. And art by nature adds an element of safety—if only an element—by making the opposition look foolish if it strikes back at something as seemingly innocuous as a Santa Claus army, or a flash mob armed only with ukuleles.

What if, instead of interrupting high-profile meetings from the crowd, radicals took them over, joyously rushing the stage in song? What if a rebel clown brigade actually joined hands and encircled a building in which officials were meeting until they made a much-needed decision? While a small group might quickly get arrested, that would be less likely if hundreds of clowns surrounded a building, perhaps accompanied by protestors who did not come in costume on the inside of the circle. The clowns’ colorful appearance and humorous antics would communicate that they were set on being completely peaceful, which would be likely to stall and soften any backlash against them.

By using art to intervene with and enforce power, instead of just symbolizing or ridiculing powerful people and institutions, the radical flank of the environmental movement will maximize the potential of art to create real change.

Take leadership from those most affected

Groups seeking radical change must also work to keep environmental justice in the spotlight of the broader environmental movement and take leadership from those most affected—frequently minorities and poor people. Because many groups striving for radical change operate at the grassroots level, with less hierarchy than larger organizations, it’s natural that front-line communities already form an intrinsic part of many radical groups. However, radical groups should strive to become more inclusive of people from all backgrounds. That means continuously confronting the prejudices we all have.

If radical groups can provide low-cost housing and food , more local people will have the opportunity to become active.

Many groups already strive for inclusiveness, but the radical community has much work to do in this regard. A traditional criticism of the environmental movement is that it’s composed primarily of privileged white people with the luxury of having time and energy for environmental concerns. As Lewis Williams, Alastair McIntosh, and Rose Alene Roberts write in Radical Human Ecology, “There is a growing emphasis on increasing diversity and inclusion, and also of learning from communities that have built resilience through living through and with hardship. But these efforts will need to be increased in order to mitigate the risk of a new green elite emerging.”

By undergoing continued trainings in radical inclusiveness, striving to take leadership from those most affected, confronting prejudices on a daily basis, and pushing the rhetoric of inclusiveness further into the public discourse, radical groups can bring crucial insights and broader participation to the greater movement. Leadership from those most affected will guide the movement’s efforts by showing which issues are most pressing.

Blockadia_topicWelcome to Blockadia!

The corporate push to construct tar-sands pipelines is transforming the environmental movement by increasing the involvement of local residents and normalizing the use of direct action.

How, though, can radicals who come from privileged backgrounds absorb these lessons in a transformative way? It’s easy to listen to the lessons of a one-day or weekend-long training and then, stepping back into a leadership role, fall back into the same old patterns like talking more than listening when working with marginalized communities. More privileged radicals who want to be inclusive need to immerse themselves in situations under the leadership of marginalized individuals over an extended period of time—say, several months. Learning to see and contest racism wherever it exists may take even more effort than learning to speak a different language, and it’s an ongoing process. You wouldn’t consider one or two weeks a substantial immersion experience for a language, so why should you expect to modify your way of relating to others without putting some serious time into the effort?

Black Mesa Indigenous Support, for instance, has put out a call for activists to assist indigenous people with daily living tasks, such as herding sheep. Those willing to help for several weeks or months have the opportunity to live with an indigenous family and experience daily life in this community. In doing so, they must learn to refrain from asking about painful details of history that families might be tired of talking about. They must strive to learn by observing, rather than expecting a series of lessons in indigenous history or spirituality. They must listen more than they talk.

Learning to listen and take leadership from marginalized groups is more important than any particular nugget of history. Activists who take part in such an immersion experience—in response to direction from marginalized groups rather than by imposing their own social-justice program on them—are likely to become more respectful, observant, and collaborative in their relationships with marginalized communities. The experience might make them more capable of confronting their privilege in their work and understanding race and class issues on a deeper level. White organizers will learn to lead with people of color rather than for them. In doing so, white organizers will become better allies, enabling stronger cooperation and stronger bonds between people of diverse backgrounds.

White activists should undergo training in inclusiveness before seeking out such immersion experiences. This will keep marginalized communities from having to bear the full burden of helping white activists to learn new ways of relating to less privileged people. The Whole Movements program provides this type of training to help white activists become allies to marginalized groups, providing long-term mentoring as well as on-site workshops. Such training will also help privileged activists to learn and integrate the lessons from immersion experiences.

Radical groups must also work to address the fact that many of the people most affected by practices like mining and fracking—the ones who understand environmental justice issues better than anyone—may not have the time or energy to participate in the environmental movement. Parents in impoverished communities often struggle just to provide for their families, and have little free time to organize a campaign. This is where the incorporation of community resilience projects comes in. If radical groups can provide low-cost housing and food to local people who want to get involved, more people will have the opportunity to become active. Their knowledge and ability to organize their own friends, family, and neighbors will then benefit the movement, and the planet.

Keeping the movement in motion

As moderate groups like the Sierra Club take a step toward the place where radicals have long stood, radicals owe it to the movement—and to the moderates—to follow their lead and escalate our actions. This does not mean changing our principles, like a commitment to nonviolence. Rather, our principles can guide us into more boundary-pushing action that helps the movement to enact greater political change. As we shift into more radical territory, the moderates can more fully occupy the space we left behind, which will become the new moderate. Because a larger distance between the moderate and radical flanks tends to help the movement, radicals don’t want to see that distance closed up as the increasing urgency around climate change brings the moderates ever closer.

The radical flank of the environmental movement can heed this call by combining resilience and resistance, escalating its troublemaking, and getting serious about inclusiveness. Through this work, radicals will continue to provide strong leadership and direction to the environmental justice movement, so that the next time a moderate group like the Sierra Club feels the need to step it up, they’ll be able to crib from the radicals’ notes—just like they did in front of the White House last month.

The political territory is shifting because of climate change. If radicals respond by opening new possibilities that align with their principles, the government will find itself under increasing pressure to adopt and enforce more environmentally sound policies, and to end the most harmful projects. Local communities will take on more responsibility for enacting and enforcing the policy changes they’ve been pushing for through direct action, which will give people a more direct say in the issues that affect them.

By pioneering new tactics that inch toward these changes, radicals keep the movement in motion, and expand the possibilities for what it can accomplish.

Melanie Jae Martin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Melanie writes on environmental justice and transitioning into a sustainable future. Follow her on Twitter at @MJaeMartin.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.