How do we mobilize society to stop global warming?

I just read Bill McKibben’s terrifying new article in Rolling Stone. I won’t recount the math here, but it’s enough to get anyone working on social issues (as I do) to question their priorities.

Clearly, we need a massive social effort to confront the power of the fossil fuel industry — and we need it soon (i.e. yesterday). But we face major hurdles in constructing such a movement. McKibben explains:

Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders. [my emphasis]

Social movements are born out of collective self-interest — but the self-interest has to be felt. As Phil Aroneanu, also of, explained at a recent conference I attended, “Climate is a great example of something that everyone feels and yet doesn’t really feel at the same time.”

This is the big nut we absolutely have to crack. The most impacted constituencies here are our future selves, our children, and grandchildren. That would seem to leave us with the task of organizing a solidarity movement (as opposed to a self-interest movement). Solidarity movements—i.e. efforts that mobilize in solidarity with others, despite no clear immediate self-interest—have played important parts in past struggles like the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, which McKibben smartly references in the article. But solidarity efforts are always complements to social forces that are motivated and organized by collective self-interest — at least when it comes to taking on the bottom-line of an adversary as powerful as the fossil fuel industries.

Who are the constituencies who could step visibly to the front of a movement that is clearly grounded in felt collective self-interest? Well, these constituencies are emerging: from the people who are losing their homes to the Colorado fires, to the farmers who are devastated by the current drought, to the residents of New Orleans and other victims of climate change-induced weather phenomena. But we have to 1) articulate a new hegemonic narrative that makes sense of these climate events and that frames a compelling, newly-grounded public and public interest, and 2) after we change the commonsense, we have to organize a capable—i.e. with impressive capacity—political force that goes for the jugular of the fossil fuel industries. The second piece is important, as any entrenched interest can survive a crisis of legitimacy as long as it is unaccompanied by a powerful organized force that is intent on—and has a serious viable plan for—winning.

Really, we need a World War II-sized mobilization of society — the kind of sweeping narrative that inspires people to sacrifice comfort now—and sometimes much more—for the long-term collective good. Honestly, achieving that kind of scale feels pretty hopeless at the moment. But we have no choice but to dig in and get started. And as devastating climate events are likely to continue to unfold as predicted, the possibilities of mass mobilization may expand much faster than what may presently seem realistic.

This coming week I hope to explore components of such a narrative and mass mobilization. What do the processes of articulation look like? What are key strategic principles to keep before us? Stay tuned…

8 responses to “How do we mobilize society to stop global warming?”

  1. […] Today we face mounting social and economic problems, and a formidable ecological crisis to boot. How do we begin to approach the daunting predicaments that are before us? It is my observation that many academics and analysts who approach facets of these problems, work with an unstated assumption that solutions will come from more accurate understandings of the problems. Global warming, for example, is treated as more a problem of information, facts and beliefs, than of power and economics. It is of course critical to have scientists and scholars who study and understand the details of complex problems like global warming. However, this expertise is all for naught if we are unable to comprehend that our constraints are primarily political (i.e. the problem is one of power and will). Truth, unfortunately, is not its own arbiter. Right does not equal might. Sure, it is important to continue refining our scientific understanding of global warming, but the pressing task at hand is to build a new alignment of power that can counter the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industries. […]

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. But you’re getting one thing fundamentally wrong: we don’t need to sacrifice comfort, not really. Consumption is up 100% since the 50’s, but happiness and satisfaction levels are down. What we have to “sacrifice” is overconsumption. But overconsumption, demonstrably, does not make us happy.

    That said, it is true we need to alter our expectations, and we need to be prepared for some inconvenience for some amount of time. But there is every reason to believe this can be done in a manner that improves our health, happiness and well-being in the here and now.

  3. I’m not convinced about the above point about consumption vs. overconsumption. The efficiency gains about which we often marvel are entirely on the margins. It’s not whether we turn off the lights when we leave the room, it’s the number of lights we can afford to have in the house. What we think of as a baseline standard of living is much more resource-intensive than most people realize.

    Anyway, I dipped my toes in the water of linking interests across constituencies here:

  4. Awesome thoughts, Matt. I’m looking forward to reading more!

    One initial reaction is that I don’t think this is just about solidarity with the folks who are being affected by climate change; it’s also about solidarity with folks suffering all the other effects of the fossil fuel industry — e.g. health and community impacts, the systematic undermining of local democracy, the reinforcement of inequality, etc.

    To borrow McKibben’s phrase, the fossil fuel industry may be Public Enemy Number One because of climate change, but — even without that — they’d still be somewhere on our most-wanted list because of all the other things that they do. It seems to me that the right way to build a solidarity movement against them is to make those connections more and more explicit. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts!

  5. Speaking of activism, The Story of Stuff has a nice new video out about why and how we all need to learn more about how to influence policy than how to buy and recycle “green” products. Personally, I see responsible consumption and political activism as a both/and, not an either/or.

  6. […] my generation and likely more than a few generations to come. In response to McKibbon’s article, I wrote: …we need a World War II-sized mobilization of society — the kind of sweeping narrative that […]

  7. Patrick Bresette Avatar
    Patrick Bresette

    Hey Jonathan –
    This post made me think of this intriguing analysis of the challenge through a different lens:
    and reminded me of the book New World, New Mind ( from back in the eighties that explored the same territory from a cognitive evolutionary perspective.

    1. Thanks for these recommendations, Patrick — I’ll check it out!

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