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 350.org, 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…