Petitions? Marches? What’s that old definition of insanity again? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? When do we give up on tactics proven not to work and begin to fight as if the survival of our and many other species is at stake?
I do want to be supportive of whatever activism people are up to, so long as it isn’t a kind of self-delusion. I’m not getting a sense that anyone is taking notes on our effectiveness or our lack, maybe because the movement is decentralized. Whose job would that be?
Isn’t it essential that whatever we do actually work? Questioning the efficacy of activism – and what else is activism for but to be effective? – seems to be taken as rudeness. Like noticing a naked emperor. I can’t imagine Sun Tzu or Clausewitz being satisfied that their army is big, even though the enemy has not fled before it, and is, in fact, having a leisurely picnic nearby. The stakes are existentially high, we are being backed off a cliff, and we seem unmotivated by the fact that all of our victories, taken together, have not yet resulted in a reversal of course.
I’d much rather have a multitude of direct actions from which to choose. I’d rather have 300 Spartans, or their modern day equivalent, than 400,000 ineffectual but well-meaning marchers. Many of those marchers must feel the same way: “I will do this because it’s what we’re doing, but I’d rather be doing something more effective.” Isn’t it a little late to be asking nicely for the rich and powerful to become Gandhi-like?
It is in the interest of the rich and powerful to keep things as they are, to maintain an immensely profitable status quo. It’s in their job description. Unless they are a B Corporation, it is literally illegal for them to do otherwise. If they are not spending millions or billions on fighting us, it’s because our “activism” has not even been noticed by them, much less qualified as a threat.
If our elected representatives (let’s not call them leaders just yet) come home with a watered-down proposal while expecting accolades for “making progress,” we will criticize them for that. Online. Where it’s safe. If we are not prepared to take matters into our own hands in the event of their failure, how are we any different, much less better, than they are? We criticize them for not making the difficult choices that need to be made. Are we making those choices ourselves?
Petitions do nothing but salve our consciences, but are fine for invalids who can do nothing more. Letters to editors or members of Congress are better.
Marches are worse than useless, since they cost carbon to travel and are easily ignored by media and the people whom they pretend to oppose. They are a simulacrum of activism: they make participants feel good, even morally superior, without asking anything of substance of them and without solving any problems. They are what Bonhoeffer called, in a different context, “cheap grace.”
So what do we do?
The work of the Good Cop part of the movement, as represented by 350.org’s divestment movement, and Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s proposal for a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend, has to continue. It’s what makes COP21 a credible effort as opposed to just the next ineffectual meeting in the series. It’s essential, but slow, work, steeped in details of science and policy.
But I also think we need, and do not have, a ubiquitous Bad Cop contingent, like ACT UP, the AIDS direct action group. The two kinds of action complement each other. Tim DeChristopher once wore a T-shirt that said “I am the carbon tax.” In other words, I am a threat to your bottom line. I think we need to take a page – please, not the mic check page! — from Occupy.
There have been isolated examples:
- Tim DeChristopher’s pranking of an oil and gas lease auction in his beloved Utah;
- Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara using their lobster boat, the Henry T(horeau), to block a coal barge in Boston Harbor;
- Idle No More and other Native groups in the US and Canada who have blocked the pipelines from the tar sands.
If we had 400,000 surrounding Congress, or Reagan Airport, or Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports in Paris, or every coal-fired plant in the country, for extended periods, then the good cops would be able to say, “Gee, Senator/Governor/Congress member, if you’d put a price on carbon, and end subsidies to these destructive, dishonest companies, maybe these ruffians would leave everyone alone. Sign here.”
I bet if we blockaded the Paris airports, so COP21 negotiators couldn’t leave if they didn’t come up with a decent deal, they would notice.
I bet if Anonymous messed with Exxon’s internal data, they would notice.
My plumb line is, if their quarterly reports are not affected, they won’t even begin to fight us. My other plumb line is, if CO2 emissions are inexorably dropping year after year, our activism is working; if emissions aren’t dropping, our activism is not yet working.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to be effective, or are we just content to be right? Being right is, in this context, synonymous with failure. We have other tools in our tool chest. Why are we afraid to touch them?