Reversing global warming will take far more than asking polluters to stop

Four hundred thousand took the streets of New York City on September 21, and, regardless of our critiques of the event and the groups organizing it, that is a memorable feat. But: What will it mean?

With no disrespect to the logistical work, the hardship of travel and all the rest of the organizing work carried on over several months, a demonstration is the easy part of a movement. The hard part is sustaining the many layers of strategic work necessary to prevail against vastly more powerful entities and having the courage to directly challenge the system.

A march of protestors literally miles long can’t help but earn attention, but without much follow-up work, it will mean little, exhilarating as it was to be among so many. The next day’s “Flood Wall Street” civil disobedience, in which hundreds of people blocked a major Financial District street for several hours, is a hopeful step. If the energy unleashed in Monday’s flood is replicated in all the places from which people traveled to the September 21 demonstrations that took place around the world, then perhaps that could be the day we some day look back to as the start of a successful struggle to save the planet.

People's Climate March, New York (photo by South Bend Voice)

People’s Climate March, New York (photo by South Bend Voice)

South Africans struggling to dismantle apartheid through long decades and the civil rights activists of the 1960s in the Southern U.S. literally put their bodies and lives on the line. And yet, as inhumane as the local elites were in protecting their privileges, the global order was not targeted. Tackling global warming seriously directly challenges business as usual around the world.

Reversing global warming and living in harmony with our environment and all the living beings who share the planet with us humans means nothing less than putting an end to capitalism. The industrialists and financiers who dominate the world, and the governments that serve them, show no indication they will do anything other than throw all the violence they can summon to keep their system in place and themselves at the top of the pyramid.

Demonstrations, in themselves, change nothing: They don’t touch the system and threaten no one in power. Demonstrations do signal popular anger, activate people by showing others that there are millions who think similarly (no, you are not crazy because you don’t believe the lies the corporate media feeds you), and serve as an invaluable organizing tool. An unused tool does nothing. A tool used properly multiplies force.

Will we use the tool — will we go back to our communities and construct the organizations that will find a path to a better world? That possibility is why we all had to march, despite the critiques put forth by thoughtful activists beforehand.

They say cringe, we say fight back

These critiques bring to mind the debates over the anti-war marches on the eve of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s invasion of Iraq, when activists in the U.S. were frustrated by United For Peace and Justice’s watered-down demands and transparent attempts to steer the anti-war movement into the Democratic Party and ultimately into the presidential campaign of pro-war candidate John Kerry. The counter-argument then was for Left activists to show up anyway and raise more radical demands and bring forth more fundamental analyses.

Similar critiques were heard about September 21’s People’s Climate March, which was so watered down that it had no demands. For example, a detailed critique by Global Justice for Animals and the Environment reported that grassroots organizers were “shot down” in planning meetings when they tried to link global warming with economic issues:

“The point of the meeting, they were told, was to focus on how to bring people to the march, not to set an agenda for it. Grassroots organizers were thus being called upon to do work for an event controlled by others. This raised alarm bells for me from the outset. It’s an all too common problem for NGO staff to treat grassroots organizers as their unpaid employees. Coming in and telling us ‘we set the [nonexistent] agenda; you should do the legwork’ is insulting and disrespectful of our time, priorities, and insights.”

At some point, an undifferentiated “big tent” devolves into a marketing opportunity for those most responsible for global warming. The Global Justice critique concludes:

“Another world IS possible, but we will not find it on a literal and metaphorical march to nowhere with fossil fuel burning energy companies, cynical greenwash fronts for big food multinationals, and green Apartheid apologists.”

I had no reason to disagree with that assessment. Nonetheless, why stay home? Better to show up, ignore the organizers and make far more serious critiques and raise far more serious demands at the march. (Which the authors of that critique indeed did do.) It’s not every day that one can see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of signs denouncing capitalism. And although even the route of the march came under criticism, it snaked through heavily trafficked areas of Midtown Manhattan. Going past Times Square alone, untold thousands of tourists — including people from across the United States, who most need that message put in front of them — saw it.

The corporate media won’t do our work for us

A sign that the march was too big for the corporate media to ignore was that the local newspapers actually ran articles about it. But New York City’s tabloids in particular were true to form, with the Daily News headlining its story “Thousands of protesters, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, join People’s Climate March.” Alas, the article mostly consisted of breathless celebrity sitings, with only one actual activist quoted.

That was one more activist than could be found in The New York Post’s content-free article. The Post’s headline also referred to “thousands” and its article consisted entirely of celebrity mentions. But lest we think Rupert Murdoch’s minions are losing their extremist edge by uncharacteristically deigning to cover (however superficially) a demonstration not organized by the tea party, it ran an accompanying story headlined “Climate change skeptics call out marchers’ ‘hypocrisies.’ ” We’ll pause here while you enjoy a laugh.

Given the dearth of television coverage, the organizers’ goal of attracting media attention didn’t materialize in any meaningful way. And if there had been a flurry of television coverage, the corporate media would have moved on after one day with no follow-up. Organizing a march simply to generate media attention is a dead end strategy.

So despite the march-organizing NGOs’ faith in the Democratic Party and wish to avoid offending their corporate donors, there is not going to be a faction of the establishment suddenly open to confronting the issue of global warming. “Green capitalism” is an illusion — a system based on infinite growth on a finite planet, that grants a few vast rewards while shifting the costs to everyone else, is the problem and not the solution.

Organizing and struggle is the route to reversing global warming, not asking those who profit from destruction to please stop doing so.

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13 comments on “Reversing global warming will take far more than asking polluters to stop

  1. Alcuin says:

    I doubt that your analysis will be welcomed in many circles – the truth never is. Marching may well be a great community experience, but it does nothing to change power structures. Did you notice who was behind the Peoples Climate March? Avaaz. Cory Morningstar wrote a devastating exposé of Avaaz on her blog, The Art of Annihilation.

    If Avaaz had been serious about addressing climate change, it would have organized people to vote the capitalists out of power. But then they would have exposed themselves to extra-legal means of suppression that the capitalists resort to when all other means have failed (MLK, JFK, etc.) It’s easier to sell out to the capitalists while appearing not to do so, isn’t it? Hope is a wonderful thing.

    • I was indeed aware. 350.org is another organizer. Unfortunately, many people mistake signing an online petition for activism, and groups like Avaaz substitute fundraising and online appeals for activism.

      • Alcuin says:

        Joan Roelofs’ Foundations and Public Policy, along with Cory Morningstar’s exposé of NGOs, are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what outfits like 350.org and Avaaz are up to. It’s called cooptation, folks. Stephanie McMillen has written a piece on the People’s Climate March, too – it’s excellent reading.

        • I had previously read Stephanie McMillen’s commentary on CounterPunch. I agree it is excellent reading — to the point. She writes:

          “Capitalists aren’t stupid, and they know how to keep their employees chained to a post, even if the leash feels long. With NGOs, capitalism has set up a great mechanism for itself both to generate revenue, and to pacify people who might otherwise be fighting to break the framework.”

          Cooptation, indeed. She also has an interesting report on how 350.org tried hard to undermine the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia in April 2010. She writes:

          “It was during this conference that American 350.org co-founder, Kelly Blynn, had a tantrum. The People’s Agreement was calling for a maximum of 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide. When pressed (by the former Green Party Canada leader and activist, Joan Russow, and myself) to consider the necessity of changing the 350.org logo (by crossing it out with an x and placing the new number/logo ‘300’ beside it), an irritated Blynn stated that she and her co-founders would never agree to do so as 350.org was ‘the most powerful brand in the world.’ ”

          Brand? Ugh.

        • Alcuin says:

          “… an irritated Blynn stated that she and her co-founders would never agree to do so as 350.org was ‘the most powerful brand in the world.’ ”

          Spoken like a true capitalist.

  2. First of all, we are all polluters and we really don’t want to stop polluting and by doing so, causing global warming.

    Second, we try to take the easy way out of everything. For instance, it’s easy to march through city streets, but hard as hell, apparently, to stop consuming. We cannot, nor will we stop on our present course of destroying this planet because we are quite actually, aiding and abetting capitalism. Thousands of those same people that marched to end global warming will not have a problem taking their place in lines that will snake around a mall come Black Friday just to purchase the latest Apple generation iPod, iPhone or tablet or whatever brand spanking new gadget of distraction the capitalists are sending down the pike.

    Next, we will never quite understand that by chopping down trees to put inside our home and decorate for Christmas, that we are indeed harming this planet just so that we can enjoy a tree, indoors, for a few weeks and then promptly throw it outside on the curb for bulk pickup. We do this year after year after year and then we want to march to end global warming? Seriously?

    How many of us are willing to freeze by unplugging ourselves from the grid? Tell some climate change doomsayers to unplug themselves from the grid and see how fast they’ll claim that it’s necessary to tell the rest of us how bad off this planet is, thus requiring them to sit down in front of a keyboard and draw graft after graft pointing out how fast the polar ice caps are melting. We know that but the fact is, the ‘reverse global warming’ ship has sailed and it’s sailed because the majority of the world’s population are used to creature comforts. If we hadn’t been sold on electricity and getting nowhere fast, we wouldn’t be in this predicament. But we know so much and everything that we know has been to the detriment of this planet. How many people are willing to stop flying? Driving? Many in the Amish community manage to get by without electricity and get from point A to point B with only the aid of a horse and buggy. But has that caught on? No, and it never will.

    The Indians lived in harmony with this planet and many indigenous tribes that are still managing to live in the few remaining rainforests, are living in harmony with this planet. The rest of us are no longer able to survive frigid winters without paying for heat. We are not able to survive sweltering summers without paying for air conditioning. From what I’ve read, air conditioning has become a necessity and not just a luxury in many communities in North America, alone. What does this say about how soft we have become as opposed to the hardiness of our ancestors who endured conditions that would now kill us?

    And finally, we have been conditioned to NEED the very capitalism that is destroying this planet. It is a love/hate relationship but there you have it. We love the things that capitalism brings to us to make life enjoyable and bearable but at the same time, we hate the damage that it’s doing to this planet but we don’t DO anything concrete about it because we need capitalism and those who bring us capitalism just as much as they need us. Capitalism NEEDS consumers to survive and there is no dearth of consumers. If there was no one to buy what I’m selling, I would soon go out of business. If there was no demand for oil, they couldn’t sell it. If there was no demand for electricity, there would be no electric grid. I am not going to be a hypocrite because that is what many people who want their cake and eat it are. Because either we get real about the fact that ALL of us are causing climate change and not just those who provide what we demand or we understand that we are all willing participants in global warming and in order to counter it, we need to cut the lights out, stop driving gas powered vehicles and electric powered vehicles, shutter the airport hangar doors and realize that that would go a long way in reversing global warming as opposed to marching through Times Square but when all is said and done, we’ll merely march through Times Square.

    Great post btw. And sorry for the long comment SD.

    • Don’t be sorry. Shelby, you never have to apologize here! We are complicit and capitalism is a vast machinery that has us all caught in its web. We may not go back to horse and buggy, but we will have to use a lot less energy and consume much less to survive. That means everybody in the global North. By choice or by the limits of nature.

    • WrenchMonkey says:

      Well said and very accurate.

      I’m convinced that we must go back before we can go forward. We stopped evolving at some point during the Neolithic period. We need to rejoin the process.

      Industrial “civilisation” is unsustainable and irredeemable.
      Its members, rulers and ruled alike, will not voluntarily enact the changes needed to transform it to a culture that is rational, sustainable and natural. Therefore, it will collapse.

      The longer the collapse of civilisation is delayed, or the longer we wait to deconstruct it voluntarily and rationally, the greater the suffering and death for any Life that survives through and after the breakdown.

      Since we know the worst is coming, we should be preparing for it rather than hiding in denial and succumbing to normalcy bias.

      Just my opinion

  3. Agree. Protest is only a strategy, has a value to perhaps muster solidarity . . .to take specific actions to demand change.

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