Do you agonize over the little venial eco-sins of everyday life? Every gallon of gas, every extra minute of a hot shower, each flush?
I was the same way. Yet somehow, despite constantly policing myself, I was never satisfied. Instead of feeling like I was doing anything to stop climate change, I just felt tired and hopeless.
Working at a company that sold wind energy credits didn’t help either. Was I fighting climate change or just helping my bosses get rich as middlemen in the carbon-offset market? My next job, struggling under the bureaucracy of the National Park Service to run a climate change education program, wasn’t much better.
My problem was that I had internalized my assigned identity as an isolated consumer. We are conditioned to think that our most meaningful interaction with the world is through the work we’re paid for and how we spend our wages. In actuality, we are most powerful not as individuals, but through our ability to organize and work together.
In November 2012, I joined a grassroots direct action campaign called Tar Sands Blockade and locked myself to machinery to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Once I got out of jail, I started organizing full-time to oppose dirty energy infrastructure. I haven’t felt guilty about a hot shower since.
As a childless, debt-free youth, I understand that it’s not as easy for everyone to quit their job and get arrested, but everyone can get involved. There are dozens of other roles in any direct action, and lots of intentional community building in preparation for a world without fossil fuels. The details of how each of us choose to take action are less important than how we work together.
Whether we’re playing offense (attacking dirty energy’s bottom line) or defense (building support systems from the ground up), our movement will be defined by the structures we use to organize ourselves. Like many groups fighting resource extraction, Tar Sands Blockade has no formal leaders or hierarchy. We strive toward horizontal, democratic decision-making in which all voices are heard and valued. Climate change is the ultimate indictment of the old way of doing things, the logic of hierarchy and violence taken to its apocalyptic conclusion. Survival will require a different way forward.
The principles of consensus and cooperation can be applied to all the endeavors of a post-capitalist society. We need more organic farms, not as private escapes for privileged new-agers, but as collective projects that spread skills and transform urban food deserts. We need free schools to share, not sell, knowledge. We need new approaches to “crime” which emphasize community reconciliation and transformative justice.
On a good day, I feel like climate change might be the best chance we’ve ever had to overcome the systems of oppression and violence that have ruled for thousands of years.
Done right, community-based, horizontally organized groups could be like mammals in the Cretaceous – more agile and adaptable than the old corporate dinosaurs. I saw firsthand how quickly Occupy Wall Street morphed into the most effective relief group in Sandy-stricken New York, far outshining the big-budget, bureaucratic “aid” organizations.
Another lesson from Sandy: Even though our movement’s power comes from the fact that climate change affects everyone, it does not affect everyone equally. Low-income communities and communities of color will suffer the most from rising food prices, destructive storms and ramped-up government repression. These people must be at the forefront of our movement. Our sense of urgency and our actions must be in accordance with their situation.
That, in a nutshell, is what’s so backwards about a focus on changing our individual consumption or appealing to politicians. Such an ethos means that those without economic or political power — particularly people in the Global South who had nothing to do with causing climate change in the first place — can only beg the elites to do the right thing. It is an abdication of our power. Countless examples prove the contrary: that even the least privileged people can exercise great power through bold collective action.
Take the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), for example. With the overwhelming support of a populace that has long been impoverished, brutalized and poisoned by oil companies (over 8 million barrels have spilled in the Niger Delta), the relatively small, loose-knit guerrilla force uses sabotage, theft and kidnapping to challenge some of the most economically powerful entities on the planet. They’ve dealt significant blows to companies like Shell and Chevron and persist in the face of assassinations and repression by the state/industry.
The U.S. climate movement has shied away from violence and sabotage, less from any kind of moral superiority and more because our civil freedoms and our affluence (which, by the way, have always depended on the de-facto enslavement of people like those in the Niger Delta) insulate us from the degree of exploitation felt by MEND and its supporters.
If, however, we really believe our scientists’ predictions about rising seas, unprecedented storms, and impending collapse of industrial agriculture – and if we notice that the Pentagon is already preparing 20,000 troops for deployment inside the U.S. to quell climate-related unrest – then we must realize that neither civil freedoms nor affluence are guaranteed.
I’m not suggesting that it’s time to emulate MEND’s exact tactics, but rather that we would be far more effective if we were more willing to sacrifice our comfort and security in solidarity with those who have neither. We can’t shop our way out if this. It’s time to get out and get organized.
Eric Moll is a gainfully unemployed freelance journalist and activist. His articles about sustainability, climate change and activism can be found on TheEcologist.org, Occupy.com and In These Times.