By David Osborn–A version of this article originally appeared in Earth Island Journal.
Beyond appealing to powers-that-be, climate justice movements need to focus on creating systemic change to address the climate crisis
A Weekend to Change the Course of History. That is how the call-to-action for the People’s Climate March taking place this coming Saturday, September 21, begins. The appeal goes on to suggest the weekend will be used “to bend the course of history.” This raises some questions critical to climate movements. How do we make that bend? And in what direction? In other words, what understandings and methods of social change inform the New York mobilization, and where do we want it to lead? These are urgent questions. The scale of the New York mobilization and the concentration of resources for the march demands that we put such questions firmly on the table.
The answers hinge on what we understand the nature of the problem to be. There are two general kinds of problems: surface and systemic. Imagine a house. Surface problems would include paint peeling, a leaky faucet or even flooring that needs replacement. All of those repairs can be done within the structure of a home. In the political realm, surface problems might include road decay, wasteful government spending or the lack of green spaces. Systemic problems go deeper. They would include a cracked foundation or rotted support beams that are so severe that fixing them would entail fixing the structure itself — or building an entirely new home. Racism and sexism are such problems. It isn’t enough (or even possible) to integrate schools or create policies for pay equity; the very structures that support these systems must be challenged for them to be addressed.
Climate change is also fundamentally a systemic problem. The climate crisis has emerged from the structures of our society, particularly capitalism, and their arrangement of values.
There are a wide variety of activities planned in New York and I know that many environmental and climate justice groups involved in the march understand the systemic nature of the climate crisis and are articulating community-based, power building strategies. I believe this approach is essential. However, I worry that the surface-level politics of the big environmental (and other) organizations and a march and rally to pressure heads of state focus on surface-level approaches, and could drown out those voices calling for systemic change.
We have to consider whether existing institutions, including the United Nations, are willing to take on the structures driving climate chaos. Unsurprisingly, existing institutions serve existing, powerful interests. Established channels of political engagement are biased towards those who hold power in the existing structure, so they provide few opportunities for the kind of systemic problems we face. Corporate and government institutions not only proliferate the climate crisis, they also benefit from its continuation. Appealing to them to change is a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. Movements for systemic change cannot succeed solely by putting pressure on existing power structures — the people who occupy offices like president, prime minister or secretary general. Such pressure strategies only work for demands that are focused at the surface level. If we want to address issues so deeply entrenched that only systemic change is reasonable, we must focus on the foundations and structures that create the problem. It is only when the existing structure is threatened by our actions that power holders will work for the deep changes needed, knowing that if they move too slow they risk being replaced by an alternative system built through the process of challenge. This is where the climate justice movement is at now. In order to address the climate crisis we must be oriented to creating systemic change.
We need strategies and methods consistent with the reality we face. Oil train blockades in the Northwest, the presence of the Tar Sands Blockade on the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline,occupations of the Line 9 pipeline pumping facilities, resistance to mountaintop removal, First Nations’ resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure and many other actions offer inspiring examples. What we might call “movement-building disruption” reveals the structures created by capitalism by disrupting them, by simply halting business as usual. These acts are inherently about making claims of what is good and bad, just and unjust. They seek to articulate an alternative system of values. Such actions have the potential to show that fracking, mountaintop removal mining, tar sands extraction, and global warming are the logical consequence of the values and structures of capitalism. They point directly at the source of the problem.
Movement-building disruption focuses energy on interfering with the existing system, namely the flow of fossil fuels and the development of new infrastructure. Interference establishes a credible threat to profit-making. It not only creates an immediate impact on the calculations for continuing business as usual, but also begins to build the cascade that will force fundamental shifts — or even the emergence of something completely new.
When people engage in strategies of disruption, they position themselves as the primary agents in creating social change. In so doing, they not only create the reality of community-based power, they also assert it as a value that might be the basis for a very different way of relating to each other. Existing systems in our so-called “democracy” value hierarchy as the means for the efficient management of society and reward those who exploit power and privilege for personal gain. The very structure of hierarchy perpetuates the climate crisis as a tiny minority of individuals — corporate executives and politicians — make decisions on behalf of billions of people, rendering communities powerless over those issues that most impact their lives. This is at the heart of the deep cynicism in politics. People correctly understand that existing institutions are not built to serve them, nor run by individuals that care to do so.
Strategies of disruption can be an antidote to cynicism by providing a form of action that puts everyday people in the position of power. This power is tangibly felt in the course of taking action together. Through such action people experience a new form of engagement that creates the kind of decentralized and non-hierarchical power arrangements necessary for addressing the climate crisis. Communities must be empowered to make the decisions that impact their lives if we are to address the climate crisis. A strategy of disruption gives us at least one starting point for building this power.
Movements engaged in disruption allow us to articulate new value systems, directly upset the status quo, challenge the existing system, and in so doing open the door to systemic change. Historical analyses of systemic change show that relatively few people need to be engaged in disruption in order to successfully challenge entrenched power structures. As civil resistance scholars document, it takes only a small percentage of a population involved in disruption to topple governments or create other forms of systemic change. Small numbers of people can do this because their acts of disruption and resistance create and inspire a sea of passive supporters that together destabilize systems. Our ongoing cooperation with business as usual is required for the continuation of existing systems; we have enormous power in our refusal to participate.
History suggests that broad-based movements committed to disruption can grow to the point of challenging existing systems, forcing structural change to happen. Look at the social welfare reforms of the mid-twentieth century — reduced working hours, basic workplace safety regulations, the legalization of unions, and the creation of Social Security. The reforms were a successful attempt to save capitalism from emerging alternatives that were disrupting the existing system through sit-downs, factory occupations, the development of militant unions, and other actions. The scope of change required to address the climate crisis requires a similar threat, especially in those countries, such as the United States and Canada, that both drive the crisis and are most resistant to action.
Our movements need to be holding space for these critical dialogues. What is the nature of the climate crisis? What kind of change and what actions are appropriate given its nature?
The initial call for the People’s Climate March states, “our demand is for action, not words.” I believe we must also turn this statement toward our own movements and interrogate what kinds of actions are appropriate to the climate crisis. In and beyond New York, I hope that our movements continue to give serious thought to the root causes of the climate crisis and what we need to do to address it. I, for one, believe only actions operating from a systemic understanding of social change can force the radical shifts required to address the climate crisis. Such an understanding allows us to devise strategies that create new values, develop the power and agency of communities such that they control their own futures, and take action that will either force the system to change … or replace it with a new one.
–David Osborn is a climate organizer with Rising Tide North America. He is also a faculty member at Portland State University.