Why we’re marching: lessons of the lobster boat blockade

By Ken Ward

A nice brisk march with lots of different folks showing solidarity around the idea that climate change is a bad thing isn’t going to do any harm, is it? Well… probably not, but the March is suffused with assumptions that have arguably crippled climate action over the last 20 years and are now being adopted with little or no debate in second wave climate activism.

It’s spiral thinking, each assumption leading inexorably to the next, that goes something like this:

We need majority support, but most people don’t want to hear about climate because it’s depressing, so we need to dumb down how we talk about the problem, celebrate good news and engage people in upbeat ways. Having diminished the terrible threat – by ignoring or giving short shrift to cataclysmic prospects – we take away the one argument for drastic action. Mainstream environmental groups, having followed this path ended up pushing forward other reasons to address climate, like addressing local health impacts of burning coal, thereby reducing the threat of global cataclysm to nimby scale.

A year ago, my friend Jay O’Hara and I anchored a 32’ wooden lobster boat off the pier at Brayton Point in Somerset, Massachusetts with the intention of blocking a coal cargo shipping from unloading. We would’ve done it even if we thought no one was going to pay the least bit of attention, because we acted out of strong personal conviction, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a plan.

At every step in the action and subsequent judicial proceedings, we were guided by climate action principles sharply different from the approach of virtually every environmental and climate action organization, some of the same unspoken ideas which suffuse the Peoples’ Climate March. We believe that:

Fuzzy, upbeat, comfortable climate efforts aimed at winning majority public support and pushing for moderate change dishearten supporters and cannot work.

Sharp, discomfiting and meaningful actions by small determined numbers demanding emergency action at an appropriate scale, embolden supporters, create crises of conscience and might change the whole playing field, without which there is no hope.

Twenty years of dumbing down climate science has left us with a mix of the uneducated and the clued-in-but-disillusioned. If you want to know where we are on the carbon emissions, warming atmosphere, warmer oceans, melting glaciers to sea level rise  equation, don’t turn to environmentalists or climate activists. None of our major organizations, including all the main sponsors of this March provide any analysis or reporting on this crucial matter (see The Climate Science Blackout of U.S. Environmentalists) and every major organization endorsed President Obama’s terribly inadequate coal emissions proposal without a quibble.

There is surprisingly little research on how social change works, so mostly we are left to grope in the dark. Jon Angone, a sociologist at the University of Washington, has shown in a couple of elegant statistical studies, that environmental protest in the US is effective at gaining attention and that it improves the position of environmental moderates.

Before launching the lobster boat blockade we tried to argue this point to mainstream Massachusetts environmental groups, none of whom supported our action and several of which vigorously opposed it.

Effective protest builds power even though most people find it uncomfortable, because it demonstrates the sincerity of protesters. Put another way, if we are saying that climate change is a dangerous threat, but no one seems to care and no action is taken, and we do not protest, then are we not showing by our inaction that our critics are right? That it’s all a hoax designed to raise money and build up our organizations?

If we speak honestly, hammering away at the fact that the West Antarctic ice shelve is already in “unstoppable” collapse, which will produce 10’ of sea level rise, how can we act honorably and responsibly in the face of governmental and corporate inaction if we do not protest? There are really just two choices. We either lie to ourselves and everyone else about how bad it really is, puff up our triumphs and keep on with business as usual, or we scream bloody murder.

We think our action shows that acting with conscience works, because among other things, it put Bristol County DA Sam Sutter in a position of having to choose between business as usual and what Vaclav Havel called “living in the truth.” Sam Sutter is an unusual leader, but we won’t know how many other Sam Sutters are out there unless we create more such moments of crisis. Direct action –– placing our bodies in the way of harm –– does that very effectively.

Large marches in support of platitudes may draw attention, but they do not, of themselves, create crises of conscience.

So we’re marching, and we hope that the turnout is high enough to justify the tradeoff in content, but lets no any of us kid ourselves into believing our own spin — marching draws attention, but it is not a solution to our political problems. The question is, what are we going to do next?