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Cultural shifts in the climate justice movement

Kevin Buckland - ROARMag, March 22, 2016

hundred days on, as the climate justice movement looks back to the COP21 Climate Summit to see what may be learned, we reflect on the context of the violent attacks of November 13, 2015 that foreshadowed the unstable and volatile world we will all inhabit for the rest of our lives.

The ensuing crackdown on climate protesters sent shock waves through the Climate Coalition’s (CC21) plans for a series of mass climate mobilizations around the COP21 UN climate summit. This opened fissures at every weak point, revealing the political values dormant beneath and bringing to the front cultures of resistance that had the structural integrity and coherence to be able to thrive under the Parisian “State of Emergency”.

Several underlying trends that characterized successful activism during COP21 indicate an emerging cultural shift in climate activism, especially in places where the call for “system change” was not just being demanded, but enacted by the movements themselves. Three trends in particular can be identified:

  1. The spread and increased role of creativity in activism;
  2. The deepened commitment to indigenous leadership; and
  3. The evolving tensions between rhetoric and form among different organizational models.

What these trends may portend for the future of this growing movement as it begins to inhabit its politics, is that it is tilting from a protest movement towards being a truly revolutionary force.

Culture of Resistance

From the epic images of Ende Gelaende to the endlessly circulating photographs of the People’s Climate March; from the beauty of kayaktivists swarming to block oil tankers to coordinated global days of action: the climate justice movement is coming of age in a digital era where creativity is currency. The new tools for communication integrated by the climate justice movement decentralize storytelling and simultaneously provide space for the innovation of new forms of disruption and protest; both of which push the “culture” of activism into new grounds.

Creativity is about how movements are redefining the boundaries of what activism is and what activism can be. It redefines the scope of how we resist, not only what we resist. In a globally connected culture innovative new forms can spread quickly; cross-pollinating, mutating and merging new tactics into the mainstream of the resistance cultures. In doing so, the climate justice movement is innovating new ways people can organize together in the context of collective crises, blurring the lines between tactics, resistance, prefiguration, and revolution.

It is striking to see the conservative approach to maintaining centuries-old tactics despite being surrounded by technologies that could allow for new forms of activism. One notable example from the COP21 organizing was the emergence of the Climate Games — a decentralized, affinity-group based “online/offline disobedient action game” that is pushing mass activism into the digital age.

The Games format, though adopted by very few larger organizations, provided a decentralized mass alternative to centralized collective organizing. During the two weeks of the Games more than two hundred actions were submitted including coalmine blockades, bank occupations, radio frequency takeovers, speech disruptions, and a quite bit of graffiti. As a decentralized, horizontal and self-organized project, it has a coherence between rhetoric and form that conventional forms of mass organizing lack.

Selj Balamir, a Climate Games organiser, commented on the successful string of direct actions: “It is truly distributed through network-based politics — it’s peer-to-peer disobedience. Proof that we are a rich and diverse convergence of movements that support one another, not just people saying ‘we are a big climate movement.’” If the climate justice movement is striving for resilient, decentralized, autonomous communities — perhaps these same structures should be woven into the movement’s tactics, building coherence between tactics and politics, resistance and resilience, protest and prefiguration.

As such, in the wake of the N13 attacks, this format proved itself “shock resistant”, adapting far more rapidly and withstanding far better than many of the larger coalition plans. Balamir elaborates: “We also realized that big organizations tend to break down when they are hit by a shock. As a small affinity group, you can revise your plans over a bottle of wine in the evening.”

As the diversity of the climate justice movement grows, it also expands and innovates its range of tactics to create space for the truly diverse and necessary scope of what is possible to confront a crisis of this scale. The coming years will see the true potential of such formats as they move from the margins into the mainstream, and are focused squarely on a single culprit, target or theme. Already “Climate Games” are being planned in Belgium, Germany and UK.

Cultural Resistance

Indigenous groups have played a consistent role in pushing a profoundly radical discourse from the edges to the mainstream of the climate justice movement — bridging issues of anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism and more. In recent years, coupled by the climate justice movement’s growing and widening understanding of power and privilege and “taking leadership from the most impacted”, this trend has been growing stronger.

As the climate justice movement deepens its understanding of the profoundness of the “system change” it demands, we can look to the long experience of indigenous resistance in embodying alternative value practices as a form of resistance to cultures of domination.

Indigenous leadership is so vital to the climate justice movement because it proves not only that “another world is possible” but that “other worlds already exist” to challenge the monoculture of neoliberal global capitalism. By focusing on the culture of resistance rather than the targets, one can construct forms of resistance that are themselves alternatives.

To cite one elegant example we can look at an indigenous response to the November 13 attacks. While most mainstream organizations were busy adding the words “… and peace!” to the end of their banners and press releases, an international group of frontline indigenous communities organized a healing ceremony outside the Bataclan theater, the epicenter of the Paris attacks, to draw the connections between human violence and violence to the earth. One of the organizers, Dallas Goldtooth, from Indigenous Environmental Network said:

We as impacted frontline communities are quite familiar with tragedy, we understand what it means to have great loss.

This small healing ceremony found a narrative that connected the Paris attacks and the climate crisis in a way that no sleek comms-team had been able to do. This truth resonated deeply and, despite little press coverage, this healing ceremony became the first video out of the COP21 to go viral, with more than 850,000 views to date. This example is also important because it acknowledges the healing that must be done, both inside ourselves and inside our cultures, as we tackle the climate crisis.

However, at the very same time across the English Channel at the London Climate March, we witnessed the conflict that arises when movement politics showed itself as distinct from rhetoric. With the cancellation of the Paris Climate March (where indigenous groups were to lead), a group of indigenous activists from the Pacific and the Arctic asked to instead lead the London march. The organizers were happy to allow indigenous groups to lead and even “perform” on stage before it.

However, when these indigenous communities joined with local frontlines groups from the Wretched of the Earth bloc with a lead banner “Still fighting CO2lonialism: your climate profits kill”, march organizers spent the rest of the march trying to minimize their visibility; replacing them with large animals, blocking them from marching, kettling them and even literally calling in the police on them. Violence was only narrowly avoided. An open letter from the Wretched of the Earth Bloc to the march organizers recorded the experience:

However, the agreement it seems was contingent upon us merely acting out our ethnicities — through attire, song and dance, perhaps — to provide a good photo-op, so that you might tick your narrow diversity box. The fact that we spoke for our own cause in our own words resulted in great consternation: you did not think that our decolonial and anti-imperialist message was consistent with the spirit of the march. In order to secure our place at the front, you asked us to dilute our message and make it ‘palatable’.

What happened at the London march is a learning opportunity for the movement that demands serious reflection. If we, as a movement, are to celebrate indigenous and frontline leadership, we must also be willing to take on the much harder task of internalizing that work — confronting our own inherited legacy and culture of domination. This work cannot be shrugged aside due to the “urgency” of climate change; domination is itself the cause of climate change. A holistic approach to this crisis is needed, and we would be wise to follow the leadership of those who have — against great odds — preserved coherent, sustainable and respectful cultures of existence on this planet.

Indigenous experience with centuries-long struggles to defend diverse worldviews is also having an impact on and how the climate justice movement understands the scale and timeline of climate organizing, acting as a powerful magnet that pulls mainstream movement discourse towards deep systemic long-term change. If the climate justice movement is to take its own rhetoric of “leadership from the most impacted” seriously, that healing and decolonizing must start inside our own movement. If we do not engage deeply on this inner cultural work, we are destined to create a whole new set of problems as we “solve” the climate crisis.

Politics Embodied

The movement as a whole came with low political expectations and longer-term movement goals for what was to be accomplished in Paris — organizers would not allow for a repeat of the movement-wide burnout that followed the Copenhagen COP15 summit in 2009. The goals were not winnable political demands, but were instead about the movement itself, understanding the COP21 as a tool that could be used by the movements rather than a goal unto itself.

This is an important advance for a movement that has been plagued with serial burnout due to the scale and gravity of this crisis, combined with an unsustainable movement-wide culture of overwork. This trend signals a needed move towards focusing on “movement health” and long-term organizing, indicating that practices of “sustainable activism” have been moving from the individual to the collective and are starting to penetrate the movement as a whole.

Such tendencies hint at a pivot towards an internal culture shift of placing more attention on process rather than just product, counterbalancing the campaign and tangible-goal focused mainstream with a collective deep-ecology and process-based approach to insurrection.

Additionally, since Copenhagen we have seen a new generation of activists blossom out of the place-based uprisings of the Arab Spring, 15M, Occupy, the Gezi Uprising, etc. whose political radicalization was founded on this concept of “embodied politics” — there is a whole new generation of radicalized dreamers raised in the parks and plazas of prefigurative politics.

These examples, along with ZADs, Climate Camps, and all of Global Blockadia, create spaces of prefiguration and resistance — where modelling alternative futures is integrated as a process into the act of opposing the current system. While the above examples are localized struggles, the challenge history has laid upon the climate justice movement is to pioneer new forms of globalized organizing cultures that are coherent with the scale of structural change needed.

Lastly, the #RedLines disobedient action on December 12 confirmed an important trend towards the mainstreaming of direct action. This trend is inspiring, as it becomes a politics based upon actions rather than words. However, this ideological pivot must be more than just a tactic to be used sporadically — rather it needs to be understood as a political decision towards enacting politics.

Can any NGO or group coherently advocate for disobedience against decision makers, yet expect unwavering obedience towards their own hierarchical internal making structures? Can one truly advocate for external disobedience while replicating those same power structures internally? Instead is it not time for the climate justice movement to strive towards participatory systems of organizing, internally and externally, where no one is required to “obey” and thus “disobedience” is unnecessary?

As the climate justice movement bends towards understanding the true depths of the task at hand, and what a complete systemic change would actually mean, we see the emerging gap between groups who merely proclaim an ever increasingly systemic critique; and those groups who work to embody, model and practice systemic change through their organizing cultures. Many large NGOs maintain rigid hierarchical structures, short-term planning cycles, cultures of overwork and competition — in short, the very same structures, values and models that the climate justice movement finds itself pushing against!

Such moderate (but often well-funded) groups, do play a hugely important role in widening and growing the “middle” of the movement. But their large weight is power, and can be a conservative force to keep the mainstream in the middle, counter-weighting the efforts of smaller groups to push and pull the politics of climate justice towards a more holistic systemic critique, and reproducing more closely the world we are leaving behind than the world we wish to create.

Joining History: Building a Movement Culture

A cultural shift in activism is already underway as the global climate justice movement begins to inhabit its politics, tilting towards being a truly revolutionary force. This process demands introspection and an investigation not only of our personal cultural inheritances, but also the urgent need to heal toxic inherited structures inside ourselves and our movements.

As the world dives head-first into the coming centuries of exponential political and environmental instability, movements for social change must look into themselves — individually and as a movement of movements — to begin to heal the myriad of structural injustices that manifest themselves as climate change, and to incubate new relationships with our earth and each other inside of our own structures of resistance.

An immediate priority for all climate justice groups advocating “system change not climate change” should be a process of alignment of internal structures to reflect held values. This internal work should not be seen as separate from work for transformative change; rather, this internal work must be considered to be the work of transformational change — knowing that the only limits to possible outcomes are the structures by which we address them. Groups cannot coherently advocate for decentralized, democratized energy systems without simultaneously working towards decentralized and democratized structures internally.

The climate justice movement, like all social movements, is itself an incubating ground for new cultures of collective organization on our increasingly unstable planet. The climate justice movement’s desire towards fomenting alternative futures — encouraging positive, prefigurative and local solutions — may actually have less to do with solar panels and community gardens than with incubating scaleable organizing cultures that can be shared with allies, volunteers and partners in ways that improve access to justice as we move together into an exponentially tumultuous future.

In Paris, the disruption of the N13 attacks revealed rising undercurrents inside the climate justice movement that hint at a maturing movement culture that is rising to take its role in history. But until the climate justice movement truly internalizes its own mottos of “system change not climate change!”, “another world is possible!”, and “to change everything it takes everyone!”, it will only be scratching the surface of the true depths of necessary change.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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