A New Way Of Thinking

By Mike Kaulbars

Courtesy of Ronan_C

“Is the climate change movement splintering?” asks the Guardian headline.  Really it’s just a rhetorical device for reporting on the soul searching that has been going on within the movement as to how to move forward after Copenhagen. It is a much needed discussion given the disappointment of Copenhagen and the subsequent success of the right wing Denial machine. Even if it were not so, the discussion of strategy within the environmental movement, indeed the entire social justice movement, is fraught with challenges that may well be unique to our age.

First there is the subtle difference between the question of whether “they” are succeeding, or whether it is “we” who are failing. The two are not interchangeable in that two sides can both pursue effective strategies and yet only one will be the victor, at least at a given moment. For the movement the question is whether we are trying to do the right things and failing, or are we not on the right track at all? Do we need to try harder? Do better? Or try a different tack entirely?

It is a difficult question because so much of what the movement is able to do has been shaped by the same forces that have driven the entire social justice movement for several decades now. As society has become more mobile groups have been plagued by transience of their volunteers and membership. The tenure of both volunteers and staff has dropped from decades to years, to less than a year for most volunteers.

As a result groups lack both the leadership and experience which makes every kind of project that is long term and/or complex pretty much impossible. Not surprisingly we have seen the movements’ array of actions shrink to become little more than speaker nights and protests. Compare that to the 198 types of action described by Sharpe in his Politics of Nonviolent Action.

If our tactics are limited, our strategy may be even more so. Not only is there the limitations mentioned above, there is the lack of experience and knowledge about what the complexities and stages of political organizing even are. How many activists are familiar with or have even heard of the Movement Action Plan?

Not that there are not experienced people around, but in a diffuse grassroots movement you need broad experience across the board, not just pockets of wisdom here and there.

Granted the internet has given us the ability to potentially reach many more people, but the evidence is that the potential is not being realised. For the most part the internet is a passive medium that depends on people to go to a particular website and act on what they find. Those not already onside are unlikely to even go to these websites in the first place, and even many of those who may be counted among the “converted” do not do so either.

As a consequence the internet as proven to be a generally more effective at disseminating disinformation than information. Because it works within existing networks it can strengthen and facilitate the actions of a healthy progressive movement, but not substitute for it, nor create it.

A less obvious consequence of public mobility is that people are not bonded to place. It is one thing to stand up for the forest or neighbourhood you have known all of your life, but one is less motivated to do so for one you have only known for a few years. Understandable, but nonetheless limiting in terms of the types of actions that a group can reasonably hope to undertake.

This phenomenon was predicted and discussed by Paul Virilio in his 1978 “Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles”. What Virilio was seeing was a militarization of society in the emphasis on movement and speed.

Movement in that people are always on the move and interchangeable. They do not bond to place or one another, but rather move between increasingly uniform jobs, neighbourhoods and social circles to which they feel no particular allegiance. Speed in that the value is placed on doing everything faster, more efficiently. Natural, human values are slow and take time. Sex can be done quickly and efficiently, love cannot.

For Virilio the danger lay in that these values made society vulnerable to de facto dominance by the military industrial complex. I would argue that the values themselves are the danger in that once society has embraced them, which we clearly have, there is an accelerating slide towards increasing disintegration of the natural and the human. Not that this is inevitable any more than any of the ongoing destruction is, but it is the default outcome if we do not work to oppose it.

All of which is to say that when we say that we are “discussing strategy” we can be referring to two very different things. The facile and most common practice is to talk about how we operate within the confines of the current narrative choosing from a very limited number of possible actions given our current situation. In it’s most simplistic form it is a discussion about whether to work within or outside “the system.”

While not without value this discussion cannot strike deeply enough to actually solve any of the problems we currently face. It pretends to be a radical discussion, but it is not. It is framed entirely within the language and ideas of the status quo even while claiming to seek it’s demise. As such it cannnot get us out of that system, but rather merely shift who plays what role within that system.

The second possibility is difficult even if we understand it, and for the most part we do not. In seeking solutions we usually look for culprits in the forms of institutions and individuals, when they are entirely interchangeable and the real culprit is the entire value set and our way of understanding how we can and should live.

It is not enough to pick from the tactics and strategies that we know. We need to educate ourselves about the possibilities that we have not even conceived and begin to build the structures and processes that will allow us to implement the broader range strategies and tactics that will get us where we want to go.

The former discussion may buy the time necessary for the latter, but without the latter we are not going to be able to deal with the core issues that brought us to this point in the first place. Indeed, they will keep us on this path until we do deal with them. To paraphrase Anshin Thomas, we cannot think our way to a new way of living, we must live our way to a new way of thinking.


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