Time for a New Containment Strategy? What Climate Marchers Can Learn from the Cold War

The leading strategies in the climate justice movement already resemble the Cold War policies of containment, roll-back, and isolation. But can they wear down the political power of the fossil fuel industry?

At the People's Climate March in New York City. Photo by Stephen D. Melkisethian / Flickr.

This story is part of the Climate In Our Hands collaboration between Truthout and YES! Magazine.

More than 400,000 people jammed the streets of Manhattan on September 21, drawn from all parts by the magnetic force of the People’s Climate March. From Times Square to the upper reaches of Central Park West, a 40-block sea of humanity joined under banners that demanded action, named the responsible, and articulated the solutions. Most moving of all were those that expressed the fears and hopes of the children who drew and carried them. For those fortunate enough to be there, it was a deeply empowering experience.

The People’s March was not about demands that lacked the power to force action.

That said, Climate Week in New York—the march, the special U.N. summit that catalyzed it, and the swirl of side events surrounding both—was about far more than a one-time gathering of the masses. Its true value lay in the millions of conversations it spawned among the citizens who committed their presence to the battle. Some of these conversations came in organized forums but most were spontaneous, between strangers on the street or old friends reunited around a table. It was in these conversations that people dug for deeper insight into the challenge we face and where we go now as a movement.

Many of those conversations were about hope.

Just hours off my long plane ride to New York from Bolivia, I stood before an auditorium of students at Brooklyn College, young people who spoke of the future with fear and concern. Many of them had their introduction to the climate issue during Hurricane Sandy, an experience of vulnerability still fresh in their minds.

Finding hope may be more essential on climate than on any other crisis we face. War, genocide, disease, and injustice—dire as they are—have “off switches” that history has shown us before. Barbarians fall, governments make peace, vaccines are discovered.

We don’t know if the climate crisis has an off switch, even if we do muster powerful global citizen action. “Let’s be honest,” said a woman in the audience at one of the forums where I spoke. “It is OK for us to be here just to recharge our batteries for the battles ahead.”

A basic principle that is both big enough to make a difference and simple to understand: “Leave it in the ground.”

I saw that hope over and over again in small ways: in Christina, the young muralist I met on a corner in SoHo, painting a banner for the march. I saw it in Raymond, an engineer from Alaska who flew to New York to participate in the first political action of his life. “It seemed like an opportunity to do something,” he told me. In our large numbers, we saw glimpses of a people rising and we need that.

But there were many, many other conversations about what must come after the March, about goals, power, tactics, and the missing connection between each of those: strategy. I heard familiar criticisms of the March. Michael Dorsey, a 20-year veteran of U.N. and NGO work who spoke on a panel alongside me, chastised 350.org leader Bill McKibben as he listened to us, saying the weekend’s action lacked a clear message beyond “Do something!”

“Brother Bill,” he said, “I will not march with you tomorrow. I will not join in a march that has no demands.”

But the People’s Climate March was not about demands that lacked the power to force action. It was about building a base for action wide enough to connect Brooklyn families pushing strollers to the anti-capitalists who got arrested at Flood Wall Street the next day.

I have been in gatherings like this one before: the People’s Climate Summit in Bolivia in 2010; the activist assembly at Rio 20 in 2012; and others. I am continually amazed at the energy invested—and wastedin these spaces as the movement’s intellectuals polish theories that no one outside the movement understands; as the various coalitions polish their passionate declarations that no one will read.

Absent always is genuine debate about how we make any of it actually happen. And in this way the debates around the People’s Climate March seemed, for the most part, no different.

Finding hope may be more essential on climate than on any other crisis we face.

On Sunday evening people gathered in gaggles to take stock of what they had just been a part of. I had the fortune to have that after-march conversation over Chinese take-out in the Harlem apartment of someone who has written extensively about these kinds of questions for many decades: City University of New York professor Frances Fox Piven.

An avid scholar of (and participant in) people’s movements since the 1960s, Piven listened and then offered a simple truth that has run through every key social movement of the past hundred years: Persuasion through words is not enough. We have to find the levers of real power, and then reach and seize them. Marching en masse alongside Central Park and blocking lower Broadway the next day may have raised our voices, but it brought neither shudders nor changes of course on Wall Street or in the U.N. assembly.

But among the many who gathered in New York this past week, among the activists who carry the fight forward, there is a good deal of solid thinking about how we move from inspiration to real strategy.

Around the world, there is a gathering around a basic principle that is both big enough to make a difference and simple to understand: “Leave the oil, gas, and coal in the ground.”

Over cheap Mexican food at a sticky table in Brooklyn, I listened to my old friend and fearless activist Antonia Juhasz. She began battling the oil industry years before the practice came into vogue, writing widely read books and getting arrested at a Chevron shareholder meeting in Texas. She had just returned from a submarine trip to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to witness the destruction of the sea floor wrought by BP’s spilled oil.

As she spoke about the People’s Climate March, I began to recognize a strategy that was old and familiar: containment.

For five decades, this was the geopolitical strategy that the U.S. aimed at Soviet Communismdon’t let it spread, roll it back where you can, and support those actions that will hasten it collapsing of its own weight.

Even if we have not articulated it as such, that is our strategy today against the threat of fossil fuels. The battles against fracking are about containing the spread of the drilling. The battles against existing coal plants are about rolling it back. The battles for divestment are aimed at making the industry a political pariah, akin to tobacco, to diminish its political clout. The hope is that the move toward energy and transportation alternatives, combined with divestment, will loosen fossil fuels’ grip over the political and economic territory the industry holds now, and hasten its collapse.

The march's true value lay in the millions of conversations it spawned.

We also know that our political clout against the industry is strongest closest to our communities, and that those are the battlefields we must drag the fight to. Victories against the Koch brothers in California, against fracking efforts in New York, and others show us what strategy and victory look like.

As I stood in the crowd during the march, I heard a chorus of unfamiliar voices chanting my name. “Hey Jim, we came, we came!” A group of the students I had spoken to days earlier at Brooklyn College had heeded my pleas and had given up their precious Sunday to join the march. They were all smiles as they walked.

This is where hope comes from. This is what the People’s Climate March was really about. Now we must make sure that the march does not end on Eleventh Avenue, where we all went our separate ways, but that it continues on across continents and countries in a way that can go beyond talking about our fears, demands, and dreams to also make a serious difference.