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It's Time For Direct Action and Compassion on Climate

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Climate Direct Action Camp, Matt Leonard photo

Climate activists from across the U.S. and Canada share skills, strategies, and stories to solve the climate crisis at this Direct Action Camp.

PHOTO ESSAY: Climate Direct Action Camp

Photo by Matt Leonard.

The famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz reported that if two male Graylag geese bump into each other but want to avoid a fight, they pretend they have just driven off a common enemy—victory song and all. In the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, the whole world puts aside their Cold War hostilities because someone from outer space with supernormal powers orders them to do so. People can drop their differences in the face of a common enemy, real or imagined, and sometimes it’s the only way they know how to.

For some time now, just such a “third party” has been staring us in the face, and it's real indeed: the impending global climate catastrophe. At Copenhagen, it became clear that world leaders are not ready to drop their differences in the face of this universal challenge. At least not nearly fast enough. And not without pressure from "below".

Gandhi understood very clearly the dynamic of the present moment. He found by bitter experience that petitioning should always be the first step, but often could not be the last in getting those in power to wake up. If people failed to reach their petitioners through reason, he said, they should be ready to offer Satyagraha or nonviolent direct action (literally, ‘clinging to truth’). “Things of fundamental importance to the people are not secured by reason alone,” he argued, “but have to be purchased with their suffering ... [because] if you want something really important to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also.” Self-suffering, for example through civil disobedience, is now unavoidable.

This is exactly the conclusion drawn by Johann Hari in a Huffington Post editorial that went up on December 20.

The time for changing your light-bulbs and hoping for the best is over. It is time to take collective action. Every coal train should be ringed with people refusing to let it pass. Every new runway should be blockaded. The cost of trashing the climate needs to be raised.

Hari goes on to point out that three years ago in Britain, eight new coal power stations were being planned and a third runway at Heathrow seemed inevitable, but a few thousand heroic young people took direct action against them. “Now all the new coal power stations have been canceled, and the third runway is dead in the water.”

We the people failed to take the next step after the largest protest the world had ever seen failed to move world leaders to drop the insane plan of invading Iraq in 2002. We cannot fail now. Climate action should be the focus of the entire progressive movement until the planet is safe, and we must be prepared to put our bodies on that line.

But civil disobedience has its rules, and if we don’t know them, we risk failure. No form of nonviolent resistance, if it is to have a positive, lasting effect, can be directed against people, but rather against what they’re doing. Listen to someone on the receiving end of Gandhi’s Satyagraha in India: “He made it impossible for us to go on ruling India,” said the distinguished British historian Arnold Toynbee, “but he made it possible for us to leave without rancour and without humiliation.” Yes, ring those coal trains, block those runways, but without trying to embarrass the people who organized them. Let them off the hook without rancor or humiliation, or—this is quite important now—the panic that their livelihoods will be taken away. Every time we say to them ‘don’t burn coal’ make sure we add, ‘use solar power instead: here’s how it can work for your company.’ This is not only a sound principle: it’s good strategy.

It is by no means a new idea: in colonial New Jersey, the Quaker John Woolman, did not just just rail against slaveholders. He traveled throughout the South helping them work out ways of making a living without using slaves to harvest cotton, and he did so to great effect.

Woolman’s experience has been confirmed many times: it does not diminish the effectiveness of protests when we adopt an attitude of ‘you and me against the problem’—it enhances it. Environmentalists who struggled for years to block the clubbing of baby harp seals for their fur suddenly succeeded when they presented the furriers with an alternative business plan.

There is a lot more to learn from Gandhi and other successful practitioners of nonviolent struggle, but this principle of humanity has to be in place for anything else to work.

So let us vow not to stop until we have rolled back the mad system of industrialization that’s driving us to a global catastrophe; but let us never forget that polluters, too, want to live on a livable planet and bequeath it to the future. We can and must thwart what they’re doing, but it’s always better to awaken them, whenever possible, so they want to do the changing themselves. We need them, because this challenge goes way beyond working out greener alternatives for given industries; we need to do nothing less than build a new world where, as Jayati Ghosh observed in the Guardian on December 21, we are no longer trapped in an economic system that “is crucially dependent upon rapid growth as its driving force, even if this ‘growth’ does not deliver better lives for the people.”

Looked at in this way, the world leaders in their poor performance at Copenhagen (not as poor as the mainstream media would have us believe, but certainly less than what is needed) have not so much dropped the ball as handed us the baton. If we join our protests and obstructive actions with strategy and compassion, the suffering that Gandhi refers to could be only a matter of plucking up courage, dropping our usual routines, going beyond our comfort zones, and taking some risks. We should be realistic however. Even if we do face serious repression until the sincerity—and determination—of our efforts wins us over the 'tipping point' to success, will that be too high a price to pay for a future on planet Earth?


Michael NaglerMichael Nagler wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Michael is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

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