What Factors Make The Climate Action Movement Unique?

It occurs to me that the climate action movement needs to identify and understand factors which differentiate it from successful historic movements. Purposes for such an exercise would include: i) defining strategies and tactics which address those unique attributes or challenges; and, ii) putting into context the enormity of the task of advancing the movement.

Movements with which we might compare and contrast include: women suffrage; African-American civil rights; farm workers; and others. (I am no historian.)

I’ll start off some observations/suggestions and ask that readers add their thoughts…


1) addressing global warming needs to touch and affect every aspect of personal and societal life in order to be meaningful; no group is exempt; no activity will be exempt; as much as 9/11/2001 has affected life, addressing global warming will be even more pervasive in our lifestyles.

2) addressing global warming will affect the consumption patterns of individual Americans, an aspect of life from which we derive satisfaction, comfort, self-esteem, social status, even purpose; further, the affect will be in reducing that consumption, generally speaking – a tendancy which many may find distasteful. Further, directly affecting consumption through external means (as by taxation) could be deemed an attack on personal freedom by many Americans.

3) Many segments of society are bound to the success – and failure – of the major corporate entities active in the fossil-fuel industry. Obviously, employees of same, and their families and communities; these are in virtually bondage. Governments fearful of relocation of the industry’s operations and the attendant loss of tax revenue (?) and employment opportunity (?) and other support are similarly led by the nose. Even retirees – through their pensions plans, IRA’s, and other investments – are complicit in the expectation that – even the need for – the corporations included in their portfolios to do well; and will applaud great performance, without possibly knowing how those were achieved.


I leave the floor to the next commenter… Please, come on up to the microphone…

9 Responses to “What Factors Make The Climate Action Movement Unique?”

  1. Jeremy Simpson says:

    “…the climate action movement needs to identify and understand factors which differentiate it from successful historic movements. Purposes for such an exercise would include: i) defining strategies and tactics which address those unique attributes or challenges; and, ii) putting into context the enormity of the task of advancing the movement.”

    I think this is a proper baseline to seriously begin any discussion on a problem worth solving – that is, defining the problem, and getting a grasp on how big it is 🙂

    I’m something of a history geek, and I’ve been studying for the past couple of years with special attention on how environmentalism relates to other form of activism, in particular human rights issues – including women’s rights, racial rights movements, and class struggle. I feel that in order to wrap one’s head around the climate change problem, and the very real difficulty we now find ourselves confronted with in combatting it, there are two most-important points which deserve special attention:

    Perhaps the most troublesome fact of our war against human-driven climate change is that it is a ‘faceless’ war. What this means is that, for ALL other human rights issues, running the gamut from women’s suffrage to freedom of speech, from the rights of gay men and women to marry, to the rights of Muslim men and women to build mosques in a neighborhood of their choosing, there is a ‘face’ which one may attach to these human rights concerns; a sympathetic, relatable object in the form of a real, living human being to which all or most of the vast multitude of the human race – most of whom care little about economies or ecologies in the technical sense, and who are in general concerned with these issues only insofar as they relate to their own daily lives and the lives of their loved ones, may connect these important civil issues viscerally.

    Environmentalism is, in this sense, a ‘faceless’ activism. It does not benefit from a ‘poster child’, a Rosa Parks, an Elian Gonzalez, nor an Anne Frank. We have, instead, pictures of sea turtles caked in oil, or gulls strangled by soda six-pack plastic, and we frankly have no telling, visceral image at all of the tangible, direct effects of climate change upon any living thing, no image that would move more than the most serious environmental sympathetic to tears. It is the unfortunate, and I would say perhaps the most crushing burden of our environmental movement that we simply may not rely upon any tear-jerk factor to move the uninitiated masses to care about this cause.

    This second point is actually, strange as it may seem, a differentiation not between environmentalism and other activisms, but between ‘new’ activism and ‘the activism of yesteryear’. When I began taking a serious interest in environmental politics a few years back, I began to open my eyes and ears to the many shades of people who practice activism now, and those who have practiced it in generations past. And there is at least one simple truism that frames my own personal concern for environmentalism well: The times and the troubles change, and we have to learn to change with them.

    What I mean by this is (and I will address here several common ideologies of activism, and intend no particular negative value judgments upon any of them): what may have worked for revolutionaries 200 or 150 years ago, or what worked for women seeking suffrage near the beginning of this last century, what worked for African Americans seeking a strong voice in the United States during the 1960s, and what worked for black South Africans, finally, in the 1990s, when they obtained suffrage for their majority, will not necessarily work for ‘us’. The anti-bourgeoisie revolutions of Europe up until 1917 were revolutions by people who lived in third-world poverty, against systems which failed to afford them the basic rights to control their own destinies to ‘any’ degree… as it were, they had little recourse but violence to improve their lot. Likewise, when Malcolm X called out the ‘white devil’ on The Hate that Hate Produced, most African Americans at that time – and as a white man I am humbled to know that I cannot fully appreciate this – would not have believed such a thing possible. They would not have believed that a black man in America could do such a thing without being shot for it.

    To put a fine point on this: we, as citizens of the United States in 2011, who have voting rights, who may make our voice heard at city hall meetings, who own refrigerators and washing machines, who have running water and cheap electricity, and who are – and I can speak only now for white, male Americans, as I truly feel and respect for the real socioeconomic constraints on women and minority demographics in the States at this time, such that this final point may not fully apply to them – wealthy and free enough to fully exploit the technologies, networks, and economic forces available to us, in ways which activists of yesteryear simply could not, we are not under such constraints as those detailed above.

    My apologies, of course, for this being more of a ‘document’ than a ‘comment. I’ll say by the by that my own opinion is that if environmental activism is to succeed in our modern age, it will have to learn to fully avail itself of technology, and not just in the form of communications for improving networks to get us collaborating together for political purposes, but also in the form of engineering social systems – that is, ‘us’, the people, irrespective of what the government does – so that our world may yet weather this catastrophic ordeal in the coming decades. I, for one, still have hope.

  2. Sallijane says:

    Hi, Jerome; thanks for offering this forum.

    A quick thought on consumption, and how cutting it might affect individuals: they might find less financial stress, and find that the “need” for new stuff goes down!

    This struck me as I was reading your post and thinking to a discussion I had at a July 4 barbecue. The woman with whom I was talking had just been fired from a job she hated, but at which she was well-paid. She got a severance package and, more important, got an offer from an associate whom she respects at another company. That person created a job for the person whom she would displace, so no worries there—and he said that he would not have approached her if she had still been working.

    The reason for my writing about this? She took a pay cut—but finds that she no longer wants to buy all the “stuff” that was her payment to herself as compensation for hours spent in a job she hated. Sounds to me like a win for her, AND a win for the environment. Makes me stop to wonder what I am really buying when I make a purchase.

  3. Jerome Wagner says:

    Thanks to both Sallijane and Jeremy for these initial contributions!

    I’m going to paraphrase Sallijane’s comment in terms of the challenges: showing people that they can have very satisfying lives even while consuming less; and, leading people to reflect on why they “consume”and whether the reasons that surface are sufficient (Sallijane: please correct or supplement my boil-down, as needed…)

    I’ll throw out a question and comment to Jeremy: i) as to the facelessness – are we talking about the “victims” or the – I’ll say – “perpetrators” here? I will admit that pictures of people fleeing floods and even bodies being swept away can seem distant – even if in Minot USA – and perhaps unrelated and unrelate-able. I think part of your point is identifying those humans affected in a realistic, relevant, compassionate manner. But I think that you suspect that we won’t find the right images at this point… (I’m thinking now about how images of African-Americans killed by lynch mobs in the 1960’s affected me…)

    ii) I think you are suggesting – at the risk of over-simplifying or missing your point completely – that the middle-class has the financial, intellectual, and political “means” to effect more change than might have been the case in past movements. A challenge then might be stated as “how to prompt that power into action?”

    iii) Your comment about social systems engineering is intriguing to me. It begs a host of questions: What vision, what end-point? Who paints it? Means? Who has the skill? etc. In a sense, the whole “climate movement” is about social re-engineering, so this is a vital area of inquiry.

    iv) Thanks for your closing hopefulness!


  4. Jeremy says:


    i) I consider the ‘facelessness’ of this issue to apply to both its perpetrators and its victims. When we focus on issues of racial or gender discrimination, we may say “these are the specific people perpetrating this racism/ sexism, and these are the specific people suffering from it.” There is, as it were, someone – with a face we can identify – holding the gun, and someone – also with a face – on a stretcher.

    When we look to climate change, where may we look for the ‘victim’ of this massive crime? Imagine a headlines, “Man Struck Dead by GHG emissions,” or “MacDonalds Kills Twenty with GHG Emissions.” These headlines ring a bit ridiculous for a reason – and I pick MacDonalds here to make a point: that it isn’t just Big Coal and the Seven Sisters causing climate change, it’s ALL of us. We live in a consumer culture addicted to cheap energy use. It may be argued that large companies who ‘give us what we want’ for affordable prices, including not just Exxon and Peabody Energy, but also MacDonalds, Apple, FedEx, Stop & Shop and every other company, large and small in the U.S. that contributes to our GHG emissions, are not the only culprits here; that WE, as consumers of these goods, are also at fault. All of us are running on oil and coal and natural gas right now; every alarm clock we leave plugged in all day, every fan we plug in to make the heat more bearable, every computer we charge in an outlet, is ‘us’, the people, using these forms of energy.

    Thus if we were to recapitulate the latter of the two headlines above, putting responsibility for energy use not on the corporations, but on the consumers of their products, we might similarly say, “The Town of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Kills Twenty with GHG Emissions,” or “The Rotary Club International Kills Twenty with GHG Emissions.” (i.e., the collective members of either Pittsburgh or the Rotary Club, in a year, may well use more energy than the MacDonalds corporation would, not taking into account the energy use put into constructing each one of its hamburgers, etc.; in this case we are putting those energy uses on its customers.)

    What this tells us is that we are ‘all’ the culprits, and that we are ‘all’ the victims. And yet, if we were to stop 99% of all people in our population on the street and ask them, “how have GHG emissions negatively affected your life this year?”, most would answer “not at all,” or laugh it off, or offer something akin to “I know a few people who had asthma attacks because of the smog here in L.A.,” or “I hear an entire flock of birds dropped dead out of the sky, but I can’t ‘prove’ that it was due to emissions.” The perpetrators are all of us – and therefore anonymous – and the vast majority of victims don’t even consider themselves victimized.

    ii) & iii) I think you’re interpreting me correctly. When I speak of social engineering, I speak specifically of ‘economic’ engineering, or 1) running businesses that contribute to helping the environment, and 2) engineering government regulation to support such businesses, and to support preservation of the environment otherwise. Note that I consider the priority here to be for us, as citizens, to self-sufficiently construct and run the necessary organizations to reduce GHG emissions for our culture.

    There are several points in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – in which he, a Frenchman, catalogues valuable journalistic insight into the American character at a time when the States were still young, in the 1820s and 30s – where he makes special note of ‘the American’s self-sufficiency’. He cites at one time an example where, in a small, country township, a rut in the road is causing problems for passing carriages. The Americans in this case do not rally around city hall and ask – or demand – for the government to fix their pothole. Instead, a couple of these townsfolk simply bring their own tools and resources to the road, fix the pothole, and thereby contribute to the greater good out of their own labor and ingenuity.

    Certainly times have changed. But one of the ways in which times have changed is that we now expect our government to fix these problems for us, rather than arriving at the scene, tools in hand, and fixing it ourselves. I raise a conjecture: is it possible that the government either A) doesn’t know how to tackle the enormity of this problem in lieu of the large conservative constituent which comprises it, and in lieu of the other very real problems it faces (like poverty, regulation of many other problems, and international security), or B) simply doesn’t have the physical potential to fix the problem? We view our government as omnipresent, all-powerful, capable of great feats such as stopping climate change… and perhaps this is not so.

    I feel it is safe to say that most passionate environmental activist concerned with climate change are concerned specifically with ‘reducing GHG emissions by as much as possible’. I propose that it may be an underestimation of our own power as citizens of a relatively open society, with substantial assets, and with substantial access to all sorts of information and technologies, for us to believe that the most good we can do in these areas is to ask – or demand – for our government to fix this problem for us by way of regulation. Certainly, this has been the dominant strategy for some time, and GHG emissions have continued to rise during this same time period. And there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that regulation, in many cases, leads to negative market externalities (not just more money paid by corporations, but many people put out of work, and therefore more public emphasis on ‘improving the economy’ in elections, which may then take priority over problems like climate change.) I am not saying that I do not approve of cries out to the government to pay more attention to climate change, and to do more about it; I wholeheartedly approve of this. But I feel we have limited time here to do act, and that our energies may be better spent reducing GHG emissions as much as possible ‘with our own two hands’ (or in modern terms, ‘with our own ingenious applications of mechanical, economic and communications technology’.)

    I am of the opinion, in short, that if we would like to dispense with the problem of climate change, that we have no good reason to believe that the government will – or even has the physical ability to – do this without ‘our’ leadership. I believe we should make it our business, from the ground up, to make sustainability affordable, natural and easy for the rest of the population, by way of technological engineering, business and marketing.

    And again, apologies for the length of this 🙂

  5. Jo Sippie-Gora says:

    Hi Jerome,
    This is just a test to find out if I can submit a comment correctly!
    In Peace,

  6. Jerome Wagner says:

    Some new bullet items, ot prompt consideration, comment, and deeper thinking:

    •Addressing global warming will involve direct confrontation with some of the nation’s biggest industrial entities (literally, “too big to fail”) and consequently with all its elements: directors, employees, shareholders, etc. And that confrontation will literally be a life-and-death match – for all parties, come to think of it. All of those elements will be threatened and many will be vocal in thunderous ways. Besides that, historic conceptions of property right and free market rights will be in contention.

    •Addressing global warming and consequent climate change will take decades to accomplish; it is likely that few domestic – or even international – models exist for this type of pervasive reconfiguration. To set such a course and keep to it sounds like absolute and unmitigated fantasy, given the retributive fickleness of US politics today: “Just wait: in 2 years…” In a sense, this attribute of current US governance needs to be remedied concurrently. Absent political forces, maintaining that type of commitment personally could be difficult, although I suspect that if we stick to the course purposefully at the onset and aren’t routinely disracted by negative voices, we’ll find that we can easily live with the “new normal”.

    •Addressing global warming will likely require large adminstrative organizations to ensure consistent progress meeting the common needs. These might be housed in governmental structures – or extra-governmentally. Such organizations need to be funded. Some will view enlarged bureaucracies and the funding to support them as perverse directions.

  7. Jo Sippie-Gora says:

    I have very little to add to the very comprehensive comments so far (thank you), which basically reflect my views as well… Environmental activists need to simultaneously move several chess pieces forward: educate-educate-educate (especially the children), develop personal and local sustainable practices like the plastic bag ban in your own town (and celebrate them publicly), continue to challenge industry to come clean and adopt cradle-to-cradle practices (and applaud them when they do), and work to change government regulations – one at a time. Realize that the regulations & procedures were accumulated mostly one at a time, many are contradictory, and even a single change will be complicated because it will impact (even negatively) something else in the change-stream. I have no patience for activists who have single-minded solutions: the complexity of our environmental crisis is infinitely huge.

    One last thing…let us have conversations everywhere about the awe and wonder of life itself. I am so humbled by evolution, the universe, the interconnectedness of all life. When confronted with these stories, those of all faiths (and non-faith)and political persuasions can find points of agreement. Most people, “even CEO’s”, consciously connect to nature in some way (the fisherman, the rock climber, the swimmer, etc). Perhaps start conversations about what they love, and bring out their desire to protect it.

  8. Jeremy Simpson says:

    I offer here, first, a response, and second, an expansion on the overall topic of this conversation:

    As to Jerome’s points, above:

    point 1: That “direct confrontation” with some of the largest corporations in the world is necessary to our cause, I feel, is undeniable. I venture to suggest that this confrontation may be achieved in more than one way however. I believe corporations can be ‘confronted’ in two significantly useful ways: (A) by cultivating enough cultural or economic strength from outside the company to force it to move in the desirable direction (for the good of the majority), or (B) by ‘infiltrating’ the company and guiding it in the desired direction. As articulated above, I believe the latter is more efficient; I think a businessperson, or a large group of them with a plan, are taken more seriously as a rule by corporate groups than straightforward activists are. I believe we can change these corporations more effectively from the inside; that we are more effective if we make change our business, and not just our mantra.

    point 2: (is addressed below)

    point 3: I believe it is a vital area of inquiry to study the precise, best political structure to get the job done in improving the environment for the community as a whole. I don’t necessarily feel that arrangement needs to make the government substantially larger, or that it even requires so substantial an outlay. I might draw one’s attention to the European Union, for one, which is a pretty efficient political entity, and one which is substantially smaller in size than that of the United States, which may be argued to be less effective and less efficient than the EU. Many different factors affect the effectiveness of a political body; I think it’s important to remember that neither does merely increasing the scale of a government organization necessarily improve its effectiveness or efficiency, nor should we assume that this is the only way to generate massive, lasting change in society.

    Secondly, I’d like to expand this conversation to discuss specifics a bit…

    Admin has moved the back-end of Jeremy’s comment to a new thread. Find it at “Where do we need the action” and add your comments there!!

  9. Jerome Wagner says:

    A brief reply to Jeremy’s comment about “embedded agents of change”, above…

    No doubt, certain individuals have the personal strength to go in and overhaul institutions. But, how realistic is that as a primary vehicle for institutional change? I mean, between the rigors of work, the inertia of corporate cultures, the personal interest to have energy for family, etc.?

    A personal reflection: I worked 30 years in environmental engineering. I started with IBM – which I will characterize as a responsible corporate citizen – with the idea that we -I – could eliminate all pollution to environmental media. OK. Within 2 months, that pompous goal had been replaced by the daily trials of the work-a-day world, in an industry which did emit pollution, elimination of which would have at least been ridiculously expensive. Yes, if I’d had unwavering focus on that neon-bright-lighted goal… Yes, if I’d been some kind of fire-brand… OK: I’m making excuses now; I’ll desist.

    I am arguing against the plausibility of enlightened, successful infiltration. I probably should not be doing that…

    I know some corporations have social responsibility and/or sustainability programs. Perhaps, in addition to deploying individual worker-infiltrators, those corporations with excellent sustainability and social responsibility practices could be identified and accoladed as exemplars for all others…

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