In this conversation, the Climate Disobedience Center’s Tim DeChristopher looks at how the progressive movement’s strategies need to change in now that climate change’s real impacts are more obvious to the American public. He addresses the focus on carbon mitigation (policies for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions) in light of the now very evident need for climate adaptation (adjusting how we live to deal with the changes that come with a warming planet), and the resulting suffering (the human, material, and environmental costs of warming).
- Adaptation and Human Rights
Recently you challenged our community organizations and environmental movements to stop acting as if we’re able to forestall climate change and that all we must do is reduce carbon emissions. What’s your general take on this mindset?
Yeah. Well, that’s definitely been the focus of the climate movement for a long time, has been mitigating climate change, and there has been increasing discussion in some sort of policy circles about the need to also adapt and deal with impacts that will likely be inevitable at this point. One of the great contributions to the climate discourse that I think John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, made was emphasizing this point that there are three responses to climate change, mitigation, adaptation and suffering, and that it’ll be some combination of those three that will make our full response to it, and the less mitigation we do, the more of the others we will do.
At this point in 2017, we’ve gone far enough down that road that we know that there’s going to be a significant amount of adaptation and suffering that will need to happen, because we’ve fallen short in a lot of ways on the mitigation front. Of course there’s still a lot of mitigation that needs to be done to impact the degree of that suffering that will occur, but by and large I think our movements and our organizations haven’t been able to find a way to talk about adaptation without drawing away from the continued urgency of maintaining those mitigation efforts. There’s often a sense within the leadership of these movements that the talk about adaptation distracts from the need for mitigation. A common sentiment that I hear is, “If we tell people that it’s too late to avoid major impacts, then everybody’ll just give up and not do any mitigation efforts anymore.”
We need to be entering into this nuanced territory where it’s not all of one or all of the other, but more of a both-and, and holding attention between not just two points but three points, you know, of the policies for mitigation, the policies for adaptation, but also the social and personal and spiritual response of learning how to deal with the suffering that I think will be unprecedented and a huge challenge for our society, dealing with that suffering in a way that doesn’t abandon our humanity, that doesn’t pit us against one another, that doesn’t bring out the worst in us. That’s a whole new front that needs to be explored and engaged, as we maintain the work that needs to happen in terms of mitigation and in terms of adaptation.
I think the urgent point there that needs to be remembered is even if our movements are not leading the public discourse around adaptation and how we adapt to this in a way that’s in line with our shared values, someone is. There are powerful people in our power structure that recognize how far along we are, and after the failures of Copenhagen at the end of 2009, when it became clear that we were not going to stop climate change at a manageable level, and that places like Bangladesh would likely go underwater, there were clearly some conversations that were happening about what would become of the people in places like Bangladesh if they go underwater, where there’s 80 million people that live less than 10 meters above sea level in Bangladesh.
We weren’t having that conversation publicly, but in the years after Copenhagen, India began building a border fence almost the entire way around Bangladesh, a 1,790-mile, partially-electrified fence. Somewhere, at some level of the power structure, the decision was made that, “Our adaptation policy is that we’re going to keep the most impacted and vulnerable people right where they’re at,” and that happened at a time when our secretary of state, who certainly at least had some say in a major geopolitical move like that by a close ally of ours, with India, was Hillary Clinton, and there was no accountability around her greenlighting a genocidal adaptation policy to climate change, because we as a movement weren’t really spearheading and leading that conversation about what humane and just adaptation to the climate crisis would look like.
- A People’s Response?
Now that the suffering that we knew was happening “over there” has clearly made landfall on the United States, how do you see, on the one hand, the authorities, the people in power reacting, versus how grassroots organizations are reacting on the other hand?
Yeah. You know, as we’re doing this interview, Harvey has just put Houston underwater, and now we’re watching Irma move across Caribbean. It’s pretty much hitting Puerto Rico as we’re speaking, and is on its way to hitting Florida, and we’re seeing these massive impacts that have obviously been exacerbated by the climate crisis. It’s still too early to tell what the response will look like there, but we have two models that are on different ends of the spectrum of what that response could look like.
One, with Hurricane Katrina, where in the response, the corporate power structure really flowed in to fill the void. As everybody got driven out of the city and everything got disrupted, that void was filled by the power of corporations and by neoliberal economic policies that decimated the public sphere, that took over public housing, that took over public schools and pushed them towards charter schools. We saw massive privatization, a further concentration of wealth, in the response to that.
That can be contrasted to some extent with Hurricane Sandy, where the immediate force that flowed into that void immediately after the hurricane hit was Occupy Wall Street, which became Occupy Sandy then, an organized, grassroots, people power-led movement that had just spent a whole lot of time working together, talking together, building relationships, building trust, and building a sense that it was our society, it was ours to shape according to our common values, and it was ours to take responsibility for each other and for our communities.
You saw a very different outcome and a very different response, and obviously there were a lot of other factors involved in those two situations as well in terms of race and class, and all sorts of things that impacted how resources flowed into each of those communities, but that’s a lesson for us as we are responding to these kinds of disasters in Texas and likely in Florida, and our need to step in with people power, to recognize that there will be a disruption, there will be a void and a need to respond, and not just respond to the immediate disaster response, whether that’s in the City of Houston or in the City of Miami, but the rippling impacts that we can expect corporations will be ready to respond to.
The things that we talked about there in Minneapolis at the Democracy Convention, we used Miami as an example of a city that we know is going to go underwater, that is already flooding at high tide and is on porous limestone, so there’s not really any infrastructure that’s going to prevent the water from trickling up from the ground as the sea levels rise. We talked about how at some point a hurricane will move through Miami, and as it becomes increasingly clear that Miami is eventually going to be underwater, there’ll be a point where, from the wake of a disaster, the big corporations and holders of capital there in that city might just all decide to take their insurance checks or their government disaster checks and go somewhere else, and take all of that capital out of the city.
That’s a city that is heavily dependent on a service economy and on tourism, with six million people in the metropolitan area. In that scenario, which may very well happen over the next few weeks, there could be this huge displacement of hundreds of thousands of service-industry workers, and so folks in the labor movement, at some random other location in the country, whether that’s Atlanta or Minneapolis or someplace like that, they might have been working to unionize the service industry sector community in their community for years, and they could have been making great progress. Then all of a sudden, a corporate group, a corporate funded group in their community, says, “Oh, we’ve got a plan to take 30,000 or 50,000 of those displaced workers from Miami,” and they completely undermine the unionization effort in that city.
That’s the kind of thing that we on the left need to be prepared for, to have our own plans of what becomes of folks that are displaced from these disasters, of how we’re going to adapt, how we’re going to deal with people that are catastrophically impacted by these disasters that are unfolding and breaking new records by the week.
- Challenges of Scale & Coordination
The more we think about grassroots responses, including in post-Katrina Louisiana, the more the problem of scale presents itself. It seems like there are two kinds of conversations the left needs to be having. One is obviously the continuous dialogue that we need to be in with all the communities, especially those that are going to be most impacted by climate change, but there seems to be a need for a second conversation if we are to achieve the scale and the efficacy needed. The second conversation involves us, wearing our organizing hats, talking with each other and developing methods to scale up our organizing, to combine and to ally as needed to bring those kinds of resources together. Are there any places that you see where we not only are aware of this kind of a need, but are actually addressing it?
Yeah, I think that question of scale is critical, because as we’re dealing with these dramatic impacts, particularly in major cities like Houston, there does need to be a scale of response, and there’s two ways of looking at that scale. One is the way a multinational corporation thinks about scale, in terms of that corporation controlling everything, controlling their supply lines, that sort of thing, and that’s an easy way for people to know scale. That’s why we saw Walmart being at the center of the immediate response to Harvey there in Houston. People understand like, “Oh, Walmart can meet this need because they’re that big.”
The other way of thinking about scale is from the ecosystem perspective, where a huge network, a huge ecosystem of smaller entities, can in a coordinated way address pieces of that problem. That’s like, rather than like a scale of control or a scale of institution, we’re talking about a scale of relationships or a scale of organization among smaller actors. I think ultimately that’s a much healthier way to approach scale, but it takes more convincing for folks to believe and to trust in that kind of scale, that that kind of scale can actually mobilize in the way that needs to happen.
We did see that with Occupy Sandy. Occupy Sandy was the largest relief effort in the history of the country, that was on the ground and in communities immediately afterwards, and was so well organized that when the Red Cross and the National Guard finally showed up … and the Red Cross came with truckloads of food and medical supplies … they actually called the Occupy Sandy organizers and said, “Well, we don’t exactly know where this stuff needs to go,” and the Occupy Sandy folks said, “Well, we know where it needs to go, because we’ve already got people in every neighborhood.” The Red Cross actually turned over their supplies to Occupy Sandy.
I think that’s an amazing model there, where the scale response was not built on the control of resources that Occupy Sandy had, but it was built on the strength of their relationships within those communities. They were able to be the ones who were the front-line deliverers of the needed resources, and so that was I think a powerful experience, where a lot of folks that were impacted in those communities, their experience of getting help, of getting the supplies that they needed, it was coming through Occupy Sandy. They had that learning opportunity where like, “Oh, this radical, leaderless, grassroots, leftist network is what met my need in my time of greatest desperation,” and that’s a powerful learning experience for folks.
We’ve already seen with the response to Harvey, towards a strongly-coordinated Black Lives Matter response with caravans from around the country, and that’s again where folks have spent years in Black Lives Matter building networks, building relationships, building ways of organizing that allow them to respond in a hurry, and actually mobilize a pretty significant amount of resources from their networks around the country in order to respond. Even though the Occupy Movement wasn’t built to respond to a hurricane, Black Lives Matter wasn’t built to respond to a hurricane, they were built to be able to have strong networks and strong relationships, and those are really key resources in times of disruption.
I really appreciate the answer, and feel like it’s really a big part, if not the most important part, of any kind of response to the hurricane. I would like to try to press the question a bit more, though, and following on both your point about major kinds of disruptions having impacts thousands of miles away from the initial scene of the disaster, as well as on many different social sectors. Labor unions have an inherent interest in thinking about what’s happening, not only outside of the area of their collective bargaining agreement, but to even bigger questions facing humanity as a whole.
I want to think about it in light of the metaphor of the environment that your provided. The environment is shaped by innumerable small actors. At the same time, there are keystone species whose presence or absence would rapidly change the nature of that environment. For example, many communities will see thousands of examples of decentralized, small-scale actions, where people pool together their resources, get together with neighbors and go and get drywall and transport it ,and start replacing the old stuff, etc. So, it’ll be all those kinds of energies unleashed. At the same time, the corporate infrastructure is in place. Where neighbors pool their resources and energy to truck things over and all, they’ll still be going to Walmart and Home Depot to go and get those materials. These corporations are the keystone species in the present setup.
I’m wondering, as we think about the left’s responses, including these incredibly inspiring ones such as the Black Lives Matter response that you mentioned, I wonder if … what kind of organization we need among ourselves, outside of the State, to respond to either pressuring the State and/or developing more efficacious grassroots responses? Do you see a place where dialogues are happening to bring about that kind of coordination?
Unfortunately I don’t, and that’s part of the reason that I’ve tried to inject this conversation into a lot of leftist spaces over the last five years or so, and really since 2010 when I think it became really obvious that we weren’t going to stop climate change, climate change has far too often been treated as an environmental issue.
Even as I think there has been an increase of an intersectional approach on the left in a lot of issues, far too often that has meant just supporting or getting behind other movements as they’re making progress or something or as they’re fighting a certain struggle. That solidarity or that intersectionality has too often looked like the labor movement saying like, “Sure, we’ll join your march, we’ll join the climate movement’s march, or we’ll support this initiative that the climate movement is suggesting,” but they’re not necessarily bringing their own insight and perspective to the table to look at how to deal with those impacts, like hundreds of thousands of displaced workers that might come out of a disaster.
That’s something that the folks who are focusing on climate change, in organizations that specialize on climate change, don’t really have the insight and the perspective to be able to answer those questions. I mean, frankly, people like me are not going to effectively answer that question, of how do we deal with hundreds of thousands of displaced workers in a way that doesn’t undermine the workers’ bargaining power in the communities that they’re coming into. That’s not something that I think I have the experience to answer. That’s not something that leaders of 350 or Greenpeace or the Sierra Club have the expertise to be answering.
I think that’s why we need more parts of the left, whether that’s the labor movement, the racial justice movement, the immigrant rights movement, to really be owning climate change as their own issue, so that they’re looking at how to deal with some of these impacts, bringing their own unique knowledge and focus to the discussion. That’s really a critical point, I think, for being ready in that way, is other parts of the left taking ownership of this issue, but I haven’t really seen that happen, unfortunately.
Even in places like the Democracy Convention where folks like Gar Alperovitz were talking very powerfully about the power of worker co-ops and that sort of thing, that worker co-ops can address a lot of issues that we’re dealing with, he didn’t address how worker co-ops could deal with the displacement of a massive scale of workers and how they could respond with an urgency, which is the situation that we’re increasingly moving into.
I think that’s not yet fully internalized on the left, that we are in and increasingly moving into a radically different world where disruption and climate chaos is the norm, and where collapse is looming in front of us and where we’re going to be facing contraction. I don’t think that’s really been internalized yet, and so we talked about that at the Democracy Convention in our breakout group as well. It seems like even in spaces like that, most folks are still talking about how we can build this plane of democracy that takes off, when our real need is to build the parachute of democracy that can help us land more softly.
I appreciate the power of that metaphor. As you’ve come to these spaces, you’ve been injecting these points into the dialogue, and I know that people like Gar Alperovitz are also thinking about this question, and I know the Liberty Tree Foundation is very interested in having these conversations. But do you see any venues coming up in the next say three-to-six months where the left should be trying to have these conversations? I also appreciate that this is a moving target, given events and the very nature of the subject that we’re talking about.
Well, I mean, I think there’s obviously a lot of opportunities to bring this into discussion, particularly right now where there is so much more activity on the left and so many new folks engaging in activism and in resistance and in civic participation in general, particularly since the election. There’s a lot of opportunities, both from lots of big national conversations and get-togethers that folks are trying to have, where they sort of iron out like a big-picture perspective for the movement, and just countless local gatherings where folks are getting together and figuring out how to resist and build a different model in their own communities. I think all of those are opportunities.
Over the next few months or so, over the next six months, I think we’re going to start to see an increasing conversation about getting ready for the 2018 elections and what are going to be the key issues that are onboard, the key messages that we take into that battle. We have already seen the Democratic Party come out with their completely lackluster messaging strategy that I can’t even remember the name of right now, because it was so forgettable.
I’ll remind you, “A Better Deal.”
“A Better Deal,” there you go. It’s just kind of like incredibly lukewarm and forgettable there, and so progressives are really going to be stepping up in a new way. There’s already been a lot of conversation about how an unprecedented number of folks who were inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign are running for office at local and state and national levels, and so we’re going to see a lot of that new perspective.
Those campaigns and the people running for those offices can either take the traditional leftist checklist approach to issues, where they say, “Oh, I care about this and I care about that and I care about this,” and just sort of rattle those off, or they can take a deeper intersectional approach that looks at how these issues are connected, and how our responses can be not just one-off policies that address this labor issue or that address this immigration issue over here or this climate issue over here, but how our policies can build a resilience to all of these threats, how our policies and solutions can be multifaceted solutions that strengthen the power of all of these movements at the same time.
- Failing Forward
You know, one interesting thought experiment you recently shared concerned thinking about a climate strike, and the kind of discipline it imposed on people at the local level as they try to think through what it would take to carry out a climate strike, and you introduced the notion of “failing forward” as well. Could you say a little bit about that, in light of the coming challenges?
Yeah. This is something that came up here in my community in Rhode Island earlier this year, when a coalition called Resist Hate was looking at how we can engage with this national movement resisting Trump, and there were several calls for one-day strikes around various issues this spring. Some of us were talking about that and realizing that one-day strikes were only a very symbolic thing that could easily be forgotten about the next day, and in order to have actual leverage to create systemic change, a ongoing, indefinite strike would be a much more powerful tool.
We had the conversation of what it would take to actually sustain an ongoing, longer-term strike in our community, and we were just looking for our little area in the smallest state in the country, in Rhode Island, and talking about what it would take, what kind of resources would be necessary, what kind of structures would be necessary for a strike like this to be something that could be widely participated in.
It would almost certainly not be everyone in the state. That would not really be workable or strategic, but a significant portion, and how could it not be just those who already have the economic security to be able to take a month or two or three months off of work and not have to worry about it? How could this really be an inclusive effort to build our power? We looked at the needs of folks in our community, the basic needs, from food, from shelter, water, things like communication and medical needs and that sort of stuff, and what we had to be able to meet those needs, what kind of structures we would have to build to meet some of those needs.
Frankly, it was a pretty daunting conversation. You know, it was overwhelmingly obvious to us that we were really far away from that degree of self-reliance that would be necessary for us to have that kind of political leverage. There were some hints of that, some ideas on the table that had been used at an experimental level like time banks and things like that, that could serve as alternatives for the capitalist system that people would be stepping out of for a time, but they would need to be ramped up in a pretty major way.
We were pretty daunted by that conversation, but one of the things that also came out of it was that a lot of these efforts that it would take to sustain a strike were things like a local food system, things like alternative currency systems, whether that’s a literal currency or whether that’s something like a time bank or a sharing economy, things that make our communities more resilient anyway, things that we know we have to do in order to replace the capitalist system, things that we know we have to do in order to respond to the climate crisis and make our communities less vulnerable.
They were all things that, even if we didn’t get to that goal of being able to pull off a sustained national strike, we would still be in a stronger place as a community, as a movement, as people engaged in that struggle. All of those efforts would pay off, not only with the goal we were working towards, but in and of themselves they would pay off.
I realized that that was a real contrast to the way that we normally operate with leftist NGOs, where we’re very campaign-oriented and we sort of look at our needs and our strategies in isolation, of like what would accomplish getting this policy out there, what would accomplish getting this corporation to change the way they do things, what would accomplish this piece of legislation. We engage in a lot of strategies that don’t get us any other side benefits. We see a lot of leftist organizations that spend a lot of money on lobbying and lawyers and things like that, that don’t actually strengthen the movement, don’t actually strengthen our communities, and that if we fail, we’re left with nothing.
A huge example of that is the effort in 2007 that was called “Design to Win,” where a lot of foundations that fund climate change all got together to come up with this big strategy of how to pass climate legislation when a new president came in in 2009. From 2007 to 2009, those foundations spent $700 million on the strategy, and a lot of the other big organizations in the climate movement [also] spent a lot of money as well on this strategy. [It] led to the Cap-and-Trade bill that ultimately failed, and that fractured the movement and didn’t help us build any real power, didn’t strengthen our communities.
When it fell short, when it fell short of the Senate vote, it had nothing left to show for that $700 million, and that’s an amount of resources that could do incredible things if we put it into really building our power from the bottom up, building our self-reliance as communities in a way that gives us more tools at our disposal, both for pushing our political system and for making us more resilient to the challenges that we know we’re going to be facing. I think that’s the kind of strategy that we need to be moving towards as a movement, the things that even as we fail, even as we fall short, even as the new challenges come up, are things that are going to make us stronger towards that next fight.
Teaser photo credit: By Afifa Afrin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40978033