Part 1: An introduction to a theory of change for the climate justice movement

The following post is the first in a four part series that I am hoping will help translate what I’ve learned throughout my PhD dissertation research into accessible and useful tools that can be shared and applied across the climate justice movement in North America. The tools, both theoretical and practical, are ones I’ve learned about through studying and working with climate justice campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground in the United States and Canada. I have spent the past 4 years studying the power relations upon which the fossil fuel industry depends and the ways in which climate justice campaigners have sought to challenge that power and advance a just transition away from fossil fuels. I’ve been learning a great deal about the strategies, narratives, and tactics that both the industry and its opponents use in this momentous struggle. In these four posts I’m going to talk about how these work, why they work, what unforeseen consequences they might have, and the extent to which they can be taken out of their specific contexts and generalized across the movement.

Most of what I want to share in these posts I have learned from the campaigns and movement leaders I’ve studied and worked with, but I have also drawn upon a wealth of academic and non-academic writing on the fossil fuel industry and social movement theory as well. My contribution, therefore, will be to synthesize, contextualize, analyse, and share this academic and movement knowledge across our campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground. For the most part I will do my best to write without resorting to academic jargon, but where I feel I must do so for the sake of precision I will always define these terms as clearly as I can. If there is anywhere you as the reader find you need further clarification, or feel something I’ve said has been misrepresented, please do get in touch as this will help me de-institutionalize and decolonize my writing, a process I’m still only in the early stages of.

In part one of this four part series, I have outlined the theoretical approach I use to study the power of the fossil fuel industry and resistance to it. I present two theoretical contributions that I think might help focus our conversation about social movement strategy and power relations in the climate justice movement; these are Petro-hegemony and the Carbon Rebellion. While likely the most jargon-heavy of these four write ups, I think it is important that we begin with this theoretical framework and the theories of change it shines light upon because in parts two, three, and four, I will be illustrating how this theorizing of strategy and tactics works in practice. Part two in this series will look at what we might learn from campaigners in Richmond, California who successfully challenged and broke Chevron’s influence on Richmond city council, replacing it with a slate of progressive activist-candidates, and initiating the early stages of a just transition. Part three explores what we might learn from the First Nations-led, for now successful, coalition of campaigns to stop the expansion of Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline in British Columbia. The fourth and final part, places this theoretical framework in the context of the Standing Rock Sioux’s Water Protectors and their fight for Indigenous sovereignty against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Hegemony: Consent, Coercion, and Compliance

Gramsci stars on the front cover of Cosmarxpolitan

Now for some jargon. Perhaps the most politically useful concept I’ve come across in all my time at university is Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. From the construction of broad-based alliances and solidarity, to the ways that power exists within the cultural institutions that shape what we take for granted as common sense, to what happens when people challenge that common sense, hegemony helps us think through so many crucial questions that social movements raise about the nature of power and social struggle.

Hegemony, as Gramsci understood it, combines two different relations of power: coercion, using the threat of – or actual use of – physical force to maintain one’s rule, and consent, how those who rule shape cultural norms, institutions, the stories we tell about how the world works, and even our most intimate conversations, so that we accept their rule and take it for granted. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like if we understood the fossil fuel industry’s power in terms of hegemony, and moreover, what it means to understand our own movement as a counter hegemonic movement. In these essays I will show that the fossil fuel industry is a hegemonic entity and, as campaigns grow to keep fossil fuels in the ground, what happens when its hegemony is challenged.

Academics and activists alike have often interpreted hegemony solely in terms of how relations of consent are established and how they might be challenged. For those social movements that have been inspired by social change theory derived from Gramsci, this has meant that very often our campaigns focus most heavily on intervening in dominant cultural assumptions and institutions, and changing the stories or discourses that maintain the relations of consent upon which rulers or ruling ideas depend. Discourse, as I use the term here, refers to the way people talk about things, discourses are stories or narratives we use to attach meaning to the world, and they have immense, often unseen, cultural power. In their activist handbook, Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning call the struggle over which discourses we use to attach meaning to, and make sense of, the world “fighting the battle of the story.” Fighting the battle of the story is an absolutely crucial component of social change strategy. But, and this is where the conflation of hegemony and consent becomes dangerous, it is not the only component of social change strategy.

The ideas or people who rule rely upon the consent of the people over whom they rule, but this does not mean they cannot use violence or coercion when that consent is challenged or lost. As Jonathan Smucker writes “When an underdog challenger wins a contest over meanings… the challenged hegemon does not throw his arms up and walk away… He musters whatever infrastructure he can to squash the threat to his power.” It is crucial that we understand this when confronting the fossil fuel industry. Our campaigns must challenge the stories and cultural discourses the industry depends upon but we must also be ready with strategies to reign in its ability to use coercion to maintain its hegemonic status. Moreover, we must recognize that our power consists not only in winning the battle of the story and challenging consent to the industry, or in forging a mass movement drawn together around consent to our ideas, but in being prepared to institutionalize and defend our cultural victories through policy, courts, legislation, direct action, blockades, and so on.

When we understand hegemony as encompassing both relations of consent and coercion, and that those relations work in coordination, we can start to build a theory of how the fossil fuel industry’s power works. However, before we do so, it is important to note that Gramsci’s writings also gives us the tools with which to begin theorizing a third relation of power encompassed within the concept of hegemony, which I call compliance. Compliance is like a middle ground between consent and coercion, it blurs the line between them and ultimately rests upon a dynamic of dependency on those who rule. Communities may be perfectly aware of the damage a coalmine or refinery is doing to their health and to the climate, and they may well resent it, but they may also depend upon coal mining and refinery work not only for employment but to maintain a whole way of life. Scholar-activists Shannon Bell and John Gaventa have documented this dynamic quite compellingly in Appalachian coal country. They show that, for a very long time, the local rule of coal companies didn’t necessarily have the consent of the people who lived there, but those companies manufactured economic conditions in which communities came to depend on the coal companies for everything from jobs, to venues for social gatherings, to grocery stores. Where coercion is primarily associated with political governance, and consent with culture, compliance is fundamentally an economic power relation. In this situation, people are not violently forced into accepting the industry’s rule nor do they consent to it, but they do (sometimes begrudgingly) depend upon it, often preventing them from challenging it.


Part of a mural in Richmond CA in the Water Writes series supported by the Estria Foundation

So now we have a concept of hegemony that encompasses the power relations of consent through cultural conditioning, coercion through political governance, and compliance through economic dependency. That means that when we talk about the fossil fuel industry in terms of hegemony, we are talking about its ability to intervene in and shape these three relations of power. When I use the term Petro-hegemony I mean the strategies, narratives, and tactics the fossil fuel industry depends upon to influence relations of consent, coercion, and compliance. Too often, academics and theorists of social change examine maybe one or two of these power relations in isolation, my argument is that we must look at how these three power relations exist together and should be intervened in and challenged simultaneously. As such, I understand Petro-hegemony as including three distinct but interrelated components: Petro-culture, Petro-capitalism, and the Petro-state. The industry advances coercive strategies through the Petro-state, gains consent through Petro-culture, and creates situations of compliance through Petro-capitalism. I will provide concrete examples of the exact mechanics by which the industry is able to maintain consent, deploy coercion, and structure compliance through Petro-hegemony in the following three write ups of this series, where I will situate this theoretical approach in context-specific cases.

For now, though, I think it helps to think of Petro-capitalism, Petro-culture, and the Petro-state as the three support structures upon which the fossil fuel industry depends. Our campaigns must knock out each of its support structures if we are to defeat its influence, advance a just transition, and keep fossil fuels in the ground. It is important that we engage in fights that challenge each one of these power relations, because taking on Petro-culture alone means that many people may still remain dependent on the industry and that the industry may still deploy violence or coercive means to crush our campaigns. Our cultural victories, and shifting the narrative, don’t mean much (at least in the short term, which, let’s face it, with climate change is all we have) if our movement is intimidated into submission or is unable to institutionalize our wins. Meanwhile, taking on the Petro-state by, for example, winning a court case against the industry, may mean we win certain legal or policy victories or curtail the industry’s ability coerce us, but if the industry maintains the consent of most people through Petro-culture, these victories will likely be unpopular and short-lived. Fossil fuels are embedded in our cultural attitudes and shape our value systems so only taking on Petro-capitalism leaves the relations of consent and coercion intact, allowing the industry to deploy a whole range of consent-based and/or coercive tactics to regain compliance. Finally, although certainly complicating matters, it should also be made clear that while its corresponding relation of power largely defines the tactics emerging out of each of these categories, these categories also influence each other. As such, Petro-culture can influence relations of coercion and compliance, just as the Petro-state might influence relations of consent and compliance, just as Petro-capitalism could inform relations of consent and coercion. Exactly how this happens will become clearer in the following articles in this series.

Carbon Rebellion

Another scene from Richmond’s Water Writes mural

So, if the fossil fuel industry has Petro-hegemony, what do climate justice activists and campaigners have? We have something I call the “Carbon Rebellion.” The Carbon Rebellion is the counter hegemonic response to Petro-hegemony. In the same way that the fossil fuel industry depends on Petro-hegemony to organize strategies that shape relations of consent, compliance, and coercion through Petro-culture, Petro-capitalism, and the Petro-state, so too can the climate justice movement think of organizing its counter hegemonic strategies through the Carbon Rebellion. Countering hegemony means mass movement building, creating a large and diverse social movement that coheres around a different story. This requires us to fight the battle of the story, to change the narrative, so that dominant cultural assumptions no longer take fossil fuel power for granted and, instead, are inspired by a vision of climate justice which advances Indigenous sovereignty and decolonization, racial justice, energy democracy, economic justice, migrants rights, climate reparations, and so on.

If it is to be counter hegemonic, our movement must be populist, inclusive, and intersectional. This requires us to articulate what Smucker calls “the inclusive We” in politics. As such we need strategies to build what scholar-activist, John Foran, calls a Political Culture of Opposition and Creation (PCOC). Different movements call it different things, but this PCOC orients our movement’s vision, draws people into taking action, and inserts narratives into public discourse that challenge the legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry. Wresting consent away from the industry and forging it instead around our alternative narratives, we use our PCOC to intervene in dominant culture and gain advantages on the same relation of power that Petro-culture seeks to influence. We are already seeing effective narratives growing PCOCs amongst communities fighting fossil fuel infrastructure and some of these appear in my next 3 write-ups. An expansive and inspiring PCOC is the first component of the Carbon Rebellion.

The second component of the Carbon Rebellion is what I call a Regime of Resilience. Strategies developed through the Regime of Resilience are oriented towards one of three objectives: reigning in the coercive capacities of fossil fuel companies, constructing and prefiguring deep democracy and new democratic institutions (According to John Holloway, prefigurative politics is “the idea that the struggle for a different society must create that society through its forms of struggle”), or gaining advantages in governing institutions like city councils, commissions, regulatory agencies, boards, Congress, and so on. From election organizing, to policy and legislation, to lawsuits, to physically obstructing state repression, to practicing deep democracy in our own movement decision-making, the tactics involved here are necessarily varied and wide ranging. A Regime of Resilience is our movement’s response to the Petro-state. We do not seek to replicate the relations of coercion that the industry depends upon but we do need to become more comfortable with coercive strategies (which, by the way, do include lawsuits, policy change, and direct action) and ensuring that where those strategies are deployed, that the practice of direct democracy holds us accountable for them.

The third component of the Carbon Rebellion is the Just Transition Framework. The strategies developed through the Just Transition Framework are intended to break the dynamic of dependency so many of us, including fossil fuel workers and their families, have upon the fossil fuel industry, and in so doing fundamentally change the relation of compliance into one of co-reliance. Strategies developed through the Just Transition Framework are focused on undermining the dependency communities may have upon fossil fuel extraction and replacing that with reliance on one another. Strategies might include community-controlled energy, renewable energy cooperatives, free retraining and retooling programs, or decommissioning fossil fuel infrastructure. But strategies developed to disrupt compliance are also intended to break the link between the fossil fuel industry and the thing it depends upon most: money. Targeting banks and financial institutions that fund the fossil fuel industry on the one hand, while creating risk and uncertainty around new fossil fuel projects on the other, should be developed through the Just Transition Framework. Meanwhile campaigning to have the reinvestment of that capital directed towards frontline, community-led, transition programs is a small but fundamental component of reparations. Ultimately, the just transition is both a goal and a strategic orientation through which our dependency on fossil fuels is undone, and thus the relation of compliance along with it.

Terrains of Struggle and Points of Intervention

When we position Petro-Hegemony and the Carbon Rebellion against one another, we can see how each component in one has a corresponding component in the other. In other words, Petro-hegemony’s Petro-culture corresponds to the Carbon Rebellion’s PCOC, Petro-state corresponds to the Regime of Resilience, and Petro-capitalism corresponds to the Just Transition Framework. Between each exists a terrain of struggle primarily, though not exclusively, defined by one of the three relations of power outlined above. Relations of coercion primarily define the terrain between the Petro-state and the Regime of Resilience, the relation of consent defines the terrain between Petro-culture and our PCOC, and the relation of compliance defines the terrain existing between Petro-capitalism and the Just Transition Framework.

Now, on each terrain of struggle there exist many different points of intervention. It is at these points of intervention that we see the actual process of struggle play out. To take a real life example, the British Museum accepting sponsorship from BP and in return posting BP’s logo all over its exhibitions could be a point of intervention on the terrain of consent. The industry sponsors exhibitions to gain public acceptance and ultimately consent, and if we want to challenge its cultural acceptance, we can run a campaign calling on the British Museum to drop BP’s sponsorship. We can map out points of intervention across all these terrains of struggle and I will do exactly this in the following posts in this series. In doing so we can visualize all the different points of intervention in play in a particular fight against the fossil fuel industry, and innovate specific tactics to bring new points of intervention into play. Different points of intervention may be more or less significant, depending on the local context but by mapping them out we can make strategic decisions about which are worth fighting over. Finally, understanding the relation of power that primarily defines a particular terrain of struggle, allows us to tailor specific tactics, strategies or narratives to make winning in the corresponding point of intervention more likely.

Petro-Hegemony and the Carbon Rebellion: Why It Matters

Understanding the relationship between Petro-hegemony and the Carbon Rebellion can provide us with the building blocks we need to construct a holistic yet adaptable theory of change that climate justice movement campaigns might use to keep fossil fuels in the ground in the US and Canada. First defining Petro-hegemony and the Carbon Rebellion, and then positioning them one against the other, highlights three important contributions to a theory of change. First of all, it provides us with a model of power and conflict, which in turn defines different terrains of struggle and allows us to think about specific points of intervention. Secondly, as we come to terms with characteristics of these terrains of struggle, we are able to innovate and experiment with new narratives, tactics, and strategies designed specifically for points of intervention on that terrain. Thirdly, and most importantly, the theoretical approach brings our key objectives into focus as we come to see how each relation of power operates and how they can be challenged, undone, and rebuilt.

To summarize, then, recognizing that the fight with the fossil fuel industry is one over hegemony clarifies the industry’s objectives and helps us outline its strategies. Recognizing that hegemony has not one but three characteristics allows us to organize strategies that correspond to the specific relation of power that defines a terrain of struggle, and to make informed strategic decisions about how best to engage with a specific point of intervention. And finally, recognizing that we, as a counter hegemonic movement, must be committed to intervening on all three of these relations of power focuses our attention on constructing narratives that will help us build the largest, most diverse and most resilient PCOC possible, on devising strategies that will ensure we are ready to respond to the violent and coercive measures the industry will undoubtedly deploy when we challenge its consent, and on innovating new economic models and relationships to each other that will transform extractive relations of compliance into regenerative relations of co-reliance.

What I’ve described above is about as abstract as I’ll ever get in these posts. The next instalments will contextualize this theoretical approach in concrete examples of points of intervention and terrains of struggle across the climate justice movement in North America. In each case we’ll see what may be learned from the strategies, narratives, and tactics that the movement and the industry have organized through Petro-hegemony and the Carbon Rebellion. I hope you’ll stick with me as we explore the campaigns that have inspired hundreds of thousands of people around the globe to believe that, in the words of Arundhati Roy, “another world is not only possible, she is on her way.”

Diagram model of Petro-Hegemony and the Carbon Rebellion

Further Reading:

  • Antonio Gramsci. The Prison Notebooks. 1971.
  • Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning. Re:Imagining Change: how to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world. 2010/2017.
  • Shannon E. Bell. Fighting King Coal: Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia. 2016.
  • Jonathan Smucker. Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. 2017.
  • John Gaventa. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. 1980.
  • John Holloway. Crack Capitalism. 2011.
  • John Foran. Reimagining Radical Climate Justice. 2016.
  • Our Power. Just Transition. 2018.

I want to note here that with the exception of Shannon Bell and Doyle Canning, all of the theorists I referred to in this post were white male scholars or activists, four of whom are called John or Jonathan, and I was using them to think about a movement that is led by women and comprised primarily of low income communities and communities of color. This irony is not lost on me and in the posts that follow I will draw primarily upon the vast reserves of movement knowledge that exist within the communities that lead this movement.