This is part five of a five-part essay that highlights lessons from the coronavirus pandemic which could advance the fight for a Green New Deal. Part one (published on Resilience.org here) argues that money is not scarce. Part two argues that control of government policy by wealthy elites tends to produce unnecessary suffering and inadequate responses to major crises. Part three argues that plutocracy is incompatible with serious climate action. Part four explores how the public can easily draw very different conclusions and argues that the climate movement must undertake mass education to ensure these lessons are learned. Part five outlines a broad curriculum containing these lessons and many more.
A revised excerpt of this essay was published by Boston Review.
Movement-Run Education Systems
The poor policy response to the pandemic reflects the lack of faithful representatives of public interests in government. Coronavirus relief bills provide some critical support for households but it is temporary and deeply insufficient, while the majority of funding is aimed at protecting corporate investors. Millions lose their jobs and their health insurance. Food banks are overwhelmed with requests. Then, before the virus is contained, people are forced back to work. Countless lives are directly imperiled by the government’s inadequate handling of this emergency.
The callous disregard of public well-being that defined this response must change if we are to address the climate crisis at this late stage. The climate movement must become powerful enough to seat a majority of public champions in government and open space for a rapid energy transition to occur. Formal efforts to instill the political lessons illustrated by the pandemic, as well as many others, are a crucial part of that process.
An informed citizenry is the foundation of the movement’s power, and building it starts with activists themselves. It’s important to establish robust internal discussion groups and formal education systems to ensure that each participant develops habits of intellectual activity and deepens their understanding of how society works. Through this process, the movement becomes more capable of meeting challenges both expected and unforeseen, and each participant becomes an educator capable of teaching the right lessons to others.
During quarantine, the Sunrise Movement began offering virtual teach-ins where activists could learn about the Green New Deal concept and various movement-building skills. This could be a step towards a much broader vision. We could develop a comprehensive curriculum that conveys the deep knowledge needed for self-governance in this time of converging existential crises. We need to understand the major forces that shape our society, from ecological systems and energy sources to economic institutions, power structures, and culture.
Developing ecological and energy literacy allows us to see the many existential crises facing humanity, which are all rooted in overwhelming human demands on our finite planet and require us to adjust our lifestyles. These parts of the curriculum would examine the details of a climate mobilization and explore how an all-renewable world may be different than the fossil-fueled one to which we’re accustomed.
Economic literacy tears down the myth that the economy is a “natural” entity arising from immutable economic laws only intelligible to business leaders and economists. Such myths encourage everyday people to accept a subordinate role rather than fight for their rightful place as equal participants in shaping a new, sustainable and democratic economy. The reality is that within the limits of ecology and energy, the economy is what we make it.
It is also crucial to develop a detailed understanding of the power structures that determine how decisions are made in our society and the forces working against change. Studying these systems allows us to anticipate the forms of elite opposition that a full-scale Green New Deal will face and plan in advance to overcome them.
Finally, we should explore the immense role of culture in making the transition possible. Our understanding of modern life and our expectations about the future have been shaped by corporate propaganda and the energy surplus afforded by fossil fuels. We’ll need to break free from a conservative, consumerist culture that blocks the path to a sustainable society and cultivate an ecological and democratic culture in its place.
After activists establish a broad curriculum for internal use, we must bring it to the public to open space for a new society to emerge. This effort will help to build a durable political base for serious climate action: a constituency unencumbered by economic myths and conservative cultural norms, prepared for the challenges posed by the energy transition, and focused on electing a government full of authentic movement representatives—conditions under which a Green New Deal can be implemented.
The major question is how to build the means of informing the public at scale. Attempting to influence curricula at the K-12 school and higher education levels is important, and we should continue pursuing coverage in mainstream media outlets because of their massive audience. But there may be significant limits to these strategies, so activists must also develop independent means of communicating with the public. We need movement-run education and media systems that offer regular programming to communities across the country. Between on-the-ground efforts and online offerings, activists should aim to eventually reach millions of people each week. Independent outlets like Free Speech TV or Pacifica Radio could perhaps be early venues for these movement programs, but activists should also hold recurrent teach-ins in communities where they live. Those who aren’t already tuned into independent media, which is the majority, would never otherwise know about these opportunities. Non-activists must be offered programming where they are—it’s our responsibility to find them and bring them in.
The course on power structures would include instruction in media literacy. It would critically analyze how media outlets’ funding sources and other institutional factors shape their content, explore the information listeners are likely to hear or not hear, and introduce participants to the independent media ecosystem. Connecting the public to the many activist-oriented outlets that already work to teach people about the plutocratic and anti-ecological nature of our society could, on its own, significantly shift information streams around the country.
It is impossible to imagine creating a new society without fundamentally changing the picture of reality that the public regularly receives. In the past, climate activists viewed the organization of demonstrative actions like sit-ins and marches as their main work, and over the past few years organizing around elections has gained increasing focus. Now, direct education must also grow into a large, permanent movement activity. We have yet to see what is possible when a public deeply knowledgeable about its own interests organizes itself to elect a government authentically committed to those interests.
In order to create a society capable of a serious response to the existential threat of climate breakdown, we must learn certain lessons. Money is not scarce; we can afford to meet everyone’s basic needs. The government’s inadequate response to major crises is a natural result of elites’ control over it. Without truly democratic governance, made possible only by the active participation of an informed citizenry, there will be no rapid reduction in fossil fuel use. The education of large numbers of people is therefore a matter of life or death.
Activists cannot let the lessons highlighted by the coronavirus crisis disappear in the fog of mainstream media’s induced amnesia. If movements don’t develop the means to communicate them to millions of people, then we cannot expect a democratic awakening in the wake of this crisis. The body politic was sick long before the virus arrived, already at risk of collapse under the weight of its elite hierarchies. When its fever breaks, we must learn the right lessons about how to overcome the underlying issues that threaten its very existence.