The uprisings in the Middle East and the growing austerity-induced unrest among workers in the US and Europe have provided new hope for environmental movement leaders who for years have struggled to mobilize the public to confront the looming catastrophes of growth-capitalism.
A good example is climate leader and 350.org founder, Bill McKibben. In February, McKibben authored a short blog post celebrating Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down. He wrote of the revolution as a teachable moment for the climate movement, suggesting that if “a real people's movement” could bring down an apparently immovable tyrant like Mubarak a similar movement could bring down the fossil fuel giants.
McKibben is right. As the overlords of the current world order, fossil fuel companies do have a lot to fear from a powerful popular uprising. However, the Egyptian case also shows us that when such an uprising comes, it won't be fundamentally about the climate. The revolution against the fossil-fuel barons won't be a clean energy revolution. It will simply be a revolution.
This is the first major lesson for environmental movement organizers: when people rise up they rise up because of unbearable socio-economic circumstances — oppressive, corrupt regimes, austerity measures, and aggressive assaults upon their economic and civil rights. They never have and very likely never will rise up en masse over bad environmental policies.
Still, this image of a popular climate uprising is something that a lot of us in the movement envision as an inevitability. Indeed, my boss, Chesapeake Climate Action Network director Mike Tidwell, recently wrote an article for the Washington Post describing steps he's taking to prepare for the unrest brought on by coming weather-related climate disasters. While he's still hopeful that we can find climate policy solutions, as a pragmatist he's already preparing for the worst: taking target practice, replacing locks on his home, buying back-up generators and learning to grow his own food.
Like Tidwell, I'm personally convinced that climate-related unrest, and hardships are indeed waiting for us not too far down the road and I've also started preparing. But when the unrest comes, in the public mind it won't be seen as a “climate rising.” It will simply be seen as civil unrest. And like most historical examples of civil unrest, its focus won't be on climate problems, but on economic and political problems: the failure of the economy and the government to provide fundamental services, like food, water and energy.
In other words, when people start rioting about climate-induced food shortages – the first thing on their mind won't be “I demand the government do something about climate change,” but, “I demand the government figure out a way to provide us with food security again.” Of course, policies to facilitate a rapid switch away from fossil fuels and reduce other climate-change drivers will be part of the government response, but they'll hardly be the main focus. When people are starving they won't be placated by legislation to cap or tax carbon emissions. Such measures might even take a back seat to more immediate solutions.
In short, when things fall apart, what the public will demand first and foremost are answers from leaders and experts about how to create an economy that will solve the problems that the old one brought on.
If left-wing political leaders don't have clear answers for how to build a new economy that provides for human needs, people will do what they've always done: Put their faith in right-wing demagogues — men who will prey on public fears and misery, and channel them into persecution of the Other — i.e. of some imagined internal or external scapegoat. Without a credible systemic alternative we'll revert to fascism, tribalism and violence.
And so for those of us who have dedicated our lives to creating a more humane, livable world, the greatest, most pressing challenge of our time is not to stop climate change, or deforestation, or bio-diversity loss, or even to stop poverty, or war, or disease. The current global order has already put many of those individual problems beyond the reform efforts we've been diligently pushing for so long. A second lesson from Egypt is that you can't organize the kind of anger and widespread discontent that creates revolutions. Life has to become intolerable and push things to breaking point for that to happen.
Meanwhile, all you can really do is make incremental gains and create the organizational power and credibility necessary to emerge as leaders once the unrest begins. Clean-energy advocacy is a key part of that power building, but it's not enough.
Promoting a livable and humane world requires a much broader program focused on the economy. It requires recognizing and addressing the true overarching challenge of our time: providing a buffer against global fascism by helping the pubic understand how a new more humane economy beyond growth-capitalism could work. We have to position ideas like the steady-state economy as the answers that the public will turn to when the current world order collapses. Fortunately, the recent economic crisis has provided an opening, creating fissures in the public dogma of growth capitalism into which we can inject new economic memes.
Getting those memes out there and getting them to gain popular currency certainly won't be an easy goal to achieve. But there are many plausible, as yet untried strategies to pursue it, and we might even take a few pointers from the climate movement. In 2008 climate organizers with the group Focus the Nation helped spread national awareness of the crisis by organizing a series of widely-attended teach-ins at universities and institutions across the country. We need a similar effort to focus the nation on alternatives to growth capital — alternatives like the steady-state economy. If done right such an effort might inform and inspire new wave of economics students to challenge the dogma of growth capital and loosen its grip on their schools' curricula.
However we approach this issue one thing is for certain: we don't have a second to lose. The problems of peak oil, climate change and crisis-capitalism aren't getting any better. Before we reach the precipice we've got a lot of work to do if we want the revolution to go our way.
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.