Back in the long-ago, hard-to-recall days before Trump became president, environmental (as well as peace and human rights) nonprofit organizations engaged in a routine, ritualized two-part dance of raising money from contributors, and then trying to convince policy makers to do something to save the world — or at least reduce the scale of harms being done. What was actually accomplished was never enough to actually turn society in the direction of sustainability, but the effort was in some respects its own reward: Activists felt useful, and in some cases, fundraising produced enough to pay salaries. And there were occasional victories to celebrate.
Now the United States is led by an authoritarian who is steadily undermining our democratic norms and institutions, and a Congress that is either bought and paid for by moneyed interests, or is too scared to challenge them meaningfully. It’s clear that no amount of cajoling, wheedling, imploring, threatening or explaining will convince Congress or the executive branch of the federal government to do anything whatsoever to address the panoply of do-or-die problems confronting us. Why even bother asking them?
Recall that it was the failure of elites to address real underlying problems that contributed to the advent of Trump in the first place. Now, of course, at least from environmentalists’ perspective, Trump is making everything much, much worse: It’s probably fair to say that the Trump administration has never met an environmental regulation it didn’t want to kill.
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What should environmentalists do under these changed circumstances? What strategies should environmental organizations pursue?
In order to get some helpful perspective, I recently corresponded with activist Tim DeChristopher, co-founder of Climate Disobedience Center. I value DeChristopher’s perspective for two important reasons: He has a good understanding of the range of overshoot issues humanity currently faces, and he has the courage of his convictions (he spent nearly two years in federal prison for a creative act of civil disobedience recounted in the documentary film Bidder 70).
DeChristopher emphasizes that simply getting rid of Trump as first priority will not solve the environmental crisis. If the system wasn’t sufficiently self-correcting before, and if the status quo is irreparably broken, then it’s clear that some other change in strategy is needed.
He also calls for more local and experimental activism and civil disobedience, warning that large-scale protests could simply become indiscernible components of the noise being generated by the implosion of the US political system.
My own tendency is to look at the big picture. In that regard, my gut and intellect both tell me that the Trump interval is best understood as a stage in societal collapse. Each stage of that process will no doubt follow its own internal logic. As the stages progress, larger scales of societal organization (international institutions, then nation states) will tend to fail first. Therefore the usefulness of national and global strategies for resistance and repair will tend to gradually diminish.
If we want to minimize human suffering and protect ecosystems, then working locally to build community resilience is probably the best strategy available. The reasons are plentiful and the rationale only grows stronger as our context evolves.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with DeChristopher, which starts with his take on the actions of the big mainstream environmental organizations in the context of the new Trump administration.
Tim DeChristopher: I really don’t think that most mainstream climate environmental organizations are operating with any kind of intentional strategy in which they think that what they are doing will lead to positive change. When groups are mobilizing their members to “send a message” or “make their voices heard” to [US Secretary of the Interior Ryan] Zinke, [Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott] Pruitt or Trump, I doubt any staffers in those groups actually think that what they are doing has any potential of working. I think they are hemmed-in by the norms of social movement organizing. Those norms demand relentless optimism and positivity, so there is very little room for open reflection on our mistakes, changing direction or acknowledging that certain goals are no longer possible. Those norms also define leadership around knowing what to do and giving people tangible and immediate things to do.
I think most organizations and leaders would feel extremely nervous about saying to their community, “I don’t know what needs to be done in this unprecedented situation.” There is a mainstream assumption that they would no longer be justified in their leadership position if they expressed that uncertainty. But I think one of our most critical needs for a future of climate chaos is to develop a model of uncertain leadership. This is a kind of leadership that can hold space for sitting with uncertainty and empower a broader community of people to actively think and work in that space of vulnerability. Such leadership is embodied not in one’s ability to control a situation, but in one’s courage to engage with and relate to the situation.
Historically, nonviolent protest and civil disobedience have developed as successful strategies for social change mostly within the context of liberal democracies. For example, there has been some discussion about whether [Mahatma] Gandhi’s efforts would have been as successful if Britain had not had a free press and other democratic institutions. Without a free press, regimes can simply imprison and kill protesters with minimal public awareness of either the protest or its repression. How do you think protest might evolve if the US continues its trajectory toward authoritarianism?
I think that Trump has certainly changed the dynamics of civil disobedience at the federal level. It’s worth noting that Erica Chenoweth’s research has shown that nonviolent civil resistance is often more effective under authoritarian regimes, but I think Trump represents a very rare kind of power. Part of the efficacy of civil disobedience is often that it pulls back the facade of decency or democracy to reveal power that is actually rooted in violence. The police violence at Standing Rock was an embarrassment to Obama because he had hinged his authority on lofty ideals, but in fact his real power was the state’s monopoly on violence. Even Bush Jr. ran on a platform of being a “compassionate conservative.” It was a lie, but he needed that lie. Trump, however, never tried to project a facade of compassion or even decency. His power is based on ruthlessness and the breaking of taboos. If he is put into a position in which he has to violently repress nonviolent dissent, it may actually strengthen his power rather than undermine it.
In terms of media, I think our trajectory is not one of outright suppression of a free press to the point of avoiding public awareness, but rather a bifurcation of the press and social media to the point that no one has to accept anything they don’t want to believe. This is a serious challenge not only for civil disobedience, but for all social change efforts regardless of strategy. It is further exacerbated by new video manipulation technologies. It is very hard to see how we avoid either nihilism or civil war.
So, what to do?
My current thinking is that our best bet to overcome these challenges is making protest far more diffuse and widespread. With the lack of a central narrative or even a consensus reality, big iconic protests with famous people will likely continue to become less effective. But we all have a small circle of people whom we can influence in ways that are not dependent on media. Because our current culture has such justifiable skepticism of manipulation, one’s own willingness to sacrifice is more critical than ever for using our influence effectively, so I think civil disobedience will continue to play an important role for that. So perhaps this is to say that protest needs to follow the path that needs to be followed for so many other changes we need to make: more localized, more diverse, more people involved, more experimentation. No goddamn mono-crop social movements!
How is your own organization, the Climate Disobedience Center, dealing with these issues and challenges? What concrete actions are you taking that differ from the strategies of the “Big Green” groups?
The Climate Disobedience Center began as a resource and support center for folks doing civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry. At the time, a certain brand of safe and limited civil disobedience was being increasingly embraced by the mainstream of the climate movement. We felt that there was an opportunity to work with those folks who were engaging in direct action and help them manifest the full potential of vulnerable and transformative civil disobedience. We primarily ended up filling the particular void in the movement around supporting folks after the point of arrest as they engage with the court system.
Over time, we realized that rather than providing a plug-in service that could easily interface with a mainstream model, we were approaching this work with a fundamentally different paradigm that demanded a holistic structure. So we refocused our efforts on building small praxis groups of holistic support, like a cross between an affinity group and a small group ministry. These are groups of folks who support one another to live with integrity in a time of climate crisis. One piece of that is the moral responsibility to act to mitigate whatever harms can still be avoided, but we believe that work cannot be detached from the need to build resilient communities as well as grieve for that which is already being lost. As these are largely unprecedented challenges, we are trying to create the practices of mutual support that allow for as much experimentation and creativity as possible.