State of the Climate Movement: Can fasting and asceticism save the world?
Despite all the doubts surrounding Copenhagen’s political outcomes, global climate activists can take heart in the fact that the conference may result in the next best thing to a binding climate treaty: a smarter, more galvanized, and re-energized global grassroots climate movement.
More than a mere geographical convergence point for our movement, Copenhagen has already proved itself an important philosophical and sociological convergence point as well, inspiring climate activists around the globe to come together like never before behind powerful new ideas and campaigns. And I’m not just talking about 350.
Here’s a look at few of the more notable global grassroots efforts to emerge around COP 15 and a quick analysis of what they mean for the current state and future of the climate movement:
The Fast Track to Climate Action
The idea of making sacrifices for the climate has certainly never been a mainstay of the mainstream climate movement. Cowed by conservative framing and fearful of alienating comfort-loving Americans, mainstream climate campaigners have done a pretty impeccable job of keeping the word out of their messaging and off their lips. Nevertheless, in recent months, many segments of the true grassroots climate movement have found their liberal backbones and started latching on to the idea of sacrifice as a mobilizing tool, and the results have been pretty refreshing and inspiring.
On the very front lines of this emerging sacrificial vanguard are the participants of the Climate Justice Fast. The brain child of Australian students, the Climate Justice Fast kicked off on Nov. 6, and has since become an international phenomenon, involving around 100 fasters in 23 countries. Tracing their lineage to the great hunger strikers of the past including Gandhi and Terence MacSwiney, Climate Justice fasters have described their campaign as a “deeply moral form of political protest, demonstrating through our personal sacrifice that we are willing to make deep personal change.”
And the participants of the climate justice fast aren’t going to be contented to let their sacrifices transpire in private, unseen by politicians and government negotiators who need to hear their message. Like their famous forbearers, the fasters are using their fasting for a very pointedly strategic political purpose. The fast will continue through the end of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen and several of the strikers will actually be present at the conference to act, in faster Ted Glick’s words “as visible evidence of what the climate crisis is all about,” – that it’s a very real and urgent matter of life and death for many in our global community.
Indeed built into the ethos of the Climate Justice Fast is an understanding that the urgency of the climate crisis requires a fresher, more radical form of activism than the mainstream climate movement has served up so far. According to the CJF website “Traditional methods of protest, such as marches, petitions, and direct actions, all lack the power to communicate the importance of the climate issue.” In other words such soft core tactics are all too easily ignored by politicians, and don’t have the emotional energy needed to inspire new activists and build a powerful movement around. Something much more visceral is needed to really open eyes and move hearts to action. Fasting is one such tactic.
Unplugged but fully charged in Massachusetts
Another tactic with a similar sacrificial theme has recently burst on to the grassroots climate scene in Massachusetts via the student led Mass Leadership Campaign. While the Climate Justice Fasters have been depriving themselves of food as a way of demonstrating their solidarity with future generations and the global poor, the participants of the Mass Leadership Campaign have been working towards the same end by depriving themselves of the trappings of modern domesticity. Launched the day after the 350 International Day of Climate Action the campaign has seen hundreds of mostly student climate activists forgo the electricity, heat and other creature comforts of their dorms and homes to live outdoors in tents on their campuses and the Boston common for nights and in some cases even weeks. In addition to drawing attention to the reality of climate refugees who will have no choice but to leave their homes and live without basic necessities, the Leadership Campaign has the very locally focused political goal of persuading the Massachusetts legislature to pass a law that would put the state on track to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. Faced with the Hobson’s choice of living a lifestyle fueled by dirty energy, or unplugging from the grid completely, the Mass leaders have chosen the latter, and have vowed to continue to do so until the their political leaders accede to their demands.
Adding to the Gandhian overtones of their campaign, the Mass leadership electricity fasters have also added an element of civil disobedience to their efforts, by pitching their tents on the Boston common in contravention of city ordinances. It is a testament to the tactical brilliance and inspirational power of this move that to date hundreds of people, including climate luminaries such as James Hanson and Bill McKibben, have participated in the Boston Common sleep outs and broken the law and received police citations together in the name of climate justice. By the time the Boston Common phase of the sleep out campaign wraps up on Sunday, Dec. 6 — the day before the start of the Copenhagen conference — hundreds more will have participated, and the campaign will have built the necessary momentum to inspire continued sleep outs in towns and campuses across Massachusetts, and hopefully, in time, across the whole country.
Rewriting the grassroots climate action playbook
Together, the Climate Justice Fast and the Mass Leadership campaign constitute the first few inspiring glimpses into the content of a new tactical playbook that will be vital to taking the global climate movement to the next level. The real promise and power of these tactics derives from the fact that they reflect a deep understanding of an important aspect of human psychology that the mainstream climate movement has thus far ignored in its flight away from sacrifice — namely that people more readily act to prevent losses than to achieve gains. Thus even though we need a positive vision of a clean energy vision to orient people toward, when people are already living in relative comfort as they do in the United States it’s hard to motivate them with visions of a “better world.” As I’ve written here before, one of the biggest shortcomings of the American climate movement is that most American climate activists understand the difficulties of the climate crisis on a mostly intellectual level. Without any kind of visceral connection to the climate crisis, we are simply unable to summon the kind of emotional and moral energy needed to power the push for lasting solutions to the crisis. Tactics like fasting and the Mass Leadership campouts are perhaps the only thing short of real climate disasters that will help us develop those visceral connections, and as such one can only hope that they will begin to be more widely deployed so that more people can appreciate what exactly we have to lose and stand up to protect it before it is really lost.