A Friendly Critique of the Break Free Climate Actions
I have enjoyed reading accounts and seeing photos of those committed and courageous climate activists who participated in the recent Break Free from Fossil Fuels actions conducted at various locations in 13 countries from 4-15 May 2016. See ‘Break Free from Fossil Fuels.’
Much of what was done was creative (some of it demonstrating considerable flair) and, mostly, how it was done reflected a sound understanding off nonviolent principles and dynamics to which virtually all activists adhered. In this regard I must acknowledge the thoughtful ‘action agreements’ signed by participating activists, the conduct of nonviolence education workshops, the police liaison, legal briefings and arrest support, and the widespread recognition that secrecy and sabotage have no part to play in nonviolent actions for them to be strategically effective.
My friendly criticism is directed at those key organisers who planned the nonviolent actions without understanding how to make the commitment and courage of those who were mobilised have maximum strategic impact on the ongoing climate catastrophe.
I understand that it takes phenomenal effort and a tremendous amount of work to organise international actions of this nature. It is for this reason that I hope that future efforts can be strategically oriented to maximise their effectiveness. It is not difficult to do this, as long as one understands nonviolent strategy. So let me outline a couple of key elements of such a strategy based on the strategic framework illustrated in the accompanying diagram of the ‘nonviolent strategy wheel’.
All nonviolent action campaigns have one political purpose. In the case of the climate movement, this might be simply stated thus (but other wordings are possible): To minimise and, where appropriate, halt all activities that add carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide to the Earth’s atmosphere.
However, the political purpose is only achieved by fulfilling the two strategic aims of any campaign: 1. To increase support for your campaign by developing a network of groups who can assist you, and 2. To alter the will and undermine the power of those groups who support the problem.
Once the political purpose has been defined, the two strategic aims will define precisely what is worth doing (and what is not worth doing) for the entire campaign. And, as long as each activity (such as liaison with a key trade union or other potential ally) and each nonviolent action contribute to one of these two strategic aims, then the campaign is succeeding.
This is more easily understood if you consider a simple nonviolent action. Each nonviolent tactic has a political objective and a strategic goal. For example, the political objective (‘what you want’) of one action that was undertaken by many Break Free activists was, in effect, ‘to blockade a coal/oil truck/train/ship from entering a coal mine/port/oil refinery to prevent it completing its pickup/delivery’.
However, the (unstated) strategic goal (‘how you get what you want’) of this nonviolent action is totally different. For example, it might be this: ‘To mobilise those who become aware of our action to reduce their personal consumption of fossil fuels (for example, by boycotting cars and air travel and/or by becoming a vegetarian/vegan).’ Or, perhaps, ‘To mobilise those who become aware of our action to participate in “The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth“‘.).
As you will immediately perceive, perhaps, whether or not the political objective (halting the vehicle/vessel) is achieved is strategically irrelevant. It is achievement of the strategic goal that is determinative. For a full explanation of this point, see ‘The Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions‘
The point then is this. As nonviolent activists, our task is not simply to raise awareness by making such statements as ‘Business as usual cannot continue’, ‘The age of fossil fuels is coming to an end’ and ‘Keep fossil fuels in the ground’. Our task is to take action that inspires people and organizations to mobilise in response to our clear ‘action messages’ (which must reflect the strategic goal of our nonviolent action).
These ‘action messages’ must convey a simple idea about something that any individual can do personally that will make a clearcut difference; it will not usually involve them lobbying someone else (because, in the case of the climate catastrophe, this is neither necessary nor useful). So, in the context of the climate catastrophe, such simple messages (expressed on banners, in news releases, on our websites and through social media) might be ‘Help save the climate by becoming a vegetarian’, ‘Save the climate and our world by boycotting cars and air travel’ and ‘Help save the environment by participating in “The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth”‘.
The average person who sees or hears about our nonviolent action, whether via the media or some other means, is not someone who is necessarily well informed about these issues. But, if our nonviolent action has inspired them to act, a simple message that invites their personal participation by doing something within their power is most compelling. In essence, our task is to inspire people to change their behaviour and to give them options for doing so that are both empowering and strategically effective.
Further, when planning any nonviolent action, there are many points to consider, especially if repression is expected. For a full explanation of this, see ‘Nonviolent Action: Minimizing the Risk of Violent Repression‘ While most climate actions, thus far, have not experienced significant repression, this will change as the movement becomes more strategically effective. With at least two environmental activists killed in the world each week, it might be argued that climate activists are already living on ‘borrowed time’. See ‘How Many More?‘
You might still be wondering if all of this strategic planning is really necessary. Can’t we just turn up and have fun? Well, for the average activist, this might largely be true. However, for those of us who profess leadership in the movement, we have a responsibility for planning and implementing strategies that work or we are mobilising people for no useful purpose. And actions that simply aim to lobby governments ‘to keep coal, oil & gas in the ground’ will not succeed.
Our requests/lobbying of governments are meaningless while the market demand for a corporation’s commodities tells them that coal, oil and gas are wanted. And corporate elites tell governments what to do, not vice versa. If you doubt this, check out the exposed text of the secret trade deals (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) currently being imposed on us without public consultation.
If, instead of lobbying governments, we reduce consumer demand, corporate elites will reduce their production/supply. If you would like to watch a video of a successful campaign to slow the destruction of rainforests, based on this principle, you can do so here: ‘Time to Act‘. And, as you might already know, many of Gandhi’s campaigns were successful largely because he focused on reducing consumer demand and also altering how it was met, both exemplified by his own example of minimizing his personal consumption and self-reliantly making his own clothing. We abrogate our responsibility as nonviolent activists if we are scared to say that consumption (particularly in industrialized countries) must be reduced.
I have only touched on a couple of points about strategy in this article, as the accompanying diagram illustrates. The point about strategy, however, is to apply the principles derived from strategic theory. If we simply ask elites, one way or another, to change their behaviour, then they will not. Our task, as nonviolent activists, is to alter their will or compel them to change their behaviour by altering the circumstances in which they operate. Again: If fewer people and organizations consume products (such as car and air travel, and meat) that destroy the Earth’s atmosphere then, you can rest assured, corporations will not produce them. And encouraging demand for renewables is obviously worthwhile but not as a complete replacement.
There is a detailed explanation of nonviolent strategy for those interested in ‘The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach‘ but I am happy for people to contact me too while I construct a new website on nonviolent strategy.
In addition, if you are interested in the wider struggle to eliminate violence from our world, you might like to join those who have signed the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘.
Given the nuclear and environmental threats to human existence, including the atmospheric carbon dioxide content now passing the 400ppm mark, it is clear that human beings are on the fast track to extinction.
This fact, combined with the rapidly shortening timeframe in which effective action can be taken and the insanity of elites resisting an intelligent response to these threats, makes it imperative that our responses are strategically focused if we wish to be maximally effective.
Our future depends as much on our strategy as it does on our analysis and commitment.
Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ http://tinyurl.com/whyviolence His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpress.com