I recently attended a conference in Claremont, CA called Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The gathering had over 1500 very smart people who spend a lot of time thinking about the fundamental shifts necessary in our society. Over the course of the weekend, I ended up having a very similar conversation with several different people, so I figured it is worth sharing that conversation here.
The context of these conversations is the common and vital question of what will be necessary to awaken more people to the fundamental flaws of our industrial civilization and motivate them to make drastic shifts. The frequent assertion is that people will only wake up when they are hit by a serious disaster that rattles them out of their apathy. As long as people are at least minimally comfortable, they will hold on to their current paradigm until some kind of hardship makes it untenable.
There are many problems with this assertion, but the answer that I find myself repeating is that it is far from certain what kind of new paradigm people will turn to when their status quo paradigm is disrupted and no longer tenable by a disaster. In fact, I think it’s historically rare that masses wake up to the root causes of systemic problems when a crisis strikes, and the results of the early climatic disruptions are not encouraging.
When rainfall in Darfur decreased 30% and the desert advanced 60 miles, the Sudanese did not say, “Oh this is climate change! We should mobilize to pressure industrialized nations to stop burning fossil fuels.” Instead they turned against one another. They formed identity groups, blamed other groups who were also struggling to adapt to climate change, and ushered in one of the worst periods of ethnic cleansing in recent decades.
Likewise, when a climate-induced drought in Syria drove 1.5 million people from rural areas to cities, Syrians did wake up in mass to say, “This is climate change! Maybe we should start keeping our oil in the ground and move away from the extraction economy of the region.” Instead the found someone to blame and turned against one another. They descended into a chaotic civil war that has already caused over 200,000 deaths and 6 million refugees.
Christian Parenti’s disturbing book Tropic of Chaos details the conflicts created or exacerbated by the early impacts of the climate crisis across the developing world. Never did climate disruption lead to a focus on climate change. This human tendency to scapegoat and turn against one another in slow developing disasters rather than address root causes is perhaps the scariest part about the climate crisis. Beyond environmentally induced crises, history has plenty of examples of this destructive tendency to learn the wrong lesson in a crisis. In a most extreme case, when Germany suffered from extreme inflation and financial depression in the 1930’s, they did not address the root problems of global capitalism. Instead, they found a scapegoat, accepted draconian power, and turned against one another.
When people’s fundamental paradigm is disrupted by a crisis, they tend cling to whatever readily available paradigm can first make sense of the why their old paradigm failed. This is why talking about climate change is so critical. This is why one of the most dangerous things the climate movement can do is try to “solve climate change without talking about climate change.” This worn out cliche is still thrown around by movement experts who love to tell us what kind of messaging will be most effective for some imagined audience.
This dangerous approach has been seen for a long time in the centrist part of the climate movement with the avoidance of “divisive” language like climate change in favor focus-group approved language about economic growth, energy independence and green jobs. But in recent years, this dangerous “don’t talk about climate change” approach has manifested itself in the radical side of the climate movement as well. The radical movement experts tell us that we can’t talk about climate change to someone who is struggling to put food on the table. (Um, like Syrians circa 2009?) We can’t expect people to think about climate change when they are dealing with simmering tensions of structural racism. (Like Darfur around 2001.)
The radical flavor of avoiding climate talk might be more effective for movement building than the failed strategy of the centrists, but it is just as dangerous for our future. Now that we know that we cannot stop climate change, part of our job is create the social resiliency that can avoid turning against one another in the face of a crisis. That means making sure that the real issue of climate change is front and center when the current paradigm fails. When the shit hits the fan, it will be too late to start talking about climate change.