I recently wrote a review of Andreas Malm’s new book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which makes a compelling case that in light of the very limited success of nonviolence for the climate movement, we ought to branch out into more violent tactics. While I do believe in the sympathetic sentiments for his argument that I expressed in that review, I also hold those sentiments in paradox with these views expressed below. I invite others to read this reflection in the spirit of knowing that things are never just one way or the other, particularly in the complex work of social change.
Today is the anniversary of the first march from Selma to Montgomery, otherwise known as “Bloody Sunday.” Reflecting on this landmark moment in the civil rights struggle invites a mix of grief, solidarity, disgust at our violent legacy of white supremacy, and deep respect for the courage of those who resisted that violence. In addition, there is one particular detail of that historic day that calls me into humility and fidelity to the work of justice-making.
An oft-repeated sentiment among activists is that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Personally, I have definitely critiqued other activists for naively continuing to use strategies and tactics that have failed time and again. But for this aphorism to really make any sense, we have to think of ourselves as isolated, individual actors in a static world. When we look at our ever-changing selves in an interdependent relationship with an ever-changing world, it becomes clear that it’s actually not possible to do the same thing over and over.Read more
I recently had the opportunity to craft a public statement for Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light about the connection between climate change and the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. After receiving negative feedback from one of our members, Ray, I further clarified my thoughts on the subject. It ended up connecting the dots between climate change, immigration, and mass incarceration in a way that seems worth sharing, so I'm posting the whole chain here:
RIIPL Public Statement, 6/26/18:
Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light joins many other local, national, and international faith organizations in condemning the incarceration of children and families on our southern border. The new policy of indefinite detention of families, as well as the practice of separation of children from their parents, is both deeply immoral and a terrifying harbinger of our social response to a future of climate disruption.
All of our faith traditions recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, as we are all children of the same creator. In our current atmosphere of dehumanizing rhetoric, we feel this must be said unequivocally: Immigrants are human beings. Refugees are human beings. People of color are human beings. We vehemently reject president Trump’s characterization of immigrants as animals or vermin. Human rights are bestowed upon all people by God, not based on the legalism of citizenship status or the whims of bigotry.
As an organization with a focus on the climate crisis and ecological destruction, we are particularly troubled by these inhumane practices of incarceration of migrants. We recognize that unprecedented water crises are already triggering mass migrations around the world, including in Syria and Africa. We further recognize that the significant climate disruption to which we have already committed through our failure to address the climate crisis guarantees a future of unprecedented displacement of populations due to drought, sea level rise, crop failure, catastrophic storms, wildfires, and other impacts. Mass migration will be a defining feature of the coming century, and we are right now practicing how we will respond to the millions more who will come knocking in an hour of desperate need.
Eric Holthaus has become one the best climate journalists in the country over the past few years, but his most recent article promoting nuclear power demonstrates why the effort to address climate change can no longer afford to focus exclusively on emissions. There are a lot of problems with Holthaus’ article, some of which likely stem from his use of Jesse Jenkins and Michael Shellenberger as sources. Jenkins and Shellenberger have spent their careers promoting techno-salvation and denigrating environmentalism. Their influence is particularly evident in the fact that Holthaus literally starts his article with a conclusion that nuclear power is necessary.
We can’t have a serious discussion about nuclear power without talking about democracy. Nuclear proponents argue that nuclear power can be done safely and with minimal waste. Even if that is true, it is also certainly true that nuclear power can be done less safely by cutting corners in ways that increase the profits of the corporations who own the plants. And the consequences of cutting those corners can be catastrophic. That’s why it is so critical that if we are going to be embracing extremely high-risk technology, we need a government and regulatory agencies that are not willing to compromise public safety for corporate profits. We don’t have such a system. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Until we end corporate personhood, we don’t have a governing structure that can handle the responsibility of nuclear power.
Local democracy is also critical to any discussion of nuclear power. While some tout the hypothetical potential of nuclear power to be rapidly scalable, new nuclear power has not been able to contribute anything to our energy needs for decades. This is at least partially because of the regulatory hurdles and safety standards that are in place. “Fast-tracking” new nuclear power plants means ignoring the rights of those who will be affected and threatened by the plants. We can be pretty sure that no mega-mansions will be seized by eminent domain to make way for nuclear plants. It will be poor and marginalized communities who suffer the negative impacts from the mining of uranium, the construction and operation of the plants, the storage of the waste, and any potential disasters. I can walk through my neighborhood and find plenty of sites where solar on the roof of a house, a business, or in an open lot would be appreciated by the community of people who live there. There is no place around here where a nuclear power plant could be built without a massive disruption to the people who currently live there. If we are willing to sacrifice those people’s rights at this point, what will we be willing to do down the road as the climate crisis becomes even more desperate?
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the expert advice around communicating climate change. I’ve been even more frustrated than usual over the past six months as there has been a woefully simplistic public discourse about whether “fear or hope” are better ways of changing people, as if there is some easy dichotomy between the two (and as if our job is to manipulate others.) That’s why Peter Bowden and I used the first episode of our new Climate Workshop Podcast to muddy the waters of of this debate about how to talk about climate change. And now a recent study by UMass Amherst has also injected some complexity into this discourse with their shocking finding: Emotions aren’t simple.
But something I read from Wendell Berry today articulated why I have always been so skeptical of the field of climate change communications. Wendell writes,
“This is why I said earlier that I prefer conversation to communication. Communication, as we have learned from our experience with the media, goes one way, from the center outward to the periphery. But a conversation goes two ways; in a conversation the communication goes back and forth. A conversation, unlike a “communication,” cannot be prepared ahead of time, and it is changed as it goes along by what is said. Nobody beginning a conversation can know how it will end. And there is always the possibility that a conversation, by bringing its participants under one another’s influence, will change them, possibly for the better.”*
I think this distinction between communication and conversation is especially relevant in regards to climate change. The critical difference between the two is humility and a receptivity to learning. Climate change, as an infinitely complex and somewhat unthinkable problem, demands such humility and openness to continued learning as a requirement of credibility.
But as Wendell alludes here, conversations cannot be commodified and standardized into a predictable package. That means a strategy built around conversations does not fit well into a funding model that demands measurable and deliverables.
Conversations can’t happen with an expectation of certain results, either that we will change someone else or that we won’t be changed ourselves. They can only be done with a certain trust in ourselves, a trust in the others with whom we are talking, and a trust in the course of our shared life. Some might call it faith.
*Quoted from “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information” published in The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2005. p. 122
Bryan and I were the keynote speakers at the Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light annual conference in 2017. Our part of the video starts at 16:30.
For nearly two years, Peter Bowden and I have been talking about creating a podcast. Whenever we would have great conversations about dealing with climate chaos or the state of social movements, Peter would say, "We've got to be sharing these conversations." Or when I would come back from a trip visiting with insightful thought leaders and activists, Peter would say, "You've got to be sharing those conversations you're having. People need to hear this."
After a couple false starts over the past couple years, we finally got serious about it this fall. We're calling this the Climate Workshop Podcast because we're "workshopping" the emerging ideas at the boundaries of the climate change discourse, and because we are very conscious of the fact that all our talking needs to be connected to actually doing the work of defending a livable and humane future. Our tag line is, "Working through the challenges of the climate crisis from the uncharted to the unthinkable."
We've spent the past few months recording, editing, setting up the website, and putting all the pieces together to make this work. Yesterday we finally made our first three episodes live. I didn't realize until this morning that we happened to launch exactly nine years to the day since I disrupted that oil and gas auction back in 2008.
Moving forward, we hope to release a couple episodes a month. Some episodes will feature guests and some will be me and Peter. Our first guest, in episode 2, is Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Bethel AME Church in Boston. It's a wide-ranging conversation about how climate change is connected to so many other social justice struggles, which is exactly the kind of conversations we hope to continue sharing on the Climate Workshop Podcast.
Please have a listen and subscribe so that you never miss an episode. Here's all the info:
Subscribe to the Climate Workshop Podcast on iTunes:
We are submitting the podcast to other directories including Google Play and Stitcher. In the meantime, you can use our Soundcloud RSS feed to subscribe. http://feeds.soundcloud.com/users/soundcloud:users:334933186/sounds.rss
This morning I finished a book by Sarah Schulman called Conflict Is Not Abuse. I’ve been reading this book slowly over the past couple months, and taking the time to think deeply about what it says. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the single most important book for the climate movement at this moment in our development.
Schulman’s book offers a compassionate and honest perspective on addressing the real tensions and traumas in our communities without turning against one another with cruelty. She focuses on getting better and not just feeling better at someone else’s expense. Schulman actively pushes back against the culture of shunning, shaming, and self-righteousness that is killing the climate movement right now. I think all progressive movements probably need this book right now, but I know the climate movement needs it. Without exaggeration, when I look at the social tensions that seem to be at a breaking point across our society, and when I look at the exponentially increasing hardships and stresses that we know are coming with the climate crisis, I think the courageous and caring insights put forth by Sarah Schulman are our best source of hope for maintaining our humanity.
I urge everyone who reads this message to please take the time to read Conflict Is Not Abuse. In fact, I feel so strongly about the need of people in the climate movement to read this book, if you cannot afford the price of the book, please email me at [email protected] and I will gladly buy you a copy. (Even if more people take me up on that offer than I can personally afford, I will figure something out and raise the money to make it work.) Feel free to share your thoughts with me as you’re reading the book, and I’m eager to engage in conversation about how Schulman’s insights can impact our movement.
As I told a friend last week, there have been times over the past few years when I was so disgusted with the toxic callout culture on the left that if I hadn’t already built my life around this movement, I would have walked away. If I had anywhere else to go, I would have gone, and I know many others followed that path. We have a long road ahead in the struggle for climate justice, and we have to find a healthy way of working together. Schulman’s book offers the best possibility I’ve seen of rising to that challenge.
Ultimately, Sarah Schulman calls for communities of progressives that are willing to be “responsible for bucking the trend of cruelty.” That is exactly the kind of crews of activists that the Climate Disobedience Center is trying to build with our new small-group program. If you’d like to be a part of a local group that reads this book together and puts its principles into action while doing the work of fighting for a livable climate, please contact the Climate Disobedience Center at http://www.climatedisobedience.org/community_signup.
Read the book, and please reach out to me about any ideas this book brings up for you.
(This is a press release we issued from the Climate Disobedience Center in response to what I think is a serious push to criminalize our movement. -Tim) Cross-posted from Climate Disobedience Center website.
On October 23rd, 2017, 84 members of congress submitted a letter to Attorney General Sessions regarding nonviolent direct action on crude oil pipelines. The letter, backed by American Petroleum Institute, Association of Oil Pipe Lines, and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, is a dishonest effort to smear the climate movement, and fabricate a threat in order to legitimate further criminalization of dissent against one of Congress’s largest clients: the fossil fuel industry. Rather than doing their job and protecting current and future generations from civilizational collapse caused by run-away climate change, members of Congress are working to protect their funders at the risk their constituents.
The letter begins the official process of expanding the Patriot Act and domestic terrorism laws to target those who resist fossil fuel infrastructure. The accusation of terrorism hinges on violence to human beings, which has never been even a fringe element of the climate movement. The only violent reference which this Congressional letter could find was Tucker Carlson’s creative interpretation of a letter to the editor of a local newspaper in Boulder, Colorado. On that single thread hangs this attempt to defame a mass movement in order to repress dissent and free speech.
Unlike every right wing movement, the climate movement has never engaged in violence against human beings in pursuit of political aims. From colorful marches with hundreds of thousands of people to actions disrupting fossil fuel infrastructure construction and blockades of coal trains and ships, the climate movement has been disciplined and intentional about protecting life. Citizens placing themselves in the path of destruction, placing themselves at risk in order to avert climate catastrophe, cannot be equated with violence.Read more
(Heather Heyer and James Alex Fields represent two very real lineages of American history and society)
The spectacle of white supremacist violence and hatred on display in Charlottesville last week was disgusting and unacceptable. It seems to have been a wake up call for a lot of Americans about how serious the threat of racism and outright Nazism is to our communities. The sacrifices of those who gave their lives and safety in resistance to white supremacy may yet serve to be a catalyst that moves many individuals to action and our country closer to overcoming our toxic history of slavery and bigotry.
In the days since the atrocities of Charlottesville, there have been many commentators on social media who have rightly insisted that white Americans cannot declare that the racism we witnessed is not who we are. They point out that the ideology of James Alex Fields, the white supremacist who murdered Heather Heyer, is as old as America and is embedded in our nation’s history. It is part of the social history that formed all of us, which means that ugly ideology is buried in each of us and toxifies our relationships. This is the reality that needs to be acknowledged and unpacked if we are to work toward racial justice.
But I think it is equally important to remember there was also fierce resistance to white supremacy on the streets of Charlottesville, and this too is part of who we are and always have been as a nation. Abolitionism is also old as America, and long before the civl war, outspoken white and black abolitionists were often murdered by white supremacists. Shortly after Christopher Columbus arrived on this continent, there were dissenters like Bartolomé de las Casas who decried European barbarism against Native Americans and advocated for universal human rights. Every shameful chapter of American injustice has been paralleled by a chapter in the tradition of struggling for equality and mutual liberation. Just like the lineage of white supremacy, this tradition of resistance is inside us and has shaped all Americans, whether we have embraced it or not. In the words of the last sane Republican president in this country, “Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels - men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine.”Read more
Bryan Cahall has been writing and singing his powerful songs all over the country for years. His music has graced most of the events I've done over the past year. His songs cultivate the deep resilience that we need to not only rise to the challenge of our times, but to continue to find beauty and meaning in these struggles. But as many people as have been moved and inspired by Bryan's music, he has never actually recorded a professional album with any of his wonderful songs. Until now. Bryan is finally getting into the recording studio this summer so that his songs can touch countless more people. But he needs support to be able to make it happen. Please watch the video on his Kickstarter page and donate whatever you can. Then send this on to the folks you know that understand how important art and music are to the struggle for a just and healthy world.