What Occupy Means for the Climate Movement

When my small town can get more than a hundred people out to a rally with only two days notice (and with many locals attending other nearby rallies), you know that the Occupy Wall Street movement is on to something. To find out what this something means – or should mean – for the climate movement, we queried five leading climate voices about Occupy’s lessons and opportunities.

Full-length interviews are here, available only to Climate Access members

LESSONS OF OCCUPY

“The kind of tactic that is replicable everywhere that doesn’t require very much in terms of organizing experience is the kind of model that’s going to succeed and I think they’ve hit on one,” says Phil Aroneanu, co-founder and U.S. campaigns director for 350.org.

He has been visiting Zuccotti Park since the early days of Occupy Wall Street, and lauds the movement’s staying power (“they’re not just occupying; they’re sticking it out”), non-hierarchical network structure (“nobody really knows where it’s going to go and that's what scares the pants off the politicians”) and magnitude:

“We need to take action at the scale of the issue. It doesn't really help us much to do an email petition to the Citibank CEO; that’s not at the scale of the issue – folks are out of work getting foreclosed on, Wall Street financiers are financing climate-denying companies. Clicking on a button isn’t going to get us anywhere; we need to really start putting our bodies on the line, showing our commitment.”

To Anna Fahey, communications strategist for Sightline Institute and Climate Access advisory board member, Occupy feels much more organic than many climate actions (“it’s not funded by anybody, it’s not attached to any particular identity or issue or campaign”) and offers a lesson in branding.

“As a communications specialist, I think ‘oh my god they need to have a message,’ but in a way that’s the beauty of it too. It’s not just one message, it’s all these different kinds of people from amazingly diverse backgrounds, circumstances and interests tied together by a common thread that is very immediate and visceral. The brand crisis with climate change is that it’s an abstract problem with complex solutions….We need to make it more about the here and now and more about our own families and our own communities in a way that’s real to people. We alienate people when we invite them by saying you have to be an environmentalist or have climate change as your central concern-- even the greenest Americans don’t necessarily self-identify as environmentalists. Learning how to welcome people in and make a compelling new collective identity outside of those constraining defunct old identities seems to be the way forward.”

Shadia Fayne Wood is founder and co-coordinator of Project Survival Media, a global network of youth journalists reporting on climate. She says that in addition to confirming a basic rule of organizing, that you have to meet people where they are at, Occupy demonstrates the importance of documenting your own movement.

“People were talking a lot about the media blackout during the early days of the Occupy movement, but I wasn’t tuned into the mainstream media during that time, and I was seeing Occupy all over the place, on blogs and Facebook. Seeing the photos has been really really powerful….How one visualizes and feels a part of a movement is by being able to see what you’re a part of and how it’s growing. It is absolutely critical in terms of people feeling urgency and understanding why people are going to get arrested, why people are putting their bodies on the line, and why they should be there to join them.”

Alnoor Ladha, director of strategy for Purpose (a social movement incubator and agency) and Climate Access advisory board member, cites the leaderless nature of the Occupy movement as a major lesson.  “Of course, in many ways the climate movement is leaderless as well,” he says. “But they (Occupy) have exploited leaderlessness to its advantage as opposed to a climate movement that, by omission, uses leaderlessness to its detriment.”

The climate movement should do three things to remedy this, according to Ladha:  “We should a) accept the fact that we’re leaderless and not try to look for a messiah to deliver us and to be okay with that; b) organize in a more politically radical way and get away with things we probably couldn’t get away with if we had a leader who has to negotiate on behalf of us; and c) ask ourselves how do we use the tools and technology to organize us in physical demonstrations, how do we organize our equivalent of the general assembly, what are our gestures, our language, our symbols, pieces of iconography, what are our moments?”

For Kathleen Dean Moore, Oregon State professor of philosophy and co-editor of “Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril,” the whole point of Occupy is that there is no one single problem or focus point (“The cancer has spread throughout the body politic; every organ is affected”) and that this a lesson that climate activists should heed.

“We are all in this together. The lines that connect jobs-environment-education-health are strong and undeniable. The time has passed for an environmental movement. The time has passed for a climate change movement. This, finally, is the big one – the coming together of people who care about the future, and do not want to gamble it away to enrich “people who despise us.” (The last phrase is from Carl Safina.) The analogy between tectonic shifts and the Occupy is deliberate. The big one will shake us all.”

OPPORTUNITIES OF OCCUPY

Thus far, climate change has been not been a central Occupy issue (“more of a validating point than an organizing point,” according to Ladha). But everyone I spoke with articulated the possibility, and desirability, of the two movements becoming more closely aligned.

350.org’s Aroneanu, who anecdotally estimates that one in five Occupy protesters are focused on climate and environmental issues, sees tar sands as the “connective tissue” between the two movements. He hopes to spark working groups at various occupations aimed at garnering support for a Nov. 6 rally to encircle the White House ahead of President Obama’s decision on the Keystone pipeline.

“There are real linkages to be made to continue the narrative we’ve been using this year, that corporations—oil, gas, and coal—are stopping us from taking action on climate and we need to use government but also people power to stop them from abusing people and abusing our planet… We can do this in a distributed way, where we have volunteers talking to Occupy movements everywhere and taking part in really engaging and not just layering our message on top—making sure that we’re not co-opting, but adding value. That’s where the sweet spot is going to be, to use this energy to stop the tar sands pipeline but also to add energy and people to make sure that the movement more broadly is successful.”

Sightline’s Fahey says that the climate movement must make it clear how climate and energy are ultimately economic and health issues (“as the way we’re going to stabilize local economies, create jobs, unhitch families and local businesses from the fossil fuel rollercoaster”). To her, a two-pronged approach is needed:

“It will be difficult to make progress on a lot of different issues, including climate and energy, if we don’t have the systems mechanisms sorted out. That’s one piece. The other piece is the economic co-benefits argument for cutting emissions and shifting to clean energy sources. We’ve done a good job talking about it, but here’s a new receptive, active audience and set of partners who aren't the usual suspects.”

Project Survival Media’s Wood says that it’s time for the Occupy movement to present concrete demands and she thinks that climate activists can help with that, if done the right way.

“The Tea Party was co-opted by Republican corporations who exploited it and funded it heavily. I don’t think we would do that, but we should be building partnerships and pushing the process since it’s an open process to include more specific demands that can really capitalize on the fact that we have thousands of people in the streets camped out, making huge personal sacrifices, to send a message to our representatives.”

Ladha from Purpose thinks that having climate campaigners become Occupy organizers can be an effective strategy.

“It’s incumbent upon us to be part of the discussion. We need to spend time creating climate working groups and shifting the dialogue to ‘hey look, part of the diagnosis of the problem is that it’s a climate problem.’ We need to elevate this to a social justice campaign that holds all these things under it.”

For Oregon State’s Moore, who is also director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word, Occupy is about connecting the dots, with climate a huge dot. All the dots, she says, connect to central place: the funding by corporations (“mostly destructive and extractive") of elections and the elected.

“This is what the signs are saying: Get the money out of politics (and politician’s pockets), so we can be a democracy again, so we can enact the measures that will save us from sure environmental catastrophe. Self-created environmental catastrophe has taken down many civilizations before ours.  But this time, the self-inflicted catastrophe of climate change will take down also the great Earth systems and relative stability that have allowed the evolution of the world as we know and love it. We can draw down CO2 to livable levels.  But not until we draw down the power of those who are enriched by destroying the conditions of human thriving.”

That’s all for now, but stay tuned for more climate perspectives on the Occupy movement coming your way on Climate Access. In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you think. Climate Access members are encouraged to join the Occupy Climate discussion in the Member Forums and to post (and view) comments here.

Image from truedemocracy.tumblr original by kateoplis.

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David Minkow