Lee Zimmerman’s Reflections on the People’s Climate March

On Sunday, Sept 21, I joined what the organizers counted as over 400,000 others, from around the U.S. and the world, in what they called the “People’s Climate March.” Marching with me were my brother and departmental colleague Paul, and Eunju Hwang, an English Professor from South Korea, associated this semester with Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies. EJ, as she is called, also brought along her 12-year-old son, Yunki. The March was meant to pressure those attending the UN Climate Summit a few days later to take action.


What kind of action? How drastic?


What kind of action? How drastic? The vagueness about such questions is a main reason that, as someone who has been thinking and writing about representations of climate change, I approached the march with mixed feelings. While I was glad they happened, the “major” climate change actions I’ve participated in in the past have also left me feeling that, in various ways, they aided the cultural construction of global warming as an important political “issue” rather than as an existential threat. (I’ve written about this at http://post45.research.yale.edu/2012/10/the-importance-of-rescuing-the-frog-what-we-don%E2%80%99t-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-the-climate-crisis/.)

photo of protestor with sign: "Frack No. You will not be excused for passing gas."

Climate March Protestor

After the march, I still have those mixed feelings. It was encouraging to see such an ocean of people, and the various kinds of diversity they represented—like the wide range of groups involved in the march’s organization—suggested that what used to be seen as “merely” environmental concerns are increasingly being understood as inseparable from concerns about economic, racial, and generational justice, both in the U.S and globally. Moreover, where mass actions sometimes give me the creeps in the way they superficially resemble fascist rallies—the uniformity of the visual images and, especially, the mass chanting of simple slogans—in the small slice of the march where Paul, EJ, Yunki, and I found ourselves at least, individual expressiveness carried the day: the sea of various, visually arresting home-made signs, often with non-generic messages (“There Is No Planet B,” “Hotties against Global Warming”); the wild costumes; the surprisingly frequent and imaginative street theater; best of all, for sloganophobes like myself, there was no mass chanting, just a lot of intense, complex rhythm-making—mostly with drums, but also with cow-bells, whistles, tambourines, tin cans, and the like—prompting a range of expressive, sometimes seemingly ecstatic, body movements that mocked the designation of the event as a “march.” And inhabiting this variety was, for me, a sense that we all shared a fundamental feeling—that we live in desperate moment and need to take extreme action now! Of course, this sense of sharing is hopeful and inspiring. It’s one of the ways one can bear the reality of what we’ve done and what we’re up against.

At the same time, I doubted that the march registered just how urgent and extreme a threat global warming represents to the current climate system, a condition of possibility for the countless life forms by which the planet is now (or, in countless cases, was until recently) inhabited, including many of the versions of itself the human species has come to value. Most discussion of the climate crisis fails to register a crucial distinction: there is (literally?) a world of difference between, on the one hand, politically “realistic” action that might help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by some insufficient amount at an insufficient pace—the sort of incremental actions proposed by mainstream environmental groups and, occasionally, given lip service by political and corporate leaders—and, on the other, the radical action that is likely the only means by which the unthinkable, apocalyptic scenarios might yet be avoided. A failure to take such radical action, that is, is itself a commitment to a radical, and unfathomably destructive, future. Summarizing their research into the likely consequences of various greenhouse gas emission scenarios going forward, in their 2010 paper climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows observe, “we either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emissions reductions,” and thus they conclude, “no longer is there a non-radical option” (http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/20.full.pdf+html).

It seemed to me that, like many other climate “actions,” the People’s March obscured this crucial distinction between what is sufficient and what is not. Largely this was because, as some critics observed, the organizers carefully constructed the event so that climate “action” could mean virtually anything. Michael Lerner, for example, wrote that

in order to get these hundreds of thousands of participants, the organizers avoiding putting forward any specific demands as the basis for joining the coalition backing this march. As a result, some of the most opportunistic climate destroying capitalist firms had signed on–including gas and oil companies whose activities are primary contributors to the destruction of the environment. (http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/the-climate-march-was-great-now-what)

Whether or not stressing the need for sufficient, “radical,” action would necessarily depress the number of participants, obfuscating the distinction between such radical action and the insufficient actions that dominate the current discussion would seem to guarantee that the catastrophically radical choice of failing to radically rework business as usual will prevail.

It’s impossible to know for sure what the actual effect of the People’s March will be, of course, though certainly nothing remotely like a commitment to sufficient action emerged from the U. N. Climate Summit that occasioned the March, a Summit that itself was only ever meant to discuss “ambitions” in preparation for still another U.N. Conference, over a year from now—yet another year!—where an actual formal agreement will be attempted. At this point, what we can say is that to whatever extent the March aimed to sound a sharp alarm—to help define maintaining business-as-usual as a catastrophic, radical choice—it hasn’t seemed to disrupt the corporate media’s anodyne normalizing of “climate change” as just another “issue.” Certainly, it didn’t disrupt the apparent obliviousness of The New York Times to the existential urgency of the threat. The headline of Times’s September 22 story on the March read: Taking a Call for Climate Change to the Streets.” Whatever the technical explanation for this befuddled headline, it starkly represents the by now symptomatic failure of attention on the part of the U.S. economic and political establishment, whose perspective the Times largely reflects. I’m pretty sure that no one at this march thought they were joining a “call for climate change.”

Protest Sign: "To Change Everything We Need Everyone"

Protest Sign

What would it take to get the Times, and the purveyors of power and conventional wisdom it represents, to pay attention to the dire urgency of the times? I hope actions like the People’s March work to that end. Certainly it was in some ways heartening. And Eunju’s report that 12-year-old Yunki later thanked her for bringing him along reminded me that the sense of connection the March inspired might be especially crucial for those who might be alive if and when the shit starts to really hit the fan.  But I wonder if it’s time, or past time, to more rigorously sort out inadequate action from what might be adequate—to insist on the daunting urgency of a dilemma offering us no non-radical choice. Incrementalism is often justified with a logic conveniently abstracted from any historical or social context: we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What the particular context of the climate crisis presents us with is a logic of a less convenient sort: we must not let what is comfortably called the “good” be the enemy of the sufficient.

We must not let what is comfortably called the “good” be the enemy of the sufficient.

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