Climate Emergency Declarations Guarantee Nothing; We Need Total System Transformation for Climate Mitigation and Adaptation

“Not everyone is coming to the future,

Not everyone is learning from the past.”

                        Madonna & Quavo

What’s Been Happening

I hope environmental groups can support each other’s efforts to address climate change. Sometimes, though, a group adopts a strategy that raises questions for me. Margaret Klein Salamon and Ezra Silk’s Climate Mobilization has chosen to focus a large part of its work on getting governmental bodies large and small to sign a “Climate Emergency Pledge.” Using Silk’s Victory Plan, the two have described what they believe will avert the worst effects of climate change. But Climate Mobilization hopes to shift governmental attitudes and policy by having elected representatives sign their Climate Emergency Pledge, a strategy I question. The method and basic assumptions behind this aspect of their work side-step a lot. They acknowledge that they want to wake up US citizens to the imminent threats our deteriorating planet’s realities pose for us all, but their work focuses less on citizens than it does on persuading existing governmental bodies to admit the necessity of addressing these threats. They assume the viability of working within current systems–both governmental and corporate–to accomplish their goals. And hoping to get quick and easy adherents who will rally around a familiar idea, they compare what they propose to the US government’s mobilization efforts during WWII, which got both ordinary citizens and all aspects of the government focused on a single goal: an evil enemy over there that needed to be defeated. As an activist and a writer who understands that current governmental and economic systems have caused climate change, I am skeptical of Salamon and Silk’s Climate Mitigation strategy. We are living within a system that has caused the problems we face, a reality that demands tactics different than those used for an external threat.

I will focus this article on my strong concern that having governmental bodies sign a Climate Emergency Pledge will fail to address the root cause of climate change: that the flaws of our current systems have brought climate change into existence. And there is a second issue with what is being proposed by Climate Mobilization: if CM successfully mobilizes growing support for their climate emergency pledge, governments may conclude they have a mandate to address this profound threat using means already familiar to them. They may use the numbers of these supporters to justify their right and power to take whatever measures they feel necessary as they attempt to preserve a world they are loathe to abandon. Persuading the existing government to declare a “climate emergency” could actually bring harm to US citizens and undermine current efforts to rein in climate change. Mobilization efforts during WWII posed the same problems, and we as a nation have never really acknowledged that reality.

Am I exaggerating the potential for harm here? I invite you to evaluate that question for yourself as you read the pages that follow. Let me  begin by reminding readers of events in the US during WWII that our country is not very proud to remember.

A Little from the Past and a Little about the Present

On May 21, 1941 Roosevelt declared a national state of emergency, citing Nazi threats. In February 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which decreed that for the duration of the war Americans of Japanese descent would be interred in isolated camps, a strategy now recognized as one of the worst erosions of US civil liberties the country has ever experienced. The Densho Blog, a site that keeps alive the experiences of Japanese Americans during and after WWII, estimates Americans of Japanese descent lost $1-3 billion, without adjusting for inflation. The toll on the physical and psychological health of the citizens is incalculable. For 120,000 Japanese Americans, WWII brought discrimination, suffering and loss.

It is precisely during this time that the war mobilization efforts so admired by Salamon and Silk were unfolding. Most of the nation, reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, united in its desire to win the war. And to do so, the American people worked new jobs and endured material sacrifices that were designed to support the troops: rationing, repurposing of materials such as tin, rubber and glass, and planting Victory Gardens to allow conventional food crops to be shipped to soldiers. As Ronald Takaki describes in Double Victory: A Multicultural History of World War II, the war allowed people of color and women to get jobs that they would never have gotten before the war. One African-American described it as people of color fighting a double war: the war overseas and the war against prejudice back home.

All of these realities of WWII, some good and some terrible, began when President Roosevelt declared that state of emergency in 1941. It is not always possible to predict how the very human, and flawed, people who hold positions of power will employ even the most well-intentioned concepts–which is exactly why I’m writing this article. This phrase, climate emergency, needs careful consideration before we turn it over to those currently in charge.

Let me jump forward a little more than 75 years. In February 2019, President Trump declared the immigration situation at the Texas/Mexico border to be a national emergency. As the Brennan Center for Justice has observed, declaring an emergency gives the President over 123 statutory powers that he can use after such a declaration. Should Congress agree to the emergency and make its own declaration, it would have access to an additional 13 statutory powers. Each state has similar laws defining its ability to declare states of emergency. Federal and state agencies exist to implement the declarations. The resources such actions make available to government bodies are formidable.

Andrea Pritzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps argues that Trump’s camps in Texas and Oklahoma deserve to be labeled concentration camps, whose overcrowded conditions will lead to illness and continuing deaths. Such a reality is certainly not what a declaration of emergency is intended to create. And yet, given the people at the helm of this government, that is precisely what is unfolding.

Pritzer’s assessments have proven accurate. Trump’s state of emergency at the border with Mexico has brought reprehensible effects: children in detention simply disappearing within the system, insufficient personnel available to handle all the requests for asylum, longer and longer stays in terribly overcrowded detention centers, adults and children dying in detention. And all of this suffering is possible because the President has the power to define the border’s immigration problem–in spite of analysts’ determinations that his claims are false–and to choose those who will design how to address the emergency. In another powerful essay by Densho Blog, “Fort Sill Is the Site of Ongoing Trauma,” the author describes the horror Japanese Americans feel in learning that Central American refugees are being housed in an internment camp that imprisoned Japanese Americans during WWII. The author emphasizes, “Fort Sill is not an anomaly, but it is a reminder of the ongoing violences of settler colonialism, racism, and xenophobia that have defined far too much of our nation’s history.” The connection between past and present atrocities at Fort Sill is undeniable. It seems the government has learned nothing from its past cruelty.

The willingness and ability of the current administration to ignore Fort Sill’s history should give any environmental organization pause before it suggests that the government should take charge of vigorously addressing the reality of climate change. Activists committed to transforming or replacing the current capitalist system should be especially wary before they agree to support such efforts. Exactly who and what will be targeted if such a climate emergency is declared? Those who are calling for the current corrupt system to lead in designing and implementing the ways the US will rein in its contributions to climate change need to consider again the history and the extent of the powers that a declaration of emergency can involve.

Some might argue that the existing government truly wants to protect its citizens and has strong resources with which to do so. However, emergency declarations are designed to protect more than people. Within a capitalist system, emergency declarations are also intended: to protect public health and safety, to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States, and protect private property. (Author’s italics.) These are broadly defined categories that, as with Roosevelt’s or Trump’s administrations, can be used to bring great harm to citizen groups within the US. Especially troubling are situations in which a president’s definition of an emergency includes aspects of “national security,” which are usually interpreted to involve large corporate interests–not people.

The inequalities and cruelties a country struggles to overcome will be incorporated into any design of a climate emergency declaration and the methods the government chooses for its implementation. It is impossible for the social realities to escape inclusion. A brief look at another emergency declaration, this one more obviously linked to climate change, should give activists even more reason to question the Climate Mobilization’s focus on governmental declarations.

In 2005, President George Bush Jr declared a federal state of emergency in Louisiana, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Jonah Walters, in writing for Jacobin, describes the emergency and its aftermath as follows, “perhaps the most memorable aspect of the Hurricane Katrina disaster is the United States government’s profound failure to protect and serve citizens in the wake of the storm.” 30,000 New Orleans residents unable to evacuate were housed in the Superdome, with only 370 National Guard troops to attend to their needs. A Pew Research poll conducted one week after Hurricane Katrina found that 66% of black respondents commented, “the government’s response to the situation would have been faster if most of the victims had been white.” Prevented from leaving the Superdome for almost a week, mostly poor and black evacuees endured abysmal and in some cases life-threatening conditions until they were let out.

In addition to ineffective responses to domestic catastrophes, the US has a history of turning a declared emergency into an opportunity to pursue development that suits the tastes, and investment goals, of just a few. The declarations frequently exacerbate unequal conditions in the country including racism, income inequality, and unequal health care access, even as developers, bankers, and for-profit businesses move into a disaster area for their own gain.

Often, an emergency becomes an excuse to put in place policies that a community has fought prior to an emergency. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans forced a third of the city’s black residents to seek lives elsewhere. Additionally, the city used the devastation of the black population and its school buildings to institute a system of charter schools,.With the new realities of students living in poverty forced out of New Orleans by the hurricane and increased school funding suddenly available after the storm, charter schools seemed to enjoy greatly improved student outcomes.  Education researchers recognize that students living in poverty struggle at school because of their personal circumstances. Had a true statistical analysis been carried out, the researchers would have recognized that the pre- and post-Hurricane Katrina student populations being compared were vastly different. The charter schools also allowed the city to undermine an energetic teacher’s union, composed of a majority of teachers of color. The union had been demanding increased school funding for decades with no success.. The claims of improvement in post-hurricane New Orleans schools then was leveraged by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to force 40 other cities to accept charter schools. Only a few years after Katrina, the glowing reputation of the charter schools began to fade. Though as of 2019 the success rates being reported by charter schools nationwide are being called into question, the charter schools in New Orleans and across the country remain.

President Bush’s emergency in New Orleans never helped African American residents return to affordable housing, required that other US cities absorb the black exodus with insufficient economic assistance, and forced through real estate, business and educational developments that would not have been accepted in New Orleans prior to the hurricane. In other words, the emergency was good for business.

So Let’s Review the Current Use of the Term Climate Emergency

In an effort to mobilize populations within the US (and other countries), some environmental organizations demand that climate change be renamed a climate emergency. Organizing and training citizen volunteers in communities across the US, groups such as Climate Mobilization pressure government officials to sign public declarations acknowledging that climate change has become an emergency. Often, the activists use mobilization strategies of WWII as examples of what today’s emergency requires. Groups like these assert the emergency mobilizations are the only choice we have in the face of climate change’s dangers.

Could They Be Right?  Could Declarations of Climate Emergency Be Useful?

Any time a society resurrects a course of action without looking critically at how it worked in the past, people miss the opportunity to improve upon a previous strategy or cast it aside entirely. With large numbers of US citizens seemingly in support of climate emergency declarations, the government might claim this point of view gave it a mandate to impose a kind of martial law.

There are numerous reasons why declaring a “climate emergency” may make our present climate crises, and the issues related to them, worse instead of better. Waking up the US population, which still doesn’t face the cataclysmic effects of climate change the way Micronesia, or Bangladesh, Puerto Rico and Honduras do, is essential. After all, the US is one of the largest contributors to this dire situation. But is climate emergency a concept that will help or hurt the US’ ability to rein in its own contributions to this reality?

What’s an Emergency Anyway?

According to Webster’s, an emergency is “a sudden, generally unexpected occurrence or set of circumstances demanding immediate action.”

The unfolding and unending dangerous effects of climate change are not sudden or unexpected realities.They have been studied and/or written about for over seventy years–by the oil industry, by scientists, by the US military and various federal and state departments. What’s perhaps sudden, at least in its scope, is the media’s willingness to now report on climate change. Climate change looks like a sudden event because most people have had little exposure to information about it in mainstream media.

Powerful writers who describe the need for balance between humans and the earth come and go, and still the planet’s environmental problems remain. Donald Worster’s luminous analysis in Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of Natural Abundance (2016) describes Aldo Leopold’s unflagging efforts in the 1930’s and 1940’s to bring into being a “new land ethic.”

Ethics, [Leopold] argued, are not fixed in time; they evolve with evidence. Always they move from knowledge of facts toward reinvention of values. In Leopold’s day, the facts of natural science pointed to an epidemic of land abuse on the American farm and forest. The time had come, he declared, for a new “land ethic,” one that would go beyond a narrow calculus of human purposes, to protecting the whole of nature. “A thing is right,” he wrote, “When it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (200)

Leopold, forgotten by many today, anticipated the truly dangerous effects that his generation’s relationship to the land threatened to bring about. He was, before anyone had used the term, a systems thinker, able to see the profound connections between many aspects within the web of life.

Countless writers have focused on capitalism’s flaws. In the 19tth Century Lenin predicted that capitalism would kill itself–whether revolutionaries helped to accomplish this or not.. The powerful Marxist writer Samir Amin said as much in 2011, though neither man seems to have anticipated that this flawed system’s proponents, determined to secure capitalism’s survival, would threaten the ability of an entire planet to remain viable. Amin wrote in 2018:

We are now in the phase of the ‘autumn of capitalism’ without this being strengthened by the emergence of ‘the people’s spring’ and a socialist perspective. The possibility of substantial progressive reforms of capitalism in its current stage is only an illusion. There is no alternative other than that enabled by a renewal of the international radical left, capable of carrying out – and not just imagining – socialist advances. It is necessary to end crisis-ridden capitalism rather than try to end the crisis of capitalism.

The words seem to suggest that capitalism will fall and something new will replace it–hopefully, something informed by Marxist or socialist ideas. A 2009  article, Seize the Crisis,” insists that all economic crises, including climate change, be treated as symptoms of capitalism’s horrors, rather than attacked separately. Our reality has shifted in the ensuing decade.  As Ian Angus has observed, climate change is the direct result of capitalism, but it has risen to the top of the heap in its ability to threaten planetary systems. It is the result of an economic system that has reached its planetary limits. We are now racing to end capitalism before climate change brings an end to all systems.

From a non-Marxist corner of the scholarly world, Alfred W. McCoy, emeritus historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (2017), argues that the US is living in the final years of its hegemonic control over the planet. He notes the rise of China’s military might and the increasing threats the US will face at home due to climate change. Toward the end of the book he outlines this possible future scenario:

[In 2040] Unable to cope with a whirlwind of conflicts in Africa and Asia, Washington starts pulling military forces back into its own hemisphere, struggling to control refugees fleeing catastrophic storms in the Caribbean and dwindling harvests in Central America. Adding to the fiscal strains of an aging population, the United State will face heavy costs from wildfires in the West, recurring droughts across the continent, storm surges that periodically inundate a half-dozen major metropolitan areas, and vast engineering efforts to shore up hurricane battered coastlines. These trends would weaken the grip of any would-be world leader while pushing the locus of both problems and power downward within an increasingly devastated global system. (254)

Two years ago, McCoy predicted the events would unfold in about twenty years. In 2019, all the realities he describes in the above scenario are already here.

The public can learn just how long those in power have known about climate change by following the efforts of US kids to sue the federal government. 60 Minutes covered this spring how the federal lawsuit Juliana vs. the United States provided thousands of documents proving that ten US presidents had been advised for over fifty years of the “cataclysmic effects” of climate change. One memo written by Senator Patrick Moynihan to President Nixon in 1968 concludes, “Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter.” Moynihan understood that rising CO2 in the atmosphere would raise sea levels and flood major US cities on the eastern seaboard. In spite of what the government has known for decades, it chose to set aside the need to move swiftly on the information.

As the above sources suggest, what has been festering for fifty years should not be called an emergency. Emergencies flash into existence and, hopefully, are dealt with swiftly. What we face is not something that can be solved and put behind us. Our present reality reflects the degradation of innumerable planetary systems over multiple decades.

Capitalism, as the vehicle that has carried our civilization to its present form, has overheated, burnt out its circuits, thrown a rod, and blown all its tires. Capitalism, this era’s SUV of choice, has hit a wall. It’s imminent demise constitutes the real emergency before us–but the extent of the connection between capitalism and climate change is still being suppressed by those systems desperate to remain in control. While those fighting to rein in climate change often hope to use existing socio-political and economic systems to address its effects, attempting to use existing systems to undo what they have created may ask too much of capitalism’s adherents. Focusing on having governing bodies declare a climate emergency could perfectly guarantee that our true systemic problems will not be addressed. Authoritarian measures that accompany declared states of emergency will allow those supervising failing socio-economic and political systems to remain in power. They will tackle climate change without addressing the darkness of a civilization that is bringing the planet to its knees.

Remember that an emergency is acute. It happens fast, and it’s expected to have an end date. Responders anticipate it will yield to the determined efforts of knowledgeable people. An emergency is like a snake bite: a serious, localized wound that might kill a person, but there is a serum to counteract the poison. Or think of an emergency as a really bad case of strep throat, or a compound bone fracture. Each of these might kill a person, but known medical treatment could also end the danger.

Climate change, on the other hand, is an ongoing, degenerating reality. It kills like frostbite in a blizzard on Mt. Everest, attacking and destroying extremities first, but killing all systems as the cold seeps within. Or imagine it with a slightly longer timeline: an emergency is like incurable cancer. Catch it early and a person has a chance of prolonging his/her life. It is imaginable that with effective treatment, even lung or breast or pancreatic cancer patients can live for twelve years or so–the length of time we have to change our civilization’s current practices and reduce the most dangerous effects of climate change. Unfortunately, though, present systems have released forces that even the most concentrated human activity will be unable to completely eliminate. Climate change, the result of unfettered growth, is a cancer.

As long as we fail to treat what caused the cancer in the first place, as long as we hopefully believe that current capitalist systems will willingly transform into ones that will restore ecological, social, political and economic balance to the planet, we are doomed to receive from them only window dressing. We’ll get change, but it will happen so gradually that the only result it will guarantee is the ability of those at the top to safeguard themselves and their resources–at least for a little while.

Additionally, there are other specific problems with climate emergency declarations that deserve attention.

The Big Problem with Emergency Declarations–There’s a Pecking Order to Who and What Gets Saved

The first goal of emergency measures is to safeguard the ability of the current system to continue–or resume–economic growth. Consider the 2008 bank bailouts and the thousands of US citizens who lost jobs, homes and their health with next to no support from existing system programs. Profit was more important.

Concomitant with securing the means of production is the need to secure leadership of current systems. Save the leaders of all kinds! Make sure they are protected–or evacuated.

A little further down the ladder is the need to protect the infrastructure needed to safeguard economic growth and those who lead its work. For this goal police, National Guard and military personnel are both deployed and safeguarded, as are all the materials they need to accomplish their work.

Though it may seem like citizens are quickly the focus of emergency response measures, they actually receive significantly less of the available resources than the three preceding areas, especially when innumerable cuts to social service, health and education budgets over the past decades are added in. Consider the destruction in New Orleans, Houston, Galveston, communities in Florida, and New Jersey and the Carolina’s. Remember the suffering of people in Haiti (still happening), and Puerto Rico (still happening). Remember the wildfire in California, caused by unmaintained electrical equipment, that wiped out the town of Paradise. When economic systems and profits are valued more than people and the planet, it’s cheaper to ignore climate change, cheaper to ignore equipment that needs safety upgrades, when ordinary people have no real way to object to the devastation caused by the current system.

A Further Sobering Thought: If the Elites that Currently Control Power and Resources Declare a Climate Emergency, Below Are the Tools at their Disposal:

The declaration of climate emergency will allow governing bodies to exercise traditional, historic and legal powers that people have been conditioned to accept since they were born. Leaders can do, and have done, the following:

  1. Close borders.
  2. Shut down financial institutions.
  3. Deploy police, National Guard and/or military personnel to control areas where targeted civilians live or congregate.
  4. Impose curfews.
  5. Label leaders in non-government organizations to be persons of interest, wanted for questioning, dangerous, criminal or terrorist.
  6. Separation of children from parents.
  7. Use of state violence toward citizens who demonstrate determined resistance to current unequal systems: aka torture, disappearances, executions.
  8. Forced conscription of the young; aka, the draft.
  9. Forced removal of populations or groups from areas determined by government representatives to be unsafe or sensitive or of national interest.
  10. Forced internment of parts of the population in prison camps.
  11. Criminalization and imprisonment of populations struggling to survive within oppressive socio-economic circumstances.
  12. Confiscation of personal property.
  13. Suppression of activist communications.
  14. Denial of government or corporate funding for activist organizations.
  15. Infiltration and subversion of activist organizations.
  16. Release of propaganda to general population that shores up the status quo.

During a pervasive state of emergency, representative governmental bodies and democratic principles are set aside. In an emergency without an end, such as climate change, democratic principles sidelined during especially critical times may take a long time to be reinstated–or may not be reinstated at all. Philip Aston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, announced on June 25th 2019 that climate change threats are extensive,

[D]emocracy and the rule of law, as well as a wide range of civil and political rights are every bit at risk…[C]ommunity discontent, …growing inequality, and …even greater levels of deprivation among some groups, will likely stimulate nationalist, xenophobic, racist and other responses. Maintaining a balanced approach to civil and political rights will be extremely complex.

With a small planetary minority able to wield powers like those described above, the resolve of people to address climate change and demand system transformation is truly amazing. We are waking up.

It is not that people cannot understand climate change. The growing number of US citizens who do understand the threats posed by climate change possess this knowledge in spite of the system’s attempts to keep them ignorant. As Margaret Salamon observes on the Climate Mitigation website, many people do understand climate change threatens them and the people they love, but they do not seem to know what to do about the situation. Could it be possible that many people are frozen in their tracks because they understand at a wordless level how the systems they believed had their back all these years pose the real risk to them?

In Addition to Climate Change, Here Are Brother and Sister Problems Any Climate Initiative Must Also Address:

The following issues will grow worse as climate change progresses, even though they have plagued our civilization for a very long time and no one is calling them emergencies:

  1. The huge and still growing number of people, including children, who live in poverty.
  2. The suffering created when mechanization and profit become more important than the ability of people to engage in meaningful work.
  3. The fact that this capitalist civilization engenders disease and then requires inadequately compensated people to pay for healthcare in a for-profit system.
  4. The powerful elites’ focus on military efforts overseas–again to increase corporate profits–while insufficient resources are available for schools, public works and national infrastructure. The people did not vote for this social approach.
  5. That the planetary resources needed to manufacture profit are unlimited on the one hand, while the laborers who create products are considered expendable and replaceable. These punishing concepts have played a huge role in creating the cancer of climate change, as well as this system’s human suffering..
  6. That the US adherence to the myths of progress and unlimited growth can be sustained by the planet’s available energy resources, even though we know the energy we currently use, and this civilization’s denial of planetary limits, is already destroying the planet.
  7. That capitalism fails to recognize how it enslaves people of color and marginalized genders to shore up its existence with their underpaid and unpaid labor. Analysts estimate that half of what is needed to make capitalism work involves unpaid labor. For a powerful analysis of this reality, see Faranak Miraftab’s Global Heartland: Displaced Labor, Transnational Lives and Local Placemaking (2016).

Climate Mobilization has set out what it believes mitigation and adaptation plans must address. The Victory Plan, created by Ezra Silk, does recognize the need to address systemic inequality. Unfortunately, this part of the Plan gets only a few sentences toward the end of the document. The Plan gives no real indication of the inseparable connection between climate change and the current destructive capitalist system. Even a powerful document put out by Darebin Climate Action in Australia called Dont Mention the Emergency?”, which recognizes how some people are disproportionately affected by climate change (see page 7 of the report), fails to admit that this inequality and climate change are the result of the current punishing economic and political systems. Even if governments declare climate emergencies, there is nothing that requires them to adopt Salamon and Silk’s tenets.

With the inordinate powers currently held by political and corporate entities, and given their drive to survive, asking them to make climate emergency declarations is like handing them blank checks that they can fill out to suit their own values and their own needs. Why in the world, given what we already see capitalist bodies doing in the face of climate change, should we hope they will actually do anything effective or immediate about the dangers our planet faces?

If Capitalism Offers Us only Planetary Emergency, What Can People Do?

The complex, systemic dangers of climate change threaten everyone–even those who still believe they can survive all of this. Climate Mitigation and numerous other environmental groups are right: we have little time to make the huge changes needed to rein in the worst effects of climate change. Scientists estimate the next ten to twelve years are the crucial ones. After that, the planet faces huge die-offs, including the possible destruction of the human species.

Countless methods have been promoted for working on climate change: elect better leaders, lobby for enactment of better policy, educate the population about climate change, make personal and community plans for the crises of climate change, or as this article explores–demand that our leaders declare climate emergencies. Any of these may appeal to a person’s sense of mission. But there is one key understanding that can best improve a person’s, or a movement’s, chance at being effective:

Understand how specific reasons for climate change can only be addressed if capitalist systems are understood to be their cause. If we are going to approach current leaders with any sort of a declaration, it should be this:

What we need to demand, if we’re going to demand anything from existing power structures, is that existing leadership in political and corporate worlds recognize and declare that they and their systems are responsible for the current danger. Having leaders sign such a declaration would truly require that they create adaptation and mitigation plans free from current desires to maintain a failing socio-economic system.

After all, capitalism is incorrect in its assumptions; its methods will destroy the planet and people, including the deluded ones. Key feedback loops that enliven the system need to be dismantled so it does not continue to reinforce itself.

An example: This week thousands of German activists caused a 12,000 acre coal mine to stop operations simply by sitting down on the coal mine’s grounds. Strategically, a few hours later, another 4,000 protesters targeted a second German coal site, closing it down, too. When these overt and non-violent efforts are supported by the efforts of key negotiators to communicate with industry leaders in labor or manufacturing who have been identified as wavering in their commitment to coal, the actions take on a pervasive and strategic design worthy of a system’s approach. Think Extinction Rebellion.

Push Here, Pull There, and Dig Your Heels in When You Know It’s the Right Thing To Do; There Are Other Strategies to Employ as Well:

  1. Dig in your heels: see offers of safety and security from the capitalist system as attempts to undermine civil liberties and truly ecologically sound and sustainable systems, and to prevent system transformation. Deny and refute the existing system’s attitude that climate change can be addressed independently of the socio-economic system. Whatever action you take, couple it with messages that convey why and how the system is causing current problems.
  2. Push: Assume the current system has forgotten and/or suppressed valuable knowledge held by subjugated and/or marginalized people. Seek out teachers from these groups and become their students. In this way you prevent the current system from dictating who has the best information.
  3. Push: Share and give away resources you hold but do not use. Reapportion your material wealth. Disprove the system’s claim that only material possessions can define happiness or success.
  4. Push yourself: If you are white and comfortable, make reparations to African American and other communities of color by providing physical labor for their needs–not so-called leadership or expertise. These groups have built the wealth of white communities with their efforts. It is time to right this work/life balance. This strategy also subverts the system’s attempts to create a hierarchy of racial and economic power, and to keep groups separate from each other.
  5. Push with careful planning: Spend some energy attempting to shift existing power systems in directions that will rein in global warming and restore social and economic imbalance. This is a challenging part of the work, though. The political system is especially adept at demanding involvement so encompassing that little time is left for other activist work.
  6. Push! At the same time, and with more resolve, work with others to set up relationships and new organizational structures independent of existing governmental systems. Imagine a future social system and begin to put it into place. The world needs new systems, some of which can be created right now.
  7. Dig in your heels: Opposing existing power structures is worthless if you and your community have not created climate change subsistence, adaptation and mitigation measures. Time is short before capitalist systems begin to fail significantly. Small, local systems are essential for weathering what is coming.
  8. Push! Embrace the truth that the capitalist system refuses to acknowledge: the planetary reality is not hierarchical; the planetary system is a web. (Read this book and then share it with others:   Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi’s The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (2014).) What moves, though far away, will touch every part of the web–quickly or eventually. In this understanding, recognize that climate change will affect different parts of the US in different ways and to different degrees over the coming years. And yet, no part of the US (or the planet) can escape the effects of climate change.
    1. Look for connections between your locality and others near and far. Hold space in your mind for the unavoidable possibility that a distant reality will have a local effect never before anticipated. For example: how might a disruption on the Mississippi River affect your community’s supplies, and how will the missing supplies affect not only food and medicine, but jobs and the local economy, too.
    2. Study and explore your local and regional environment. Learn its geological history, learn about its plants and animals and soil. Then study how the extremes of climate change in your part of the world are likely to affect your environment. These are the dangers that you must prepare for immediately.
    3. Realize that in emergencies, what you can endure and what you can do (skills and abilities) will have greater value than monetary wealth–which you’ll likely not be able to access anyway.
    4. Especially in the US, per capita and industrial energy use will have to be drastically reduced. Start now to abandon power-driven possessions and replace with manual labor and mechanical devices. Fight for and use public transportation.
    5. Grow food, not just for personal use, but to share, too. What you do in your garden will spark the participation of others.
    6. Think beyond the safety and survival of your family and immediate community–especially if you are currently comfortable. You are only as strong and safe as your community’s most struggling neighborhood.

These last suggestions are really beside the primary goal of this article: to shift thinking away from the demand that existing governmental bodies declare a climate emergency. Rather than handing the government a blank check for martial law, I hope people will focus most on imagining and creating alternative  (I hope ecosocialist) systems. It is essential that people find the bravery and stamina to realize what lies ahead will affect humans and the planet for a very long time. Do what you can and as much as you can, even as you factor in your own limits.. Those of us who are awake must find our way to work on what has been unleashed. What we choose to do must become effective participation in the longest relay race we’ve ever been forced to run. Don’t drop the baton, and do pass it on.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission