On hope

“I… I believe… I believe that we will win.”  This was among the declarations we chanted as we marched through the streets of downtown Oklahoma City on a blustery afternoon last month.  Our route took us past the corporate offices of some of Oklahoma’s largest oil-and-gas companies.  We stood in their shadows, set differences aside, and called in unison for renewable energy, accountability for pollution, an end to dangerous drilling practices…

But it was a Sunday, and the concrete canyons were eerily quiet.  They echoed only our noise, as if to remind us of their indifference to our presence.  In front of a hotel, a man in cowboy boots ran out to mimic us while an idling school bus full of teenaged boys looked on with wide-eyed bewilderment.  Press coverage was minimal.[i]  I was left wondering whether anyone was listening to us, besides us.

Though the march in OKC attracted no more than a couple hundred concerned citizens, it had counterparts in cities around the world.  The largest was in Manhattan, where some 300-400,000 people filled the streets.  This event—the People’s Climate March or PCM—was organized by activist groups 350.org and Avaaz.  Their aim: to put pressure on delegates at a UN summit who were planning upcoming talks on a “universal climate agreement.”  The PCM was the largest climate-related mobilization in history.  Whether or not it ultimately affects UN negotiations, it garnered international attention in a way few climate actions have.

But was this really a watershed moment for the climate movement?  Or was it an impressive but ultimately insignificant flash in the pan?  Or, worse still, was it a counterproductive distraction from more meaningful efforts?

Commentators have offered conflicting views.  Where some see a “corporate P.R. campaign,” a “climate-themed street fair,” or a poorly organized “farce,” others see a major step in movement building and even a “new lease on life” for environmental activism.[ii]

I remain ambivalent.  Only time will tell what the PCM accomplished.  For now, let’s accept the premise that events like the PCM are increasingly entangled with corporate power.  This brings us to a larger theoretical and practical question: do  spectacles of corporate greenwashing preclude moments of radicalization?  Short of offering any kind of definitive answer of my own, I will instead highlight one aspect of the PCM that suggests a way toward an answer: its diversity.[iii]

Among those who marched in New York were conventional environmentalists, but also religious groups, labor unions, migrant workers, indigenous representatives, and many others.[iv]  Now, I took part in OKC, not NYC, but even here the crowd was far from homogeneous.  Among us were representatives of the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, the First Unitarian Church, Idle No More, the Sierra Club, and others.  Our placards and t-shirts spoke of expressly environmental concerns like access to clean water and fracking, but also of civil rights and pacifism more generally.  As in New York, our local social and environmental problems were explicitly connected to global ones.

Mainstream environmentalism has long been criticized for its “unbearable whiteness,” classism, and ethnocentrism.  But what I hear when I listen to voices from the PCM—whether in OKC, NYC, or Manila—does not fit this conventional mold.  What I hear is an overwhelming concern for social and environmental justice.  Perhaps I’m naïve, but I think these voices offer genuine cause for hope in an otherwise very bleak landscape.  The silos of activism may be merging in new and compelling ways.  Consider, for example, the Flood Wall Street action that immediately followed the PCM.  It is increasingly difficult to divorce discussions of climate change from discussions of structural inequality.  Both have their roots in a global capitalist system that rewards the pursuit of profit in the short term over the pursuit of equity and sustainability in the long term.

In this respect, then, I would not want to exaggerate the somewhat gloomy tone with which I began this post.  I am hopeful.  Empirical studies suggest that political mobilizations, in combination with “elite cues,” are the most effective way to shape public opinion and compel political action around environmental issues.[v]  Oklahoma may lag behind other parts of the world when it comes to participation in mobilizations like the PCM–after all, we live in a place that has long been defined by the booms and busts of fossil energy and where it can be hard to imagine the world otherwise.  But we are also citizens of the world, we are affected by climate change, and we are living in the epicenter of an energy boom that does more than cause earthquakes or acid spills.  It makes us uniquely accountable for changes happening at the global scale.

Whether we need more PCMs is up for debate.  But what’s not debatable is that we need more than PCMs.  My hope, which the PCM has rekindled, is that the strength and pervasiveness of climate justice movements will continue to grow so that their demands cannot be ignored.  The path to habitability is difficult and as yet shrouded in uncertainty.  But surely this path runs through an unrelenting commitment to inclusivity and justice.  I don’t know that “we will win,” but I think we have a fighting chance.

[i] Local news crews were, I gather, busy covering a “black mass” being held elsewhere in the city.

[ii] I am grateful to Anthony Knight and other members of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s listserv for drawing these essays to my attention.

[iii] I am by no means the first to remark on this diversity.  See, e.g., Carolyn Kormann’s piece in the New Yorker.

[iv] Democracy Now has assembled a video compilation of “Voices from the People’s Climate March.”

[v] We’ve had a lot of “elite cues” lately, including a particularly notable one by Leonardo DiCaprio.

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