Climate Change: In a Struggle This Big, There’s No Room for Theatrics

Why It’s Wrong to Call Climate Change the Most Challenging Social Movement in History

by: Joseph Boutilier | Published Monday, Sept 29, 2014

More than 310,000 people marched in New York during the 2014 People's Climate March. (Photo Credit: John Minchillo/FLICKR)

More than 310,000 people marched in New York during the 2014 People’s Climate March. (Photo Credit: John Minchillo/FLICKR)

Man, what’s happening? Just as it seems the climate movement is regaining mainstream momentum, positive economic arguments are coming to light and the world is gearing up for the biggest display of public pressure for climate action ever, we decide that the issue is so profound and incompatible with current values that it will require not just a social – but also a political – ‘disruption’ to resolve it. We seem to have decided that climate change is the biggest, baddest, most challenging social movement in the history of the world. What kind of an attitude is that?

It’s as if we’ve grown so tired of trying to make environmental arguments resonate that we’ve decided instead to appropriate civil rights campaigns for our cause.

Part of the problem may be that we’ve used and overused every imaginable slogan, rhyme and jingle over the past 50 years in a fruitless attempt to get people to remember that they still depend on greenery more than greenbacks and clouds more than ‘The Cloud’. No one ever remembers the first two ‘Rs’ in reduce, reuse, recycle. The earth only gets one day of celebration, and if you participate you’re probably a hippie or a stoner or a brand ambassador for a corporate greenwashing startup that sells recycled Styrofoam coffee cups to Enrbidge HQ for its lunch room. The boy who cried ‘save the planet’ was devoured by his own hyperbole long ago.

Worse still, the ‘saving the world as we know it’ tag line has been co-opted by every imaginable cause the world over. The absence of Cherry Coke does, technically, change the world as we know it (it’s a very particular world, after all). Yet we seem strangely reluctant to spell out what’s really at stake for fear of sounding ‘alarmist’ or ‘isolating’. Apparently some bearded, pseudo-homeless guys have been walking around street corners with sandwich boards touting the apocalypse and now it’s totally uncool to talk about civilizational collapse.

But that’s the truth about what’s at stake if the climate movement accepts the failure it’s set itself up for. A world without humans sounds more like a tree-hugger’s wet dream than a nightmare, so we’ve rebadged ourselves as civil rights defenders, skipping entirely our more honest aspirations as conservers of our own domain. All the while, we act like only a miracle from god could cause our politicians to take up arms against a crisis that’s on course to kill their own children.

RELATED: 50 Canadian Climate Experts Support People’s Climate March

We forget sometimes that as proponents of climate action, we are not a minority but a strong majority in Canada. We forget that even if they don’t give a shit about ‘climate justice’ (that is, the death of impoverished people at the expense of our sacred greenhouse gas emissions), anyone who believes in science is rightfully panicked at our predicament. True, we’re currently lead by an evangelical Christian who likely doesn’t believe in dinosaurs (even though some would argue he is one). True, a bunch of borderline climate-deniers in our government have gone to great lengths to muzzle and gag our own scientists. But this painful political accident can’t last. Liberal Leader Justin Trueau’s charismatic hairstyle alone seems poised to win an election, and there’s kind of a lot of people in New York during last week’s People’s Climate March (including a huge Canadian contingent) to turn the tides on the myth that mainstream ‘political willpower’ for climate action doesn’t exist.

Yes, it’s true, money is a damn powerful thing, and there’s a lot of it at stake in this particular struggle. We are, after all, calling for an end to the most profitable single resource market on the planet. But guess who’s on the buying end of that market? Us. And we may not be the 1% of Wall Street, but on the global scale, we’re a pretty affluent bunch. Were we fighting this battle purely for the benefit of those most effected in third-world countries, adopting the ‘noble savior’ trope would only be slightly more forgivable. But we’re not.

We’re also not a handful of black people being drizzled with ketchup and hatred at the back of a bus. We’re not endangering our lives by standing by our cause. We don’t have to fight for laws to win our freedom to speak to power. We’re not a minority without voting rights asking the most powerful majority on the planet to stop exploiting us to its detriment. We’re not forced with turning the tide on a kind of discrimination that has festered in mainstream society for generations. We don’t have to erase decades of misinformation to reconstruct a confused and suppressed history and re-educate a nation. We’re not slaves.

The vast majority of us can’t claim to understand those fundamental struggles, but we seem to have no reservations about purporting ourselves to be in the thick of an equally righteous and even more treacherous battle. We’re not shy to say we’re ‘saving the world’ while ignoring another inconvenient truth: it wouldn’t need to be saved if it wasn’t for us.

We’re determined to downplay our own selfish interests to rise above our opponents, but we know there’s too much at stake to truly risk the high road. We almost downplay evidence of widespread exception in order to pump up the David and Goliath fable. It’s a narrative that works best in economic terms, but even then, only if we discount the powerful financial interests of peripheral industries like agriculture, manufacturing and insurance, all of which will be devastated by global warming and are firmly on our side. Anytime that genuine mainstream support starts to build, we have a knack for creating internal division and conflict. The climate movement is engulfed in such melodrama. And why? Edward Bernays himself couldn’t justify such exaggeration and theatrics for a cause so inexplicably dramatic and urgent by its nature.

None of this is to say we’re in for an easy ride. Despite its strength in numbers, the resounding scientific endorsement of its mission and the diversity and variety of its supporters, it’s bound to take immeasurable time and effort gain real political traction. Scientific consensus and multiculturalism have never exactly played key roles in the diplomatic directives of European colonial rule. Any struggle that singles out a particular, well-established, government-subsidized industry has its work cut out for it. Add polarizing political and religious bias, corrupt media and an unstable economy, and holding up the ‘logic’ card is like bringing a spoon to D-Day. And to be sure, the global impacts of climate change deserve – even demand – that we recognize civil rights and social justice as a pillar of the movement.

But none of that is an excuse to haul out the disadvantaged-minority trope in an attempt to energize struggling populations or draw favourable comparisons with historical heroes. None of it can explain our reluctance to embrace mainstream support or untie climate action from disruptive politics. These strategies are detrimental to the movement. Disingenuous. They fuel resentment against institutions that are already battling distrust and hyper-partisan associations. They perpetuate the kind of misleading interpretations that obscure and distort colonial reality. No wonder our major environmental organizations have struggled to build trust with key minority stakeholders.

With so many lenses through which to view the fight against climate change, it’s up to all of us to portray our role as honestly as possible. Recognizing our vast well of support and our own inherent privilege instead of highlighting our isolation will fortify the integrity of the thirst for change. And a positive attitude wouldn’t hurt, either.

Joseph Boutilier is a climate activist from Victoria BC. Follow him: @josephboutilier

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