A Public Action Approach to Knowledge and Intervention to Meet the Climate Challenge

Fig. 11.1
People march during a rally against climate change. Manhattan, New York 21 September 2014 [Reuters]. http://​www.​euractiv.​com/​sections/​energy/​300-000-march-against-climate-change-new-york-308605#comment-1

Throughout her book This changes everything: capitalism vs the climate, Klein (2014) espouses social movements as a countervailing power and the glimmer of light for meeting climate change and other global challenges. Thus, at one point, after reviewing positively a conference presentation by a complex systems analyst, she trumpets: ‘In other words, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the present (capitalist) system left unchecked is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial, climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners’ (Ibid: 450).

Each of the three sentences in this quotation contains knowledge claims that are disputable. Leaving this aside, however, Klein is very clear that social movements involve countervailing values that challenge those of institutionalised power. For example:

‘If there is a reason for social movements to exist, it is not to accept dominant values as fixed and unchangeable but to offer other ways to live – to wage, and win, a battle of world views’ (Ibid: 61)… values about what we owe to one another based on our humanity (Ibid: 461)… the moral voice of the climate movement (Ibid: 463).

Social movements based on shared values that are in turn rooted in lived experiences—either directly or as witness to the generalised damage that climate change will cause, especially to the already vulnerable—undoubtedly play a significant role in public action. Playing a significant role, however, is not the same as suggesting that they represent our main, perhaps only, hope and we critique Klein’s exposition of the latter on four grounds. First, she illustrates her argument with reference to the great historical social movements that achieved so much in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but these bear no substantive resemblance to today’s climate change challenge. Second, she presents no informed vision of an overarching alternative system. Third, she does not consider the conflicting personal values that make it very difficult for many citizens to align with social movements, no matter how sympathetic they might be to their aims. Fourthly, by framing the climate challenge as a battle/war she rejects the possibility of win-win solutions. See Box 11.1 for elaboration of our critique.

Taken together, these four grounds undermine the credibility of her claims for climate change social movements. We reiterate our view that they may contribute significantly towards countervailing institutionalised power and knowledge about climate change, particularly in relation to society-wide value shifts. We argue, however, that they are not by themselves going to change the world and we should accept a more modest role which does not raise expectations too highly, where they sit among other forms of public action. Lived experiences of dashed expectations can easily turn to disillusion.

Box 11.1 The power of social movements? A critique of Naomi’s Klein’s This changes everything: capitalism versus the climate

Naomi Klein makes a strong case for social movements to bring institutionalised power to heel and force it to take strong action on climate change as a basis for tackling other enduring global challenges of poverty, inequality and social justice. A call to arms, through their actions they may trigger a complete overhaul of the capitalist economic system. In our view, however, her analysis is flawed for the following reasons.

First, she draws parallels with historical social movements which include: the abolition of slavery, the ‘New Deal’ that the American labour movement gained in the aftermath of the Great Depression from 1929 to the late 1930s, the national liberation movements against colonialism, the 1950s/1960s American Civil Rights Movement that achieved so much for Black equality, the 1960s second wave of feminism and the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

The parallels of these social movements with climate change activism are, however, inappropriate for deeper reasons than her noting of their mixed records in terms of tangible economic gains. Their power lay in the fact that they represented the culmination of injustices over a great many years. For example, the American Civil Rights Movement represented the culmination of a century or more of direct and crude exploitation of black people in the southern United States (even after slavery was formally abolished in 1865). Climate change on the other hand starts in the present and projects to the future which in the final analysis is still unknown despite the wealth of informed literature about what is likely to happen under global warming scenarios. And, while an argument can be made that climate change is exploitative by the world’s rich of the world’s poor, it is at least one step removed from the direct exploitation suffered by Black America. The latter was essentially a single issue campaign not against, but for inclusion and sharing in, the American lifestyle. This is a lifestyle that is underpinned by global capitalism which Klein explicitly bridles against as she declares that the climate change movement ‘hinges on pulling off a profound and radical economic transformation’ (Ibid: 452).

Second, while there is a strong idea in the book of what the mass movement would be against, as signified by the title—against capitalism—there is little to suggest what it would be for in terms of an overarching alternative system, although she acknowledges the need for one when she states: ‘If opposition movements are to do more than burn bright and then burn out, they will need a comprehensive vision for what should emerge in the place of our failing system, as well as serious political strategies for how to achieve these goals’ (Ibid: 9). Later she quotes approvingly, the Environmental Justice Movement (Chap. 2) slogan: ‘system change, not climate change’ (Ibid: 165).

Nor is she short of value-based aspirations for the new system as she declares the need for a powerful mass movement that weaves climate and other pressing issues ‘into a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilised climate system’ (Ibid: 7, 8), and for ‘building a much more stable and equitable economic system, one that strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate greed’ (Ibid: 21). She even suggests specific systems for different sectors, for example, ‘combined-cycle’ power plants that can switch between energy sources (Ibid: 129), transit systems accountable to their riders, water systems overseen by their users and neighbourhoods planned democratically (Ibid: 133).

Aspirations and sectoral systems, however, need an overarching institutional system or framework that sets the general rules of the game. While Klein declares war on capitalism, no alternative system is forthcoming. Nor is she enamoured by the historical alternative to capitalism, noting that ‘humans have acted in this way not only under capitalist systems, but under systems that called themselves socialist as well’ (Ibid: 159).

We, the authors of this book, stress here that we are not asking that she offers the detailed knowledge of a blueprint for an alternative system, but for an outline that might inform a mass social movement and help it not to burn out while it works out something better.
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