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Toward Climate-Catalyzed Social Transformation?

  • May 3, 2019

Climate & Catastrophe

Applying the work of Erik Olin Wright to emergent climate change movements helps us to understand current trajectories and possible pathways for transformation.

In the past weeks, Extinction Rebellion has continued to make news headlines with acts of protest in London, Boston, New York and other cities across the globe. In London, thousands of activists blocked roads and bridges and over 1,000 were arrested. These actions are a part of Extinction Rebellion’s ongoing strategy to disrupt the economy and pressure governments to meet their demands to address climate change.

In addition, the youth movement Fridays for Future continues to hold school strikes with an estimated 1.6 million participants across the globe on March 15. In the United States, the Sunrise Movement has just launched a tour to promote the Green New Deal, a possibly transformative resolution that targets both inequality and greenhouse gas emissions.

These movements are unprecedented, growing, and are unlikely to go away any time soon. In addition, meeting the demands of these movements would require significant social and economic changes through a radical political program.

Given the momentum of these movements, are we on the verge of a possible climate-catalyzed social transformation? And if so, what strategies for transformation will be most effective?

To interpret the recent rise of these climate change movements, we draw from the late Erik Olin Wright whose work illustrates a deep understanding of social transformation.

In his book Envisioning Real Utopias, Wright outlined a detailed theory of social transformation with four main components. First, identify the forces of social reproduction that impede positive social change. Second, find gaps and contradictions that can be politicized to open the door for change. Third, understand and build a trajectory of change: history tells us that transformation occurs when unintended social consequences combine with purposeful social movements. Lastly, adopt one or more of the following transformative strategies: interstitial (building alternatives in the cracks of the current system), symbiotic (working within the system for collaborative reforms), and ruptural (smashing the system).

Applying Wright’s work to emergent climate change movements helps us to understand current trajectories and possible pathways for transformation.

Facing the powers of social reproduction

Climate change movements face significant forces of social reproduction. The fossil fuel and transportation sectors continue to put significant financial resources into blocking policy initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. For example, fossil fuel companies spent over $30 million to kill Washington state’s carbon tax initiative. Politicians continue to receive campaign contributions from these sectors and new PACs and teams of lobbyists are working hard to oppose the Green New Deal.

Further, there is the long-standing problem of the well-organized climate change denialist movement among conservative politicians and think tanks, the fossil fuel industry and contrarian scientists. On top of this, right-wing movements and parties, no friends of the environment, are on the rise globally, including in the US, much of Europe and much of Latin America.

In addition to these more obvious forms of social reproduction, those in power also employ ideology to maintain the status quo. Ideology conceals the relationships between greenhouse gas emissions and capitalism’s structural drive to increase resource use and pollution. It also conceals the false promises of “green” technology, markets and growth, which merely sustain the unsustainable.

Centrist ideology, which is its own form of climate change denial, masks the reality that radical social and economic changes are necessary to address climate change. Unmasking these ideologies is therefore imperative for climate change movements.

Yet there are even more subtle and micro-level forms of social reproduction, such as helplessness in the face of climate change, norms that detach climate change knowledge from action, and climate change’s irrelevance to the daily concerns of citizens of the Global North. It goes without saying that climate change inaction is the norm. Indeed, even among those who are very concerned about climate change, only a minority engage in minimal forms of public action. In short, climate change movements face an uphill battle.

Ripening conditions for change

While these forces of social reproduction are powerful, social-ecological contradictions can be increasingly politicized and serve to solidify a trajectory of change. Capitalism is always adapting to and attempting to fix inherent contradictions. However, it ultimately cannot fix the capital-climate contradiction — the contradiction between capital’s need to endlessly expand production and the destructive ecological effects of this expansionistic production.

In addition, more people are finding that their plutocratic governments are not meeting their needs and will not meet the needs of future generations. The time delay between carbon emissions and the impacts of climate change make it difficult for many to see that these needs are not being met. Yet this is not the case for all people. Hurricanes, storms and floods are increasingly impacting large numbers of people, especially in the Global South. Recent examples include Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico and Cyclone Idai in southeast Africa.

Wright explains that throughout history social transformation has resulted from the combination of unintended social consequences from the existing social order and deliberate actions for change through social movements. Today, we see a number of unintentional consequences emerging as responses to decades of neoliberal policies that have resulted in widening inequality and increasing carbon emissions. There are growing signs that we are in a global legitimation crisis. This crisis has resulted in polarized pathways for change as embodied through growing support for both socialist and fascist political leaders. While qualitatively different, Brexit, the Gilets Jaunes in France and the election of Donald Trump can all be seen as signs of a legitimation crisis.

The majority of citizens now are victims of neoliberal policies and the emergence of a strong counter-movement is inevitable. Following in the wake of these unintended responses, purposeful climate change movements have emerged with specific demands and strategies. Fridays for Future, Sunrise, and Extinction Rebellion represent an unprecedented force demanding change. This combination of factors ripens the conditions for social transformation.

Transformative strategies

Wright argued that in most cases successful transformation involves all three transformational strategies: interstitial, symbiotic and ruptural. In some ways, it is difficult to categorize the strategies of specific movements. Wright once stated that Occupy Wall Street did not have a transformative strategy, but was an expressive movement to draw attention to problems. In contrast, all three climate change movements discussed here are transformative projects with specific demands and ongoing strategies to meet those demands.

Interstitial strategies create alternatives in the cracks of the current system. Increasing attention has focused on how individuals can drive hybrid vehicles, buy more efficient appliances, turn off lights, fly less and eat a plant-based diet. Individual behavioral changes may help, but they will fail to reshape our energy, transportation, military, industrial and food systems in the ways necessary to mitigate climate change.

However, interstitial strategies have also been important to demonstrate how we can use renewable energy in more transformative ways, how cities can reduce carbon emissions, and how communities can take control over their energy systems. Again, these strategies alone will not mitigate climate change to the extent necessary. Interstitial strategies have shown us what is possible and give us hope, but the response to this global problem needs to be at the appropriate global scale to be effective. We must therefore focus our attention on ruptural and symbiotic strategies at the system-level.

The logic of rupture

Whether or not we are currently seeing ruptural strategies employed by climate change movements depends on how we define them. Wright faced significant criticism from other socialists for his position on revolutionary rupture. He argued that system-level rupture is not only highly unlikely to occur, due to lack of capacity and organization, but is also undesirable given that most revolutions have been violent and did not result in democratic and egalitarian outcomes.

While not supportive of revolutionary rupture, Wright proposed that partial ruptures and the “logic of rupture” could still be very useful especially when combined with other strategies.

Extinction Rebellion’s strategies are in line with the “logic of rupture.” Extinction Rebellion has no interest in compromise and collaboration with those in power.

Instead their strategy is to disrupt and impair the economy through blocking transportation and mass arrests until governments meet their demands. They hope to put a wrench in the current system and bring it to a grinding halt if their demands are not met. While Extinction Rebellion is not planning a revolutionary overthrow, their strategy of attempting to shut down the system goes beyond the expressive movement of Occupy Wall Street and is largely consistent with the “logic of rupture.” Ruptural logic and can serve to weaken the current system and set the stage for more radical forms of symbiotic transformation.

Pushing for non-reformist reforms

Wright described symbiotic strategies as a form of class compromise and working within the current system on collaborative reform. These strategies rely on pressure from social movements to force the ruling class into a position of compromise.

In terms of climate change, Fridays for Future activists claim they will continue to strike until governments enact policies to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Sunrise Movement goes further, demanding support for the Green New Deal, which could further an economic transition to help address inequality and climate change.

Sunrise plans to work within the US political system through making the Democratic Party a champion for the Green New Deal. Their Green New Deal tour will involve town hall meetings across the country and pressuring politicians to pledge their support. Working within the current two-party system they hope to get enough support for a possible policy window with a new president in 2020.

While the Green New Deal calls for net-zero emissions by 2050 and supports labor unions, worker cooperatives and community projects; it does not specifically call for reducing and eliminating the use of fossil fuels, its already “radical” emissions targets are not radical enough, and it does not challenge the economic growth paradigm. Yet, its public and political support indicates it could represent a gateway to more radical change.

The strategies of these climate change movements are creating conditions that are increasingly ripe for transformation. Wright predicted that climate change would necessitate the end of neoliberalism and would “open up more space for broader, socially directed state interventions.”

Moving forward, what might be the best way to achieve meaningful social change? We agree with Wright that a revolution that smashes and rebuilds the system is very unlikely today. The most viable transformative strategy would be a powerful symbiotic strategy that results in what Gorz called “non-reformist reforms.” These types of reforms can advance a radical transformation of society and may act as part of a transitional program out of capitalism. They are transformative in that they can reveal the irrationality of the current social order and result in recreating economic and social systems.

Current climate change movements have the potential to result in meaningful non-reformist reforms that enhance social and ecological well-being. For the Green New Deal to become a non-reformist reform, it will need to be pushed further, challenging the capitalist growth imperative and calling for measures like nationalizing fossil fuel companies, regulating advertising and work time reduction. The Green New Deal must transform the economy or at least open the door for this transformation to occur.

The uncompromising demands of Extinction Rebellion may represent another example of non-reformist reforms, calling for more rapid mitigation efforts, democratic participation in planning and reducing total production and consumption in the Global North.

A route forward

Without a much larger social movement these non-reformist reforms are unlikely to occur. One prerequisite for a successful climate change movement is building coalitions with other social movements. The climate change movement cannot create an alternative to capitalism alone. The left has been fractured for decades and requires synergy and a unified struggle to take power and create impactful and lasting change.

We provide one route for unification here: the potential power of a unified labor and climate movement. There is a history of collaboration between the environmental and labor movements on issues such as health, safety and international trade. However, there has also been conflict over real and, more often, perceived threats of job loss due to environmental regulations. For example, the AFL-CIO opposes the Green New Deal due to job loss fears. In these moments, the climate change movement has a responsibility to show labor that there are routes to mitigation that increase the well-being of workers.

Both work-time reduction and nationalizing fossil fuel industries would benefit the climate and labor. Work-time reduction has a long list of social benefits and decommissioning fossil fuel companies following nationalization allows for job replacement in renewable energy and related sectors. As the central historical agent in shortening the workweek and making collective ownership a reality, a revived and environmentally conscious labor movement is a clear potential friend of the climate movement. And one way to revive a currently weak labor movement is through an alliance with the climate change movement.

However, without a stronger and unified movement we will likely eventually end up with a compromised and weaker Green New Deal such as the Climate Action Now Act, supported by Nancy Pelosi and moderate Democrats. While in the past symbiotic transformation could be slow, piecemeal, and focus on compromise; now there is no time to spare and no room for compromise.

In many ways we are in uncharted waters for social transformation. While we recognize the powerful forces of social reproduction that stymie progressive change and make addressing climate change in time highly unlikely, a trajectory for social transformation has begun and we must stand up together to demand change.

Diana Stuart

Diana Stuart is an Associate Professor in the Sustainable Communities Program and in the School of Earth and Sustainability at Northern Arizona University. Her work focuses on climate change mitigation and adaptation, agriculture, conservation, animals studies, political economy and social theory.

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Ryan Gunderson

Ryan Gunderson is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Justice Studies in the Department of Sociology and Gerontology and Affiliate of the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability at Miami University. His research interests include environmental sociology, the sociology of technology, social theory, political economy and animal studies.

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