By Debnil Sur
In an era of massive political gridlock, the People’s Climate March reminded us that citizens can still demonstrate their power. In addition to hundreds of thousands of protesters across fifty countries, roughly 300,000 people filled the streets of Manhattan on Sept. 21 to form not only the largest climate protest ever but also the biggest U.S. political demonstration of any kind in over a decade. Many different activist groups attended the event, including Native Americans, immigration rights activists, scientists, investment bankers and university students. Moreover, prominent figures in attendance included Leonardo DiCaprio, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and former Vice President Al Gore.
However, both before and after the event, some leftist writers penned criticism of the march’s goals and methods. They argued that organizers utilized NGOs’ business models of organizing; played to the “lowest common denominator” to maximize attendance; cooperated with the police to set a march route; and allowed inactive politicians and corporate interests to endorse the march.
Another was that the march represented a symbolic resistance at a time when “we are past the time of symbolism.” One attacked marchers directly: “The spectacle of thousands of First World citizens marching for climate justice, while they continue to generate the vast majority of carbon emissions, brings to mind the spectacle of George W. Bush visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” Instead, writers called for more active acts of civil disobedience, like picketing and blockading the United Nations’ climate summit, held two days after the march.
To be sure, many of the criticisms leveraged against the march are valid. However, these writers seem to miss the value of the protest in two major ways. Portraying the march as a corporate campaign misinterprets current climate movements. Moreover, criticizing “symbolic” protests as a waste of time ignores their role in building activism.
The inclusion of multinational companies doesn’t corrupt the entire protest. Rather, it represents the convergence of different groups, from banks to indigenous organizations, with different methodologies to deal with the climate. Sure, the Climate Group includes many investment banks; that doesn’t take away from the indigenous people and poverty rights organizations marching at the front and representing some of the most immediately affected groups.
Additionally, a protest of this scale represents a culmination of many local struggles: anti-fracking, anti-Keystone XL and college divestment campaigns like our own Fossil Free Stanford, to name a few. Through these, the power in environmental movements has been shifting from politicians to citizens – a necessary shift for greener policies. Rather than refusing to criticize an ostensibly liberal Democratic regime, organizations like 350.org are becoming increasingly vocal in their criticism of President Obama’s pro-fossil fuel policies. If the Keystone XL pipeline passes, it’s likely that tens of thousands will protest as well.
After all, these are actions that ordinary citizens can take. The industrial and commercial processes that drive emissions aren’t those that individuals and consumers can directly affect. Through activism, it becomes possible to alter those realities. When coupled with incremental greener behavior in daily life – biking instead of driving, shorter showers and organic produce are common examples – citizens can make a difference.
Protest thus represents an accessible, meaningful way to build activism and cultural momentum. There are the obvious benefits for future climate activism: greater awareness, activist networking, solidarity between smaller groups and inspiration for participants. In particular, the climate march represented the important introduction of organized labor in the fight for climate justice. As one of the most influential groups in Congress, it signifies that activism could eventually catalyze legislation.
Obviously, protests themselves, no matter how large, will never create immediate government action. But the leftist writers’ call for violent revolution will only make their voices and ideas even less politically relevant. The political sphere of the left would simply split into liberals and radicals, making both groups less effective. Utopian visions of restarting with a carbon-free society are simply far less realistic and productive than attempts to work within the current economic and political system, however broken it may be.
Moving forward, climate activists must keep in mind both radical solutions and incremental reforms. Events like the People’s Climate March are thus hugely important shows of support: Through such demonstrations, activists can mobilize the support necessary for better societal treatment of the environment.
Contact Debnil Sur at debnil “at” stanford.edu.