forms of activism, adapted from the book Deep Green Resistance
We are learning, I think more and more, that most activism simply doesn’t work — it may change minds for a while, but it rarely seems to change anything in the real world, at least not on any scale or for long. Arguments about the “ripple effects” by which symbolic actions by leading activists produce major shifts in what is tolerable to the majority of the populace are pretty much, I think, a leap of faith; they remind me of conservatives’ arguments for the validity of “trickle down” economics.
So the perpetrators of the atrocities that activists rail against are quite content to allow activism as a safety valve for public outrage, as long as it remains impotent.
Some activists are now realizing that impotence, and they now seem to be moving in one or both of two directions: towards direct action that obstructs, occupies, destroys, reclaims and expropriates the activities of the most egregious ecological miscreants (“take it, break it, block it”, as shown at the top of the chart above); and/or towards hyper-local action that remediates damage in one small but significant way, at least for a while.
Activists are mostly finding, I think, that the former will simply not be tolerated, as there is no limit to the level of arrests, police actions and other steps the perpetrators will go to to prevent, punish and discourage such actions. The jails, hospitals and morgues may fill to overflowing as long as the disruption continues, but soon enough business as usual will resume.
The hope is, supposedly, that such activism will reach the scale at which it becomes impracticable to arrest everyone, and there won’t be enough enforcers to keep the atrocities going, so eventually the perpetrators will give up and cease their ways. This might be possible, but particularly given the current state of the media, it seems unlikely to me that enough people will ever be roused enough to take the very real risks needed to make this happen, until and unless there is an immediate, existential threat to all of them personally.
Many of the past takeovers of national power by fascists have been enabled by this lack of critical mass of people roused enough to put their lives on the line to oppose it. And fascist movements in many other countries are counting on similar reticence as they plan their antidemocratic takeovers for the coming months and years. This is happening all over the world, and so far there is not much evidence it won’t continue despite all the protests. Most of us have become understandably cynical about our quasi-democracies, and most of us have never lived under a fascist tyranny and hence don’t realize how awful they will be (though Texans and Floridians are getting a taste). It seems doubtful to me that enough of us will be willing to put our lives on the line to defend a system that seems pretty dysfunctional, when most can’t imagine fascism being much worse (though it will be). A recent global survey suggested that relatively few of us, especially young people, still think it’s essential to live in a democracy.
And globally, relatively few of us still live in a real democracy.
Good luck to any activists who continue direct action under fascism. To discourage followers, they will simply be shot, or worse. Lots of Guantánamos and gulags waiting to be built. Reeducation is a growth industry.
The more pragmatic activists are opting for focused, hyper-local actions — getting dams decommissioned, cleaning up local water supplies etc. You can fight successfully to save a particular grove of trees that locals have come to love. But as soon as you try to increase the scale to, for example, try to end harvesting the last 2% of old-growth forests in a region, the corporatists’ gloves will come off, and you’ll find yourself made an example of.
So my guess is that, soon enough, activists in more and more countries will have to turn their full attention to fighting fascism, principally within their own country. The war against climate collapse, ecological collapse, and economic inequality will have to be shelved, as it so often has been in past, to focus on the more immediate, personal existential threat of political and social oppression. And power is so unequally distributed now, and public opinion so imbued with disinformation and misinformation, that that struggle is likely to be long, and not go well.
Before it’s resolved, global economic collapse will be upon us, and over the following decade or two it will be exacerbated by the more severe manifestations of climate and ecological collapse. Power will then inevitably devolve to the local level, and we will have no choice but to put aside our political differences and work together to deal with the everyday crises at hand. We will all, at last, be activists.
We’ll then learn what we’re really made of, as so many around the world, living in collapse under undemocratic but largely powerless, inept and ineffectual governments, are already experiencing.
It won’t be easy, but it will be interesting. This is what collapse looks like.