The Future of Activism

direct action
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.


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6 Responses to The Future of Activism

  1. realist says:

    May be you should read Joseph Tainter, collapse actually IMPROVE the living conditions of some part of the population, and this is actually what *drives* the collapse, defectors getting a better bargain from the collapse than from their existing conditions.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hmm, realist, I have of course read Joseph Tainter, but I didn’t get the sense that he thought collapse was the result of any kind of enlightened or unenlightened self-interest. In fact my sense is that, while we can never know, the “walking away” that Daniel Quinn describes as civilizations collapse is driven more by emotion and instinct than reason.

  3. Joe Clarkson says:


    I agree that, in the past, collapse could improve the lives of many people, especially when most people were working at food production in the countryside, both for themselves and for the elites in more urban areas. In a collapse situation their lives would change little except that they would get to keep all of their production, making their lives easier.

    Now, in rich countries at least, almost everyone is a member of the urban population and even if they are not members of the elite, these urbanites still need to get their food from the country, a process they know little about and which cannot survive without modernity’s ongoing business as usual. Collapse will not be a boon to the vast majority in rich countries, it will kill them.

    To Dave’s point about the inadequacy of activism:

    The mortal threat of collapse is almost exactly matched by the danger of actually doing something about business as usual. The rapidity with which carbon emissions must be reduced, resource extraction minimized, and food production returned to a semblence of sustainability will look just like collapse to everyone in rich countries.

    That’s why it will be put off as long as possible and why there will be no popular uprising against environmental destruction. The consequences of the actions required to prevent environmental destruction are just as bad as the consequences of environmental destruction itself (at least to the modern folk who must live through it). This a consequence of waiting too long during exponential growth.

    The only people who will gain by rapid degrowth are thousands of unborn generations to come. The people at mortal risk are the people alive now. This is why nothing will be done and activism won’t change anything (except perhaps for “withdrawal”, if withdrawal is really “activism”).

    Withdrawal won’t change anything except for those who engage in it. Done soon enough and with foresight, withdrawal or preparation for withdrawal may increase one’s chances of surviving collapse by a modest amount because withdrawal from urbanism’s business as usual is a key step in adapting to collapse. It’s probably better than doing nothing and certainly better than other more direct forms of activism, which just divert time and effort away from the adaptation process.

  4. Michael Dowd says:

    Excellent, as usual, Dave. Just read this aloud to Connie and she thought it was great, too.
    The wild card, as I see it, is ABRUPT climate mayhem (10,000 years of radical climate destabilization in half a human lifetime).
    Over the last few months I’ve made a study of cascading feedback loops, or tipping points. Here are a few of the main points I find myself making these days, in most discussions of the future… (I forget if it’s okay with you for a comment to include a fair number of links. If you reject this, I’ll know why and will resubmit with much less substantiation.)

    It now seems obvious that we’ve already crossed a number of planetary thresholds and that the planet is barreling toward a hothouse Earth.
    C) (12-min VIDEO) “This is Code Red for the Planet”:

    Despite the way the IPCC, governments, economists, and the mainstream media speak of them, the following tipping points (self-reinforcing and cascading thresholds) are not merely “possible” or “at risk” or “in danger of exceeding”).

    No matter…

    • how massive and effective is nonviolent civil disobedience…
    • who, or which party, is voted out or elected into public office…
    • how many people change their habits, become vegan, stop flying…
    • how many miraculous, AI-driven technological advances are made…
    • how successful we are at instituting a GND, or greening capitalism…
    • how rapidly we shift to “renewables” or achieve “net zero” emissions…
    • how much “evolution of consciousness” occurs in the next decade or two…
    • how many accords, what is pledged or agreed to, what laws are enacted…
    • how many people commit to regenerative and restorative soil building practices…

    A dozen or more tipping points are already in the rear-view mirror. For example, each of the following is two or three decades into unstoppable, rapidly increasing and cascading, out-of-control (runaway) mode…

    • Loss of the world’s ice (Arctic, Greenland, W. Antarctica, mountain glaciers)
    • Methane belching: permafrost, hydrates, clathrates, gas & oil wells, wetlands
    • Ocean acidification, deoxygenation, 25+ feet rise in abrupt non-linear ways
    • The great conflagration of the world’s forests — out-of-control CO2 emissions
    • Loss of most animal and plant species on land and in lakes, rivers, and oceans
    • Increasingly severe & deadly weather (storms, floods, droughts) and wildfires

    What this means, practically, I think, is that, prior to 2030, there is a better than 50% chance of a global economic meltdown and multi-breadbasket failure (2 or more of the 5 main grain growing regions of the world failing in the same year) resulting in further civilizational collapse and billions of human beings dying. To my mind, this is unstoppable, unpreventable. No one, of course, need take my word on any of this. See, for example…

    1. We’ve crossed planetary thresholds:
    2. (53-min documentary) “Living in the Time of Dying”:
    3. (70-min documentary) “Facing Adversity: Choosing Earth, Choosing Life”:
    4. Techno-Fix summary / overview / review / quotes:
    5. Overshoot overview:

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    What Joe said.

    Also, Michael, thanks for the excellent “state of the world” summary.

  6. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    Dave – cheers, another great post.

    Joe – absolutely, very well put. The only point where I would have disagreed is where you noted ‘the consequences of the actions required to prevent environmental destruction are just as bad as the consequences of environmental destruction itself’ because the impacts on nonuman nature are a different matter entirely. But you immediately covered this in the bracketed ‘at least to the modern folk who must live through it’. I suppose my current view is that activism might diminish the impacts on nonhuman nature and be worthwhile, even if the costs on human suffering are effectively baked in (whether degrowth or collapse).

    Michael – great links, and a useful reminder of the ‘Living in the Time of Dying’. It was a valuable watch as Dahr Jamail’s quote about not wishing to finish his book (because what’s the point) may give me the impetus to finish my own on book of collapse, which has been dragging on for more than a decade (because, as with Jamail, I’ve repeatedly asked myself what’s the point?). I also agree that many key tipping points are already overshot and in the rear-view mirror (if only we could bare to look). Clearly we are awaiting the Wile E Coyote moment when we look down and see that we have run far of the edge of the cliff.

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