This is the seventeenth installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.
In the next four posts I will assess the environmental movement based on the twelve principles of strategic nonviolent conflict that Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler lay out in their book Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century. The principles are designed to address the major factors that contribute to the success or failure of nonviolent campaigns. The authors stress that the principles are exploratory rather than definitive. Read more about the principles in the introductory post to this run of posts here.
- Formulate functional objectives
Here we are looking for a clear goal and subordinate objectives. Five criteria help formulate functional objectives. They need to be concrete and specific enough to be achievable within a reasonable time frame. They need to include a diverse range of nonviolent methods. They need to maintain the main interests of the protesters rather than the adversary. They must attract the widest possible support within the relevant society. The objectives need to appeal to the values and interests of external parties to gain their support.
The mainstream environmental movement fails on this principle – formulate functional objectives. It does use a wide range of nonviolent methods, but fails to meet the other four criteria. Most critically, because it’s so large and diverse, it has no clear goal or objectives. I have run a number of workshops on this topic and none of the participants can agree on the goal and objectives of the environmental movement, and get confused between the goals and objectives of the whole movement or specific campaigns. Generally they all want a livable planet in the future and they seem to go about this by trying to convince everyone else that they need to take environmental issues seriously. This slow burn, paradigm shift strategy is not proving effective.
The movement also fails to determine its response based on what needs to happen in the material realm; versus, say, the taking-issues-seriously realm–in light of very pessimistic scientific forecasts–so fails to identify functional and appropriate objectives. Building a mass movement to transition to a sustainable society might have been possible if it had happened in the twentieth century, but we are now out of time and need drastic action to leave the fossil fuels in the ground.
The environmental movement also struggles because nature is currently viewed as property. So those that own parts of nature are legally allowed destroy them, with some minimal limitations. The more nature you own the more nature you can destroy. The environmental movement has been urging a more careful use of that property – environmental regulation. Attorney Thomas Linzey explains that successful movements take property like African American slaves or women before suffrage and convert them from the status of property, to a person or rights-bearing entity. There has never been an environmental movement that has focused on this, and anyone who has suggested it has been labeled radical or crazy. 
The environmental movement fails to attract wide support because it is telling people about a problem in the future that will mean they have to change their lives dramatically now. Of course there is also the whole issue of how the culture turn living systems into products to make money, but many don’t seem to notice this. This causes people’s denial reflexes to kick in so many find excuses not to think about it or act: “the science is wrong;” “the government will handle it;” “I recycle so I do my bit;” “they’ll find a technology to sort it out.” And because industrialised countries have such atomised societies with no community, then there is no moral code for anyone to answer to, just the made-up laws from the state.
There is much written about the psychological reasons why people fail to engage and act on climate change and environmental destruction, with seven books recently published on the subject.
The American Psychological Association task force identified six barriers to people acting:
- uncertainty about climate change;
- mistrust of scientists/officials;
- undervaluing risks so deal with them later;
- lack of control – individual actions too small to make a difference;
- habit – ingrained behaviours are slow to change.
A recent report from ecoAmerica and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute — entitled “Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication,” identified seven psychological reasons that are stopping us from acting on climate change:
- psychological distance – too far in the future;
- finite pool of worry – people can only worry about a certain amount at once;
- emotional numbing – people get emotionally overloaded;
- confirmation bias and motivated reasoning – people seek out and retain information that matches their world view;
- defaults – people are overly biased in favor of the status quo;
- discounting – people value loss of money far in the future as less important that money now;
- ideology – political beliefs are deeply felt and highly emotional, even though it’s not clear how we come to these conclusions.
The phenomenon that psychologists call the “passive bystander effect” is relevant here. If people feel powerless they will deliberately maintain a level of ignorance so that they can claim that they know less than they do and wait for someone else to act first, to protect themselves.
Another recognised strategy to avoid dealing with climate change is to keep it out of your “norms of attention”. Basically people use selective framing so they don’t have to think about climate change most of the time. Opinion polls find that people define it as either a global issue, or far in the future. Others might say it’s only a theory or blame other countries. The fact that climate change is now seen as an environmental issue also resulted in it being excluded from their primary concerns or “norms of attention.” They can say “I’m not an environmentalist” or “The economy and jobs are more important.”
Without a functional, accurate analysis of a situation, there can be no way to formulate functional objectives to confront it. Because most peoples’ norms of attention are not focused on the actual gravity and immediacy of global warming, any organisation formulating functional objectives only accounts for a small number of actively engaged resisters, and what they can realistically accomplish.
More to follow.
- Thomas Linzey interviews with Derrick Jensen http://resistanceradioprn.podbean.com/e/resistance-radio-thomas-linzey-102013/ and http://prn.fm/resistance-radio-thomas-linzey-06-19-16/