The Future of Strategy and Tactics in the Environmental Movement

Part 2

In Part 1, Williams explores the chasm between environmentalists of the leftist and rightist persuasions, in particular the role NGOs play in the environmental movement. In Part 2, Williams explores further the direction of the environmental movement.


No genuine environmental organization can back carbon trading or other market-based schemes.  Dozens of social justice and environmental and indigenous organizations have unequivocally called for the scrapping of ETS before it does more damage and further locks in the very fossil-fueled energy production system we’re trying so urgently to dismantle.

However, Klein, due to her being a board member of Bill Mckibben’s organization,;, has also come under attack from more left-wing activists committed to a much broader vision for the dramatic degree of change required if we are to prevent such a future.  They lump 350 in with the larger, older organizations for several reasons.

First, the funding of the group is now substantial and derives from similarly non-transparent, undemocratic, conservative and moneyed sources as the more established ENGO’s. For these critics, the amount and source of funding explains 350’s choice of, in their view, weak and inconsequential targets for attack – with 350’s sole focus on stopping the northern section of a single pipeline, Keystone XL, and divestment from fossil fuels.  In this view, even the arrests of over 1000 protesters at the Whitehouse in November 2011 was part of a cynical campaign choreographed by sinister corporate and pro-Democratic Party forces to manipulate climate activists:

The “idealists” here were the rank-and-file day-to-day worker-bees writing press releases and doing social media work for and Friends who became True Believers in the mission, as well as the 1,000+ arrestees, many of whom ironically probably flew to Washington, DC to get arrested on planes fueled by tar sands crude.

Activist John Stauber stated, “Martin Luther King must be turning in his grave” because “The much-hyped victory for civil disobedience at the White House claimed by [in] November [of 2011] is a mirage. Rather than civil disobedience, it looks now like civil obedience, pursuing the goal that President Obama smell like an Earth Day rose for his heroic stand against the XL Pipeline.”

As for 350’s divestment campaign, Canadian journalist and activist Cory Morningstar writes in her article, “Mckibben’s Divestment Tour: Brought to you by Wall St,” it’s not just their dodgy sources of funding that are highly problematic, but the entire political thrust of, which is designed to pacify the masses. Divestment makes student activists feel that they’re doing something to address the climate crisis, when in reality they provide the most effective political cover for the corporations to continue their planet-wrecking activities and allow capitalism to float by unnoticed as the root cause of the entire problem: and friends serve a vital purpose. These organizations successfully make certain that the public feel good about themselves. Simultaneously, they ensure obedience and passiveness to the state in order to secure current system/power structures and keep them intact.

Coming from a somewhat different political direction, author most recently of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Chaos, Christian Parenti singles out three important flaws in a campaign focused on divestment:

Though elegant in its simplicity — attacking Big Carbon directly — this symbolically charged strategy (or rather tactic) suffers three crucial weaknesses. First, it misrecognizes the basic economics of the fossil fuel industry and thus probably won’t hurt it. Second, it misrecognizes the nature and function of the stock market. Third, it ignores the potentially very important role of government in addressing the climate crisis.

In an article that largely agrees with Klein, anti-tar sands activist Macdonald Stainsby, writing in CounterPunch, argues that “Suffice to say, [] are now very well-funded, by the very same people who fund not just Big Green, but the very people in North America it is most deadly to hand direction of social justice struggles to: The US Democratic Party, especially the Hopey Changey variety of brand Obama.”

With regard to the September 2013 Draw the Line protests, Stainsby goes on to point out:

McKibben and his pro-administration organizing is already back at it. There is now yet another anti-Keystone XL “day of action” people are asked to participate in for September 21, 2013. It will be in several larger venues across the US, appealing to and not in defiance of the Obama administration– targeting in particular John Kerry, as he is Secretary of State and apparently has been given the reins for the KXL decision. Meanwhile, John Kerry is trying to get a Saudi-backed war going in Syria. Since war is the greatest environmental catastrophe possible, and ramps up oil use massively (in particular bitumen and other “really heavy” types of crude make jet fuel better than they create gasoline for your car), while further deepening imperial designs in the primary oil producing region of the world.

Leaving aside the highly problematic language describing people prepared to get arrested for their beliefs as mindless drones in the service of the Democratic Party, who are, in addition, morally suspect because some of them may have traveled by plane in a large country with limited rail infrastructure, these arguments all exhibit the same fatal flaw when it comes to building movements.

In the abstract, all of the left criticisms of 350, Bill McKibben, the campaign against KXL and for divestment are formally correct. Bill Mckibben continues to vacillate as to whether Barack Obama and the Democratic Party can be part of the climate solution, despite Obama’s boast about his administration building enough pipeline to circle the earth “and then some.”

It is surely past time for the idea that the Democratic Party, regardless of the charisma, rhetoric, race or gender of its leaders, can possibly be an effective receptacle for people’s hopes and dreams for meaningful environmental, or any other kind of progressive change.

Obama has had six years to show us otherwise and yet has merely blown hot air of no real consequence in the vague direction of his environmental supporters while in practice girding up for continual expansion of US fossil fuel production.  Indeed, the US achieved another fossil fuel production “milestone” in August, when it hit its highest levels since 1989, due to the high price of oil and increases in the extent of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.  Despite this, production is set to increase by a further 1 million barrels in 2014.

In the longer term, all reports indicate that, as we enter the “Third Carbon Age,” global production of fossil fuels will be far larger in 2040 than it is today thanks to the rise of “unconventional sources.” Technological innovations and billions of dollars in investment, along with high oil prices (and hence profits) justifying that investment, have made possible the extraction of oil and gas from previously out of reach sources: by fracking, deep water off-shore drilling, tapping frozen underwater sources of methane and the climate-related loss of Arctic sea ice.

In combination, these have opened up several new frontiers in oil and gas extraction.  Obama, in the May 2013 Whitehouse document National Strategy for the Arctic Region, noted that it is essential that the U.S. ensure “how to make the most of the emerging economic opportunities in the region,” by ramping up military capability and economic investments in Alaska.

The southern portion of KXL, traveling through Texas and Oklahoma, which gives Canadian tar sands oil the strategically important outlet to Gulf Coast refineries and transportation it needs, has already been greenlighted by the Obama Administration.  The northern portion and focus of anti-pipeline activism from 350 and other ENGO’s merely addresses a bottle-neck at Cushing. If the State Department and Obama give the go-ahead to build, it will further increase the flow of tar sands oil but is not required for the southern portion to become operational. What has prevented the southern portion from being nearer to completion has been the forthright and determined resistance of tar sands blockaders and local groups and individuals standing in the way of construction equipment.

Despite acknowledging the dire impact of this section of KXL in a recent report compiled by the Sierra Club, 350 and Friends of the Earth, FAIL: How the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Flunks the Climate Test, the conclusion is itself a fail, as it omits to mention any of this, or calls on President Obama to issue a statement against its southern section completion.

And TransCanada and the Canadian government are already busily making contingency plans in the event that the Obama Administration does, against expectations, veto the project.  Oil pipelines that go west, east and north from the tar sands in Alberta are already being planned.  If all else fails, a further huge increase in rail traffic is being prepared, the negative results of which we have already seen in human terms with the dozens of deaths in the town of Lac-Mégantic as a direct result of the mad scramble for profits and corporate deregulation.  In 2009 there were 500 train cars carrying tar sands oil out of Canada; a mere four years later, the projection for 2013 is 140,000.

Some left-wing commentators and activists seem to want to use these developments not as useful pieces of information signifying the relentlessness compulsion to accumulate profit, but rather as a bludgeon with which to attack other activists for their naivety. As if people don’t understand that of course capitalists will seek other avenues to get their way.  With so much money at stake, it’s completely unrealistic to expect them to act any other manner.  The point is that the movement has already forced them to do so by continually forcing a delay in their plans.

In terms of the impact of the divestment campaign, Bill McKibben has repeatedly stated that it is unlikely to significantly damage profits of some of the largest and most profitable corporations on the planet.

Even where we to limit our goals to solely transforming energy production away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources – on its own a goal which will require a massive, highly organized and resolute social movement, it will not be enough.  A report in the science journal Nature Climate Change demonstrates that renewable energy technologies don’t primarily replace more polluting fossil-fuel sources, rather they add to them. Author Richard York’s research indicates that a supplementary strategy that is more overtly political will be needed:

Of course all societies need energy. So, obviously, if societies are to stop using fossil fuels they must have other energy sources. However, the results from the analyses presented here indicate that the shift away from fossil fuel does not happen inevitably with the expansion of non-fossil-fuel sources, or at least in the political and economic contexts that have been dominant over the past fifty years around the world….

The most effective strategy for curbing carbon emissions is likely to be one that aims to not only develop non-fossil energy sources, but also to find ways to alter political and economic contexts so that fossil-fuel energy is more easily displaced and to curtail the growth in energy consumption as much as possible.

In other words, as I and other left-wing activists have consistently argued, the question is primarily about social and political change rather than technological advances or technocratic solutions.

On the surface, this could leave one terminally depressed.  All of the national environmental organizations are compromised, our activism to date is inadequate, the dynamics of capitalism are a death train hurtling ever faster toward climate catastrophe, and merely switching energy sources, itself a huge task, will not be in any way sufficient.

Which returns us to the need to build robust and independent social movements and the original question I posed: how does one navigate these murky waters and chart a course between the barren shores of purist isolationism on one side and crass, unprincipled opportunism on the other?   To craft and implement a set of effective, flexible and fluid tactics that complement and reinforce one another, drawing in wider layers, to fight for a much grander strategic goal than merely shutting down a single pipeline or even the much bigger task of transforming the energy production system?

As mentioned earlier, what the left-wing critics ignore are the internal dynamics of social movements and how participation alters the ideas of those involved.  A key tenet of Marxism – not to mention basic pedagogy – is that those involved in struggle “learn by doing” much more quickly and on a much deeper, more visceral level, than they ever could by reading left-wing critiques, however correct they may be in the abstract.

Everything in politics is contextual. Viewed in the abstract, left-wing critics of the focus on KXL and divestment are absolutely correct; neither is up to the task of preventing catastrophic climate change, nor denting the gigantic profits of the oil giants.

But the first point to make is that the movement is already considerably more sophisticated in its overall political understanding than a few short years ago.  Previously, much of the emphasis for activism was on what an individual could do to effect change.  The consumer was king and green products or reducing consumption by biking to work or recycling were the dominant discourse.  With the new focus on production rather than consumption, we have taken a major step forward in the struggle.  As recognized by Marx, it is production (for profit) which is the driving force of capitalism.

While McKibben remains confused and contradictory on a number of fronts, in his recent interview in Salon he said, “But this is a systemic problem. It’s going to be solved or not solved by a systemic solution. It’s past the point where we’re going to manage to do it one light bulb at a time. The roof of my house is covered in solar panels. When I’m home, I’m a pretty green fellow. But I know that that’s not actually going to solve the problem. So a lot of people have to get on the train and go to Washington to be in protests.”

Secondly, the emphasis on building a mass movement based on protest and civil disobedience, rather than narrower campaigns based on lobbying or “clicktivism,” represents another significant political step forward.  And for all the drawbacks of McKibben, the detrimental vacillations on Obama and dubious funding sources, he has nevertheless been instrumental in moving tens of thousands of young people into struggle.  And the struggle across the country is growing, continuing to heat up and generating new issues and questions about how to move forward.  Building these actions has to be the focus of our energies as more minds will change in the process.

I have yet to meet an activist involved in the KXL or divestment campaigns who believe those things are the only thing to focus on, or that they will come close to solving the problem.  In New York those involved in the anti-KXL 350 protests are also fighting to stop the Spectra fracked gas pipeline into lower Manhattan, along with fights to close Indian Point nuclear plant and to ban fracking in New York State.

And contrary to the idea that all of the students are mechanical “worker-bees,” there are ongoing and increasingly sharp debates between 350 activists and student groups about the top-down organizational structure of 350 in deciding on campaigns, as well as its political direction and choice of allies.

I have met many students who are rapidly and continuously reevaluating their political ideas as a direct result of being involved and running up against the intransigence of university authorities concerned with endowment profitability rather than future student livelihoods; the relentless and illogical pursuit of profit at all costs by capitalists at the expense of a livable planet; the abysmal disappointment that is the Obama Administration.  As well as the limitations of an environmental strategy that still cleaves far too closely to the Democratic Party and corporate funders, rather than reaching out more forcefully to genuine allies amongst communities of color, trade unions and indigenous rights groups.

An activist who initially became involved through Friends of the Earth in DC recounts her journey toward more radical ideas and action. Kim Huhn, now active with Tar Sands Blockade in East Texas, recollected by 2011,

she shared the growing disenchantment with the Obama administration’s environmental agenda and experienced firsthand how mass civil disobedience—the largest in 30 years—brought the tar sands and Keystone to national attention. She “watched the entire center of gravity in D.C. shift”—from inside-beltway lobbying to grassroots, community-based organizing. Then President Obama reversed his position and approved Keystone’s southern segment. Despite the professed outrage of more mainstream environmental leaders, in her view, no one was actually doing anything to stop its construction.

In conclusion, we know that capitalist forces will try to co-opt and infiltrate our movement and organizations to direct it into safe channels; that is, after all, their job.  The recently commemorated 1963 March on Washington is a perfect example of how the state and more conservative civil rights groups tried to soften the rhetoric of the March, change its aims and sideline key left-wing leaders such as socialist and openly gay march organizer Bayard Rustin.

The question of organization and democracy is of tantamount importance as it is the base from which to decide on actions and debate political strategy.  Transparent and democratic decision making is what helped previous movements being hijacked by hostile forces, derailed by conservatives or repressed by state violence.

At this point, it is unclear whether a group like 350 will be able to evolve into the fighting organization that is required, or whether students will have to form their own, more grassroots organization that is financially independent, democratic and more forcefully directed against capital.

350 has brought together newly radicalizing students behind a leader whose organization teams up with big funders and can’t seem to decide whether to bind arms with those to his right in positions of state power, or those to his left in the environmental justice movement.  The question will be settled by the thousands of students in the 350-plus divestment movements on campuses across the country and other grassroots activists as they seek to pull many more people in and face the challenge of bringing real change to the United States.

The only national groups so far are the well-financed Environmental NGO’s, though System Change not Climate Change is attempting to grow into the kind of national coalition that we lack.  Canadian organizer Dru Oja Jay in a critique of the lack of democratic organization in Canada, where activists are drawn into undemocratic and often compromised ENGO’s such as Greenpeace comments:

Movements often have an organization that embodies their spirit. The US civil rights movement in the 1960s was driven forward by the Southern Christian Leadership Congress [sic] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The anti-nuclear direct action in the 1970s had the Movement for a New Society (MNS), and the “antiglobalization” movement of the 1990s and 2000s was an interwoven web of spokescouncil meetings and coalitions. Quebec’s epic student strikes in 2005 and 2012 were initiated by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).

These and many other movement organizations made historic decisions democratically. They chose their leaders, or chose to have spokespersons instead. They debated, analyzed and decided on strategies and actions. It may not have been perfectly equal, but everyone agreed on the intention.

As an adjunct to organizing, learning our history is important.  Students should read up on the formation of SNCC.  A good place to start would be Howard Zinn’s, SNCC: The New Abolitionists as he gives a first-hand account of the growth and issues within a movement fighting for racial and social justice:

These young rebels call themselves the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, but they are more a movement than an organization, for no bureaucratized structure can contain their spirit, no printed program capture the fierce and elusive quality of their thinking.  And while they have no famous leaders, no inner access to the seats of national authority, they are clearly the front line of the Negro assault on the moral comfort of white America…All Americans owe them a debt for – if nothing else – releasing the idealism locked so long inside a nation that has not recently tasted the drama of social upheaval… Theirs was the silent generation until they spoke, the complacent generation until they marched and sang, the money-seeking generation until they renounced comfort and security to fight for justice in the dank and dangerous hamlets of the Black Belt.

We know the crucial point is that people are moving into action, and that this represents the key which will unlock the conundrum of how to build a movement “as radical as reality itself”.  The shape and future direction of this movement is an open question.  Will it radicalize further, broaden and deepen the scope of its demands, reject the Democratic Party, adopt its tactics to changing conditions but keep its eyes on the prize of a world without capitalism?  Or will it get subsumed beneath the filth of capitalist bribery, state interference and repression and ugly compromises on principles?

The active and consistent involvement of already convinced socialists and radicals will help play a role in which direction things develop and as new organizations pop up and wider numbers join the struggle.  Therefore, the most important thing is to dive into the resistance as and where it currently exists and consistently engage with the fight for the immediate goals of shutting down KXL and forcing universities and pension funds to divest, while holding no illusions that these are the be all and end all of a successful struggle.

A win on KXL, where Obama is forced to veto it, will be extremely significant.  As will a rolling campaign of divestment chalking up college after college.  This is for two interconnected reasons.  First, victories breed the desire and belief in the possibility of more victories.  The ruling class understands this perfectly well, which is why, when they are forced to back down, they try to massage the truth to downplay their loss.  A victory for our side necessarily implies a loss for theirs.  It was, after all, multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett who reminded us “There’s class warfare, all right… but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

KXL may have acquired a symbolic importance for our side, but so has it for theirs.  Furthermore, KXL is strategically important not as a single pipeline but because it represents an attack on the frontal edge of fossil fuel development for the future, both in terms of rejecting extreme energy from unconventional sources and putting a stop to the building of infrastructure likely to be around for another 50 years once built.

Second, the manner of a victory and the methods used are equally important.  A court victory achieved by NGO lawyers working in a social vacuum is completely different to a court victory achieved on the backs of mass mobilization, as illustrated by the civil rights movement.

Any victory on KXL will rightly be seen by activists on the ground as a triumph for the tactics of mass protest, not for persuading Obama to do the right thing.  The case is similar with divestment.  One can lament the fact that divestment is likely to be of little practical significance to the bottom-lines of the likes of Exxon and Chevron, or recognize that the focal point of attack are the very corporations responsible for the largest accumulation of capital in human history.

Inevitably, new questions will be raised: why aren’t universities responsive to their students?  Why aren’t universities able to live up to their own discourse of sustainability and concern for young people’s futures?  How can we make links and forge alliances with disenfranchised and ignored communities around us?  What about organized labor?  What would it take to reign in the power of the fossil fuel corporations and how are they different to all other corporations?  Are corporations and hence capitalism compatible with a functioning biosphere?

We should be part of all the discussions now going on in the movement about tactics and strategy, suggest alternatives, make the case for actions that will draw in more participants, and create links with frontline communities of color and indigenous rights, while working with the bigger organizations where we are able.  Where we have criticisms, we should voice them; in my experience they will likely find a strong echo.

The ever more desperate ecological and economic situation is in itself driving people toward the need for more radical, systemic change.  Particularly as it’s increasingly obvious, to even the casual observer, that capitalism has no answers other than to further expand production in the interests of profit.  As Marx remarked long ago, capitalism creates its own gravedigger.  While he was talking about the 99%, the planet itself is now rebelling against further exploitation at the hands of the 1%.

In giving talks around the country, a few years ago it was necessary to spend quite a chunk of time putting forward the case that this was a systemic and political problem directly related to capitalism.  Now, this is an almost common sense position. The bulk of any discussion now revolves around: what can we do about it and what kind of society do we want to build in its place?

As was recently reported about the political sea-change occurring amongst young people:

Most striking of all, Millennials are more willing than their elders to challenge cherished American myths about capitalism and class. According to a 2011 Pew study, Americans under 30 are the only segment of the population to describe themselves as “have nots” rather than “haves.” They are far more likely than older Americans to say that business enjoys more control over their lives than government.  And unlike older Americans, who favor capitalism over socialism by roughly 25 points, Millennials, narrowly, favor socialism.

As upsetting and urgent as the global physical situation is, the political situation is evolving in our favor.  Our challenge is to build on the revolts of 2011, take inspiration from the uprisings in Turkey, Greece and Brazil, and implement tactics and strategy that take us forward to a revolutionary reconstitution of social power in the interests of social and ecological justice.

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2011). He is chair of the science dept at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the Dept of Chemistry and Physical Science. Read other articles by Chris.