This article appeared originally on Medium.
Dear friends and allies,
As I write, it is six weeks since everything changed where I live, in eastern Massachusetts, when the schools closed and businesses began sending their employees home. Today the Boston Globe reports 39,643 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, and at least 1,809 deaths, more than 400 of them in my county. The US now has more than three-quarters of a million confirmed cases and at least 37,000 deaths, most likely far more, with 2,000 or more dying per day—and unconscionably disproportionate losses in Black and Brown communities. Globally, at least 166,000 people have died. The old and infirm, the poor, the vulnerable, the racially marginalized, suffer most. As always.
At the same time, the US economy alone has lost more than 22 million jobs since the social-distancing “stay at home” orders began—an incomprehensible number in so short a span, so far off the charts that the only comparison, as we keep hearing, is to the economic collapse of the 1930s. How long it will be before the pandemic comes under control, no one knows. A year? More? For now, there is no end in sight.
But you already know all of this, so why dwell on these grim facts?
Here’s why. As we’re all too aware, this week of April was set to be a major moment for our swelling movement in the midst of this most consequential election year—what might have been our most important mobilization as a movement to date, building on the historic surge of momentum since 2018, when the Green New Deal exploded onto the national stage. And yet here we are, faced with this fearful, disorienting new reality.
Like anyone else who’s written and agitated on climate and climate justice for the past decade or more, I’ve always known that we’d have to keep working in the face of adversity and increasing instability in the coming years—but I’ll admit that I never anticipated anything so sudden and near-totally immobilizing as this. Because let’s face it, despite our best digital efforts, the coronavirus has all but taken us out of action—even as the fossil-fuel industry and its political servants exploit the crisis, doubling down on brazen climate destruction under cover of the pandemic.
I believe it has to be said: this all-consuming health and economic emergency is the most dangerous and uncertain moment we have ever faced as a movement. There’s a real anxiety among many of us, a sense that all the hard-won momentum, all the power that’s been built—as seen in the unprecedented Green New Deal coalition that helped power the transformative Bernie Sanders campaign and forced climate justice into the national debate—is in danger of stalling and ebbing away.
As a movement, we face a moment of decision. When the pandemic crisis recedes, as it eventually will, we can choose to fall in line with a corporate-political establishment, including the Democratic Party, that wants nothing more than a “return to normalcy” and politics as usual—in which the fossil-fuel economy is rescued and the climate emergency is again relegated to second- or third-tier priority. Or we can refuse to go along, remove our consent—and recommit to an escalated and intensified nonviolent struggle.
At a time like this, it seems important to remind ourselves where we’ve been and how we got here. Take yourself back to where it began for you. Remember the moment or moments—most of us have them—when you knew in your sinews that the climate crisis meant your life must change, and you decided to commit yourself to this work. Maybe it was last year, or maybe, if you’re among the rare few (I know some of you), last century. Remember what it felt like, the visceral realization of all that’s at stake and all that must be done if current and future generations are to have a fighting chance.
And then remember the moments—surely we’ve all had them—when the weight of it all was just too much, and you wanted nothing more than to wash your hands of it and walk away.
For myself and others I know, those latter moments came in the year following Trump’s election, when overnight we careened from the Obama-Clinton Paris Agreement, which at least paid lip service to climate reality, to Trump’s and Tillerson’s nihilistic denial—and the future went from dusk to darkness. Some of us fell into despair, turned inward, and all but gave up on the climate movement—which is not, I assure you, to judge; I was one. But in time, like many of you, I was able—with the help of friends and a caring movement community—to climb my way out of the pit.
And what I found was that the movement of movements we were building for climate justice and human rights had re-emerged—bigger, stronger, more energized—coalescing powerfully around the vision of a Green New Deal. It was led, conspicuously, by young people, some of whom I’d known and worked alongside for years, and by Indigenous and frontline climate-justice groups for whom walking away was not an option and climate justice not an abstract concept. For a decade and more, many of these leaders and organizers, of all ages and circumstances, had been throwing themselves into the fights against fossil-fuel extraction and infrastructure—tar-sands, fracking, oil refineries, coal plants—and into the global campaign for fossil-fuel divestment, signaling to financial markets that carbon reserves are stranded assets and fossil-fuel companies are the walking dead.
It seems safe to say that there would be no movement today for a Green New Deal had these fights of the past decade not taken place—if many thousands, young and old, had not been willing to confront the fossil fuel industry, put their bodies on the line, and commit themselves to building a genuine nonviolent resistance demanding a just transition to a green and democratic economy. If anyone wants to know where the Green New Deal came from, tell them it was born of resistance. Tell them to ask Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was galvanized at Standing Rock.
Now, just as we’ve begun to feel and flex our power, we find ourselves unable to mobilize—that is, actually mobilize, together, physically, in the streets and on campuses, on the pipeline routes and railroad tracks, in the bank offices and halls of government, all the places where we cannot be ignored. There are some things we can do digitally, of course, but we all know a hashtag echo chamber offers little resistance to a ruthless industry willing to capitalize on a global health emergency.
And in this state of suspension—and, frankly, fear—as we approach the November election and (whatever may happen) try to think beyond it, there may be an impulse to let resistance slide, and to focus on the economic and public health agenda of the Green New Deal, with its positive message of jobs, clean energy, universal health care, and education. And of course this inspiring and reality-based vision is essential, especially in an election year when the stakes are no less than democracy and Earth’s climate itself. Indeed, that’s the political promise of the Green New Deal—the way it offers an affirming, broadly appealing agenda to organize around, the way it meets the vast majority of Americans where they are, addressing their daily needs, in terms of economic, social, and environmental justice. To all of these, it offers a resounding “Yes.”
But in the struggle for a livable world—and it must be a struggle—in the face of the entrenched forces lined up against us, all the organizing and advocacy our movement can muster on behalf of this positive vision, while absolutely necessary, will never be sufficient. Indeed, precisely because of this pandemic and economic collapse, our collective nonviolent resistance to the fossil fuel industry, its financial backers, and its political allies, in both parties, is more important than ever. To win anything like a Green New Deal, “Yes” will never be enough.
In her influential 2017 book, No Is Not Enough, written in the immediate wake of Trump’s election, my friend and colleague Naomi Klein made the compelling argument (building on 2014’s This Changes Everything) that to confront our political and climate crises together requires that positive vision, that “Yes,” and not only resistance. “We have to tell a different story,” she wrote, one that offers “a plan for the future that is credible and captivating enough that a great many people will fight to see it realized, no matter the shocks and scare tactics thrown their way.” Drawing from her experience as an instigator and co-author of the popular “Leap Manifesto” program in Canada, the northern precursor to our Green New Deal, this argument has become a kind of gospel for younger Green New Dealers to whom Klein, as Bill McKibben has noted, is something of an “intellectual godmother.”
But Naomi never argued that our movement of movements can afford to relegate resistance to the back burner. Quite the opposite. In that same book she argued, as she has long argued, that recognizing the necessity of a positive agenda “doesn’t mean that resisting the very specific attacks—on families, on people’s bodies, on communities, on individual rights—is suddenly optional. There is no choice but to resist.” It has never been an either/or. Both “yes” and “no” are equally necessary—not only morally, I would add, but strategically. It would be an historic mistake for the Green New Deal movement to de-emphasize or retreat from the kind of escalated nonviolent resistance we’ve seen in the past. After all, it was the Sunrise Movement’s large civil disobedience action, their occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office, that forced the GND into the national conversation—and we know that far more direct and disruptive action is possible.
Clearly, a pandemic is not the time for fossil-fuel resisters to be filling the jails—which would recklessly endanger our own and others’ lives. But this is also not the time to lose resolve and give up on nonviolent resistance as a strategic tool. Electoral organizing around the Green New Deal vision is, of course, essential—and at the same, it’s imperative to prepare now for an intensified nonviolent struggle against the fossil-fuel industry and our corporate-controlled political system when the pandemic recedes.
To be sure, there’s already a sense of urgency among movement thinkers making the case that we must not repeat past mistakes and waste this crisis, but use it to press for large-scale Green New Deal policies as part of the economic recovery. And yet, strong as this argument is, when the pandemic crisis has passed and the economic rebuilding begins in earnest, we’ll still find ourselves under the same political system as before, controlled by the same corporate lobbies, none more powerful than the carbon lobby. And while it may be true that fundamental change never happens without a crisis, it’s also the case that the political establishment wants no part of a crisis-level response to climate catastrophe, and that there will be (and already is) overwhelming pressure from establishment Democrats and mainstream liberals to restore “normalcy” and stick with a positive, “unifying” message—one that doesn’t “demonize” the industry and its backers, some of whom are Democratic Party funders. But normalcy is precisely what the climate justice movement urgently needs to upend. Normalcy equals catastrophe.
Those who control and profit from the status quo, both Democrats and Republicans, have worked for years to prevent any true sense of a climate crisis, much less emergency, because they know it means the end of business as usual. That’s why it’s all the more important that our social movements across a broad progressive front are prepared to create the crisis that the political establishment is desperate to avoid. Otherwise, this “crisis moment,” and the opportunity it contains, will disappear—and our best chance at pushing forward with any sort of Green New Deal agenda, to transform the economy as we rebuild it, may very well be lost.
History shows us that nonviolent resistance is more than mere protest, more than merely performative or expressive (“speaking truth to power”); it is essentially strategic. It goes beyond words and symbols. As Gandhi and King and countless others have shown—from the Salt March to the Freedom Rides, from sit-down strikers and draft-card burners to tar-sands blockaders and water protectors—there is no more powerful means of exposing the forces a movement is up against, and no more effective way of forcing an issue, maybe even a reckoning, than sustained and strategic nonviolent direct action.
Is this too much to ask of people emerging from a pandemic and pressed by economic hardship and anxiety? Maybe so. The psychological and material impact of this current crisis is already immense—and our mutual empathy, compassion, and aid is needed. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that social movements have often maintained their struggles in the face of extreme adversity—none more so than the radical labor movement of the 1930s (an era increasingly on our minds), when workers fought successfully under harrowing conditions few today can imagine; and the Black freedom movement of the 1960s, when people gave their lives for basic civil and human rights. Given the hardship, and the incalculable injustice, we know the climate catastrophe will bring and is already bringing to the poorest and most marginalized in our society, perhaps the time has come when we need to find a comparable resolve.
Or perhaps there’s an analogy with our current situation: Even as scientists race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and end this pandemic (a positive vision if there ever was one), doctors and nurses on the front lines are fighting day and night under extreme conditions to save as many lives as possible, putting themselves at risk. Likewise, even as we push for a Green New Deal, our movement needs more front-line resisters—especially those of us with privilege of various kinds—who are willing and able to throw themselves into the breach, to run toward danger, putting their bodies and freedom on the line. And we need many more people, including corporate and political and cultural leaders, ready and willing to support these people and this resistance. We not only need youth climate strikers filling the streets, we need more and more people willing to stand in the way—literally—of the carbon-industrial machine.
A recent report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 31 percent of Americans would support the use of nonviolent civil disobedience “against corporate or government activities that make global warming worse,” and 20 percent would be willing to engage in it themselves. Those are very large, significant numbers. Support for nonviolent resistance in the climate struggle is not marginal or fringe—it’s going mainstream. Which is to say, our movement is in fact building the necessary power, if we will use it, to prevent a return to business and politics as usual, end the carbon regime, and prove that another world is possible.
Please stay safe and be well.
Your brother in this struggle,
About the Author
Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and activist, writes for The Nation and is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice. Follow him on Twitter at @wenstephenson.