Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tim Stevenson, founding director and community organizer at Post Oil Solutions in southeastern Vermont.
One of the most unfortunate fates that can befall activists is our failure to work together in a collaborative fashion to accomplish what is invariably a common purpose. At its worst, individuals and groups who are pursuing the same goal end up in an adversarial, even internecine, relationship, frequently over what appear to be the most trivial differences that really come down to ego posturing. Not only are we shooting ourselves in the foot at these times, and rendering impossible any chance of success, to an outside observer it appears that what or who we’re really opposed to is each other!
Though fortunately not as extreme, the movement toward a sane and habitable world beyond fossil fuels has nevertheless has been divided between two approaches that at an earlier time was known as adaptation and mitigation, and is now called resilience and resistance. On the one hand, there are those who correctly believe that we have to create a grassroots political presence that will convince politicians and Big Oil alike to adopt policies that will greatly reduce our carbon emissions so as to avoid climate catastrophe. On the other hand, there are those who are equally right in their assertion that we need to build sustainable, resilient communities if we are to successfully transition into the post-petroleum world we are inevitably moving toward.
But while this division might have been a workable arrangement at an earlier time, especially as both approaches are equally valid, we have now reached the point where it is a luxury we can ill afford. Times have changed as reflected by the fact that words like “adaptation” and “mitigation” have been replaced by the more appropriately urgent phrases “resilience” and “resistance.”
This is graphically underscored by three, basic facts about our present situation: One, we must leave 80 percent of the proven coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground if we are to have any chance of preventing global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius, and beyond, which the scientific community believes we must do if we are to avoid climate disaster. Two, Big Oil is giving no indication that it is backing away from the trillions of dollars of potential profits that it feels it can realize by going after the remaining fossil fuels, but rather is engaged in a frenzied black-gold rush, as evidenced by the billions of dollars that it’s currently investing in the exploration and extraction of unconventional fuels (tar sands, heavy oil, hydrofracked gas and oil), as well as coal mining and (very) deep ocean drilling. And three, climate change is proceeding at a much faster pace than scientists had earlier forecast (and this with only an .8 degree rise in temperature), as we read almost daily in reports about the melting of the East Antarctic ice previously “thought to be at little risk from climate change,” the heat waves that are “inevitable in the century ahead,” the acidification of the oceans “at a rate unseen in 250,000 years,” and climate change occurring at the “fastest pace since the age of dinosaurs,” not to mention the calamitous, “100 (or 1,000) year” weather events that are routinely afflicting our world.
We need to come together around a common understanding that if we don’t stop Big Oil from its mindless pursuit of the last drop in the ground, the question of sustainable communities becomes very moot indeed …
In this world, adhering to more limiting, one-sided visions of what needs to be done has become a liability for all concerned. The bar has been raised from preparing for the world that our grandchildren will inherit, to dealing with the one we live in right now. Time is running out. It is critical that both the resilience and resistance sides understand that we need each other to build a larger, more effective movement if we are to realize the sane post-petroleum society that we can both survive and thrive in. We need to come together around a common understanding that if we don’t stop Big Oil from its mindless pursuit of the last drop in the ground, the question of sustainable communities becomes very moot, indeed; and unless we re-localize ourselves, and become a resilient, self- and community-sufficient people who can increasingly live successfully without oil, we won’t be able to roll with the unprecedented and uniquely challenging world that we will increasingly experience in the years ahead, even if we were to turn off the fossil fuel spigot today.
Just as people, in general, need to behave as if climate change is real, and to translate that increasing awareness into concrete measures in our everyday lives, so too do activists — as represented most notably by 350.org and Transition Town folks — need to extend ourselves. While continuing with the good work we’re presently doing separately around building resilience and resistance, we need to move beyond the comfort zones of our familiar activist paradigms, and become more involved with each other. We must reach out to one another to explore how we might work together, perhaps arriving at a collaborative model that will enhance our opportunities for success against the heavy odds we presently face. By so doing, we will create a larger, more viable presence in our communities of what needs to be done, and how it can be accomplished, providing a visible example of people working together, peacefully and cooperatively, around a common effort.
One of the factors that will greatly assist this process is a growing appreciation by all concerned of the values that we share. Ours is not an adversarial, political movement, despite our need to discover ways to operate both effectively in our inescapably political world. We are not interested in exerting power over others, in controlling the world, or imposing politically correct positions on others. We recognize that this is precisely the paradigm that lies at the root of our dilemma today. Rather, ours is a movement that embraces all members of society, including those we disagree with, for we believe that in order to transition successfully from the climate crisis we face, all members of our communities must be involved.
However, when we encounter forces, as we do today with Big Oil, that by their actions threaten our very existence, we must resist them. We do so by engaging them in direct, non-violent, principled ways. Just as we would with someone who invaded our homes, we attempt to disarm, restrain, and otherwise pacify. We resist the efforts of those who endanger our lives, but do so by refraining from similar behavior. We just want to live, and let live.
Finally, it is such shared values as participatory democracy, social justice, and compassion toward all living beings that are particularly important in terms of doing the work that is basic to all activists, successfully engaging our neighbors. For in the case of building both resilience and resistance, the ultimate issue is that of an involved, empowered citizenry, the everyday man and woman who are participants in a grassroots movement to reverse the power balance in the halls of government, as well as to build increasingly sustainable, resilient communities. This is what will ultimately stop Big Oil, and will make possible a successful transition to a post-oil world. In fact, it is the only thing that will.
Tim Stevenson can be reached at [email protected]