Commentary

Tim Stevenson: Activism in the time of climate collapse

This commentary is by Tim Stevenson of Athens. Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions from Athens and author of “Resilience and Resistance: Building Sustainable Communities for a Post Oil Age” (2015, Green Writers Press).

As the daily evidence of scientific reports and graphic images of fires, floods, droughts, and people on the move vividly testify to, we are either in, or rapidly approaching what scientists call ”hothouse earth,” a condition where climate feedbacks could lead to runaway heating. 

The series of increasingly catastrophic climate-related events that have occurred this summer clearly suggest we are rapidly approaching the point beyond which human mitigation efforts are not possible. As Bill McKibben wrote a few years ago, “The main question is whether we’ll be able to hold the rise in temperature to a point where we can, at great expense and suffering, deal with those crises coherently, or whether they will overwhelm the coping abilities of our civilization. The latter is a distinct possibility.”

In this age of climate breakdown and looming societal collapse, we have moved beyond an activism that limits itself to outbursts of outrage, contesting for political power, or trying to move the hearts of those whose corporate interests reside in their bottom lines.

Just as the prospect of climate collapse is unparalleled in our experience, so must our response to it be both creative and imaginative. Risk taking, yes, but also informed by the tried and familiar that have worked in the past. Hence, the modest suggestions which I offer for your consideration, are predicated upon variations of what are familiar to me as a community organizer and activist for 57 years.

First and foremost, I believe it would be very helpful if we, as disparate activists, came together as a collective entity around the likelihood of our collapsing society, to address the question of how we can live in such a world right now. 

In addition to other considerations that we will discuss below, cultivating a community of activists who value each other and the work we all do, could potentially provide us with the essential support, solidarity and reality checking we all require as we attempt to navigate the uncharted waters of our new normal. Notwithstanding the causes we would continue to be actively involved with, accepting collapse as our most urgent reality would serve as a touchstone for our practice in general, helping us to focus upon our existential crisis in ways that we, like the rest of the population, have ignored up to now. 

Given our unfortunate history of internecine conflict with each other, however, it is important that such an effort be founded upon a willingness to engage in an everyday practice of the values that characterize both a truly democratic society and serve as the foundation for the peace, freedom and social justice we represent. Only then can we deal skillfully and wholesomely with the power relationships of gender, race, class, sexuality and age that have afflicted ourselves, as well as the rest of the civilized world. 

Not incidentally, such righteous conduct in the present moment would serve to prefigure the transformative society we have failed to realize in the past, and can no longer afford to wait for its appearance in some distant future.

This potential is suggestive of two related directions we might take as an activist collective. The first is organizing community conversations in our towns among family, friends, neighbors and strangers to do the one thing that is absolutely necessary, but seldom done today: talking with one another about the collapsing world that is rapidly engulfing us. 

This process is not easy as it necessitates the development of a trusting, compassionate group that allows for the kind of transparency and vulnerability involved in the honest acceptance of something that, up to now,  we have denied. 

To simply acknowledge out loud, however, what is presently shrouded in silence would be a huge step to take before we are overwhelmed by the shock and terror of our world coming apart at the seams.

If successful, such an endeavor provides the opportunity for people to move beyond our current state of powerlessness and despair to where we can begin to consider how we can take care of ourselves and each other. While we don’t have answers when we first get together, a group wisdom invariably arises through skillfully facilitated conversations that contain possibilities that seemingly didn’t exist earlier. This is especially possible today as people are generally aware of the fires, flooding and droughts that are afflicting our world, and would therefore more likely respond to the growing felt need around emergency preparedness and mutual aid.

It is in this vein that a second, related direction suggests itself for an activist collective. Rather than defining ourselves so much as agitators for change, being of compassionate service to others in the face of a collapsing society might be more appropriate. The importance of  organizing, training and preparing ourselves to skillfully fulfill this purpose is underscored by the fact that in calamitous times, official agencies are frequently overwhelmed, and we’re on our own. Addressing people‘s needs while supporting their efforts to empower themselves to  becoming more self-sufficient is a revolutionary act.


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