By Robert J. Burrowes*
I have enjoyed reading accounts and seeing photos of those committed and courageous climate activists who participated in the recent Break Free from Fossil Fuels actions conducted at various locations in 13 countries from 4-15 May 2016. See ‘Break Free from Fossil Fuels‘.
Much of what was done was creative (some of it demonstrating considerable flair) and, mostly, how it was done reflected a sound understanding off nonviolent principles and dynamics to which virtually all activists adhered.
My friendly criticism is directed at those key organizers who planned the nonviolent actions without understanding how to make the commitment and courage of those who were mobilized have maximum strategic impact on the ongoing climate catastrophe.
I understand that it takes phenomenal effort and a tremendous amount of work to organize international actions of this nature. It is for this reason that I hope that future efforts can be strategically oriented to maximize their effectiveness.
All nonviolent action campaigns have one political purpose. In the case of the climate movement, this might be simply stated thus (but other wordings are possible): To minimize and, where appropriate, halt all activities that add carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide to the Earth’s atmosphere.
However, the political purpose is only achieved by fulfilling the two strategic aims of any campaign: 1. To increase support for your campaign by developing a network of groups who can assist you, and 2. To alter the will and undermine the power of those groups who support the problem.
Once the political purpose has been defined, the two strategic aims will define precisely what is worth doing (and what is not worth doing) for the entire campaign. And, as long as each activity (such as liaison with a key trade union or other potential ally) and each nonviolent action contribute to one of these two strategic aims, then the campaign is succeeding.
This is more easily understood if you consider a simple nonviolent action. Each nonviolent tactic has a political objective and a strategic goal. For example, the political objective (‘what you want’) of one action that was undertaken by many Break Free activists was, in effect, ‘to blockade a coal/oil truck/train/ship from entering a coal mine/port/oil refinery to prevent it completing its pickup/delivery’.
However, the (unstated) strategic goal (‘how you get what you want’) of this nonviolent action is totally different. For example, it might be this: ‘To mobilize those who become aware of our action to reduce their personal consumption of fossil fuels (for example, by boycotting cars and air travel and/or by becoming a vegetarian/vegan).’
As you will immediately perceive, perhaps, whether or not the political objective (halting the vehicle/vessel) is achieved is strategically irrelevant. It is achievement of the strategic goal that is determinative. For a full explanation of this point, see ‘The Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions‘.
The point then is this. As nonviolent activists, our task is not simply to raise awareness by making such statements as ‘Business as usual cannot continue’, ‘The age of fossil fuels is coming to an end’ and ‘Keep fossil fuels in the ground’.
These ‘action messages’ must convey a simple idea about something that any individual can do personally that will make a clearcut difference; it will not usually involve them lobbying someone else (because, in the case of the climate catastrophe, this is neither necessary nor useful).
The average person who sees or hears about our nonviolent action, whether via the media or some other means, is not someone who is necessarily well informed about these issues.
Further, when planning any nonviolent action, there are many points to consider, especially if repression is expected. For a full explanation of this, see ‘Nonviolent Action: Minimizing the Risk of Violent Repression‘.
You might still be wondering if all of this strategic planning is really necessary. Can’t we just turn up and have fun? Well, for the average activist, this might largely be true.
Our requests/lobbying of governments are meaningless while the market demand for a corporation’s commodities tells them that coal, oil and gas are wanted. And corporate elites tell governments what to do, not vice versa.
If, instead of lobbying governments, we reduce consumer demand, corporate elites will reduce their production/supply. If you would like to watch a video of a successful campaign to slow the destruction of rainforests, based on this principle, you can do so here: ‘Time to Act‘.
I have only touched on a couple of points about strategy in this article, as the accompanying diagram illustrates. The point about strategy, however, is to apply the principles derived from strategic theory.
There is a detailed explanation of nonviolent strategy for those interested in ‘The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach‘ but I am happy for people to contact me too while I construct a new website on nonviolent strategy.
In addition, if you are interested in the wider struggle to eliminate violence from our world, you might like to join those who have signed the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘.
Given the nuclear and environmental threats to human existence, including the atmospheric carbon dioxide content now passing the 400ppm mark, it is clear that human beings are on the fast track to extinction.
This fact, combined with the rapidly shortening timeframe in which effective action can be taken and the insanity of elites resisting an intelligent response to these threats, makes it imperative that our responses are strategically focused if we wish to be maximally effective.
Our future depends as much on our strategy as it does on our analysis and commitment.
*Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence.
http://tinyurl.com/flametree (Flame Tree Project)
http://tinyurl.com/whyviolence (‘Why Violence?’)
http://anitamckone.wordpress.com (Songs of Nonviolence)
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss these Robert J. Burrowes’ articles in Human Wrongs Watch: