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Why We Can't Fight Climate Change Using Tactics From the Civil Rights Movement

The fundamental psychological challenge of the climate change movement is overwhelming anxiety; its tactics and strategy must be built to contain anxiety.
 
 
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This story is the first half of a two-part article. It has been adapted from a longer story on Climate Psychologist. Read Part II, a psychologically informed strategy proposal  here

The Human Climate Movement draws much of its strategy and tactics from the Civil Rights Movement; they engage in marches, demonstrations, and civil disobedience. For example, scientists and citizens handcuff themselves to the White House gates and face arrest, echoing the tactic of lunch counter sit-ins.

The Human Climate Movement is modeling itself on the Civil Rights Movement because it was dramatic, honorable, and highly successful. The success of the Civil Rights Movement was so inspired movements nationally and internationally to challenge the status quo, particularly through the collective action of civil disobedience  (Morris, 1999).

Further, the two movements have much in common. Both are fundamentally anti-denial movements, wielding the Truth as their greatest weapon. The two movements share several underlying goals, such as empowering their members, fighting cultural denial, and putting immense pressure on policy makers.

However, I argue that civil disobedience is the wrong approach for the Human Climate Movement. Though there are underlying similarities between the goals of the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement, they face different barriers to spreading the truth. 

The key psychological challenge that the Civil Rights Movement faced was racism, and its tactics were perfectly tailored to combat racism. The fundamental psychological challenge of the Human Climate Movement is overwhelming anxiety; its tactics and strategy must be built to contain anxiety. 

The Shared Goals of the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement

Successful social movements change the status quo radically. They create a reality that was not previously fathomable. They realign the stars. That the Civil Rights Movement did not accomplish all of its goals, or that much of its progress has been rolled back in recent years should not obscure the point that it achieved immense success. The Civil Rights movement rewrote the rules of morality and social acceptability. They made open racism anathema, and transformed “Whites Only” drinking fountains from a formidable systematic tool of oppression into an anachronistic embarrassment.

How did they accomplish this cultural and political shift? And what must the Human Climate Movement accomplish in order to create the radical change necessary to protect civilization from climate collapse?

I see three goals that are shared by both movements:

1) Empower members of the movement—give them an opportunity, and confidence to advocate for the truth and for themselves.

2) Fight denial and minimization of the problem; put the terrible reality of the status quo front and center of national attention. This removes the illusion of moral neutrality, showing people that they can either stand for change, or stand with the status quo.

3) Create immense social pressure, especially amongst elites, for drastic changes of attitudes, behavior, and policy.

Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Human Climate Movement are, fundamentally, anti-denial movements. They are allies of the truth, standing against a system that is built on lies. The Civil Rights Movement fought the lie that black people are fundamentally inferior to white people and that their oppression was natural and benign. The Human Climate Movement must fight the lie that pollution is not causing our climate to collapse; that we can continue business as usual without horrific consequences. Both movements fight against widespread cultural denial that is fueled by vested interests and broad resistance to change.

To spread the truth, both movements must empower their member: Instill confidence that change is possible and that individuals can be agents of that change. Empowered participants become warriors of truth, carrying it with them, sharing it with others, fighting for it and with it. Being a messenger of truth is an honorable undertaking, and empowered participants hold their heads high against fierce opposition.

 
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