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The visibility of ecological crisis is increasing everyday. Humanity is up against the limits of nature’s ability to tolerate globalized industrial production. The exponential nature of the ‘growth without limits’ imperative – which serves as the engine for modern capitalism – has led us into an untenable situation.
In this context of increasing ecological instability we are seeing the Earth’s systems beginning to undergo dramatic transformations – changes that we don’t yet fully understand. Acidifying oceans. Retreating glaciers. Super storms. What we do know: Systems change will be the defining feature of our century. And if we stay on our current course, that change will manifest as collapse.
This change, however, could be our opportunity to bring about an intentional transition - a Great Turning as Joanna Macy calls it - towards a healthy, fair, and ecologically resilient world. So how do we take this Great Turn? How do we return to a proper management of home? How do we organize our relationships and human settlements so as to take care of place and each other, once again? How do humans resolve the dilemmas we’ve unleashed unto the planet in the last 200 years and return land, life and labor into a balanced web of stable relationships? How do we bring about a collective societal transition anchored in shared values of real democracy, ecological sanity and social equity?
Tackling these questions with clarity may be the biggest and boldest challenge our species has ever faced. An organized, visionary, and strategically aligned push – by thousands of social movements across the globe – is the task at hand. Yet most of our social movements have not connected the dots in a way that provides this clarity and compels people from all walks of life into action. And the clock is ticking. We need to make new meaning out of this pivotal moment in planetary history. We need to expose the crisis for what it is and generate profound proactive transformation. We can no longer tinker around the edges of a fomenting crisis.
The nature of the cominga economic and social reorganization required by this era of tremendous transition will depend entirely on who is positioned to lead and guide it. We cannot assume that the next world system will inherently be “better” in terms of social conditions or ecological stability. Only collaborative, transformative action that values sharing over hoarding and restoration over exploitation – led by the communities most impacted by the crisis - will get us there
Here are some important strategic frameworks that we think will help us achieve this Great Turning:
Instability has become a defining feature of our times. In many ways, this instability is the new landscape of social struggle. It is useful to classify the economic and ecological disruptions that make up this “new normal” of instability into two groups: shocks and slides.
Shocks present themselves as acute moments of disruption. These are, for example, market crashes, huge disasters and uprisings.
Slides, on the other hand, are incremental by nature. They can be catastrophic, but they are not experienced as acute. Sea level rise is a slide. Rising unemployment is a slide. The rising costs of food & energy are a slide.
While they share a set of root causes, the scale, pace and implications of shocks and slides differ and, therefore require different responses by social movements. One of our key roles, as social movements, must be to harness the shocks and direct the slides – all towards achieving the systemic, cultural and psychic shifts we need to navigate the changes with the greatest equity, resilience and ecological restoration possible.
As just stated, shocks come as acute moments of disruption. They are the Deep Water Horizon oil spills, Hurricane Katrinas or 9/11s. While they may be decades or centuries in the making, they explode onto our consciousness in a short, sudden burst. Like a punch to the face, they can stun, hurt and even outrage us. Different social forces typically jockey to frame what meaning people make of these moments in order to advance their particular interest. Too often, progressive social movements are caught off guard, disabled by the shocks, without the infrastructure or access to shape public response. Meanwhile, regressive and dominant social forces seize the space and use the shock to advance their profit-based interests; what Naomi Klein has dubbed, “Disaster Capitalism.”
In the aftermath of the 2011 Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, there was fairly widespread shock and horror, but little organizing to reveal the true cost of extreme energy. The moment could have opened up new space to rise up against nuclear power, but it instead was framed effectively in the mainstream by elites as a “natural disaster,” “unpredictable,” and “unique.” Further, information of the disaster and impacts was vented to the public much the same way as the radiation was vented; slowly, so as to make the catastrophe appear less acute and easier to absorb. We are still not aware of the full impact of that ongoing disaster.
That said, the disaster was completely predictable. Japan is born of the Pacific Ring of Fire, home to 90% of all earthquakes and 80% of all severe earthquakes. Tsunami itself is a Japanese word that means, “Harbor Wave.” There are even ‘warning stones,’ as old as 600 years, warning future generations of where it is not safe to build on coastal Japan. But ancient wisdom and place-based knowledge are routinely forgotten or ignored in the interests of industrial development. There was some forward momentum in Japan to question nuclear energy and some changes in the European Union as well; but these attempts were not able to draw into question the larger problem of industrial development, the growth economy and extreme energy.
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Shocks – Acute Moments of Disruption
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To spring into action, social movements must first anticipate the coming shocks and pro-actively prepare for them. Shocks are, in a sense, easy to predict; but they are hard to organize around. While the timing of shocks is hard to know, they are certain to occur. Despite the dominant framing of shocks as unpredictable, anomalous or ‘out of our control,’ they are actually inevitable consequences of the political economy. There is no drilling without spilling. There is no empire without blowback. There are no economic bubbles that do not burst.
Yet it is not enough for us to point to shocks as inevitable. Knowing about and even feeling the intensity of shocks does not automatically spark social action. Rather, our social movements need to be asking questions like, “What kinds of leadership, organizing, infrastructure, skills and planning are required to prepare for and utilize these ‘shock’ moments as key opportunities to articulate both the nature and scale of the crisis; as well as our solutions?” And, “What are the material and cultural shifts needed to address the root cause of the problem?” We believe that networking communities to identify and pro-actively build the infrastructure to mount a ‘peoples’ response’ to the shocks is needed. This includes ‘rapid-response’ infrastructure.
We know, for example, that weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable, which means there will be stronger, more frequent storms, floods, droughts and fires. We also know that the corporate state does not have the capacity or interest to respond to these disasters in an equitable way. We must prepare by creating the peoples’ relief infrastructure that can provide support rooted in a visionary analysis. We also know that there will more oil spills as oil becomes harder and harder to produce cheaply. Organized communities in “spill zones” should be supported in “springing into action,” to demand a ban on, for example, deep water drilling, fracking, nuclear power, or tar sand extraction.
Thankfully, this form of organized ‘Disaster Collectivism’ is already taking form. It showed up in New York recently, when Superstorm Sandy hit: Communities Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) and Occupy Sandy both mobilized quickly to provide massive, direct, and real relief to the most vulnerable communities – the ones FEMA and the Red Cross chose to ignore – and did so while bluntly stating that Sandy was not a natural disaster, but the obvious consequence of an economy based entirely on exploitation of both humans and the natural world.
In contrast, slides are incremental by nature. As described earlier, they are not experienced as acute even though they can become catastrophic. Once set in motion, they are hard (sometimes impossible) to stop. Slides may be slower, but this does not mean they are not serious.
Take sea level, for example. We will not wake up one morning to find we are all washed away. Because of the sheer mass of the ocean (and the planet), the amount of energy it takes to increase the temperature and volume of the oceans is enormous and this process takes time.
Yet - once set in motion – it will continue for hundreds (even thousands) of years. So we will not likely experience significant impacts of sea level rise in California for at least twenty more years. Yet every day we delay in changing course seriously magnifies the future problem. The “landing” (or collapse) down the line for vulnerable communities in coastal areas around the world will become more difficult and dramatic if we don’t effectively address the slide now. More importantly, the timescale for ecological recovery (reaching some new level of balance in the system) will take longer - on the order of millennia.
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Slides – Incremental by Nature