By Roland Watson
November 22, 2021

We've just experienced a tsunami of words out of COP26 (Conference of the Parties #26). Or, as Greta Thunberg put it: "Blah Blah Blah."

But criticizing our leaders who refuse to lead is not enough. The climate emergency isn't going to solve itself.

After decades of concern and activism, we have to recognize, and act on, some uncomfortable truths.

1. Focusing on "global warming" and "climate change" makes the crisis about humans - about us. It de-emphasizes our much broader impact on the natural ecology and what we can do (and to be fair in many cases are doing) to help threatened species and habitats.

As a tactic, though, this is probably correct. Very few people are biocentrists, basing their lives on the fact that we are all part of nature. Almost everyone is still, implicitly, Humans First!, beginning with their own needs and want - their personal selfishness.

However, "Climate Change" is poor branding. Other than infrequent strong storms - extreme weather events, most people don't see it. Unless you live in an island nation, where's the threat? The call therefore should be more immediate and decisive. Something like:

Cut Your Carbon Emissions!

It is not essential to explain the science. Just put out the call and promote it over and over again.

Whole campaigns can be built and disseminated, world-wide, and in all languages, to explain the carbon emission impact of every single decision that we make. In other words, lists of "Do This," and you cut your annual emissions one ton. Add "That," and you cut them another ton.


2. What this reflects, and what COP26 proved, is that activists are still too focused on top-down solutions. Of course we need the leaders to set national targets and then to impose policies to ensure that they are met, beginning with new regulations to force the largest emitters, in industry, to clean up their production. But while getting angry with political leaders and companies is emotionally satisfying, it obscures our personal role.

Oil companies refuse to limit their emissions because government leaders won't force them. But we elected the leaders, and we in turn refuse to demand an end to corporate lobbying (and corporate personhood).

Oil companies further continue to look for new oil since we as consumers keep using their current reserves. We can scream as much as we want but if we don't cut our use of their products, both gasoline and every single consumer good that is made using fossil fuel energy, they will keep drilling.

Also, if we force governments to shut down power plants, without having broad based initiatives to reduce energy demands, energy prices will spike (as is now happening), risking a counter-reaction and even less public concern for the cause.

Fundamentally, top down activism, because of the impact of corporate lobbying (and the revolving door between corporate and government jobs), is a waste of time. Petitions, popular lobbying, and even protests, accomplish nothing. But we keep doing them, rather than take other steps.

We don't want to end top-down activism - most nations still have some semblance of democracy, but as described an equivalent focus should be on the bottom-up. This begins with encouraging everyone, every single human adult and child, to control their consumption: to try to follow the principle of LPI - having the Least Possible Impact: and, either postponing childbearing or forgoing it entirely. One of the best steps of all would be to have a Worldwide Moratorium on New Births, say for ten years.

3. The alternatives to protest are direct action, and revolution.

For all the problems that exist in the modern world, from the climate emergency and environmental destruction through to structural racism and inequality and all the other forms of social abuse, direct action is the obvious response. This involves finding ways to act against those individuals and entities which are the most responsible.

Revolution ups the ante even more. It often begins when large-scale protests escalate into a full-on uprising. A million people marching in the streets though typically still will not change anything. To destroy entrenched power structures protests have to be combined with such things as widespread civil disobedience, strikes, and national shutdowns. And for this, disparate sections of the society need to unify in the common cause.

The correct course of action begins with a mental adjustment. The controllers of the power structures are "the enemy." They have to be stopped. With this realization, people can use their creativity and ingenuity to devise countless forms of opposition.

For the climate emergency, since so many young people are engaged, it should be straightforward to instigate widespread direct action. But this is different from protest. Mass demonstrations require centralized organization. Direct action is independent. Individuals who are willing to go to the next level form affinity groups (or even act on their own). There may be a template, such as described in the Earth First! Direct Action Manual, but the actual groups are unconnected. This in turn illustrates the strategy's different benefits. It creates change right now, such as through blockades. It is dramatic and generates significant media coverage. It is contagious, and leads to the formation of similar affinity groups in other locations. And, with careful planning and strict security protocols, it is safe, meaning with a reduced risk of arrest. The final benefit is the tremendous sense of fulfillment that you get from doing something that counts.

Moving from direct action to revolution, based on climate change, though, is unlikely, largely because people aren't being killed. Proper revolution, meaning armed revolution, generally only erupts in self-defense against murderous tyrants.

Nonetheless, direct action can have a huge impact against specific targets, e.g., the largest emitters, or individuals holding back government action.

Protests do serve a purpose as well, by manifesting widespread opposition, and even more by functioning as recruiting grounds for direct action activists.

4. Another issue is "distraction." There are countless worthwhile causes, and everyone is of course also distracted by the demands of their everyday life, and the never-ending wall of "entertainment" with which we are now bombarded. Activism takes commitment, meaning time, and if people are engrossed with their careers, or just the latest song, show or film, this is time not spent on change. Further, even though we don't recognize it, most if not all of the causes are "the exact same." Problems don't exist in a vacuum. They are caused, by unethical individuals. And the same people are behind almost everything that is wrong in society and with our relationship with nature. It is not "the government" or "the corporations." It is the specific people in the government and the companies (and their paymasters, the superrich). We need to name them and then confront them directly, again and again.

5. All movements for change come with a price - repression. Those in control fight back. They further have tremendous resources at their disposal, particularly to manipulate the media. But they don't have the people. It is a narrow clique against all of us. Some of us will fall, but there will be a hundred more to replace them. In other words, there is power in numbers. The world is democratic. If we act in unison, we can change anything.

Roland Watson is an activist for the cause of freedom in the Southeast Asian nation Burma (aka Myanmar), which has some of the greatest ecological and ethnic/cultural diversity on earth. He has worked predominantly with ethnic nationality armed resistance groups. https://www.facebook.com/roland.watson.108