Less than two weeks have passed and yet it isn’t too early to say it: the People’s Climate March changed the social map—many maps, in fact, since hundreds of smaller marches took place in 162 countries. That march in New York City, spectacular as it may have been with its 400,000 participants, joyous as it was, moving as it was (slow-moving, actually, since it filled more than a mile’s worth of wide avenues and countless side streets), was no simple spectacle for a day. It represented the upwelling of something that matters so much more: a genuine global climate movement.
When I first heard the term “climate movement” a year ago, as a latecomer to this developing tale, I suspected the term was extravagant, a product of wishful thinking. I had, after all, seen a few movements in my time (and participated in several). I knew something of what they felt like and looked like—and this, I felt, wasn’t it.
I knew, of course, that there were climate-related organizations,demonstrations, projects, books, magazines, tweets, and for an amateur, I was reasonably well read on “the issues,” but I didn’t see, hear, or otherwise sense that intangible, polymorphous, transformative presence that adds up to a true, potentially society-changing movement.
It seemed clear enough then: I could go about most of my life without brushing up against it. Now, call me a convert, but it’s here; it’s big; it’s real; it matters.
There is today a climate movement as there was a civil rights movement and an antiwar movement and a women’s liberation movement and a gay rights movement—each of them much more than its component actions, moments, slogans, proposals, names, projects, issues, demands (or, as we say today, having grown more polite, “asks”); each of them a culture, or an intertwined set of cultures; each of them a political force in the broadest as well as the narrowest sense; each generating the wildest hopes and deepest disappointments. Climate change is now one of them: a burgeoning social fact.
The extraordinary range, age, and diversity exhibited in the People’s Climate March—race, class, sex, you name it, and if you were there, you saw it—changes the game. The phalanxes of unions, indigenous and religious groups, and all manner of local activists in New York formed an extraordinary mélange. There were hundreds and hundreds of grassroots groups on the move—or forced to stand still for hours on end, waiting for the immense throng, hemmed in by police barricades, to find room to walk, let alone march. At least in the area that I could survey—I was marching with the Divest Harvard group, alongside Mothers Out Front—opposition to fracking seemed like the most common thread. And the only audible appeal to a politician I heard was a clamor to get Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking in New York State.
If what follows sounds circular, so be it: there is a social movement when some critical mass of people feel that it exists and act as if they belong to it. They begin to sense a shared culture, with its own heroes, villains, symbols, slogans, and chants. Their moods rise and fall with its fate. They take pleasure in each others’ company. They look forward to each rendezvous. And people on every side—the friendly, the indifferent, as well as the hostile—all take note of it as well and feel something about it; they take sides; they factor it into their calculations; they strive to bolster or obstruct or channel it. It moves into their mental space.
The climate movement is, of course, plural, a bundle of tendencies. There are those who emphasize climate justice—“fairness, equity, and ecological rootedness” in one formulation—and those who don’t. Politico’s headline-writer called 350.org and other march co-sponsors “rowdy greens,” to distinguish them from old-line Washington-based environmental groups. To my mind, they are not so much rowdy as decentralized on principle, which means that the range of approaches and styles is striking. This is a feature characteristic of all the great social movements of our time.
Unities and Diversities
Degrees of militancy also vary—again, this goes with the territory of mass movements. The day after the march came the Flood Wall Street sit-downs, tiny by comparison and far more targeted on specific enemies: the hell-bent fossil-fuel corporations that pump record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and the banks that support them. These demonstrations have their own disruptive but remarkably civil forms of disobedience, and there will be more of them in the months to come, as well as a host of local campaigns—against tar sands oil in South Portland, Maine, on ranches and campuses in Nebraska, and among Texas evangelicals; against fracking throughout New York and many other states. Some will be more militant, some more sedate, some broader-based, some narrower. Factions will emerge—a movement large enough to turn out throngs won’t be able to avoid them—but so will an acute awareness of commonalities, not least the recognition that time is running out for a civilization that seems unnervingly committed to burning down the house it inhabits.