April 15 will initiate an international week of rebellion led by the UK’s Extinction Rebellion, part of a global wave of movements demanding governments take bold action on climate change. Part of this wave is the youth movement Fridays for Future, which continues to hold weekly school strikes with an impressive global turnout on March 15. In the US, the youth-led Sunrise Movement is actively working to gain support for the Green New Deal. And Extinction Rebellion has continued to garner widespread attention through disruptions and creative stunts that put a wrench in the current system.
Given that governments are not representing the majority of their citizens and are instead leading us toward climate catastrophe, why aren’t more people rising up to demand meaningful climate policy?
This momentum to address climate change is unprecedented and impressive. But given that most of us deeply care about climate change, shouldn’t there be more people of all ages participating? Recent polls in the US and in the UK show that about two thirds of all citizens are very concerned about climate change. In addition, citizens want government to take meaningful action. Given that governments are not representing the majority of their citizens and are instead leading us toward climate catastrophe, why aren’t more people rising up to demand meaningful climate policy?
As a social scientist, I have been looking into how social theory can help answer this question. In January, Erik Olin Wright, a renowned sociologist who studied social transformation passed away. His work represents a valuable and timely contribution, not only for scholars, but for all of us trying to understand how societies can change for the better. In his book, Envisioning Real Utopias, Wright presents a detailed theory of social transformation. Applying his work to current trends, we see that decades of growing inequality and a failure to mitigate climate change have created tensions and openings for change, movements are now increasingly demanding change, and we may be standing at the precipice of transformation. Because mitigation demands “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” climate change could be a critical catalyst for a transition to a more just society.
While it is impossible to predict the future, history tells us that social transformation requires a large social movement that is sustained over time. Current climate change movements need to increase is size, scale, and global coordination. Extinction Rebellion claims that when just 3.5 % of the population demands change, governments will cave to the pressure. But why do we not see more people getting involved?
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Wright identified forces of “social reproduction” that present barriers to change and maintain the current system. One of these is ideology, or the ideas or narratives (often lies) that benefit those in power and protect the status quo. Two examples, fatalism and cynicism, represent significant impediments to a growing climate change movement. Wright states that “fatalism poses a serious problem for people committed to challenging the injustices and harms of the existing social world, since fatalism and cynicism about the prospects for emancipatory change reduce the prospects for such change.” In other words, believing that the way things are is inevitable and that social movements will not be successful directly reduces the chances that there will be positive social transformation.
One reason few people get involved or stay involved in social movements is the success of years of prevailing messages from those in power that, as Margaret Thatcher stated, “there is no alternative” to the current system. In addition, those who seek alternatives are told that they will not succeed and that proposals like the “New Green Deal,” as Trump says, don’t stand a chance. These messages are effective strategies to keep people from believing in and demanding change. It is now critical to see these lies for what they are, to know that there are alternatives and they are possible, and to demand the change we want.
By Wright’s account, conditions are ripe for transformation. Brexit, Trump, and the Yellow Vest movement are all signs of a desire for a different system. Climate change movements are putting increasing pressure on governments to take action and to rethink economic and social priorities. These are all signs of transformation in the making. But as Wright states, the only way to tell if change will occur is to actively work to make it happen. Now is the time to reject the voices of fatalism and cynicism and to get involved and stay involved.
As Gandhi put it, “the future depends on what you do today.” In the case of climate change, what you do today could not only help save the planet, but further a transition to a better society. A window for positive change could be opened if we only try. And we already have the answers. Those studying and practicing economic democracy and degrowth are ready to teach us how to create a more just and sustainable world. But first we have to rise up and demand change.