Contentiousness in climate activism

2017-03-27

in PhD thesis, Politics, Psychology, The environment

Charley Tilley has studied social movements overall and activism specifically as a set of “contentious performances”, in which organizers choose from a “repertoire” on the basis of who they want to influence and what opportunities exist for doing so.

Repertoires which are familiar can easily become stale and ineffective, as Micah White discusses in the context of big marches, and as was also widely discussed in the context of various cities sharing strategies to effectively shut down Occupy encampments. The fairly clear failure of the huge People’s Climate March and Toronto’s March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate makes it frustrating that a group of Toronto activist organizations are preparing another march on the same model (with the same name!). Given the urgency of climate change, we can’t dedicate our energy to repeating failed tactics.

If actions like marches have become routine, and lost their ability to produce broad media coverage or political action, we should expect climate change activists to begin engaging in more contentious forms of activism like barricades. One risk – of course – is that with a complacent population that broadly tolerates the status quo such actions will reinforce rather than undermine support for the existing political and economic order.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

anon March 28, 2017 at 12:54 pm

At least marches bring in the broader community – not just activists. They help people realize that their neighbors share their concerns, even if politicians are acting against them.

alena March 29, 2017 at 10:58 am

Marches are a visible way to bring people from different walks in life together in a common cause. They also enable us to release some frustration and energy that can harm us psychologically and physically.

Milan March 29, 2017 at 4:09 pm

I don’t think that’s sufficient justification for investing time and resources in a tactic that has failed to produce concrete benefits.

Think about all the effort expended by dozens of activists to put together something like Toronto’s 2015 MJJC.

It seems to me that they could have had more impact in any number of ways: from lobbying city counsellors, MPs, and MPPs to supporting divestment campaigns at sympathetic institutions to directly challenging fossil fuel infrastructure.

Furthermore, marches don’t necessarily have an inspiring effect or contribute to a sense of momentum. When thousands march and it’s ignored by politicians and the media, it can just as easily contribute to a sense that activism is pointless.

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