In mid-September, just before the UN Climate Summit, an estimated 400,000 people gathered alongside New York’s Central Park to join a march demanding aggressive action to combat global warming. In 161 other countries, activists held some 2600 solidarity demonstrations, creating the largest mobilization ever around climate change.
Did it accomplish anything?
It’s easy to say no. Our society breeds cynicism, and since social change almost inevitably comes more slowly than we’d like, there’s always room for naysayers to assert that popular attempts to influence politics are worthless.
Large marches, in particular, tend to draw sniping.
The massive rallies that took place on February 15, 2003 to oppose the Iraq War, for example, are frequently cited as exercises in futility. After all, more than 8 million people came together globally to denounce George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s imperial mobilization, yet they still failed to stop the attack. So what was the point?
Most skeptics are content to let this remain a rhetorical question. But those who actually investigate may find greater repercussions than they expected.
The great majority of people who took part in those demonstrations knew it was unlikely that an invasion could be averted, but they had good reason to try anyway. With Vietnam, White House flaks were able to see their propaganda go unchecked for years. In contrast, thanks to citizen activism, the invasion of Iraq was a contested affair from the start.
The administration, when confronted, struggled to defend its lies about weapons of mass destruction and its delusions about coalition troops being greeted as liberators. Instead of being reelected in a patriotic landslide, Bush very narrowly escaped defeat in 2004, and anti-war candidates for Congress dominated in 2006.
In countries such as Spain, pro-war governments were ousted. U.S. militarists soon found themselves isolated internationally. And, in these ways, popular backlash curtailed reckless neoconservative desires to attempt “regime change” in places like Iran.
With regard to climate change, no single demonstration, even a very large one, is going to solve the problems we face. However, critics overestimate the tradeoff between high-profile rallies and other efforts. If we hadn’t spent so much time and money on the big march, they argue, just think of all of the more productive work we could have done.
This view treats political involvement like a zero-sum resource, with a supply that is depleted with every use. In reality, it is a spring that is replenished by hope.
Those inspired to join a big-tent event like the People’s Climate March—which used expansive turnout to show that public support for overthrowing the tyranny of oil is growing—are more likely to make greater sacrifices in the future. Savvy organizers know this, and they use mass actions as choice opportunities for recruiting.
I heard from one campus organizer that the drive to compel his college’s trustees to divest from fossil fuel corporations was flagging this past spring—but that it was reinvigorated by the momentum that came as his group signed up students for busses to New York.
We need more such explicit attempts to absorb the energy of the march into ongoing campaigns. I would also have liked march organizers to show greater support for escalating civil disobedience.
As it was, several thousand people joined a #FloodWallStreet protest the next day that blocked traffic in Manhattan’s financial district. It had some fine moments—including an ingenious scene in which a costumed polar bear submitted to arrest by the NYPD. But it lacked the healthy cross-pollination that occurred during the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, when a large mainstream procession expressed solidarity with nonviolent efforts, just a few blocks away, to shut down the trade meetings.
The need for better absorption, and for more escalation, should not be seen as reasons to opt out. They are lessons for next time. For surely the state of our warming planet has made this clear: next time cannot come too soon.