On “Setting Priorities” in Social Activism

by Tristan on February 15, 2010

in Activism, Climate change

In this post I take for granted that serious political action is required to mitigate anthropogenic climate change, and that such action is required by justice.  However, climate change mitigation is not the only goal required by justice – there are other political actions on other topics which justice might also demand. For example, the recognition of residential school genocide, the restoration of the welfare state, limiting the power of corporations, changing the way we treat and relate with non-human animals, etc…

The standard approach to the plurality of valid goals which social justice activism can take up is to make priorities – decide which goals one thinks are the most important to put resources towards right now. The massive amount of future devastation with climate change can wreak on humanity is, within the logic of setting priorities, a reason to set it above other goals – even ignore or devalue other priorities. Why care about animal suffering when there are starving children? Why care about crimes in the past when the greatest crimes are being committed right now?

However, the assumption that one must set priorities is not neutral. It comes from the logic of resource – that I have a set amount of “activist material”, i.e. time and energy, and I should set it to use in the most effective way. This is the logic of production – not very different from the way a firm might decide to allocate resources such that they produce the greatest profit. The difficulty with this approach is that it makes the individual the unit of social activism. I do not believe that individuals, qua individuals, have any ability to change the world, to “effectively” pursue social justice goals. Political movements that attain the change they demand are popular, made up of many people – each with their own priorities. How do we negotiate the fact that social activism requires groups, and groups are made of up of individuals who all have different priorities?

One solution is to tell other individuals they should have the same priorities as you. You can try to convince them with arguments. You may do better with films and music. After you’ve convinced allies that your priorities are the correct ones, you can go into battle as a set of individuals which are all basically alike, and use your diverse skills to pursue those interests.

I’d like to propose, however, that this is an absurd way to go about constructing a social movement. There simply is no such thing as a finite amount of “activist material”. From my own experience I can say assuredly that becoming involved in different issues can result in one having more energy, and more resources to pursue different ends. Furthermore, there is no need to have the same priorities as others to work towards common goals. Take for instance the early stages of the French Revolutions – there were various groups all with different specific goals, but the common goals they shared made the Revolution possible.

More power and more life can be gathered into particular movements, climate change action being an absolutely crucial one, precisely by not telling people that “this is the crucial one” but instead seeing the similarities between this one and other. I’m not in favour of social movements co-opting other social movements. Rather, I’m in favour of genuine alliances that only come as a result of genuine respect and understanding of the priorities of others.

I therefore advocate a broad approach to social change – I think we should see connections between issues that are not obvious. For example – there might be a deep connection between taking residential school genocide (and the continued oppression of first nations people in Canada) seriously, and taking environmental crisis seriously. In both cases we know what our values, our ideals demand us to do – and in both cases there is a large gap between what is demanded of us and what we are actually, as a society, achieving. Hypocrisy is thus the overriding norm – and this can be protested against both by criticizing the immunity from persecution the Harper government has granted the churches from crimes they committed at residential schools, just as it can be criticized on the topic of carbon emissions targets.

So, what would this “broad approach”, as opposed to an individual-priority approach, look like? For starters it becomes less about telling other people what priorities they should have, and more about learning from each other, figuring out what is held in common between apparently diverging priorities. It means we have a greater duty to learn about more social justice issues which we do not have a prior interest in, if only because integrating with more causes increases the strength of one’s primary interest. There is no need for the individual to get rid of one’s priorities – it would be possible to pursue the “broad approach” for purely selfish reasons. However, I think by engaging in real confrontation and engagement with other valid issues, and recognizing the synergies between different goals which justice sets for us, there is every likely hood that individuals will become less self-serving, certain-in-themselves, and more holistically minded in their outlook on social change.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan February 15, 2010 at 5:33 pm

While I agree that a mass social movement is probably what is necessary to drive the development of serious climate change mitigation policies, it is worth considering the alternative: that elites could manage the problem with relatively little popular awareness or intervention.

The sooner that began, obviously, the more invisible it could be made, since the changes would be more gradual. Right now, it seems as though elites are happy to just fiddle while slowly burning the world down. If they eventually do become viscerally aware of the threat posed by climate change, it seems at least logically possible that they could set into motion the same sort of serious policies a mass movement would eventually demand.

Tristan February 15, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Sure, but what do we do when elites fail?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1Jk2kPwUj0

Milan February 15, 2010 at 5:41 pm

They are failing now.

Building a social movement is one approach, with both strengths and weaknesses. Another approach is to try to convince the elites to drive the change. That requires both making them viscerally aware of the risks posed by climate change, as well as aware of the opportunities to be captured in the transition to clean and renewable energy.

Tristan February 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm

How are those two different approaches?

Milan February 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm

How are those two different approaches?

You rally mass movements through mass media, websites, pamphlets, rallies, etc. You alter the thinking of elites through less visible means.

Admittedly, some actions can affect both: such as making the full implications of climate science more fully understood by everyone.

However, climate change mitigation is not the only goal required by justice – there are other political actions on other topics which justice might also demand.

In response to this, I think it’s fair to say that preventing catastrophic climate change is prior to all other justice projects – or at least all other forward-looking justice projects. It won’t matter much how equitable a society we build, it we kick off catastrophic or runaway climate change in the process. As such, we need to be collectively doing enough on the climate file before it becomes meaningful to work on anything else.

Tristan February 15, 2010 at 5:47 pm

You can say that if you want, it might even be true. My point is it makes no difference if it is true or not – what matters is what is effective. And if cooperation and integration is more effective, we should stop telling others why they are so wrong to care about their parents murder more than climate change.

Milan February 15, 2010 at 5:49 pm

All I am saying is that climate change isn’t the kind of problem we can put in a laundry list along with lots of other social or political ills. Like the threat of massive nuclear war, it has a transcendent quality.

Tristan February 15, 2010 at 5:50 pm

“You rally mass movements through mass media, websites, pamphlets, rallies, etc. You alter the thinking of elites through less visible means.”

I dispute this opposition. The elites respond to what is politically useful, and changing the political landscape changes what is politically useful.

Perhaps the reason I don’t like this opposition is I don’t actually believe there are any climate-deniers in serious positions of power. Sure, they might make those positions in public – but their actual actions do not bespeak climate denial, they reflect incredibly short term interests, and a willingness to commit massive environmental and social crimes. This is nothing new.

Milan February 16, 2010 at 10:26 am

Climate change deniers have just had a success in Utah, where they got legislators to pass a resolution describing climate change as a conspiracy. The resolution resolves:

“that the Legislature of the state of Utah urges the United States Environmental Protection Agency to immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs and withdraw its “Endangerment Finding” and related regulations until a full and independent investigation of climate data and global warming science can be substantiated.”

As triplepundit has pointed out, this may have a lot to do with Utah’s energy situation:

“With respect to Utah, coal holds a firm grip on the state since close to 90 percent of their electricity comes from coal. Understandably, many in Utah are strongly opposed to cap-and-trade. Utah coal mines produced 26 million tons of coal in 2006, making Utah the 12th biggest coal-producing state in the country. Its coal fired plants emit approximately 41 million tons of CO2, 34,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 68,000 tons of nitrogen dioxide. This results in Utah coal plants producing 66 percent of the state’s total carbon emissions.”

Milan February 16, 2010 at 10:26 am

Grist has more on Utah.

Tristan February 16, 2010 at 11:19 am

Does the Utah legislature passing a resolution which declares AGW a conspiracy say anything about the personal beliefs of the legislators?

No.

This is an example of how you can’t differentiate between grassroots and lobbying – this kind of anti AGW mitigation law is only possible because the population will not be outraged (some grassroots conspiracy promotion, or perhaps just Pat Robertson and fox news), and because the elites thought passing such a law was in their interests (perhaps they were bribed by lobbyists, or perhaps they thought it placated the public).

It says absolutely nothing about the personal beliefs of the legislators. Just like when Obama says the growth of the settlements is an obstacle for peace, it means nothing at all about his personal beliefs – he is simply engaging in empty talk to placate his supporters. (Incidentally, Obama might actually be personally opposed to the settlements – but the point of the example is there is no connection between his personal beliefs and his actions).

Milan February 16, 2010 at 11:26 am

You’re right. This doesn’t give us a glimpse into the minds of legislators.

What it does show is that we are losing. The public and politicians are backsliding on climate change action, partly on the basis of the over-inflated scandals about emails and IPCC claims.

How we get from here onto a track towards carbon-neutrality, and do so before we lock in a catastrophic amount of climate change, is the question that faces us now.

Tristan February 16, 2010 at 2:13 pm

The fact that we are “losing” has no import on the question this post deals with – the question I’m concerned with is “does setting priorities that devalue other social movements make climate change activism stronger or weaker”.

Milan February 16, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Quite possibly both.

In some cases, allying themselves with activists for other causes will help climate change activists advance their agenda. In other cases, it seems likely to be a distraction or counterproductive. For instance, the fact that many environmental organizations are strongly anti-nuclear may reduce our chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change in the long-term.

Milan February 18, 2010 at 4:19 pm

I do not believe that individuals, qua individuals, have any ability to change the world, to “effectively” pursue social justice goals.

One area in which this view is definitely false is technology. James Watt and Thomas Midgeley certainly changed the world, by developing an efficient steam engine and tetraethyl lead and CFCs, respectively. Google was kicked off by two guys in a garage.

It seems highly likely that at least some individually-developed technologies will emerge and create significant changes between now and when climate change has either been averted or locked in.

Tristan March 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I’ll try this again.

Setting priorities in such a way that you tell other people their priorities are wrong, and do not become involved in their issues which you agree with but do not think are a “priority”, might be a strategic blunder. This would be true if you could push your “priority” more strongly by becoming part of other movements – which are essentially people getting together to talk to one another and sometimes have a march. If there already exists activist communities, it makes a lot more sense to try to explain to people in those spaces, from a position of agreeing with them (if you do), that they should also demand action on coal and climate change.

Milan March 3, 2010 at 3:23 pm

If there already exists activist communities, it makes a lot more sense to try to explain to people in those spaces, from a position of agreeing with them (if you do), that they should also demand action on coal and climate change.

Not all activists are in the same situation. Getting support from people advocating very unpopular things could hurt your agenda, rather than advancing it. Similarly, there are plenty of activist campaigns with aims or consequences at odds with most of what needs to be done to stabilize climate.

We shouldn’t be willing to ally ourselves with anyone who happens to feel strongly enough about any issue to be an activist. Climate campaigners need to be more strategic than that.

Milan March 3, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Also, many climate-friendly policies already have broad support. For instance, reducing local air pollution and dependence on fossil fuel imports. Climate change mitigation needs to become a post-partisan issue, advocated by those of all political stripes. Being associated with all sorts of random activists could decrease the appeal of the movement to ordinary people.

Tristan March 3, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Alright.

On the other side, if “being strategic” means explicitly or tacitly approving of crimes against humanity or war crimes, I have no interest in being strategic – nor should anyone. Building just any movement surrounding climate change activism is not enough – it needs to be an anti-fascist, democratic movement.

Tristan March 3, 2010 at 11:28 pm

“many climate-friendly policies already have broad support”

“Broad support”, i.e. support by those who are not willing to engage in direct action. Broad support is made meaningless by the fact that the majority of Bush supporters prior to his original election thought he was in favour of Kyoto. What we need is specific support, enlightened support, intentional support, support that can, if necessary, lead to direct action.

Milan March 4, 2010 at 8:21 am

Choose any contentious issue unrelated to climate change. Then, look at what proportion of the population disagrees with you on each. Watch your number of allies shrink and shrink, for no reason that has anything to do with the environment.

It strikes me as a very poor strategy to say: “Please join us in opposing coal use, but only if you disagree with the second Iraq war, disapprove strongly of Israel, endorse abortion with no legal restrictions, think handguns should be available to all private citizens of legal age, and believe strongly in a taxpayer funded CBC.”

Climate change is too urgent and important to be so picky about issues that are irrelevant to it.

Milan March 4, 2010 at 8:45 am

There are at least two major reasons why only allying yourself with people who pass a weird, activism-related purity test seems objectionable:

  1. It pointlessly restricts your scope of potential allies. Would the civil rights movement have succeeded if every band of supporters was only willing to work with fellow activists who worked on the same campaigns?
  2. The ‘purity test’ sense of it is reminiscent of the US Tea Party movement, with all the lack of pragmatism and knee-jerk populism that involves. Also, restricting the scope of who you work with to close ideological allies risks leaving you blinkered and unable to see beyond your own narrow constituency. You risk becoming like a monarch or CEO who only ever talks to subservient underlings in automatic agreement with your every thought.
Tristan March 4, 2010 at 9:17 am

“It pointlessly restricts your scope of potential allies. ”

Your right, it restricts it to people whose presence doesn’t make me want to vomit.

“a weird, activism-related purity test ”
“The ‘purity test’ sense of it is reminiscent of the US Tea Party movement”

So, the Geneva convention is to pure for you now? Maybe we should ally with south american neo-nazi environmentalist groups? Or maybe the Israelis – I hear they are really environmentalist. I was at a talk about that last night – they save the environment and are personally wasteful with water at the same time, because they save so much water depriving Palestinians of basic human rights and the ability to earn a living off the land!

“is reminiscent of the US Tea Party movement”

Are you making fun of Tea Party protestors? You shouldn’t do that. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2zYaKXeyXE&feature=related

Tristan March 4, 2010 at 9:19 am

“Please join us in opposing coal use, but only if you disagree with the second Iraq war, disapprove strongly of Israel, endorse abortion with no legal restrictions, think handguns should be available to all private citizens of legal age, and believe strongly in a taxpayer funded CBC.”

If you read the original post, you’d see the argument is nothing like this.

Milan March 4, 2010 at 9:44 am

The fact is that some causes are dramatically more important than others, and climate change is near the top of the list. As such, we should work to address climate change even if, in so doing, we set back less important movements. We should do it even if it involves hanging out with people who we don’t normally agree with.

The alternative is like being in a building that is burning down, but only being willing to cooperate with people who share all of your political views. We don’t have time to solve this problem in the prettiest and most pleasant way. We need to accept some compromises along the way.

Tristan March 4, 2010 at 10:06 am

“We should do it even if it involves hanging out with people who we don’t normally agree with.”

The limit of this of course is we shouldn’t hang out with devout racists. But you are generally right. You now seem to agree that, “One solution is to tell other individuals they should have the same priorities as you. ” is not the best solution.

Now since “We don’t have time” to “only being willing to cooperate with people who share all of your political views”, it might make sense to spend less time “telling other people what priorities they should have”.

Milan March 4, 2010 at 10:12 am

But this is a case where we can genuinely tell people their priorities are wrong.

Take people who are intensely concerned about seal hunting. We can legitimately tell them that their efforts won’t really matter if the Arctic warms up by 10°C or more. They have the wrong priority.

Milan March 4, 2010 at 10:14 am

Arguably, the same is true of anti-nuclear campaigners.

Coo-Coo March 4, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Get a life!

Tristan March 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Ok, so let me get this straight.

When I say that we should ally with people with different priorities than us, you say no. You say that the only thing we can say to these people is “you have the wrong priority”, not show any sort of respect for their priorities or find situations where two priorities work together (i.e. for instance, first nations opposition to tar sands development – I suppose you think they are 100% wrong since their central goal is preserving their hunting way of life, not preventing 3 degrees of climate change. So, even though the protests and actions required are largely the same, since their priorities are distinct, we should just complain about how wrong they are).

And then, when I say that we should not ally with people who have priorities which are morally repugnant to us, you say we absolutely must ally with these people because the situation is so dire.

I think you are disagreeing with me for the sake of it.

Tristan March 4, 2010 at 6:57 pm

“They have the wrong priority.”

Priorities, like ideals, need to be evaluated empirically – based on what changes they actually produce. I wrote about this on my blog here: http://northernsong.wordpress.com/2010/02/15/ideals-as-forces-of-historical-particularity/#comment-844

Milan March 4, 2010 at 10:46 pm

It’s not a contradiction.

On the one hand, don’t automatically reject potential allies because you disagree on issues unrelated to climate change.

At the same time, don’t treat the pre-existing prioritization of people you engage with as sacrosanct. It may well be possible to convince them that climate change is a bigger problem than what concerned them before. This has already happened to lots of environmentalists previously focused mostly on other issues.

Tristan March 5, 2010 at 1:21 pm

“don’t treat the pre-existing prioritization of people you engage with as sacrosanct. It may well be possible to convince them that climate change is a bigger problem than what concerned them before. ”

Sure. I agree with this in my post. All I’m trying to say is initially, sometimes, it might be strategic not to start a conversation by telling someone else how wrong they are. Instead, mutual support for mutually important causes might be a better way to build the movement.

The BDS movement is a good example of this kind of cooperation. At IAW events this week lots of respect has been given to Canadian aboriginal issues – not only because these issues are “also important” but because there are important similarities between the crimes being committed against Palestinians and the crimes being committed against first nations peoples. These groups don’t waste their time telling the other that they are wrong because the plight of some other people is more important. Rather, they work together on common ground, towards common goals, and their struggles mutually inform each other.

The problem with the global warming movement is precisely it is too universal. It pretends to be the only issue of importance today – and yet whenever it justifies itself by pointing out the particular violences which climate change will (and it will) bring on, these violences will mostly be co-caused by climate and by inequality, inability to move across borders, the way property de naturalizes access to land, etc…

I see people like you rejecting possibilities for alignment with people engaged in what are actually common struggles against the conditions under which the unwashed masses struggle, and under which for many of them, and us, that struggle will become unimaginably worse because of climate change.

Milan March 5, 2010 at 1:36 pm

As it is, I am pessimistic about our chances of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Stopping all forms of gross injustice would be far, far harder. After all, climate change mitigation can be accomplished in ways that still basically serve those who are powerful now. They just need to think in a slightly longer-term way.

Embedding the pursuit of climate stabilization in the pursuit of Justice Writ Large risks putting such a heavy stone around our necks we will never be able to swim up to the surface.

Milan March 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

Even environmental activist groups are failing to prioritize appropriately on this issue. I went to a Sierra Club monthly meeting on Monday, and climate didn’t even appear on the agenda.

I find it mind-boggling that people are still struggling to protect one local species at the same time as our society as a whole is committing a significant portion of all species to extinction unless we deviate significantly from our current business-as-usual pathway.

Milan September 2, 2010 at 1:38 pm

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