I have always been secretly spiritual. Growing up, it was difficult to avoid. Catholic ornaments scattered around the house by my mum. Sat on the pews of countless dusty, empty churches, listening to my dad as he repaired their organs. Playing the piano at Christmas: O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, Silent Night. The nativity scene under the tree. At school the Children’s Bible was my favorite book, my link to a magical past. I sat in assemblies, singing hymns with back straight and falsetto soaring over the other bored, slouching bodies around me. I would apologize silently to God for my impure thoughts.
And then I grew away from it. Hymns turned to pop songs. Bibles turned to novels. Thoughts of God turned to thoughts of the atom. Psychological submission turned to rebellion. Jesus stopped being real at about the same time as Santa.
I welcomed it. It felt like maturity, a release from authority and fantasy. Yet I never lost the yearning for … something. A greater purpose, a feeling of wonder. I felt snatches of it from time to time, but always fleeting—in a song, a film, or a moment of love. So I buried myself in rapturous, ethereal music. In quiet contemplative arthouse cinema. In romantic obsessions. In hindsight, I was longing for a secular divinity.
Atheists talk about replacing love of God with love of science – but where are the churches where we worship the infinite? Where are the hymns we sing to the glory of the electron? Where are the accepting scientific communities we can turn to for ethical guidance (that don’t require a PhD to engage in)? Just as the individual seeker of truth replaces the community of faith, our support systems have been increasingly privatized and individualized – to therapists, doctors, job centers, the nuclear family. And to ‘self-care’, which many have noted can play both a liberatory or an oppressive role. Freedom from religious dogma had its drawbacks: atomization, which in turn was integral to the success of neoliberalism.
Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies.
Our understanding of the universe has become divorced from our bodies. Far from increasing our awareness, the dominance of atheist rationalism has stripped people of their systems of explanation. Speculation and creativity in understanding the world is patronized and attacked. ‘No, you’re wrong. Trust the experts’. Yet as long as that expert knowledge is so safely guarded behind paywalls, university walls, cultural and language barriers, there is not and cannot be a public understanding of science. Capitalism fuels not just economic inequality, but educational inequality too.
Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies. You would scream at those who tried to burn down your house. Many have forgotten how to scream.
The socialist left, at least in the West, tends to avoid spirituality, often seeing it as directly contradicting the materialist philosophy associated with communism. And yet those on the left most attracted to spirituality and its embodied practices – such as in the peace movement – tend to move away from what socialists would think of as a materialist analysis of society (sometimes even veering into pseudoscience and orientalism). This ambivalence toward spirituality has implications for how the left organizes in communities. Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice (or a proper appreciation of it) is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.
Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.
So how do we move beyond this division and create a synthesis of socialism, science and spirituality? Can atheists reclaim spirituality without necessitating a return to religion (and without patronizing those who do)? It’s not enough to simply appeal to people to learn more about religions – we have to actually construct spaces in which people can come together to collectively explore these questions, to develop emotional bonds with one another. Rational inquiry alone is not enough; people need to see the relevance to their own lives and feelings. They need to experience spirituality and recognize it as such.
To begin with then, we need to define ‘spiritual’ more precisely. This will help us to show how religious and non-religious people share certain rapturous bodily experiences, regardless of the system they have for explaining it.
Rather than merely being a synonym for ‘religious’, I take spirituality to be something distinct: the bodily experience associated with religiousness. In the eyes of theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra, spirituality conceived in this way is fully consistent with complex systems science, and particularly the theory of embodied cognition:
Spiritual experience is an experience of aliveness of mind and body as a unity. Moreover, this experience of unity transcends not only the separation of mind and body but also the separation of self and world. The central awareness in these spiritual moments is a profound sense of oneness with all, a sense of belonging to the universe as a whole.
With this in mind, I take spirituality to mean:
exploring the metaphysics of the infinite
which becomes expressed in ecstatic embodied experiences
and which informs our ethics at both the individual, collective and wider social scales
To put it simply, it involves asking three questions: What exists beyond my immediate perception? How does this make me feel? And what therefore does acting justly entail? This includes religious belief in the traditional sense, but also goes beyond it. The feeling of being humbled by the scale of the universe when staring into the night sky. The feeling of the weight of history and your debt to it when walking through an old building. The feeling of infinite power and possibility on a protest march, surrounded by your friends and community in joyful union. All of these are comparable to a ‘religious experience’.
Whilst this definition allows us to identify spirituality in secular experiences, it does not imply that all of these experiences are good. For example, nationalism might also fall within this understanding:
a metaphysics based on racial and cultural essentialism
becomes expressed in the embodied practices of singing anthems, pride in the flag, and love for the monarchy
and it informs the ethics and organizational principles of hierarchy, fear of difference, and violence seen as legitimate for protecting racial or cultural homogeneity
As a response to the rise of nationalism in Western countries today, some on the left haveurged for nationalism with a progressive flavor. However, I would reject any suggestion that the left adopt elements of nationalism in order to be successful. Ash Sarkar from Novara Media details why English nationalism can never be disentangled from racism and imperialism. Nevertheless, it is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not.
It is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not. To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful.
To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful. And to do that we need shared practices for creating communal, embodied emotional connections, based around a shared ethics and metaphysics. A socialist spirituality, but one which is internationalist and intersectional.
What would a socialist spirituality look like? In my view, it would need to meet some key criteria. We firstly need a metaphysics which bridges the divide of spirituality, science and socialism. In my view, this requires acknowledging the constant motion and interconnectedness of everything.
Secondly, we need to take this framework and apply it to the body: how do we position ourselves in this world? What does it suggest about power and oppression? And what practices can help us to feel this knowledge? I call this radical mindfulness.
Lastly, we need look at the ethical and organizational principles and strategies that emerge from these practices. Let’s call this the care ethic, to contrast it with the work ethic.
Crucially, we need to keep socialist spirituality simple. For one thing, this will allow it to be more easily understood by non-academics – something which the theory-focused left often fails to do. It also gives space for the framework to adapt as our knowledge expands and changes. And also, most importantly for me, this allows for it to remain relatively consistent with differing beliefs as to whether any deity or supernatural force is involved. This can help form the basis of shared spaces – perhaps even organizations – that allow socialist collaboration across faith, without requiring people to divorce their spirituality from their organizing.
Because whatever your position on the ultimate nature of the universe, we need to be able to work together on earthly matters like capitalism and climate change – while we still have an Earth left to fight for.
This is the second article in a series on Spirituality, Science and Socialism, a version of which was originally published on Graham Jones’ blog, Life Glug. You can read the other parts here: 1, 2, 3, and (forthcoming) 4, 5.
Graham Jones is a writer and organizer based in London, and can be found on Twitter as @onalifeglug. If you would like to support their work, you can do so through Paypal or Patreon.
My first thought on reading The Theology of Consensus by L. A. Kauffman—which recently appeared in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and then reached a wider audience in Jacobin Magazine—is that I have rarely read an article so important, thoughtful, and well-researched that nonetheless does little more than trade one superstition for another. The concerns she raises are critical and seldom discussed yet the author seemingly fails a test of basic critical thinking: she never asks if the problem she deftly analyzes might be pandemic. That is the fatal flaw of Kauffman’s well-researched article.
Kauffman’s article begins by tracing the origins of consensus decision-making within activist circles to two Quakers in the 1970s who adapted the practice from Quaker tradition.
Kauffman describes consensus decision-making as “a process in which groups come to agreement without voting… [G]roups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable.” She adds that it “has been a central feature of direct action movements for nearly 40 years.”
The first crucial and thoughtful concern the author raises is the danger of moving practices from the religious realm to the secular realm. Kauffman points out that when this occurs such practices can become superstitious, a sort of magical technique, rather than the contemplative practice or symbol they were intended to be. I could not agree more with the author: taking religious material (e.g. myth) as a blueprint for practical action is a recipe for disaster. She writes: “Consensus can easily be derailed by those acting in bad faith. But it’s also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.”
Indeed, Quakers do await a kind of “unity” to appear among us, but that unity is inseparable from the presence of the divine, so to speak. In other words, unity should be seen as a miracle. We could say symbolically that we have some control but not final say over unity happening. Unity is not literal, in the same way Christians should not read the Bible literally; nor should we expect unity to necessarily fully arise in reality, just as it would be unwise for a Christian such as my brother to hold his breath until Christ returns.
Any “faith” in consensus necessarily arising is indeed misplaced and would create quasi-magical expectations for consensus practice and occult its limitations. Like any superstition, this would lead to a lack of realism and therefore ineffective action that poorly serves the cause of justice. Rituals and prayer cannot replace thoughtful action. Nor can a superstitious view of consensus sustain hope and courage in the long-term. As superstitions are exposed, the only options are apathy, cynicism, or fanaticism.
Just as we must protest when an organized religion discourages us from acting on urgent social problems, Kauffman is right to call us to be just as critical and suspicious of superstition with regards to consensus. The symbolism concealed in these superstitions may provide necessary meaning and direction to our lives, and that is worth celebrating, but superstition as a plan for action does not ultimately serve the oppressed. Kauffman convincingly shows that superstitious understandings of consensus do exist within activist circles and do cause problems, even if she perhaps exaggerates how widespread the problem is.
The second concern the author raises is even more important: consensus process is an expression of middle-class, white culture and can be alienating to others. I could hardly agree more when Kauffman notes:
“[The consensus] tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region…
“Time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.”
When white activists insist on decision-making practices that are a profound expression of white, middle-class culture, a kind of white supremacy results—a white supremacy that endlessly claims to stand for racial justice while viewing its own culture as universally valid and therefore refusing to negotiate its customs. This leads to strained relationships and low motivation for cooperation.
Kauffman’s critique of consensus correctly states, moreover, that this practice does not remove all lines of privilege. It favours people with the time, energy, and patience to deal with a consensus process. Particularly if these processes are poorly facilitated, they can be lengthy and draining.
Nonetheless, as a Quaker and environmental organizer, there are some less impressive parts of this article.
Something akin to consensus is a frequent practice in many North American aboriginal cultures (cf. the Iroquois Confederation). Even as a Quaker, I learned about consensus in a restorative justice training, heavily inspired by aboriginal cultures. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the development of consensus in activist culture was influenced by a few centuries of cohabiting North America with aboriginal peoples. Moreover, anarchists have been inspired by Quakers since the 19th century, so although I have not analyzed the author’s source material, it seems unlikely that consensus was helicoptered in—out of nowhere—by two Quakers in the 1970s as Kauffman claims.
The author also doesn’t mention that consensus seems to have been a reaction against relatively top-heavy organizing of the 1960s that, of course, also favoured people with privilege. The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King reminded activists that charismatic organizing can be stopped cold by lopping off the heads of leaders and offending organizations. The challenges involved in organizing for justice in our world are immense. So although it is important to know the limitations of consensus, Kauffman’s article would have been much stronger if it included any reason to believe that the difficulties many experience when practicing consensus are inherent to consensus rather than inherent in the difficult nature of the problems activists seek to solve through consensus.
The author also claims that “better practices” than consensus exist but did not give any examples—which was unfair and I thought suspicious. She accuses consensus of magical thinking, but it would be magical thinking on her part if she believes that any quick-fix replacement for consensus will magically generate an egalitarian, multi-cultural revolution, or even necessarily get us one step closer. It is impossible to evaluate her claim that better practices exist without an example. This omission is fundamental, diminishing the value of her article, which is excellent in so many ways.
The activists I work with know that consensus isn’t magic. Nor have I been to many consensus sessions (or Quaker meetings) that lasted 4-8 hours… this concern does not seem entirely insurmountable and it is obvious that consensus benefits from training and reflection.
In addition, while her exposition of superstition inherent in consensus is excellent, her rejection of consensus-process generally seems exaggerated and polemical. It is quite possible to have a successful and efficient consensus process that has zero expectations of “unity” arising by magic. As Kauffman notes, consensus would be ill-advised when parties have differing material interests or a power imbalance (e.g. divorce proceedings in cases of domestic violence). But consensus is used every day, quite frequently to everyone’s satisfaction. My experience is that usually it works just fine, particularly in situations of relatively low diversity of opinion or when well-facilitated.
Nor have I met many people who seemed to have the dogmatic attachment to consensus the author seems to think is widespread. The activists I work with know that consensus isn’t magic. Nor have I been to many consensus sessions (or Quaker meetings) that lasted 4-8 hours. The long ones I can think of were, not surprisingly, poorly facilitated. Kauffman is correct that “consensus-specialists” can become arcane to outsiders, but this concern does not seem insurmountable and it is obvious that consensus benefits from training and reflection.
But let us move on to far larger problems.
Despite the misgivings above, I find the author makes a very interesting and plausible link between consensus and Quaker theology, but this raises the entire problem with the article: Kauffman is implying that every other activist practice besides consensus emanates from entirely secular and rational sources, having no religious roots and certainly no superstitions. She implies that it’s easy or even possible to find an activist practice that is free from the kinds of superstition and white culture brilliantly illustrated in her article. This assumption is fundamental to her article, for otherwise, if she was aware that activist practice was rife with superstition and almost inextricable from white culture, her article would simply be a baffling call for us to exchange one superstitious expression of white culture for another. Her implicit assumption is necessary for her article and it is wrong.
Kauffman has therefore put her finger on a whale of a problem: Enlightenment superstitions underlie a vast majority of leftist thought and activity. Enlightenment culture, the tragic bedrock of the radical left, is inextricable from white culture, and even white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.
We know that modern culture and activist culture in particular is filled with superstition and is a profound expression of white culture, and perhaps even white supremacy. Many historians, political scientists, and philosophers have already explored the problematic ways that ideals of democracy, freedom, equality, and even the modern project of “rationally remaking the world” are rooted in Christian myths, superstitious, and inextricable from those superstitions (cf. Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Schopenhauer, Paul Tillich, Charles Taylor, Adorno, etc.). They are equally inseparable from white culture. This work may not be well known and its implications for activist practice may be very little explored, but it is a solid and respected body of literature.
Kauffman has therefore put her finger on a whale of a problem: Enlightenment superstitions underlie a vast majority of leftist thought and activity. Enlightenment culture, the bedrock of the radical left, is inextricable from white culture, from superstition, and from white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.
To understand this, let’s take, for example, the Christian myth of the “end times,” the mythical events “after” the Last Judgment under the reign of Christ. In Christian theology, the mythical “end-times” remove the possibility for human reason to err and to sin but rather human reason is reunited with the ability to perfectly discern truth, justice, and love. Within this state of ecstasy, humanity could leave behind all symbol, ritual, and myth, freely discarding all its traditions, for they would no longer be necessary when God is “transparent” (symbolically speaking) to all through every bit of creation. Humanity would arrive at a fully Rational culture that is rich, inexhaustible, and totally liberated. A culture that is Rational would be universally valid, rather than particular and relative.
Although they did not say so explicitly, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the intellectual founders of modern society, were in effect claiming that these “end-times” are nigh. The Enlightenment, with its optimism about the power of real-life reason to overcome error and selfishness, began a project of “rethinking everything,” a universal application of Reason. This is the modern project. They predicted that we have the power today to bring about the Kingdom of God. The coming of Reason would mean that the world’s cultures were unnecessary and could be discarded as part of a global (colonial) effort that was at first missionary before it was educative and liberatory. The European Christian traditions of white supremacist, cis-hetero-partriarchy were called Rational and universal; everything else was seen as inferior and irrational. “Liberation” and “education” has always meant some genuine liberation and genuine edification mixed with oppression and the undermining and destruction of traditions throughout the world. That is why the victims of this Enlightenment superstition have always primarily been the oppressed, be it through colonialism that sought to educate away other cultures or through a “liberation” that in fact ensures the domination of European tradition, e.g., the European economy or cultural norms.
It is therefore not easy to find any political ideal that is not drenched in this founding superstition of the Enlightenment, the confusion of Reason with reason.
For instance, the Enlightenment ideal of maximizing freedom (liberalism) makes no sense without the confusion of Reason with reason. When different actors are liberated to compete, freedom without Reason can just as easily lead to oppression and destruction as it can to harmony. Economic liberalism (commonly known as the ideal of capitalism) cannot be maintained without a faith that Reason will prevail once liberated. The same goes for social liberalism and even utopian anarchism: they depend on a faith in Harmony-through-freedom.
Many, when rejecting liberalism then turn to the Enlightenment ideal of a progressively more Rational state governed by “the People.” But meritocracy, linked to the ideals of democracy, equality, education, technology, objective science, and Rational policy, suffers the same problem: a faith in Progress as Reason begets greater Reason.
The problem of consensus is simply a subset of the superstition of Harmony arriving through the respectful and free competition of ideas, aided by Progressively more skillful facilitation and participation. Kauffman’s article seeks to “liberate” us from the hidden oppression of consensus or help us Progress to an improved practice. In other words, she trades one superstition for another. She correctly exposes one superstition but with seemingly zero awareness of how giant the problem is.
Kauffman’s article seeks to “liberate” us from the hidden oppression of consensus or help us Progress to an improved practice. In other words, she trades one superstition for another. She correctly exposes one superstition but with seemingly zero awareness of how giant the problem is.
It is as if she discovered dead the canary in a coal mine and suggested we replace the canary. In fact, we need to evacuate the mine before the fumes that killed the canary kill us. Certain understandings of consensus contain superstition, to be sure, but consensus-superstitions are only a tiny subset of Enlightenment superstition.
This leads us to Kauffman’s other point—that consensus contained white practices that were alienating to other races. We could make the exact same argument about the Enlightenment—that it took white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal values and called them “Rational,” and therefore transcultural and universal. Any Enlightenment political ideal (freedom, democracy, Rational policy) contains some element of white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.
Dropping Enlightenment superstitions would be a gargantuan task for anyone and discarding one’s own culture is quite unlikely. The entirety of modern culture needs a radical reevaluation that keeps its truth but scraps its superstitions and supremacy, which is an enormously complex task.
The radical left needs a radical transformation. For the past century it has criticized liberalism but replaced it with the ideal of democracy (economic or political), which is inseparable from the superstition of Progress. But then it criticizes totalitarianism but replaces it with the ideal of liberalism, which is also inseparable from the superstition of Harmony-through-freedom.
In short, the radical left has been exchanging superstition for superstition for the past century but now we are stuck: socialism is widely viewed as an ideal that “doesn’t work” but liberalism is also an obvious failure. Now, nobody cares to listen to the radical left, and for good reason. This leads to articles such as Kauffman’s which correctly criticize current practice but are utterly unable to propose something free of superstition that is also equal to the massive problems of modernity.
What might this shift in the radical left look like? Although it would be out of the scope of this article to describe it in detail, we can look at how it would impact consensus. First of all, the shift needed would look nothing like what Kauffman proposes. Kauffman’s approach to consensus is typical of the Enlightenment: for her, practices involving superstitions are to be entirely dropped, since no symbol, myth, or ritual will be necessary in the Rational end-times, which apparently are nigh. Consensus for her is something to be entirely discarded. Certainly I agree with Kauffman that superstitions make a poor blueprint for practical action but superstitions do make excellent myths, symbols, and rituals—the type of meaning-making activity that gives order and direction to our lives and has the power to comfort us in difficult times in ways that literal language struggles to do. In the “meantime” we humans need myths, symbols, and rituals and so do activists. Communities, after all, are built on them. And a community of resistance, at least in my opinion, is precisely what we need.
The real solution to consensus, and for the radical left generally, is to explicitly transform superstitions into explicit rituals and symbols—rituals and symbols that express the ideals of white, middle-class culture. We must then affirm that many people need these symbols and defend them while firmly rejecting a purely literal understanding of them. We must equally reject white supremacy by affirming white symbols, ideals, and rituals as important to those who are moved by them but denying their universal validity.
Consensus needs to be finally recognized as having ritual elements, with its symbolic meanings expressed. Doing so clarifies that it is not only a blueprint for rational action but linked to meaning-making cultural activity through ritual and symbol. Saying it has ritual elements does not to deny that it also includes practical and technical function, in the same way that saying it has symbolic and metaphorical elements does not deny that it has literal elements. For instance, sitting in a circle symbolically expresses the white, Enlightenment ideal of equality but also practically arranges people so that they can hear and see each other. Seeking everyone’s opinion is a symbol for the kind of justice we seek to create within a world where billions simply don’t count, but also as practical within the goal of building power.
The superstitions that Kauffman mentions about consensus—that expecting Harmony to arise through “non-hierarchical space”—can be seen as a symbol for our shared ideals of liberation and caring for all of creation that we feel called to fight for. Although it would be utopian to expect such a world to ever come to pass, we are called in this moment to seize the opportunities around us to move toward such a world. Understanding the symbols and ritual involved in consensus is inextricable from rejecting any superstitious expectations about its results. No matter how perfect the world consensus symbolizes, consensus-practice will always be messy as a blueprint for rational action in the “meantime.”
Consensus needs to be affirmed as a beautiful and effective ritual of white culture, its history as appropriated from indigenous people must be recognized and thanks given. By recognizing consensus as an expression of white culture (and it is white culture now, even if the form was inspired by other cultures), a genuine negotiation of practices can happen when doing interracial or intercultural work. The intuitive appeal of consensus to white people—rooted in ritual and symbol—can finally be expressed humbly and without implicit white supremacy. Consensus would no longer be seen as Rational but rather white.
It’s a very worthwhile task to perform a religious analysis of modern culture and activist culture in particular. I’m glad to see the author doing it but she stopped about a light year short of finishing the job. I have rarely found an article that raises such important problems with such well-researched points that was so completely inadequate to the task of even beginning to resolve them. Yet I must say I am grateful for her very fruitful effort.
David Summerhays is a Quaker and environmental organizer who organizes community conversations and teaches piano.
Climate change is big. As is the climate movement seeking to confront the issue, though it is not yet as powerful as the fossil fuel industry. People all over the world are standing up in very different ways, as evidenced by a quick glance at the over-800 partner organizations for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City on September 21. It’s a real challenge to bring together these very different groups.
In Canada alone examples abound of the diversity of people and range of strategies being used to address the problem. Many people at the Unist’ot’en camp are returning to their lands and effectively blocking pipelines. At universities, people like McGill Environment student & Divest McGill organizer Kristen Perry are demanding endowment funds become fossil fuel free. Shaina Agbayani and others are focusing on the relationship between migrant justice and climate change. In Toronto’s Bay Street offices people like Toby Heaps are selling low-carbon investment strategies. Amanda Lickers, a Haudenasaunee environmental organizer, is working to oppose fossil-fuel infrastructure (including pipeline) projects destroying native communities. The scale of the challenge has been responded to with many strategies from diverse groups that together are sometimes called the climate movement.
In this movement, there is no central leadership, no intelligentsia behind closed doors like in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s protagonist, an unnamed young black man who becomes a spokesperson for what could be called the civil rights movement, is told what to do and what to say by a small group of white men using supposedly scientific formulas that perfectly guide the movement. Thankfully this is not how the climate movement works: it is more decentralized and people have more autonomy to act as they see fit. This comes with its own set of challenges, as seen recently during Occupy and a few decades ago with the leaderless women’s liberation movement.
But wait, interacting with climate activism may give you the feeling that there is a centralized organization and a mastermind leader.
When someone hears “350” mentioned and asks what it is, I’ve often heard the response that 350.org is the climate movement and Bill McKibben its leader. This is easy to believe when articles on environmental news sites like Grist and RTCC announcing the Peoples’ Climate March include only McKibben and 350.org by name as leaders and planners. The RTCC article begins “Led by Bill McKibben…”, and it is his thoughtful articles that appear in youth-targeted Rolling Stone. The 350.org “Do The Math” tour description reads “In November 2012, Bill McKibben and 350.org hit the road to build a movement strong enough to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” The notion that McKibben is the leader and 350.org the movement is in large part due to the way the organization has framed itself from the start.
The story of 350.org is similar to that of many NGOs in that it began with a core dedicated group and a compelling call to action. As McKibben himself likes to point out, it started out at a college in Vermont with 7 people, and they decided to each take a continent and build a movement.
The organization has been acting out that global narrative ever since. They’ve gained prominence and power that most grassroots groups would never dream of through a combination of millions of dollars of support from the Rockefellers and others and a persistent mentality that they lead the worldwide movement-building process. Following a notable lack of discussion with other groups, 350.org called out for and selected 500 people to gather in June 2013 in Turkey for a Global Power Shift and claimed it as “the starting point for a new phase in the international climate movement.”
The well-intentioned Americans of 350.org venturing overseas to be the global umbrella for the movement have created an organization that has unfortunately bulldozed over other voices in the climate movement and has come to be seen by many as the movement itself. So while the movement is bigger and more complex than 350.org, having this unofficial and unaccountable focal point limits how we think about and interact with climate activism.
Take, for example, the problem that those who have the least wealth will likely face the worst of climate change-caused catastrophes including drought, flooding and storms. This means that those who already face deep injustices will have very different demands from those who simply want to preserve the earth as it is. We need spokespeople who can be accountable to these groups. Unfortunately, 350.org’s insistence that they represent the movement while they don’t actually respond to these diverse demands ultimately hurts the movement.
In fairness, considerable credit is due to 350.org and to Bill McKibben for building momentum. McKibbon is a good writer, if over-simplifying, as seen in his very widely read July 2012 Rolling Stone article. Recently he has been sitting down to have serious conversations with powerful people like university presidents to push the divestment agenda. As a celebrity in the climate world he is drawing big crowds to the Peoples’ Climate March in NYC, and at hype talks in recent months 350.org has used his draw to put the spotlight on some local groups and individuals. The staff of 350.org seem very motivated, with their hearts in the right place, and the problems of being a big international NGO are not unique to 350.org.
That said, constructive criticism is what will help the movement learn and improve. At a September 2 event in Montreal organized by 350.org and local campus groups, some issues were clearly visible. First, there were two lines of French spoken by all the speakers combined, a shame for an event happening in French-speaking Quebec, a hotbed of radicalism in North America. Thankfully the audience did hear some Kanien’keha (Mohawk), the language native to the area, from Ellen Gabriel. At one point McKibben attributed the initiation of the fossil fuels divestment campaign one half to journalist and 350.org board member Naomi Klein and one half to Nelson Mandela. Hopefully Klein, a thorough researcher, would dismiss such a claim outright as disinvestment is not a particularly new tactic for showing disapproval of an activity, even in the climate world. Throughout his talk, McKibben perpetuated the idea that 350.org was the movement, that it was the umbrella organization connecting everyone, that the 7 people from Vermont who went out build a worldwide movement had been more or less successful.
Near the end of his presentation, while he has talking about getting things right, Amanda Lickers, mentioned above, interrupted McKibben. He at no point tried to cut her off. She brought up the lack of acknowledgement of the centrality of indigenous contributions to the front-lines struggle to resist extraction and pipelines, the erasure of indigenous history in the planning of the upcoming much-hyped Peoples’ Climate March in New York City, concerns about inclusion of people most affected by climate change, and more. This drew many cheers of support from the audience. After she spoke, McKibben did not responded to her comments directly. He was visibly uncomfortable and while he briefly and generally mentioned the importance of front-line communities he unfortunately treated Amanda Lickers and everything she said as an interesting aside that was easy to ignore. In a place like North America, indigenous groups have been expressing and acting on their understanding of the earth for many centuries longer than the 25 years since McKibben’s first big book came out. In many ways, indigenous groups are at the front of the struggle here and in much of the rest of the world. They are more central than to the side, but they keep being pushed out, which is part of the injustice of worldwide colonialism. And if justice is not the goal in this movement, what is? A spokesperson better understanding the movement and the forces at play in our society, and conscious of the way they themselves perpetuate those forces, may have been able to better address Lickers’ comments and build a constructive dialogue with the audience.
It’s not that McKibben is a bad guy. It’s that he is currently not a good spokesperson for the climate movement, which is effectively what he is now given how he and 350.org project themselves and are seen by the media and general public. Naomi Klein will fully share the spotlight once her book is released. As with most of us (myself included), McKibben needs to undo his colonial mindset. As evidenced by Lickers’ interruption, when he speaks it is not on behalf of the whole movement and not on behalf of the most affected nor those fighting the hardest like the Unist’ot’en. The lack of confidence and imagination within the movement to put forward spokespeople intentionally but instead allow McKibben to remain at the front limits what it can do.
McKibben writes uncomplicated articles and speaks in ways comfortably relatable to American liberal-arts college audiences. While it is important to talk to those people, we need a movement with broader scope bringing forth dialogues about justice from different perspectives. We need to think hard about how the movement is represented, we need to listen to the voices in it, and to identify leaders intentionally. Being seen as spokespeople, McKibben and Klein could stress that they don’t represent anybody, that the main resistance is being done by others often completely separate from 350.org, and they can point to some of those struggles. 350.org can choose to stop over-extending itself in trying to be the movement and to not play the role of selecting who gets put forward as a leader. While not perfect, the Peoples’ Climate March appears to be a good collaboration between groups, and there are exciting possibilities for where the movement can go from here.
David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.