Commentary | The logic of climate protests

The inadequacy of trying to stay within the status quo

On September 21, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in cities all over the world, most notably in New York, to participate in the People’s Climate March, which became the world’s largest environmental march to date.

The main impetus behind the march – as explained in the film Disruption, a documentary on the subject – was that despite scientific consensus on the gravity of climate change, established more than two decades ago, countries have not only failed to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and limit the destruction of the environment caused by their use, but have in fact kept increasing their production and consumption levels year after year.

The People’s Climate March was hailed by its organizers as an overwhelming success. The number of people gathered – 311,000 in New York by some estimates – is astonishing. On the day of the march, New York bent under the weight of hundreds of thousands of people, whose demands ranged from divesting from fossil fuels and banning fracking all the way to demanding full environmental justice for people pushed to the margins by climate change.

The People’s Climate March was hailed by its organizers as an overwhelming success. The number of people gathered – 311,000 in New York by some estimates – is astonishing.

To me, however, the march signified the defeat of hope. As I marched through the streets of downtown Manhattan, I was amazed by the scale of the protest, the creativity behind the protesters’ banners, and by the strength of their expression and determination to change the way our current global system operates. But I couldn’t help but think: “This is as big, as good, as powerful as it gets. But it is not enough.”

It all boils down to the existence of two modes of human interaction that have increasingly become distinct. In our immediate surroundings, we meet people, we befriend them, we communicate our thoughts to them, and they communicate their thoughts back to us. We try to understand other people’s points of view, to bring each other’s ideas in line, and eventually reach a consensus. On a larger scale, this is the basis of the socio-political mode of interaction, within which we engage in political arenas and formulate demands across the board.

The other mode of interaction could be called ‘market-based.’ With this mode of interaction we do not try to understand other people’s standpoints. We merely read indicators they provide, as if reading aggregated symbols in economic markets. This establishes the environment for decision-making, and then we act accordingly. Within this mode of interaction oftentimes we do not directly deal with the actors involved. Instead, we indirectly interact with disparate and fluid groups of people.

While 311,000 people is an impressive number in terms of social activism, it pales in comparison with the 1.6 million people who interact using the market-based mode of interaction on a daily basis in Manhattan alone.

While there may have been times where these two modes of interaction were barely distinguishable from each other, or at least kept in relative balance, today’s globalized world overwhelmingly relies on the market-based mode of interaction: the mode of signals, mediated messages, and mechanical coordination, as opposed to consensus-making.

This creates a strange situation. The market-based mode of interaction has as a whole brought about consequences that directly threaten the well-being of a large portion of the world’s population, especially those who do not have a voice as they are located on both the geographical and political periphery. Upon realizing this we resort to socio-political interaction in order to keep the problem in check.

However, as it sadly manifested itself during the march, the socio-political mode of interaction based on conversation, and mutual understanding has its limits. While 311,000 people is an impressive number in terms of social activism, it pales in comparison with the 1.6 million people who interact using the market-based mode of interaction on a daily basis in Manhattan alone. This number at the march looks even lower compared to the number of stakeholders in the issue of climate change, which amounts to roughly seven billion, the entire population of the world.

How do we bring our ability to act in a political, deliberative way in balance with our overdeveloped ability to coordinate ourselves as if we were interacting with the economic market instead of actual human beings?

This comparison neatly brings out the inadequacy of our tools in the face of this problem. We are trying to rearrange the world’s core political and economic processes by gathering in the streets, all the while contained by police barriers, in order to disrupt the status quo as little as possible. We are trying to stop environmental degradation by organizing cupcake sales on campuses. Maybe at this point our ability as humans – that is, as social and political beings – to coordinate ourselves in order to avoid clashing with the status quo is inadequate in dealing with the relentless market-based, impersonal, even anti-social interactions that govern our lives. At this point, within the current social organization of the world’s nations, it seems that nothing can be done to change the order.

Where does that leave us? It seems that things inevitably have to get worse before they get better. Unfortunately, it may well be too late. But provided that at some point there will be enough incentives to act, a major reshuffle in the social and political structure of the whole world will be needed. The question is: how do we bring our ability to act in a political, deliberative way in balance with our overdeveloped ability to coordinate ourselves as if we were interacting with the economic market instead of actual human beings?

One thing seems to be clear: contemporary capitalism is prohibiting us from taking decisive action on climate change. ‘Reforming capitalism’ is a phrase that is now comfortably embedded in leftist political discourse. It implies however that the change must take place in the distant sphere of corporate buildings and capital markets, whereas in the sphere of democratic decision-making, civil society and, ultimately, everyday life, everything is supposed to remain the same. That cannot be the case. We should start working on accommodating the uncomfortable thought that change will have to go beyond disciplining capitalists and will, in fact, need to include a radical reform of how we understand democratic governance. Pessimists say that global climate change will end history, but optimists know that radical change will begin a new chapter.


Simon Fiala is on exchange studying Sociology. To contact him, please email simon.fiala@mail.mcgill.ca.


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