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Climate & Social Justice: The Front Line of the People's Climate March

Before world leaders gathered this week in New York at the United Nations to discuss climate change, two significant protests took place. On Sunday, September 21, the People’s Climate March, a big-tent protest uniting hundreds of NGOs, attracted a crowd of more than 300,000 to walk from 86th St. and Central Park West to 34th St. and 11th Ave. in Manhattan. The protest included Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. It is being billed as the largest climate protest in history.

Credit: Alex Feldman
Before world leaders gathered this week in New York at the United Nations to discuss climate change, two significant protests took place. On Sunday, September 21, the People’s Climate March, a big-tent protest uniting hundreds of NGOs, attracted a crowd of more than 300,000 to walk from 86th St. and Central Park West to 34th St. and 11th Ave. in Manhattan. The protest included Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. It is being billed as the largest climate protest in history.

The following day, a smaller but more determined group gathered at Battery Park on the southwestern tip of Manhattan to prepare a Flood Wall Street protest. Members of indigenous organizations, frontline communities affected by Hurricane Sandy and other environmental disasters, and a diverse array of left-wing political groups, filed up Broadway to the famous bull statue, where participants blocked the street, climbed onto window ledges, unfurled banners, performed street theater, danced, and listened to a brass band. Youth members of the Climate Justice Alliance, which also held Monday and Tuesday counter-summits to the UN meeting, carried a large banner (photograph 1). Just before 4:00 p.m., with the workday drawing to a close, the group attempted to march north and take over Wall Street. The NYPD successfully defended their barricades, after which protestors sat down at the corner of Broadway and Wall St. and blocked traffic until around 7:00 p.m., when the police gave dispersal orders and arrested 100 activists.

Although some have criticized Sunday’s march as “fangless,” or as more of a “parade” than a protest, both events had the significant effect of exhibiting the interconnections between climate and other social justice struggles (see photograph 2). A recurring theme was that climate change cannot be pigeonholed as an issue separate from class, gender, and racial justice. According to Wen Stephenson, one of the effects of Occupy Wall Street (whose organizing tactics were on full display at both events) has been to convince leftists of an economic justice bent to confront the realities of climate change more fully. Yotam Marom, a Flood Wall Street organizer, puts it thus: “Our goal was to connect climate change to Wall Street and amplify stories from the front lines.” Many

Credit: Alex Feldmanspeakers and banners drew connections between a capitalistic economic system symbolized by Wall Street; the fossil fuel industry; the effect of environmental disasters on the poor, on oppressed racial groups, and on women; and the present crisis. People chanted, “System change, not climate change!” and “A—An-ti—Anticapitalista!” Suited men and women filed past, sometimes bemused, sometimes swearing, sometimes stopping to watch. To one passerby’s query about what was going on, I heard her friend reply in confusion, “It’s seems like something about capitalism.”

There is no longer any sound basis for disputing the realities of human-caused climate change or the need to take dramatic action to prevent ecological catastrophe and massive human suffering. Yet the concepts with which we frame how we respond to climate change remain just as important as the results of climate science. Does climate change call for “climate action,” or does it rather, as another Flood Wall Street organizer, Farhad Ebrahimi, emphasizes, call for “climate justice”? Is the urgency of the threat posed by global environmental collapse grounds for postponing or even suspending other ethical and political commitments? We in the United States have traditionally mobilized against perceived threats, whether these be immigrants, drugs, or terrorists, by drumming up fear, but fear can all too easily lead to a “lifeboat ethics” in which we throw our neighbors overboard to save ourselves.[1] Is it possible to think about the current climate crisis in a way that leads to other sorts of political and ethical emotions? Several hours after Flood Wall Street, as I mulled over these questions with a friend in Brooklyn, I remembered another song from the protest:

People gonna rise like water
Gonna calm this crisis down
I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter
Saying, “Shut down down Wall Street now!”

Both protests succeeded in framing action on climate change in a broader perspective of social and political struggle. What I found most significant about Flood Wall Street was not only the way it linked global economic structures to the current political incapacity to deal with imminent environmental devastation but also how Flood Wall Street challenged the shared patterns of thought and emotion that underwrite our current social responses to perceived threats. Doubtless, climate justice is a matter of survival for frontline communities. Yet Flood Wall Street raised the possibility of collective action that seeks out other forms of shared political emotions than a panic for security.

Rather than define at the outset what these alternative affects or emotions might be, I will try to approach the question through two overlapping analyses. In my next post, I'll explore the history of the politics of panic as it relates to environmental concerns, particularly surrounding worries about “overpopulation.” In subsequent posts, I will also examine the diffusion of the vocabulary of “security” and “management” within climate change discourses.

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[1] The concept comes from a set of notorious essays by Garrett Hardin. See, for example, “Living on a Lifeboat,” BioScience 24.10 (1974): 561-568.