We know how much is riding on this moment in history. We know that social and ecological systems hang in precarious balance, teetering on the edge of ecological collapse and climate catastrophe, while an emboldening far right threatens the progressive gains and human rights wins of the last six decades. The US elections have made it abundantly clear that we cannot just sit back and hope for the best. The results may provide us some short-term relief, and possibly pause or even halt the march of a morally flawed authoritarian figure. But, this moment is much bigger than that possibility. It needs us all to stand up and join the struggle for a more just and ecologically viable human presence on this spinning earth. What is needed to tip that precarious balance is for social movements, frontline communities and ordinary folks to join forces to build power. We also need to create necessary alignments between resistance and transformative explorations taking shape all over the world – the search for alternatives to the dominant neoliberal order.
We all need to stand up and fight, yes. But more than that we need a convergence of struggles. To build a collective power capable of transforming economic and political systems, we need to join forces across different movements, across crises, across struggles. When climate activists, Black Lives Matter organizers, Indigenous land defenders, women’s rights and migrant rights advocates and others can bring our voices and our power together – I think we’ll stand a real chance.
Let’s commit to an agenda of convergence
What are the next steps? How should we weave our fights, our visions, and our actions together in ways that strengthen our collective power? How should we develop the kinds of analyses and relationalities that can supports this convergence of struggles? That’s the central focus of my new book, More Powerful Together: Conversations with Climate Activists and Indigenous Land Defenders. Published by Fernwood Press, the book is based on my doctoral research and on many conversations I’ve had with people in the environmental/climate justice, anti-pipeline and Indigenous land defense movements in Canada. In these conversations I asked folks the following questions:
- How do they envision the future world they are working hard to bring about?
- What’s working and what’s not in the movements they are part of?
- What do they see as the biggest barriers to the change they are trying to bring about?
- What do they think can be done to overcome these barriers?
- What do they think it’s going to take to win?
The book compiles a wealth of movement reflections, theories, and strategies for building bigger, stronger, more transformative social movements. In this article, I want to share some of these insights with the Radical Ecological Democracy community. I want to share my thoughts from two particular chapters of the book – a chapter titled Envisioning the Alternatives, in which I present what was shared with me when I asked folks about the future world(s) they are dreaming up and fighting for. The other chapter is called How We Get from Here to There, which brings together all the theories of transformative change that activists and land defenders offered. It is my hope that these insights, forged on the frontlines of climate change and the fight against extractivism in Canada will resonate and contribute to the ongoing conversation about how we respond, with power, with integrity and with solidarity, to this precarious moment we are living. (Some relevant quotes from my conversations with the grassroots activists are featured in this article.)
Envisioning the Alternatives
The folks I spoke to make abundantly clear that the climate and inequality crises in Canada will not be solved by smoothing out the rough edges of capitalism and colonialism. These systems need to be unrooted, dismantled, transformed. Unfortunately, the solutions presently on the table in Canada do not seek to transform capitalist relations nor relinquish colonial control. If anything, they are designed to maintain these systems. Part of that is due to the vested interests of the people designing the solutions and making the decisions. And part of it is due to people’s inability to envision viable alternatives. Colonialism and capitalism are so ingrained in Canadian culture that it can be hard to see beyond them, to see that they are not inevitable. But activists and land defenders in these movements are dreaming up radically different futures. The worlds they described to me evoke visions of equality and justice, of healing relationships, of decentralized, autonomous communities powered by renewable energy. They talked about decolonizing relations between settlers and Indigenous Peoples. They envision Indigenous self-determination, the rebuilding of diverse Indigenous Nations, a fundamental redistribution of power and land. And they talked about re-establishing mutually beneficial relations with the land and with each other.
Decarbonizing – Addressing the climate crisis requires decarbonization, the transformation away from fossil fuel–based energy and economic systems towards ones based on clean renewable sources of energy. But clean energies cannot be THE solution — they depend on a massive amount of material resources, the extraction of which often leads to the dispossession and forced labour of vulnerable people around the world. An energy transition needs to include huge changes of levels of energy consumption and production. And importantly, it must include a swift move away from capitalism which demands endless economic growth.
Decentralizing and Democratizing – Decarbonizing energy systems is required but does not go far enough towards addressing the social inequalities and systems of domination that are driving climate change. Energy systems need to be decentralized and democratized based on the “decisions made by people who are most affected by the decisions” (Ontario-based climate organizer). Energy democracy reflects a larger trend of building solidarity economies, in which ordinary people play an active role in shaping all of the dimensions of human life: economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental. Degrowth, energy democracy and solidarity economies all call for producing less, sharing more and making genuinely democratic decisions about how to live together. Others go further and envision “the creation of autonomous zones where people are able to meet their own needs without the fossil fuel economy and the state” (British Columbia based grassroots activist).
Decolonizing – All these aforementioned visions of autonomous communities powered by decentralized, democratized renewable energy systems are important and powerful, but they are not the answer if they are built by settlers on stolen Indigenous land. It is not enough to just wrest power from the state and distribute this to settler communities. The fundamental injustice at the heart of Canada—settler colonialism—must be transformed through the return of land and self-determination to Indigenous Peoples. As colonization has, by definition, sought to sever this relationship, decolonization by necessity must involve the full reconnection between Indigenous Peoples and their lands. Land repatriation and other dimensions of decolonization require huge transformations of economic and political systems. They will be deeply disruptive to the current political and economic order. But, that’s the point. A transition that doesn’t force us to dig up the foundations of our current society—which is built on extraction, accumulation, oppression and theft—won’t be a just transition. “Respecting Treaties and Indigenous self-determination go hand in hand with a very rapid transition, all the way from fossil fuel extraction towards other forms of social order, community living, energy use” (Saskatchewan based organizer and journalist).
Decolonization is inseparable from decarbonizing our economic systems… the rebuilding of Indigenous Nations becomes the answer to how we deal with climate change. It isn’t just another issue of political justice off to the side, away from the issue of climate change and pipelines. It’s one and the same. [Decolonization] is a bigger solution to these problems” (Mi’kmaw warrior and educator)
Reconnecting with each other and the land – Woven through all these powerful visions, above, is respect, love and reconnection with land and with each other. People spoke to me about how capitalism and colonialism have separated us from one another and from the land and that to create a more just and viable world, we need to reconnect with each other and with land. A community organizer in northern BC said, “connection to land helps foster better decision making” (BC-based community organizer). “If people are taught that they are all stewards of the land, then it becomes a natural way to respond to the crisis” (Quebec-based climate activist).
These visions of more just and ecologically viable futures go far beyond renewable energies, carbon markets and reconciliation schemes and apologies. They conjure up a future of flourishing networks of decentralized, self-determining communities, powered by renewable energy, and learning from the land. This is a future where a hard process of decolonizing relations will have rendered us all much more capable of living and making decisions together—decisions that benefit all beings. This future depends on a fundamental restructuring of our systems and a massive redistribution of wealth, power, and land. This means some people—those most benefiting from our current system—will have to relinquish some things. But it is a small cost for a livable planet on which everyone’s basic needs are met.
How We Get from Here to There (The movements’ theory of change).
As Eve Tuck has pointed out, we spend much of our lives trying to affect change, but our opportunities to think together about how change happens are rare. And so, in my conversations with activists and land defenders, I asked them: How do you think large-scale systems change happens? What is your theory of change? I assembled the many different answers I got to these questions and in a wide sweep, these conversations provide insight that systems transformation happens through a convergence of the 1) context, 2) how we understand and what we value, 3) how we take action and 4) how we relate. Each of these four themes is broken down further into sub-themes, as is illustrated in the graphic below:
The Context – It’s the relationship between what we do and the context in which we do it that shapes change. Context can determine which tactics work and when; whether your “action gets traction” (Quebec based community organizer). There are key moments in time where change is more possible than others – political opportunities, tipping points, political sweet spots.
Disruptive events such as crises can trigger change. “We need some kind of other story to take us over, and sometimes that happens through crisis and catastrophe” (Anishinaabe/Ojibway scholar). “There is no one size fits all… you have to examine the context, the location, the political climate you’re in” (Michif Cree land defender). Given how much needs to change on such a pressing timeline, learning to understand the contexts in which we act and to strategically seize moments of opportunity can help speed up and leverage our work.
“There are windows of opportunity that are presented, often in times of crises, often manufactured by massive systemic forces we have no control over. The people who are able to have a massive impact in those moments are the ones who are expecting them and are organized and able to take those opportunities” (Michif Cree land defender)
This is a critically important insight. As we face successive waves of Covid-19, we need to get really good at seizing crises to transform systems towards greater justice, equity and sustainability. But of course it’s not only context and timing that shape change.
How We Understand and What We Value – Many activists’ and land defenders’ theories of change emphasize this realm of hearts and minds. To change systems, we need to “shift the conversation, shift the frame, the imagination” (Saskatchewan based organizer and journalist). This happens through personal transformation, through public education, through learning the history of previous struggles, through changing popular narratives, through storytelling, through dialogue with people we don’t already agree with. It’s also about developing a shared analysis of the systems and structures we’re up against. Through systematic analysis, dots can be connected between the struggles that so often are understood and waged separately – environment, anti-racism, labour, Indigenous rights, women’s rights and others. Through this shared analysis, coalitions and strategies can be built to form a strong counterhegemonic power.
And, indeed, it is through power – who has it and how it is wielded – that change does or doesn’t happen. No one is better positioned to see what is wrong with the systems and what needs to be done than the people most negatively impacted by them. As such, transformative change happens through the leadership and amplification of those on the frontlines. To put dignity and justice into our relationships in this country and to build powerful movements, it is crucial that settlers, especially those who continue to benefit most from the status quo, step back from positions and attitudes of leadership and instead listen to, take leadership from and actively support Indigenous Peoples and others marginalized by the unjust systems. When settlers can humble ourselves, unlearn superiority and accept that we do not have the answers, we become more “ready to hear other solutions, other answers. And maybe that’s where transformation starts to take place” (Mi’kmaw warrior and educator).
But, yet again, how we understand and what we value alone does not make for systems transformation – how we take action is also critically important.
How We Take Action – Systems transformation requires large numbers of people to come together to form collectives to organize, mobilize, provide leadership and take action together. It is brought about by building up people power and then directing “a firehose of people-power” at key targets (Ontario-based organizer). Where there is agreement about that need, there are notable conflicting ideas about where to best point that firehose. Some believe that people power is generated to influence decision makers, shape policy and electoral outcomes. Others have little faith that structural change can come through government processes and put their hope and efforts instead into delegitimizing and dismantling existing systems. “Change happens when… there is a very real threat to the powerful people and to the power structure” (Quebec-based social justice activist). From this view, all the tactics we use, from awareness-raising to mobilizing, should be part of a larger strategy that escalates in order “to force change… This requires a diversity of tactics that include a confrontational stance” (Quebec-based climate activist).
There are clear limits to what can be achieved through the official political process, but it also seems true that “no movement has the luxury of ignoring the electoral front” (Ontario based organizer). Although that tension between working from inside or from the outside of the systems is pervasive and ongoing, there is much alignment on the contention that people power should be directed to develop, renew, live and promote the alternatives to extractive colonial capitalism. “Maybe [change] comes down to those sparks where people can say, ‘we don’t need the fracking’, ‘we don’t need the pipelines’. Because in actual fact, we’ve got lots of other stuff going on already. We don’t need to sign up for that” (BC-based community organizer).
One key aspect of building alternatives to colonial capitalism is the resurgence of Indigenous systems and the enactment of Indigenous self determination. As Indigenous Peoples enact their own governance systems, lifeways and culture, colonial structures begin to lose power. And collective power is generated through community, culture and through connection to land.
And even taking action, on its own, will not do it. Our relationships deeply matter. Strong, just relations are the means and end of systems change.
How We Relate – “My theory of change is that relationship is the basis of everything, and then you go from there” (Quebec-based community organizer). Woven through all the other dimensions of change is the theme of relationality; that systems transformation is forged as possible when strong, just relations are built. Many people’s theories of change emphasized that change happens when different groups and communities coordinate together; that building power happens when movement groups work well together, sharing resources and information, and building strong networks of solidarity. There are many factors and forces involved in large-scale social change, and none of us can engage in all of them, nor do all of them well. And, so, it is important to think about how all the different kinds of approaches to change and movement efforts fit together. How do we plan them, so they are mutually supporting? It’s not enough that we’re all doing different things, we need to think about how all these different projects, campaigns and initiatives relate to each other and “think about new ways to bring it all together and leverage it… maximizing the impact of what everyone is doing?” (Quebec-based climate activist). We need to work with the diversity that exists in ways that are synergistic and don’t undermine each other’s efforts. “How do we make sure that what we do is in solidarity with the others’ tactics?” (BC-based social justice organizer). Many people emphasized that the kinds of mutually supportive relations that create strong movements cannot happen when we allow relations of domination, the legacies of colonialism, racism, classism and sexism to shape the ways we organize. And so we must unlearn relations of domination.
By being attentive to context, by forging deep shifts in minds and hearts, by taking concerted action together with a diversity of tactics and by cultivating mutually thriving relations of solidarity within and across movements – that is how we generate the counter power necessary for transforming systems. That is how we can win.
Effectively working across diverse approaches to change
Like the theory of change described above, Radical Ecological Democracy emphasizes the need for both resistance and alternatives in waging transformative change. It’s not enough to stand up and say no to systems, the structures and the practices that we don’t want. We need to actively create, live and promote the alternatives that embody the worlds we want.
Usually the people working on the solutions and building the alternatives and those enacting resistance to the destructive systems are working separately. To my mind, a most exciting strategic intersection is where resistance and alternatives meet. And indeed, over the last few years in Canada there has been a new and powerful strategy for transformation emerging in Indigenous communities opposing ongoing oil and gas development; they are building beautiful alternatives in the pathway of the problem.
In my next article I will discuss this emergent strategy and dig in specifically to these questions: how we can resist in ways that raise up the values and relations we’re fighting for? And, how we can build alternatives in such a way that they actively help stop the ongoing destruction? In this article I will report on one particular conversation I conducted last year with several Indigenous land defenders who have been building solutions in the pathway of the problem. So, stay tuned for that article and in the meantime, you can purchase your copy of More Powerful Together: Conversations with Climate Activists and Indigenous Land Defenders .
Jen Gobby is an activist-scholar who works closely with communities and social movements to do action-research that aims for transformative change towards social and environmental justice. She organizes with Climate Justice Montreal, is a member of the steering committee for Concordia’s SHIFT Centre for Social Transformation, and is the founder of the MudGirls Natural Building Collective. She completed her PhD at McGill as part of the Economics for the Anthropocene partnership and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia’s Department of Geography, Planning and Environment
Jen’s book, More Powerful Together: Conversations with Climate Activists and Indigenous Land Defenders is available from Fernwood Press. The publishers are offering REDWeb readers a discount of 20% on all formats of the book, until Dec 1, 2020. Please use the code: RED20
Photo credit (Home page and top photo on the article page) – Desiree Wallace
Discuss these articles on our forum