The environmental movement may be larger than ever. On Sunday, September 21, the “People’s Climate March” flooded the streets of New York City. Estimates project an upwards of 400,000 people participated in the climate rally, with ten’s of thousands more showing solidarity in smaller demonstrations (significant in their own right – London was host to 40,000 people) across the globe.
The action had been months in the making, orchestrated by an almost endless list of environmental, religious and labor groups. The public protest was expected to be incredibly large, but activists were shocked at such a massive turnout. Hundreds of thousands crafted a party like atmosphere, with tons of energy, in what the Christian Science Monitor describes as a raucous parade. In fact, Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York is quoted as saying:
After over forty years in the trenches of the environmental movement, I’ve never been more inspired and awe-struck… Today proves global support for climate action is undeniable. A swell of humanity has spoken as one: The time to act on climate is now.
This “swell” is particularly speaking to those in attendance at the United Nations Climate Summit. The gathering of roughly 100 heads of state kicked off on September 23. At the summit, officials sought discussion of global carbon emissions and a move towards a consensus for international reduction standards at next years gathering in Paris.
One may argue the environmental movement is stronger now than any other time in human history, with a real chance to force meaningful change. I, with reservation, would agree.
Teacher’s union president Carol Sutton of Connecticut told the New York Times: “I’m here because I really feel that every major social movement in this country has come when people get together. It begins in the streets.” — and I would agree with her. I have attended multiple environmental protests, some as small as 11 people, others as large as 40,000, and they have all been inspirational and exciting. I wish I could have been in the streets of New York, standing shoulder to shoulder, with so many. Social change does begin in the streets, but that is the easy part.
Having such a number of people turn out for the climate march is sure to move the political gathering held at the United Nations. It is good to engage existing institutions and work for change, but this is a short-term solution. The long-term solution will require radicalism. It is here that I have my reservations about the strength of the movement. Engaging institutions will not accomplish what it is we must ultimately seek: Anarchism. Liberty would allow us to explore the idea of mutualism — with each other, and our ecology, by advancing the concept of ecosystem services in the liberated market. It is systems of power and domination, upheld by the state, that have allowed such a divorce of our societies from the natural world.
Most importantly, the burden of proof, the idea that a more sustainable order is worthy of human labor, falls on those of us in the environmental movement — not state institutions. Though engagement of current institutions is needed, we should ultimately seek their destruction and lead by example.
Here in lies the problem with many (certainly not all) movement environmentalists today — we speak in terms of state policy and authoritarian institutions. The same institutions that have failed all species time and time again. The systems of power and domination we so often turn to, from war to development, have long turned their backs on the natural order. They work only to obtain resources, not to preserve. Any state decree exalting the environment should be met with pure skepticism. War alone, the very health of the state, demands enough unsustainable resource extraction and fossil fuel use to propel human civilization into the full effects of anthropogenic climate change. Our plan of action should instead seek to tear down this authority with brute force. Independent scholar Kevin Carson explains:
Our goal is not to assume leadership of existing institutions, but rather to render them irrelevant. We don’t want to take over the state or change its policies. We want to render its laws unenforceable. We don’t want to take over corporations and make them more “socially responsible.” We want to build a counter-economy of open-source information, neighborhood garage manufacturing, Permaculture, encrypted currency and mutual banks, leaving the corporations to die on the vine along with the state.
We do not hope to reform the existing order. We intend to serve as its grave-diggers.
The question then becomes, what will follow? The answer is something both beautiful and complex, while liberating and dynamic. Perhaps it is time to revisit our classical naturalists — of which there are plenty. However, one thing that John Muir (or your favorite historical eco-advocate) and his ilk had was a connection to the natural world and a desire for conservation. They did not much care to talk about what governments ought to do, but rather what they ought not do. Environmental achievement was obtained by pronouncing the splendid beauty of natural ecosystems, the challenges facing nature, and the innate need to protect wild spaces — even for our own well-being. Muir and other environmental advocates also practiced their ideals as they labored for the great outdoors.
In order to meet the demands of a changing Earth we will have to adapt. We will be required to constantly change, just like our mountains and rivers. Anarchist and Deep-Ecologist Gary Snyder, in his essay, The Etiquette of Freedom, describes, in great detail, the need to reclaim the words nature, wilderness and wildness — and it is in wildness that we will discover anarchism.
Nature, of course, is the collective physical world — all landscapes and seascapes, all flora and fauna, free of development. Wilderness is uncultivated land, in a natural state, liberated of human behavior. Wildness, however, is the ultimate practice — a praxis of liberty. Wildness, according to Snyder, is the quality of being wild or untamed. Snyder notes that human beings are indeed wild, but this does not mean disorderly. In fact, he argues that wildness will lead to a highly ordered society where our relationship with nature will be interactive, thus allowing the construction of durable social systems. This is also an idea explored by naturalist anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his book, Mutual Aid – A Factor of Evolution [PDF]:
In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species[…] in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits[…] and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development[…] are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.
There is indeed mutualism everywhere in nature, just as in human society, but the concept is absent from systems of power and domination. If we are to take the environment, and the consequences of climate change seriously, it is our duty to abandon such systems as they represent the unsociable species — they restrict human innovation, exacerbate environmental change and are composed of a ruling caste who seek first and foremost their own preservation. Simply, they are doomed to decay — and thus our message along with them.
Environmentalism, in its purest form, seeks the elevation of human society along with the natural world. Conservation and sustainable resource use would re-organize our neighborhoods. We would be free to labor in our own communities, craft our own institutions and own the means of our production. We would have a mutual relationship with our surrounding ecology, where we could receive beneficial ecosystem services such as air and water purification, flood control, carbon sequestration, psychological benefits and much more simply by conserving natural areas.
The natural world would benefit from being liberated of sprawl. Complex ecosystems (even in urban areas) would be left intact. In such an order species decline would be mitigated by the protection and restoration of natural habitat. Furthermore, the more decentralized our societies, the more we are liberated from institutions that seek maximum utility of resources. Then, we could naturally reduce our carbon emissions without coercive force. Our communities will flourish when liberated of state.
This order is possible, it is up to us to obtain it. May our inclined labor craft a beautiful, sustainable existence? If we achieve such a feat, anarchism will be our method and we will know wildness, as it is the process of simply living free – the grandeur of such freedom is only attainable in liberty.