What the Environmental Movement Can Learn From the Wall Street Zombies

Recognizing that we cannot create a movement by executing a carefully crafted and controlled plan is a first step. The second is inspiring our own environmental Zombies.
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Wandering around on Wall Street and other protest sites these past few days, you have a sense that we live in a country filled with people in search of a movement. Organic, powerful, urgent, spontaneous, cathartic, honest and fun are words protesters use to describe the nascent movement and their experience in it. Donald Trump may have inadvertently added to that vocabulary and helped send thousands more to the event by commenting on Fox News yesterday that it looked like a great place to get a date.

In other places around the planet, several attempts have been made by the environmental movement to launch a global and national climate movement, meeting with only modest success.

In contrast to the so-called Wall Street zombies, labeled as the result of dressing like Wall Street scions, their mouths stuffed with Monopoly money, our efforts have been hierarchical in nature; well-organized and decently funded efforts, but lacking spontaneity. Protests are staged and include planned arrests, with paid musical performances, and speeches from the rich and famous, driven by leaders who have a penchant for hyperboles about whose action was the largest, most effective, etc. -- probably desperately hoping they can create something out of nothing.

And despite pronouncements to the contrary, the numbers of participants have been small, and these efforts, while well-intentioned, simply do not mark the beginning of a movement that will force global leaders to act on climate.

Self-proclaimed leaders, a number with ties to the media, just cannot seem to convince the public that our issues deserve their outrage and action. And perhaps, as a result, the government seems immune to these efforts.

Our “armchair” activism has led to a culture where buying “carbon offsets” helps us feel good about our vacations, and our “actions” are limited to sending an occasional email as part of an orchestrated campaign.

It’s time to rethink our tactics.

We need to ask ourselves why, given our extraordinarily long list of scientific facts about the likelihood that we are destroying our planet, can we not engender the type of reactions and feelings that are certainly everywhere on Wall Street.

Compared to the organic growth, spontaneity and now longevity of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the differences, and perhaps the lessons, are certainly there for us to contemplate. Occupy Wall Street puts power into protesters' hands. There are no big-money donors funding workshops. There's no formal disobedience training in which protesters are required to participate and no bureaucracy. There’s no prominent, charismatic leadership. The non-hierarchical structure is motivating people to get off their butts and do something.

More than a sense, there is a reality that everyone camping out at Zuccotti Park is a leader.

This is democracy at its best: Protesters come together for a democratic general assembly to discuss plans and ideas, and to work toward sending a common message to Wall Street. Although the event has organizers, their role is to facilitate, not lead. Everyone is free to express themselves at the general assemblies, and people speak in the order their hands are raised. This kind of participatory model makes protesters feel they are really a part of the movement, not just attendees. Those gathered at Zuccotti Park are not rallying behind a leader; they are rallying behind ideas and a sense that they can make a difference. They know what’s at stake and have at least one thing in common: a real commitment to changing the status quo.

The Wall Street protests should encourage all of us to throw out our playbook and start over. If you accept Michael Kazin’s tenet (See today’s Huffington Post) that protesters are “people who express what they feel,” then we will recognize why our efforts to build an adult-led movement based on scientific facts has failed. Feelings trump facts and we are just not engendering the kind of feelings that are present everywhere in New York, and now Boston, and maybe soon even D.C. And as important, providing a creative space that embraces young people, their ideas and actions, would help. After all, it is young people who have the most to lose if we continue down this path of environmental destruction. And for certain, creating highly structured events, even those with great post-event we-were-there slideshows, won’t produce the kind of results we need.

Recognizing that we cannot create a movement by executing a carefully crafted and controlled plan is a first step.

by Kathleen Rogers and Daniel Rosenberg (one of the people occupying Wall Street)

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