As I write this, the Middle East is in turmoil as repressive regimes are challenged by the forces of democracy. It’s messy: not all the forces at work are ethically or democracy minded, not all the successors to tyranny are necessarily going to be better for the people of the Middle East or the future of peace. But at its core, it’s an inspiring reminder of the power of people over their governments, and one which those of us in the climate movement can take lessons from. Because let’s face, it, those of us working to stop climate change are in the business of (non-violently) overpowering the tyranny of fossil fuels. We’re in the business of fomenting (an energy) revolution. And what we need more than ever is a popular (POPULAR) uprising. So what can the wave of unrest in the Middle East teach us about waking up the world to the need for action on climate change?
1. No power is absolute. Whether we speak of the 20-year reign of Hosni Mubarak or the seeming lock on energy policy that the world’s coal and oil industries have, tyranny can be overthrown in an amazingly short space of time, given the right combination of popular unrest, confidence in the strength of protest, and the visibility of alternatives. Which of those is most missing in the climate movement today?
2. In crisis, organisers will rise like meteors. When the traditional power structures start to break down, the forces with the best communications networks, the most compelling message, and the most confidence-inspiring sense of purpose become magnetic to millions. Too often in the past, that place has been the uncontested territory of the military. Today, thanks to the democratizing of communications, that can be anyone. How organised do we, the climate movement, look to anyone questioning the status quo and looking for alternatives?
3. As activists, are we underestimating the power of the web and social media? When the first step a repressive régime takes to shut down resistance is to shut down the people’s internet, this speaks volumes about what power fears. I was totally impressed by the rallying of technical forces to restore internet access in Egypt and now Libya from the likes of Wikileads activist, TOR security guru, and former Greenpeace IT staffer Jacob Applebaum and XS4ALL here in the Netherlands. And I heard stories of complete Bgan satellite communication kits, complete with their own redistributing Wifi cloud and a dozen handheld mobile devices going into Egypt as “communications relief packages” when the digital channels were locked.
4. Oil dependence. Need I say more? The unrest in the Middle East has sent the price of crude skyrocketing, to the point that even the US Navy is calling for more investment in alternative fuels. The value of oil is also what may well skew the democratic process in Libya: powerful forces will want puppets sitting on top of those Libyan reserves, not people’s champions, and you can bet they’re lining up now to put money and machinery in place to engineer an outcome favorable to petroleum power, not people power.
5. Change happens in a blink. Are the forces of democracy prepared for Gaddafi’s fall? Are the forces of sustainable energy ready to rapidly fill the gap if oil collapses? Sometimes opposition becomes a habit. When the status quo goes pear shaped, opposition forces need to be able to shift rapidly from critique to solutions. Are we as a climate movement prepared for the rapid downfall of King Coal or the Empire of Oil? How many of us are au fait with full-picture solution scenarios like the Greenpeace Energy [R]evolution? It charts a course toward near-total elimination of dependence on fossil fuels — by 2050. If we had to scale up much more rapidly, could we?
Finally, can I confess to jealousy? When I see freedom fighters in the streets, unstoppable by tanks or guns or the combined forces of a dictator and his military, I want to know why the greatest threat to our planet’s future isn’t driving people into the streets in similar numbers. And when I see regimes that seemed unassailable fall in a matter of weeks, I remember Bob Hunter’s famous chestnut that “Big change looks impossible when you start, and inevitable when you finish.”
We call ourselves a movement: is there something more to learn from the popular uprisings in the Middle East about what it means to move?