In KSR's Ministry for the Future, we see an exploration of the mentality of protest and its role in advocating for climate change reform.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

One frightfully “woke” day in April 1970, some 20 million US citizens across 2,000 colleges and 10,000 grade schools participated in a “teach-in” about environmental crisis and stewardship. Some took part in active demonstrations, cleaning up facets of their communities or marching in the streets. Others engaged in lectures and sit-ins to improve awareness of pollution’s impact. The year before, in January 1969, there had been a terrible oil spill, the worst in California’s history. All through the 1960s, Democratic Senator for Wisconsin Gaylord Nelson had pushed for environmental legislation, but more civic engagement was necessary to keep the movement going.

Enter Earth Day, marked every April 22 since. And the public awareness campaign had worked. In 1969, only 1% of the population showed interest in environmental protection on government polls. In 1971, a quarter rated the matter as of serious concern. In the interim, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which thereafter struggled to balance civic desire for environmental protections with civic disinterest in paying too much for them.

Over 50 years later, we’re still struggling with that twinned desire to do something about environmental crisis and also to resist the costs associated with action. In Cabinet Secretary John Whitaker’s 1988 reflection on that era of transition, he sagely noted that part of what had made environmental advocacy plausible was US affluence. The country boasted an educated populace: informed by excellent scientific research about the deeper impacts of pollution on human well-being, and economically stable enough for some to focus on advocating for change. Also useful was the rise of TV journalism, and other press coverage as a teaching tool.

But that same affluence can work against activism, when concerned citizens aren’t willing to risk the comfort afforded to them by their socioeconomic positions. They may well be more scientifically literate, but also deeply reluctant to give up on their lifestyles to serve a greater end. This is why we often get instances of “reinventing the wheel”, as in recent years with movements like the Scientist Rebellion, an offshoot of the Extinction Rebellion, which has staged direct action protests across Europe. These scientists are by no means the first to risk safety and livelihood by engaging in active resistance, but the idea of taking risks does need to be re-learned every few years, it seems.

READ: The Scientist Rebellion: What will it take to get the world’s attention?

Meanwhile, protest has always been a part of human life: for workers’ rights, against racism, for gender and sexual equality, against war and nuclear armament, for accountability from higher office, and for less ideal (more hateful) ends, too.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, protest plays a key role in the push for climate change reform. But there are similar questions, in this near-future speculative fiction about our overheating world, around the overall utility and limits of mass mobilization for social transformation. We’re holding off on the expressly violent forms of protest for the final chapter in this series of Humanist Book Club, but today let’s think about what other forms of public protest do and don’t do in service to a better world.

The complex push-pull of protest

Protest is referenced intermittently in The Ministry for the Future, amid active efforts from scientists and policy makers to combat ice melt, adjust financial systems, and rein in the rich and powerful. But one chapter is expressly dedicated to the mentality of the protester, and there includes quite a few facets of the reality of struggle on the streets. Four ideas in particular leap out, as useful springboards for discussion.

First, we get the historicity of struggle, with all its baggage of expectation and its lessons in strange bedfellows. As Robinson writes,

The gilets jaunes shifted the model for how to proceed, away from May 68 or any fainter impressions of the Commune or 1848, not to mention 1793, which it has to be admitted is now like a vision from ancient history, despite the evident satisfactions of the guillotine for dealing with all the climate criminals sneaking off to their island fortress mansions. No, modern times: we had to get out into the streets day after day, week after week, and talk to ordinary people in their cars stuck in traffic, or walking past us on the sidewalks and metro platforms. We had to do that work like any other kind of work. It wasn’t a party, it wasn’t even a revolution. At least when we started.

The gilets jaunes are a striking reference in a book about fighting for climate change reform, because when the grassroots movement began in November 2018, it involved people who did not agree with French President Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax to support a transition to green energy. But its anti-government sentiment was nevertheless shared by many who critiqued the government’s approach to climate change (which penalized everyday citizens rather than offending companies). The gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) approach to protest also served as an example to others who wished to be heard in the contemporary public sphere.

This notion of sharing common cause and learning from other political protests is difficult, but inevitable. This past month, the UK experienced competing protests in Portland, where a barge called Bibby Stockholm had docked to serve as home to 500 male asylum seekers. Two groups are against the barge, but for completely different reasons: “No to the Barge” is anti-immigrant, depicting the asylum seekers as everything from burdens on over-taxed local systems to rapists-in-waiting. “Stand Up to Racism”, on the other hand, protested the sequestration of asylum seekers in what they called a prison. And so you had rival protests converging on a similar call to action: stop housing asylum seekers in this vessel.

After the 2016 US election, women in the US and world marched in protest on January 21, 2017. There, too, a struggle for solidarity complicated affairs: many women’s groups did not want to share space with women against legal abortion, one of the very crises they felt the newly elected Republican president would bring about. What on Earth was everyone protesting for, if not for the protection of women’s rights up to and including body autonomy? Conversely, though, some feared that if conservative women weren’t included they would retaliate by deepening in support for hateful politics. When the Women’s March returned last year, appealing to the Biden government to protect women’s rights after the fall of Roe v. Wade, abortion was indeed the central issue of the day. Vocal support for legal abortion had increased after seeing the immediate consequences of its loss.

It is not just the shadow of history, then, but also the many competing issues in our day and age that complicate any attempt to advance a message clearly through mass protest. No matter how much we might have a clear sense of our objectives and objections, we will always be joined on the streets by people intent on making the cause their own. Is this surmountable? And if we cannot control the messaging, does that negate the need all the same for direct action?

These are questions we’ve been asking for as long as we’ve taken to the streets en masse. Solutions are contextual, and routinely in flux.

The problem with our conceptualization of protest is that it usually begins and ends at the spectacle itself, but if a protest has done its job effectively, it has given voice to something that existed before the mass mobilization, and which will continue, ideally better synthesized, after the crowd has dispersed.

The tipping point

The problem is, there’s something thuddingly academic about considering the ethics of taking to the streets despite the risk of competing messages and the potential for internal conflict. Taking to the streets, after all, is usually less a choice and more a wave of response. As Robinson describes the pull,

… Something then caused us to all converge on Paris. In France, that’s where you go. No one had to direct us. It was Trotsky who said the party is always trying to keep up with the masses. Strategy comes from below and tactics from above, not the reverse, and I think that’s what happened here, some trigger or combination of triggers, the extinction of some river dolphin, or another refugee boat going down offshore, who knows, maybe just lost jobs, but suddenly we were all headed to Paris together, often on foot when the highways jammed.

It’s cute when we humans try to predict tipping points for mass mobilization, when the best we can do is develop probability mapping to account for the many factors that heighten the possibility of reaching a tipping point within a given time frame. Certainly, events like the announcement of a new public policy are likely to prompt immediate protest, but what factors allow some such protests to fizzle out quickly, while others persist for months, involving deep entrenchment on the streets? What outrage has staying power, and how can protesters leverage past successes to guarantee more useful demonstrations going forward?

The character in Robinson’s chapter was to some extent already “out” of the current economy, impatient with formal schooling and not deeply invested in a given job placement. Probably they had few to no dependants, making it easier to mobilize. If they knew poverty, it didn’t scare them enough to cling to whatever everyday routine they’d had before the mobilization began.

Central actors in the Scientist Rebellion were already feeling displacement in their systems, too: they had tried traditional methods, only to realize that annual academic conferences and departmental workshops weren’t cutting it for reform. They had concrete bodies of scientific knowledge that public representatives weren’t eagerly introducing to state policy, and they were witnessing corporate lobbies win out time and time again over the fruits of the scientific method.

But the Scientist Rebellion also had predecessors in another, long-displaced form of environmental defender: the Native rights activist compelled to serve as frontline eco-activist, too. Technically, Indigenous groups should be able to advocate for national autonomy on its own merits, but because of colonial state projects that routinely invite corporations to encroach on natural systems at cost to waterway security, biodiversity, and protection from oil contamination and other major pollutants, Indigenous persons have become our cultural prop for environmental advocacy. This is a whole other level of systemic racism, and one we’ll only ever overcome when more of us are willing to shoulder activist work ourselves.

The behind-the-scenes actors

However, does “activism” always have to mean taking to the streets directly? Or is effective street protest necessarily supported by a number of secondary social structures, indicative of other forms of struggle already underway? Robinson acknowledges as much when his chapter on protest highlights the full extent of local infrastructure relied upon by those putting their bodies most directly in harm’s way:

… And I must say, so many Parisians came out and helped us, cooked food, provided rooms, manned the barricades in every way, that again we had to realize that it wasn’t just those of us in the streets, it was all France, maybe even the world, we couldn’t tell. But for sure what happened then was the most intense and important feeling I could ever live in this existence. Here’s what it was: solidarity.

That’s what we’re aiming for when we cry out to be heard through protest, isn’t it? Recognition? Affirmation of a whole community also fed up with the state of affairs?

The problem with our conceptualization of protest is that it usually begins and ends at the spectacle itself, but if a protest has done its job effectively, it has given voice to something that existed before the mass mobilization, and which will continue, ideally better synthesized, after the crowd has dispersed.

That achievement is easier to imagine than to live out, of course. One of the most striking examples of mass mobilization without long term staying power is the global anti-war protests of February 2003. More people joined in those protests than have died in our most conservative estimates of the current death toll to COVID-19, but those six to ten million bodies showing up in 60 countries around the world hardly made a dent in global news and certainly didn’t divert US plans to invade Iraq, setting off an eight-year war.

The people showed up for major change. The media and the government weren’t for it. The struggle against the military industrial complex adapted, and in quieter ways pressed on, but not without deep demoralization over the opportunity lost.

Accepting compromise

One of the greatest demoralizers of protest, though, is the very expectation that one will see all their goals achieved, if only mass mobilization holds out a little longer. Robinson notes the struggle between idealism and pragmatism in this chapter, too, when his protagonist observes an internal change:

… During the occupation I didn’t want reform, I wanted something entirely new. Now I’m thinking if we can just get the fundamentals working, it would be good. A start to something better. I don’t like to think of this as giving up, it’s just being realistic. We have to live, we have to give this place to the kids with the animals still alive and a chance to make a living. That’s not asking too much.

But rather than seeing compromise as a kind of defeat, what Robinson describes here is a key point of protest: even if it fizzles out on the streets, and even if it doesn’t lead to drastic transformation. A functional democracy does not take place solely at the polls; it comes alive through opportunities for a proper “town hall”, a collaborative discourse where ideas are wrestled with by everyday citizens. How can a “body politic” decide what its politics even are, if not through such opportunities to exercise and live out the complexity of societal upkeep firsthand?

It is a natural effect of our reliance on representative democracies—imperfect organizational structures that they are—that average citizens will want to question how effectively they are, in fact, being represented. In the case of climate change crisis, with corporations plainly having more direct impact than individual citizens on government action (such as it is), this state of perceived disconnect is inevitably going to lead to mass mobilization from time to time.

When? Where? For how long? With what long term results?

Such answers are unclear, even though we sorely need more substantial action now.

But here are a few ideas The Ministry for the Future asks us to keep in mind:

That protest is part of democratic enterprise, even and especially when it poses a great risk to existing social order.

That protest is never just about the people on the street, but also those whose own ache for change finds them ready and waiting to give aid to bodies under fire.

That protest works best when pursued with a spirit of solidarity, even when division is inevitable, and although the work of protest has never been equally shared.

And that protest keeps to its own schedule, even when advanced with intentionality by motivated actors. Much like the rising number of extreme climate events, we can generally anticipate what factors might lead to any given breaking point among average citizens, and we can make plans for specific launch dates for direct action. But some protests will always burst forth of their own volition, and even our best laid plans will then rely on factors outside our immediate control.

The best we can do is to try to learn from our histories, normalize protest as an inevitably complex part of democratic life, and build robust local supports for when the next round of on-the-street “discourse” comes around.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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