Today’s environmental movements, whose virtues and limitations are charted in Derek Wall’s cogently argued new book, should look to Latin America for lessons in building anti-imperialist agendas which combine all possible tactics.
Ecological activism has run the gamut from individual lifestyle changes to proposals for a Green New Deal, from communal self-sufficiency to global technological fixes, from lobbying and electoral campaigning to militant direct action. In his thought-provoking, well-written, cogently argued and thoroughly researched book, Derek Wall examines all of these strategies, their virtues and limitations, and displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of scientific debates, political processes and social and economic structures. He documents the history of Green parties, their successes, failures and contradictions. It is indeed essential reading.
In a sense, the book is not about climate change, at least not primarily: it is about epistemology, political theory, social psychology and communications theory. Wall’s main concern can be summed up in the title of a well-known pamphlet by one of the many theorists he draws upon, namely Lenin: ‘What Is To Be Done?’
Given that those likely to read the book will be involved in Green parties, Extinction Rebellion, school strikes or organisations such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, Wall is not mainly concerned with demonstrating that man-made climate change is real or that its consequences are catastrophic. Rather, he addresses the problem of action and efficacy: why have all these organisations and movements signally failed to achieve radical action by governments and power-holders to halt climate change? Indeed, why have the mass of the population not responded to the message?
Most political activists are well aware that rational debate and factual exposition are not sufficient to achieve change. Any popular movement has to address the question of power, and Wall makes clear from the start his agreement with Marxist analyses of capitalism and imperialism: to combat climate change is to combat capitalism. But to combat capitalism, as progressives of all varieties are well aware, is far from simple.
The longest chapter of the book deals with Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose uncompromising stand, direct action and creativity have had a dramatic impact in several countries, mainly in the developed West. Along with Greta Thunberg and the School Strike for Climate movement, it has injected a much-needed sense of urgency into climate politics. But as Wall points out, XR has failed to engage adequately with workers, minorities and the poor, sometimes displaying a sense of arrogant entitlement towards the anti-capitalist left and the excluded. Social movement theory helps us to understand the ups and downs of protest and the need to build enduring collective identities.
The author also engages, to his credit, with the ‘Climate Accelerationists’: the Trumps, Bolsonaros and their followers, recognising the social roots of such movements which cannot be reduced to the pernicious motives of their leaders. This leads into perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book, ‘The Unconscious, the Imaginary and the Real’, a perceptive discussion of epistemology and communication theory.
Wall is undoubtedly correct in arguing that multiple forms of