After the Failure of Rio+20: A Human Preservation Movement?

Print Friendly

[by Jeremy Brecher]

A quarter-century ago, when “Save the Whales!” was a popular slogan, a New Yorker cartoon showed one whale asking another, “But can they save themselves?”  In the early 21st century, experts and ordinary people alike are asking each other how we humans can save ourselves from the threats we have created.  Front and center are the Biblical consequences of climate change  – the fires, floods, storms, droughts, and heatwaves — that we are now witnessing daily. Close behind come the global economic meltdown, the growing division of rich and poor within and between countries, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the pollution and overexploitation of local environments, and the synergistic convergence of these and other crises toward catastrophic global tipping points.

As the failure of the Rio+20 conference and a string of previous international environmental, economic, and security conferences from Copenhagen to Mexico City demonstrate, national governments and their leaders are incapable of seriously addressing problems that require global solutions.  Is there another way for us humans to protect ourselves from mutual destruction?

Kiss your ass goodbye

We can glean part of an answer from the little known and often distorted history of the movement against nuclear weapons.

In the pantry of my childhood home hung a poster headed “What to Do in the Event of Nuclear Attack.”  It was around 1952 and I was probably six.  It was the height of the cold war and we lived near New York City; nuclear war was a palpable threat.  I remember my family planning what we would do in the event of nuclear attack: We had friends with a farm in Canada, and my parents said that if we were separated from each other we should all try to reassemble there.
At school in the early 1950s we had air raid drills.  Sirens would sound and we would “duck and cover” under our desks. There were plenty of jokes among the kids about our instructions: “In the event of nuclear attack bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye.”

At the very height of cold war hysteria, studies found radioactive isotopes of strontium-90 in American children’s baby teeth.  A newly-formed National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (soon known simply as SANE) ran full-page newspaper ads headlined, “Dr. Spock is Worried.”  A large picture showed the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose books were the childrearing bible for tens of millions of Americans, with a bottle of milk labeled X for poison.  The ad explained that fallout from nuclear tests was landing on the crops eaten by cows and entering their milk.  Children would experience birth defects, radiation poisoning, and cancer, from the contaminated milk.

The unimaginable threat of nuclear war was suddenly brought home by the concrete and immediate threat to the health of Americans’ children.  Our own government and its nuclear program became the perpetrator of that threat, rather than simply our protector against enemy attack.

Thousands responded to SANE’s ads, and soon tens of thousands were participating in rallies, marches, and local committees.  By 1963, a nuclear test ban treaty became national policy, and a moratorium on nuclear testing, which had been widely excoriated as “unilateral disarmament,” was in place.

The sudden projection of the peace movement from the margins to the masses was startling.  It resulted not from the concerns that had long preoccupied peace movement activists, but from one that was a side issue for most of them.  But it was one that millions of people, seeing the immediate self-interest of protecting their families from nuclear fallout, found compelling.

Awareness of the dangers of fallout from nuclear testing opened many Americans to concern about the broader dangers of nuclear war.  They came to see a halt to nuclear testing and a test ban treaty as just the first step toward more general disarmament.  They moved from a small concrete concern to a wider shift in worldview.  And they learned to question what was said by those in authority.

The unknown impact

Millions of people worldwide, I among them, talked, wrote, organized, voted, marched, and sat-in to demand the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons.  While we were marching and protesting, we generally believed that our movement was having little or no impact, and many of us lived in a state of chronic despair.  Only when I discovered Lawrence Wittner’s magisterial three-volume history The Struggle Against the Bomb did I find out I was wrong.

Wittner himself had started out believing that the struggle against the bomb had been “ineffectual.”  But the information he uncovered in the declassified records of the superpower war agencies changed his mind.  According to Wittner, “Most government officials – and particularly those of the major powers – had no intention of adopting nuclear arms control and disarmament policies. Instead, they grudgingly accepted such policies thanks to the emergence of popular pressure. Confronted by a “vast wave of popular resistance, they concluded, reluctantly, that compromise had become the price of political survival. Consequently they began to adapt their rhetoric and policies to the movement’s program.”

Occasionally high government officials have acknowledged the effect of public opinion and the anti-nuclear movement on policies such as the treaty to ban nuclear testing.  AEC Chair and outspoken disarmament opponent Glenn Seaborg once admitted that, thanks to “popular concern” about nuclear testing, “persistent pressure was brought to bear on the nuclear powers by influential leaders and movements throughout the world.”  In 1988 US National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy wrote that he agreed with Seaborg that “what produced the treaty was steadily growing worldwide concern over the radioactive fallout from testing.”  The atmospheric test ban “was achieved primarily by world opinion.”

Ultimately peace movement action and world public opinion led to the test ban treaty, detente, the end of cold war, and an eighty percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons.  Although it didn’t “ban the bomb,” the movement provides an example of a successful reconfiguration of the global system initiated by a global social movement.  If we have avoided mutual destruction until now, it is largely due to the efforts of that movement.

A human preservation movement?

Sometimes people who appear powerless and stymied have used social movements to transform the problems they face — and history and society as well.  The US sit-down strikes of the 1930s forced US corporations to recognize and negotiate with the representatives of their employees.  The civil disobedience campaigns led by Gandhi won Indians independence from Britain.  The civil rights movement of the 1960s gained the abolition of legalized racial segregation in the American South.  The Solidarity movement and its general strikes led to the fall of Communism in Poland and helped bring about its demise throughout Eastern Europe and the USSR.  The “Arab Spring” overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and reshaped the power configuration of the Middle East.  Occupy Wall Street transformed the political discussion and helped transform a one-sided into a two-sided class struggle in the US.  Can the power of social movements be the basis for “saving the humans”?

Social movements arise to express common interests that are not being represented by established institutions.  The threat of mutual destruction gives people worldwide just such a common interest — resisting mutual destruction. That of course doesn’t abolish other, conflicting interests, but it does establish a new and overriding one.  Can that common interest be the basis for a global peoples movement to put human existence on a safe, sustainable basis  – and to impose what is necessary for human preservation on corporations, governments, and the economic and nation-state systems of which they are part?

Addressing apparently disparate global threats to human preservation ranging from climate catastrophe to nuclear proliferation to destruction of water, land, and air as part of the broader problem of ensuring human survival could provide a new basis for collective action.  Like the ban-the-bomb movement, a human preservation movement might well not have a single organization, ideology, or even name.  But it would define a shared project guided by common objectives and a common interpretive frame.

Plausible affirmability

A human preservation movement may seem like an extravagant, implausible, even ridiculous idea.  But we have already witnessed at least two powerful global movements addressing two of the great threats to human survival in the era of mutual destruction.  Both the anti-nuclear and the climate protection movements defined global threats and mobilized millions of people worldwide to combat the policies and institutions that perpetrated them.

At first glance, human self-destruction may appear to be a collection of separate problems.  But there are good reasons to treat these apparently disparate issues within a common interpretive frame.  All are produced by uncontrolled power centers and their interactions.  All need the same kind of interconnected changes in the organization of social power for their solution.  Treating them as one problem may make it possible to coalesce the disparate social forces necessary to address them.  Human survival can provide the broadest and most compelling reason for social transformation and concerted action.

We can make a comparison to the conditions in which nation states formed in the 18th and 19th centuries.  People faced many distinct problems in such spheres as economic development, military security, law, and governance. But all had roots in the combination of small, despotic principalities and duchies with sprawling, poorly organized imperial dynasties.  And all led to the same institutional change – the formation of nation states — to solve them.

The formation of nation states did not abolish separate parochial interests.  But most individuals and groups came to pursue their more parochial interests within the emerging national framework.  They sought to have their aspirations included in national policies.  National rulers, conversely, tried to keep parochial interests from turning to separatism by ensuring that many of their aspirations could be pursued as part of a broader national interest.  In the case of the United States, unification arose out of thirteen independent and rancorous former colonies.  A similar process at a later time brought together the states of Europe – at war with each other for a millennium – into the European Union.

Why would people do any more to support a human preservation movement than the separate movements for climate protection, disarmament, economic justice, and the like?  Because what people really want is to have their lives and the future of the things and people they care about put on a secure basis. Climate protection, disarmament, and economic justice are, after all, primarily means to that end.  A human preservation movement offers what we really want – a future protected against the major looming threats, including the threat from unknown unknowns.

Emergence and convergence

How might the elements of a human preservation movement draw together?

The closest example I know to such an emergence and convergence was the development of the movement against economic globalization in the 1990s. As the effects of globalization became increasingly evident, people’s established strategies of addressing their needs in national contexts became less and less effective.  The process of developing new, global strategies was polycentric, emerging in different ways in different places around varied issues and utilizing different forms of action.  Gradually, but punctuated by sudden leaps, those experimenting with these initiatives began to learn of each other, engage in dialogue, and coordinate common actions.  The result was what we know as the global “anti-globalization” or “global justice” movement – aka “globalization from below.”

A similar process might well characterize the emergence of a movement for human preservation.  It will have roots in existing environmental, peace, and justice organizations, especially those that are already connected internationally.  It will incorporate many of the elements that have already come together worldwide to combat global warming.  It will draw on the global justice movement, much of which is now represented in the polycentric World Social Forum process.  It will include many who are responding to issues of survival within political systems at all levels.  It will involve many organizations like unions and religious congregations whose primary purpose is not to address issues of survival, but which are drawn in by the concerns and interests of their constituencies.  These will include many new recruits, such as the evangelical Christians who have begun to shift from a shunning of environmental concerns to a new focus on “stewardship.”

Something like this already appears to be happening in Occupy Wall Street. Its recent resolutions and action have increasingly incorporated the threat of climate change, nuclear weapons, the global food crisis, and other human survival issues as crucial effects of the tyranny of the 1%.

Between a risk and a certainty

How can people power force the changes that are necessary to ensure human survival?  We can see new answers emerging in the movement against global warming.  The globally coordinated campaign for a climate protection agreement provides one example.  The shut down of coal-fired power plants by nonviolent direct action in many places around the world provides another. The massive global days of protest organized by 350.org provide a third. While globally coordinated social movements go back at least to the abolitionist struggle against slavery, they have been significantly facilitated by the rise of social networking and other new communication technologies, and the ways to use these most effectively are only now being invented.

Finding ways to use people power for human preservation will require experimentation with diverse kinds of action by millions of people around the globe.  It takes creativity to parlay the actions of ordinary people into effective pressure on those who have power.  But because the powerful are ultimately dependent on the rest of us, our organized withdrawal of our support, acquiescence, and consent can be a force they have to reckon with.

A human preservation movement will be an uncertain venture into the unknown.  But as scientist and novelist C.P. Snow said in 1960 of the risk of trying to limit nuclear weapons compared to the certainty of a global catastrophe: “Between a risk and a certainty, a sane man does not hesitate.”

Indeed, a human survival movement might echo the closing words of the Port Huron Statement just half-a-century ago: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

[Jeremy Brecher's new book Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action, published by Paradigm Publishers, addresses how social movements make social change. Brecher is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements, including Strike! and Global Village or Global Pillage and the winner of five regional Emmy awards for his documentary movie work. He currently works with the Labor Network for Sustainability.]