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Fixing Planet Earth: A Not-So-Modest Proposal

By Michael N. Nagler

11 June, 2010

Only a nonviolent revolution, like the one led by Gandhi, can meet the challenge of the climate crisis

Mahatma Gandhi is widely regarded as the father of the Indian nation, which he was. But the founding of the nation was not his only aim. He was, as he freely admitted, using India to demonstrate to the whole world how nonviolence could change history. The swell of mostly nonviolent revolutions that has followed in the last 30 or so years would seem to indicate that his bold scheme worked.

We need to be no less daring now, in the face of the coming climate chaos. To rebalance and stabilize the planet’s climate, which we probably have to do in the present decade, is daunting; but it doesn’t go far enough. We need to do it the right way, and we need to unleash a domino effect that will end up—maybe by the end of the century—eliminating not just human-caused climate change, which is the most urgent problem, but many, if not all, of the problems linked to it.

Let me explain why I think this is necessary, and doable.

In the years since Gandhi and King we have seen many insurrections overthrow unjust regimes—in South Africa, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere—only to see the same injustices come back with different faces (or even, as in the Ukraine, the same old faces). As a passionate participant in the Free Speech Movement in the incredible ‘60s, I was deeply shocked to see, as time went by, that not only did our inspiring movement lead to few lasting changes, it indirectly propelled Ronald Reagan into the presidency. Similarly, we have seen ecological successes here or there dwarfed by the ongoing deterioration of Earth’s miraculous life-supporting systems. In some of these cases, e.g. whaling or offshore drilling in the United States, even apparent successes proved to be temporary. The only permanent fix for any of these problems is a deep and broad solution for all of them.

And it might just be possible, because that’s not the only thing that’s happening. Nonviolence has increased remarkably as Gandhi and King’s ‘ocular demonstration’ has told on the imagination of peoples around the world. According to one calculation, more than half the world’s population now lives in a regime that has seen a major, usually successful, use of nonviolence (rarely reported in the mainstream media). As time goes on, these movements are starting to get more sophisticated. Participants have added new institutions to their repertoire, like Unarmed Civilian-based Peacemaking (UCP), that places trained nonviolent internationals in zones of serious conflict around the world. They are waking up to the need for training and education, some of it embodied in organizations like my own Metta Center for Nonviolence Education, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), or the Center for Advanced Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) founded to impart best practices wherever needed—from the successful Otpor Rebellion of 2000 in Serbia to similar insurrections in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. A fascinating body of theory is being gradually developed that draws on eye-opening new findings in several branches of science.

In short, we are beginning to unpack the Gandhian legacy. And there’s no reason to think that the methods that can overthrow a regime cannot be globalized—that they cannot be so extended as to replace a dysfunctional civilization with a new, nonviolent world.

A secret of nonviolent power is practitioners’ ability to maintain an unwavering respect for the person of their opponents while resisting the latter’s misdeeds. When Martin Luther King urged his followers not to hate their white brothers he not only made it easier for the latter to give in, to a degree he was rehumanizing the entire culture—think of the difference that could make as we continue the legacy.

A mature nonviolent movement does not get stuck on a single technique—typically on protest—but can adjust its approach to the stage of the conflict—starting with petitions and votes, going on to civil disobedience if that doesn’t work, and finally being ready to make major sacrifices if even that fails.

Let’s talk about that for a minute. While there will be a continuing place for legislation to curb climate abusers, if we want a lasting solution the major burden of change will have to be carried by persuasion. In nonviolence, persuasion is not limited to sitting around a table. There is a much deeper kind of persuasion happening when someone bears witness to the truth, if necessary by taking on some of the suffering in an unjust situation rather than inflicting it on others. This is Satyagraha. And in the enormous ‘tea party’ climate of irrationality and self-righteous rage that prevails today, the climate that Noam Chomsky has rightly called pre-fascist, nothing less will work. As Gandhi said, “Things of fundamental importance to the people must be purchased with their suffering. You must be able to appeal not only to reason, but to the heart also,”—in other words by your willingness to risk injury if there’s no other way to reach your opponent. He also explained, with great insight, that

What Satyagraha in these cases does is not to suppress reason but to free it from inertia and to establish its sovereignty over prejudice, hatred, and other baser passions. In other words, if one may paradoxically put it, it does not enslave, it compels reason to be free.

In other words, it is a form of deep persuasion, and that is crucial. Those who are coerced look for the first chance to bolt; those who are convinced are with you for the long term.

But the campaign we need—and it’s within our reach—would have a whole other dimension. It would deploy an array of constructive activities as well—education, community and farming experiments, etc. As King would put it "cooperating with good" and "non-cooperating with evil." What is more—now this is really new—there will be some kind of strategic overview to help us decide when to do which. It is the "constructive programme" (as Gandhi called it) that will guarantee the continuity of the campaign; the "obstructive program" (my term for protests, blockades, etc.), held in readiness and used when needed, will guarantee its effectiveness. Ten years is not much time to awaken a civilization. But it can be done.

It is not clear where, in this anti-authoritarian climate of ours, this strategic vision and leadership would come from. It could well be reached by a kind of self-organization, or we could even—why not?—see the emergence of a visionary and effective leader. However it is achieved, the movement will have to have coherent direction and enough inspiration to hold on to its nonviolent standards (including a way to win over or, failing that, neutralize would-be disrupters). Virtually all the nonviolent episodes since King and Gandhi have been either constructive or "obstructive," but rarely both, and almost never with a coordinated strategy of the kind Gandhi achieved over decades of work in South Africa and India.

With that exception, note that all the elements are already in place for a sustained, effective campaign that could—and must—reverse climate disruption and go on to complete the job. All we need to do is become aware that they are the potential ingredients of the great movement we have been looking for.

To make climate the number one priority doesn’t necessarily mean dropping whatever else we’re doing. It means understanding how what we’re doing relates to that core project. I’m a nonviolence educator, and what I do is help people find the tools they need to do this job properly and permanently; you could be working on anything from corporate accountability to saving seals, which are all parts of the new paradigm (unless there’s a way to do it without corporations at all!). All of us have to be psychologically and otherwise ready to put our “own” project on hold if the opportunity arises for a direct push for climate legislation or against coal plants, knowing full well that when the climate is secured we will be able to get back to them if necessary, while if the climate is not secured there will be no one to work on anything!

In short, we need to address climate change with the full power and vision of nonviolence, and we need to stay the course. We are "using" climate change as Gandhi used the liberation of India, to address an even deeper change, a spiritual revolution that will liberate us from addictive materialism and move us on to beloved community, so we need to come out of our campaign with not only a stable physical climate but a method and a community of practitioners who can go from success to success until we—or our children—have the world we want.

Michael Nagler wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Michael is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

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