Green ideas went mainstream years ago. Most major political parties in Western democracies Donald Trump and the Republican Party notwithstanding now accept the facts of climate change and have promised to respond. Environmentalism has also become part of the broader anti-capitalism movement, which is — mostly — characterized by a commitment to nonviolence and bottom-up change. As a result, climate activism that crosses from peaceful protests, like marching in the streets, to civil disobedience — shutting down mines or monkey-wrenching machinery — remains stubbornly small.
There are no exact figures, but people on the inside have told me that, in the U. There are clues, however, that this may be about to change. The necessary conditions for the radicalization of climate activism are all in place. Some groups are already showing signs of making the transition. And when they do, we may be ill-equipped for handling these new green hard-liners.
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Radicals of all types share certain characteristics. There is also usually a social element, in the form of a charismatic preacher or ideology, that spurs people to seek emotional fulfillment through otherwise forbidden methods for redemption.
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Climate activists certainly have a central grievance — a catastrophic, existential grievance that is supported by scientific research. Based on current projections, by the end of this century, large swaths of the globe will become uninhabitable, and extreme weather will be commonplace, as will food shortages and drought. By , as many as million people could be climate change refugees. This is the mother of all grievances, and it is measurably getting worse.
True, there have been some successes. The renewable energy industry is surging. But from the perspective of environmentalists, there are mounting reasons to doubt the political prospects for saving the planet.
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By , the amount of energy required to power the world will likely be around 50 percent higher than it was in Coal demand is expected to grow 0. Last year was especially bad: Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbed above parts per million the first time in millions of years ; meanwhile, the Living Planet Index projected that the Earth could lose two-thirds of wild animals by No serious activist thinks the Paris climate accords, feted by governments, are enough — and that was before Trump pulled out of them.
The signs of growing radicalism in green circles are already there, if you know where to look. Something is stirring. According to a representative I recently spoke to from Friends of the Earth, an environmentalist group with chapters across the world, local anti-fracking groups have grown faster than anything he has ever witnessed in the green movement. Had it not been for the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris just weeks before the climate accord meetings in November , and the subsequent state of emergency, the demonstrations there would likely have been the biggest environmental protests ever.
I interviewed several of the people involved at the time: There had been months of planning, hundreds of organizers dotted across the city, and a real sense of momentum. Last year, double that number of protesters did the same. The same obstinate determination was visible in the Standing Rock protesters, who tried to prevent the building of the Dakota Access pipeline in the northern United States.
Between August and this February, arrests were made there. One marked development of the past few years is the growth of activists in the developing world taking on a far more prominent leadership role. They will be more willing — or desperate — to use more extreme measures.
You can see it in the growth of the resistance literature genre. This is all without even mentioning the broader anti-capitalist movement, of which environmentalism is increasingly a part. At the last G meeting in Hamburg, Germany, 76 police officers were injured in violent clashes with protesters. Decades of studies on social movement have found that humans are more likely to be stirred by signal moments than abstract ideas or data. And suddenly the whole movement will take off.
This smaller group then provides the emotional fulfilment and social purpose that can act as a spur to action. This, in turn, widens the gap between militant and peaceful branches, which, in a self-perpetuating loop, makes the offshoot even more radical, tightknit, and determined. So far, previous waves of extremism have encouraged us to believe that radicals and extremists are always misled, confused, irrational, manipulated, or evil — not rational thinkers who have made their decisions based on a combination of scientific data and utilitarian philosophy.
I recently visited a group of specialists who work on Islamist and far-right deradicalization and asked them how they would go about preventing green radicalization. Perhaps asking Greenpeace managers to deradicalize militant monkey-wrenchers? Request this item to view in the Library's reading rooms using your library card.
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