When the winds of Hurricane Sandy abated they left a deep inequality. Those who had means to escape the destruction had done so. Those who didn’t had no choice but to stay.
The Occupy movement, long criticized for its lack of demands, now had a clear demand: keep people alive. With a scalable decentralized structure already in the movement’s DNA, #OccupySandy kicked in before the storm waters had receded.
When I walked into the #OccupySandy hub – at a church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn – I asked how I could help and was pointed to a growing mountain of black garbage bags piled in the corner and told these donations needed sorting and redistribution.
I started opening the bags, trying to apply order to the chaos so that the most needed supplies – warm jackets, blankets, hats and good shoes – could be distributed first.
New shipments arrived every few minutes. Other volunteers asked me how they could help, and over the next eight hours we transformed the piles of bags into a neatly categorized warehouse of emergency supplies. We repackaged bags and dispatches sent them out to Staten Island, the Far Rockaways, Redhook and beyond in loaned vehicles that still had some fuel in their tanks.
Above us hung a crude banner that read, ‘Mutual Aid, not Charity’.
When I finally left the church, others easily filled my place. The urgency necessitated decentralized autonomy – we all had decisions to make and were trusted to make them as best we could. It was almost two weeks before I saw any governmental organization arrive on the scene.
The climate crisis reflects not just a physical, but also a social and spiritual crisis. To be effective in the Anthropocene we need to be working coherently on all scales at the same time: inside ourselves, inside our groups, inside our communities, and inside our global ecosystem.
The increasing individualism of modern capitalism has deeply damaged our collective capacity to respond to changes and many activists respond to the urgency of the climate crisis by pushing past their own limits. This has led to serial burnout that has greatly shortened the lifespan of the first generations of climate activists, crippling the movement’s ability to accumulate experiential knowledge.
The climate crisis reflects not just a physical, but also a social and spiritual crisis.
We are now seeing the trend of ‘sustainable activism’, moving from the individual to the collective, as ever more movements and organizations are understanding that their personal and collective health is essential to the long-term impact of their work.
Some of this work has also grown out of treating the trauma that can come with direct action and physical violence of state repression. The conversation has widened beyond the work of healing personal trauma and towards an understanding of the collective trauma we have all undergone through centuries of capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism.
This process of decolonization can be seen both as resistance and resilience, both healing and sabotage that can start to deconstruct a toxic system from the inside rather than fighting it as an external enemy or seeking to escape it.
Acknowledging we are both part of the problem and of the solution provides a complex but realistic understanding of the world around us – the healing is both internal and external, the sabotage both individual and collective.
The interest in restorative work is arising at a time when regenerative agriculture and permaculture are redefining how humans view their relationship to the Earth, reframing human impact as a potentially positive force for the health of ecosystems and reinstating their symbiotic and mutually dependent relationships.
This focus on internal and deep collective health is a notable step for a movement that has traditionally been very good at articulating the thousand things it is against, but not in proposing a convincing alternative that engages with global capitalism. Addressing Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park, author and activist Naomi Klein declared:
What climate change means is that we have to do this on a deadline. This time our movement cannot get distracted, divided, burned out or swept away by events. This time we have to succeed…. I am talking about changing the underlying values that govern our society.
… That is what I see happening in this square. In the way you are feeding each other, keeping each other warm, sharing information freely and providing health care, meditation classes and empowerment training.
My favourite sign here says, ‘I care about you’. In a culture that trains people to avoid each other’s gaze, to say, ‘Let them die’, that is a deeply radical statement.
One project that has been highly successful in promoting cultures of ‘Sustainable Activism’ sits in an isolated valley beneath the Spanish Pyrenees. For years, the ecological-inspired retreat centre, Eco-Dharma, has been offering workshops ‘…to empower individuals and communities to tread a path where committed social engagement goes hand in hand with radical personal transformation’, and has trained thousands of activists across Europe, many of whom are now offering their own courses and incorporating deep ecology into their own practices.
Ecodharma has been so effective not just because of its content but also because of its slow-but-steady holistic approach to activism. Such slow alternatives may not yet be even showing up on radars, but it is in this fertile underground where the seeds of tomorrow are planted.
By switching focus from the productive work of campaigning… towards the reproductive work of cultural change, activism moves … towards real personal and collective transformational experiences.
This strong focus on process work is crucial as activism begins to challenge the assumption of ‘productivism’ latent in many western activist movements.
By switching focus from the productive work of campaigning, communication and advocacy towards the reproductive work of cultural change, activism moves beyond performance for a public (a political caste, mainstream media or general public) and towards real personal and collective transformational experiences.
To do this, perhaps we can look to the far right, which has been far more successful in recent years than ‘protest’ movements in enacting radical change.
In a post-Brexit Britain, and with Donald Trump as (at the time of writing) incumbent commander-in-chief of the world’s largest armed forces, the failure of the political left can perhaps be traced to its inability to provide an exciting vision about a fair and liveable future as part of a coherent narrative of radical change.
Without a clear vision in a tumultuous world, is it any surprise that people are looking backwards towards a brighter future that may be ‘great again’? Yet, if we are to provide such a vision and avoid the personality cult of populism, it means that left-wing radicalism must be a process for engagement, rather than a political programme.
By reinterpreting social change as a relational process, movements can begin to embody an alternative future characterized by a culture of care, and model new forms of extra-capitalist relations.
In an age of climate crisis, this culture of care takes on a global dimension – and the need for collective care and ‘mutual aid, not charity’, as articulated by #OccupySandy, will be embedded in every coming ecological crisis. With a shift towards sustainable activism, movements are beginning to ‘be the change they wish to see in the world’.