Taking action: Climate Strike by Derek Wall
Environmentalism is messy. For those campaigning around climate change, this will be obvious. Whether writing petitions or getting arrested, the process of pushing for change is never simple. There are victories, upsets, and a somewhat never-ending sense that what is done will never be enough. To act, to attempt to salvage in these dangerous times, is to face contradictions at nearly every level. For those seeking clarity, Climate Strike, a new book by Derek Wall, seems a good place to begin.
Wall, a veteran environmentalist and former Principal Speaker of the Green Party of England and Wales, quite correctly identifies the chief contradiction of environmentalism today. If climate change is understood as structural, as attributable to the global systems of production and exchange, then the solutions must be equally far-reaching. However, climate breakdown is escalating rapidly, possibly quicker than those organising to transform the system. The unstoppable force of escalating environmental breakdown meets the immovable object of transformative change’s difficulty.
Time is of the essence. For those engaged in the often-bewildering spaces of the environmental movement, there is need to anchor ourselves and move fast. The ‘practical politics of the climate crisis’, as Climate Strike terms them, become the defining concern of the 2020s. What is the strategy? What are the tactics and actions mobilised in pursuit of this?
The importance of Climate Strike is to argue that strategy and tactics, remembering the important distinctions between the two, should not be secondary concerns. Ways of acting must be the central focus of contemporary green thinking.
The Climate Strike journey
Beginning with an introduction and an argument for systemic change’s necessity, Wall then turns to different forces within contemporary environmentalism. These chapters take the reader through analyses of Green parties, trade unions and social movements like Extinction Rebellion. Looking outwards, Wall also discusses the twofold problems of climate denialism and climate communications. Finally, Wall expands on the need for a critical attitude towards the state and ultimately turns to a leftist base-building model as a strategy for radical environmentalists. Given the book is around 200 pages, this is a rather condensed journey over rather extensive topics.
Consequently, Wall cites a wide variety of texts and experiences within Climate Strike. Often arguments which deserve unpacking are left to be explored in another work, with Wall quickly shifting topic. There is perhaps too much ground to cover within its short chapters. For example, the focus on Extinction Rebellion within the section on social movements somewhat masks the variety of groups acting. In particular, for a book named Climate Strike, there are only limited discussions of the strengths and limits of the School Strike movement. Of course, to discuss every actually existing movement would likely entail a library of books.
At the very least, with its many sources and avenues for further discussions, Climate Strike is an excellent intervention forcing environmentalists to grapple with the question of how best to spend their time.
Ecologies of action
How are we to assess such a work, which proclaims to open a conversation about the practical politics of climate? One option is to read Wall against Wall. In particular, one statement stands out to this reviewer:
‘What I am trying to promote in this book is an understanding of ecologies of action.’
Appreciating the often-misguided attempts to take concepts like ecology and apply them to society, there is power in this phrase. Implicit within it is a recognition that environmental action will take several forms if it is to be successful, and these will often depend on the context in which these actions are taken. There is no magic bullet, only various struggles which environmentalists must steer through.
Wall makes much of the philosophy and life of Jean Cavaillès, the polymath French resistance fighter. Wall stresses the need for conceptual analysis of politics, and the grit to act, as Cavaillès did during his life. It is around this concept of ecologies of action where Wall’s work comes somewhat short. Whilst Climate Strike is excellent in identifying the different actors (trade unions, XR, etc), it refuses to identify the ecosystem under which they operate.
The ecosystem of Climate Strike
Where is Climate Strike aimed? There is a sense its audience is within the UK. For example, the section on trade unionism discusses organising efforts within the TUC and newer unions like the IWGB. As mentioned, the section on social movements focuses particularly on Extinction Rebellion within the UK. However, the chapter on Green Parties leaps across nations, and the discussion of denialism particularly considers the US and Australia. A reader may get the impression that Wall’s desire to demonstrate an extensive knowledge of environmentalism leads to a refusal to stick to one location.
Is this inherently a problem? After all, climate change is happening across the globe, at several scales. It is. As many have argued, the effects of climate change, and the responses to it, take different forms. In particular, given Wall writes eloquently about the need to consider the role of the state, and the wider system of global capitalism, the particular forms these take globally are surely crucial considerations for practical climate politics.
Finding a system
If organisers are to interrogate the concepts of climate action they can only be interrogated in their appropriate context. Which strategies and tactics are adopted by the climate movement depends on the forces faced. Those organising against a totalitarian state, or under widespread absolute poverty, often have to act in ways alien to those living within (albeit increasingly illiberal) anglosphere governments.
Of course, it is possible to go in the opposite direction and overstate the differences across the world. However, Wall never engages with these concerns. There is a missed opportunity here. Rather than producing an insightful, but often too conceptual, analysis of climate action, Wall could have applied his clearly wide-reaching understanding of organising in the UK to provide crucial insights.
If, as Wall argues, climate action requires strategies which tackle global capitalism, it would be extremely useful to moor those discussions within the imperial cores, like the UK, that promote global pollution. With the UK as a major force in fossil fuel funding, colonialism, and imperialism, a wider discussion of this context and how UK environmentalists could act would be a much more focused intervention.
How to build a base
Wall joins writers like Andreas Malm, Jodi Dean, and Kai Heron, in arguing for a return to the thought of Lenin with regard to the climate crisis and systems change. Each of these authors select their own piece of Lenin, and Wall in particular focuses on the idea of dual power and the related concept of base-building. Put simply, this strategy focuses on organising rival institutions of working class power in opposition to the state. Had Wall focused more on an intended context, this crucial final discussion of base-building may have provided greater insight.
What does it mean to build a base? Wall suggests it is organising ‘the working class into institutions that are vehicles of collective struggle.’ The following pages give a vase swathe of examples. There is tenants organising, community gardens, repair stations, socially organised transport, trade unions, social centres, and transition towns. In fact, at one stage, Wall points to his own work as a parish councillor as base-building. These are widely different activities. Without focus, this term risks becoming modern conservativism’ ‘Big Society’ with a class edge.
A discussion of base-building in the UK is urgently needed and Wall is correct in pointing to this strategy. However, Climate Strike treats base-building with excessively broad strokes. The various ways of engaging in tenants organising within the UK, the complexity of union organising in specific sectors, or even which institutions should be built first, are left unexplored. A more focused assessment of base-building in the UK would have allowed Climate Strike to end with a greater impact for what will likely be its predominantly UK-based audience. By failing to ask the question of where the bases are being built, Wall avoids the difficult conversation about the necessary practicalities.
Towards a practical climate politics
Ultimately, despite these misgivings, Wall is correct to start a discussion about what strategies and actions environmentalists should take. However, for those seeking particular insights into how to act within the contemporary UK and beyond, it may not satisfy. By refusing an ecosystem for his ecologies of action, Wall doesn’t take Climate Strike to the level of analysis necessary for these dire times. The task must now be to push the initial insights of Climate Strike further.