Recently, I had occasion to ponder the essential role of activism, especially today under conditions of impending disaster. The occasion was my introduction to a Toronto forum on Effective Activism for a Peaceful and Sustainable World. Organized by Science for Peace, the forum can soon be viewed on YouTube (science4peace) in 10 brief segments.
Our goal was to assemble an impressive list of activists to talk about their campaigns and inspire others to get involved. It was the first in a series of forums oriented primarily to those under 35. Inspirational speakers reflected upon the politics of the possible – what works, and what doesn’t in pursuing important environmental, peace and social-justice issues. It was a lively and enlightening experience.
Activism is a serious business, but it is not just that. It should not be seen only as a duty one reluctantly shoulders for the greater good. Many personal rewards flow from working with others to improve society or our chances of survival. Activism is not a burden so much as a way of life – a satisfying one.
Activism in a democratic society is crucial, and today more than ever. Not only is democracy under attack worldwide, but several intractable perils depend for their resolution on well-organized campaigns of nonviolent political action. It would be foolhardy to assume that technology will save us. And, though it is important to vote, politics as usual is unlikely to rise to the challenges we face. Vested interests are just too powerful. So we’re going to have to rely on ourselves – through the application of social power.
What are these perils? Not everyone would agree on the top three. Here are mine:
1. Climate change – no surprise there! We are all aware of the dangers. The latest report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C”) argues that 1.5 degrees of warming is dire for human and other species, but 2.0 degrees is disastrous. Yet, to hold global warming to the lower target requires cutting carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030 and attaining a carbon neutral economy by 2050. How likely are we to reach those targets at a time when global emissions are still rising? Can we bet on technology? Or hope that governments will rise to the challenge? No. We have to organize a movement strong enough to force governments to attain a level of mobilization akin to that of World War II. Only that will suffice.
2. Accidental or deliberate nuclear exchange, leading to a nuclear winter. Experts insist the possibility of a nuclear exchange is as high today as during the Cold war. Why? For the obvious reasons: nuclear proliferation, new generations of ever-deadlier nuclear weapons, the warlike stance of the United States, rising global tensions, and regional conflicts in South Asia and the Middle East. A nuclear exchange, even if limited, would be devastating: tens of millions dead immediately, followed by more tens of millions from radiation and starvation occasioned by the nuclear winter. How are we going to rid ourselves of these nukes before they kill us? Many vested interests support the production and positioning of nuclear weapons. Will the nuclear powers give up their weapons in the absence of a well-organized nuclear disarmament movement? Doubtful. We have to recreate a powerful disarmament movement akin to that of the 1960s and 1970s.
3. Accelerating automation, which is eliminating cascading categories of good jobs while leaving behind insecure, lousy jobs and the gig economy. We all know that enhanced productivity stemming from artificial intelligence and robots could be a liberating force. We could all live good lives by sharing out the work, creating a range of social protections and advanced social services, and establishing a universal basic income. It is not rocket science. But will we realize this liberating potential? Or will the darker current scenario prevail: growing inequality, insecure employment or no employment for many, the gig economy, and increasingly authoritarian populist governments to keep the lid on? Concentrated corporate power favours the latter outcome. Economic power shapes politics as usual. Technology, which could be our friend, becomes our enemy when controlled by a powerful minority. We will have to rely on ourselves and our movements to share equitably the fruits of technological advance. That means, first and foremost, a new movement-unionism.
So yes, activism is a serious business when we contemplate the future. But it is not the whole story. Anyone involved in campaigns will talk about the frustrations and difficulties, but also the rewards. They include camaraderie, a strong sense of purpose, the elation of nonviolent protests and demonstrations, and, to be frank, the parties. The pursuit of the politics of the possible is serious, but that’s not to say it can’t be fun.
Richard Sandbrook Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Toronto and Vice-President, Science for Peace