A firestorm of criticism from across the political spectrum was ignited by the news that I had accepted an invitation to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, one of the most elite gatherings of corporate CEOs and world leaders. Now I’m headed to London to meet with a few founders of the Extinction Rebellion, one of the most influential climate protest movements.
Knowing only of my journey to Davos, my activist peers on the left ridiculed me as naive, reactionary and a sell-out. Those on the right cited my acceptance as proof that radical activists only critique elites because they wish they were elites. Others orchestrated a wave of character assassinations, fabrications and bullying on social media.
The denunciations hurt. But I can’t say that I was surprised. As a lifelong activist, I knew my presence in Davos would be reputational suicide.
And yet, I also knew that I must go to Davos and London, despite the significant social and emotional costs, because — to put it in stark terms — the survival of human civilization depends on a new relationship between activists and elites.
Convinced that the climate emergency was forcing activists and elites into an uneasy alliance, it was impossible for me to turn down the invitation to Davos. The World Economic Forum is undeniably one of the few places where this kind of discussion could ever be had. After all, where else could I hope to get in the room with the world’s most powerful people?
I’ll admit that I was surprised when the World Economic Forum did not balk at facilitating this difficult discussion. Instead, I was impressed by their ability to make it happen.
The closed-door, off-the-record conversation between corporate leaders, social movement activists, civil society and labor union representatives was organized by the World Economic Forum and held in a secure space adjacent to the main conference center. This allowed activists to attend who were otherwise not invited to the Forum. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule. While I will not disclose the specifics of who was present, I will share what was said.
First, a general outline of who was in the room.
The meeting was moderated by a leader in civil society whose organization operates in dozens of countries. The two corporations present are global brands with over 500,000 employees combined. On behalf of labor was a union with over 25 million members in over 150 countries. And there were militant activists from a range of movements.
I presented a brief outline of the activist strategy manifesto “An Alliance of Opposites” and spent most of the remainder of the session listening. I wanted to know if a united front between these different social forces was possible in the service of the greater cause of climate mobilization. Could activists pause the class war temporarily to focus on climate? Would corporations be willing to facilitate disruptive climate protests, if it meant they could keep their wealth? Would governments tolerate the mobilization if it meant they could keep their political power?
The discussion was lively and courteous. It was not easy.
Activists felt that it was tremendously difficult to put aside the strategy of rectifying income inequality before, or as the first step toward, tackling climate. Corporations felt uneasy with the possibility of the social mobilization spiralling out of control and were reluctant to accept that the movement could not happen without disruptive, unruly protest. Unions did not feel adequately represented in the strategy I’d outlined.
The end result was that everyone present was astonished by the hunger for the conversation on all sides. No one wanted it to end and we had to be repeatedly asked to leave the room.
In the days that followed, I spoke with many powerful and wealthy people at Davos. And to each I made the pitch for a united front for climate. Their reactions largely echoed what I heard in the private session.
If you’re wondering how I got here in the first place, my long march to the World Economic Forum began with the defeat of Occupy Wall Street, a social movement that I helped found and that spread to 82 countries and 1,000 cities in 2011. I rebelled against the failure of this movement by devoting the remaining decade to understanding what we’d done wrong. Why hadn’t our global protest, one of the biggest in human history, achieved the goal of getting money out of politics and decreasing the political power of the 1 per cent?
At first I thought it was a failure of strategy. Or maybe it was the tactics we’d used. I considered whether activist culture was producing the wrong kinds of activists and I worked on new methods for teaching activism. But it was only relatively recently that I realized I’d been pursuing the wrong question.
The most remarkable thing about Occupy was not its failure but its unique characteristics as a social phenomenon: its speed, scale and efficiency. Occupy spread globally, inconceivably quickly, mobilizing millions of diverse people in many different countries. And it cost a pittance to create.
The appropriate question to ask about Occupy is therefore not why did it fail, but rather: what can a social phenomenon like Occupy be used to achieve?
Viewed from this perspective, the Occupy model, stripped of its ideology, is a solution in search of a problem. Well, there just happens to be an existentially pressing global problem for which a massively unprecedented social mobilization is desperately needed — the climate emergency.
I made the same argument to elites in Davos as I intend to make to activists in London: it is imperative that we utilize the capacity of social movements to mobilize humanity for dramatic climate mitigation efforts.
This entails a reorientation of activism and a break with 300 years of activist strategy.
To claim that social activists can create the scale of climate mobilization that is necessary — it will need to be at least 10 times bigger than Occupy — without the, at minimum, tacit support and resources of the existing power structures is dangerously naive.
At the same time, elites must acknowledge social movements are a valuable, and rare, opportunity for mobilizing people. For governments and corporations to pretend that they will be able to mitigate climate change without the active, engaged support of grassroots activists is a hopeless delusion. Whether elites like it or not, activists are unique in their capacity to create social movements that get everyday people to act collectively.
Activist strategy must adapt to the climate emergency just as corporate strategy must adapt too.
Now, as I depart the World Economic Forum for the Extinction Rebellion, I feel cautiously optimistic that as the climate emergency becomes increasingly pressing, the obvious need for an unprecedented mobilization will force both activists and elites to accept the only viable solution: we need a new relationship.