We are in a time period where the hope for social change burns more intensely than ever before. Even as we see economic conditions worsening in many parts of the world, with austerity measures and corporate welfare dominating the policy decisions of many nations, there remains a hope that the virtual spaces which foster instantaneous connectivity will raise the possibility of social action to enact meaningful change. As communities are formed through the togetherness of sharing ideas and goals in urban spaces, they are supported and intensely linked with virtual communities formed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites.
The internet is a space of autonomy, which lowers barriers of expression and social movement participation. In “Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age”, Castells defines autonomy as “the capacity of a social actor to become a subject by defining its action around projects constructed independently of the institutions of society, according to the values and interests of the social actor”. (229) He then proceeds to link this concept with networked social movements as the transition from individuation to autonomy is “operated through networking, which allows individual actors to build their autonomy with like-minded people in the networks of their choice…the Internet provides the organizational communication platform to translate the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy.” (230)
There are a wide range of opinions on how to handle the systemic crises that effect our interconnected global system, representing a wide range of belief systems including libertarianism, socialism, capitalism, anarchism, and conservatism. However, there is one specific crisis that should unite all groups, regardless of the ideological identity in which they prescribe. There are very visible signs that our climate is changing for the worst, and these disasters are the result of human activity which has polluted the ecosystem and is draining the earth of natural resources like oil and water.
The movement to protect our climate and mobilize people around the globe to take action while most governments insist on maintaining the status quo, has been increasing over the past few years as the signs pile up that our time on the Earth is finite. The next chapter of this movement is occurring right at this moment, as environmental groups prepare of the People’s Climate March, organized for September 21st in New York City. The source of the original call for action was Bill Mckibben, founder of 350.org, who wrote an article for Rolling Stone titled “A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change”.In this piece, he emphasizes how serious the threat to our climate truly is:
“we face a crisis as great as any president has ever encountered. Here’s how his paragraph looks so far: Since he[Obama] took office, summer sea ice in the Arctic has mostly disappeared, and at the South Pole, scientists in May made clear that the process of massive melt is now fully under way, with 10 feet of sea-level rise in the offing. Scientists have discovered the depth of changes in ocean chemistry: that seawater is 30 percent more acidic than just four decades ago, and it’s already causing trouble for creatures at the bottom of the marine food chain. America has weathered the hottest year in its history, 2012, which saw a drought so deep that the corn harvest largely failed. At the moment, one of the biggest states in Obama’s union, California, is caught in a drought deeper than any time since Europeans arrived.”
Even though McKibben and the website/organization 350.org are considered to be major contributors to the event, the organizing process follows the structure of the new networked social movements, with a broad coalition of groups involved in the decision making processes.This is explained on the official website:
“Because this is a “movement of movements” moment, the People’s Climate March is being organized in a participatory, open-source model. This means that there isn’t a central “decision-making” body or single coalition. Rather, groups and individuals are collaborating with some basic shared agreements around respect, collaboration, trust, and many are using the Jemez Principles of Environmental Justice. “
The Jemez Principles of Environmental Justice were written and adopted by the “Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade.” which took place in December 1996 in New Mexico. The meeting was hosted by the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice but as the document describes, the goal was “hammering out common understandings between participants from different cultures, politics and organizations.”
The diversity of groups involved in this meeting mirrors the composition of new networked social movements from the Indignados in Spain to the anti-world cup protests in Rio. Some of these movements have broad goals for systemic change. like Occupy Wall Street, while others are more localized or have specific targets, like the Moral Monday events in North Carolina.
Event though this declaration was written before the spread of the World Wide Web and social networking sites, the possibilities of implementing these principles have become much more practical. The new forms of social movements link the virtual spaces with actions in physical urban space. This interconnectivity between these networks lowers the barrier for participation and eliminates the temporal and spatial boundaries of the physical world, thus, promoting inclusiveness and an emphasis on bottom-up organizing. People of all types are able to speak for themselves, and the instantaneous communicative environment of social networking sites facilitates solidarity and mutuality processes. These Jemez Principles could have been written yesterday, and most, if not all, of the contemporary networked social movements are using them, whether or not they are actually cognizant of the document’s existence.
There are many different organizations participating in the People’s Climate March, including unions (e.g. 32BJ SEIU ), civil rights groups (e.g. NAACP), large environmental organizations (e.g. Sierra Club), local environmental groups (e.g. Sustainable South Bronx), faith groups (e.g.City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism) , college campus divestment groups (e.g. NYU Divest), local political organizations (e.g. Working Families Party), radical systemic change groups (e.g. Ecosocialist Horizons) and many others. The Jemez Principles are essential to this struggle, due to the diverse composition and goals of the groups involved. However, even though these organizations and their participants might not agree on all issues and have different roadmaps for the future, they are united on the issue of climate change, and are all working to organize a protest which could very well signal a strengthening of the environmental movement in the United States, as well as around the world.
Even though the main march is happening on September 21st, the route hasn’t yet been determined and there will be events organized by different groups which will occur before the main event. The struggle is centralized around one general issue, enacting policies to restrict climate change and raising awareness about environment issues, but the planning is decentralized and the movement is comprised of many autonomous spaces. How can these processes of mobilization, community building, and event planning be studied sociologically, and what can this research contribute to the understanding of these new networked social movements of the 21st Century?
There are many different methods which could be used to record and analyze the climate march, due to the wide availability of information and social data contained in the virtual networks of cyberspace. The twitter feeds of the groups involved, and histories of #climatemarch, #peoplesclimate, and related hashtags could be studied from a network analysis perspective, documenting the connections between these groups. A content analysis can also be performed on websites and blogs supporting or disparaging the event, and social media content like tweets and Facebook events, focusing on the cultural processes of the participants and how shared meanings are created in these digital spaces. Both of these perspectives are very important for understanding the nature of contemporary social movements.
Rather than just viewing these virtual artifacts and placing them in the context of the events occurring in physical space, I wish to capture the full human essence of this event and the broader movement which continues to strengthen in the face of systemic inaction. Thus, I am collaborating with my peers, including Ed Haas, producer of God’s House TV, to create a documentary about the People’s Climate March and the groups involved in organizing the massive weekend of action. There can be disagreements about political and economic ideologies but the climate needs to be a unifying issue, as we all share this planet and are responsible for caring for its health.
My hope is that this documentary will shed light on the diverse groups organizing the event and the role that the climate crisis plays in their lives. I also hope to uncover the specific mobilization tactics used by different participants, how they first became involved in the climate movement, and what policies they hope to see enacted in the quest to save our Earth. This documentary will capture the personal, human characteristics of new networked social movements, with a goal of informing future organizing for social action.
If people around the world are exposed to the human face of these different groups, and hear about what motivates the participants to take action in saving the climate, maybe we can end this culture of inaction and apathy, minimizing the impact of this crisis before it’s truly too late.