Documenting Resistance: Striving for a Living Biography of the Climate Movement

 I think that when organizing successful movements, especially for an issue as urgent as climate change, there is one golden question which is the key to mobilizing large segments of the population:

How do you spread your message to people who aren’t currently engaged in your movement?

How do you reach the segments of the population who didn’t sign the Keystone XL petition, the passive public who are waiting for Obama and other world leaders to make the decisions that will prevent this crisis of our human species? How do you shift the paradigm so that instead of people asking ‘What are the environmental groups and government organizations doing?’ they will be asking ‘What can I do to contribute?’

Two weekends ago, my friend Moumita and I did some impromptu subway canvassing for the People’s Climate March to determine the effectiveness of direct engagement tactics, which provide information about the People’s Climate March and surrounding issues such as property destroyed during Hurricane Sandy that still hasn’t been rebuilt, and the water shutoff crisis in Detroit. After speaking to strap hangers in multiple subway cars, we realized that our experiment was successful, as there were a few people in each train who didn’t know about the march and were engaged by the issues we mentioned. However, there were many others who were listening and told us that they felt it was important, but simply complemented us for our commitment, stating that they were glad that there were ‘People Like Us’ willing to spread the word.

This seems to be a common problem of movements in which there exists a general consensus about the aims but yet only a small percentage of the population desire to actively participate. There could be many reasons for their non-involvement, including the perceived inability of effecting change in the system, the rise of slacktivism on social media, and the fear of state retribution or surveillance. Facebook likes and retweets won’t be enough to halt this process of catastrophic climate change, so the movement as a whole must think consider two strategies:

  • How to mobilize people who already agree with the cause but don’t actively participate.
  • How to disseminate information to educate those who disagree.

While Ed Haas and I are still working on a documentary, we decided to initiate our project through YouTube, a medium which allows us to post short videos which tell the story of the climate movement in 2014. In the spirit of autonomous virtual space, we have decided that this project won’t be only the perspectives of two people with a deep passion for preventing climate change. Rather than just recording scenes from planning meetings, rallies, marches, and one-on-one interviews, which are important undertakings in themselves, we want to capture the stories of the people who comprise this expanding movement as we fight against time and the most powerful corporations on the planet Earth.

We want to hear YOU. How? We are asking that you create a short, 5-10 minute video where you tell your story while keeping in mind the following questions:

  • Why are you participating in the People’s Climate March? What first motivated you to get involved in the climate resistance movement?
  • How do you contribute to the cause? What events have you attended?
  • If you were a world leader attending the UN summit on September 24th, what policies would you propose?

We are working to create a living biography of the climate movement, and we hope that the project will grow with the numbers of people taking the streets demanding climate action.

In order for the movement to better mobilize supporters as well as educate opponents, which will answer the golden questions posited above, there needs to be an understanding of:

  • WHO is involved with the climate movement?
  • WHY do they choose to participate?
  • WHAT goals are they hoping to achieve?

As a sociologist, there is much that can be learned from these stories. Each piece of this project provides unique insight into the character of the climate movement. If we can discover how participants first became involved, it will uncover the mobilization structures that draw individuals into becoming active members. Hearing narratives describing what engages people to start attending meetings, rallies, and protests will provide a unique understanding of what frames motivate the public to take action. Listening to how individuals describe their involvement will provide perspective on the different levels and methods of participation. Finally, the solutions expressed by participants will better assist our understanding the aims of the movement, which likely aren’t as homogenous as some would expect.

As an activist, I want to state that while this is a blog centered around the sociological study of social movements, which strives to maintain neutrality, but this climate project is not a sociological study per se. We want these videos to spread virally to diverse elements of the climate resistance movement, which will provide organizing opportunities and foster a sense of community, as well as others who are either on the periphery, or aren’t involved at all, whether or not they agree with the messaging. Hopefully, these snapshots of the human experience of resistance will break through the mass media disinformation, showing that this isn’t a movement of “radicals” or “environmentalists”, but neighbors, friends, and co-workers.

We are running out of time and there are very powerful forces continuing their assault on both the environment and human rights as we speak. The only way that we are going to force reform and systemic change is through spreading the idea that simply knowing about the issues is NOT enough. Direct participation is needed before it is too late.


There will be information on this project coming very soon. Stay tuned!


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