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How to Reverse a Slow-Motion Apocalypse

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Posted on Nov 22, 2013
andrewfhart (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Todd Gitlin, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

Still, Divest Harvard is undeterred. By conducting referenda, organizing panels and rallies, gathering signatures, and activating alumni, it and like-minded groups are in the process of changing elite conversations about wealth and moral responsibility in the midst of a slow-motion apocalypse.  They are helping ensure that previously unthinkable conversations become thinkable.

Something similar is taking place on many other campuses.  At the same time, writers in influential conservative publications have already begun taking this movement seriously, and the first signs of a changing state of mind are evident.  A report out of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, for example, recently warned against the risks of “stranded assets” (all those fossil fuels already bought and paid for by the FFCs that will never make it out of the ground). The Economist has begun to doubt that oil is such a great investment. The Financial Times heralds the spread of divestment efforts to city governments.

Hinges Open Doors

Transforming the world is something like winning a war.  If the objective is to eliminate a condition like hunger, mass violence, or racial domination, then the institutions and systems of power that produce, defend, and sustain this condition have to be dislodged and defeated.  For that, most people have to stop experiencing the condition—and the enemy that makes it possible—as abstractions “out there.”

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A movement isn’t called that for nothing.  It has to move people.  It needs lovers, and friends, and allies.  It has to generate a cascade of feeling—moral feeling.  The movement’s passion has to become a general passion.  And that passion must be focused: the concern that people feel about some large condition “out there” has to find traction closer to home.

Vis-à-vis the slow-motion apocalypse of climate change, there’s plenty of bad news daily and it’s hitting ever closer home, even if you live in the parching Southwest or the burning West, not the Philippines or the Maldive Islands.  Until recently, however, it sometimes felt as if the climate movement was spinning its wheels, gaining no traction.  But the extraordinary work of Bill McKibben and his collaborators at 350.org, and the movements against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and its Canadian equivalent, the Northern Gateway pipeline, have changed the climate-change climate.

Now, the divestment movement, too, becomes a junction point where action in the here-and-now, on local ground, gains momentum toward a grander transformation. These movements are the hinges on which the door to a livable future swings.

Todd Gitlin, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, the chair of the PhD program in communications, and the author of The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left; The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; and Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

[Note: Thanks go to the sociologist Gay Seidman, elected as an anti-apartheid candidate to Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1986, and to Eric Chivian, M.D., who got me thinking about the concept of a slow-motion apocalypse.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars—The Untold Story.

Copyright 2013 Todd Gitlin


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