It’s easy to underestimate the significance of what’s been happening this year. That’s just the way mainstream media pundits and politicians want it.
Thousands of children in Europe and Great Britain walked out of school to protest climate change inaction. In rallies and interviews with contentious and cynical reporters, they articulated the science, economics, and political ineptitude responsible for the climate catastrophe in progress. They made a clear, urgent demand that the adults currently responsible for business and government policies accept short-term inconveniences so that today’s young people will be permitted to live out the rest of their natural life spans. British Prime Minister Theresa May and other members of government in Europe implied that the kids were simply playing hooky and that their time would better be spent in school.
The very same day, Amazon succumbed to local activists from Queens, New York, and canceled its plans for a headquarters in Long Island City. Although the company had secured the blessings of New York’s Democratic mayor and governor, it was unable to convince a vocal minority of people on the ground who feared Amazon would be as extractive and gentrifying to Queens as it has been to Seattle. (Just last year, Amazon successfully shot down a proposed tax for affordable housing in areas where it has forced out local residents.) Yet this startlingly unlikely victory is derided by establishment Democrats and business experts as the naive, self-defeating foolishness of inexperienced, fringe activists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It’s easy to be dismayed by such naysaying, particularly when it comes from people and institutions who are purportedly friendly to progressive causes. We mustn’t. On the contrary, I’ve come to believe that real change — dare we call it revolution? — will inevitably be ignored, denigrated, and ridiculed right up to the moment it happens. And maybe, just maybe, it is happening.
I no longer accept the story that climate change is happening too gradually for our society to notice and respond. I don’t even believe that metaphor about a frog passively sitting in slowly heating water until it boils to death. As real scientists inform us, when the water gets too hot, the frog jumps out. Frogs are not stupid, and neither are we. A civilization that grows aware of its own destructiveness can wake up and take the actions necessary to avert apocalypse.
The widespread dismissal of humanity’s rapidly accelerating victories against the forces of ignorance, racism, sexism, runaway capitalism, and species hubris may be frustrating, but we should take them as signs of success. These conversations are not occurring on the ground, here in the real world, anyway. They’re taking place in corporate boardrooms, TV studios, social media platforms, or even the paralyzed halls of government, utterly disconnected from flesh-and-blood reality. Even if these spokespeople weren’t utterly cynical and dishonest, they still wouldn’t have a clue about the relative significance of what is happening in the real world, about which they offer their judgment and expertise.
In fact, the very content of their ridicule is valuable for what it reveals about their false assumptions and faulty constructions. Instead of feeling insulted or dismayed by their attacks, we should listen to what they’re saying. They are involuntarily exposing their vulnerabilities.
Theresa May, for example, derided Britain’s school-age climate activists by claiming they were cutting school — the equivalent of truancy. Let’s break that down for a minute. She’s not just implying that fighting for one’s life is a form of play, but that school is a form of work. Since when? As Britain in particular should remember, government-funded school was not meant as a form of work but as compensation for a life of work. A person who worked in the coal mines all day deserved the basic dignity of being able to come home at night and appreciate a great novel or participate intelligently in representative democracy. But like most people today, the prime minister thinks of school as some form of job preparation — an extension of work. Indeed, corporations now externalize the cost of job training to the public sector. So much so that kids walking out on school is understood as a labor protest. Well, good for them!
Likewise, the New York Times was desperate to understand how a small pack of loud, ill-informed New Yorkers could have rejected Amazon when it made so much economic sense for us to have welcomed them. The paper turned to Bradley Tusk, Mayor Bloomberg’s former campaign manager, now working as the leading “fixer” for Silicon Valley firms looking to win government concessions. Tusk explained that, unlike Uber and Airbnb, which leveraged their apps to deliver their lobbying messages to consumers, Amazon “didn’t do their homework.” The supposed lesson here is that Amazon should have paid folks like Tusk more money and then manipulated people through their smartphones. Or maybe purchased full-page ads in the New York Times?
The underlying assumption is that more corporate propaganda would have worked to dissuade local activists from heeding the warnings of their peers in San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto, Austin, Seattle, or any of the other cities that have been made unaffordable by the combined impact of economic disenfranchisement and residential inflation. Even the premise that New York City “lost jobs” by rejecting Amazon is specious. As if scattering those 25,000 jobs through the rest of the nation is bad thing? There’s nothing management likes more than turning workers of one place against those of another — as if the workers of Cleveland or Memphis were somehow the enemy. Maybe activists in Queens are waking up to Marx’s idea of the international proletariat.
This is not silliness. This is what it looks like when we speak truth to power. We are undermining the contention that things just can’t get better. Don’t expect their affirmation or congratulations. And when they’re defeated, try to treat them with more compassion and respect than they’re treating us.