Leaderless Movements + Global Change

Posted on Posted in My Research, New and Interesting

A friend of mine recently shared this blog post on Facebook, which summarizes a longer essay that argues that climate change activism is a “leaderless movement.” This idea has been popping up on my radar a lot lately. Perhaps it’s just because I’m immersed in dissertating and tend to interpret just about everything I read through that lens right now (social movements! networks!), but perhaps not.

The essay, written by climate activist Bill McKibben, outlines the ways that climate change activism is dispersed, rather than centralized in a single location. McKibben argues that there is no command center, no climate HQ calling the shots and organizing people into boycotts of Big Oil and rallies against the behemoth. Instead, he argues, the “movement” is the result of thousands of individual actions taken by local groups in different part of the world. They organize around issues of importance to them locally– such as the geriatric oil pipelines running under the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan— that when combined with the local efforts of thousands of other groups begins to coalesce into what looks like mass action against climate change.

Part of McKibben’s goal here is likely to distance himself from a leadership position as he scales back on his in-person activism and shifts to focus more on writing. He’s essentially saying, “Look! Climate change activism isn’t all about me! Keep going!”  However, he hits on some interesting and relevant points: He says that during the civil rights era (1960s), it was possible for an individual person to gain a significant amount of media coverage, simply because there was less of it overall. Think about it– there were maybe three televised news sources? Four or five in a big city? This media context lent itself to the development of high-profile leaders… because they’d be on every station, and would reach every viewer. In contrast, “At the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time… and still not connect with most people. Our focus is fragmented and segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but mostly it’s just a fact. Our attention is dispersed.”

Nowadays, with this newfangled thing called the Internet (not to mention cable and satellite TV, tablets and smartphones, the fact that a large portion of the human population is “plugged in” to some kind of internet-enabled device nearly 24/7) people can get their information from hundreds of different sources. Sometimes it’s next to impossible to trace where your news originally came from. Who broke the story first? Which Facebook friend posted the article first? Who started the chain of forwards in the email first? (Hence my double-link up at the top– although I didn’t get much from the Treehugger synopsis of McKibben’s essay, I still linked to it to demonstrate the chain of information). Each successive link in the chain of information sharing transforms it in some (often subtle) way, so that it’s also difficult to tell who is producing the information versus who is consuming it.

A different friend tipped me off this week to a new social media site called Thunderclap— what the creators/ marketers describe as a “crowd-speaking platform that helps people be heard by saying something together.” It’s a bit like a Kickstarter campaign in that you have to gather support for your message. If you reach your stated number of supporters (and only if you reach your stated number of supporters) then your message gets blasted out via the Twitter and Facebook accounts of all of your supporters, so all of their friends (and possibly friends’ friends) see it. The idea is for it to exponentially increase someone’s social network and allow any individual (and, as the website suggests– government, company, or other organization) to gather a mini-“movement” around an issue that’s important to them.

[Side note: This reminds me of a reverse “WUPHF” — Ryan Howard’s social media site -to-end-all- social media sites on the Office. Instead of all of your digital devices getting blasted by one message, all of your digital contacts get messaged at once. Ha ha.]

Meanwhile, over on one of the listserves I subscribe to, someone shared a new article called “Global assemblages, resilience, and Earth Stewardship in the Anthropocene.” Amelia Moore succinctly defines the “Anthropocene” in a recent Anthropology News post as “the pervasive influence of human activities on planetary systems and biogeochemical processes.” The term is used mostly informally (though increasingly in academic writing) to distinguish the present day from previous geological eras, primarily the Holocene (which officially continues to the present day). Most scholars locate the start of the Anthropocene during or immediately following the Industrial Revolution. The authors of the article argue that dispersed social movements (like the one described by McKibben) are a response to the phenomenon of “assemblages,” a socioeconomic structure unique to the Anthropocene. Assemblages are a way of thinking about how a variety of institutions and the things they “make”– governments, corporations, environmental policies, economic markets, development programs, etc– have worked together (not necessarily consciously) to cause profound transformations in how the world looks and operates since the Industrial Revolution. There is no one location, and no one cause, of this change. Thus Jeff Juris aptly quotes an anti-globalization activist in his book Networking Futures: “May the resistance be as transnational as capital!” The response to the change has become as dispersed as the change itself out of necessity.  So, while social movements look a lot different than they did fifty years ago, these global assemblages have also grown and expanded to the point that the world in general looks a lot different, too.

The idea that there could be leaderless movements shouldn’t be all that radical in anthropology. If we take the idea of “movements” really (really) broadly to mean “groups of people with a purpose,” then anthropologists have been among the first academics to conceptualize different ways that humans congregate and aggregate themselves into groups that are sometimes radically divergent from what we in the US think of as “normal.”

In addition to the mechanics of how leaderless social movements and global assemblages operate– for example, how does the availability of digital media like Thunderclap promote dispersed activism? How do corporations use environmental protection policies put in place by organizations such as the World Bank to promote their own profit-seeking activities?– what I’m interested in exploring are the concrete effects of all these changes. How does the coexistence of leaderless social movements and global assemblages and all the “stuff” those entail, like digital media and environmental policies, change people’s reactions to (for example) the environmental impacts of gold mining? Their understandings of the rights or responsibilities of indigenous groups, versus a national government? Their belief in whether or not a study conducted by biologists or public health officials is reliable? People act on (and in) the world based on their perceptions of it, and if the way the world looks and operates is changing, then our perceptions of it will, too. Endless feedback cycle!

References:
-TreeHugger, August 29, 2013 — “Bill McKibben on the value of leaderless movements
-TomDispatch.com, August 18, 2013 — “Tomgram: Bill McKibben: A Movement for a New Planet
Thunderclap
-Laura Ogden, Nik Heynen, Ulrich Oslender, Paige West, Karim-Aly Kassam, and Paul Robbins, 2013 — “Global assemblages, resilience, and Earth Stewardship in the Anthropocene
-Amelia Moore, 2013 — “Anthropology and the Anthropocene
-Jeff Juris, 2008 — Networking Futures

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