Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

We Raise Social Costs
distributed 8/29/14 - ©2014

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Becky Beilschmidt of Fulton, Missouri, in honor of Rev. Annabel Clark (who just turned 91!). Becky's generous support helps make this publication possible.

I don't want to come across as a literalist, but it is appropriate to point out that the holiday celebrated this weekend in the United States is LABOR day, a celebration of the accomplishments of organized labor. Take a few minutes away from picnics and end-of-summer festivals to remember the reason for the occasion.

There is much to be learned in the long -- and ongoing -- history of unions and the struggle for worker's rights. The big message that I want to highlight goes to the core of that movement, and it is one that the contemporary climate movement needs to take more seriously.

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Here is the brief, blindingly obvious, point for the day: it has been a long, hard struggle.

What we celebrate on Monday is the result of decade after decade of hard-fought, bitter conflict between two competing factions, workers and owners -- and for much of that history, government has sided with the owners. Change has come about because workers and their allies invested countless hours, committed to hard organizing, and faced great personal risk.

The history of the labor movement is not one of polite conversations, peaceful negotiations, and easy compromises. Decent pay, safe working conditions, and shorter work weeks were not accomplished through authoritative academic reports being given to legislators.

The labor movement's achievements have generally come through conflict and the development of political and economic power. Some of the perennial strategies are strikes, parading & picketing, boycotts, collective bargaining & confrontation. Legislation has come through the use of intense use of voter registration and voter turn-out, persistent and passionate lobbying, and significant levels of campaign money. Drawn out battles in the courts have been essential in defining and defending claims.

The movement has had episodes of violence from both sides, but most often (I believe) the violence has been against the workers. One notorious example is the Ludlow Massacre in 1914. For me, visits to that historical site in southern Colorado have been a sobering reminder of the real sacrifices in union organizing and labor struggles. Overall, though, the path of the movement has been remarkably non-violent. That approach was clearly defined and solidified in the leadership of Cesar Chavez with the United Farm Workers. The UFW example reminds us that non-violence is one strategy for building and applying power. Non-violence is far from passive.

Last week, I mentioned the little book by Michael Albert, "The Trajectory of Change: Activist Strategies for Social Transformation". A brief statement from the forward of the book describes the logic of dissent, and it applies well to the labor movement.

Short term, we raise social costs until elites agree to implement our demands or end policies we oppose. Longer term, we accumulate support and develop movement infrastructure and alternative institutions, while working toward transforming society's defining relations.

"We raise social costs" covers a wide range of economic and political costs, including the moral standing of the elites in their community. It is not a precise calculation. But Albert makes clear that change happens when the elites find it cheaper and easier to change than to continue the status quo. Eventually, the activists raise the costs so high that meeting their demands is in the self-interest of the powerful -- the owners, the politicians, "the 1%".

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The lesson of building power and raising social costs needs to be learned and applied by the climate change movement.

Too many of us, for too long, have been polite and rational -- and I confess those leanings in myself. We have believed that if we just explain the science clearly enough, if we just show off the wonders of new technologies, if we all do our part to conserve, then the politicians will do the right thing.

Faith communities have reminded us to love God's creation, and have developed theological ethics of global and intergenerational justice -- and those teachings have been gently proclaimed in sermons and seminars. Churches have been led to believe that they are doing their part when they implement some energy efficiency, and preach a few sermons.

For the most part, as I look at climate activism in the United States for more than 20 years, I don't see Albert's strategic insights being applied well. We have not raised social costs for the elites. We have been far too nice, far too passive.

That is starting to change. The divestment movement is bringing a focused set of demands to college trustees, investment fund managers, and denominational pension boards. The UCC's minister of environmental justice, Meighan Pritchard, says that, "divestment and shareholder activism are two opposite tactics to achieve the same goal, which is to revoke the social license of fossil fuel companies to continue to do 'business as usual,' since that requires frying the planet." When university students put strong pressure on the trustees, and when alumni refuse to contribute to the annual fund, that's raising the social costs. "Revoking the social license" is a real cost to those who have benefited from that license.

When hundreds of upstanding citizens were arrested at the White House fence in 2011, opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and demanding climate action, that raised the social costs. It moved Keystone from an obscure topic into a major political issue.

When communities vote to limit or ban fracking in their boundaries -- knowing that they'll be dragged into court for years of expensive disputes -- that's raising the social costs. In Colorado this year, the threat of several anti-fracking ballot initiatives raised the costs high enough that the Governor brokered a deal between activists and industry that will work at legislative options, and that withdrew the ballot proposals for this year.

In three weeks, the People's Climate March will fill New York City streets, bringing together a huge and diverse coalition, all sharing the demand that the US and other nations take action for climate justice. The Our Power Campaign vividly expresses the strength of those demands. Those of us not going to New York will echo and amplify the demands, making clear the reach of the movement. We are working to raise the social costs to politicians and community leaders. We are making it hard and painful and costly for them to delay and deny.

A forthcoming film about the organizing for the People's Climate March, Disruption, puts it clearly: "All the big social movements in history have had people in the streets." (The film's trailer is most easily viewed on the site.)

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Most of the readers of Eco-Justice Notes are concerned about climate change. That's good, but concern is not enough to bring about change.

So here is my question for you, this Labor Day weekend. What are you doing to raise the social costs on politicians and corporations in a way that will bring about climate action? What activist groups do you join with in that work? What strategies are you applying?

Let me know what you are doing, so those stories can be shared. Or let me know what you need to move you from concern to action.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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