This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on September 22, 2014.
About 400,000 people assembled yesterday along Central Park West and marched down though Columbus Circle, to Midtown, and then east to the United Nations. Billed as “The People’s Climate March,” the event was intended to focus the attention of national leaders in town for the United Nations Climate Summit, which starts on Tuesday.
Some 50,000 of the marchers were college students and the event was overripe with student activism. If there was one theme that dominated, it was hostility to capitalism. “Capitalism = Ecocide” was one sign that caught my eye, along with “Fracking = Death,” “Consumerism is Killing the Planet,” “Nature Has Condemned Greed,” and “Capitalism is a Crime.” This is the socialist moment for the sustainability movement. The release of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate has both captured the hardening tone of sustainatopians and accelerated their descent into blind opposition to modernity.
A march that draws this many people to the streets of Manhattan is definitely an event worth noting, but it is easy to exaggerate its importance. In many respects it was an assembly for the leftist fringe. The anarchist contingent showed up. So did pseudo-Aztec warriors in colorful feathers and death-cult regalia. The organizers handed out do-it-yourself signs that declared, “I am marching for ___________.” The answer ranged from “The Oregon Coast” to “my grandchildren.” One young man in an excess of candor filled in “exercise.”
There were, of course, a lot of celebrities and an even greater number of reporters. Robert Kennedy, Jr., embarrassed himself in an impromptu interview with PJTV’s Michelle Fields, who pressed him on whether his commitment to the environment would cause him to give up his cell phone. Kennedy said no, and emphasized that he advocated political changes on the national scale, not lifestyle changes for individuals.
Kennedy’s comment is at odds with the larger spirit of the movement which is filled with people who very much see the necessity of lifestyle changes as an essential part of the sustainability agenda. One marcher talking to a reporter for Reason TV offered as his solution, “Turn everything off.” The reporter replied, “I really need my cell phone,” to which the marcher succinctly answered, “I don’t.”
When Fields asked Kennedy about the 400 some buses and other energy-consuming components of the march, Kennedy explained:
You need this kind of event to save the environment. What I am concerned with is the kind of damage that is being caused by Exxon, and the Koch brothers, and by the oil wars that we have spent $4 trillion on over the last ten years.
And he stuck with the talking point that the war-profiteering Koch brothers are the real target. This led to an astonishing inversion of the usual sustainability credo:
I don’t believe we have to reduce our quality of life in order to have a rational free market, in order to stop the use of carbon, in order to divorce ourselves from a fuel that is destroying our planet. What we need to do is change the laws. It is much more important to change your politician than it is to change your light bulb or your cellphone or your automobile.
The People’s Climate March: rich people marching in favor of political change that may impose hardship on others but won’t infringe on the quality of their own privileged lives?
That surely describes only a small contingent of Sunday’s marchers, but it was a visible contingent: Al Gore was there as was Leonardo DiCaprio, whose 2007 climate movie The 11th Hour was full of pseudo-science and apocalyptic warnings. His voiceover for the trailer of that movie informed us, “The evidence is now clear. Industrial civilization has caused irreparable damage. Our political and corporate leaders consistently ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence…” But confronted by Michelle Fields for his lavish consumption, DiCaprio was unembarrassed.
The college students who were part of this extravaganza no doubt welcome the star power that helps drive attention to their cause, but they tend to take the personal implications a lot more seriously. My organization, The National Association of Scholars, is about to release a study, Weathering the Storm, about the campus side of the sustainability movement, which very much embraces the lifestyle sacrifices (cafeteria trays, water bottles) as well as the large-scale attacks on capitalism and fossil fuels.
The People’s Climate March added some color, noise, and excitement to a narrative that is, not far beneath its surface, a rather grim affair. Sustainability is a tissue of seemingly authoritative claims about the atmosphere and the oceans that is rapidly losing scientific credibility. For the hard-core proponents the loss is irrelevant: they believe the existential peril is real and that the time to dismantle our economy has arrived. More than a few of these true believers have graduated from college determined to put their beliefs into action. Early Sunday morning I spoke to the mother of a recent Wesleyan grad who has been living in a tent in Hawaii for the last six months attempting to get by on subsistence agriculture. The daughter wasn’t coming in for the march because she believes that cities, including New York, shouldn’t exist at all. Good job, Wesleyan.
In-text images: taken by Peter Wood, National Association of Scholars