Posted by: JohnnyRook | September 24, 2008

What Will it Take to Get Us Into the Streets?

In yesterday’s Washington Post, David Segal asks, Where Have All the Protests Gone? He notes that despite the widespread dissatisfaction of the Bush years and the recent Wall Street crisis, few people feel motivated

At the same time, the Independent reported that the clathrate gun may be starting to fire. This is news that should have millions of people protesting outside government and corporate offices but won’t:

The Methane Time Bomb

The first evidence that millions of tons of a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere from beneath the Arctic seabed has been discovered by scientists.

The Independent has been passed details of preliminary findings suggesting that massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats.

methane clathrate

Underground stores of methane are important because scientists believe their sudden release has in the past been responsible for rapid increases in global temperatures, dramatic changes to the climate, and even the mass extinction of species. Scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia’s northern coast have discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels – over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.

Would You Take to the Streets if You Had a Clathrate Gun Pointed at Your Head?

So, why aren’t people protesting in the streets about events that irrevocably threaten to alter the climate in ways so disastrous that millions will die and civilization as we know it will become impossible?

Segal, of the Post, posits that the protest movements of the 60’s were driven foremost by the specter of the draft hanging over young men’s heads (it’s not an accident that the Bush Administration has studiously avoided instituting a draft despite its recruitment woes).

Paris 1968

He goes on to quote other experts who think that protest energy today might be siphoned off by the Internet, or that young people have chosen to focus on political campaigns, i.e. working within the system.

“I think the Internet has become a channel for all kinds of countercultural expression, including discontent and critique,” said Miles Orvell, a professor of American studies at Temple University. “But it might have this paradoxical effect. It enlarges the conversation, but it can also produce a kind of passivity. It’s like, ‘I’ve said it and that’s all I need to do.’ A lot of young people seem to use the Internet as a surrogate community, and to that extent, it might diminish participation in the visible sphere.”

But there are those who say that most political agitation today isn’t on the Web or on campuses. The action now, according to Daniel May, who once worked for the Service Employees International Union, is all door to door. They’re raising money, they’re getting out the vote.

The Absent Counterculture

The most important difference between then and now, however, seems to be the fact that 60’s protesters rejected the prevailing mainstream culture. Protesters in the 60’s did not simply wish to reform the existing system, they wanted to overthrow it. This is radically different from today, where there is no counterculture because what was the counterculture has been co-opted and commercialized by corporate power. Even people who criticize the culture want the material rewards that it has to offer.

According to Todd Gitlin, a Columbia professor of journalism:

“There was a culture of confrontation back then,” he said. “You were either on the side of the authorities — not just the president, but the police and the suits — or you were an outlaw. You took psychedelic drugs and you protested and you drew a line between yourself and the prevailing culture.”

That line is getting harder to draw, Gitlin said, in part because the counterculture has been mainstreamed. Rebellion is no longer a clarion call; it’s a marketing pitch.

Look at rap. Gangsta rappers such as Jay-Z and Rick Ross are self-professed outlaws all right, but they don’t want to opt out. They want to buy in. Their aspirations are hard to distinguish from those of a hedge-fund cowboy — luxury cars, Cristal, yachts. They are unabashed fans of success just as it is defined by the latest crop of MBAs.

“430 Lex with the convertible top,” Big Tymers rap on “Still Fly,” a song that also name-checks Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Prada and Gucci.

Luxury product placement in a song from the mid- or late ’60s? No way. Music was ominous (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”), sometimes sardonic (Creedence Clearwater’s “Fortunate Son”) and occasionally satiric (the Beatles’ “Piggies”). It reflected the gravity of the times or it looked forward to a utopian future that seemed distant but possible. There wasn’t a lot of rhapsodizing about money.

Breakdown of Faith in Institutions

Storming of the Bastille

From the French Revolution to the American Civil Rights Movement to Nepal’s recent transition from monarchy to republic it is a simple fact that people take to the streets only when their faith in the ability of existing institutions to solve their problems is exhausted.

Despite the many debacles of the Bush Administration from the Iraq and Afghan Wars, to the Katrina disaster, to tax cuts for the rich at the expense of the poor and the middle class, the failure to address Climaticide and now the sub-prime mortgage and Wall Street crises, Americans do not seem yet to feel that they have been pushed to the point of desperate measures. The threat is too distant, and most people still believe in the system. It may be that the Obama campaign, which has inspired hope for genuine reform of the existing system from within has temporarily saved the country from more public protests and direct confrontation between the the citizens and the government. Can it last?

Our financial problems are not going to be resolved easily. The combination of the Bush tax cuts, the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars and now the Wall Street bailout are going to leave the country financially crippled. At the same time our most pressing problem, climate change, of which yesterdays news of methane releases is but one example of a cascade of new, ever worsening news, continues to threaten us with consequences graver than any we have ever faced with the possible exception of all-out nuclear war. The problem is that the consequences, although worse than any draft, still seem too abstract, too distant. Yet, the longer we take to deal with climate change, the more expensive it will be and the more disruptive to society.

Will an Obama administration act quickly and decisively enough to avoid disaster? That I think is unclear, although there is no doubt that a McCain administration will not. Yesterday’s statement by Joe Biden that “We’re not supporting clean coal … No coal plants here in America,” and the Obama campaign’s scramble to contradict him and reaffirm it’s support for “clean coal” are disconcerting to say the least.

We are not now protesting in the streets because we still believe in the system, which is based on the lie of infinite growth. Our hope is that we can reform the system by political means, stave off disaster and grow eternally richer. In the name of this lie, we have consumed on credit the patrimony of our children, our children’s children and many generations beyond. Part of that is due to the foolhardy way in which we structured our financial institutions. An even bigger part is the result of our voracious and mindless consumption of the planet’s resources, including the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases. Eventually, it will be impossible to deny the need for radical change.

For the time being we place our faith in reform and avoid confrontation in the streets. Yet if that reform fails we will take to the streets as people have throughout history. If that taking to the streets occurs only after the clathrate gun has gone off, or some other major tipping point has been reached, things I fear, may be particularly ugly indeed.

Crossposted at Daily Kos



  1. great post…

  2. Thanks. Thanks for reading.

  3. Terrific analysis. As a young man in the 60’s (draft lottery # 244) I can say you are spot on…

    Part of the 60’s was a conscious rebellion against post war consumerist values, whereas today consumerism is religion, debt is worship, and the letdown will be severe.

    Also, back then we had energy fueled by pot and acid mostly. Today the drugs are much different, diverse and prescribed. All seem to work to suppress anger, dull pain and mask depression. But once the health insurance runs out – well we will see what happens – all those emotions and poverty too.

    Interesting times.

  4. Eloquent commentary.

    What is your take on the evidence of methane releases, how does this effect timetables, seems abrupt change by 2030 looks more likely

  5. Gore has called for civil disobedience to halt new coal plants

    “If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration,” Gore told the Clinton Global Initiative gathering to loud applause.”

    Already happening in England

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