Climate Change, Capitalism, Movement Building, and RC

In a previous Present Time article, Diane Shisk, Jenny Sazama, Irene Shen, and I made the point that to create a non-oppressive, classless society we need to not just discharge and win reforms but also build large social movements capable of creating transformative societal change. Our distresses often push us toward limited reforms and keep us from the kinds of radical changes that are needed. The four of us have been discussing how all this applies to the work we need to do on climate change. This article reflects my thoughts from our ongoing conversations. 

Scientists agree that we have about twelve years to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent irreparable harm to life on our planet. As RCers we’re being encouraged to take action on climate change. If we are to have an impact at this critical time, we need to ask ourselves a few key questions:

  • What kind of action actually creates the kind of change we need?
  • How do we balance focusing on short-term reforms within capitalism with building movements for long-term radical transformation?
  • What distresses do we need to work on to take the necessary actions?

To really address climate change, I think we must build mass movements—led by working-class people and People of the Global Majority—aimed at a massive reorganization of society into a classless society. We also need to work for short-term reforms—but we must choose and approach them strategically, so that they help us build the movements that are needed for bigger change.

Our whole society is designed to lay in distresses that stop us from doing powerful organizing. We can use the process of “decide, act, and discharge” to take on [confront and do something about] these distresses.  

Any real challenge to climate change will put us in a direct battle with capitalism. Capitalism is based on a never-ending search for profit. It requires constant growth into new places and markets in order to return profits and interest to the owning class. According to climate science, we must not only move to renewable energy and lower consumption in wealthy countries, we must also stop capitalist economic growth. If we don’t, we could switch to more renewable energy only to have continued economic growth wipe out [destroy] those gains.

In a zero-growth economy, capitalists lose profits. Throughout the history of capitalism, when regulations have significantly limited the profits of the capitalists, they have taken drastic measures to crush people’s movements and change the rules to restore a system more profitable to themselves. If we win reforms that limit climate change, we will face a backlash from capitalists. Thus we need to build enough power to defend our victories, and advance still more significant change. There is no solution to climate change that doesn’t require us to build powerful mass movements.    


In the short term, we need to organize for reforms that will reduce the carbon in the atmosphere and buy us [give us] more time. In the long term, we need to build movements that can transform all of society. Often people have seen these two things as contradictory, leading to debates about revolution versus reform. Sometimes focusing on limited reforms has prevented more fundamental change. However, the most effective radical organizers have understood that winning reforms is a critical part of a strategy for more radical change. The challenge is to organize for them in a way that prepares people for bigger, more fundamental changes in the future.

We need a set of criteria for identifying such campaigns for reforms. Here are some possible criteria:

A revolutionary campaign builds participation in and leadership for mass movements. Some reforms can be made into law via insider politics, but this doesn’t build the kind of movements we need. We need campaigns that energize large numbers of people and give them meaningful experience organizing together and winning—that build people’s leadership and prepare them for the next campaign.

A revolutionary campaign builds the alliances we need to win bigger things. In order to win the bigger fights, we need broad alliances. If we identify the groups that must come together (labor unions, working-class people, People of the Global Majority, young people, and so on), we can pick campaigns that appeal to them and help them see their shared interests.

A revolutionary campaign goes against the logic of capitalism and models an alternative. One of the challenges in defeating capitalism is the idea that there is no alternative. Therefore, campaigns that show the possibility of public ownership and promoting the collective good are critical. They can also provide people with valuable experience in running alternative systems—experience that we will need as we transition to a new society.

The Green New Deal is a set of policy proposals in the United States to reduce carbon emissions and address economic inequality. It is a great example of a reform with more radical potential. By connecting climate change and economic injustice, it strengthens the coalition of environmentalists, labor unions, and working-class people. Passing it will require building a mass movement. The government-sponsored jobs it would create go against the logic of capitalism. The Green New Deal in itself isn’t the answer. No set of policies is. But it is a reform that will develop the skills and consciousness to build bigger movements capable of more fundamental change.


Any real challenge to climate change will require building organizations that can stand up to large corporations and the owning class. There are many distresses in the way. A primary function of the oppressive society, and most oppression, is to make us feel that we are small and powerless, that we cannot organize with other people, and that nothing is going to change. Most of us did not grow up seeing real social movements. We are not sure they are possible. We can’t imagine people coming together with the unity that’s required. The powerlessness at the root of most of our distress is perhaps our biggest challenge.

Those of us who are middle class, in particular, have been conditioned to believe in the system—to believe that if we make the right moral argument, things will work out and we shouldn’t rock the boat [disrupt things] too much. We often settle for limited reforms or focus on finding the right policy, rather than building the movements we need, which feels impossible. When reforms are legislated by means of insider politics, we can feel like the problem has been solved when it hasn’t; reforms brought about in this way don’t do anything to build powerful social movements. Other distresses make us want to focus on our own individual actions, such as reducing our personal energy consumption. That is important but in itself is insufficient, and it can be a distraction from the work of changing the whole system.

If we don’t take on these distresses, we can get pulled into mainstream organizations that advance limited reforms rather than building the movements we need.


We need to work on all the distresses that stop us from believing that we are smart enough and powerful enough to organize people around us into the organizations that can build powerful movements.

Also, many of us have focused much of our time and attention on using RC and building our Communities and don’t have experience doing the kind of organizing that is necessary. We have a lot to learn by engaging in organizing and studying past efforts to organize people. At the same time, we have many skills that are needed in building movements.

Climate change is the critical issue of our time. We can play a key role. But we will have to build new skills and discharge the distresses in our way of organizing powerful movements capable of transforming society.

Eric Braxton

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


Last modified: 2019-05-21 23:29:06+00