The Arab Spring and Global Warming

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

The last several years have seen a remarkable reshaping of the cultural and political landscape of the middle east. The so-called “Arab Spring” has brought about a remarkable and, for many people, unexpected seismic shift in the balance of power between the often autocratic rulers who have dominated so many Arab countries for so many years, and the people who are, in varying ways and to varying degrees of success, squirming out of the yoke of entrenched power. Civil uprisings have broken out from Tunisia through Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. Syria is in the midst of a particularly virulent civil war and Egypt is teetering on the edge of chaos.

One of the distinctive features of all these manifestations of popular discontent is how diffuse and seemingly leaderless the various rebellions have been. While some of the uprisings have been factional to some degree (Syria stands out as possibly the most factional conflict in the Arab world right now), one striking aspect of the Arab Spring is how organic, how spontaneous, and how amorphous have been the mechanisms by which the popular will has morphed from discontent to outright rebellion. Quick, can you think of a single, charismatic leader who is the face of the opposition in most of the Arab countries undergoing turmoil right now? It’s the autocrats whose names and faces we know. Gadhafi, Mubarak, Asad – the names of the authoritarian leaders are familiar. But the crowds who toppled them are notable for their apparent lack of leadership. They seem to be arising spontaneously, a product of the times and the circumstances. No single leader seems to be required. The populations of the Arab states appear, by all indications, to have risen up as one without being cajoled, pushed, inspired, or lead by any single figure.

This is quite a change from the great upheavals of the past. Just as we have long been familiar the names of the Arab world’s leaders who have recently been toppled, we know the names from the great revolutions of the past. Robespierre and Danton of the French Revolution, Marx and Lenin of the Russian revolution, Washington and Jefferson of our own revolution, and Martin Luther King of the civil rights movement. Each of those epochal events found their impulse and their guidance in particular individuals, individuals who condensed and represented their times and their movements. The Arab Spring feels largely ahistorical in that regard.

But is the Arab Spring a harbinger of politics to come? Consider the Occupy Movement. That was a broad-based and spontaneous expression of disgust and resistance to the depredations of unchecked capitalism. At the other end of the spectrum is the Tea Party which, despite the deep-pocket backing of the Koch brothers and their fellows, prides itself on its “grass roots” image. Are we entering a time of spontaneous, leaderless political action?

If the environmental movement has a leader it would be Bill McKibben. The founder of, author of numerous (and enormously influential) books on environmental issues, McKibben has written a strikingly thought-provoking article for Tom Dispatch. McKibben posits that our culture is now so fragmented and segmented, yet so united by new media, that traditional hierarchical political structures, particularly revolutionary or resistance movements, are necessarily diffuse and spontaneous.  As he writes, “We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.”

The solutions to global climate change are less technical than political. Just as famine is a political problem more than a natural one (the world has plenty of food, just not in all the right places), so global climate change is exacerbated by the resistance of entrenched powers. McGibben argues that only broad-based, interconnected communities will be able to  stand up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever known. It is bottom up rather than top down political action, political action independent of “leaders” as we have traditionally known them which will bring about effective responses to climate change, McGibben argues.

McGibben is no shrinking violet. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying he makes compelling arguments. He’d love to argue with you. So go read the whole thing, as the kids say. You can find it here.

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