The Dark Side of Street Protests

September 23, 2014

Without the prodding of street protests throughout history, the causes of social justice would not have progressed as far as they did.  In the United States, there is greater racial equality and fairer conditions for children, women and workers.  Law enforcement is more accountable.  Women won the right to vote in 1920, 144 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal but by omission implied that women may not be.  Civil disobedience helped end U.S. involvement in poorly conceived wars when political leaders were too vain to admit poor past judgement. 

There is a dark side to collective behavior, however, and it can become especially toxic when people congregate in mobs.  People act in ways that would be unthinkable as individuals but become normal when surrounded by others behaving the same way.  Mob intentions are easily hijacked by leaders with a different agenda than the rank and file.  Other times, the goals of the mob transform dynamically even without premeditated planning.  The French Revolution, which began with noble aspirations to correct the cruelties of the ancien regime, then morphed into a cannibalizing force that ultimately restored one form of autocracy with another.  The same can be said of the Russian Revolution and, more recently, the rash of Middle East spring revolutions that erupted in 2011.  We live now in an age of cynicism that extends to how people view almost any street protest.

And so it is with the 310,000-person-strong climate march in New York City this past Sunday.  That day of activities went peacefully enough but disrupted traffic colossally (not unlike what New Jersey Governor Christie’s people accomplished at the GW Bridge in 2013).  The focus of all immediate media coverage was not so much a need for a better response to climate change but rather how the mob inconvenienced ordinary New Yorkers.  The arrest of climate change protesters, who tried to incapacitate the Wall Street area on Monday, revealed new, more aggressive priorities and an ends-justify-means code of conduct among the protesters.

Climate change is arguably the biggest challenge facing worldwide mankind.  Governments and companies have a vital role to play in overcoming this threat before it becomes too late to save the planet, but the central target of the effort must be consumer behavior.  If you live in a home with too abundant cubic space to be heated, you’re letting down your fellow man.  If you fill up your car’s gas tank once a week rather than once each month, you need to reorganize your life.  If you are responsible for more than two new lives brought into this world, you’ve exceeded a responsible family size.  A vastly overgrown world population is indeed the root cause of climate change.  (It took 1,800 years for world population to expand by 700 million to 1 billion people, another 125 years for that number to double, but merely one century further for it to climb another 3.5-fold and surpass 7 billion.)   Consumers, who haven’t made profound adjustments in their footprint on these three issues, have personal work to do before making serious but unspecific accusations against others.

But there’s good news.  Mother  Nature will survive even if mankind fails to avert extinction.  Not all life forms will die out in a climate catastrophe.  A new cycle of evolution will produce more and more complex species, and that process may include better stewards of the land and its resources than man has been.

Copyright 2014, Larry Greenberg.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.


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