Occupy Sustainability: Is This a Special Moment?

By Charles L. Redman, PhD About a month ago I sent out an email to School of Sustainability (SOS) students and colleagues posing the question of whether key elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement share important similarities with our own quest to encourage and implement a sustainability transformation in society. I received a dozen replies that supported further dialogue. My goal here is to stimulate discussion of these issues with the hope that we can learn from what is happening and, if you choose to do so, encourage you to contribute to the success of this movement.

Some of the most frequent criticisms of the movement, especially by pundits in the media, are that a diversity of issues are being championed and that there is not a "clear message." At one level, I agree with the observation that many seemingly separate issues are being cited as reasons for joining the demonstrations. Most commonly cited is anger over the concentration of wealth and influence in a very small percentage of the population, "the 1%," and the fact that they are not adequately taxed or held accountable for their mistakes—mistakes that have been costly. These issues relate closely to unemployment, undue corporate influence, etc. However, while issues such as a public education system that is failing, a health care system that is not available to all and a natural resource stewardship regime that is lacking do not seem to be closely related to the core, for me this diversity of grievances is the strength of the movement. At a fundamental level all of these issues are related to unequal access to resources, power, education, amenities and government protection.

For me, the growing inequality of access is the central issue of our time and at the core of a sustainability transformation. I believe the Occupy Wall Street movement and the many newer Occupy movements (in Phoenix, other U.S. cities, and cities around the world) reflect an emergent process of people coming together—with different initial motivations—and finding like-minded individuals, even if their primary objectives seem disparate.

The question that is often asked is whether the movement must focus on an easy to understand, compelling set of demands in order to succeed. I am tempted to agree, but at the same time I believe that the disparate goals are not contradictory and that perhaps we are better served by maintaining a diversity of grievances. The aspect of this that troubles me is that being open to everyone’s personal views means that individuals with more radical views, such as "down with capitalism" or "do away with all corporations," become part of the scene and disproportionally attract media attention.

A second common concern raised about the effectiveness of this movement is that it seems to have no leaders. This is intentional on the part of the demonstrators, who are attempting to maintain a ‘horizontal’ organization with open and democratic mechanisms for discussion and decision making. In this situation as well I have a tendency to think having identifiable, charismatic leaders espousing a unified, clear message would help the movement; but is this an unintentional surrender on my part to the status quo?

Although the number of cities with Occupy movements continues to grow, I am worried about whether this movement will be embraced by enough people and succeed in setting society on a new course. I do believe that most of the basic complaints and demands are well-founded, that the majority of Americans are sympathetic with the message that extreme inequality in access to resources is leading America in the wrong direction, and that some moderate actions could at least set society on a better course and build momentum for further change. Nevertheless, the actual number of people involved in these demonstrations is relatively small compared to the number of people who share these beliefs. This brings me to three final questions: First, why have so few city leaders allowed demonstrators to have a place and a forum for discussing issues? Second, why have these leaders responded to what is, in virtually all cases, a peaceful and non-threatening movement with ‘overwhelming force’? Finally, why aren’t you and I and more Americans joining this movement or at least putting these issues at center stage? This final question worries me the most and I see it as symptomatic of the system we have built for ourselves: we are too busy leading over-committed lives, and are too fearful of uncharted waters.

I believe this may be a special moment for those of us who want to see a transition to sustainability. Can we afford to let it pass?

Contributor's Biography Charles L. Redman (PhD in Anthropology) is the Virginia Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment and is the founding director of the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University.  His research focuses on the integration of social and ecological perspectives, the dynamics underlying rapid urbanization, the long-term aspects of human impacts on the environment and the application of resilience theory.  He has conducted archaeological research in the Near East, North Africa, and the American Southwest as well as co-directing contemporary interdisciplinary projects in Central Arizona and working in collaboration with UNAM in Mexico.