What’s Next after the March for Science?

By just about any measure the April 22 March for Science was a big success. Tens if not hundreds of thousands marched in many US cities and many more in smaller towns and around the world. I was at the march in Washington and it was inspiring to see the spirit, solidarity, and creativity on a rainy day.

If it had not already been clear, scientists and their many allies are now mobilized. But what comes next?

Actually, this question is a little unfair. Many scientists have been pushing back against attacks on their profession and personal integrity for a long time. Michael Mann has been in these trenches for decades.

More recently, scientists and their many supporters have been stepping up to the challenges posed by the reactionary forces of climate change denial as well as broader attacks on scientific research. Many have begun to speak out in public, while others have been calling their local and national representatives on a regular basis. After the election, many joined forces to copy and save climate and related data on US government servers. Still others have decided to run for elected office.

So there has been a lot of great action already and much of it will continue. Still, I think many scientist-marchers are probably wondering how it all comes together to effect political change. And thinking about marches in particular, what difference do they make?

To get at these issues, let’s first ask another question: how does political change happen in the US? And, given the urgency of the need to tackle climate change, let’s also ask if it is possible to bring about major change in a relatively short amount of time?

The “normal” model of politics that most of us are familiar with basically says, “no, it’s not possible.” Here’s how that argument goes.

Politics is all about elections. Every four years, we choose a president, members of Congress, as well as state and local officials. In between those elections, we have mid-terms where we, once again, elect all of the members of the House of Representative and one-third of our senators, plus many state and local-level officials and representatives.

Hopefully, if we elect the “right” people, they go to Congress or to state assemblies and enact the right kind of legislation. Also, hopefully, the president keeps the country safe, keeps the economy running, and solves various problems. Meanwhile, we start thinking about and organizing for the next election, when the process is repeated.

The problem with this view, of course, is that it does not take some very important intermediate steps into account. Even if we elect the “right” people, those representatives–whether at the local or national level–are subjected to powerful influences from entrenched interests. The clear implication–and we have all seen this in action–is that there is no guarantee that even the most progressive or climate-friendly representative or senator will reliably do the right thing. And for those whose ideological or political orientation is less favorable, the chances that they will support climate- or science-friendly policies are that much lower.

There is also the reality that the legislative process is almost always slow. The checks and balances that operate in our government drive legislation toward compromise.

How are we to fight the cuts, claw our way back to power, and then enact the massive changes that are needed to make the progress in reducing carbon emissions that have a chance of minimizing the worst effects of climate change? The conventional answer is that this can only happen gradually because of the factors described above. This is how our political system works. If this is the case, it is “game over” for a livable environment for the next several thousand years.

But there is another view.

In This Is an Uprising, Mark and Paul Engler show that sometimes change can come quickly through mass protests and other actions outside of the limited view of electoral politics. One example they cite, the campaign for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, suffered significant setbacks in the 1990s and early 2000s. But by 2015, many legislative victories were capped by the decision of a conservative Supreme Court that made same-sex marriage legal throughout the country. [p. 88-89] In the Englers’ account, progress was not made through the legislative process, but instead “through the efforts of a broad-based movement” that “won the hearts and minds of a critical mass of people, and thus turned the impossible into the inevitable.” [p. 89]

The change, then, did not come through “normal politics” as we normally conceive of it. Rather it was due to a social movement winning an overwhelming victory in the battle for public opinion. Once that was achieved, “the courts and the legislators would ultimately fall in line.”

This was not the only case of relatively rapid change achieved outside of the usual channels of government. The battle to win support for aggressive action against HIV/AIDS is another example where people mobilized to speak up, cause a fuss, and eventually get the government to move quickly to address critical issues. The same thing was the case with the civil rights movement during the 1960s. By marching and speaking up, Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues were able to unmask the violence of racism in the South and bring about the end of Jim Crow, while obtaining a measure of justice in voting and civil rights. Had they waited for the government to act on its own, their victory likely would have been delayed for many years if not decades.

These experiences offer lessons about political change and power that contemporary science movements can benefit from.

First, it is important to realize the potential that the March for Science, the Climate movement, and allied marches and organizations have to create significant change. It is usually the case that progressive movements labor out of sight for many years with little support and a very small public profile. Scientists and climate activists have already come much further as seen by the huge movement of engaged people who are looking for ways to push their agenda. In terms of numbers at least, this is now a large, fairly mature movement that has the potential to push its agendas more forcefully.

Second, there are things nearly every scientist can do to influence public opinion. Many are already doing it. One great idea I recently read on Facebook was to submit stories to local newspapers in university towns and medium sized cities. This requires that scientists learn to speak to people in their communities about their fields in everyday language and regard that communication role as part of their jobs. Others are playing more active roles in their local communities and public schools.

For many scientists, the idea that they have to promote themselves is difficult to accept. It undermines their inclination to be as objective as possible and to let their research speak for itself. But science is now so firmly embedded in the public debate that there is no alternative. To not speak out is to allow reactionary forces to impose magical thinking on everyone and undermine the very assumptions of the scientific enterprise. It is an uncomfortable place that many scientists now find themselves in, but that is the world in 2017. Happily, many scientists have recognized this reality and are already taking action.

Third, there are many actions that scientists and their allies can take to decisively tilt public opinion on climate change and obstruct the science-killing policies of the Trump administration and Congress. The “underground data railroad” is a prime example. Other scientists may decide to step in and provide information for public consumption that US agencies no longer may be able to do or just play a more public role.

Finally, groups of individuals and organizations already have lots of creative ideas about messaging and organization. Some will work well in certain places; some will not. Learning which ones do work is part of the process of building an effective movement. These are good experiments to do!

And, to answer the initial question: marches are important, but not so much if they are only one-off events.

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