Activism & Volunteering

Learning from the Right II: Using Leverage and Becoming the Leviathan - The New Power Shift

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This article is the third in a series authored by Luke Kemp, looking at how the environmental movement could and should reform to learn from their enemies and achieve environmental justice. The first two articles look at the problems surrounding the current approaches of activism and advocacy, and the final articles look at the lessons that can be learned from the very organisations the movement works against.

We must renew the way we think about strategy and finally evolve from viewing ourselves as a check on power to a power in itself.


Credit: AYCC

Our traditional notion of a ‘Power Shift’ is one where our political structures simply need to be altered to give power back to the people, a cure-all solution achieved by becoming more grassroots and democratic. That idea rests on a false notion; that the problem would be solved if we simply decentralised power to the masses.

A Power Shift is not solely about transferring power from government to ‘the people’ (whatever that actually means). What we need is to transform the function and culture of our governments and corporations. We need new leaders in politics, the private sector and civil society. We need to use the positions of power and leverage points in existing systems.

The political Right is adept in this. The Right has not gained or maintained its political ascendency by trying to vainly force some monumental shift from the bottom-up. It is just as much, if not more so, about putting the right people in the right positions of power. It’s about understanding the system and using its flaws as the conservatives have so skilfully done.


Greek mathematician Archimedes once famously quoted that given a lever and a fulcrum ‘I will move the world”. As the underdogs of this conflict we need to ruthlessly use points of leverage, and we need to abide by the golden rule of governance and law; there is always a loophole. Regardless of the system there are always leverage points and loopholes that can be exploited, and thus far it has been the Right who has made best use of these.

In Australia, for example, the elections of our senate involves an extremely complicated preferential system- one which is unfortunately too complex to explain here. The key point is that it favours smaller ‘micro-parties’ and can easily lead to their election even if they don’t have a large percentage of the vote. Small, extreme right wing parties in Australia made deliberate use of this and flooded the senate elections whilst favouring each other. The outcome is the balance of power in the senate being held by a handful of extreme conservative micro-parties.

It may be a bit of a cheap trick, but this one manoeuvre could very well allow for the abolishment of the carbon tax in Australia.

Yet it is we within the environmental movement who should be making use of these political leverage points and loopholes. In the US it would mean focusing our campaigns towards the swing states, which consistently hold the balance of power in the Congress or Senate, rather than trying to apply the political blowtorch to a president who effectively already has his hands tied.

In the UN climate negotiations it means understanding the international politics and no longer pushing for a complete global deal that is never going to happen.

The US has a corrupt congress and inability to ratify international treaties. It won’t be ratifying, let alone leading, any progressive climate action anytime soon. China, on the other hand, can easily and quickly implement large scale domestic reforms, has massive environmental problems such as critical air pollution, and a willingness to challenge US supremacy. The signs are clear, the leverage is to play China and the EU against the US and politically isolate it.

Credit: UK Youth Climate Coalition

Strategy is not about letting your actions be determined by ideology or hopes. It’s about knowing your enemy, the battlefield and then exploiting the chinks in the armour. The Right have done this in the UN negotiations as well. Consensus is currently used in the climate negotiations as a default rule- it was never officially adopted. It is used in the absence of voting rules, which were originally blocked by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi’s were acting on the advice of oil lobbyists from the US[1]. They knew that if you wanted to slow the process and choke it with its own procedures you needed a veto. You needed consensus. They knew the system and have managed to keep a death-grip upon it ever since by controlling the rules.

Leverage begets power. Until the environmental movement learns to base our tactics upon exploiting the system to induce change then we will fail to control the system. We will never become the power that is necessary to reshape the system rather than simply oppose it.

Becoming the Leviathan

To shift power you need to have it first, and we simply don’t. We need to take power before we can shift it. Taking power from the grassroots up, while a useful complementary measure, is perhaps one of the most difficult and resource intensive methods of accumulating power.

Hierarchy, whether we like it or not, exists and certain positions and offices hold a great deal of power. The media is a potent example of this, where the words of a few can control the opinions of the masses. Every Rush Limbaugh or Andrew Bolt (famous right-wing commentators) is worth 1000 organisers when it comes to influence. Rupert Murdoch is easily worth 10,000. It’s why the ‘Velvet Glove’ is so effective, the Right has effectively prized and maintained a grip over the media.

So far our movements have focused on shifting power through pressure on positions of power, whether it be bottom-up or top-down. Yet the third way is the most obvious, but most difficult- taking the positions of power for our own. It may be a more long-term approach but we need to start thinking about how to utilise our own careers and aspirations to take power for the movement. A handful of interconnected individuals from the movement taking over executive positions in government, the public service, corporations and civil society could have more control over the future than thousands in the streets.

Archimedes- Leverage Explained

Ultimately success will require an interlinked three-pronged approach of amassing power: activism, advocacy and taking hierarchical positions. Such an approach means that we will need to revolutionise how we think about the environment and about our goals. The environment can no longer be just another special interest and our goal can no longer be simply redistributing power back to the masses. The environment must become a centrepiece of a resurgent political Left and eventually become bipartisan, as the Right has done with economic rationalism. Deregulation and free trade went from being a polarised issue for the Right to one that is accepted and pursued by Right and Left. Our goal needs to be integrating into the political Left and reviving it to champion our cause. Our goal needs to shift to having leaders across society being members of our movement.

Naturally we will need to look beyond politics as well.We need to start making alliances with the private sector as well to give us the resources and funding to challenge our Goliath.The insurance and renewable energy industries are both growing, vibrant industries with a large vested interest in addressing climate change.If we are to balance power and boost our advocacy then we need to move beyond blanket opposition to corporations and cultivating these coalitions.

All of this will challenge our culture and our identity.

The environmental movement and the Left in general, have thought of themselves as a source of resistance for far too long. We look at ourselves as heroic guerrilla forces throwing spanners into some dark and unstoppable leviathan. That identity will never allow us to actually reshape the system, it will only ever allow for spirited but ultimately futile opposition. In order to succeed we need to want to become the leviathan.

Once we can become a true power and not simply an accountability mechanism, than we will be a force to be reckoned with. The weapons of the Right, if we use them wisely, hold the seeds to their own demise.

[1] This information is based upon data gathered through the course of my PhD research.
Featured Image Credit: chesapeakeclimate via Compfight cc

Written by Luke Kemp

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Luke is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University and Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project. His current research focuses upon institutional reform of international environmental governance.When not criticizing consensus or writing his thesis he enjoys meditation and plotting world domination.

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