Unleashing the power of the whirlwind to slow climate change

We have little time left to achieve a fundamental change in the policy of our states to halt and limit climate change. We are talking about a few years because in 2030 (in less than 12 years) we would have to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 45% to limit global warming to 1.5º C. But neither politics nor social debate are up to this challenge. So, are we fucked?

I don't think so. Social history, the history of revolutions and social movements, gives us hope. As Lenin said: "There are decades in which weeks happen and weeks in which decades happen". The question is: how can we create these weeks in which decades pass, how can we unleash a social movement that achieves a qualitative and quantitative change around the debate on climate change? How do we put climate justice at the center?

In 2016 Mark Engler and Paul Engler published the book This is an uprising. How nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century. The Engler brothers present the model of "momentum-based organizing", an attempt to combine the methodology of community organizing in the tradition of Saul Alinsky with the dynamics of social movements and civil resistance.

Organizing step by step or using the power of the whirlwind?

The most classic model of organizing, Saul Alinsky's community organizing, is a slow process of building powerful grassroots organizations to achieve concrete social change step by step, yet it is based on a radical vision of social justice. Maribel Casas and Sebastián Cobarrubias summarize the principles of community organizing as follows:

  • The starting point is a series of people with ties between them, who share a common space of daily interaction, this territorial component being the unifying factor. Community organizing works in contexts where there is no community as such, but there is a territory shared by different organizations, ethnic groups, religious groups, etc. Part of the arduous work of community organizing is to achieve these multiplicities and divisions.
  • A series of concrete demands are established that can be achieved in the short term. At the same time, a notion of structural and multi-scalar social change is maintained, where economic, racial, gender, etc. issues are related.
  • Emphasis is placed on the process, not only on the goals of a particular struggle: the importance of the process of empowerment and mobilization for the needs and rights of each person is very present, generating leadership for social change where before there was impotence and disconnection.[1].

This way of working has its advantages. The social changes achieved through organizing, although smaller, are more stable and more concrete. But in the context of the climate emergency it has one big disadvantage: it is too slow. And not only this, because building step by step rarely achieves a fundamental change, a profound transformation of thought, a qualitative leap.

Social movements (and revolutions) have other dynamics that cannot be explained (or mobilized) within the framework of community organizing. And it is these dynamics that we have to understand and use now. The Engler brothers call it "the power of the whirlwind. But what is this power of the whirlwind? How do we get a social movement off the ground?

Let's remember the 15-M. What happened in May 2011 was the whirlwind, the take-off of a new movement. Although it seems that this whirlwind no longer exists (this is the problem of whirlwinds, they are not lasting), 15-M meant a qualitative and quantitative change in social and political debates; they were weeks in which decades passed. As an article published in the daily Público says, although "none of the demands enumerated by the 15-M movement has been met, (...) that spontaneous citizen movement (...) managed to install a discourse and point out some problems that have guided the political life of the country since then".

This power of the whirlwind is the key to understanding the profound changes achieved by some social movements. When the United States civil rights movement planned the disobedience campaign in Birmingham in 1963 they tried to plan exactly this: to unleash the whirlwind. Previously there were other campaigns such as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, but the Birmingham campaign profoundly changed discourse (and politics). As Alex Browne puts it, the Birmingham protests "exerted unprecedented pressure to act on civil rights in the federal government, and thus set the legislative process in motion. It also proved to be the turning point in public opinion and led the hitherto silent majority to action. It exposed the segregationist brutality of the South to an international audience. For too long, the passive moderate target had prevented the advancement of civil rights. Although Birmingham was by no means a total remedy, it revitalized and attracted support for a delicate cause. Ultimately, it created a confluence of forces that forced the Kennedy administration to introduce civil rights legislation."

In the history of social movements and revolutions we can observe many other whirlwinds: the Act UP movement especially in the United States in the 1980s/90s, the insumisión (total objection to military service) of the 1990s in the Spanish state, the Arab Spring in 2011, etc. What perhaps distinguishes Birmingham Project C from many other whirlwinds is that it was consciously planned by the movement.

The main impact of the power of the whirlwind is a rapid mobilization on a large scale that profoundly changes the social debate and makes possible what was previously unthinkable. The whirlwind itself seldom achieves profound changes, as these need another kind of work. But it makes them possible, desirable, and even urgent for many people. The whirlwind removes the barriers of thought and can even overthrow dictators (e.g. Mubarak in Egypt), but it cannot implement or build a new politics or society. It only builds the desire or idea that this could happen.

While the existing organizations (pressure organizations or community organizing type step by step) are often not able to unleash the whirlwind and are even afraid of this dynamic because it seems uncontrollable; after the whirlwind it is precisely those that can take advantage of the changed discourse and press for the implementation of a new policy. These organisations (NGOs, trade unions, neighbourhood associations, among others) generally set themselves transactional objectives, i.e. very concrete objectives that mean a concrete improvement mainly for their members. Rarely do they work beyond these kinds of objectives and this has as the major disadvantage that they are not able to create the whirlwind dynamic, they are not able to encourage many people, to inspire new movements.

On the other hand, social movements have transformative objectives, which make us dream: the end of gender violence, the end of wars, another world is possible. It is difficult to translate these transformative objectives into something more concrete, transactional, but they provide a vision, stimulate movement, appeal to our desires for a more just world.

Applying all this to the present climate emergency, what is needed now is to unleash the whirlwind with transformative objectives. A possible Climate Change Law, even if it was the best law in the world, would not serve us. We need a concrete vision, transformative goals at another level, goals that inspire us and encourage us to act. Extinction Rebellion or the By 2020 We Rise Up campaign of the Climate Justice Action Network are proposals in this sense.

Civil Resistance: Dosifying and Planning the Whirlwinds

Whirlwinds are short-lived and it is sometimes difficult to control which direction they take; this involves risks. The whirlwind polarizes, intensifies the conflict and can get out of hand. Civil resistance strategies are a way of combining step-by-step organizing with the power of the whirlwind, but in dosages and planned.

To deploy a whirlwind in a dosed and planned manner, what are the essential ingredients, what strategies and tactics should we use?

The whirlwind disrupts the normal functioning of society, it could not be otherwise. It needs confrontation, it needs to intensify the conflict between putting life at the centre or continuing towards a path of destruction of the bases of life and towards global warming above 3ºC and even more than 5ºC, with catastrophic consequences.

In this sense, disturbance tactics are key: massive blockades, occupations, massive boycott campaigns and civil disobedience.

Disturbance actions make a conflict visible, intensify it and this causes polarization and even rejection, which implies certain risks of a negative response, of a backlash. To minimize this risk, civil resistance investigations point to important aspects:

  • Nonviolence: at least in our societies, violent actions cause rejection and provide an easy justification for repression. Maintaining nonviolence in actions - which is not the same as legality - is important in reducing the risk of both repression and a negative response.
  • Sacrifice: that is, exposing ourselves, putting our bodies on the battle line, showing our faces, but also making our efforts visible. This type of sacrifice - of time, of energy, of exposing ourselves to risks - can produce empathy. People ask themselves, "why do they do that, what motivates them," and in this way a debate is opened. In sacrifice it is important not to reproduce patriarchal images and stereotypes, we do not need heroes or heroines. Sacrifice also goes hand in hand with emotions: our anger and indignation at the lack of measures to curb climate change, our rebellion... but also our joy, our hope and our vision.
  • A strategy of escalation: A very spectacular action does not work, nor does always repeating the same action. It is necessary to have an idea on how to increase the pressure, the disruption of the normal functioning of society, of the economy, of the institutions. This can mean achieving actions of disobedience with increasing participation or adding other tactics such as: blockades of bridges, in the beginning; obstruction of refineries and other structures of supply or extraction of fossil fuels, later; occupations and massive boycotts, in the end. Filling prisons... Escalation strategies not only aim to increase disruption. They target the different pillars of support of certain policies or of a regime in order to neutralize them or make them fall and thus make it increasingly difficult to maintain the current policy.

In his research on the success mechanisms of social movements, Felix Kolb points out that the political power of disturbance comes from its capacity to break the normal functioning of political institutions and/or some business(s) and create a sense of crisis [2].

The Afro-American civil rights movement in the United States, although the "love of the enemy" was continually spoken of, used this mechanism on several occasions. One example among many is Project C, the Birmingham campaign. This campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, consisted of a series of boycott actions that reduced the turnover of many businesses by as much as 40%, followed by a confrontational campaign of sit-ins in white cafeterias, public libraries, as well as prayer actions in white churches into which African American activists slipped. During the campaign, more than 2,500 people were arrested, including Martin Luther King Jr. There was not a single free space left in the city's jails.

Disturbances and polarization have their risks, but above all they get people to position themselves.

In this case, the disturbances would turn the problem of emergency or climate justice from one of the many into one of the most urgent ones.

At the same time polarization causes some counter-mobilization, something that happened in the United States during the civil rights mobilizations or later with the Act UP movement. This does not have to be worrying if the movement is strong enough, as was the case. It is foreseeable that with a polarization, when the space for indifference diminishes, although many people begin to support the movement, the opposition will also radicalize.

It is foreseeable that a powerful and disturbing movement on climate justice will also cause polarization and counter-mobilizations and more if we forget the aspect of social, gender, environmental, global justice.


Although it is true that we have to continue working in our neighborhoods and communities for the eco-social transition and that we need many streets, neighborhoods, cities and regions organized for the transition, that we need many energy transition projects, etc; this is not going to be enough and, above all, it is going to be too slow. If we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C, we need to deploy not just one whirlwind but many whirlwinds. We need the power of these whirlwinds to make possible what is now unthinkable, to profoundly transform the values and narratives of our societies, that is, to really put life at the center.

We live in a context of climate emergency and the collapse of our capitalist and productionist societies and, in order to build another world - sustainable, just, democratic and inclusive - we need a profound and rapid transformation. We need to create these weeks in which decades pass, of which Lenin spoke. Without the power of the whirlwind they will not come, without many whirlwinds there is no hope. This force exists and has shown its capacity in our history of ecosocial struggles, do we unleash it?


[1] Maribel Casas and Sebastian Cobarrubias: “Introducción. Community Organizing: el legado de Alinsky en la cultura política estadounidense”. In: Saul Alinsky: Tratado para radicales. Manual para revolucionarios pragmáticos, Madrid, 2012

[2] Felix Kolb: Protest and Opportunities. The Political Outcomes of Social Movements. Campus, Frankfurt y Nueva York, 2007.


Published in: 15/15\15. Revista para una nueva civilización. 21 February 2019