What Activism Next? Ideas for Climate Campaigners

Thank goodness for the honesty of children and youth. In the Madrid summit on climate, Greta Thunberg said, that from an emissions perspective “we have achieved nothing”. All of us who have been trying to promote change on climate change, are finding that, if we are honest, at a cumulative level, our efforts amount to little. Therefore, increasingly frustrated and anxious activists are discussing what approaches might work better in achieving significant reductions in atmospheric carbon. As I have a background in analysing and advising on social change, as a scholar, activist and consultant, and been involved in recent climate activism, I wish to offer some thoughts on those discussions about “what activism next”? The relevant theories and examples are too vast to outline, in a readable way, so I will jump straight into some conclusions on the key issues, before concluding with repeating my proposal for more adult solidarity with youth climate strikers. This will not be the most fun or succinct read on my blog, but if you are a climate activist, I hope you find the context helpful as you explore what to focus on in the coming years.

Five Precepts for Dialogue on Climate Activism

In recent discussions about what activism next, I have heard a lot of interesting ideas. Some people say we need more people to be arrested for non-violent disobedience, some say we need to engage elites, some say we need to get populist, some say we need to get local, some say we need to seize power through revolutionary means, some say we need to connect with the divine and transform consciousness, and some are giving up and heading for the hills.

In justifying these perspectives, I have heard some ‘grass is greener’ stories of where better tactics might lie. Yet just because something is new to us, does not mean it is not a tried, tested and possibly tired tactic within the environmental movement more generally. Unless we look at who else has walked that greener grass before, we risk just repeating others’ mistakes. Instead, whenever we hear a new idea on tactics, we can look at whether it has been tried before, and what might be changing in society that creates new potential for change. I have been exploring some of that context for the book I am writing on Deep Adaptation to climate change. However, for now, I can share some conclusions about the implications for climate activism, in the form of 5 precepts.

GOAL

First, let’s be clear on a broad goal. To make a serious effort at reducing the speed and harm of climate chaos, while giving us a better chance at avoiding near term human extinction, we need transformative change of the whole of society and economy. That means bold cuts and drawdown of carbon, as well as fair and deep adaptation. We can also be clear that we want to pursue that broad goal in a dignified way where we uphold our values and care for each other. This broad goal means that as climate activists we need to work alongside people who are engaged on other issues for similar motives of compassion for humanity – and are open to the need for deep structural changes in our society and economy.

SUPPORT

Second, let’s be clear on the level of buy-in for social change needed to pursue that broad goal of transformative change. Despite some people’s enthusiasm for the idea that just a few thousand people can take down a government, for the kind of transformation demanded by our climate emergency, we need to see many millions of people adopting a similar outlook on the situation and the needed changes. That means almost ‘religion-levels’ of participation! Therefore, to make serious efforts at transformative change we could seek coalitions across economic classes, in all countries. That means we can look at what existing networks involve people from across most societies and seek to work with them. That includes networks of schools, trade unions, and faith organisations, amongst others.

JOURNEYS

Third, let’s be clear on the mental and emotional journeys that people may need to go on to support the goal of transformation, without being deluded about the dire predicament we now face. We can invite people to move through a sense of personal vulnerability to a need for solidarity with others to a desire for liberation from the current system that compels us to destroy our future to ‘get by’ today. Personal vulnerability arises as people begin to realise the fragility of the systems they depend on for their everyday lives. Solidarity arises as people realise both that individual defensive reactions will make matters worse and that they seek mutual care with others in the face of crisis. A desire for liberation can arise as people come to see how our culture and economic system has taught us – and driven us – towards destructive competition and striving. Keeping that personal journey of ‘vulnerability-solidarity-liberation’ in mind as actions and messages are developed and communicated will be important. Working with networks that already understand that journey in different contexts, such as trade unions, is one idea.

MOVEMENTS

Fourth, let’s be clear that although anxious activists want to hear a compelling plan, there is no magic bullet for social change, so we will try to learn from a wide range of strategies and tactics. We can draw from experiences and theories of how social movements have grown and had an impact on society, economy and government. As some climate activists have said that they are not interested in building a social movement, it is important to recap on what that means. ‘Social movement’ is defined in Encyclopaedia Britannica as a ‘loosely organized but sustained campaign in support of a social goal, typically either the implementation or the prevention of a change in society’s structure or values’. Examples range from the movement of organised labour in response to the industrial revolution, to the civil rights movement for greater equality. Given the need for societal transformation to sustain changes to lifestyles and livelihoods in the face of an ecological and climate emergency, it appears that ‘social movement’ is a useful framework for a reflection on activist strategy.

Most scholarship on social movements focuses on four domains that determine participants’ capacities to act. These include their common interests, their shared identity and bonds, their means of mobilising resources, and the opportunities from the contexts they exist within. In addition, we can learn from scholarship on the power of networks in social change something I worked on with the UN. In the book I am writing, I will say more about the scholarship on social change which influences my thinking, but for now, I want to get the ideas ‘out the door’ for people to consider. So to summarise – social movements theories suggest that it will be useful if more of us adopt “movement thinking” in our idea generation, planning and actions, rather than focusing on the brand, support base, networks, or policy asks of the organisation that we are already engaged with. It implies we can try to encourage a range of tactics that have the benefit of creating broader coalitions of diverse publics in the process.

CONTINGENCIES

Fifth, let’s be clear on our chances of success and contingency plans so that we might fail more usefully. Every fraction of every degree that the planet doesn’t warm and every extra year of lesser heat are important for life on earth and the future of humanity. Therefore, we can try to cut and drawdown carbon at all times, even as tipping points are reached and the planet releases its own carbon and heats itself more than in human history. However, to stick to the story that we can stop climate change and avert catastrophic damages to the planet and humanity is now simply denial. As one of my other papers for the UN on the anti-globalisation movement summarised, efforts to transform societies and economies to make them more just and sustainable have existed for decades and have tried out many different tactics. Yet the trajectory of atmospheric carbon has increased exponentially since the industrial revolution. The best-funded and well-run institutions of global capitalism have proven superb at incorporation of all kinds of dissent and challenge. That will continue with the climate agenda. Therefore, activism is not likely to stop further disaster. Indeed, climate-related disasters are already happening in many parts of the world.

The reality of our situation means our activism also needs to include preparation for reducing harm from societal collapse. That preparation can be both practical and psychological, both personal and collective, both spiritual and political, and both local and global. This agenda is what I have termed “deep adaptation” to anticipation of climate-induced breakdown of societies. It may also help society hold together for longer to keep working on carbon cuts and drawdown.

With this tragic situation in mind, some people are ready to add a 4th stage to the mental and emotional journey that I described above. That stage is “reconciliation” with life when one senses mortality and the loss of any certainty success. Therefore, one aspect of our future activism could be helping to hold each other as we progress through our emotional journeys of vulnerability-solidarity-liberation-reconciliation.

One aspect of this reconciliation will be the ability to forgive each other for past and future hurt, as otherwise our resentments and desire to blame someone for what we feel is an unbearable situation will lead to greater harm to self, other, society and nature. A simpler way of describing that is that we will all need a lot of love in the world. Which brings me back to the youth climate strikers. Many look at adults and are shocked at how we carry on, and find it difficult to forgive our stupidities. As activists, it is important to consider how well we have we being doing in supporting them.

One Idea: Climate Safety Strikes

Based on these 5 precepts, I looked at what is and is not being tried at present by climate activist groups. I looked at the ‘global climate strikes’ and saw that there were no listed official strikes from trade unions on climate change. In addition, I discovered that there have been changes in the way occupational health and safety is understood, so that now climate policies are a matter of employment relations. That means they are a matter for trade union bargaining and potential strike action. I have outlined a proposal for trade union climate safety strikes in solidarity with the youth climate strikers.

How does this idea relate to the precepts I described above?

First, the goal is transformation. Trade union members believe in the importance of building up power and challenging power in order to drive changes that would not be given willingly. Some activist members of trade unions believe in the transformation of capitalism. They could be encouraged to engage climate change as a workplace issue within that context.

Second, the necessary support for that goal of transformation is massive. Therefore, activists can engage networks of organisations that can engage their memberships in ways that matter to them. Engaging international and national trade unions on workplace issues, and engaging international and national networks school children on their curricula and concerns are ones way of building coalitions for broader support.

Third, the emotional journeys that people can go on as they realise the climate tragedy are particularly intense. We can help each other with that by engaging existing networks of organisations that support people in their everyday lives. Unions are one element in that, especially if they can then influence the way organisations also support their staff. Our education systems also have a huge role to play in helping young people express and process their emotions around climate change and societal stasis. Climate Safety Strikes in solidarity with youth strikers could embody the emotional journey through vulnerability to solidarity and liberation as we face increasing climate anxiety and disruption.

Fourth, a good way to engage in climate activism is with a multi-faceted ‘movements mindset’. That means we can explore ways of encouraging all kinds of actions from all quarters of society. Key for that is designing for diversity. So it is useful to try to engage networks of people who we might not be used to working with, but who may be able to commit to the goal of transformation, access other kinds of resources, seize other kinds of opportunities, and develop their own powerful tactics. In turn, trade unions will be able to exert more pressure on employers than campaigners for changes the employer would be reticent to implement voluntarily. Therefore, they could help set precedents for organisational leadership on climate. For instance, as a consequence of union action, some employers might align their political influence with their responsibilities to their employees on climate safety, and therefore support more government action.

Fifth, the contingency of failure and societal breakdown means that developing networks of people and power that will be useful in promoting loving responses to such situations are important. Such networks will be useful if they are naturally inclined to resist reactionary manipulation of the public, authoritarian policies, state repression and unnecessary wars, while also promoting cooperation and self-reliance locally. Historically, trade unions have played a significant role on these issues. Their power has weakened hugely over past decades, but they could still play a useful role alongside other networks, such as those involving faith organisations, cooperatives, institutes of professions, local governments and universities.

Your activism and mine

If you are interested in the draft proposal for Climate Safety Strikes, then please reach out to either a trade union official, or a climate campaigner, lawyer, youth striker, journalist or funder. They are the kinds of people necessary to take the idea forward. Therefore, I would like to ask you to think of two of the most influential persons you know in those fields, such as trade unions or law, and forward the draft proposal to them.

The reason why I will not work on this idea further myself, is because I am working on Deep Adaptation. That is a philosophy, framework and range of initiatives aimed at reducing harm in the face of societal collapse. Activism is a part of that agenda, but there is much else besides.

If you just want to register your interest the Climate Safety Strikes idea, to see if someone else does something that you can join in on later, then please sign up to my newsletter, which comes out about 3 times a year. But please consider doing something more than that, if you can.

PS: Why listen to me?

Many ideas are being shared by people in activist movements about what should happen next. So why listen to me about activism, given that I am known within the climate field as advocating action on Deep Adaptation to impending societal collapse? My answer is to invite you to first consider the proposal itself, and whether you think it might be of merit rather than assess it based on who is proposing it. Nevertheless…

I have some experience to bring to the debate on climate activist strategies. Since the mid-1990s I have been involved in a variety of approaches to massive social change, from anti-globalisation protests and nonviolent direct action, to working with businesses, to advising the United Nations on policies, to publishing intellectual analyses of sustainability and social change, to training leaders, to working in front line politics as a strategist and speech writer during a general election campaign, to advising climate activists on narratives to engage more people, to hanging out at Davos (yep, I thought it was a tactic in the past!). I have tried these approaches on all continents of the world (except Antarctica, thankfully). I have also studied many theories on massive social change, from a range of intellectual disciplines. So, since the start of 2020, I took some time away from my Deep Adaptation work, to develop my own input into the discussions about activism towards social transformation in the face of climate emergency.

PPS: Is striking for climate safety your overarching strategy proposal?

No. I am working on the Deep Adaptation agenda. That agenda is not anti-politics nor anti-activism but is far broader than either. In February 2020 the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) starts a volunteer-led dialogue on strategy options, and I will release my background paper on “Considerations for Deep Adaptation Strategy Development” within the Professions’ Network of the DAF. My view on activism in this blog does not constitute my input into that strategy dialogue and does not mean I see Deep Adaptation as an activist agenda.