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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Striking for Climate Safety

The climate and ecological emergency is such that additional approaches to activism for transformative change must be examined and experimented with. In particular, approaches that offer opportunities for mass participation, globally, should be considered, as they enable wider understanding and support for the necessary livelihood and lifestyle changes to reduce harm from climate chaos.  

The ‘global climate strikes’ that are co-organised by the climate campaign group 350.org have not involved actual workplace strikes organised by trade unions in dispute with their employers. Instead, they have involved young people taking time away from school, with some supportive demonstrations by adults, sometimes encouraged by trade unions and permitted by employers. 

The following idea about striking for ‘climate safety’ outlines a different approach, where adults show greater solidarity with young climate strikers, by challenging employers to adopt policies which make meaningful the notion of a climate emergency. That will involve the employer making carbon cuts, drawdown and adaptation to disruption the central organising principle of the organisation. Such challenges to employers will need to be real, by being backed by trade union bargaining processes and the threat of lawful official strike action. The recent evolution of the concept of Occupational Health and Safety to include climate risks provides the context for such trade union leadership and action. Ultimately that action might enable a transformative agenda onto the mainstream of political agendas. 

Elements of the following proposal have been sense-checked by a senior official at the UN’s International Labour Organisation and a leading British academic on industrial relations. I share the idea here in an unpolished way, to get it ‘out there’ and discussed by people with more time, energy, resources and talent than me to make something happen. In particular, I hope that people in strategic leadership roles in climate activist movements, trade unionists with climate concerns, and activist lawyers, will read this proposal to the end and decide to explore it further. 

I explain the idea through a set of propositions. Each could be elaborated on and referenced, but that is not important now as I wish to quickly communicate the ideas with people who already know something about these topics. I number the paragraphs for ease of reference in future discussions. 

In my next blog I will share further information on the context for this proposal. 

Striking for Climate Safety – a rationale and first steps.

  1. 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.
  2. Arguments for bringing down governments, creating alliances with elites, or imposing changes to cut carbon without the major changes in wealth distribution to share the burden (and legitimise difficult changes), may soon be regarded as rushed responses to personal panic about climate chaos.
  3. To make a serious effort at transformative change we can try to enable coalitions across economic classes, in all countries, that combine environmental expertise and concern alongside expertise and concern for social justice.
  4. We can invite people to move through a sense of personal vulnerability to a need for solidarity with others and then towards 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 to climate impacts that 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.
  5. Most people work in organisations. People’s places of work are where they engage with each other and organise resources within society, including directing budgets and resources that they do not have privately. Organisations influence government. Organisations both influence and are being influenced by climate.
  6. Organisations have a duty of care for their employees, including in the area of Occupation Health and Safety (OHS). Increasingly, this is understood as extending beyond the workplace to a range of locations the employee works from or passes through to attend work. Recently, climate change is being regarded as an issue of employee health and safety, both within the workplace and more broadly. This raises the question of what the duty of care of employers is as the reality of disruptive climate change grows – something we can call “climate safety”.
  7. Organised labour is a key global network of people that understand aspects of vulnerability, solidarity and liberation. Trade unions have worked on environmental issues, in limited ways, but have done a lot on health and safety. Although their existence is restricted in a few countries, notably China, they are an influence in most of the world.
  8. While response from employers to climate change are welcome, the content of recent employer declarations of climate emergencies raise questions about whether they are really treating it as an ‘emergency’. When one evacuates a building on fire, for instance, one doesn’t stop to collect certificates of savings and shares. When employers declare emergencies (including universities, local governments and the private sector) they have not been placing climate as priority alongside, let alone above, organisational growth or (for the private sector) profit. Most have not included adaptation to the unfolding damage from climate change. They have not established performance requirements on chief executives. They typically create a new target for carbon neutrality, a budget line, a consultation process and reporting commitment. As such, while welcome, they are not emergency measures and can isolate the matter from core strategy and financial concerns. Representing the true interests of their members’ health and safety in the face of vulnerability from climate chaos, trade unions could develop more appropriate agendas for employers on climate safety policies that respond to the nature of the emergency.
  9. As part of its bargaining on employee conditions, branches of unions could ask their employer to declare a climate emergency that would mean credible plans for attempting to improve the climate safety of employees. The UN’s International Labour Office advises promoting “the inclusion of specific environmental provisions through collective bargaining and collective agreements at all levels… including but not limited to emission reductions” (in section 18d). In addition, the premiere global organisation of the labour movement, the International Trade Union Congress has called for more employer responsibility on climate change. They have called for companies to “climate proof our work” and for unions to get involved in activism and lobbying on climate change, including by considering strikes and other forms of engagement with the youth climate strikers.
  10. Climate emergency policies from employers that might support transformative change, and be requested by trade unions in their bargaining processes, could include the following areas. Near-term net zero carbon operations, changing investments to a zero carbon portfolio, transforming products and services to respond to the crisis, supporting employees to reduce risks to their future livelihoods and safety, aligning all direct and indirect political influence with significant government action on emissions cuts, drawdown and adaptation. None of these areas are alien to the corporate sector, and could be evidenced as good practice. However, unions could request that these areas be made higher priorities than either business growth or profit maximisation and become a key criterion for assessment of the Chief Executive by the board.
  11. Trade union rights to challenge employers and then take industrial action if not satisfied, differ around the world, and are generally limited to direct disputes with their employers and their pay or conditions. Secondary action in support of other workers in other organisations is not lawful in many countries, as it is not a trade dispute with one’s own legal employer. However, a union can take advice from a coordinating organisation to help it consider demanding particular decisions from employers as part of their bargaining. It can then choose to ballot its members on industrial action, if the response of employers is not considered sufficient. Such balloting could be done in a way that means a union could consider striking on the same day as other unions. Perhaps globally.
  12. Initially it is the choice of a union to decide what is a matter of employment conditions, and if not satisfied, to ballot its members on strike action. Thus, if a union recognises that climate is a matter of employee health and safety then it can act on that view. However, an employer would challenge the unions’ views on climate safety as being a matter of employment relations and take the matter to an employment tribunal or higher court to gain an injunction and try to prove that the union were acting unlawfully. Unions would need to make the case that this is a key matter of employment conditions right now, due to the increasing vulnerability employees face due to climate change impacts both now and in the near future. There is increasing authoritative research to support this perspective, especially in some sectors and regions. In particular, the world’s leading authority on labour relations, the International Labour Organisation of the UN, advises climate is a serious workplace issue. In addition, unfortunately the impacts of climate change will get worse, and therefore this argument about climate safety may become easier to demonstrate.
  13. Children and youth taking time off school, often without permission, have raised attention that some young people see their activism on climate as more important than their personal conformity and progress through not being truant from school. This has inspired adults and triggered debates about what adults can do in solidarity with them.
  14. In 2019 the youth school strikers called for adults to join them in a ‘global climate strike’. A workplace strike is where workers withdraw labour without permission of the employer, as part of an industrial dispute. The list of actions in support of the September 2019 ‘global climate strike’ indicates there was not a single official trade union strike in support. Instead, some unions supported demonstrations, and in many cases “employees were also permitted to strike” by their employer – which means it was not actually a strike. Often, trade unions asked employers to let their staff take symbolic action in support of the youth activists. Therefore, these actions did not involve trade unions developing their own requirements of employers on environment or climate safety, nor pressing for their adoption.  Some individual members of individual trade unions have called for actual strike action, but this has not translated into union ballots for actual strikes.
  15. The current advice to adults and youth on potential workplace strike action is insufficient and risks misinforming young activists about what real strike action involves and could achieve. The campaign organisation 350.org is linked to by Fridays for Future and others as a hub for the ‘global climate strike.’ The group offers principles for engaging with youth led climate strikes, that are aimed at nongovernmental organisations, not trade unions. Their guidance for people wanting to organise a strike does not provide guidance for organising an actual strike. For instance, it tells activists “once your employer has agreed to support staff participating” then the next steps can be taken. Such information could be upgraded to provide advice on the rationale and methods for actual workplace strikes, while alternative sources of advice and coordination from labour organisations are important. If that does not happen, then using the language of workplace strikes while having no intention to consider them may lead to claims of misleading young activists and to conflict with the trade union movement.
  16. Adults’ response has currently not matched the young people’s self-sacrifice. Non-Violent Civil Disobedience (NVDA) appears close, but it is questionable whether it impacts the personal livelihoods or futures of participants in the same way as principled truancy from school. Nor is it likely to provide a pathway to the same level of mass participation – whereas any child can consider boycotting school, NVDA is suited for only some people. As described above, the trade union response has been limited, not involving lawful official strikes in dispute with employers after demanding transformative climate safety policies. The NGOs involved have not yet encouraged or enabled that kind of response, instead promoting modes of protests which have not had a track record of success on environmental issues. It is time adults who support the youth strikers to do more than support them in words or optional extras to their normal lives. Real solidarity will involve making personal sacrifices. Therefore it is time to explore means of enabling worldwide official strikes for climate safety.
  17. There will be a benefit from established law firms or chambers in every country of the world to issue guidance on how climate safety is now a matter of employer responsibility. That should include how the nature of this responsibility is evolving but is likely to focus on adaptation to growing risks to employee health and safety as much as carbon emissions and drawdown.  This guidance can then be used to inform judges that may serve on future tribunals, and in the UK the Law Lords, so they can understand the latest developments in both climate change and implications for health and safety. One particular issue for legal research and opinion could be on political influence. The duty of care on climate safety cannot be fully carried out through workplace practices alone, and requires government action, so that might mean how the employer directly and indirectly influences relevant government action now becomes a matter of employment relations.
  18. There will be a benefit from these ideas being discussed with youth leaders within the climate strike movement, so that they can become clear on why and how adults can explore joining them in lawful strike action for climate safety – and how current ideas and actions fall far short of that. This is urgent, as some elites, often well-meaning, are trying to co-opt the youth activists and distracting them from the history across decades and centuries where people struggled to hold power to account. Instead, they say that the older generations have not done enough for the younger generations. That intergenerational framing also overlooks how today a Western teenager has a far higher carbon footprint than the average person of any age in Africa or India. Instead, strategies to create massive change are needed that involve intergenerational learning and cooperation between those who are prepared to take risks to create transformative change.
  19. There will be a benefit from activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace, and Fridays for Future, approaching trade unions with requests that they take the lead on defining what employer climate emergency policies and actions should look like. They might need to follow up such requests with some playful direct action.
  20. There will be a benefit in organising a range of communications approaches and outputs to raise awareness, initially amongst climate activists, of the need and processes for promoting climate safety policies from employers, as part of a wider effort at social transformation. That might include articles targeting progressives with the following kind of message:  “Your outrage at stupid men does nothing to help Greta: Time to organise union strikes yourself?”
  21. During the days taken off school while striking, children and youth could be supported to learn what will help them in a climate stressed world. Their current curricula expect the current world economy to continue, as if climate change will not damage it. A range of soft and hard skills to be better prepared for future distress could be taught. Some of those striking from work might be able to support that learning. Other adults who strike could engage in adaptive or regenerative activities in their local communities during their strike days. Such activities could be supported and coordinated by significant NGO programmes.
  22. There will be benefit in major funding (i.e. millions of dollars) of a global initiative to encourage the constituent parts of this effort. This includes the wider establishment of the concept of climate safety as employer responsibility amongst the public and legal profession, outreach to youth strikers on this topic, the influencing of trade unions to demand meaningful policies on climate safety, technical advice to activists and trade unionists on processes for demanding that, financial support for strikers in case employers delay salaries, legal support for unions when challenged in courts over lawfulness of industrial action on climate safety or if employers try retaliation against staff, public communications around court cases and decisions, education and public communications about the connection to the wider solidarity and liberation agendas that climate chaos invites.
  23. The success of this effort would not be in a few employers adopting a significant climate emergency policy in accordance with the requests of a union. It would not be in a few unions successfully balloting members to strike and then choosing to do so on a specific ‘global climate strike’ day. It would not be in assuaging the guilt of adults that they have not shown true solidarity with striking children beforehand. The success of this effort could be threefold. First, in helping establish collaboration between environmental activists, trade unions and some employers on the climate emergency. Second, by establishing enacted narratives that show we can move through vulnerability to solidarity and liberation as we face increasing climate anxiety and disruption – something that may help societies prepare for “deep adaptation” to very difficult futures. Third, by enlisting some employers to align their political influence with their responsibilities to their employees on climate safety, and therefore support more government action.
  24. Given the failure of reformist efforts over the past decades to curb atmospheric carbon levels, to not align one’s language and actions towards a real transformation of the current economic system would be counter-productive. Therefore, if climate-related adult activists and professionals continue to use the terms “emergency” and “strike” in ways that are not consistent with their true meaning, then they would be undermining the possibilities for transformation. If questioning this proposal as “too political” or “too divisive” or “too left wing”, then one could be enacting an ideology of neo-liberal capitalism that ignores the centuries of evidence of the merits of organising against incumbent power to generate transformative change. If using radical terminology for reformist approaches that don’t actually challenge power, one might be extending the implicative-denial that has afflicted the environmental movement over the past decades (which I explained in the Deep Adaptation paper).

Thank you for reading. If you find this proposal worthy of your time, please find a senior trade unionist, activist lawyer, or climate campaign leader to discuss it with. I will not be engaging further, as I must return to working on Deep Adaptation, where activism is only one strand. Therefore, as I would not be able to engage you on it, there is no need to reach out to me. If you want to explore with others how this “climate safety strike” concept relates to Deep Adaptation, please join the Narrative and Messaging group in the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum.

Note to members of the Deep Adaptation Forum – this does not constitute an input from me on the Deep Adaptation Strategy Options Dialogue, which begins Feb 2020. The field of DA is wider than activism and the work of the DA Forum is mainly focused on social learning.

Where is the Movement?

This week is the 10th anniversary of the mass protest against the G8 in Genoa, Italy. Hundreds of thousands of protesters called for a systemic change in the global economic system, forming something called an ‘anti-globalisation’ movement by the mass media, or what was known by many activists as the global justice movement. In Genoa, behind huge metal barriers, leaders met while anti-aircraft missile launchers scanned the skies. We thought it a bit of an over-reaction; but we didn’t have the benefit of memos about Bin Laden. The (now proven) agent provocateurs helped the black block protestors create conditions for police to then brutalise many peaceful protesters. One protester, Carlo Giuliani, was shot and killed by a policeman. The violence led many people, myself included, to question whether they wanted to be involved in such demonstrations in future. Perhaps that was the intention of the reactionary elements in the Italian government. Yet there was another limitation to the protests. The movement had become defined by the media as the protest, because the cameras showed up at demonstrations. Yet a movement is motivated by the values and awareness of people, and that exists all year round, not just during a protest. It was the values and vibrancy of the activists that was key, and expressed in many other ways all year round, such as choices of work, ways of working in the community.

10 years on its a good time to look back, recall the mood and spirit of the activism, and see how the vibrancy of that time throws light on the choices many of us have made since. To conjure up a sense of the feelings involved back 10 years ago, here is a snippet from my last book:

“Rolling onto my back, I lay my head on a rucksack, staring into the night sky. The tarmac still pushes up through my sleeping bag, but somehow it feels more comfortable this way. I think of the few times I have slept out in the open, in fields after parties, or on beaches while travelling—times when I could revel in the sense of floating through the immensity of space, secured on the edge of a cosmic plan, or comic fluke, called planet Earth. But tonight I can’t drift away with thoughts of the infinite expanse of space. Police helicopters hover above, their cones of light traversing the car park like manic stilts. Dreaming is not permitted. It’s the G8 Summit in Genoa, 2001. I stretch my neck. My face feels sticky with the residue of vinegar I was told would help me during tear-gas attacks. Are we being searched for or spotlighted, I wonder? If they shine their lights on us for long enough, perhaps they’ll discover what they’re looking for? Perhaps we’re all here to discover what we’re looking for—something different, something possible? I can’t sleep and turn to Rik, a guy I met on the streets during the day. ‘D’you want to hear my poem?’ he asks. ‘Yeah, why not . . . ?’

Possessed by possessions
Lord and Master of all we owe
Belonging to belongings
It’s a disaster, I know
Chained to the mundane
Our reference frame is physical
Every day the same old same
Nothing metaphysical
And if God’s not dead
He must be mad
Or blind
Or deaf and dumb
Or bad
Still smarting over Christ, perhaps
The way the people have been had
But in our defence
I’d like to say
We nearly chose the proper path
But lost the plot along the way
You’ve got to laugh
It’s not our fault
It’s just the toys we made
Made such a lovely noise
And girls and boys
Are high and dry
Time to bid
All this

Rik Strong’s The Sermon, which he recited to me as we ‘bedded’ down in a carpark during the demonstrations at the G8 Summit in Genoa, captured some of the emotion that drove many of us to protest. There was certainly a lot of anger at the suffering being caused by economic systems, and the lack of accountability of political systems to the people. There was also an angst about something more deeply wrong about modern life. Western society didn’t relate to how we felt inside. Publicly people didn’t seem to care for each other, yet we knew that deep down they must do—surely? For us there had to be more to us than working, shopping and looking out for Number One. This was a holistic critique, and one that connected professional and lifestyle, the political and personal.

Yet 10 years on its difficult to say exactly what or where “the movement” is now. Many people who were active in protests back then have this nagging thought: We were everywhere, we went everywhere, but we got nowhere. What was it that led to the weakening of what seemed at the time to be a global awakening?

The level of violence certainly turned many away from protesting. But there were other factors that helped to corrupt some of the creative spirit. As the old Left woke up to the new wave of anti-capitalism sentiment and became involved with groups such as ‘Globalise Resistance’ they brought with them their hierarchical we-know-what-you-really-want-and-how-to-win politics. For some, this was a politics of envy not personal liberation. This led to splits and aggressive criticism from those who rejected instant political solutions freeze-dried in the 19th Century. And so egos clashed. When, during a demonstration in Brighton I mentioned to one activist ‘leader’ that his organisation was critiqued in a Schnews pamphlet, he just asked “was I name-checked?” Meanwhile career-conscious band-wagon jumpers leapt like crazy on to talk shows and into best-seller lists and newspaper columns, and misrepresented some of the core democratic anti-hierarchy values that permeated much of the organising and the aspirations of protesters.

But the biggest impact was 9/11. Soon after, the protest groups refocused on anti-war campaigning. The mass media closed ranks around the march to war. The critical analysis became more about the dreadfulness of one President, rather than a more informed critique of the whole system and its alternatives. The “war of terror” knocked the global justice movement aside, by making activists focus on symptoms, not causes.

For many people, the political philosophy that was shared by activists from very different walks of life, concerned about different issues, was a sense of everyday democracy, where all processes, whether political or economic, should be open to their participation and mutual control. John Isbister has noted that “an ideal democracy would give a voice to everyone who is affected by a decision. The real democracies with which we are familiar cannot reach this
standard.” For example, poor children are affected by welfare systems but have no vote. Women in poorer countries are affected by family planning funding decisions in the United States but have no vote in their elections. Instead, we can remember that democracy is an aspirational goal, for situations where individuals and communities participate effectively in shaping the social limits that define what is possible for them, without impairing the ability of others to do that for themselves. The goal is therefore an everyday democracy where all organisations enable participation. It is also inherently a global goal, because it is an organisational response to a universal principle of people being able to pursue their individual freedoms.

The 1960s student leader Gregory Calvert has reflected that in their student movement they came to understand that their commitment to democratic principles came from the heart, and had a spiritual dimension. Activism inspired by this consciousness seeks to challenge large incumbent unaccountable institutions, whether in the public, private or civic spheres of life. What excited many people in the process of campaigning, was that they were connecting to a sense of purpose greater than themselves, a story of a common humanity. It filled a need, because there was, as there remains today, some angst about the purpose of our lives, the story of our existence. For some people our story of existence is one of a secular, scientific, mechanical world without meaning. For some it is the story of a God creating us to struggle to return to ‘Him’. For many people that story seems more like a fairytale – a nice idea, something they don’t really believe but find it helpful to entertain the idea, perhaps once a week or so. To others this story seems like a nightmare with a “blind, deaf, dumb, mad or bad” God. Thus Thomas Berry, writing in 1990, felt that we had lost faith in the story of our relationship with a God and, therefore, who we are; “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it… sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes and energized our actions. It consecrated our suffering and integrated our knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children.”

This faltering between stories has sometimes been talked about as the ‘death of God’. Hence the angst and spiritual void captured in Rik Strong’s The Sermon. Set against this angst there was a real energy and hope, perhaps similar to the hope felt by people in the recent protests in the Arab world. On the streets of Genoa the T-shirts read “Another world is possible” – a world that would enable us all to be all we could be. In our hearts we felt that world already existed, but we didn’t really have a way of speaking in chorus so that the rest of society could hear us and join in the singing.

So what is this new story? I picked up some ideas from discussions of activists 10 years ago….

First, is creativity. In the west pop-culture gurus like Pat Kane were talking of a play ethic to replace the work ethic. By this he meant that the most natural, and perhaps highest, state of being is to play – to be creative, to be expressive, to test, try, experiment, to have fun in becoming all we can be. As Jean Paul-Sartre said, “As man apprehends himself as free and wishes to use his freedom, then his activity is to play.” The parallels with eco-centric thought on the irrepressible diversity of the natural world are clear. Pat suggested that this play ethic comes from the new generation of young professionals, who: “have shaped their identities through their… cultures of play – a whole range of self-chosen activities that have anchored them in a different orientation towards a meaningful life. These are the backpackers of Alex Garland’s The Beach, using cheap flights and travel literature to make the world their playground. The ultimate playfulness is to help each other to play together.”

Second, is a global consciousness, a sense of a common community of mankind. For many people nationalism is no longer a belief system and just a bit of fun, to be enjoyed in an ironic sense. Nationalism is being replaced for many by a planetary patriotism – we might call this Planetism. This means a deep concern for the health and well-being of the planet and all its peoples. Another aspect to this Planetism is a spiritual reawakening, as people see a common essence to all the world’s spiritual teachings, no matter how twisted they may be through religious institutions. This reawakening has been helped in secular society by the club culture, as ‘ravers’ grew up but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) “forget those blissed-out moments of transcendence, when drugs and beats blurred the boundaries of their selves”, according to Pat Kane. These states of consciousness were something that ecocentrist Thomas Berry pondered. If the universe is not alive in a psychic spiritual sense as well a material one, then “human consciousness emerges out of nowhere… an addendum [with] no real place in the story of the universe” he wrote. Thus the potential for a common storyemerges amongst the diverse traditions of eco-centric, religious and secular thought – an autonomous yet interconnected spirituality that supports self-expression. The new story of humanity is about our growing understanding of our relationship to our planet, including all its people and their spiritual selves. Therefore it is the story of our relationship to ourself – who we really are. The new story is that there will be infinite stories to unfold. Thus, in protests around the world people were saying one No and many Yes’s. “We’re not going to play your games anymore – thrill to your icons, your hip soundtracks, your latest double-stitch or lycra mix. We’re going to play our own games” wrote Pat Kane. And so play we did, from our use of the web to co-ordinate global protests, to the subversion of advertising, from the rave atmosphere of street parties, to the humour of slogans, from the creation of alternative currencies, to the launching of our own social businesses.

So what happened to this story of global creativity? What happened to the anger at a controlling exploiting system? What happened to the confidence that rejected the legitimacy of incumbent institutions and leaders and the old politics of left and right?

The rent. The mortgage. The debt. The pension plan. The fear of being left behind. The insecurities that make us want to be accepted and respected in the mainstream. The temptation from the story that integrating our hopes into the mainstream is the best way to live our values, to honour our memories of higher states of consciousness by our cold-light-of-day choices.

And so, if there’s anything to learn from the last 10 years, its the need to change the system that creates this apparent necessity for compromise. Jessie J may write cool music, but it IS all about the money, money, money, because if we don’t change the monetary systems, we will be subject to the incentives and disincentives that draw us into stultifying compromise. We cant rely on mass levels of mindfulness to escape the day to day corroding pressures that arise from debt-based monetary systems. Redesigning the way money is created, to remove the debt burden from our governments, economies, communities and own families, will be key to unleashing a creative globe of local and international democratic communities.