Dear ‘new’ #climate activist. Unsolicited advice, #oldfartclimateadvice

Dear ‘new’ climate activist,

unsolicited adviceThanks for your efforts so far and “welcome” (or of course “welcome back”).  You find the “climate movement” in the UK in a pretty dismal state, to be honest.  There’s a fierce battle going on about fracking, but elsewhere the Tory government has been able to get away with stripping support from renewables and spending a fortune (no, seriously, a mind-bogglingly large fortune) on a new nuclear power station. You can read about that in this excellent academic article (more about academics later).

So, you are, as you know, extremely needed.  And especially needed is your ability to stick around for the long-haul.  Previous upsurges in activism (on climate and other environmental issues) have tended to last between 3 and 4 years, before losing energy and impact  (there are reasons for this, but that would be another letter altogether).

This letter to you, littered with things you know,  starts with the movement “in general”, outlining some of the intra-group dynamics you might encounter, and then the inter-group dynamics. It then looks at some of the external actors will probably encounter – media, the police, policy-makers, political parties, trade unions, academics and “family and friends”. There are other groups that matter too, of course, but few enough people are going to read this to the end at its current length, let alone the full-Tolstoy.  It closes with some comments on three new challenges facing us. I have no satisfactory answers to those challenges, of course.

Oh, yes: who the hell am I to be giving unsolicited advice?  Good question. Well, I was involved in the first year and a bit of Climate Camp (2006-2007). For the last 10 plus years, among other things I’ve co-run/run Manchester Climate Fortnightly and then Manchester Climate Monthly.  Fwiw, I’ve just submitted a PhD thesis which involved, in part, reading up on the early moves by the coal-lobby in opposing even mild climate action, back in 1988-1995.

I have numbered the bits of advice (many of which are banal, but worth repeating, imo), not because they are in particular order of importance, but to make easier to have any conversations about this document.  Finally, I’m aware of the dangers of advice-giving but reckon other old farts like me might have something useful to add.  We might be able to help individuals and groups avoid some of the more obvious problems, and so extend their longevity and/or improve their effectiveness.  Hashtag could be #oldfartclimateadvice perhaps?

The movement “in general”

The first thing is kind of obvious, but worth repeating.  If the UK climate movement were that great shape – that functional, that effective – then your efforts on Saturday November 17 (and before) would not have been needed.  Here’s not the place to go into the details of that, or particularly the reasons why, but it’s been thirty years of marches, meetings, lobbying, camps and so forth. And in the meantime, humanity’s emissions have gone up sharply.  In the UK, you’ll be told, that emissions have gone down. That’s basically an accounting trick, and to do with the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power stations. Anytime anyone repeats those lies, ask them if they understand the difference between production-based metrics and consumption-based metrics. But you know all this, or you wouldn’t have been on the bridges.

Some things that you may not have known, and which will be semi-fiercely denied.

1. The movement has its fair share of racism, classism, homophobia and so on. Just because we all agree there is a climate emergency, doesn’t mean the other stuff can wait. Particularly on the racism-  see here and here That can be pretty confronting for white people to process, but public displays of guilt that centre the white person are worse than useless.  White people have to really have those conversations with other white people, and not expect people of colour to do yet more intellectual or emotional labour to help them deal with their problems.

2. Some people in activism circles do not have your best interests at heart.  Alongside the ethical, the concerned, the kind, there are control freaks, martyrs, manipulators, all sorts. Sometimes in the very same person.   Why? Because activists are human.

Watch out for ‘facipulation’, where people are using manipulative facilitation techniques to ‘guide’ (force) a consensus around their own preferred outcome.  Also, if you allow it, you will be used as ‘ego-fodder’  to make up numbers at meetings, on interminable marches etc.  Your existing skills and knowledge will not be put to good use, unless you make it so.  Your desire to learn new skills and knowledge will be largely ignored as an inconvenience, something self-indulgent, to be addressed only after we have “won” (i.e. never).  It doesn’t HAVE to be that way,  but doing it differently requires both a different set of perspectives and skills than are common among movement ‘leaders’ at present.

3. The climate movement tribe will not thank you for pointing out its shortcomings.  At all. You will be told, politely or not, to shut up, often by people who ought to know better but are determinedly sucking on the Hopium pipe.

4, There is an ironic lack of innovation in a lot of climate movement practices.  Social movement academics would mutter about ‘limited repertoires.’ For people who are demanding massive change from governments and corporations, there is – ironically – very little appetite for changing activist practice. The format of meetings, for example, is rarely if ever tweaked, though new buzzwords (unconference, open space etc) occasionally get borrowed to give tedious business-as-usual a sexy tinge

For example,  Climate Camp started out,  because a bunch of dedicated and smart people realised in 2005 that “summit hopping” (turning up at world leaders events) was not helping to build movements. And in 2009 the Climate Campers were… back to summit hopping, as pretty much their last gasp. Off they went to Copenhagen, and after that, well, within a little over a year it was all over.

But see point 3. above –  proposals to innovate in processes are actually (seen as) a reproach to those who have been in charge while something not as good as the new thing was being done.  They won’t like being seen as having maintained a less-than-perfect set of practices. Expect resistance.

Intra Group Dynamics

Right now, your group will be either very new or massively revivified and re-energised  by an influx of new people. It’s the honeymoon period. Honeymoons don’t last forever. Here’s a few things to know (or remember, if you’re an old activist coming back into the fray. Or already know from your job or somewhere else.)

  1. Just because people are in a circle, there is no chair and everybody says “we’re all comrades together” doesn’t mean there isn’t power in a room.  Who speaks the most? Whose ideas get taken up? Who does the drudge work?

The age-old feminist critique of power relations is, sadly still true,  Jo Freeman’s 50 year old  The Tyranny of Structurelessness, is still fresh as the day it was written (which tells you something right there, no?) See also

  1. Your repertoires (the kinds of action your group is familiar with, finds exciting, and ‘useful’) has a shelf-life.  Your opponents find ways of dealing with them, either directly or indirectly. Adrenaline, in other words, is both your friend and your enemy.
  1.  Groups do not, on the whole, have the capacity to organise the learning of new skills and the overcoming of bottlenecks. (Though efforts will be made through usually-badly-designed and facilitated ‘skillshares’).  Your existing skills and knowledge may not be valorised or even acknowledged. Also, it will almost certainly be up to you to learn new skills, Doing this will make you more useful and keep your morale up. And if you have skills, please try to teach them to others, especially if you’re the only person in the group with those skills.
  1.  Look after yourself. If that means not going to bad meetings, then don’t go to bad meetings. Or walking out of them before the bitter end (google “Law of Two Feet”). But please don’t “lunch stuff out”  (i.e. fail to keep commitments that you made) If your presence is needed/expected, you have to let people know beforehand that you won’t be attending. Oh, and by the way, meetings don’t have to be institutionally sexist.

Not all groups are going to last forever, or even very long at all. Sometimes, after you’ve tried to fix it, you have to walk away, or else you’ll go down with the ship, and be lost to activism – along with your skills, knowledge and energy. If that happens, it not only demoralises other ‘activists’ but also sends a warning message to people who were thinking of getting involved.

Inter-group Dynamics

  1. Expect framewars.

For what it is worth, you can roughly subdivide the ‘activist’ groups into three broad categories (there is of course overlap and drift), based on how they ‘frame’ the issues. First you have the reformists – the ‘change the system from within’ types, exemplified here by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (locked in a decades old battle for moral supremacy).  For them, it’s a problem of education, perhaps market signals. Power and corruption are words they don’t throw around comfortably. Second you’ve got the state “revolutionary” socialist types who believe that what is needed is a glorious revolution that closely follows their manifesto. “Buy a paper, comrade?”  To them reformists are dupes of the system and the third group idealistic dreamers who get in the way of ensnaring the fresh-meat/future papersellers.. That third group is the avowedly ‘non-hierarchical (but see point 5 above!) outfits who believe that only grassroots bottom-up action can met the scale of the problem(s).

The point is this:  It is both logical and necessary to co-ordinate with other groups who share your frame or who do not in, say, the staging of public meetings, demonstrations etc.  No one set of groups can do this alone. But that does not mean there will not be fights about what the focus of the action is, whose person speaks first, for how long, etc etc.  Fortunately one of the most vampiric groups, the Socialist Workers Party, is but a shadow of its former “glory”. That does not mean there are not other groups willing and able of sucking the energy out of a movement while believing that they are creating a vanguard and educated a cadre. Oh, and if you identify what they are doing, or god forbid push back, expect to be labelled ‘sectarian’.  But the vampires, no, they are never sectarian.

Personally, fwiw, I think that the “climate movement” does not have the ability to turn the mess around, and that it will all end in tears – see ‘2019: How we blew it again’,  written in 2017.  But I could be wrong.

Right, having offered obvious/sententious advice about the movement and some of the dynamics you’ll find, some comments about the other actors you will probably encounter. I’ve put this in “Branches of government”, Political parties, The Police, The Media, Academics, Trades Unions, Family and Friends.  Overall, this: just because someone is clearly doing very bad things to the planet/stopping you from trying to save civilisation, doesn’t mean they are stupid. Do not underestimate them.

Branches of government

When you encounter policymakers and politician you will come up against slick (I mean, PPE at Oxford has to be worth something, right?) sorts who can speak glibly and confidently in TLAs (three letter acronyms) about all the things the government/public service is doing.  Inside, these people are often either empty, or stupid, or terrified (or all three). Peter Oborne is worth reading on the ‘political class’.

  1.  It’s difficult, because education – and it seems particularly British education – is largely about learning to pay the right amount of deference to people who want to be your lords and masters- but this:  Just because someone is being driven around in a limousine and has a title doesn’t mean they have a clue what is actually happening to this doomed planet, or what to do about it. But you knew this, or else you wouldn’t have been on the bridges.
  2. Local government has largely had a free pass, as far as I can see.  Here in Manchester the governing Labour Party has been able to blame everything on the Tories, while claiming credit for national-level emissions reductions (the partial decarbonisation of the grid, for example).  Every two or three years they produce new meaningless glossy booklets to replace the previous non-implemented policies, and the local Friends of the Earth group (which is basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Council) goes squee with delight when told to. It’s frankly embarrassing.  But I digress. Local government needs serious attention (it gets none from the media, or climate movement), but the skillset is not public order situations and placards, but rather Freedom of Information Act requests, blogging, letters to the editor etc. And more, because those things on their own simply mean you’re recording the lies and the bullshit, not forcing them to a standstill.

Political parties

  1. .  As the journalist Nick Tomalin observed, “They lie, they lie, they lie.”  And they are constantly on the hunt for issues and plausible individuals who can front those issues to the voters.  Expect talented activists to be poached into parties. Meanwhile, the parties will make promises that they have no intention of keeping. But you knew this… bridge.

The police

  1. Spycops. Read it and weep.  
  • Expect agent provocateurs, expect infiltration, both by state and corporate actors.
  • Read up on the techniques and what to do about them.
  • Role play arrest. Role play questioning. Role play being charged. Role play it until it loses its mystique.


This is awkward, because I am a wannabe academic.  But before I came into it, I thought they were, for the purposes of social movements, either mostly useless or worse than useless.  I haven’t changed my mind (perhaps I’m just doing sour-grapes and self-loathing?). Some of them can indeed write in plain language, do have something to say.  Getting past the paywalls isn’t impossible – you probably know some sympathetic academics who will get you stuff, or you can ask the authors directly. Don’t be surprised though, if after all the effort, that what you get out isn’t worth the effort.

  1. Specifically, be very careful about having academics speak at events. They’re often lousy public speakers, and in answering questions will never use 50 words if 500 will do. Keep your expectations low, in other words.
  1.  Be very cautious about agreeing to participate in any academic research.  I know it can be flattering that Doctor Who or Professor X is interested, but always ask : what is in it for ME/US?  How does the movement benefit from this? and also Where might sensitive information actually end up?

Reading: This short story, The Defiant Ones, about an academic and activist handcuffed to each other, fleeing a public order situation.

The Media

Yeah. The Daily Mail.  In the same way they police the bodies of female celebrities  (if she puts on three pounds and it’s time for “look, she’s letting herself go”, if she loses three pounds the Mail runs “friends worried for gaunt xxxx”) there is a bizarre ever-shifting and extremely narrow band of behaviour for environmental activists.  If you ever take a flight, drive a car or eat meat, you’re a disgusting hypocrite. If you don’t, then you’re an out-of-touch weirdo zealot. You know this/bridge.

More broadly, yes, there are lazy and venal journalists, but you’re better off seeing systems at play, structures which prevent decent/honest reporting than focussing on the intellectual and moral failings of specific individuals. Imo, fwiw.

  1. Role play both friendly and hostile interviews.  Have more than one competent interview-giver in your group
  2. Do NOT measure “success” in terms of coverage or nice things said about you by sympathetic journalists.  You simply become an attention-hungry performing seal.
  1. It’s worth reading up on why they are like that.  Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model, the Glasgow Media Group, Nick Davies, Flat Earth News.  It’s worth doing analysis on who owns your local media, what the constraints on journalists are etc.

Trades Unions

The dirty secret is that the workers united are often defeated. And that unions need jobs to keep themselves afloat (members who can’t pay the mortgage/rent probably can’t pay their dues), and so unions often mouth the right piety about just transition this, climate policy that while also applying the thumbscrews to members of Parliament to ensure – to pick an example entirely at random – that the third runway at Heathrow gets approval.  And there are deeply conflicted environmentalists in those unions trying to change the(ir) system from within. Also, unions tend to hold mind-boggling boring and top-down meetings, where there is an inverse relationship between length and quality of speeches.

Family and friends

You will probably be patronised by at least some family and friends for giving a shit about climate change.  It’s not cool to give a shit, apparently. And most of us have a UKIP-voting climate denying uncle whose presence makes Christmas/weddings etc a tedious exercise in “let’s not talk about, okay?” Family tensions will probably flare up particularly when the media smears kick into high gear, and/or when some climate activists do something that is perceived to be ‘too much’  (blocking a runway, and then it turns out a flight full of dying panda bears can’t get life saving surgery)

I have no advice to offer, I think, other than don’t neglect your wider network of friends – they offer you perspective, and if it all goes wrong and you have to do serious rest and recuperation, well, they’ll “be there for you.”

Some random bits of advice that, I don’t think fit in any category above.

  1. Measuring “success” is really hard. If it’s a meeting is it bums on seats? The number of tweets? The number of new recruits who turn out?  (Meanwhile, bosses will never admit that you fought them to a standstill. It’s not in their interests). But if you don’t have any metrics of success, then you end up, I think, in the smugosphere, which is not a good place.
  2.  While we have been in similar situations before, the history is only a partial guide.  What is unprecedented now is that humanity’s continued existence is up for grabs. Sure, during the Cold War a nuclear war could have done for us all quickly, but that required a change from the status quo.  Right now, to ensure our demise, all we have to do is keep on the same trajectory. That’s at least as terrifying as the nuclear Mexican standoff…
  3. Relatedly, fear eats the soul.

New challenges

Finally, there seem to be (at least) three new challenges in our situation worth noting. I got nothing about them though, at least nothing that seems adequate.

  1. Sudden explosion of people interested in taking direct action.   This is great, as long as people don’t think get “imprinted” – the first thing they saw when they cracked out of the egg was a bridge occupation, therefore…  BUT, how to get/keep these people engaged in the long-slog of activism? Dunno.
  2. Lots of kids getting involved – see, for example, the proposed School Strike for Friday 30th November.  Well, these kids obviously have to be in charge of their own organisations (duh). What could #oldfarts do to help them learn hard lessons the easy/easier way?
  3. Finally, there’s not, over the coming months and years, going to be a lot of hope, at least not in the people who know what a Keeling Curve is. To quote myself: “In their own defence, the movement organisations pointed out that this wave of concern about global apocalypse had been different from the previous ones, from 1970 to 1973, 1988 to 1992, and 2006 to 2009. In each of those cases, scientists could be found who would say: ‘If we act now, things will be okay’. By 2019, that had morphed into: ‘If we act now, and we are really lucky, then we may avoid the very nastiest of the impacts.’ Hope was in short supply.”

Best wishes

Old Fart

5 thoughts on “Dear ‘new’ #climate activist. Unsolicited advice, #oldfartclimateadvice

Add yours

  1. interesting article Marc. Have you engaged with XR? there is a lot of desire to address some of the problems you describe as we all grapple with our inhumanity and our imperfections as products of this broken system. We can learn a lot from past mistakes and nothing is fixed. We act not just for the sake of outcomes but because it’s the right thing to do… the movement has dynamic that recognises the need for internal work from all of us and can help to keep us grounded and peaceable . .. keeping sight of these ideologies will be a powerful tool as we progress.

    1. Thanks Zoe,
      beginning to engage (or make contacts). There is a real tension though, in that, why, frankly, SHOULD the young/new listen to the old farts. From their perspective, we’ve totally failed. Zero or near zero credibility. Will keep you posted… All best wishes.

      1. Thank you, that was an interesting and informative read.
        If I may, I think there’s an important difference between listening to “the old farts”, and unquestioningly doing what they say. An obvious reason why the young/new should listen is because tackling climate change is urgent and we literally don’t have the time to waste repeating mistakes that have already been made.

        One thing that strikes me is that climate activism often ends up appearing (and probably being) party-political and dominated by the left. Yet while, as you pointed out in 9 (framewars), there will inevitably be ideological differences in How people think we ought to respond, the fact that we Do need to respond and that climate change is an urgent problem shouldn’t be political or divisive. For the XR movement to successfully gain public support for civil disobedience I think it needs to focus on the What of climate change – recognition of the urgency and nature of the problem – and not on the How, which is ultimately a separate and controversial issue.

        John Broome notes something analogous in Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World regarding the conflation of global poverty issues and climate activism issues. He points out that although it would undoubtedly be fairer for the wealthier, historically high-polluting countries to compensate poorer countries (for not emitting GHGs, not cutting down forests etc. when we already have done), trying to solve the problems of global inequality and global warming with the same policy is a fool’s errand; if the most viable path to avoiding serious climate change involves the world’s poorest taking on an unfair share of the burden then so be it. That’s still a better scenario (for the poorest and richest alike) than unmitigated global warming.

        In the same vein, climate activists who also despise neoliberalism and free markets should rejoice at the possibility of reducing GHG emissions through cap-and–trade, be supportive of neoliberals who suggest ways of combating climate change through creating atmospheric property rights and generally make climate activism friendly to people of every political background. Climate change shouldn’t be party political and isn’t the right space to try and convert people to the [insert preferred school of thought here] cause. There’s no need to make it more difficult than it already is. This is particularly important when responding to negative coverage by right-wing media. We shouldn’t tar all right-leaning people with the same brush and end up with a self-righteous and exclusively lefty campaign. There are plenty of Tories who care about the environment.

      2. Thanks for your comment, Bogrod. Certainly, should have made clearer here that (as I have elsewhere) that the difference between “listening to” and “unquestioningly doing” is a v. important one. The last thing we need is people just doing what they’re told by people who don’t understand that the world isn’t the same as it was five or ten years ago, that circumstances, possibilities and difficulties have changed.

        On neoliberalism – well, cap-and-trade just doesn’t work to drive down emissions at the rate we need. There’s a whole critique (largely written by left-leaning people, it’s true) of ‘false solutions’ at both a technical (e.g. CCS) and political level. Two things occur to me here – one is the (tired) Titanic metaphor – if you stormed the bridge ten minutes before the collision with the iceberg, you’d want to BOTH slow down and change course. Secondly, is the question of opportunity cost – time and political capital that is spent advocating for, say, a cap-and-trade or a low carbon tax, is time and political capital that you then don’t have to spend on something that you believe is more likely to be effective.

        I’ll read the Broome, if there’s an article rather than a whole book (I’ll look online, but if you have any suggestions, they would be gratefully received.

        All best wishes


  2. Interested to know whether you have read Paulo Freire’s work, specifically Pedagogy of Hope? I’m sorry you have had such negative experience of newspaper sellers – it seems to me that the convergence of a certain uncritical type of organisation and their ability to produce a newspaper has led to an awful reaction against newspaper sellers. I’d be more worried about anyone who can hand out free literature – where an earth do the funds come from?

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