Category Archives: activism

#GrenfellTower – “never again” they say. But WHO ensures that? How? #socialmovements

Glued to the newsfeeds.  Thinking in horror of the lives cut short, women throwing babies from the ninth floor.  The courage of the firefighters, the desperation, the professionalism of the emergency staff, the NHS.

Thinking of how burning down a city for fun and profit is nothing new.  There’s a book we should all read, by some epidemiologists  (I think Chomsky put me onto it) called

A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled

plagueonyourhouses

Thinking how this is becoming a lightning rod, the visible manifestation of the years of austerity, just another name for class and race war against the most vulnerable people in society.

There is a growing sense of anger and frustration among the crowds gathered under the Westway flyover where volunteers are sorting and boxing donations.

One volunteer, Sinead O’Hare, said the fire and loss of life had tapped into a deeper sense of resentment and alienation.

“People are angry about years of Tory policy of cutting corners and costs, and refusing to take responsibility. The interests of the Tory party are closely allied to the interests of business and private landlords,” she said. SOURCE

I lived in a tower block for two years. Doesn’t count, because I felt totally safe because it was owned by University of Salford, and they took safety seriously.

And I think of how long and hard the Grenfell Action Group fought. And how they got fobbed off, threatened, ignored.  Condescended to.  I have some inkling of what it is like to go up against an incompetent and dismissive bureaucracy, a bunch of smug sneering wastes of space.

And I hear the usual cries of “never again.”

And I have  simple questions for the left.  Do we believe these claims?  Do we remember how they were made before?  And are we willing and able to think about how WE, as citizens, together,  have to make sure that this is indeed the last time that children, old people, frail people, ANY people die like this?

And do we know how to do it?  Because marches and demonstrations and appeals to the great and the good will not do this.    Getting a new government will help, sure, but how many disasters have happened under allegedly progressive/”left” governments?  How much of the insolence and arrogance and venality and inertia is baked in?

Do we understand that getting the right policy, by forcing elected politicians to make that policy, is the BEGINNING of the battle, not the end?  That implementation is often where it all falls down?

Are we willing to develop the capacity to fight back against bureaucratic inertia?

(I genuinely believe that bureaucrats take the attitude “well, if we give in on this, where would it all end? We’d have to do x, and then y, and then z. Far easier to block block block until this lot give up and piss off. The next lot will come at this with zero experience, and can be blocked and fobbed off.  We need to lower expectations and keep them low.”

If we ARE, then we need to (and I am about to shout) CHANGE THE WAY WE HOLD MEETINGS AND THE WAY WE TRY TO BRING IN NEW PEOPLE AND NEW IDEAS.

Or we can stick to our same old round of smugosphere and middleclass delusional emotacycles, and watch as more working class people and people of colour and vulnerable people die.   What kind of ally is that?

 

Citizens Gathering – we need new institutions

Last night I went to a “meeting” of, oh, let’s call it “Citizens Gathering”. After 90 minutes I came away with a very small amount of new information (nothing that I couldn’t have learnt by reading a three minute blog post) and a lot of suspicions confirmed.

I have put the word meeting in scare quotes because we were not encouraged to, um, meet, anyone.  Instead after three speeches (the second and third mercifully shorter than the first) the floor was open to… mostly more speeches and exhortations, declarations of faith. As for the question of what we do next – well, demonstrations, obvs.  One on Saturday. Another in July. Then the Tories come to Manchester in October.  There was some marginal acknowledgement that this was not enough, and that a recent thing had not gone well, but nowt concrete on what is to be done differently.

I could go on for hours, but instead I will quote one of the new Labour MPs, Marsha de Cordova

“I haven’t got the final figures, but turnout on some of our estates, among the more impoverished communities, increased massively. What’s really important is we keep these young people who have been volunteering involved and engaged, and all the CLPs have to be really opening and welcome. But I also want us to look at how we can change the dynamic and do different things to keep them engaged, because local party meetings can be pretty dry.”

It seemed to me that most (all?) of the people there were established activists (I base this on how people spoke, how they described themselves).  I didn’t see any nervous/confused looking new people.  Which is a relief,  to me at least, because it would in my opinion have been an intensely alienating experience.

Basically, we have all the organisations we need. We need different habits of meeting that help new people integrate, that help us find out what each others’ knowledge and skills are, that make the creation of new relationships and ‘weak ties’ easier.  Holding specific networking events, or doing it ‘in the pub’ is not adequate.

So, I made some predictions beforehand.  I did relatively well (#fishbarrel)

predictions

 

My friend suggested three other criteria

Prediction Correct/Incorrect comments
It will be very ‘dramatic with regard to language Yep  
It’s gonna be the system’s fault Oddly not! A few mentions of ‘neoliberalism’, maybe one or two of capitalism, but mostly about Theresa May….
“Planning” is only part of the title. Concrete, actionable, and actually game-changing plans will be absent.    

 

Other points

To be clear, I do not blame the facilitator – she did as good a job as you could expect. It was the format and the rituals of the meeting that were the damage. And that’s ALL our fault .   Having one person speak and 26 listen is incredibly inefficient. It encourages people to use everyone else as ego-fodder to meet their emotional needs.   But my effort to suggest a relatively minor innovation sank without trace, of course.  Oh well.

At one point someone acknowledged that there will be more problems after a possible Corbyn Prime Ministership begin.  And he said – totally incorrectly, imo- “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”   Nope. We need to be building the structures to hold any future Labour government’s feet to the fire.  Has the experience of living under the total Labour dominance of Manchester City Council taught us nothing?  Seems not.

The  turnout at this thing was mostly plus 40 (or 50). There were about 6 of the 27 there who were under 30 I reckon. Everyone white. Male to female ration 2:1.

 

 

On the Manchester bombing – safety, fear, solidarity

Facebook messages come through every minute – people marking themselves as “safe.”

Twenty two people are not, and sixty more are physically wounded.  The psychological wounds for others who were there, for the emergency services, and for others further afield (loved ones, friends) will take time to be obvious, longer still to heal (if they ever do).

Already the familiar patterns are kicking in.  The election campaigning suspended, the newsfeeds full.  We all know the rituals now, of a twenty-first century terror attack in the West.  The hashtags, the solemn declarations, the “Je suis” marches, the sombre faces of politicians telling us what we know, having no more to say than anyone else,  but having to fulfil that role.  We look for solace.

We will learn more of the attacker who committed this mass murder.  Arrests will be made, trials held.  Recriminations will be launched about “why wasn’t more done?”, “why wasn’t this spotted?”

We are scared. We do not want to admit – cannot admit- what we have been told;  that while there is a lot that can be done to make these massacres less likely, the risk can never be removed altogether.

This is not the first attack, it will not be the last.  And the blood banks are full already, so we wonder what solidarity looks like, how do you HELP in a situation like this?  Beyond the grieving, and the listening to the fears and terrors, and supporting those who have suffered, what is to be done?  how?

Ideas?

2019:  How the #climate activists blew it, again #debacle #doomed

Imagine it’s 2019.  Imagine that “climate activists” get the perfect conditions handed to them on a plate.  What would happen?

 

Sometimes Mother Nature gives climate change activists a boost. She tried in the summer of 1988. She tried again in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina bulls-eyed New Orleans.  She tried again in the long hot summer of 2019.

The Indian heatwave saw thermometers bump up to 48 degrees on four occasions during a two week period.  The power system buckled, and only those who could afford generators and ever-more expensive fuel could afford air-conditioning. Pictures of overflowing mortuaries – stuffed with the old, the young, the poor –  and mass graves in major cities around the sub-continent were beamed around the world.  Social media hashtags proliferated, and protest events about Western indifference and the slowness of relief efforts were held in cities with significant Indian populations around the globe.

Just as that was becoming old news, a pall of smog hung over China’s capital (that’s what you get when you melt the Arctic). Millions of middle-class Chinese people, fearful for the health of their child (or more rarely children), were not fooled by official declarations that – after four days of warnings to stay indoors – that it had suddenly become safe to go outside. The twitter feed of the monitoring equipment on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing was endlessly reshared and reposted. The 50 cent army failed to distract people, and the real army was on standby, and but nobody quite knew if it would, or could be called upon to repeat its show of force of 1989.

Meanwhile in Russia, in an eerie repeat of 2010 , fires surrounded Moscow, and wheat exports were again banned.  Globally, food prices surged, with devastating impacts on the poorest.

Closer to home, a freak tidal surge hit Norfolk, leaving 8 dead and thousands homeless. (Sadly European Union reconstruction funds were not going to be available). Although the surge had nothing to do with the other events, it added to the growing sense of panic and despair.

In response to that disaster, the Prime Minister exuded gravitas, flew over the damaged areas in a helicopter and said all the right words.  This backfired spectacularly when a conversation about climate change activists being “opportunistic luddites and crazies” leaked to the media, thanks to a microphone being left on.

All that got people agitated.  But “shit got real” when David Attenborough did everyone a huge favour. He died.

And then the video turned up.

He’d made it at some point in 2017, when he knew that the end was near. It was short, sharp, beautifully made, of course.  In it, over a montage of his documentaries, he delivered a simple, powerful message in his inimitable and adored voice, which was at times frail, but always clear.  He asked anyone who had enjoyed his documentaries (and that was pretty much every man woman and child in the UK, let alone the rest of the world) to start taking climate change seriously.

It was not a problem that could be ignored any longer.  It was not a problem that could be left to politicians and international gatherings. It was, he said “not about what is happening internationally, or even nationally. It is about what your local council is – or isn’t doing. It is about what your church, mosque, sports club is doing.   You must get involved, you must stay involved. This is the fight of our species’ life.”

The video almost broke the internet. It was reposted, tweeted, shared, mashed-up, translated, beamed against parliament buildings everywhere.  It took off in a way that left even social media ‘experts’ speechless. Efforts by climate deniers to point to Attenborough’s lifetime carbon footprint elicited ridicule and contempt.

The rest of this article is about what happened next – what the state did, what the corporate sector  did, and most of all how the environment movement blew it again, for the last time.  There are some words about ‘what we could have done differently’ at the end, but my heart isn’t in it.  This is only going to play out one way.

State responses

The responses of states were the standard, and not always subtle, mix of soothing blandishments, co-optation of repression. New taskforces sprang up, inquiries were promised, ministers reshuffled.  Meetings of serious-sounding –acronym groups (“COBRA,”   anyone?) were held.  Action (as yet unspecified) would be taken.  International gatherings were scheduled, made up of chief scientific advisors and stern-faced ministers.  Loose talk about geo-engineering as a regrettable necessity started to get picked up by the news media, which was in an economic death-spiral of its own.   Penalties for “interfering” with “critical national infrastructure” were given a quiet boost.

Local authorities and city governments pointed to various token climate strategies that were adopted during the last upsurge in 2008-2010, and then left to rot. They hosted tedious self-congratulatory and defensive top-down meetings, and invited various tame-able movement ‘leaders’ to be part of ‘environmental advisory panels’, while shifting the blame and attention to the national government, and shifting the topic from impending ecological debacle to the safer ground of rubbish collection and pot holes.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable spying/data collection on potential ‘trouble-makers.’

The corporate sector

The corporate sector called upon governments to ‘set the policy framework’ (never mind that they had diligently undermined all previous attempts). We cannot damage the profitability of our own company/industry they would say, since jobs would merely be exported to countries with less stringent standards.

Old front groups were dusted off and rebooted, new ones formed. Advertising campaigns showed branded bottled water being dropped on parched and suitably grateful Indians. Earth Hour was rebooted, and turned from an annual ‘event’ into a monthly one. Anxious and guilt-ridden consumers suddenly had dozens of feel-good/‘do-your-bit-for-nature’ products to choose from, and books, websites, glossy newspaper supplements and gurus to tell them how to shop for a better planet.

CEOs bought up more land in New Zealand, and worried about how to get to it when it all suddenly went horribly wrong.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable spying/data collection on potential ‘trouble-makers.’

 

Civil society

Academics wrote papers about the socio-technical transitions, the  anthropocenecapitolocene and cthlulocene,  which were read by literally dozens of ordinary people all around the world.

The bank accounts of the think-tanks and industry trade associations swelled in synchronicity with the Indian graves, and their well-drilled drones filled the screens and airwaves, explaining that if anything was to be done, it could only be done on market principles.

Religious groups saw a serious uptick in attendances, as people began to make Pascal’s Wager.

The big “green” movement organisations could barely believe their luck. Their coffers full, they would hire lots of “campaign organisers” and tussle over who would dominate a new umbrella organisation “Stop Saying Yes to Climate Chaos”.

They held big meetings around the country, each a panel with a scientist, a politician and a celebrity, all based on the “information deficit model,” with sages on the stage stoking fears.  Attendees were urged to give their emails and money. The mis-named “question and answer” sessions which followed these talks were dominated by those most anxious and most ‘knowledgeable’.  Numbers were great, but follow-up meetings were ever-more sparsely attended.

Marches were planned and held, with the specific of David Attenborough’s plea that people take action locally lost in the more familiar “we must show world leaders that we care” message. Papers were sold. Protesters were pepper-sprayed.  Splits, hidden in the first honeymoon months, emerged, between the “Change the System from Withins” and the “Global Revolution Nows.”  Groups fought for their part of the global problem to be top of the shopping list of demands.

Some activists stormed runways and power stations, and were jailed for their sins. This, combined with well-placed articles and websites gently remind activists that the last time direct action had been tried, the movement was riddled with well-placed deep cover spies, helped keep radical action to a minimum. Who wants to run a very high risk of serious jail time when there might only be a few ‘good years’ left?

And nine months later, all that energy and concern?  Gone like a fist when you open your palm.

 

Why was it so?

The social movements had dreamt of this ‘wake-up’ moment, but they had never bothered to prepare for it.  The skills required – the ability to retain new members, to broaden out beyond stale but comforting repertoires of meetings, marches and the ‘emotacycle,’ to acquire new skills and make sure there were no single-points of failure – were never selected for, in the Darwinian sense. Social movements had low expectations, and were able to avoid awkward questions the ‘absorptive capacity’.

So when the moment came, when the great ‘awakening’ happened, these organisations were simply not able to retain the hordes of people who came to them, were not able to co-ordinate with other groups to provoke a long-term, sustained pressure building, not able to counter the tried and tested methods that the state and corporate actors had at their disposal

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.

But after the pulse of activity died, many activists turned at each other, in love, in fear, in hate, in tears, in sympathy and said “that’s it.  There’s no point any more.”
They were right.

 

What would need to be done differently? 

Well, first, get a time machine…

Second, think maybe about running this above as a scenario planning exercise for your group. Not because it will unfold like this – of course it bloody won’t, but scenarios are not predictions, they are thinking and doing tools.  What ways is your group likely to fail?  What can you do to lessen the likelihood of that particular kind of failure now?

Third, from this as a planning exercise, think about how many skills today’s activists need – in terms of meeting design, facilitation, keeping ‘newbies’ and returnees- maintaining connections and everyone’s morale, identifying the skills and knowledge that exist in a group (and its bottlenecks) and how to plug those, choosing winnable targets, and figuring out how to not be bought off, ploughed under or burn out.

Or you could just shut it all out and follow the Pulp Protocol – “dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do.”

Mythical Mail Weight and Localness

For the benefit of those lucky enough not to know (living outside the UK), the Daily Mail is a particularly horrific tabloid newspaper.  One of its many vile repertoires is to police the bodies of celebrities (mostly, but not entirely) the female ones.

If a celebrity under the gaze of the Mail gains a couple pounds unflattering  pap shots are published, under the headline of “XX has let themselves go”.  Alternatively, if they lose the same amount of weight, they are ‘gaunt’ and “friends are worried.”  There’s a (shifting) one or two pound band in which the Mail might not pick on them for their weight, but may instead criticise their clothes, partners, friends, tweeting habits, etc.

It’s not so much a sliding scale as a very slippery one.  And it also works for environmental activists.  If a climate campaigner eschews  the usual habits of modern middle-class western citizens – driving a car, eating meat, flying etc. – then they are ‘weirdo zealots who are out of touch with normal people’.  If they DO drive/eat meat/fly then they are ‘disgusting elitist hypocrites’.

Works every time.

The same goes, I think, for ‘localness’.  As long as you are saying “we want what the global elite wants, a chemical factory right next door to our school” then you are a local.  If not, well, you’re not really a local, and you’ve been hoodwinked by out-of-town trouble-makers.

Most of all, to be acceptable, you must steer clear of systemic critiques of what is going on. What was that line by Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara?  Oh, that’s right “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

So what’s interesting are the questions which arise from these observations/intuitions.

  • Who makes these evaluations?
  • Who amplifies them?
  • To what purpose (to delegitimise dissenting voices, obvs)?
  • To what effect?
  • How do “we” (progressives who give or gave a shit) escape from the trap?)

“Confer”ence – the clue is in the name; excellent #transitions event in Lausanne

A brilliant event –  the “2nd PhDs in Transitions Conference: Theory and Practice – took place in Switzerland, last week.  Organised by four enterprising PhD students, it was a 48 hour space for students at different stages of the process (from touching naive enthusiasm all the way through to night-sweat panic) to exchange ideas and advice, with a few older hands there to nudge and challenge as appropriate.  And repeatedly transitioning from sobriety to merriness, obviously.

How many times do you go to a conference expecting to get useful feedback on your work, meet lots of like-minded and sympathetic potential-future colleagues, and have space to think about others’ work and how it might help your own,  but come away disappointed?  We’ve all been there – or will be there – an over-stuffed programme, with alpha (male) chest-beating displays and turf battles making conferring (the clue is in the name, that’s what a conference is for, no) that much more difficult, if not impossible.

All of the former and none of the latter was in evidence last week in Lausanne.  Around 45 would/will-be-scholars of socio-technical transitions gathered to…. Wait,  what is socio-technical transitions when it’s at home?’ I hear a reader ask – well, roughly,  it’s a new academic field/sub-discipline/whatever you-want-to-call-it, where geographers, historians, economic modellers, innovation scholars, political scientists, technology geeks etc (try to) grapple with the how/when/why of societies moving from one way of organising things (food, transport, energy) to another.  Within it you’ve got all sorts of competing rules-of-thumb (Multi-level perspective, transitions management, technological innovation systems, strategic niche management –

as many as there are grants for, basically).

Clear enough?  Okay, … 45 PhD students got together to deliver powerpoint presentations, get feedback, engage in workshops, schmooze and drink (the latter activity constrained by the 7 quid pints of Switzerland).

The event was held near on the EPFL campus in Lausanne, within walking distance of Lake Geneva.

A building opposite the venue was under scaffolding, with a bright red banner advertising “FACT construction”, which will have annoyed any positivists  who had stumbled in by mistake.

fact construction at lausanne

After registration of Swiss efficiency, day one started with a keynote/Q& A “Presenting different transition frameworks, history and application.”  Too much to fully capture here, but this’

As per Kern and Markard (2016) on socio-technical transitions versus transitions you gotta see they’re value laden, public policies matter, power and politics are central (vested interests, winners and losers, coalitions and alliances), they’re complex, uncertain, long-term, context dependent and multidimensional.  [tl:dr – it’s complicated, usually more complicated than you are willing or able to see, especially if you fall in love with a technology or a policy or a set of events. You gotta step back and try to see the wood for the trees. Which needs lotsa lenses. Good luck.]

There are various traps – with (young) scholars as the mice, the cheese being the technology/policy/concepts/set of events with which they become transfixed and the trap being the (intellectual) cage they might build for themselves.

  • You might read (too much) literature (not systematically enough) and get hopelessly confused [this never happened to me, not at all.]
  • You might raise issues in a paper and get beaten down by a senior scholar (“It’s all in my earlier writing”)
  • You might end up ‘reinventing poor copies of old wheels (ad hoc theorising)
  • You  might end up getting sidelined by “mainstream” disciplines which ignore 20 years of spade work
  • You might get caught up in too much jargon, a lack of definitions, the micro-macro confusion, (and not everything meso is much help with that), the structure-agency dilemma.

In the words of one of the presenters, you might end up “riding the same old horse, sometimes feeling it’s already dead.”

How to navigate these various Scyllae and Charbydises?  Delineating systems, having better methodologies so the comparison of empirical studies becomes possible, staying woke to the normativity problem (i.e. normative motives don’t excuse sloppy methodology).  We were urged to “build bridges but also stand on our own two legs”, to “be constructively critical and intermittently bold” to be “obsessed with methodological rigour.” In addition, not to be too naive in our normativity and to develop better policy advice.

One speaker argued that we need more studies of technologies NOT taking off, and of industrial decline.  Further, we need to be able to look at exactly how strong a regime is (labelling it ‘semi-coherent’ might only deflect rather than resolve the problem).

Lunch was followed by two 90 minute sessions where three or four students presented their work for ten minutes, followed by ten minutes of Q and A (the chairs did a fine job, with no need for the clap clinic technique).

hm2 Clap Clinic

Those watching the presentations were invited to give their comments directly or via bright pink/yellow post-its.  “That’s a meaningless gimmick that will fail”  I thought, when it was explained.  100% wrong, of course – it worked a treat, and thanks to the six people who wrote down encouragement/advice [though not to the person who listed all those mouth-watering articles.  Like I need distraction from WRITING.]

There were sessions with titles like “the diffusion of innovations and technologies”, “reflections on participation, changing contexts and experiments in energy transitions” and “participation and communities in transition processes.”

The day closed with an “Apero” (that’s Swiss for wine, beer and nibbles) and was followed by drinks in the city centre, with the Dutch dressed in Orange for King’s day.

Day two was two more sessions including “transitions’ spatiality and the role of cities” and “agency and power in transition processes”, with presenters using the advocacy coalition framework

and also the multiple streams approach

Three parallel workshops – “modelling in transition studies”, “Social Network Analysis in Transition studies” and “Applicability of transition frameworks in developing countries” were followed by lunch and a final session – “simulating the role of individuals in sustainability transitions” and “applying practice perspectives in transition research.”

Basically, the conference (far) exceeded the expectations of everyone I spoke to.   Why did it work? IMHO because it was

  • Well organised.
  • Careful selection of attendees
  • A ‘night before’ social
  • Long enough breaks between sessions (half an hour) and a decent lunch break (90 mins on the first day and 60 on the second).
  • The organisers had clearly thought about what they wanted to achieve
  • Subtle and well-executed support from the invited ‘big beasts’ who knew exactly how and when to give us the benefit of their accrued experience (I would say wisdom, but that would be too sycophantic, even for me.)
  • No gaudy or aggressive displays by anyone

What could have been better?

“Not much” is the short answer.   Perhaps something on how to increase the impact of transitions scholarship in civil society (as opposed to simply giving presentations and keynotes to policy-makers) might have been a useful fourth workshop or discussion session?  (It was planned, apparently, but wasn’t possible for personnel reasons).  The only other “criticism” is that the bar has been set so very high for the third PhD student conference which (hopefully) will happen next year.

Unsolicited advice –  PhD students in transition studies should beg borrow steal or blackmail in order to be able to come to the next one, wherever it is.

Good things to do in Lausanne- The lake, obvs.  Three stops on the Metro from the Gare, at Ouchy-Olympique.

The pizza place opposite the station  called Bella Vita.  The horse, I am told, is lovely.

A final shout out – to all those who organised the first conference, in Greenwich, (building on the research agenda thing from IST 2015).  Without your efforts to get the ball rolling, this Lausanne thing couldn’t have happened.  Thanks!

UPDATE 30 April 2017- Thanks to Pete, who commented on this video on “anxiety, social class and who feels comfortable at top-down meetings” from 2013, with this link to “the conference manual“, which is brilliant and hilarious.

UPDATE Two – here, fwiw, is a blogpost I wrote about last year’s two day DPhil conference at SPRU