Category Archives: Social Movement Learning

Infiltration and environmental movements – what is to be done? #ExtinctionRebellion #climatebreakdown #spycops

The future is not written, but there are several excruciatingly safe bets about the years ahead.

  • atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane will continue to rise
  • poor people will suffer the resultant impacts of #climatebreakdown hard and first
  • the state will try to suppress social movements which seek to do anything about rendering these first two bets less safe.

By “suppress” I mean at best ‘guide’ and ‘channel’ towards market- and elite- friendly ‘solutions’ that leave the broader architecture of global society (inequality, consumerism, authoritarianism,  rapacious disregard for other species and future generations etc.) unchanged.  At worst, the gloves will properly come off and the fine words of liberal democracy (freedoms of speech, assembly, information) will be replaced with (in the words of Steve Buscemi)   force majeure and enough AI and predator drones to make Black Mirror look like Love Island.

The infiltration of social movements and political parties by state and corporate actors (the line is fuzzy) straddles ‘suppress’ and ‘gloves-off’ .  In the following short (1) essay I first point to some sterling recent work on infiltration of social movements, political parties and so on in the United Kingdom. I then raise-only-to-dismiss various responses we could, in theory, undertake to make safe the bet that our lords and masters will respond as they always have. I make a couple of personal commitments before finally, laying out – with practical short and medium term steps-  what “we” can do about the certainty of infiltration and disruption efforts.

This is a first draft. I welcome all comments which are not troll-y or off-trolley. I am particularly interested in suggestions of fictional representations of the impacts on social movements of infiltration/disruption by state and/or corporate actors…

What does history tell us?

For yonks the two “core” references on how the British State dealt with dissent were Tony Bunyan’s The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain and Bernard Porter’s Plots and Paranoia: A History of Political Espionage in Britain 1790-1988.  (I’ve not read the first – the second is brilliant, if inevitably incomplete). There was also fiction like “A Very British Coup” and the like to talk about how the state would respond to radicalism.

Since the exposing of Mark Kennedy in 2010, the revelations have come thicker and faster, thanks to the tireless work of activists, journalists and a whistleblower.  Two Guardian hacks wrote a very readable and thoughtful account, Undercover [review here]. Most recently, there is the crucial work of Connor Woodman.  The three must-reads are his recent blog on the whys, and hows of state infiltration, which is based on two reports he has produced

(There are many other excellent works, also on corporate spying – see Eveline Lubbers on this, but for now, let’s move on.)

Stupid things that we “could” do.

There are three stupid things we could do.

  • We could give up and stay home. This would doing the state’s work for it.
  • We could fail to react or under-react, shrugging our shoulders and failing to innovate, thinking that surveillance and its consequences are inevitable and inescapable.  This would doing the state’s work for it.
  • We could over-react, and treat all new people at meetings as guilty-till-proven innocent, demanding to visit their homes, see their birth certificates, meet their kids,  with a little waterboarding and acid-testing thrown in for the lulz. This would doing the state’s work for it.

Responding in the “right” ways…

Obviously we don’t want to under or over-react, but instead hit the ‘goldilocks’ point, of not too hot and not too cold, where we don’t do the state’s work for it and make the state have to work a little bit harder.

This involves understanding that surveillance and infiltration is not primarily about gathering evidence to put people on trial.

  • It’s about finding out who the leaders are (and there are always leaders, whether they are willing to acknowledge that and be accountable, or whether they hide behind the feeble rhetoric of horizontalism, hoping nobody has read Jo Freeman).
  • It’s about finding those leaders’ breaking points, tipping points, how they might be bought off or burnt out.
  • It’s about finding out which are the fragile relationships and connections within and between social movement groups, and about disrupting those relationships by fostering distrust and antipathy.
  • It’s about making it harder for new people to get involved, and harder for those involved to stay involved.

In short, the purpose of the forms of intelligence gathering (“elint” “sigint” “humint”) is to create and deepen distrust, and  to exploit informational and organisational bottlenecks, to demoralise people and decrease the momentum towards policy and cultural change which would piss off those who benefit from the status quo.

What I will do in the next three months

Here’s a public commitment to do some specific things (nothing like sticking your head in a noose to stop yourself, er, hanging around). I’ve collected a bunch of articles and books about infiltration/surveillance of social movements, because I am presenting a paper about the usefulness (or otherwise) of fictional representations of infiltration/disruption at an academic conference in April.  I commit to blogging about the papers as I read them, and blogging about the novels/movies I will be write about in  the paper. I commit to making a youtube video about infiltration, its consequences and what to do. And, obvs, I will put the paper up somewhere not behind a paywall.

What is to be done? How? Short and medium term actions

Finally, in this short essay, I want to lay out some things that individuals and groups can do in the short to medium term (1 to 6 months).  And, yes, I am also going to bang on about the urgent need to challenge the pathologies of social “mobilisation” organisations, one of my favourite hobby horses.

A few banalities first.  We must realise that

  • while there is such a thing as healthy paranoia, paranoia can be fostered as a weapon used against you.
  • people of colour and women have been on the sharp end of this stuff, and their experiences (and resistances) have much to teach us all.  These people must not be wiped out of the history they so often are (COINTELPRO vs Nixon’s “Enemies List” for example).  See, for example, the experience of the Mangrove Nine.  By all means enjoy fictional representations, but you know, usually the work of black folks, and black women especially, mysteriously gets forgotten.
  • it’s necessary to identify and cultivate academics and researchers who are working or have worked on this stuff.  Their work can be turned into comics, youtubes, short speeches (but for Gaia’s sake, give them credit!). For example, Connor Woodman’s blog could be printed off, illustrated and copies given to new activists.
  • it’s necessary to support activists doing further research (Undercover Research Group) with time, praise and cash.
  • it’s necessary to educate yourself on what to do if you suspect someone is either an agent, an informer, an agent provocateur.

 

Depathologising the “movement”

There is much more to be said on this subject (I am a bit of a bore).  But I think the discussion about infiltration could be used as a springboard to talking about the need to reshape our social movement organisations and  “activist”cultures so they are both resistant to infiltration (2) and less easily affected/damaged by it, and are able to grow, learn, organise and win in ways that previous waves of activity (as opposed to action) have not.

So, finally, around this question of refusing to recommitting the pathologies, some don’ts.

  • Don’t accept the smugosphere
  • Don’t accept organisations where it is always the same person (of whatever gender/age/ethnicity etc) chairing, and no effort is made to cultivate new facilitators by giving them portions of a meeting to facilitate.
  • Don’t accept meetings which don’t include agenda points along the lines of “how do we learn from past mistakes in activism?” and “how do we better connect with and support other groups working on related issues in this town/city?” and “how do we ensure that people who get involved in our group have the opportunity to learn new skills, knowledge and relationships, while sharing their own as they wish?”
  • Don’t go riding on the emotacycle; even if you have leathers and a helmet, you’ll get hurt.

emotacycle

  • Don’t accept leaders, whether announced or unannounced, without transparency. Accept leadership, if it is transformational collaborative and working hard to render itself unable to be co-opted or repressed…)

The job therefore is to be “realistic” while demanding the impossible

The job is to create resilience within individuals and BETWEEN individuals and groups (resilience rightly understood), so that connections are made, sustained and spread, more than can be broken by the behaviour of disruptors, infiltrators and agents provocateur.

Easy-peasy. Should be done well before the waters close over our heads…

 

Footnotes

(1) I intend to expand on it, as part of a broader project aimed at explaining how western social movement (as distinct from mobilisation)  organisations don’t have to repeat previous mistakes, unless we want to, but that not repeating requires active and difficult continual choices). The future is not written and all that…

(2) I suppose I could go off on some immune system analogies here, but that is possibly not helpful

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Anthroposcenic  Anthropological gits and shiggles. #moraledrain #oldfartclimateadvice

IMO, we need a new word:  The Anthroposcene.

Defined as: the space (scene) where everyone who uses the word  Anthropocene unself-consciously (without finger-wavy ‘air quotes’) gathers to exchange book recommendations, memes, attention, credibility etc.

And where everyone who has just woken up – thanks perhaps to the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees report – to the fierce urgency of …. 30 years ago, when climate change first got some public attention.

The Anthroposcene is, of course, full of scenesters, all of them believing that they’re the cool kids, and everyone else is a pale copy, hipsters, wannabes, drones and followers.  Each has their own take on how we get here, on what has to happen next, what will happen next  While busily chasing grants, clicks, bums on seats, and whatever else passes for metrics in these imperial days.

“What’s my scene?” indeed

Sigh.

Right, enough tossing off word salad.  On with the show.: Anthropological gits and shiggles.

In the temporary absence of she who knows better, she who must be obeyed, I seem to have recidivized into a filthy and tawdry habit, which after momentary ‘pleasure’ leaves me feeling hollow and sordid.  I refer, of course, to … attending meetings.

This week I went to three, count ’em THREE, when old me, better me, wiser  would have steered well clear. I even paid good scarce money to attend one of them. Still, I’m not completely beyond redemption, at least I had the good sense to walk (not flounce) out of all three, before the end.

Two of these meetings purported to be about network building.  Er, no, not really.  One I had higher hopes for, but these were dashed fairly quickly.

Did I learn anything? Yeah, very little bits and pieces, but nothing that was worth the time drain, and, to be brutally honest, the MORALE drain.  I lay in bed this morning, next to/under cats, rather than walking around the park with a backpack full of books, which makes me feels good, and is slowly getting rid of lard.  Why? Because the week’s worth of accumulated despair that even our so-called progressive/radical/democratic/radical/artsy people  can’t break free from stale repertoires which we KNOW, from endless bitter experience, DON’T WORK.  The full force of the state will come down on us all soon, especially if the Extinction Rebellion crew get their wish and a climate-state of emergency is declared.  The window for doing things differently is already small enough, and yet we seem unwilling, or – scarier still – unable to see how to do things differently.

Specifics, I suppose, are demanded of me.  So I will do it as mostly a series of ‘don’t’s.  Yeah, yeah, I know you’re supposed to frame your suggestions positively, but life is too short etc etc.  These are from the three meetings.

  • DON’T imagine that giving people name badges and asking them to say where they are from is in any meaningful way discharging your responsibilities, as organisers, to facilitate the formation of loose connections. Seriously.
  • Round tables are such a cliché.  I realise I wrote about this years ago [footnote 1], but don’t assume that round tables make discussions easier.  And just because there are round tables, doesn’t mean that you’re not actually sat in rows, being ego-fodder. The host/organisers of your event will want to blather on about themselves. That first 20/25 minutes that they do that will set the (wrong) tone for the day.  Seriously.
  • Maybe learn from the plea of People of Colour activists who ask white activists not to centre themselves and their emotional needs.  And take that into our own meetings?
  • You want a network, you believe in democracy, activism, networks.  Great. Don’t tell me (for 25 minutes). Show me.  Get us DOING it.  There will be time enough for your  organisational ego-needs to be met later. And if there isn’t, well so what?
  • Don’t have us on the tables answering the questions that YOU set.  Find ways of finding out what the people in the room want to discuss. It’s not rocket science. It’s open space.
  • Don’t put the “how do we build a movement”  stuff at the end of the day, when everyone is tired,  bored, having to leave. If it’s the most important thing of the day, then is should be threaded through the day, and should be headlining, no?

Oh, there’s more, but I already wasted enough time and energy GOING to these wretched things, and more again writing this blog post. And none of us is going to live forever.  A decade might even be a push, if it all unravels as quickly as it might.

So, in the very very unlikely event that I ever drag my sorry fat arse to another “network creation” event, here are 10 predictions which I will turn into a checklist and then blog against.

  1. They will give us name badges and ask us to point on a map where we came from today. This won’t be used in any meaningful way (i.e. facilitating connections between hyper-local people), but will give the all-important appearance of giving a damn.
  2. There will be round tables that we are sat at, as if this is somehow inherently democratic.
  3. The day will start with an overlong explanation of why we’re here (we know) and an advert for the host organisation and/or the venue owners. This will suck (up) at least 30 of the first, crucial, 30 minutes
  4. There will be a q and a after that, but no opportunity to discuss among ourselves our questions/thoughts, so the q and a will be dominated by usual suspects.
  5. We will be asked to respond as tables to questions set by the organisers.
  6. There will be a video-vox pop booth, a honeypot for narcissists, and an opportunity for the organisers to show how cool and democratic they are.
  7. There will be minimal (zero) attempt to effectively connect attendees on the basis of their stated needs and current abilities (no skill/knowledge swap shop, for instance).
  8. The ‘how do we build a network?’ question will be raised, but only given any time at the very end, when some have left (physically or mentally) and everyone is tired/looking at their watches. It will not, therefore, be anywhere near as effective as it could have been, but some flipcharts will be filled with different coloured scrawls, which looks good in a blog post about the event, so that’s alright then
  9. Integrating people who can’t physically be there will not be done in any meaningful sense (or any sense whatsoever), despite there being, you know, information technologies that would make this possible.
  10. If you raise concerns/complaints about this, you’ll be disregarded as pathologically negative and negatively pathological, or something. Who cares, frankly.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. From here:

In the Bad Old Days of Industrial Capitalism, where nature was not respected, venerated and Valued, then we would have been sat in rows, listening to the various big cheeses at the front telling us that while there were some problems, everything would be alright as long as the current system was refined and tweaked.

badolddaysIn the New Collaborative Days of post-Industrial Capitalism, where nature is most definitely being Valued, we sit… at round tables, with some of us having therefore to twist around on our seats to listen to the various big cheeses at the front telling us that while there are some problems, everything will be alright as long as the current system is refined and tweaked.

We have swapped a system that was at least honest about who talked and who listened for one which is uncomfortable for some, who have to pretzel themselves in order to fit, but with the same underlying result.

Is Capitalism unsustainable? The jury’s out-ish. Is ego-fodderfication unsustainable? Sadly not/hell yes.

I don’t know how much rethinking economics is actually going on (I have my suspicions, but no hard data). I do have a good idea of how much rethinking politics/academia/civilsocietying is going on, and it’s not much at all/zero. The latest piece of hard data came tonight, at the University of Manchester. The debate/discussion was on the hot topic of “is capitalism unsustainable?” (see here for a 1950s Edward Teller/Dr Strangelove throwback: physics Has All The Answers and Salvation We Need).

Around 110-120 (I counted) mostly white, mostly middle-aged/old people turned out on a Sunday night to…. well, I don’t know why they came: to hear from the great and the good, I suppose. Me, I mostly went for the anthropological lulz, and I got them.

Here are the predictions I made, and the scores I got. After that, I’ll do super brief capsule (bullet-points) of what I scribbled down (It wasn’t, as far as I can tell, filmed or audio recorded).

Prediction

How’d I do?

1

There will be no “turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself” at the outset

CORRECT

2

There will be no “turn to the person next to you to share thoughts” between speeches

CORRECT

3

There will be no time for “clarification” question after each speech

CORRECT

4

No one will actually try to define capitalism

CORRECT (they may have had a go in the last 20 minutes)

5

There will be no mention of “false needs” and the advertising industry

WRONG. Molly Scott-Cato had a portion of her speech on this (though she then drew I think too firm a line between Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays)

6

Gramsci won’t get a mention

CORRECT

7

No distinction will be made between capitalism and industrialism

CORRECT

8

No one on panel will make distinction between capitalism and democracy

CORRECT

9

It will be at least an hour before anyone from the audience is able to ask a question

CORRECT (closer to 75 minutes, I think).

Kevin Anderson went first, with the latest update of his “Paris vs Growth? Two degrees, maths and equity” powerpoint.

  • If the top ten percent of global emitters reduced their level to the average European, that would lop 30% of human emissions
  • Human emissions 65ish% percent higher than they were in 1990 (went up 1.5% last year, will go up again this year).
  • The “Climate Glitterati” stick in his craw, and he named names – Mark Carney, Adair Tuner, John Gummer, Nick Stern, Christina Figueres, Mike Bloomberg, Al Gore, Leonard Di Caprio. He also served it out to grey-haired academics who he said were running cover for them.

Robert Pollin, who has a recent article “De-growth vs a Green New Deal” in the NLR went next.

Sound quality was quite a problem, and there was no accompanying powerpoint (a visual prompt might have helped us decipher some of the random syllables?)

  • Mostly advocating a Green New Deal (because the 2008 one gained such traction?)
  • There’s a proposal on the Washington State ballot, which got there in the teeth of some trade union opposition.
  • Vested interests need to be fought and defeated (nowt in speech about the mechanics of how you do that, but I suspect this article and this article might have more on that).
  • Degrowth is a Bad Idea, won’t deliver the emissions reductions we need.

Giorgos Kallis (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Institute of Environmental Science & Technology)

Same sound/no powerpoint issues as before

  • At least tried to answer the question by asking two sub-questions is economic growth unsustainable? Does capitalism need growth? (if answer to both questions is yes, then, well, yes).
  • Took issue with Pollin’s tight focus on energy systems.
  • Thought that even if we could contract the economy it “would be a stupid idea”

Molly Scott Cato (Green MEP)

Talked about sustainable finance initiative

  • kind of (as you’d expect) talked around the question, quite “well, what do you mean by capitalism?
  • Actually talked about advertising and the creation of false needs, and vested interests in, for example the “Pheobus” (sic) cartel. (light bulb manufacturers who kept bulbs life short to keep punters having to buy them).
  • Talked about interest (but not ‘fractional reserve banking”) and the discount rate.
  • Also bigged up Extinction Rebellion – hmmmmm

Then the chair (Maeve Cohen of Rethinking Economics) had a whole set of questions and panellists responding to each other (something, surely, that the audience was present and equipped to do??) Fun only for the sniping.

Finally three questions from the aduience got asked – what about a truce in the green growth/degrowth wars and agreement on caps? – why haven’t we got through to the climate deniers and those who vote for them? And ‘how bad will the next recession be’.

Those (good) questions got relatively brief answers and then the panellists basically started talking to each other again. And I left. Life really is too short, what with pretty damn imminent societal breakdown. I’d rather be under one or both of the bloody cats….

Highlights

  • Professors Kevin Anderson and Professor Robert Pollin lobbing increasingly flashy and bangy skype-grenades at one another.
  • A couple of Polyp cartoons

Lowlights

  • The total lack of clarity in terms of defining what the hell “we” (i.e. they) are talking about.
  • Surely someone of them thinks that capitalism isn’t just a set of organisations but, you know, a social relation?
  • The lack of a sense that we have been having this debate, on ecological terms, for just on 50 years.
  • The chair abusing (in my opinion, maybe not others’) the chair’s position to ask multiple questions, which then bounced back and fourth among the panellists
  • The egofodderfication of it all

What the hell do I mean by egofodderfication? Read on if you wanna know.

Egofodder is what I call the audience at any public event (big or small) which has not been structured by the organisers to provoke the highest possible amount of participation, engagement and mingling.

Here’s an old video.

Is egofodderfication unsustainable? “Sadly No”

The social norm is that you turn up to a meeting and are talked at for at least 45 minutes (if you’re lucky). Then the sharp-elbowed might get to ask a question. Then you file out.

And people keep coming back for that. There’s a hardcore of the same old faces (I used to be one of them) who would go to the opening of an envelope, to keep the gnawing sense of despair and powerlessness at bay. And there is, flowing over these stones, a river of people seen once or twice, who never can see a way ‘in’ for themselves, their concerns, and realise that they’d be better off reading a book/watching at TED talk, for all of the actual human interaction they would get at one of these wretched events, where they are talked at by experts.  But there are always enough ‘new people’ scared shitless by the news and the obvious total incompetence of our “leaders” (not just international and national, I’m looking at YOU, GMCA and MCC) in even having the tiniest idea what to do.  So in that sense, organisers of activist meetings, public events, academic seminars etc will never lack for warm bodies to be their ego fodder, coming from the usual suspects and the not-yet-churned through.

Is egofodderfication unsustainable? Hell yes

We (most of us) think that a civil society upsurge, an unprecedented social movement of diverse groups is required. And yet we tolerate the same old broken tools, thinking they will work this time, because we are too scared to piss off “busy” event organisers.  But what it does is wastes the time and potential connection of usual suspects and ALSO offers a granite wall of alienation for ‘newbies’ to scale. Some do, mostly they don’t. Mostly they go away, and are ‘lost’ to ‘activism’ (of whatever stripe).

Since someone on the panel launched a thought experiment, I thought I’d have one here too.

  • What if there was a social norm that every meeting (whether it was activist, local authority, academic, whatevs) started with a call for people to introduce themselves, very briefly, to someone they don’t know (but always have a system where people can hold up their hand or whatever to opt out!)
  • What if there was a social norm that wherever it was possible (i.e. multiple speakers) there would be a chance for people to compare notes between speakers, and ask questions of CLARIFICATION.
  • What if there was a social norm that before the Q and A (which was never more than 45 minutes from the beginning of the event) people had a chance to turn to a friend/stranger and get help making a long question into a short one, or a half question into a whole one, and then the chair could choose from more hands than the stale male hands that inevitably go up.
  • What if speakers were expected to spend a quarter of their time explaining concrete things that could be done, and how people in the room could take concrete steps towards that?
  • What if speakers were expected also to address the question “what have ‘we’ (academics/activists/politicians) been doing wrong/badly in the past?” and explain how they were doing better in the future (i.e. from right fricking now.).
  • What if speakers via skye were asked to record their initial talks, and have a powerpoint alongside, sent to the organisers in advance; and then come in “live” purely for the Q and A (though obvs have been “lurking” to hear the other speakers’ comments).
  • What if there was a social norm that events would be filmed and blogged so people who couldn’t make it could still feel a part of it, rather than apart from it?

Maybe then, the networks of people who care (and if you came out on a dark Sunday night, you care) would grow thicker, people would randomly encounter people and we’d all be better connected, less atomised, less isolated. Who knows, you might even be able to grow some movements with the help of those networks. I know, I know, crazy talk.

#climate justice or just us? Of learning, time machines and the “what should have been done”#AFoI2018

May as well put cards on the table. I think we’re fubarred. I think that we’ve now left it “too late” and a grim meathook future is all we have to look forward too.  There is probably still time to learn a bunch of new skills, use our technology specifically to soften the coming climate blows.  But we (and by we I mean entirely culpable middle-class people like me with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of information) seem more interested in diverting ourselves, and in believing the soothing bullshit about the Paris Agreement and shiny new technologies.

Right, that said, I went to a bunch of mostly excellent sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas today. (Saturday 14th)  One of them was on environmental justice (forms of justice – energy, climate, transitions, are a big topic with academics, btw).   With my “even though we’re fubarred we have to act as if we’re not blah blah Gramscian optimism blah blah” hat on, I asked the panellists my curly “if you had a time machine and could warn your younger self” question.  The answers were interesting, but imo incomplete.  So this blog post will take you through

  • the outline of who said what during the panel
  • my question and the gist of the panellists’ answers
  • the answer I would have given

oh, there’s also

  • how the panel could have been done differently
  • an appeal from GetUp! about the Federal Government trying to bully them into silence

The panel was chaired by Andrew P. Street, and the panellists were Peter Owen, (who heads up the South Australian Wilderness Society), Mark Diesendorf (who has been working on renewable energy – as a scientist, activist and policy wonk – for four decades), Professor Fiona Haines (a criminologist, has written The Paradox of Regulation) and Miriam Lyons (who has worked for various outfits, is now with GetUp! Of which more later).  The format was simple – questions from the chair to each of the speakers, and then the floor would be open for questions from the audience (which was very white, and very old – where are the young people?  Does a Festival of Ideas not appeal? Are they all working second and third jobs to pay for their smashed avocado toast?)

Street started with a very good question – “what got you involved in environmental action/activism?”

For Diesendorf  it was the realisation that his PhD thesis – on the physics of the centre of the sun – was being used by hydrogen bomb makers at Lawrence Livermore. That led him into activism with groups like Scientists for Social Responsibility.

Fiona Haines had started out looking at white colour crime – her PhD had looked at how companies responded to the deaths of workers, and she then looked at the impact on trade practices from mass She made the (entirely valid and frankly terrifying) point that we are at a tipping point, with the oceans emptying of fish while filling with plastic, heatwaves getting hotter… (see blog post about Wednesday’s event at the Adelaide Sustainability Centre).

Peter Owen told of playing on the (closed) mouth of the River Murray in 1981, and later realising birds and dolphins were disappearing.  His father getting sued over Hindmarsh Island bridge protesting led to an interest in law.   (This is the clearest case of the four of  how “significant life experiences affect environmental action”, i.e.  unstructured and unsupervised play in  ‘nature’ before the age of 11 may well lead to a life long passion for “the environment”).  He and the Wilderness Society are now trying to stop oil companies taking a great big and very unhealthy bite out of the Great Australian Bight

Miriam Lyons said that she was an environmental activist – taking examples of “pollushun” to school show and tell before she could spell, and sending a protest letter to Indonesian dictator Suharto about rainforest destruction when she was 6 or 7.  Contact with legendary public servant John Menadue and mutual frustration about the left being good at saying what it was against but not what it was for led to the creation of the Centre for Policy Development.  Frustration with the ALP’s ability to adopt progressive rhetoric without the policy follow through has led her to other work, including Get Up! She gave a shout out to its work on a policy blueprint to make the energy transition fairer. (Not sure if she was referring to the 2016 Homegrown Energy Plan, done with Solar Citizens, or something newer).

Street then mentioned that lots of things don’t work when trying to get change, and asked the panellists to talk things that DO work.

Lyons gave the example of what Get Up! did after the 2016 election when the Turnbull government tried to abolish the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (history lesson – it had been set up under the Gillard government as part of the Clean Energy Future package – both ALP and Greens claim credit for the idea. Crucially, the Greens insisted it not be under the control of the then-Energy minister Martin Ferguson, who now chairs the advisory board of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association).  GetUp! took a decision to make ARENA’s work tangible, putting up billboards in the marginal electorates where ARENA had funded projects, getting supporters to do emails, phone calls and the physical delivery of reports to the MP’s office.  She said “whenever you’re being told that you’re being counter-productive/you’d catch more flies with honey” it’s not true and you’re very close to winning if you go a bit harder.”

Owen mentioned that TV media matters for ‘maximum impct, with actions that are bright, colourful and positive.  Commercial TV coverage is worth far more than ABC. He pointed to the Wilderness Society commissioning its own oil spill impacts study when BP refused to release the work it had done, which was expensive but worth doing.  He argued that both the Coalition and the ALP have been captured by the fossil fuel industry.  He referenced a UN SDG report in the last week that shows Australia as the worst country in the world when it comes to climate action.

Fiona Haines said there were two things that make a difference. Firstly, understanding the importance of political risk. Government responses to disasters (not just environmental – could be a factory fire/collapse etc) is framed by political risk i.e. dealing with the political and economic fallout from the disaster. This they do in two ways (1) by reassuring people that they are safe and secure (or that they are the only party that can do so) and (2) by protecting their revenue and the conditions for capital investment. Dealing with the physical, technical and engineering elements is secondary to this and gets pushed aside.  We can’t expect governments not to do deal with political risk (it is part of a capitalist democracy’s DNA) .– but the challenge is making sure they see that they do so in a way that also deals with the physical aspects of the disaster. Understanding this can help direct public campaigns and outrage a little better. Secondly, Secondly she spoke on CSG protests and AGL’s divestment, saying that it’s a complex story, including the fact that AGL only had limited exposure in any case, and that investors guides to the market had made a difference. (See Haines et al. 2016.  Taming business? A critical analysis of AGL’s decision to divest from coal seam gas). For Haines, it’s not about individual pressures/tactics but how the pieces fit together (exactly.  It’s synergies and consistent/persistent pressure(s) not singular moments).

Mark Diesendorf related the story of Franklin Roosevelt telling a civil society pressure group “you’ve convinced me, now get out there and make me do it.”  He said that lobbying is useless without further pressure, with positive results coming from community groups (Solar Citizens, 100% renewables, ACF, Greenpeace, Get Up!)

So, that all took rather a long time.  There was only time for one question and I got lucky (i.e. I am a huge white middle-class male who put up his hand early and made eye contact with the chair).  What I said was something very similar to this:

Thanks to the panel.  In 1988 there was a Greenhouse 88 conference that many people in this room probably remember. We’ve known about this problem for thirty years, but it’s getting worse.  So, if the panellists had a time machine and could go back then, what advice would they give?  Do we need to do more of the same – more marches, more people dressed in penguin costumes, or do we need to do something ELSE, something different?

Here’s my best approximation of what the panellists said. It’s followed by my critique/attempt at an answer to that question.

Lyons: Be unafraid about how risky our situation is Don’t worry about frightening people into inaction if you have a proportionate action to suggest/help with.  “The world is burning – change your light bulbs” is no good, but “the world is burning we need to get the right promises from politicians and then hold them to account” is better. Honesty about the scale of the problems and the scale of the solutions is needed.  If we go through the lens of politicians and CEOs about ‘achievability’ we get nowhere. We need to drag the political opportunity structures over to the physical activity level.

Owen:  Incrementalism has been wrong. We’ve got to go flat out.  There’s no future in 20-30 years if not dealt with immediately.  We’ve been in a ‘transitions’ phase for three generations.  When war approaches, we down tools and act, collectively.

Haines: I was at a community event in NSW, where the town was split on the subject of fossil fuels excavation nearby and someone said “why is it wrong to care about the Great Barrier Reef?” The context was that they were getting grief from other people in town who thought caring about the environment meant not caring about human well-being. So, we have to have justice as part of  what we talk about.

Mark Diesendorf was cautious on the war mobilisation analogy (see his work on this, with a former PhD student, Laurence Delina– “Is wartime mobilisation a suitable policy model for rapid national climate mitigation?“), and pointed out that social change is slow and hard, that social movement activity is hard.

So, good answers in as far as the y go, but mostly addressed to ‘messaging’ and ‘mobilising’.  Here’s what I’d have (tried to) say.  Underneath are some hyperlinks to other things I’ve written.

Over the last thirty years we’ve made a series of what can be termed mistakes, but seemed like good ideas at the time.  We’ve spent time, credibility and energy within ‘consultative’ policy development processes which ended in minimal and tokenistic action or NO action, leaving us demoralised and discredited.

We’ve tried to build common cause with some unions – see the Green Jobs Unit, the Green Goldrush campaign – but have been naïve about the power of a few unions who see coal jobs as basically sacrosanct.

Above all else, we’ve confused mobilising with movement-building. It’s easier to get people out for a march or a protest.  These can invigorate, give hope. But they can also lead to people thinking ‘I’ve done my bit’, and they suck up enormous amounts of time and bandwidth. They can lead to a cycle of emotathons

It’s even more important to grow social movement organisation groups, so they can hold meetings that are welcoming, appealing to new people, that can absorb the energy and skills of people who can’t come to endless meetings and don’t necessarily want to be part of activist subcultures.  This panel is an example of this – a set of experts at the front of the room, telling the assembled rows of ‘ego-fodder’ the truth. We should have been more interested in creating links among you, and finding out what skills, knowledge and connections you have, and what skills, knowledge and  connections you need to become powerful active citizens. We’ve got to stop meeting like this.

We need to go to people – especially old people, poor people, minorities etc and listen, and work with not at or on.  And we are doing that – “powerful conversations” – but we needed to be doing it 30 years ago.

What could have been done differently?

 

Marc Hudson is finishing his PhD.  No, honestly. His writing on (on climate policy, renewables etc) has appeared in The Conversationreneweconomy.com.au and in various Australian newspapers He is researching an article on the “Greenhouse 88” conference (especially the Adelaide element). If you were at it, he would love to hear from you. Also, please pass this on to anyone who was at the event.
Email: marcmywords@gmail.com
Phone: 04979 32031

That GetUp! Email.

We haven’t seen anything like this before.

The Turnbull Government recently passed new police state laws that threaten our movement’s ability to campaign for a fair, flourishing and just Australia.1,2

Actions that merely harm the government’s reputation on political or economic matters can now be prosecuted as serious national security offences. So peaceful blockades of Adani coal operations, or exposing the truth about child abuse on Nauru to the UN, could carry prison sentences of up to 25 years.3

Don’t think they’ll do it? Well, in what independent MP Andrew Wilkie has called “an act of bastardry”, the Turnbull Government just authorised the prosecution of ‘Witness K’ and their lawyer for exposing potentially illegal actions by the Howard Government.4,5

It’s all having a huge chilling effect on GetUp’s campaign plans. That’s why today all of us, as GetUp’s lead campaigners, are taking the unusual step of contacting you, together. 

We urgently need to build up our people-powered Civil Defence Fund to get the best, ongoing legal advice on how these new anti-democratic laws apply to our campaigns. But it doesn’t stop there, because if we can gather enough ongoing support we’re going to prepare for a potential constitutional challenge – that could see these laws struck down in the High Court. 

But in order to take on the power of a government hell bent on suppressing truth and dissent we need a fresh new tide of members to join our GetUp Crew, who make a weekly contribution to support our work.

Can you help fund this legal fight by joining the GetUp Crew with a regular, weekly donation to our Civil Defence Fund?

Last night we held frantic teleconferences with whistleblowers and activists who want to shine a light on the abuse of children in Australia’s detention camps on Nauru. The question we asked each other was: could we face a 25 year prison sentence for doing so?

And if Stop Adani activists blockade roads to coal ports or mines, Attorney-General Christian Porter may decide to prosecute this peaceful act of protest as “sabotage” – punishable by up to 7 years behind bars. He could do the same for protests against the secretive TPP trade deal, breaches of international law or even people protesting against Australia going to war.6

This is the same Christian Porter who authorised the prosecution of Witness K, and their lawyer, for exposing the Howard Government’s dodgy spying operation against East Timor, to swindle the impoverished nation out of billions in natural resources.

That’s why we need to build up a people-powered fund to give us access to the best legal firepower available, to ensure these laws don’t erode our ability to campaign, or indeed our democracy.

Can you join the GetUp Crew by making a weekly contribution to our Civil Defence Fund?

We urgently need to know how these new anti-democratic laws could impact our campaigns. And we have a legal brief ready to put into the hands of a high-powered law firm with a track record of beating back abuse of government power.

We’re also in this fight for the long haul. We’re ready to talk to some of the best barristers in the nation about a possible constitutional challenge. Can you imagine being part of a landmark High Court case to defend the freedom of political speech?

But we’re up against the full might of a Federal Government that’s on a mission to bully, silence and raze its political opponents to the ground. We can’t do any of this without a brave new tide of supporters joining our GetUp Crew.

Can you make a regular weekly contribution to defend everything we do together? 

Brilliant facilitation “patch” at #AFoI2018

Sometimes small tweaks can have big impacts, and can sidestep showdowns with the powerful and their (often) big brittle egos…

At the Adelaide Festival of Ideas (of which more later) today, I saw a brilliant little facilitation trick/hack/patch/whatevs (1).

It’s so simple, so elegant and – today at least – so effective that I’m a bit embarrassed for myself that I never thought of it….  (2)

Drumroll please…

It’s this: If you’ve got a Q and A that requires microphones (because it’s a big ol’ auditorium, or the event is being recorded), then once your microphone monkeys (usually kitted out in brightly coloured and logoed- t-shirts) hand over the damn thing, and tend not to shut up for quite some time.  It’s like the microphone has the properties of those Tolkien rings.

So, what is to be done is, as the meerkats say, simples – you instruct your monkeys to keep hold of the microphone and tell everyone that you’re doing that.  The questioner then has to do their talking without their hands wrapped around an instrument of power…

If I were a wanky poseur who’d half-digested some STS,  I’d call this a “counter-affordance”- a social practice that deliberately undercuts the dominant emotional responses to a technology.

Of course, if the speaker is halfway down a row that’s narrow, then maybe you have to tweak it so that the person NEXT to the questioner has to hold it, and lacks the moral authority/social pressure that this is predicated on.  Still,  just because a patch might not work in every circumstance, doesn’t mean it’s not a damn useful tool.

 

Footnotes

(1)  I didn’t catch the name of the facilitator, and the website does not help further. An older woman, completely on top of her game.

(2) In my own defence, I almost never facilitate those sorts of meetings.

 

Film review; Bag It

How many innocents lose their lives,
In the gloss of the packaging?

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, by the great British punk singer TV Smith.

bag itBag It is a good documentary, in the vein of Roger and Me (where Michael Moore tried to get a face-to-face interview with a General Motors chairman), Supersize Me  (where a now-disgraced film-maker ate nowt but McDonalds for a month) and No Impact Man (guy minimises his waste footprint).  A “naïve” (that’s evian spelt backwards) everyman begins by investigating plastic bags, and as he goes, the scope gets wider and wider.  Meanwhile, his partner is pregnant.

Along the way he speaks to various experts about plastics’ impact on wildlife (especially in the oceans – it’s in these scenes that one’s loathing for the human species in all its grotesque vandalism could get on top of a viewer), the human impacts (phthlatates  and bisphenol A , and the awful conditions for people in the so-called ‘developing world’ as they cope with Westerners’ waste) and the counter-attacks of incumbents (hello American Chemicals Council) in defeating efforts to price or regulate plastic bags.  Essential2living my fat arse.

There’s stuff on the horrific carbon footprint of the production of and transportation of bottled water, talking heads with Elizbaeth Royte of Garbage Land, Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff), Peter Coyote  (who is a great activist as well as a great actor) and a bunch of different scientists whose day job is to catalogue the demise of the species and ecosystems that they love.

There are a couple of dud notes (the ‘I like my lettuce like my ladies – loose’ told with a  winking leer is clearly a pre- #metoo moment (though I will be using it with the long-suffering Wife). Would it have killed them to have given a shout out to Rachel Carson  who warned about ocean pollution and human impacts, or to namecheck Barry Commoner as the originator of the oft-repeated line ‘there is no ‘away’’.  More seriously (and predictably) the ‘what to do’ list is crushingly individualistic, atomistic, largely apolitical.  Despite the film containing several examples of the nefarious anti-democratic actions of corporations and their trade associations, there is nothing in the list about being an active (and organised) citizen, of contesting the grotesque and ecocidal power of the corporate lobbyists. So it goes.

Of manels, transitions and Ottawa. #IST2018 and #IST2019

The organisers of #IST2018 have worked extremely hard, and pulled together what has already been an interesting and thought-provoking programme (with a day and a half still to come). Barring a few things in the conference programme (the floor 1 and 4 switcheroo), it’s been a well-oiled machine – in part thanks to the affable and incredibly good-looking volunteers in the purple t-shirts. But I digress, because there have been – there’s not point denying it- a couple of tone-deaf moments. This blog is about one of those moments, the nature of question and answer sessions the world over, what we can learn from it, and what “we” (by which  I mean “hey you, hosts of #IST2019”) could do differently in future.

For those of you still wondering about the neologism in the title of this blog post – a manel is an all-male panel. The term was born on a Tumblr and the phenomenon has even been covered by the Financial Times. It’s not restricted to business or social sciences –  it’s a thing in the natural sciences too. The folks over at UN Global Compact have even pledged not to allow its employees to participate in or host an all-male panel. The executive director said

“Too often I’ve been the only woman on a panel. It is time that we challenge the status quo and stop making excuses — there is no shortage of qualified women,”

There’s a boycott site, where men can pledge to refuse to take part in all-male panels.

Today’s opening plenary panel, while full of rich insights  was… a manel. This did not go unnoticed in the twittersphere or in meatspace..

Now, I raised the manel issue with one of the organising committee of the conference (and in the interests of full disclosure I should say that two other members of the committee are my supervisors) and they said that there had in fact been a woman scheduled but this had fallen through and the final make-up was what we saw.

In the break after the plenary (and indeed, all day), I’ve overheard or participated in discussions about this. It left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, mostly, but not only, women.  Let’s not catastrophize, it hasn’t meant people have been bereft, unable to take part in the many excellent discussions and sessions. It’s not the end of the world (climate change, now that is the end of the world), but it has I think dampened some enthusiasm, and become – fairly or unfairly – another anecdote for the (bulging) patriarchy scrapbook.

Alongside comments on the lack of diversity on the panel, there were twitter exhortations asking women to speak up. (And during the morning session there had been catcalls about women being chosen to ask questions, which was pretty extraordinary). I wasn’t there at the evening plenary, but I am told there was an awkward silence when women were explicitly called upon to speak out in the Q and A.

Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, (this is probably impolitic to say), but there is a certain irony here; in that we are seeking to reconfigure – or offer policymakers advice on reconfiguring – at the societal and systemic level, but respond with individualised “solutions” to systemic issues in our own backyard. (Then again, some of the practices within our own regime are not under the microscope, for reasons that both institutional theory and MLP scholars might well understand.)

Anyway, while, the functional utility of purposive endogenous lacrimal gland excitation as an adaptive response to the catastrophic decontainerisation of bovine lactates is low (see here) , we can still look forward to the future.

What is to be done.

I would modestly (cough, cough) put forward the following proposals

On manels

Strenuous efforts should be made to avoid manels. However, if a woman is going to be thrown in as an obvious token/fig leaf, then (and this may be controversial) I think that is probably worse than useless, and the manel should go ahead. However….

If a manel cannot be avoided,

a) it should be placed in the middle of any given conference programme, rather than the first session (which sets the emotional ‘tone’ for the event) or the last (which is what people remember- see the Peak-End effect).

b) there should be a clear acknowledgement that a manel is taking place, with a short explanation/assurance that the organisers took all reasonable steps to avoid this. The audience could be invited to suggest women who could have been asked to participate

Re the Q and A – time-keeping and emotional tone.

Chairs of sessions and facilitators of panels should be asked to keep all speakers strictly to time, perhaps via the ‘clap clinic’ method, which seeks to tackle  the problem of power dynamics between chairs (sometimes lower status) and the speakers. It simply involves setting a time limit and when that time is reached, starting to applaud and asking the (already prepared) audience to join in.

hm2-clap-clinic

Chairs of sessions and facilitators of panels should be asked to consider how they will ensure that those people who traditionally do not speak up (many women, some men, many ‘newbies’, introverts etc) can have brief opportunities to confer and hone their question. Perhaps via the ‘Q and A’ method.

Once the chair/facilitator sees a sea of hands (and they probably will) it will be possible to pick – say – a woman, a man and another woman: each to ask a question of no more than three sentences. Not all of the questions will necessarily be interesting, but then again, “interesting” might be in the eye of the beholder.

 

What other (better) suggestions do people have?   #reflexivelearning and all that….

 

UPDATE Thurs 14 June – from a very astute person who sent me a direct message on Twitter (reprinted with permission)

Good question, some thoughts if i may.

  • participatory sessions (see format of Transformations Dundee 2017 for example), speed sessions are useful for the audience – though may not suit all speakers.
  • Wider disciplinary contributions, but taking care who contributors run parallel to (a multidisciplinary session / more international perspectives in competition with a ‘big name speaker from within transitions’ would be a shame for all involved).
  • Question etiquette enforcement (short or microphone removed, ECR first – even if it requires a moment’s silence).
  • Balance in speakers – have a white middle-age male quota and don’t exceed it, actively approach others (and do not allow the programme to be dominated as it is).
  • Workshops.
  • Creative spaces e.g. collaborative writing jams.
  • Networking sessions.