Category Archives: Social Movement Learning

Brilliant neglected book: “Ecological Pioneers” #Australia #environment

ecolpioneersI like to believe I’ve read a lot these three and a half years (even by my own somewhat Rabelaisian standards).  Specifically, on the Australian environment movement/climate change/climate policy etc.  I’ve read a few excellent books, a few stinkers and lots in between (thankfully mostly at the ‘excellent’ end, and towering piles of journal articles (I mean this literally).

And I seem to have inadvertently saves (one of) the best for last (or latest):

Ecological Pioneers: a social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action  by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill is an absolute delight (and largely neglected its seems – I’ve seen very few references to it anywhere else – so hat tip to William Lines’ Patriots, from 2006).

The authors have clearly been involved in various environmental battles, kept their eyes open and figured out who would be worth talking too.  But beyond ‘the usual [and deservedly so] suspects’ of Judith Wright, Bob Brown, the Dunphys, Jack Mundey, Val Plumwood etc, but also great capsule portraits of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Russel Drysdale, the folks behind ‘Keyline’ (a land management system that inspired the Permaculture people – and there’s a great section on David Holmgren too).

Alongside that is a very necessary, well-written and downright useful section on indigenous views of nature/landscape/country and “ownership”, all the way up to the Mabo decision.

Look, I could gush for hours, and quote liberally (I spent three hours today typing up some ‘must-not-forget’ bits.  The tl:dr is this: if you have any interest in ecological thinking, its provenance, Australia etc, then this is a must must read.


Maps, territories, landscapes and moonscapes: three brilliant guides to the transformations

It’s easy to get lost, to feel lost, especially when you’re diving into new literature(s). Your supervisors can do just so much (mostly tell your thesis is not up to scratch (yet), or point you in the direction of some really good literature (institutional work, much?)

But for the bigger/biggest picture? Well, who has the time to keep abreast of all the stuff that’s out there. By luck, twitter and (cough) “good judgement” I’ve recently come across three superlative explanatory papers that tackle the “how are we supposed (to believe that we might still be able to) to get out of this mess” question.

They are, in order that I read them (drumroll please)

Lorbach et al. 2017. Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 42, pp.599-626.

de Gooyert et al. 2016. Sustainability transition dynamics: Towards overcoming policy resistance. Technological Forecasting & Social Change, Vol. 111, October, pp.135-45.

Patterson, et al. 2016. Exploring the governance and politics of transformations towards sustainability Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions Vol 24 Sept 2017, p.1-16

Loorbach et al do a great job explaining the intellectual origins of transitions (see my recent blog based on a Florian Kern seminar), and then walk the reader through socio-technical, socio-institutional, and socio-ecological transitions, which have in common notions of path dependencies, niches, experiments and governance. They point to three ways of dealing with agency (fancy academic speak for “who can do what to what effect”) – analytical, evaluative and experimental. They close out by trying to connect to Real World impacts, and “sustainability transitions research and its challenges.” Oh, and there are 172 references. Should help anyone needing something to procrastinate with from drafting their discussion chapter. Cough. Cough.

De Gooyert et al want to help with the problem of Power, something that transitions has a bit of a problem with.

“Despite these efforts, many implemented transition policies have not been able to meet expectations. This tendency of systems to defeat the policies that have been designed to improve them is known as ‘policy resistance’. This paper addresses the question how we can explain the persistence of policy resistance in the context of sustainability transitions, and aims to bring us a step further in the direction of identifying policies that support overcoming policy resistance.”

So, they’re making use of system dynamics and doing something rather clever – getting “experts”
in a room and asking them the Del Amitri question why “nothing ever happens”.

The methodology is novel, and limited – they know they will also have to ask the (un)civil society types. Whatever papers emerge from that will also be worth a very close read.

Btw, another paper on this that is worth a very close read is
Smink, M., Hekkert, M. and Negro, S. 2015. Keeping sustainable innovation on a leash? Exploring incumbents’ institutional strategies. Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 24, pp.86-101.

Patterson et al do a similar thing as de Gooyert et al, but on a bigger, hairier and more audacious scale. They take a theory/framework/whatevs and smash it up against transitions studies. But rather than systems dynamics, they plump for Earth Systems Governance.

What’s that. Well, they explain  -“The Earth System Governance (ESG) framework (Biermann et al., 2009) is highly relevant to the challenge of understanding and analysing the governance and politics of transformations towards sustainability. It comprises a matrix of key governance problems, and cross-cutting themes that are inherent to dealing with global sustainability problems.”

esg from patterson et al
Source:  Patterson et al

They smack ESG up against socio-technical transitions, social-ecological systems, sustainability pathways, and transformative adaptation.  And lots of interesting things “fall” out of that collision, (i.e. are the result of serious thinking and intellectual firepower)

They close out with some mildly important questions. Here’s a selection

• What are the short-term and long-term dynamics of transformations, and how can we observe when (or when not) transformations are occurring?
• How can transformative change and its feasibility be understood and analysed in an ex-ante sense?
•What are the sources of agency and roles for both state and non-state actors in enabling and supporting transformations?
• What drives transformations towards sustainability over long timeframes, and how do these drivers arise?
• What types of institutions and governance arrangements are needed to enable and shape transformations towards sustainability across multiple scales?
• What kinds of innovation in institutions and governance arrangements are needed in different problem domains, and how might this innovation arise and diffuse?
• How might ‘battles of institutional change’ (Chhotray and Stoker, 2009) play out, particularly when change is disruptive and met with strong resistance?
• How can policy and decision-making that is anticipatory and long-term be encouraged over short-termism?
•How might new norms, ethics and values needed to underpin transformations towards sustainability arise?
• How can accountability mechanisms be developed to ensure that actors who ‘should’ be responsible, actually are, both in the short term and longer-term?
• By which mechanisms can power inequalities be productively addressed to allow actors who are poorly represented to meaningfully participate in shaping transformation processes?
• How can powerful opposing interests and forces linked to existing path-dependencies be addressed?
•More broadly, “how do global and regional political economies influence transformations to sustainability in different domains?” (Future Earth, 2014b).

Fortunately, my thesis and my activism provide the final word on every. single. one. of these.  Oh yes…

I can’t possibly do these brilliant papers justice, or offer any incisive critique of them (yet- that’s way above my current paygrade, maybe always will be). At the moment my only – and mildly unfair- criticism would be is why they didn’t all exist three years ago when I was starting this bloody PhD. All I can do is urge other transitions/transformations scholars, at whatever stage, to give all three careful consideration.


Some observations about their commonalities

  • they are all group efforts, which tells you that being able to synthesise all this is beyond the effort of any individual, or set of individuals within a disciplinary silo (#banal)
  • they all take a ‘metatheoretical’ level, and don’t fall in love with a single theory as The Answer. Nor do they play defensive hierarchical games about whose Theory should be Top Dog. They’re not necessarily saying that we must resign ourselves forever to kludges, palimpsests and interdisciplinarity congalines, but just that right now, the fertile thing to do is to try to hold multiple objects up to multiple lenses at the same time (and that this is bloody difficult) (#alsobanal)
  • any theory that doesn’t account for the messinesses of power is a waste of everyone’s scarce time
  • at the moment, each seems to exist in the Ivory Tower and its near surrounds; if someone wants to pay me and my cartoonist mate Marc to rectify that, please do get in touch…

There’s some question over that “any map is good enough” anecdote, (and an answer).. Fortunately you don’t need “any” map –  these three will do…

Oh, and grok this on the question of power and transitions!!

Men critique things of me: of Winterson and Solnit in #Manchester #activism

aka some cishet white guy’s uninvited commentary on two feminist literary icons. But it’s his website and he can say what he likes. Nobody is forcing you to read it, ‘kay?

Rebecca Solnit will be known to the casual reader as the woman who wrote the (fantastic) ‘Men Explain Things To Me’. Last night she was ‘in conversation’ with Jeanette (Oranges are not the only fruit, Sexing the Cherry, Why be happy when you can be normal) Winterson as part of the Manchester Literature Festival.  A capacity crowd (female to male ratio 3:1ish) filled the Martin Harris  auditorium at the University of Manchester.

After a brief welcome, and announcement that Manchester is now a UNESCO city of literature, it was on with the program itself.

Solnit read from the lead essay in her new book The Mother of All Questions which  contains essays about the powerlessness of silences, men in/and feminism, the perniciousness of rape culture.

As ever with Solnit, the questions are apt, the prose measured, incisive.  She pointed out that the standard importance of happiness, and the standard belief that ‘ducks in a row’ (spouse, security, possessions) doesn’t in fact guarantee this ‘happiness’, and gave the example of a successful friend who despite a seventy-year marriage and all the other accoutrements that should lead to ‘happiness’ is despondent because her compassion makes her think of t’other species, t’other generations

Winterson kicked off the discussion with a question about the longest essay, ‘A short history of silence’.

Solnit says she quoted bell hooks on patriarchy begins with men’s silencing of other men, and that growing up in San Francisco during the 70s meant she could learn from queer men parodying and undermining traditional (heterosexual) masculinity.

At this point, I forget the context, she also uttered one of her axioms – “everyone has the right to be an asshole” (regardless of race, gender, class).
Winterson pressed on – the need of  (#notall) men to control women. Solnit concurred, pointing out that Weinstein could easily have bought sex if that was what he had wanted.

She also pointed to what she called ‘annihilatory acts’ (as in, actresses having their careers destroyed by Weinstein’s behaviour).  She then riffed on a 2007 article of here in which a guy who had directed straight porn returned to the industry and started directing gay porn, realising that there were ‘no humiliation scenes’.

She made the point that there are “a tonne of leftwing men” with deeply problematic behaviour, and that this is a really interesting moment, one of those ‘seismic lurches’ in the same way that Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony about Clarence Thomas was (‘before we had hashtags, we had bumper stickers, like ‘I believe you Anita’).

She made reference to the 2014 Isla Vista killings by a young man whose sense of entitlement crashed up against, well, reality, and pointed out that the woman who created the #yesallwomen hashtag, a young Muslim woman, had been hounded off the internet for six months

Winterson then, oddly imo, asked Solnit what she thought Weinstein would do next. Solnit labelled him a serial rapist, with crimes dating back forty years, and said she thought he’d probably been lying to himself and would continue to do so, that she expected nothing of him but that we should expect of ourselves the important work of liberation.

In the context of the Bechdel Test, Winterson introduced a Star Wars statistic of Solnit’s that clearly enraptured her.  If you take the original trilogy (and let’s pretend the Phantom Menace never happened, okay?) Three hundred and eighty six minutes and if you take out Princess Leia, (who never talks to anyone who isn’t a male), then there are only 63 seconds of females talking across the three films.

Winterson noted that for ages we imbibed this stuff and thought it normal. Solnit mentioned that women have had to be hermaphroditic in their reading, in order to be Odysseus rather than Penelope, and mentioning Hong Kong action films, where women get to kick ass, as liberatory zones.

On the subject of ‘Men explain Lolita to me’ – Winterson recalled that Martin Amis had said to her that she simply “did not understand her (the character Lolita’s power”.  Solnit was scathing about male critics and their ability to not see that this is a book about a young girl trapped and serially abused, trying to get away. She invoked James Baldwin “it is innocence which constitutes the crime” and argued that what was shocking in the Weinstein revelations is that men have been shocked by the breadth of sexual harassment and abuse.

Conversation then turned to the essay “Men explain things to me”.  Solnit pointed out that women being silenced can have potentially fatal consequences (women being ignored when trying to report ‘my (ex)husband is trying to kill me’ etc) and moved on to think of Sylvia Plath being born now rather than fifty years ago being ‘free to sleep under the stars’ (i.e., as they said, Virginia Woolf’s thought experiment of Shakespeare’s Sister).

Nonetheless, things are improving for (some) women, in the West, and Solnit argues that the genie is out of the bottle and won’t be forced back in. Citing marriage equality, she cited the observations of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that in until 1991 husbands in Louisiana could dispose of joint property as they saw fit under its ‘Head and Master’ law.

Q and A

There was only time for three questions (since we started late). Mercifully none were the sorts of chest-beaty ‘look at me’ stuff that can happen at these events and I am sure this had nothing to do at all with the fact that the questions all came from women).
First question:  Under Trump we may not be able to do just maintenance work but need to do recovery work. How can we be resilient?

The answer wasn’t so hot, imo.  Civil Rights gains rolled back by Republicans [aka the new Jim Crow]. Don’t be dismayed, activism isn’t just boredom and nastiness, can be fun/meet great people [yeah, I used to believe that].  Berlin wall, Apartheid ending.  Solnit also noted that good work is one of the best things you can have, noting that she had the privilege of getting to write for a living.

Second question: in wake of #metoo Social media – good or bad?

Solnit also in my opinion flubbed this one. Wondered if any quantitative work comparing snark/death threats and opportunities for co-ordination/mutual support. Facebook and Twitter not going answer.  Attention span is disrupted when everyone is checking phone every five minutes. What would search engines look like if designed by someone other than ruthless white male libertarians chasing advertising dollars?

Richard Flanagan article as crucial here

Also the amazing Zeynep Tufekci and her recent “Fighting Surveillance Authoritarianism, One Pull-up At a Time”

Third question: How can we shift blame to perpetrators? What can men do?

Solnit didn’t mention the French hashtag ‘name your pig’.  She expressed surprise at men pledging ‘I will no longer laugh at misogynist jokes, I will no longer stand by while…’ .  “I can’t believe your admitting that you’ve been doing that until now.”

My friend was seething, judging that Solnit had in fact not answered the first question, and that anyone who thinks feminism has made major advances is living in a (rich and white) bubble and that – in response to the second question you do not ‘give a voice’ but in fact stop silencing or colluding in the silencing of


So what?

Both lovely stylists, if you like that sort of thing.  But (and this is where I stick my big fat mouth and head above the parapet) it all seemed to me a little bit self-regarding and self-satisfied, with serious questions about the viability of ‘blockadia’ (to use Naomi Klien’s term) left not merely unanswered but in fact unasked.

If the radicals are so right (and I think they are) and it is shocking that men are shocked by the scale of sexual harassment (and yes it is shocking) then doesn’t that mean that social movements are doing something wrong/could be doing better?  (And a shout out to Everyday Sexism here – I think it is a great project).   Perhaps all this is answered in the book, but it wasn’t answered on the night, and my experience of a big fat long book of Solnit’s – A Paradise Built in Hell – was that there was some lovely rhetoric and powerful denunciations of patriarchy/bureaucracy etc, but not so much on how to sustain moments of passion and the liberatory moments, how to escape the sclerosis of the “system.”

Verdict –

  • Someone whose opinion on these matters I respect v. much and counts for more than mine decided to stay home under the cat.  Missed little, I think.
  • Glad I got a freebie, 8 quid seems a bit steep for an hour, tbh.  Maybe I am cheap…
  • Will defo read this collection of essays, once I can get a copy from a library or buy a year from now for £1.99 in an Oxfam in Chorlton. Will probably like various essays and even stick post-it notes in here and there, while being irritated by the wordiness and lack of concrete critiques of the good guys.

What would a genuinely “empowering” #OpenState look like? @JayWeatherill

On Wednesday morning Jay Weatherill and 200 or so of Adelaide’s soi-disant cognoscenti gathered at Adelaide Oval, scene of triumphdisaster and foreigners hurling dangerous things at locals.

Everyone was there for the launch of the programme of the second ‘Open State’ festival, which will chart the potential triumphs and disasters of our species as it careens into the 21st century, with no brakes and a wonky satnav.  At the Open State festival – a series of talks running from 28 September to 10 October, some foreigners will hurl some possibly dangerous ideas.

Jay’s speech was everything you’d expect (and sadly not the alternative one I had suggested).  The words and themes were all there – innovation, inward investment, challenges of ageing, putting Adelaide on the map.   He extolled the use of citizens’ juries (without mentioning that the last one hadn’t gone the way he would have liked). He bigged up the attendance of international luminaries such as Richard Watson, Tia Kansara and Beth Simone Noveck.

He was followed by two presentations by entrepreneurs who had been given a boost during last year’s inaugural Open Event. The first, Daniels Langeburg arrived at the stage in one his Eco-caddy vehicles.  He explained his own heritage (ineligible at present for Federal parliament, thanks to Swedish and African heritage) who has been building up momentum for a couple of years

Eco-caddy has been transporting people and goods, and at the launch Langeburg announced the latest custom-built vehicle, which has a capacity of 350kg, and is designed for hauling things around the CBD.  (There is, of course, an app for people to order pickups and pay for them at the touch of a screen.)

He also referred to a recent foray into Melbourne to provide passenger transport at a local festival, at which his vehicles collected real time data on the travels and attitudes of attendees (anyone who saw Wednesday’s episode of Utopia, with Tony’s car survey difficulties will shudder at this).

There are, of course, reasons to be cautious.  Firstly, since so far eco-caddy has been replacing short journeys that would have been conducted on foot, the amount of carbon dioxide saved so far – and it is only early days – is, well, small (6.5 tonnes).  More seriously,  you can see them doing all the hard ‘proof of concept’ work and then being pushed aside by a fleet of electric vans with autonomous machine drivers with bigger capacity, longer range and deeper pockets to loss lead competitors into oblivion.

A bug not a feature

Second up was the founders of Post Dining.  Hannah and Stephanie.  With verve and humour, they took the audience through some of their work, in which they  “merge food with music, art and performance to create immersive and interactive eating experience” and  “meet the palate with an environment of possibility, through creativity.”  This then segued into a brief practical demonstration of Conversations around food entomophagy– eating bugs.  The attendees were treated to rocky road sprinkled with… crickets.

It was all tasty enough, but in the back of my mind was an excellent book by an American anthropologist, the late Marvin Harris. In his book Cannibals and Kings he argues that you can construct a story of humans eating all the easy to get protein, exhausting the supplies and then having to hunt up-and-down the food chain, developing new techniques of hunting and management.  And this is where – in a world groaning under the weight of Western excess and global overpopulation, we seem to have come to.  Earlier this year a shortage of lettuce in the UKwas treated as one of those jokey end-of-bulletin stories, a relief from tales of bombs, fires and elections.  But should it not have been seen as something sinister and full of foreboding. Next step Soylent Green?

The real problem with the launch though, was the programme.  And I don’t mean the glossiness of the impressively thick booklet that was handed out to all the well-heeled attendees.  I mean instead the superficiality of the ‘radicalism’.  It strikes me as a giant series of TED talk, where those with university educations, leisure time and the confidence to come along to listen to various actually-not-as-system-challenging-as-they-sound ideas without ever being able to connect in useful ways with the other attendees.  It’s the hub-and-spoke model, where the speakers are the stars and the audience is, well, ego-fodder.

This is not surprising, given who is sponsoring the event, and how it fits into the wider marketing of South Australia as a ‘happening place.’  If you think I’m being excessively undergraduate and self-proclaimed ‘radical’, well, maybe you’re right.  But incremental changes, which repair or recalibrate the existing patterns of behaviour and ‘governance’, are not going to get us out of the messes we’re in.

There’s nothing on the need for a post-growth economy, for example –that is still the topic that dare not be mentioned, even as we accelerate past 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide, as the Arctic melts and the reefs die.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the sessions on ‘new foundations for social change’ and ‘effective advocacy – what does it take’ will address the issues, but wouldn’t it be great if we had sessions which explored topics like, oh….

Citizens as Mushrooms – how bureaucrats and politicians use corporate public relations techniques and their own obfuscation techniques to prevent citizen oversight: and what to do about it.

How to make social movements effective –  how can social movement organisations overcome spin, secrecy, burnout and betrayal to be effective creators of good public policy that actually gets implemented.

Or something on how academics end up not being quite as useful to social movement organisations as they could be, and what is to be done about that.

Tell me I’m dreaming.

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.”

On anxiety, social class and who feels comfortable at “top-down” meetings

On anxiety, social class and who feels comfortable at “top-down” meetings

Published on 15 Dec 2013

Some not quite fully thought through speculations. As well as social class, of course, there’s gender, ethnicity, age, ideology to put into the mix. But as an initial stab at answering the question “why are people content to continue with formats that encourage and enforce passivity, even when they proclaim the importance of activity and participation?”, then it will do. For now.