Category Archives: Social Movement Learning

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.

“Entrench warfare” or “why I don’t bother with one-off trainings” #smugosphere #inertia

A few years ago I organised a one-off training session on research for activists. It went well and had … no discernible impact on how anyone did anything.  So it goes.  I reflected on this – and other training I have been part of as a punter. And I came to the conclusion that unless you are part of a group that values the new skill/knowledge, then whatever shiny new training you have been on will simply not become embedded, and you and your group will stick to what you know.  This is not a particularly startling observation.  But now at least I have a citation I can back it up with when I am whining about the smugosphere

It’s from a bloody brilliant paper –

Perkmann, M. and Spcier, A. 2008. How are management fashions institutionalized? The role of institutional work. Human Relations, Vol. 61 (6), pp.811-844.

This bit

Zeitz et al. (1999) distinguish between the transitory adoption of a practice and its enduring ‘entrenchment’. Entrenchment is defined as the institutionalization of a practice to the extent that it is unlikely to be abandoned. They argue that while the mere adoption of a practice indicates the exposure to a fashion, entrenchment is required to induce a lasting change of practice. They identify five ‘pillars’ by which a fashionable concept can become entrenched: models (spurring imitation), culture (promoting identification), education (again spurring imitation), regulative/coercive influences (exerting power) and technical-rational influences (providing recipes for improving performance). Assuming that such entrenchment can occur at different levels of analysis, from individual, organizational, interorganizational to the societal level, they propose a set of ‘indicators’ that can be used for empirically assessing as to whether a practice has become entrenched: formalization, compatibility (with other practices), depth, systematic coherence (with other concepts and strategies) and the existence of ‘webs of interdependencies’ (Zeitz et al., 1999).
(Perkmann and Spicer, 2008: 814/5)

And that citation is this – Zeitz, G., Mittal, V. & McAulay, B. Distinguishing adoption and entrenchment of management practices: A framework for analysis. Organization Studies, 1999, 20(5), 741–76.

So,  a while back there was talk of me doing a training or two with a group. But since only one person in that group knew me/valued the training, and he wasn’t going to be sticking around, (he and I) decided it was at best a waste of time, energy and morale for all concerned, and at worst actively harmful (destroys the credibility of innovation, turns it into a ritualistic set-up-to-fail thing).

Doomed, I tell you, all doomed.  So what.

Resources – tangible and intangible

“Resources can be tangible (e.g. equipment, machinery, finance, human resources) as well as intangible. Intangible resources include assets such as technological know-how, the status or reputation of an actor, its social contacts and network ties. Moreover, resources are conceptualized to be controlled not only by organizations but also by entire industries or emerging technological fields.”
(Farla et al. 2012: 994-5)

And what resources do social movements organisations have? What is their plan to increase those resources, to maintain them etc etc? If there are no good answers, just walk away. Or rather, if you ask the questions and get hostility, walk away. Or run – as you see fit.

Inscribed capacity described

“As Allen (1997) has shown, power can be conceptualized in a variety of ways – as an ‘inscribed capacity’, a collectively produced resource mobilized by groups to achieve particular ends, or as a mobile and diffuse phenomenon realized as a series of ‘strategies, techniques, and practices’.”
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 367)

Who does the inscribing? On what material? Sand, paper?  (Latour’s immutable mobiles etc etc).

In invisible ink? On paper that crumbles?  It’s like a fountain, isn’t it – constantly needing new inputs to stay even looking the same, let alone get bigger.  Flows and nos…

And who says organise says tyrannise, according to Bob Michels, anyway… though Osterman, P. 2006. Overcoming oligarchy: culture and Agency in Social Movement Organisations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 1 (1), pp. 63-85 looks like it is worth a read…

“A case study of the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation is used to examine how a mass-movement social organization has been able to avoid the consequences of an oligarchic leadership structure, which previous scholars have claimed leads inevitably to loss of membership commitment, “becalming,” and goal displacement. The case describes this network of community organizations, which has a very strong and self-perpetuating authority structure but has nonetheless maintained the commitment and involvement of its membership for many decades as it addresses issues such as school reform, living wages, training programs, health insurance, and physical community infrastructure. The case shows how the organization maintained its membership commitment and a clear focus on its original objectives by enhancing the membership’s sense of capacity and agency and building a culture of contestation within the organization that encourages the membership to push back against the elite who dominate the organization.”

Here’s an Allen reference that looks mighty fine. Probably #afterthethesis though…

(Wind) Power to the People – Denmark, Tvind and bricolage

So, two years ago I read this

Hendry, C. and Harborne, P. 2011. Changing the view of wind power development: More than “bricolage.” Research Policy 40,, pp. 778-789.

and wrote this about it –

This was mentioned in a reading group/symposium yesterday by one of my supervisors. It’s a response/elaboration to a paper by Garud and Karnoe comparing the Danish and US wind energy industries and how they came about. Hendry and Harbone heartlessly puncture the lovely romantic notions that Tinkerers Matter throughout the process (they did, but once you get to a certain point, there’s no substitute for “science” and deep pockets.) Reminds me a bit of Manuel de Landa in “War in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” where he makes the point that there are tactics, but strategy will overcome them, and there is strategy, but in the end, logistics – being able to feed, clothe, arm and replace members of your army at a more efficient rate than your enemy – is what matters.

Well, the Danish wind industry is the gift that keeps on giving, if you are interested (like me) in niches that become regimes and ‘bottom-up’ pressure that actually, you know, ‘works’.

The latest I have found is this paper, which is brilliant.

Hoffman, J. 2013. Theorizing power in transition studies: the role of creativity and novel practices in structural change. Policy Science, Vol. 46, pp.257-275.

Just brilliant [full disclosure – for two years of my life (minus a year here and there) I lived in the shadow of the Tvind windmill. True story.].

Here are a couple of empirical chunks.  Far more interesting (well, as interesting) is the theoretical contribution, around ‘carrier waves’ and also the shortcomings of a multi-level framework,and the assumptions that innovations just, you know, happen.  –

Because the MLP assumes the presence of a ‘novel practice’, it hides from view how actors draw upon regimes and incorporate exogenous trends in shaping and defining what the [page break] ‘novelty’ is about and how it relates to the regime.
(Hoffman, 2013: 262-3)

But that’s for another time.

I shall distinguish between two key episodes of interaction between wind energy experiments and outside groups, both within and outside the energy sector. Although both very crucial for further development, the two episodes differed in terms of entrepreneurial activities, strategies, and the outcomes. In the first episode (1950s), entrepreneur Johannes Juul put up wind energy experiments in collaboration with power company SEAS. Even though the later popular 200-kW Gedser turbine resulted from these experiments, the energy sector’s support for wind energy waned and wind energy production in the 1960s was literally left to fall into disrepair. Danish wind energy experienced a second coming, however, when parts of the Danish democracy movement in the 1960s and 1970s adopted wind energy as a form of decentralized energy production. In this episode, wind energy became primarily an affair of the democracy movement, with little involvement of traditional energy companies. In contrast to the collaborative relationship between Juul and incumbent actors, wind energy actors in the democracy movement moved into an antagonistic relationship with incumbents; wind energy actors in the democracy movement openly contested incumbent practices and presented themselves as a decentralized and democratic alternative. In its decentralized form, wind energy production grew to substantial proportions resulting in a relatively strong industry that obtained a market share of half the world market for wind turbines.
(Hoffman, 2013: 259)

and

How do these insights help us make sense of the dynamic interplay between actions at the level of novel practices and power? Let us now draw on the case of Denmark to answer this question. The rising prices of import fuels in the 1950s formed a structural power that discredited incumbent practices and raised expectations about novel practices. Among others, the entrepreneur Juul proposed wind energy as a complement to the use of imported fuels, which regime players appreciated as a way to tackle the increasing costs of imported fuels. In collaboration with the power supplier SEAS and a Wind Energy Committee (Vindkraftudvalget) from the ministry of trade, Juul could draw on sufficient technical and financial resources to start experiments. This relational power resulted in the later widely used 200-kW Gedser wind turbine. At least for a while, rising prices for import fuels formed a carrier wave for novel energy practice. However, just when wind turbines were ready for upscaling, nuclear energy became a serious alternative and regime players’ expectations for wind energy practices were lowered. As a result, all wind energy projects were cut short and resources were withdrawn. Wind energy practices were left to ‘hobbyists’, bereft of relational power.
(Hoffman, 2013: 261)