Things are looking very very bleak, and a lot of pain and confusion is sloshing around in the collective brain of the “climate movement.”
Time for a song, therefore, or a whole bunch of them. Hopefully not adding to the pain, but shedding light rather than heat (the last thing we need is heat), and getting us all to think about “now what?”
The usual disclaimers (1) apply.
Theses 1 to 4 – We’ve known for a long time, and we’ve known what happens
Thesis one: We have known that we’ve had a problem for a very long time
The climate issue did not begin in 2018. There was a tendency to discount not just anything that happened in 2008 (“yeah, grandad, that’s irrelevant, you lost, step aside and let the cool kids show you how it’s done”). Or 1998, or 1988.
But we’ve known, in the immortal words of Tiny Tim , (1967)
“The ice caps are melting.”
On a slightly smoother groove, a few years later, during the Malthusian moment, Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Going On?” with his song “Mercy Mercy Me, the Ecology Song.”
Just because other people lost, didn’t mean they had no useful intel for the battles ahead.
Thesis two: Despite what we want to believe, we aren’t always the best judges of what is going on
In “Changes” David Bowie sings
“And these children that you spit on
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware what they’re going through.”
Yes and no, Davey, yes and no. Yes to the heard immunity. No to the “quite aware.”
A little cognitive humility was in order, and still is
Thesis three: (We have known that) things can come unstuck (or “songs for abeyance”)
We’ve had these waves of concern break against the rocks of real life.
In 19xx Gil-Scott Heron asked
“Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn? Was it just about not dying in the jungles of Vietnam?”
There are laws of gravity that you ignore at your peril. What goes up will probably come down…
Thesis 4: We know that we can double down instead of innovating
We know that there is a danger in repeating past battles, in trying to live your Glory Days over and over.
As Mr Frank Turner has it
“Well it was bad enough the feeling, on the first time it hit, When you realised that your parents had let the world all go to shit, And that the values and ideals for which many had fought and died Had been killed off in the committees and left to die by the wayside. But it was worse when we turned to the kids on the left, And got let down again by some poor excuse for protest – By idiot fucking hippies in fifty different factions Who are locked inside some kind of Sixties battle re-enactment. So I hung up my banner in disgust and I head for the door.”
Theses 5 to 7 – What to expect
Thesis 5: We know what is coming
We know what is coming. There is, as by Creedence Clearwater Revival, had it, a Bad Moon Rising.
Thesis 6: Messengers get shot and smeared
We know that we will be written down in history, with bitter twisted lies, as Ben Harper sings, putting Maya Angelou’s poem to music.
We know that while you should never harm the messenger, sometimes folks do. Expect to be blamed for having been right and unable to get real change.
Thesis 7: Species be deathwishing
We know that four degrees is, er, probably “baked in”. And we want to see those lemurs burn.
It seems like the species really does have a deathwish.
(NB the Marxists will go “typical bourgeois deviationist, implying that everything isn’t the fault of the capitalists. Mystic mambo jumbo half-baked anthropology and psychotherapy spreads around the blame when it all actually pertains to Standard Oil, Carnegie and Andrew Undershaft.” To which I say, “yeah, eat me.”)
Theses – 8 to 11 So what is to be done?
Thesis 9 : Realise where you are (spoiler – you are After the Gold rush)
There was a gold rush, a sudden flurry leaving behind a sinister slurry. Amid the toxic tailings and the toxic tales of the reasons for our failings will come little insight. The cops and the COPs will cop the blame, as will the media, everyone we can do little/nothing about.
“Look at mother nature on the run, in the 1970s”
Thesis 10: It matters though to stay keen, to try to stay in the game
Everybody’s changing, sure.
We should work on the assumption that Glasgow will come too late (in every sense), but particularly around the soi-disant non-hierarchical climate movement – if there is a set of protests and events, those will be run by the usual suspect NGOs, with the usual suspect repertoires.
We (you) should try to make a move just to stay in the game,
So little time Try to understand that I’m Trying to make a move just to stay in the game I try to stay awake and remember my name But everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same
hope that you can keep infrastructures of dissent intact so they have further usefulness if/when shit starts to a) hit fan b) get real.
While it doesn’t mean you have to listen people who force you to enunciate mea culpas as humilation and abnegation, it also means they are not obliged to take you seriously until you make a decent stab at saying the reasons behind the failure, till they hear the words “I was wrong and you were right” and think you might actually mean them.
In practice, some of the key skills that were lacking, still are as best I can tell are
Abeyance sucks, but it can also be a time to reflect and emerge stronger. The saving the world thing – well, the pressure is off, tbh – it was already irredeemably fucked before you tried to redeem it.
Last song not to make gender quota (though, um, sausagefestmuch?) but because it speaks so well to machismo and batshit-harmful notions of behaviours that use up and spit out other people, not caring for their needs (and to be clear, I have been in this ballpark, within spitting (at) distance of this kind of asshole. I claim no high moral ground)
There is so much to do, so little time. It is an emergency. We have to keep our heads. We have to share the loads. We have to stay in the game. We have to be as ready as we can be for whatever the future has in store, to make the moves, to play the cards that get dealt in this desperate not-a-game game.
I am writing in a personal capacity, not as a representative of any particular organisation that I might be a core group member of.
I have tried to bite down on the schadenfreude and the language of “up like a rocket, down like a stick” (look, I made it white!) . Probably failed. So it goes. If you’re a snowflake who can’t take the underlying tone of exasperation, you’re probably not really one of life’s rebels, now are you?
So, as per my recent Conversation article, the climate scientists have been attacked for (more than) thirty years. The UNFCCC is a hopeless case (see slightly-less recent Conversation article). It is easy to talk about how everything is fubarred, and what am I against. This below expands on the theme of attacks on climate scientists, talks a bit about what am I for, then critiques it, then critique that critique. It concludes with “so what does this MEAN, here, TODAY?”
This expansion below is in no way a criticism or rebuke of the editor or the editing process. I’ve added in bits to the Conversation article and put them in red. At the end of the article, I’ve added a whole bunch of new stuff, marking clearly where that starts.
Thirty years ago, in a small Swedish city called Sundsvall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first major report.
Even then, the major dilemmas facing those who sought rapid action were clear. An account by Jeremy Leggett, who had thrown in a well-paid job as a geologist for Shell to become Greenpeace’s climate campaigner, reported the events of that first summit, including an encounter with coal industry lobbyist Don Pearlman.
They had their heads down, copies of the draft negotiating text for the IPCC final report open in front of them. Pearlman was pointing at the text, and talking in a forceful growl… As I walked past, I saw him pointing to a particular paragraph and I heard him say, quite distinctly, ‘if we can cut a deal here…’
Although it seems so naïve now, I was shocked.
Days later, a delegate from the Pacific island of Kiribati pleaded with the conference for a breakthrough in the negotiations.
Concerted international action is needed to drastically decrease our consumption of fossil fuels. The time to start is now. In the low-lying nations, the threat… of global warming and sea level rise is frightening.“
He paused before concluding.
I hope this meeting will not fail us. Thank you.
Shortly afterwards the US delegation “tabled a catalogue of attempted emasculations” of the text. Along with the Saudi and Soviet delegations, representatives of the richest and most powerful country in the world “chipped away at the draft, watering down the sense of alarm in the wording, beefing up the aura of uncertainty”.
It would be a painful three decades for people anxious to see action on climate change. For the scientists investigating the problem, it would often be a personal battle against powerful interests.
The path to the summit
The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, had been worrying scientists since the 1970s. The discovery of the “ozone hole” above Antarctica had given atmospheric scientists enormous credibility and clout among the public, and an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals causing the problem, was swiftly signed.
“the US had a huge stake in the climate problem. It was the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Also, any measures at abatement of future emissions could significantly threaten its economic interests. Powerful fossil fuel lobbies with active support from a Republican White House were strongly opposed to any kind of action on climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 609)
“Due to lack of agreement, and for reasons that suited their own ideologies and agendas (see Section 3.3), a compromise was reached amongst participating agencies with the US recommending that an ‘intergovernmental mechanism’ be set-up to conduct scientific assessment of climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 611)
The Reagan White House worried that a treaty on CO₂ might happen as quickly, and set about ensuring the official scientific advice guiding leaders at the negotiations was under at least partial control.
“The US position was communicated to the WMO Secretariat and it helped shape resolution 9 of the Tenth WMO Congress which met in May 1987. This resolution recognized the need for an inter-disciplinary and multi-agency approach and asked the Executive Council of WMO ‘to arrange for appropriate mechanisms to undertake further development of scientific and other aspects of greenhouse gases’. The US also strongly influenced the WMO Executive Council resolution a week later, which in response to the call from the Congress, requested the Secretary General of WMO, ‘in coordination with the Executive Director of UNEP to establish an intergovernmental mechanism to carry out internationally coordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, impact and potential timing of climate change’. Shortly thereafter, UNEP’s Governing Body welcomed the WMO initiative and asked its Executive Director to work with WMO on establishing such an intergovernmental assessment body. This constitutes the famous ‘I’ of what was to later become the IPCC and is the single most critical element in its design. It is the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC that gives its assessments a special niche, distinct from the myriad other assessments and vendors. According to Jean Ripert, founder chairman of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) who chaired the negotiations for a climate convention, the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC was in large part responsible for educating many government bureaucrats about the problem which made them more willing to come to the negotiating table. This, according to Ripert, was key to the signing of FCCC in 1992 (Ripert, 1997). However, having an intergovernmental status has imposed significant costs also: IPCC assessment summaries are widely regarded as being politically negotiated, which has, at times, undermined their credibility” (Agrawala, 1998: .611)
Meanwhile, another participant, Michael Oppenheimer, suggests
US support was probably critical to IPCC’s establishment. And why did the US government support it? Assistant Undersecretary of State Bill Nitze wrote to me a few years later saying that our group’s activities played a significant role. Among other motivations, the US government saw the creation of the IPCC as a way to prevent the activism stimulated by my colleagues and me from controlling the policy agenda.
I suspect that the Reagan Administration believed that, in contrast to our group, most scientists were not activists, and would take years to reach any conclusion on the magnitude of the threat. Even if they did, they probably would fail to express it in plain English. The US government must have been quite surprised when IPCC issued its first assessment at the end of 1990, stating clearly that human activity was likely to produce an unprecedented warming.
So emerged the intergovernmental – rather than international – panel on climate change, in 1988.
Already before Sundsvall, in 1989, figures in the automotive and fossil fuel industries of the US had set up the Global Climate Coalition to argue against rapid action and to cast doubt on the evidence. Alongside thinktanks, such as the George Marshall Institute, and trade bodies, such as the Western Fuels Association, it kept up a steady stream of publishing in the media – including a movie – to discredit the science.
In a February 1991 letter to the vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, physicist Robert Jastrow crowed , “It is generally considered in the scientific community that the Marshall report was responsible for the Administration’s opposition to carbon taxes and restrictions on fossil fuel consumption. Quoting New Scientist magazine, he reported that the Marshall Institute “is still the controlling influence in the White House.” (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:190)
But their efforts to discourage political commitment were only partially successful. The scientists held firm, and a climate treaty was agreed in 1992. And so attention turned to the scientists themselves.
The Serengeti strategy
In 1996, there were sustained attacks on climate scientist Ben Santer, who had been responsible for synthesising text in the IPCC’s second assessment report. He was accused of having “tampered with” wording and somehow “twisting” the intent of IPCC authors by Fred Seitz of the Global Climate Coalition.
In the late 1990s, Michael Mann, whose famous “hockey stick” diagram of global temperatures was a key part of the third assessment report, came under fire from right-wing thinktanks and even the Attorney General of Virginia. Mann called this attempt to pick on scientists perceived to be vulnerable to pressure “the Serengeti strategy”.
By singling out a sole scientist, it is possible for the forces of “anti-science” to bring many more resources to bear on one individual, exerting enormous pressure from multiple directions at once, making defence difficult. It is similar to what happens when a group of lions on the Serengeti seek out a vulnerable individual zebra at the edge of a herd.
As the evidence became ever more compelling, the attacks on scientists escalated.
In 2001,Exxon was reported to be pressuring the new Bush administration to get rid of Bob Watson, the British climate scientists who was then chair of the IPCC. Exxon appears to have been successful because Watson didn’t get a second term. (see here)
The Bush Administration tried to silence Hansen in 2006 – there is an entire book – Censoring Science – about this.
In late 2009, just before the Copenhagen climate summit, emails among climate scientists were hacked and released. They were carefully selected to make it seem as if scientists were guilty of scaremongering. The so-called “climategate” scandal was not to blame for Copenhagen’s failure, but it kept climate deniers energised and helped muddy the waters enough to make it seem as if legitimate doubt persisted over the scientific consensus.
And at “just before 2 a.m. on February 19, 2011 the war on climate science showed its grip on the U.S. House of Representatives as it voted to eliminate U.S. funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Republican majority, on a mostly party-line vote of 244-179, went on record as essentially saying that it no longer wishes to have the IPCC prepare its comprehensive international climate science assessments. ” [sourcesourcesource] (It was a throwing-red-meat-to-the-base thing. It never got through the Senate).
Thanks to COVID-19, the next IPCC assessment report probably won’t be delivered before the delayed conference in Glasgow at the end of 2021. There probably won’t be anything in it that tells us more than what we already know – CO₂ levels are rising, the consequences are piling up, and campaigns for delaying meaningful action have been spectacularly successful for the last 30 years.
Some scientists, including Columbia University professor James Hansen, argue that the agonising efforts of scientists to avoid provoking accusations of alarmism have led to an innate optimism bias. The official science reported by the IPCC may in some cases be a cautious underestimate. It’s likely worse – much worse – than we think.
If the last three decades have taught the international community anything, it’s that “the science” is not a single, settled entity which, presented properly, will spur everyone to action. There are no shortcuts to the technological, economic, political and cultural changes needed to tackle climate change. That was true 30 years ago in Sundsvall. The only thing that has changed is the time in which we have left to do anything.
END OF THE CONVERSATION ARTICLE. Everything that follows has not had the benefit of their editing. They cannot be held responsible for owt!
And I will admit that the answer I’m about to give you does not satisfy me.,because there are consequences for not having achieved the emissions reductions that were required. We’re no longer talking about avoiding dangerous climate change – that is baked in. What we have to talk about then is how the pain is shared equitably, which may not mean equally.
Now, right there, three kinds of people will be up in arms. The first group I don’t care about – the ones who deny that climate change is a thing. The second group – and there is overlap or a sliding scale – are the techno-utopians, the Bjorn Lomborg school of people who think that there’s no problem that can’t be solved with more technology. Maybe they ought to read a little bit about anti-reflexivity, and see themselves in the mirror. And the third group are those who say, “Oh, you must never talk about pain or danger, because this will somehow scare people off.” Well, that’s to keep therefore telling fairy stories about how everything might be okay. That’s indistinguishable in my opinion, from the techno optimist bollocks. And I would rather treat people like adults and hope that they’re capable of understanding that the world isn’t how they would like it to be, and it won’t be like how they would like it to be.
So having said that, let me give you my unconvincing answers.
What climate change calls us to do, what we are required to do, as citizens, especially those of us with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of information, and the training to punch through lies, and the time to do it, and to communicate it… is to punch through the lies and to communicate and to movement build rather than mobilise.
And my one key distinction that I would like everyone to make is between the mobilizations such as the 2014 Climate March in New York, and the actual movement-building. There can be overlap, but these are distinct, and occasionally the mobilising gets in the way of movement-building, because it allows people to tick the box. “I’ve been on that March. I’ve sent my activists credibility tokens. And therefore, it’s now up to our lords and masters to take action.”
And this is tacitly said, even by people who know that their lords and masters have no interest in and no capacity to fix the problems that they themselves have been causing. This is what Camus would probably have called bad faith.
So responding to climate change is going to require the wisdom as opposed to the ignorance of crowds. It’s going to require daily local, regional national, international action as opposed to words. It is gonna require that we break out of the boxes, the mind forged manacles, that we resist the blandishments of not just the big corporations and the big NGOs, but also the voluntaristic millenarian “Everything must and can change now,” rhetorics of some of these newest social movement organisations and yes I am looking at you, Extinction Rebellion.
This is both an emergency and a long drawn-out process and we need to learn this preparedness for the very difficult changes to come will require sustained – and therefore sustainable – radical (that does not mean violent, that does not mean stupid) action, at every level.
So what kind of superheroes can do this? There are no superheroes. We are the ones we have been waiting for for a very long time.
Specifically, better organisations that are able to welcome new people, make use of the skills and talents they have, and help those individuals learn new ones. New understandings of how incumbents have resisted change not just through outright denial but also scams, like carbon trading and carbon offsetting, and, quote, green capitalism, unquote.
Also a recognition that the methods of the 19th and 20th century brought us the horrors of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Great Leap Forward, etc. We’re going to need new tools, we can’t go back and try the old ones again and again, which is what we’ve been doing.
Critique of the above
So the critique of this is fairly obvious, or the critiques plural. One is so already too late. Even if this reinvigorated or invigorated, intelligent civil society sprang into action, there are certain laws of physics and the consequences of 30 years of inaction are that it is already, quote too late, unquote, that we’re going to hit four degrees, that agriculture becomes impossible that there’s mass starvation, one or two nuclear wars and the collapse of human civilization, which we’ve seen in Hollywood films and we’ve seen in books. This is a, you know, a favourite science fiction trope. I strongly suspect the reality will be slower, grimmer and messier. The real tragedy has someone once said – I forget who – is that the world ends with a series of whimpers not a bang.
Another critique would be that if we are going to reduce emissions, it’s only going to happen with lots of the big bad technology that people like me are generally deeply suspicious of: Hello, nuclear power Hello. By energy, carbon capture and storage, Hello Space mirrors. Hello sulphur cannons and unprecedented international collaboration around some schemes like contraction and convergence.
Critiquing those critiques
So to these people, I would say firstly “you might be right. But even if those things happen, even if all those magical technologies and magic into existence, well number one takes ages for them to replace what we already have. So you need a plan to get rid of the incumbency. Good luck with that.”
And number two is it would address the broader problems related to climate change and the buildup of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially methane, around the collapse of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans, population growth and our spiritual crises.
The only way that we have a snowball’s chance in hell, and again, I don’t think we do, of dealing with all those is very diverse, persistent civil society action.
The next critique would be, “that’s fine for you and your little gang. Out of the six of you, all of you have been to an elite University, two of you have PhDs. One of you has a Master’s another is doing her master’s. And you have only one breeder among you. “
And I would say, “That’s absolutely true. But I never said that Climate Emergency Manchester was a model for how other groups should behave in terms of composition. And what we are trying to do with the Active Citizenship Toolkit is make it easier for other individuals and groups to assess the skills that they need, and the relationships that they need, what they have right now, what the gaps are, and how to close those gaps.
“We are not a vanguard, we do not pretend to be a vanguard. We are a small part of a local ecosystem. We can, we hope, be, at best an inspiration. We’re an example. And also one that speaks truth about power, not to power. The powerful know exactly pretty much what they’re doing: we’re speaking truth about power.”
So what does all this mean? Here and now? What do you do?
So, what if you are convinced that I’m right about the way the science has been attacked, I’m right about the way the international process is hopelessly bogged down and that I’m right about the inadequacies of the state responses, the corporate responses and the civil society responses.
What if I’m right about all of that? Well, that doesn’t give me or you permission to give up, to quit, to retreat into various forms of escapism, which is, of course, what our lords and masters would much prefer.
It doesn’t give us that permission. We have responsibility for the climate crisis in proportion, to not only to our individual carbon footprints – many aspects of which are beyond our direct control -but in proportion the level of privilege we have around education, habitus and cultural capital, social capital, time, access to resources and the de jure, if not always de facto. ability to use those rights.
That’s awkward because it means that people like me have a great deal more responsibility than some other people. That doesn’t mean I get to play “White Saviour.” It doesn’t mean I get to centre myself in debates and struggles. It does mean that I have to work persistently, consistently, iteratively intelligently or else my responsibility and my culpability, which is already huge, continues to rise.
So right here, right now, today what do you do in a crisis? Well, anyone who’s received, you know, astronaut training will say, “if you’ve got 10 seconds, you spend six of them making a plan.” So right here, right now today, it’s a question of drawing up a list of
what things you think you and a group of determined, like-minded people could achieve locally in the near future.
And it won’t be much because we live in tangled in systems with enormous embedded inertia. The institutions, as distinct from the organizations are obviously very powerful – they would not still be institutions, by definition, if they were not.
But nonetheless – what can you achieve? Do an audit? What skills knowledge relationships would you need to achieve that goal? What do you have? What are you lacking, where can find it?
Now these goals don’t spring from just the ether, or from inside your head. The important thing is to make a goal, even if it’s a rough and ready one and for it to be developed, refined, changed in conversation without the people, who obviously will only be involved, if to go resonates with them.
All this sounds like a hell of a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? It’s easier to sign a petition or to go on a demonstration, or even get arrested to show that you care.
But those things we’ve tried, and we’ve tried for 30 years. Those might help mobilise in the short-term, but what we need are movements: dense as in extremely well connected networks of individuals and groups who understand what is at stake and understand that they are in conflict with other networks, other organisations, institutions, habits, vested interests in society.
And this is quite literally the fight of not just our lives, but that of future generations of human beings, and all the other species that we “share” this planet with.
If you suck at designing and facilitating meatspace meetings, then – everything else being equal – you are probably going to suck big hairy dog’s balls at online meetings.
Is it just me? (1) Am I the only one who has been in several really painfully bad online meetings during this lockdown? Where the organisers clearly have given NO THOUGHT to what could or should be different. They’ve just shifted their dismal “in real life” formats over to Zoom. And guess what, they’re still dismal! Hoodathunkit? But as long as the invited guest speakers get to treat everyone as ego-fodder, as long as the punters can feel they were close to Wisdom, or that they’re not losing touch, then everyone seems happy.
It’s as if the opportunities of online spaces (I’ll come back to them) are being very very consciously ignored. There’s something skeuomorphic – the online meetings consciously replicating/signalling their continuity with the old formats which, well have nostalgia and soothe value (if not use value).
Most organisers are not familiar with what online meetings might offer
Most organisers are not willing to take the risk of innovating at the best of times, and right now, it’s not the best of times. (insert rant about fear eating the soul, helmet fires yadda yadda).
Most organisers are under no selection pressure to DO BETTER. Any old crap will do at the minute (insert rant about the smugosphere) because most punters have never had better, and would be reluctant to demand it in these times when everyone is (understandably and rightly) cutting other folks lots of slack.
Okay, now I have got my tokenistic and entirely abstract compassion tokens sorted: this.
DO BETTER, YOU FUCKERS.
At the least
Ask yourself: why gather people together for an hour and spend the first third of that asking them to, in effect, watch a youtube together? Srsly. Have your speakers pre-record and upload their initial statements. That way they are not speaking off the cuff, they can be kept to time. Tell everyone to watch the damn things before. Most will, some won’t.
Be concise and clear in your opening statements. There is no excuse for waffling, and the consequences for it are HIGHER online, imo.
Encourage people to use the ‘chat’ function. That is what it is there for (affordances schmafordances). This is NOT like a meatspace meeting where the chattering will be disruptive. It’s an online meeting. Only Connect, as that old English dude said.
If you are going to go into breakout groups, then have the instructions for this – what it is you are expecting each group to do – on a slide.
For any reporting back, ask the groups to make a slide of their own, rather than verbal feedback. People can read faster than they can listen.
Think about having a googledoc to which people can properly add comments in real time, reading suggestions etc. The “chat with everyone” function is okay, but it is inaccessible once the meeting is over. You can edit/polish the googledoc, before the rest of the world sees it, to remove anything libellous/confusing etc.
DO A POSTMORTEM. Ask people who leave early to tell you why they did. Have a mechanism for everyone to give anonymous feedback (the only kind worth collecting.)
ITERATE> INNOVATE> ALWAYS IN BETA> THIS IS THE WORLD WIDE WEB, PEOPLE.
Oh, and if your organisation is named after someone super super SUPER cool, but unjustly obscure, then explain who they are. The world really does need to know.
Yes, I am going to “put up”. The group I am involved in is going to start to do more regular online meetings. We will get things wrong, obvs. But at least we will be trying to actually use the technology in less grotesquely inadequate ways than I’ve described above. FFS.
(1) That’s a semi-rhetorical question. I know very few people who share my vocal, vehement, vivid disdain for suboptimal (“shitty”) meetings. There should be more, but most people seem to shrug their shoulders and say ‘this is the way it’s always been’. While calling for fundamental immediate transformations of our polity and economy. Go figure.
When I am frustrated (i.e. always) with the “left” endlessly reheating and repeating the same things (“wasn’t 1970s social democracy great?”, “the main problem is we don’t have enough diverse voices” (1) ) through truly wretched online events that are every bit as stultifying and wrist-slashingly excruciating as their meatspace equivalents, I often – through laziness and stupidity – ascribe the failures of others to laziness or stupidity.
But think in systems, dammit.
If you WERE to say, for example
“part of the problem we need to think about is that our shopping list of the ways the world ‘should’ be won’t get us there, but that people can gain and maintain status simply by repeating this shopping list. They get brownie points for doing so, because we are so keen to hear their soothing words, and they are our bosses, and we are, ultimately, wanting to be saved by bosses. We are like the sheep in Animal Farm, hoping for a better kind of pig, while still incanting the all animals are equal thing.”
Well, three things would happen
a) you’d open yourself up to criticism for having done your own shopping-list incanting in the past (and people rarely really like to open themselves up, unless they are particularly neurotic), and the fatal question “well, why should we listen to YOU then?”
b) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking your chums, including probably the people who organised this event and invited you to be on the panel (so, this might be your last panel for a while or -checks notes – for fucking EVER.)
c) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking those in the audience for having taken false comfort in shopping lists in the past. They won’t thank you for that condemnation. Fur monkey may have no milk, but she’s got fur, fur goodness sake. Life under ecocidal capitalism is already quite uncomfortable enough without some wannabe whistle-blower adding to it. So, the questions will be hostile, the invites to speak at other events will dry up, your books won’t get read, your tweets won’t get retweeted. Siberia beckons.
So far so banal. If a culture doesn’t have homeo-dynamic mechanisms for keeping within certain parameters, it’s not really a culture is it? Throw in some (rightful) righteous indignation and cognitive limitations (Kahneman Thinking Fast blah blah) and you’ve sort of explained why the key question of ‘what do we need to do DIFFERENTLY so that we have a chance of getting a different result?’ rarely gets answered (though often – as at a recent terrible-content, good-format/facilitation Zoom – gets asked.)
Somehow though, this isn’t satisfying me. We “ought” to be better at this. We are supposed to be the ones who can challenge power. But do we use up all our courage and cortex in spotting the obvious, and then hunker down? Do we find new tin gods to worship, and then let them rule us?
Or is it just so damn hard to think of ways that the incredibly embedded/entrenched/tooled-up status quo (that is endlessly capable of adapting/defending itself – T1000, not T800) could be defeated, that we retreat into soothing lullabies and never face any real challenge from the audience to sing a different song?
I will try, for what it is worth, to
a) have more compassion for those with nothing to say who say it at great length and to relatively great acclaim
b) understand the dynamics/incentives that keep them in place, and keep them from actually trying to answer the ‘who will bell the cat?’ question
c) provide clear cat-belling ideas and then implement them as best I can at a local level
d) obey the Cocker Protocol, in these dark, nay, shitty days
(1) For the sake of clarity: I am not – of course – disputing that we need more diverse voices. What I am disputing is that if they are saying the same banal and info-deficit things that the middle class white men are saying, we (collectively) are not actually any further ahead. And I would very much like us to be collectively further ahead.
The tl:dr – six more articles, each with something of use for scholars or activists (and sometimes, for both). You should know the drill by now (one, two, three).
Edwards G (2008) ‘The Lifeworld’ as a resource for social movement participation and the consequences of its colonization. Sociology 42(2): 299–316.
Horton, J., & Kraftl, P. (2009). Small acts, kind words and ‘not too much fuss’: Implicit activisms. Emotion Space and Society, 2, 14–23.
Jones, A. (2017). Housing choices in later life as unclaimed forms of housing activism. Contemporary Social Science, 12(1–2). doi:10.1080/21582041.2017.1334127
King DS (2006) Activists and emotional reflexivity: Toward Touraine’s subject as social movement. Sociology 40(5): 873–891.
McAdam, D. (1992) Gender as a mediator of the activist experience: the case of Freedom Summer, American Journal of Sociology, 97(5), pp. 1211–1240.
McPherson, J. M. (1983) An ecology of affiliation, American Sociological Review, 48(4), pp. 519 –532.
Edwards (2008:299) writes
“Social networks, collective identities, and cultural formations have been seen as key resources shaping participation in social movements. These three types of resources map on to what Habermas calls ‘the lifeworld’: society, personality, and culture. Combining theoretical and empirical observations, I look at how the lifeworld can be viewed as a resource for social movement participation, and the consequences of its colonization. I … argue that the colonization of schools results in an erosion of ‘lifeworld resources’ necessary for the mobilization of trade unionists in the current UK context.”
This she did via interviews with trades unionists, some of whom get misty-eyed about ‘the good old days’ of mass meetings (without ever seeming to reflect on the ego-foddering). There’s useful stuff on Habermas/Mead –
“Habermas is arguing that the ‘intersubjective coordination of actions’ relies upon ‘membership in social groups’ and the ‘integration of those same groups’, as well as upon shared stocks of cultural knowledge (p. 137). In turn, participation in interaction, as Mead pointed out, socializes younger members into the values of the group and provides them with ‘capacities for action’ within it (Habermas, 1987: 137).”
and the importance of having a picture when you can get them all to fit…
“Drawing upon past memories meant that these members could place the current issues of membership non-participation in historical context, seeing them as part of the ‘ebbs and flows’ that, as Tarrow (1998) argues, mark any movement’s trajectory. The memories of the movement do not have to remain solely for those who were involved, however. Through communicative interaction, they can be shared collectively amongst union members in the present context.
“They can provide a collective, as well as personal, pool of cultural resources which can be drawn upon by members in times of abeyance. Habermas himself saw the importance of collective memories for social movements, arguing that without symbolic representation of past struggles, the sacrifices involved are not only lost, but those who come later ‘can have no idea of who they are’ (1986: 139–40).”
There’s good stuff in here on a survey of why people don’t attend meetings (nobody volunteers ‘because they are crap/an opportunity for the elites to treat everyone else like ego-fodder/a rubber-stamp for what is already decided’).
Ultimately though, nobody seems to admit that the “left” is pretty good at colonising its own bleeding lifeworld, without much help from the usual suspects. So it goes.
Horton & Kraftl, (2009) are out to screw with your idea of what an “activist” is. They write
“Social scientists’ accounts of ‘activism’ have too often tended to foreground and romanticise the grandiose, the iconic, and the unquestionably meaningful, to the exclusion of different kinds of ‘activism’. Thus, while there is a rich social-scientific literature chronicling a social history of insurrectionary protests and key figures/thinkers, we suggest that there is more to ‘activism’ (and there are more kinds of ‘activism’) than this. In short, we argue that much can be learnt from what we term implicit activisms which – being small-scale, personal, quotidian and proceeding with little fanfare – have typically gone uncharted in social-scientific understanding of ‘activism’…..
“We suggest that these interviews extend and unsettle many social-scientific accounts of ‘activism’ in three key senses. First: in evoking the specific kinds of everyday, personal, affective bonds which lead people to care. Second: in evoking the kinds of small acts, words and gestures which can instigate and reciprocate/reproduce such care. And third: in suggesting how such everyday, affective bonds and acts can ultimately constitute political activism and commitment, albeit of a kind which seeks to proceed with ‘not too much fuss’.
(Horton & Kraftl,2009:14)
This is a stonkingly good overview, and has lots of numbered lists (I am a sucker for these) like these two –
Rather than viewing particular emotions (such as anger) as a ‘resource’ for activism, or an outcome of particular activist practices, we demonstrate how constellations of feeling may, sometimes, spill over into activist tendencies that are quite unanticipated and un-planned (as noted by Martin et al., 2007).
i) A tendency to prioritise actions which are dramatic, iconic, totemic, ‘‘glamorous and heroic’’ (Pile and Keith, 1997: xi), even ‘‘salvational’’ (Lyman, 1995: 397).
ii) A tendency to prioritise actions which leave a readily-representable legacy….
iii) A tendency to orient accounts of activism around key events or actions (see also point viii), and/or around the agency of key leaders, thinkers or ideologues. Such an approach has often had the effect of problematically over-simplifying the complex, contingent contexts, temporalities and causal happenings which produce(d) such events (McCarthy and McMillan, 2003)….
iv) A tendency to focus, almost exclusively, upon activism which is explicitly linked to broader social movements and/or ‘-isms’ (see della Porta and Diani, 1999; Scott, 1990)….
v) A tendency to understand activism – and/or being activist – as an unconditional state: an identity, mindset, standpoint or self-aware commitment. Thus, there is a tendency to overlook the complex, ambiguous blurrings and (dis)connections between any individual’s ‘activism’ and everyday life (as critiqued by Brown, 2007; Pickerill and Chatterton, 2006), and indeed to assume and sustain this ‘between’, despite efforts to move beyond this position (Anderson, 2004)….
vi) A tendency to (re)produce a particular understanding of power, a particular version of resistance and, therefore, a particular politics. A tendency to over-simplify assumptions about political power and resistance – most often manifest as an implicit model of ‘‘resistance in implacable opposition to ‘power’’’ (Pile, 1997: 1) – has been widely criticised….. A related habit is a tendency to be cautious, and somewhat exclusionary, in delimiting what counts as resistance or activism. As Pile (1997: 14–15) suggests,
‘‘[p]otentially, the list of acts of resistance is endless – everything from foot-dragging to walking, from sit-ins to outings, from chaining oneself up in tree-tops to dancing the night away, [etc.,]. Here, of course, lies a problem: if resistance can be found in the tiniest act – a single look, a scratch in a desk – then how is resistance to be identified as a distinctive practice?’’ (our parentheses).
Pile (1997) and Thrift (1997, 2000) suggest that many social scientists have tended to reconcile this latter problem by implicitly limiting considerations of ‘resistance’ to those forms of deliberate, agentic activism which (most often as part of a social movement) explicitly address major, unequivocal contemporary societal ills. But surely, they imply, there is more to activism – and there are more kinds of activism – than this? For example, in their discussion of women’s activism, Martin et al. (2007) provide several indications that there are. They discuss how what we term ‘implicit activisms’ in this paper are fostered (sometimes unintentionally) via contingent, everyday practices that often – at first glance – look little like either oppositional kinds of resistance, or deliberate, agentic activism.
I am still unconvinced (but then again, may not have read them carefully enough): surely activism can/must be thought of/defined dialectically – if you’re not on the radar as a potential threat, then it might still be activism, but rather than implicit is it not irrelevant? (the Man don’t need your love)
Then again, they are clearly smart cookies, and have done some serious thinking –
In closing, we want to complicate our two-fold theorisation of the relationship between emotion and activism by tentatively sketching a conceptual framework for further forays into implicit activisms. From our empirical analysis and critical reading of activist literatures, we discern seven styles or modes of being which distinguish implicit activisms of the kind witnessed in this paper from those more commonly cited by social scientists. In so doing, we seek to emphasise the differences between ‘implicit activisms’ and ‘other activisms’; but this schema is not to be read as a totalising attempt to foreclose alternative explanations of activism. The following points are one way in to the messiness of implicit activisms, not a way out.
First, implicit activisms are often modest. In distinction to ‘glamorous’ or spectacular forms of activism (Carter, 2005; Pile and Keith, 1997), the moments and movements entailed in reaching out to non-users of the Sure Start Centre are virtually indistinguishable from the types of caring that proceed at the Centre on a daily basis.
Second, implicit activisms often leave little (representational) trace.
Third, implicit activisms are often non-totemic. Many accounts of activism are orientated around ‘key’ figures: events, thinkers or actions (see, for instance, Zeilig and Ansell, 2008). Contrastingly, Sure Start activisms did not (yet) organise themselves around any ‘key’ figures or leader.
Fourth, implicit activisms are often tenuously connected to philosophical positions (or –isms).
Fifth, implicit activisms do not often constitute an identity.
Sixth, implicit activisms often scramble the power relations involved in activism. Whilst many social-scientific accounts of activism focus upon interrogating (or dismantling) the power/ resistance couplet, the absence of any overt, active kinds of resistance at Sure Start demands an exploration of what else might be constituted by activism vis-à-vis ‘power’.
Seventh, implicit activisms are often conditional. Activism is traditionally viewed as a straightforwardly intentional act directed towards a particular end. Understood in this way, emotions either become resources for activism, or conceived as more-or-less significant components of activism-in-practice. Yet,we are not sure that it is always so easy to discern precisely where activism comes from, and ends.
Need to chew on this (i.e. re-read and think about more carefully.) What IS activism? Who “counts” as an activist? Says who? on what basis? With what consequences (political, empirical etc)
Jones(2017) is raiding broader research, honing in on two particular interviews. Her concerns are similar to those of Horton and Kraftl-
“Analyses of social movements continue to talk of successful strategies and ‘famous activists’ (Goodwin & Jasper, 2014) and banner-waving on the streets is a common image of activism. Certain forms of housing activism, such as campaigns to defend social housing in London, are being rightfully made more visible through academic engagement with community groups and journalistic exposure (Minton, 2012; Watt & Minton, 2016) and new alliances are being made all the time as the housing crisis in London deepens (Humphry, 2016).
However, such visible forms of organised activism contrast with quieter acts of resistance. In Interview 4’s housing pathway, domestic parenting responsibilities were inter-woven with her politics and it was impossible to disentangle these from her agential housing choices. Such domestic responsibilities have been neglected as spheres in which political and housing activism takes place (Brickell, 2012a). Brickell has argued for recognition of activism in the private domain of the home rather than just in the public domain (Brickell, 2012b, 2014).”
(Jones, 2017: xx)
King (2006) is similar to Jones – honing in on a couple of people interviewed as part of a broader project, in this case the whole ‘co-counselling’/re-evaluation counselling thing, popular in some circles. King’s dataset is Australian peaceniks. She’s using Touraine (one of the grand old men of New Social Movements) and his ‘de-integration’ schtick (punching holes in the walls of reality, and using the bricks for … better purposes…)
For Touraine, the Subject is late modernity’s agent of change. Capable of actively producing society, this Subject constructs itself and exists in the space between social integration and deintegration, what Touraine calls commitment and non-commitment (1995: 282–6). Thus while it is recognized that the Subject exists within a plethora of discourses and structures which influence the ways in which they become integrated into society, the process of de-integration is seen as essential if the subject is to develop a ‘will to act and to be recognized as an actor’ (1995: 207). Without deintegration, individuals would simply be caught in the web of discourses and social structures that merely reproduce society.
(King, 2006: 874)
There’s a nice lit review on emotions in social movements –
“The salience of emotions to social activism is being increasingly recognized (Aminzade and McAdam, 2002; Goodwin et al., 2000, 2001; Melucci, 1996). Within this area, the social constructivist view of emotions (Armon-Jones, 1986; Harre, 1986) has been applied to social movements to examine the relevance of concepts such as emotion culture (Taylor, 2000; Taylor and Rupp, 2002), emotional achievement (Yang, 2000), emotional habitus (Calhoun, 2001), emotional labour (Groves, 1995) and emotion work (Gould, 2002; Perry, 2002). From these studies it is evident that the ways in which emotions are constructed, managed, manipulated and reconstructed are important for understanding patterns of engagement in social movements by activists. In this article, I argue that activists also engage in practices of emotional reflexivity, and that these practices enable them to both sustain their activism and act creatively in producing society.”
and a critique of dick-swinging (though self-martyrdom in other forms doesn’t get so much of a look in)
There’s a real culture of activism that lines up with the masculine culture of not feeling anything, not needing to feel anything, being strong, being tough and being committed. That you don’t feel anything or at least, if you do, you don’t show it … In fact, in the social change circles that I move in, the idea that soft, fluffy, squishy stuff like talking about feelings has ABSOLUTELY no place in the movement, is very prevalent … You know, if you have that idea that toughness is what makes you a good activist then counselling is something that you wouldn’t do unless dragged there on your deathbed.
Then there is this, which I think is bang on the money and I am clearly gonna have to read Elliott, albeit 25 years late…
Elliott argues that for people to acquire a radical imagination it becomes ‘increasingly necessary to tolerate and reflect upon emotional states of uncertainty generated by the cultural conditions of the late modern age’ (1996: 29) to the extent that uncertainty becomes a positive dynamic:
Some unknown aspect of one’s own reality needs to be discovered, and this implies putting on hold what it is we think we actually know about ourselves, other people and the social world. Working these unknown aspects of our feelings and experiences through can lead to a greater capacity for confronting otherness, at once personal and political … Here, the capacity to tolerate the unknown, to ‘go with’ uncertainty, is vital to thoughtfulness and critical questioning. (Elliott, 1996: 154)
However, working through these unknown aspects of feelings and experiences means recognizing that social norms and expectations are located in the transmission of affect which underlies the process of meaning construction (Elliott, 1996: 25). It is, then, these emotional states of uncertainty that form the core of Elliott’s view of reflexivity. Anxiety, hate, love, anger, fear, guilt, shame and desire are analysed as ways in which the self–other boundary is structured and dislocated. From Elliott’s perspective, reflexivity requires the conceptualization of these affects in terms of a dialectical interplay between depressive and paranoid-schizoid 17 modes of subjectivity and intersubjectivity which, he argues, underlie transformations of social, cultural and political life (1996:75–7). The interplay and shifts between these two modes enable a more creative reflexivity to emerge.
McAdam (1992) is writing about something he knows really really well – the Freedom Summer of 1964 and its consequences. Turns out (and I hope you’re sitting down), women had to be twice as good (committed/’pure’) to be half as likely to get selected to volunteer. And at the time, before second wave feminism kicked in, they didn’t have the language to name what was going on so well. This is a CRUCIAL article for understanding how filters in activism play out, imo. There’s lots of good stuff, but for now, this – on the long term consequences-
“For many, Freedom Summer came to be the event around which they reconstructed their biographies in “before” and “after” fashion. This was no less true for the male than the female volunteers. But the development and application of a feminist perspective on Freedom Summer in the years following the project has helped sustain the perceived importance of the project for women in a way that nothing has for the male volunteers. Let me explore this dynamic in a bit more detail. At the close of the summer, the majority of volunteers-female no less than male-viewed themselves as “movement people.” First and foremost this meant the civil rights movement, though many also were clearly attuned and sympathetic to the emerging student and antiwar movements. Indeed, they viewed these as one and the same struggle (McAdam 1988, pp. 162-78). Freedom Summer, then, loomed large in the volunteers’ accounts of how they became “movement people.” But the expulsion of whites from the civil rights movement and the gradual dissolution of the radical left in the early 1970s slowly eroded the salience of the designation “movement person.” As that identity became more tenuous, so too did the importance of Freedom Summer as the pivotal event in the volunteers’ reconstructed biographies.
But this dilemma was much more acute for the male volunteers. The rise of the women’s liberation movement served to provide most of the female volunteers with a highly salient new identity-that of feminist- around which their biographies could once again be recast.
McPherson (1983) is unlike the others here, but also crucial (i.e. it is great back up for something I keep banging on about – thinking of organisations within a (so-called) movement as parts of an eco-system.
“This paper develops an ecological model of the competition of social organizations for members. The concept of the ecological niche is quantified explicitly in a way which ties together geography, time, and the social composition of organizations. A differential equation model analogous to the Lotka-Volterra competition equations in biology captures the dynamics of the system. This dynamic model is related to the niche concept in a novel way, which produces an easily understood and powerful picture of the static and dynamic structure of the community”
But it never gets all sociobiological, thank goodness
A population of organizations, then, is not a set of discrete creatures who must mate with each other to reproduce, but a froth of bubbles, constantly sharing or exchanging members, growing and dying, and being absorbed and segmented in response to changing conditions. Yet, like animals, organizations must compete with each other for resources. An extremely important resource for which organizations compete is their members.1 This paper will develop a simple but powerful model of the competition of social organizations for members.
There’s also good stuff on the difference between fundamental and realized niches.
Ecologists distinguish between fundamental and realized niches, which refer to niches formed in non-competitive and competitive situations, respectively (Morse, 1980). The fundamental niche is the niche which could be exploited by the species if there were no competitors. This niche can only be changed through genetic mechanisms. The realized niche can change with the presence or absence of a given competitor.
It’s a very well-cited paper, and you can see why – it’s clear, compelling and important in its implications for how to think about how SMOs/NGOs etc are competing for a (de facto) finite number of supporters/players, while MOST of them are simply not going to get involved (compare the Edwards meetings paper).
Particularly useful stuff for activists (concepts, anecdotes)
Habermas and the lifeworld (and its colonisiation)
The very meaning of “activism”
Competition for scarce resources
Books and articles I should get around to reading and digesting
Aminzade, R. and D. McAdam (2002) ‘Introduction: Emotions and Contentious Politics’, Mobilization: An International Journal 7(2): 1–5.
Anderson, J., 2004. The ties that bind? Self- and place- identity in environmental direction action. Ethics, Place and Environment 7, 45–57.
Diani, M. (1990) ‘The Network Structure of the Italian Ecology Movement’, Social Science Information 29(1): 5–31.
Diani, M. (2003) ‘Leaders or Brokers? Position and Influence in Social Movement Networks’, in M. Diani and D. McAdam (eds) Social Movements and Social Networks, pp. 105–20. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Elliott, A. (1996) Subject to Ourselves: Social Theory, Psychoanalysis and Postmodernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Freeman, Jo. 1973. “Origins of the Women’s Liberation Movement.” American Journal of Sociology 78:792-811.
Goodwin, J., J.M. Jasper and F. Polletta (2000) ‘The Return of the Repressed: The Fall and Rise of Emotions in Social Movement Theory’, Mobilization: An International Journal 5(1): 65–84.
Griffin, C., 2008. Protest practice and (tree) cultures of conflict: understanding the spaces of ‘tree maiming’ in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40, 91–108
Kurtz, H., 2005. Reflections on the iconography of environmental justice activism. Area 37, 79–88.
Martin, D., Hanson, S., Fontaine, D., 2007. What counts as activism? The role of individuals in creating change. Women’s Studies Quarterly 25, 78–94.
Martin, W. (2007). Embodying ‘active’ ageing: Bodies, emotions and risk in later life. Sociology.
Maxey, I., 1999. Beyond boundaries? activism, academia, reflexivity and research. Area 31, 195–198.
Oliver, Pamela. 1984. “If You Don’t Do It, Nobody Will. Active and Token Contributors to Local Collective Action.” American Sociological Review 49:601-10.
Oliver, Pamela, Gerald Marwell, and Ruy Teixeira. 1985. “A Theory of the Critical Mass I: Interdependence, Group Heterogeneity, and the Production of Collective Goods.” American Journal of Sociology 91:522-56.
Perry, E.J. (2002) ‘Moving the Masses: Emotion Work in the Chinese Revolution’, Mobilization: An International Journal 7(2): 111–28.
Snow, David A., Louis A. Zurcher, Jr., and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. “Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment.” American Sociological Review 45 (5): 787-801.
Watt, P. (2016). A nomadic war machine in the metropolis: En/countering London’s 21st-century housing crisis with focus E15. City, 20, 297–320.
A review of an extraordinary book about Norfolk, the Stone Age, incumbency, patriarchy and sociotechnical transitions (no, seriously it’s all that and more. Staggeringly good))
Something about the intellectual work behind the job I just was interviewed for (accelerating sociotechnical transitions. Or sociomaterial transitions – or something in between)
Something about ‘you can’t blow up a social relationship’ – a bunch of novels I’ve read recently or a long time ago about ill-fated adventures in violent resistance (a 1970s genre of fiction, not all of it pulp)
But for now, I have Something To Get Off My Chest (as usual)
FOR FUCKS SAKE CAN WE PLEASE BE LESS FUCKING SHIT?? (okay, okay, I will tone this down now, given potential future and future potential bosses have checked out this site),.
So, sweet- natured version.
“Progressive social movement organisations may possibly benefit from some reflection on long-standing methods of organising and holding meetings”
So, here’s the ranty bit about the first 30 minutes of meetings
You can tell how a meeting, (and quite probably the campaign it is ‘part’ of will go) from the 15 minutes either side of the start.
If the answer to many of the following questions is “no”, then time and energy are being spaffed against the wall.
Have people been given the option of wearing name badges and badges that say broadly where they are from, to help make it easier for other people to cross the first hurdle and speak to them?
Is there a notice up on the powerpoint saying “a big part of today is you getting to meet other people you don’t already know, to thicken the networks on which a movement sits. Please do talk to strangers!”
Is it clear where the toilets are, the coffee/tea etc?
Is there a clear “thank you for coming” and a repeated encouragement (perhaps even two minutes of doing it) to talk with someone you don’t know?
Has provision been made for people who would like to come but couldn’t (e.g. livestreaming of opening speeches, some sort of online interaction (a hashtag at least)
Is the opening introduction clear and concise and high energy?
Is the opening speech – if there is one – full of things that those attending DON’T already know/agree with?
Is there an opportunity for at least a couple of questions to the opening speaker, so the tone is set for, you know, discussion? Is that opportunity after people have had a chance to talk with someone else to hone their question (if not, the usual suspects’ hands will go straight up)
Is it clear – crystal clear – what the purposes of the day are, from the opening introductions and the first speech?
So, here’s the ranty bit about plenary sessions. Also if the answer is no…
Has the reporting back from break out sessions been carefully designed (or, if you must “curated”), with clear time limits? (Reporting back meaningfully from breakouts sessions is a skill. Most people do not possess that skill at all, or at the level required for it to be meaningful. In the absence of that skill, and of a time constraint, the report-backers will blather and foreground their own (organisational/emotional) needs. This will drain energy from the room and credibility from the process, simultaneously.)
Have the announcements of upcoming events been carefully thought through, and a way of avoiding rants devised and implemented? (If you really want concise comments, especially about upcoming events, have a ‘hand in details’ form, which can be entered on a powerpoint and flashed up for all to see. Again, no time limit is going to mean some very long, rambling and energy-sapping and credibility destroying speechifying).
Oh, and sidebar – the emotacycle will get us all killed.
The answers to most of these questions, at most of the events I go to is “no”. Which is why I don’t stick around. The number of months we have before the shit properly hits the fan is more finite than we want to admit – it’s later than you think. So, why waste time at time-wasting and morale-destroying meetings.
What’s that you say? I sound down on the “Left”? Why, yes, yes I do, don’t I.
What’s that? Am I a Daily Mail reader? No, but I can see why you would need to believe that, since I am traipsing all over your tribe’s culture, and there is an implicit rebuke in this to you for tolerating crap culture in your subculture for so long.
Fwiw, I have raised these issues REPEATEDLY. Both unhelpfully, but also as helpfully as I know how. You can, on a good day, get individual “organisers” to agree with bits and pieces. But when time comes for them to innovate, to push past the resistance of their colleagues to any deviation from The Way Things Have Always Been Done, they bottle it. They lack either the skills or the spine – or both – to make things any different. So it goes.
Why does nothing change, will nothing change?
Because the success or failure of one meeting doesn’t register for those who are making the decisions about it and future meetings, because those people are a tight-ish band of long-term/baked on activists, who will keep doing what they do. They lack the insight into what behaviours really put off newcomers, or have the insight but are unwilling to innovate the format of meetings because. well, lots of reasons. Nobody else is going to be able to do a sustained change of format – the incumbents will have to do the disrupting, and everything we know about incumbents is that them doing disrupting is pretty damn rare.
So, we’re doomed. So it goes. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is, so suck it up.
trying to figure out what bits of bombers required (heavy and therefore necessarily scarce) reinforcement, the people assessing would look at planes which came back from hitting German targets, see where all the holes in the fuselage/wings were and say “reinforce the bits with the most holes.”
No. No, that’s wrong. Because the planes that made it back, with that damage, were the ones that were still flying, by definition. Those bits full of holes were precisely the bits that did NOT need reinforcing. But it’s hard to look at planes that got hit in their weak spots and went down in flames, them being in thousands of pieces in Nazi Germany and all.
Fortunately, the mistake was seen, the right bits reinforced and We Won the War.
So, when I see an excruciating survey, full of the wrong questions, being aimed at people who are STILL INVOLVED, I weep. Because nowhere does it ask “do you know anyone who is no longer coming? Did they tell you why they stopped coming? If not, could you ask them to tell you, anonymously?”
THEN we might be looking at the right bits of the shot-down planes.
But that would open up a different can of worms, and quite a squidgy one. And require a level of emotional intelligence that is lacking. Has always been lacking, not just from this particular iteration.
We are just not smart enough. Or we are smart enough – on our good days – but simply not BRAVE enough.
Right now there’s a lot of politicians flapping their meat in Madrid, at the 25th “Conference of the Parties” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Late next year they will be flapping their meat in Glasgow. It will be the first COP to be held in the UK (though there was 1994’s “Global Forum – of that, more later).
And what will the build-up to the Glasgow COP allow (or “afford” if you do all that ANT hand-wavy stuff)? It will allow groups to forget their differences (internal, external), their failures, their inability to do local capacity-building, their aimlessness. It will allow them to put on a series of feeder events for the mother of all emotacycles – a big set-piece climate conference in the UK (I’m assuming indyref2 can’t happen by next November).
The whole thing is deja vu all over again, for those of us with memories stretching back to 2009. Then – after 3 exhausting years – climate groups decided that a “big” march in London with some bumbling on to the COP in Copenhagen (“last chance to save the world, TM”) would “build a mass movement… international this… solidarity that” (my memory may be playing tricks, but I don’t think the words “decolonising” and “inter-sectional” were thrown around so much).
So, I have made a graphic, and there are other things afoot.
Not because I expect to change a single soul’s mind, but so I can say “I told you so” in March 2021, when the fallout is at its most clearly radioactive. Schadenfreude is a dish best served… in advance…
First I will treat you as ego-fodder. You will sit in rows, or in a circle,and you will listen to me drone on and on about my hobby-horse du jour.
I don’t care what you know about the topic.
I don’t want to take time away from hearing my own voice to hear your perspectives.
I don’t care about you getting to know the other people in the room
I don’t want to take time away from hearing my own voice for you to build networks
Why do I want this? Because I am Important, dammit. I may not have had all the adulation and obedience that I should have had. But that is because I am a Dissident, and a Rebel.
But I have you all here now, and You. Will. Listen. To. Me. In this “workshop.” That’s a new definition, by the way, of “workshop.” Do you like it? Say yes. If you don’t, well, I don’t care.
But I am not a monster. Of course I am not a monster. Am I? I understand that having used you all, you – well, one or two of you perhaps – might then expect to use me and the rest of you in a similar way. Without my insight, my brilliance, it’s true. So the most of us, and even me- because I am not a monster, am I – will sit in rows or in a circle and we will listen to one or two you drone on and on about your hobby-horse du jour. Fair is fair, after all.
Not all of you, that would be impossible. No, just perhaps three or five or so other people who are also FOTO-genic. Friends Of The Organisers, that is. We will run the day as a series of sequential “consensual” autophagous meetings. Just don’t think too hard about the acronym there, okay?
You don’t know what autophagous means? Oh dear. Perhaps you didn’t go to a good school? Perhaps you did not take your own education in hand, as I have? Perhaps you could reflect on how this might mean that rather than being one of the important people, who talks, you are merely one of those who is allowed to listen. But fear not, they also serve who only sit and listen. But since you’re not very well-educated, you probably don’t even get that particular bon mot? I should not cast my pearls of wisdom before such swine.
You see, by sitting there, by OBEY-ing, provide proof to the important people, like me, that we are important, that our hobby-horses are not old nags, but thoroughbreds.
Where was I? Autophagous…. It means an entity that eats itself. Self-cannibalism. It’s like that Stephen King short story – Survivor Type.
And in order to do the important things – namely for me to feel important – we have to perpetuate social movement failure. We have to keep doing meetings where new – or actually often old, half-baked – ideas come from the front. From the FOTO-genics. And we will not do good meeting design. And we will not do facilitation in any meaningful way. For if that were to be done, well, it would detract from my opportunities to use you to boost, albeit fleetingly, my self-importance.
That new people are bored, so what? That they don’t come back and they tell other potential members that at the meeting they went to they were bored, patronised, their input neither sought nor welcome? So what. That after a while the meetings, conferences get smaller and wink out of existence? That the campaign has in effect eaten itself, to meet the insatiable appetites for attention by the FOTO-genics? That when the issue next exercises the public, new “organisations”, bereft of experience, competence, innovation, repeat the same ghastly repertoires? So so what?
For, you see, this is a balance, a difficult decision. All of those minor, even trivial downsides, compared to me feeling important for 55 minutes. As Madeleine Albright said when asked about the sanctions on Iraq costing the lives of half a million children – “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”
there’s a lot of us in this room, and the tables aren’t really helping. I know it is gonna take a minute, and the “Elf and Safety” types may be upset, but I want to spend one of our precious 57 remaining minutes stacking the tables against the wall and making a circle of the chairs for us to fit in. While you are doing that
a) introduce yourself to someone
b) come up with a way we can build a densely linked, long-lasting movement for climate justice on this campus, and beyond this campus.
(Once in a circle)
Great, thanks, I am x (yes, introducing yourself by name is a good thing). I am from y, which is one of the organisations which called this meeting. It is fantastic to see so many people here on such short notice. Hands up if you’re an undergrad? Hands up if you’re a Masters Student. PhDs? Academics? Staff? Other – you are all welcome.
We are here for two reasons. One is that there is a climate strike at the end of this month. But if we only focus on building for that, we’re idiots, trapped in the emotacycle. We have to have the longer vision of a real climate movement on campus. That’s the second reason we are here. Every minute of speeches from the front is a minute less for those tasks. So, no speeches. Okay, that’s a lie. I want to say this:
What IS a climate movement on campus? It’s not a bunch of organisations, each small, secretly fighting over recruiting undergrads. It’s not a bunch of organisations doing that while occasionally co-ordinating over a date – a climate strike – or an issue – like divestment. It is this – it is dense webs of people who know each other a little bit at least, or maybe a lot. A dense web of people who can collaborate, who can support each other to learn new skills, new knowledge, put new and ever-more pressure on the decision-makers on campus and beyond. A dense and denser web of more and more people who win victories, find new things to improve.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? How does it start? It starts with me shutting up, and you – you, talking in groups of two or three – no more.
Find out the other person’s name, find out what course they study or teach. Find out what their idea for building a climate movement is. Three minutes.
Right. We are going to do exactly that same thing later, but first, we have to make some progress to the climate strike that’s coming up. It mustn’t be a damp squib, and it can be a great way for us to show ourselves, our allies and our opponents that we are serious and capable.
So, there are flipcharts and marker pens. As individuals, or ideally in the groups you just formed, I want you to add – legibly – the following
On these flipcharts, upcoming events between now and the strike where we might be able to publicise the strike
On these flipcharts, ideas for things that could be done on campus to publicise the strike
On these flip charts, ideas for things that could be done off-campus to publicise the strike
On these flipcharts, ideas for longer term action on campus.
On these flipcharts, the names of groups we should be talking with.
If you run out of ideas, that’s fine. PLEASE go and talk to someone new. Introduce your new acquaintance to them. This is how networks grow, and movements are stronger if the underlying network is stronger.
BUT, before we do that. I want us to go round the room. We want three things. Your name, the course you study or teach, and if you are a member of a group, the name of that group, or at most, two groups. No group, no problem! We WILL have time at the end for groups to advertise what they are doing – come speak to me about – but for now, just those three things
(Name go round)
Right, ten minutes on the flipcharts, and discussing, then we reconvene!
Thanks everyone. Before we close, I want you to get into new groups of three and do the same. Find out the other person’s name, find out what course they study or teach. Find out what their idea for building a climate movement is. Three minutes.
Thanks everyone, we now have a really long list of upcoming events before the strike. This will be typed up and circulated.
We also have a huge number of ideas and thoughts about the short term and, crucially, the longer-term. These too will be typed up.
There is an email list going around. We promise not to spam you, or let the list get taken over by other issues. Please write your email address on it, legibly.
Now, I’ve had six people want to advertise their groups and upcoming events. Any others?
So, the rule is this. You have forty-five seconds. At the end of that, I am going to start to applaud you, and everyone else will join in.
[Announcements from various groups. If they do it badly, that teaches them a lesson for next time. And they’ve only taken up 45 seconds. Meanwhile, each round of applause boosts spirits, even if some of the applauding is ironic].
Right, great. Thank you so much for coming. A final plea. These new people you’ve met – stay in touch with them. Swap e-mails, or Twitter, or Grindr or whatever. A movement is built on a network, not on an event or even a series of events.
We will announce our next meeting with more notice. It will almost certainly be next week, venue to be confirmed, but probably in this building.
One last round of applause for all of you and your ideas, energy. We can win this – we must win this.