Category Archives: Social Movements

Oh god, how hard IS IT, really? Meetings that don’t suck. #oldfartclimateadvice

Hi everyone,

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.

[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!

[ten minutes]

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.

[three mintues]

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.

(Applause)

 

Sucking on the hopium pipe

In 2002 I got some weird-ass bug, probably from having been in Cambodia. I ended up in a lot of pain (probably as much as in my life) and on a hospital gurney.   And then they gave me some morphine.

Holy mother of God that stuff is the shit.  You just… the pain just… you float away on this soft warm cloud of bliss.

I TOTALLY see how people get addicted to that. You’d be mad not to, if you had serious pain (and I did not – it was acute, but not chronic, not omfg ‘shoot me now’ pain).

Anyone with a brain who looks at what our species (1) has done to this planet – the genocides, the ecocides, the wanton destruction driven by fear, greed, will to power etc – is in a lot of pain.  That would be the case even if we were not quite clearly a long way down a suicidal path that will turn this planet into a largely uninhabitable overcooked slag-and-plastic heap.

Pain is not fun.

So, we want to suck on the hopium pipe.

“New group X will save us” (for x, insert Climate Camp, Occupy, Corbymentum or some extremely new and depoliticised rendition).

And if anyone has the rudeness to question why the same tactics and rhetoric should be expected to come to a different result, oh my.

“Look has anything else got this big this quickly? We must be winning. If you’re not with us you’re against us!  Don’t be so demoralising. You must be unwell/jealous” etc

I will say it again, (though I am staggered and appalled that I have to). We. Have. A. Moral. Obligation. Not. Just. To. Act. But. To. Learn. From. Past. Mistakes.

Everything is just riding an emotacycle off a cliff. Again. Why should people who ought to know better be applauded for that?

 

 

Footnotes

(1)  Yep, there is common but differentiated responsibility. Most of that responsibility lies with people who look like me – white, male, middle-class, who either actively did stuff or were unwilling to speak up against it, out of fear-greed-complicity-etc.  Anyhows, parsing the anthropocene versus the racialised capitolocene etc is a blog post for another day, ‘kay?

What next for XR? Gazing dimly into my crystal balls #oldfartclimateadvice

Tl:dr  Hard to see radical granular climate action in the UK continuing beyond early 2021 at the latest. But I could be wrong.

Firstly the disclaimers:

  • Disclaimer the first: Who the hell knows?  Who the hell knows anything anymore?
  • Disclaimer the second: In cosmic scheme of things it doesn’t matter- we are a dead species stumbling, about to spaff all the achievements of the Enlightenment against the wall. So it goes.
  • Stories like these, scenarios, give a crumb of comfort, the illusion/delusion of control.

We are not quite a year in to the public face of XR (I went to my first – awful – meeting last September).  The whole climate ‘thing’ (including XR, Thunbergmania, FfF etc) seems to be happening at twice the speed of the last wave (2006-2009), for whatever reasons.   On Monday the next ‘International Rebellion’ is to begin in London, after the events of April.  So, rather than be overtaken by events again, I am putting this long-brewing post (where long = n+ 14 days, for values of n 0-14 days) so that I have to own my predictions and can’t fall to the retrospective smoothing fallacy (fwiw, I don’t think I ever meant XR in toto would be over by end of 2018, just that the idea of maintaining blockades for weeks on end in Nov/Dec was, well, ambitious. But maybe I did)

As far as XR is concerned (the school strikes are different, but not that different), I think we’re coming to a crunch point. Much depends on Monday onwards.  The April evens had a few things going for them

a)  weather (it was warm – can’t think why) and not too rainy
b)  novelty ‘hippies take over London, complete with ‘normal’ people among them’ was a good news story
c)  a gap in the news cycle from the Other Thing Of Which We Will Not Speak
d)  The Metropolitan Police were playing it softly softly (possibly because it helped them in budget negotiations to look outnumbered/overwhelmed? Who can say.)

For this next orgasm in the emotacycle to ‘work’, all of those need to be in favour again, and the novelty factor has to include LOTS more people (if numbers aren’t much much higher,  where is the novelty?) It’s not clear to me the numbers will be that much higher. Lots of people got to tick the I Did My Bit box by turning out in their lunch hour for the Global Climate ‘Strike’ on Sept 20.

It’s not clear at all that the OTOWWWNS window will be there.

It’s also reasonably clear that the  Metropolitan police attitude is different.  Clock this display of pre-emptive we-da-boss-ery. Seems odd to do this and then be all touchy-feely-dancy-yes-we-are-your-friends from Monday on. We shall see.  (Of course, just because the Met may want to change its tactics does not guarantee they they will succeed in changing their tactics/those tactics will succeed.)

But for the sake of argument, let’s say  all the stars align and this next rebellion is a ‘win’ for XR, then what? As far as I can see, then the pressure to do an ‘even bigger’ Rebellion next April will be almost irresistible (and it is not clear to me many participants would WANT to resist).

Okay, so say the event is a damp/ignored/plodded squib. In that case, I suspect that there will be some decruitment, some soul-searching and the splits emerging (the drones-at-Heathrow as XR’s ‘Brexit Moment’, as an insider said not long back) will open.  BUT if I had to bet, I’d say the cracks will be papered over, morale sort of maintained and the caravan will be kept on the road because, you know, momentum (lower case), it’s an emergency, and there is a summit to be hopped in Glasgow next November/December.  And given that the dreary mainstream NGOs (Hello Faux, hello Greenpieces) are busy playing catch-up and will be wanting to mobilise for the COP, then the XR will stagger on.

Meanwhile, in both these extreme cases, the calls  for granular, local, low-adrenaline-radical action will be ignored or wilfully misunderstood by most folks.

But I could be wrong. Time will tell, as she so often does.  In the meantime, will keep pushing on with the granular local, low-adrenaline radical stuff, as best I can, with people I trust.

This time it’s different? Of #climatebreakdown, issue attention cycles, social movements and other natural disasters….

Lunch with a smart friend with whom I often disagree (politiely).

This time it is different, maybe, he says (in response to my point that we’ve known about the essential unsustainability of techno-accelerationist consumerism since the late 1960s  – Earth Day, The Limits to Growth, Blueprint for Survival in 1970, 1972 and 1972: I can find you other doom-laden prognostications too  – and yet the moment of awareness/panic passes (is repressed, in psychoanalytic terms?).

This time it is different, perhaps, because it will no longer be possible to ignore the agonised screams of “Mother Nature” (i..e. it is middle-class white people getting affected, not just other, lesser beings and species).

So, how might the issue attention cycle NOT follow the path it has in 1969-1972, 1988-1992, 2006-2009?  (that’s a  very crude global approximation – always check your mileage).

I think you would need to see TWO things BOTH need to happen

a)  The natural disasters/extreme weather events keep on piling up and – this is crucial – start affecting the daily lives of rich people in the West.

b) the social movement organisations keep learning, growing, organising, and are able to understand that media attention is an extremely dodgy success metric, and that coalitions must be built, maintained, defended, and that the wretched emotacycle is fool’s gold. (btw, subverting, channelling, smearing, cracking and splitting social movements is the actual job description of some among us).

We will probably get a), but in the absence of b), the usual amnesias and social (de)constructivism will assert itself.

Finally, this IS NOT like the Soviet Union, which collapses “overnight” between 1985 and 1990.  They at least had an alternative “viable” system – of liberal democracy, with political parties, elections etc – to point at and say ‘hmm, we will have some of that thank you.’.  We have no roadmap, (though endless ‘roadmaps’ provided by ever-so-kind academics wanting to feel important), and (you can tell I’ve been listening to too much Dylan) no direction home.

 

Of cargo cults, social movements and accelerating transitions. #magicalthinking

Imagine tribespeople in the South Pacific. Sure, lots of trading, and contact with Europeans (good and bad).  But what happened in 1942 and 1943 must have blown their minds.  Giant white men who could fly arrived in big metal birds, with chewing gum and coca cola.  And then, as quickly as they came (with the war won), they left.

How to bring them back?  How to achieve something so far out your own experience, your own cosmology? Well, if you clear runways, and make bamboo representations of the big metal birds, perhaps this display of faith and begging would be enough to convince the gods to send back the coca-cola and the gum…

And anthropologists call these cargo cults.

Imagine ‘advanced’ people, with literacy, indoor plumbing and other markers of civilisation in, oh, England. Sure, lots of reading, and contact with the idea of ‘sustainability.’ But what was called upon them to do in 2018 and 2019 must have blown their minds. A giant need for immediate and fundamental change in not just their big metal birds, but their big metal factories, their small metal vehicles, the food on their plates, the visions of the good life (more of everything, all the time).

How to bring it about? How to achieve something so far out of experience or cosmology? Well, cast your mind back, rifle through the accepted images. Social movements … What images? What folk tales? Ah, the “I have a dream” speech, the march on Washington in 1963. (Forget – or never know- that it was contested as a time-and-energy-suck, as an ego-driven distraction by those struggling on the ground in the South, and indeed the North).)

Perhaps if we repeat this display of faith and begging, this march, it will be enough for the magical transition (or transformation – it’s a live debate), perhaps it will convince the gods to send back harmony and balance (that never really was).

And social movement scholars (okay, me) call this a cargo cult.

We are, individually and on our good days, away from the groupthink that degrades us, smarter than this. Or most of us are, or can be, at least some of the time. But rather than be better, think through what is actually required, we seem to want to cling to incantations of ridiculous precision (3.5 per cent? Really? Really??).

We seem hell-bent (interesting phrase) to be seen building ever bigger bamboo planes – that is to say, our rallies, our sages on the stages, our redolent and indolent blockades and barricades which we then recreate once “back home” (and so then alienate hundreds of potential supporters). And the smugosphere thickens, and the emotacycle rolls on…

We need to accelerate the socio-technical (or socio-material, if you will) transitions/transformations. We really do. And the evidence (from my own life, from the literature, much of it quite interesting), is that the state usually has a role to play (tough luck, anarchist dogmatists). And the power of the state (however you understand it) is probably best leveraged via decent social movements, movements that can stick around, not get co-opted, repressed, bored into oblivion. Movements that grow, learn, organise, win, grow, learn, organise….

The tl:dr – We need to act as we never have before, NOT precisely as we always have. That requires honesty, and guts. I am not hopeful, because I am not an idiot (subs, please check). But on my good days, with courageous friends, I have courage.

Desolation angels

She had been asked to attend a shit meeting, at which one of the blithely ignorant assholes the electorate seems to love was talking among his friends.  She was sent on an intelligence-gathering effort, for an environmental pressure group. And she told me, fighting back the tears, that it had been a truly awful, traumatising experience.

Younger me would have thought she was over-dramatising.  Younger me might even have told her to – in effect – grow a pair.

(Younger me was, to use a technical term, an asshole.)

She has two kids. And she doesn’t want to believe that Extinction Rebellion is likely to go up like a rocket, and down like a stick.  She doesn’t want to believe that the research of Chenoweth is being misinterpreted, mis-used.

She doesn’t want to go to more shit meetings.

We met at what was, really, a shit meeting.

I only stuck around for the food. (which turned out to be as good as advertised)  I suppose I also wanted the chance to ask my standard question – “given that we’ve known  about serious environmental problems at a global level for 50 years, and climate change for 30, what have we – the social movements, the ‘good guys’ been doing wrong?”

I got the chance. But of course I didn’t get – I never get- a meaningful answer to that question: talking about your own tribe’s mistakes is not gonna get you promoted or protected or whatever.  And so we slop around in our smugospheres, talking excitedly of the new 3 and 4 letter acronyms, and the new implementation plans, and invoking the magical words like participation, and democracy.  All from the stage.  All top-down, information deficit, that goes on twice the advertised time, leaving virtually no time for questions.  It meets the organisational needs of the organisers, the ego-needs of the speakers and – sad to say – the absolution needs of (most of those) who attend.

Absolution is no solution, as an abandoned blog post, ‘inspired’ (or provoked) by a shocking event six weeks ago was going to go.  We don’t, we really really don’t, need more opportunities for the grey and the white to turn up and relive the seventies, and hear first-hand from An Expert about how screwed everything is if that Expert is not going to present some plausible innovations.  The audience gets to feel absolved, for still demonstrably caring, but are not called upon to do anything differently. Shambling towards Bethlehem.

And we don’t need ego-foddering and incompetent social movement organisations that want us to get up but are unable to help us help each other, but persist with the shame old shame old info-deficit ways of “mobilising”.

But it’s what we get, and I think what we will always get.

Yes, yes, I should come up with some way out. But so far I don’t know how. I don’t seem to have the skills, the reputation, the energy, to take on a culture that claims to be about participation and a brighter future but is stuck in its rut of ravenous egos and incompetence.

It seems to me that the skills we need to change the expectations of meetings – to make it easier rather than harder for people to be involved in meaningful ways for the long-term –  are extremely high-level. And using those skills requires, I think, more time, energy, patience, credibility and courage (as distinct from that stupid thing hope) than I currently possess or can see myself coming to possess. And maybe there are loads of other people working on this, doing better, and news just hasn’t reached the provinces.  Or maybe not.

So it goes, I guess.

She has two young children. She was crying in front of a stranger.

The need for/inevitability of magical thinking

We can laugh at the people buying their Make America Great Again hats (made in China) and chanting at Trump rallies for the return of a mis-remembered past.  It’s easy to see that they want something that is difficult (impossible) to deliver and that they want it with no particular effort on their part, beyond emotional affiliation to an Idea, as represented by a particular individual in front of them, an opportunity to emote collectively.

That’s easy.  Fun too, if you want to unleash your inner condescender…

Nastier, brutally harder and likely to lead to a short solitary life is the following: seeing those same dynamics among those of us who want a habitable planet.

As it becomes so-difficult-as-to-be-impossible to ignore the signs of the times, as it becomes impossible to see a narrative that leads to us getting out of this fix, this sixth great extinction, this anthropo-bad-scene, then we progressives – with the right bumper stickers in our brains-  are just as prone to the same kinds of magical thinking we can spot and deride in those Trump supporters.

We are clinging, will cling, to our own saints (Saint Greta is the obvious one), and our own magical incantations.  Not so much ‘build that wall’ as ‘3.5 per cent!’.  Not so much the 2020 election as a citizens’ assembly, as if that would solve anything, as if that would result in anything more than a confused shopping list that could then be killed off in the committees.

The one sticking point is that those on the reactionary right, the unreflecting nativist, ‘anti-reflexive’ blood and soil crowd don’t PRETEND to understand or desire nuance, complexity, difficulty.  There is black and white, good and evil, zero and sum.

On what passes for the resistance to such binary thinking, there is the ritual obeisance to complexity, emergent properties (hundredth monkey my fat arse) and to feedback loops. We go for timey-wimey feedback  loops, consilience, holarchy, ecosystems approaches. Or rather, we SAY we do, we’d like to believe that we do.  But by and large, we don’t.  Some of us don’t all the time, and it seems like all  of us don’t, at least some of the time.  It’s too hard – cognitively, emotionally, socially.  The temptation to slip into comforting half truths, where the sun in our eyes makes some of the lies worth believing, is so very strong.  And as nobody likes a smart-arse, nobody likes a buzz-killer.

Does any of this matter? I suppose not. If (as I suspect, and have thought for all my adult life, since about 1991 or so) ‘we’ as a species are not going to respond to this emergency with the kinds of actions that we need – that (to use a more recent term) avivocracy cannot rule – then why not let people have their illusions?  Why not let them spout their 3.5% baloney?  Where’s the harm?

Answers on a postcard please, to the usual address….

And, for the benefit of anyone who has wondered in late, the usual address is marcmywords@gmail.com

(The answer, of course – is that the harm is to our dignity. (or amour-propre, if we’re going to be cynical?) The thing that humans can be good at, on their good days, is to see things for what they are, not what we wish they were, what we think they ought to be.  Because then at least you can fail into the abyss, rather than flail into it.  But maybe that’s just me, reaching for theoretical comforts.)

Note to self –  neologism flalling – combination of flailing and falling?