Here is an edited transcript of an interview conducted over two evenings (14th and 15th February) with Alastair McIntosh, over Zoom.
marc hudson 22:12
Can you see me now? Yes, okay, great. So, the first question; a little bit about yourself how you came to be involved in environmental activism. When did it become a big thing for you?
Alastair McIntosh 22:33
I grew up in the Isle of Lewis. My father was a doctor, immersed in a natural environment, hunting, fishing, small scale agriculture that we called crofting. So it was always innate, but fundamental to crafting communities is that word community it’s all about community. So primarily, you have a human orientation towards each other. With the environment being a secondary level of perception – until it starts to be damaged by forces incoming. Forces such as industrial fishing, which literally when I was a youth around about 1970 we saw being stripped away from us. Suddenly they were no longer fish in the local sea loch. I used to be able to fill up a bucket with haddock, whiting, flounders and so on.. And suddenly you’d go out overnight, like a light switch almost. Because they started coming into the sea lochs, illegally at that stage later legalized by Margaret Thatcher. And stripping up the fish. So you see your environment going. I mean, what the current generation is experiencing is that they cannot afford to live in their places especially since COVID. Because second-home buyers and city retreaters and retirees are buying up every decent house, especially anything that the view and local people can’t afford to live there anymore, except in caravans, or somewhere with no outlook or something like that. So I grew up in that context.
To cut a long story short in 1977, I went to Papua New Guinea to do Voluntary Service Overseas, teaching maths and science and setting up, ultimately setting up small scale hydro electricity systems because the background I had in science and in the practicality of crofting life meant I was able to do basic electrical work for which was much demand.
That led in the 1980s after I had done an MBA at Edinburgh University to make myself more useful, to becoming a financial adviser to the South Pacific Appropriate Technology Foundation. And having an ongoing relationship with the South Pacific, with Melanesia especially. Currently with West Papua, the Indonesian side, right through to the present.
In the course of all of that, whereas my primary orientation was to watch people and liberation theology as an emergent force in that – not least because having been raised in the Presbyterian Hebridean context that I rejected at that stage. I then got sent to a Catholic mission in Papua New Guinea and got exposed to Vatican Two and liberation theology. So I started opening to all of that dynamic and the questions it raised about integral human development, not Ken Wilber type of integral, but liberation theology integral meaning the whole person in a whole world dynamic of Catholic Social Teaching. And behind that deep, so-called patristic, early Christian, social teaching rooted, especially in the gospels, I would say over and above the teachings of Paul.
However, come 1987, and the Brundtland committee and I am not cynical about these processes like a lot of activists are – Mrs. Brundtland defined sustainable development as developments that provide for the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations. And as I saw, that caused what I think of as the x/y question, namely that when I was growing up you had on the right wing if you like, on the political right, you had conservation interests, often shooting and fishing interest. That was environment in the world I was growing up in. And then you had on the left wing. I don’t know how my fingers are showing out on your screen but you get the idea, you had people in teaching human development, social welfare dynamics. What Sustainable Development did, was it moved those two together to a meeting point in 1987, further consolidated in 1992 was the Rio Earth Summit. where climate change, as well as biodiversity were put resolutely on the table.
And the question as I observed this happening and not just observed it and experienced it happening in myself, because I have just feel although I had first degree in geography and geology and what have you, I had to “switch on” to this particular type of importance of the environment. It was not something that came natural when I had take the environment so much for granted. You know, when you look at the beautiful scene on a Hebridean beach, it’s just ordinary, because that’s what you’ve been raised in. You don’t realize until it’s lost or you go elsewhere. You don’t realize how extraordinary.
So the question then, is, does this continue like a double helix? In an inverted Y or lambda shape?
Sustainable Development being the social and the natural, interwoven? So do they come together for a little while and then say “hell no, we don’t like the look of each other” and overshoot to form an X shape that resumes the right wing, left wing political underpinning, the separation of nature and the human?
Which of course, is a danger we have within Scotland just now, was everywhere the debate being largely brought in from outside, largely by primarily English thinking, coming into Scotland and people on the ground saying, “Hang on, wait a minute, don’t you know that we exist that we live here, that our ancestral roots are here?” So what we’re seeing in this debate, just now is a serious danger of an overshoot, to the detriment of the ecological restoration that we need, but it must, from a Scottish point of view, it must be community-led.
Because what my work became in the early 1990s was around land reform. Basically, I came back from Papua New Guinea, a country which has a very strong awareness of land consciousness. I came back having been challenged especially by empowered women in Papua New Guinea. I talk about my book Soil and Soul and realized that in Scotland, we were in a state that they would consider unacceptable. We were dislocated from our land because of what we called the clearances or in England, and I shouldn’t say my mother was English and I was born in Doncaster and left there at the age of four. In England, you would call the enclosures.
So in 1991, I became one of the four co-founders of the Isle of Eigg trust, substantially led it in the first two years until the community or Eigg fully started to take it over in 1994. And in 1997, we had raised 1.6 million and bought the island at a knockdown price because of market spoiling, into community land tenure. Thereby setting what we Quakers would call a pattern and example – George Fox’s term has a pattern, a way of doing things and example, a case study of an alternative way of relating to land which became infectious. And we now have some 400 land trusts in Scotland. Excuse me, I’m just going to let the cat in. We now have some 400.
Sorry, I was imagining the cat was miaouwing. That’s the trouble, nature gets into your psyche. We now have 400 land trusts in Scotland. And a lot of my, I mean, I’ve been employed since 1996 when I got kicked out of Edinburgh University for Center for Human Ecology, of which I was a postgraduate teaching director for being too radical. But you know, I’ve had various non-professioral and fellowship positions in that time, including being an honorary professor in Glasgow University just now.
And a lot of my work involves writing on climate change – two books on climate change Hell and High Water and Riders on the Storm. And we’re still waiting on the spirituality that underpins our time. So Portus pilgrimage, 2016 just come up with a new edition this week, being about a pilgrimage into the nature of our times, and an ecology of the imagination. And my 2020 book on climate change Riders on the Storm having the subtitle, “the climate crisis, and the survival of being.” In other words, about the nature of human nature, and where the human condition is at in these times, and what might be the openings of the way. So that’s basically me.
marc hudson 33:17
Thank you very much. That’s just the right level of detail and a really good rhythm to it. Um, so on the cyclical nature, you’ve read the project description. So to what extent if any, do you buy the sense of a cyclical nature of UK climate activism?
Alastair McIntosh 33:42
I buy it absolutely. I mean, absolutely. And I’m coming at it from two main angles.
One is I mentioned, I did an MBA at Edinburgh University the first year Uni that ran it, in 1980/1. An excellent degree to have done. I did it in order to make myself more useful in NGO, in voluntary organizations and activism and sure. So I understand how to read a balance sheet, I understand about marketing, personnel, industrial relations law, production, dynamics, strategic planning, all of that kind of thing. And one of the first things you learn in marketing and may first wife and I wrote the first participant on marketing and then one on public relations published by the Directory of Social Change in the 1980s. One of the first things you learn is what’s called the product lifecycle. Now the PLC is that the product starts so it’s like a dinosaur’s back. It starts off in a long tail coming gradually up, as product awareness grows. And then you get a period with a very sharp growth, before you start reaching market saturation levels, and sure as hell it’s going to tail off again, unless you constantly revamped the product to keep one product life cycle building on top of another
Now that’s the PLC, the product lifecycle – it’s the theoretical bases were proved with commercial product. But I’ve also, in my involvement with activism, since I was in my late teens at Aberdeen University. Initially, I have seen exactly the same dynamic. In fact, it actually goes back to my primary schooling, because part of my entrepreneurship is that my parents believed in giving my sister and I very little pocket money we had to earn it. So I had little business enterprises on the side, one of which was the sale of elastic bands. Because I used to speak with a lisp, they went into the Stornoway chemist and asked for a package of elastic bands and I got a funny look from the chemist, who handed me a package of rubber pads. Not what I wanted, But I would buy for sixpence of 120 or whatever elastic band and take them to primary school and start off a craze, a cult if you like, of shooting each other with paper pallets with slings. And I would sell the elastic band tokens for six or something like that, and make a whacking good profit. But what I noticed very quickly was that market saturation came after about three packets. Market saturation came up because not just because by that time everybody had a sling in his pocket. But because by that time they were getting bored shooting at each other. And worse still, my best friend shot me in the eye, such as I had to be flown out to the island in an air ambulance. And the next day John Murdoch McMillan, the school headmaster went around with a wastepaper bucket and made every boy – I’m afraid, this very gendered – and empty out his pockets, and confiscated slingshots. Until one boy said, “but please, sir” because the headmaster was saying “Look at poor McIntosh, he nearly lost his eye.” And one boy said “but please sir, it was poor McIntosh who sold them to us.”
Now what that taught me from primary school level is that product lifecycle is real and that for multiple reasons, including getting your eye shot out. You can shoot yourself. I’ve never thought of that before, but you see how we talked about serendipitous methodology. You see how it comes into play, courtesy of the whisky club.
And so I very much go with it.
And then I started to notice, you know, when I got involved with some CND type stuff, and so on, I noticed that every one of these campaigns would have a kind of half-life and it would rise very sharply and everybody would be saying, “Oh, this time we’re gonna do it. This time. We’re going to force the government’s hand, or whatever.. This is the big one. This is the breakthrough.”
And you know what? Kingdom never come. Not in that worldly sense of “thy kingdom come by” thy community come, thy opening up the way be done on earth as it is in heaven. Because it reaches a point of an apparent breakthrough and then it collapses.
So I learned that if I wasn’t going to become disillusioned whenever this happened, I had to anticipate it. And I frequently, my writing uses the metaphor of a surfer – that a surfer swims out and doesn’t waste time and energy grabbing every little wave that comes their way. The Surfer swims out. And I’ve never done it but I’ve watched my son doing it. And will maybe hang around for up to an hour, hoping for the perfect wave to come. And then surf in on the chosen wave.
I learned that in the importance of that and activism. That time to get on, the time to get up. Because if you don’t get up, you get tumbled and caught up in the undertow, possibly drowned. I think just now we’re seeing a lot of drowning activists in the world because they haven’t understood the cyclical nature of what they’ve been involved in. Understandably they’ve not been in the game long enough, perhaps not analyzed it closely enough.
marc hudson 40:04
Sidebar I left Climate Camp in 2007 for various reasons and kept my activism going, But what you describe the people getting caught up in the wave and crushed by it
Caught up in the undertow yeah.
in 2010/11. There were a lot of burned out people. And the irony is – I’ll have to put this in the article – that the big march that the British NGOs organized alongside Copenhagen was called “The Wave.”
(Laughs) Well the wave breaks,
The wave breaks.
Alastair McIntosh 40:51
All waves break. But that’s when you understand it when you understand the nature of the sea. You see, on first of January 1990 a militarily converted yacht called the Iolaire was sailing back to my home port of Stornoway. Bringing over 200, 240 sailors mid naval ratings back from the First World War. And unfortunately on the approach, coming to the approach of Stornoway Harbour, a terrible storm that night of first January 1919. The ship was way off course. Interestingly, because of the authority structure, these crofter sailors – hey were all sailors who could see it was off course – didn’t feel it was a place to tell the English captain that he was screwing up. And tragically, it hit a group of rocks called the “Beasts of Horn”. So close to the shore, you could throw a stone to reach it. Forty of them got off alive approximately. And the other 200 perished. A massive tragedy, which I think partly ties in with the story of Donald Trump. Because that was 1919. Donald Trump’s wife [mother] Mary Anne MacLeod from the Isle of Lewis was born in 1912. So she was what, seven at the time when that happened. That was a generation of men and to whom she would have married. So many people left the island after that the island was broken by it. It was only in 2019 on the anniversary that the island was able to start talking about it and psycho-spiritually processing it.
But what was interesting was that in 2019, I had a group from West Papua for community development leaders from West Papua, the Indonesian side of New Guinea who have been working with my wife and I’ve been working with for some years now on a study tour of the island. And because there were islanders, what really interested them hearing the account of other islands of what happened that night was the way in which forty odd were saved.
Because what happened was one of the men from the village of Ness, one of the few who could swim, because that was before swimming pools, and most people didn’t swim in those days. One of the men took a messenger rope -a small light rope, put it around his shoulder, dived into the ocean, and started to strike for the shore, which was very close. However, he got pulled underneath the ship. But he survived and he realized he needed to apply his knowledge of the waves. And he knew that in a sea like that the typical pattern is that you’ll have a number of smaller waves. apocryphally they say seven, but it’s not actually quite like that. And then you’ll get a really big one. So he waited and timed it and when the big one came he surfed in on it, reached the shore, pulled in a heavy hawser using the messenger who latched it around the work and was able to get 40 of them off before the ship lurched. And the rope snapped and the rest of them. But the points that really sunk in with our West Papuan colleagues was how it was his knowledge of reading the way that got those 40 men to safety.. And I use that metaphor towards the end of Riders on the Storm. And I would recommend that metaphor of how we have to be, if we’re going to survive as activists in our lives without becoming disillusioned and bitter like some do. Without selling out or burning out.
marc hudson 45:27
You’ve kind of answered the question just there but I’ll ask it anyway. Besides burning out and selling out, then what other problems does this boom and bust cycle create?
Alastair McIntosh 45:43
It also creates false premises. So XR, have a big thing “Tell the truth.” But you’re not actually telling the truth when you’re misleading people as to how activism works. And I take XR as a presenting case, but it’s the case much more widely. It’s the case in politics. It’s all over this,.. Sorry just checking my cat again.
You can probably still hear me. I can hear you because they feed into my hearing aids. I’m …be hearing that because I’m extremely deaf I miss-hear noises and
Where was I?
marc hudson 46:54
I can hear you still. Okay, yeah, you’re still here?
Yes. Okay. Where was I again?
Other problems that it causes, and you were talking about, it creates false hope which obviously then leads to disillusionment.
Alastair McIntosh 47:12
It leads to false hope. Which leads to the wrong kind of disillusionment. I say this because in my first book on climate change, Hell and High Water, that came out in 2008. I recommend what the Victorian Scottish preacher Oswald Chambers calls “The discipline of disillusionment.” Where he says we must become disillusioned. We must strip away our illusions of false hope in order to touch a deeper truth from which we can work realistically. So this is, what we’re talking about the activist world is not a disciplined disillusionment, it’s an indisciplined disillusionment that leaves people cast out as flotsam and jetsam on the beach. Sometimes quite psychologically damaged as you’re probably aware.
And I’m saying this not in order to attack folks who have perhaps driven those narratives but to try and open up awareness that where we are at in activism is like I use a metaphor of a swimming pool. Most of us come into activism at the shallow end, where we’re paddling, and that’s the shouty-splashy end. But then we move deeper and start to learn to swim. And then we move to the deep end and learn to dive. And ultimately I believe the spiritual dynamic is that we even learn how to breathe underwater. And that’s where we’ve got to be at, now. We’re in a world that’s tossed and turned crazy. And we have actually got to learn to breathe underwater. And that’s why it becomes a spiritual discipline, not just a psychological or political discipline.
So this business of “catching the wave,” of understanding the need for what – in neuroscience they call refractory time – to take time for things to recover themselves. Times to rest, to wait, times to be still and know that I am good [God], as the Psalmist put it. And then when the wave is rising again, then you are refreshed, then you are ready then you’re not going to be fooled into hubristic notion.
I’ve done a lot of lecturing at Military Staff Colleges in the UK and in Europe. Speaking as a Quaker on nonviolence and the case for nonviolence. I’ve done that for over 20 years, including on the intermediate advanced and the higher command and staff college courses in the UK Defense Academy. And I always remember because quite often when I was down there, there’ll be other speakers, and I’d be allowed to sit in on their talks. And I always remember during the war in Afghanistan hearing the commander of the British forces speaking and his primary message was this – “underpromise, but overdeliver.”
And that was a quibble that I often had between British officers and their American counterparts. British reserve naturally to underpromising and overdelivering, whereas the American exuberance led to overpromising and underdelivering – at least that was how, and I’m talking about people at the level of Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel. I have one lovely colonel in my mind who pulled me into his office after I’d given a talk, basically just said how awful he had found sitting in an office in Kabul, was on one side his Afghani counterpart, and on the other side, the American general who had a mohican haircut and would get into his Humver or whatever you call those vehicles, and would drive right up the middle of the road, forcing all the locals into the ditch. And he said he was just so embarrassed, because that’s not how you win hearts and minds. He, by contrast, would put on civilian clothes and go down into the marketplace and talk with people, but not this America-general he described. The type who would overpromise and underdeliver. And I saw my goodness, that’s a good lesson for activism.
marc hudson 52:44
Alastair I want to continue this, but it can’t be tonight. When – would you be willing to do this interview on another evening?
Alastair McIntosh 52:57
Yes, I mean, I prefer evenings for … how long. do you want to go on for how long?
marc hudson 53:04
well I think we probably need another hour.
Alastair McIntosh 53:10
Okay, gosh and you can’t do that just now?
marc hudson 53:11
No, no, I can’t.
Alastair McIntosh 53:13
Okay. Connect up with me by email
Part Two –
marc hudson 1:49
That’s fine. You asked sort of how useful yesterday was, and it was exceedingly useful. And I will send you the transcript when I’ve finished all of this, just for your records. Not that you have to do anything. But no, I think the metaphor – the metaphors that we’re playing with around waves
… and surfing and so forth, are going to be very helpful.
Alastair McIntosh 2:22
And the swimming pool from the shallow shouty, and to the deep end, where you even have to learn to breathe underwater,
Invited to learn to breathe underwater. You don’t have to, you can stay shallow if you want. Yeah.
marc hudson 2:39
So with that, what I’d like to do is pick up where we left off. We’d sort of covered the boom and bust as a problem. Unless there was anything else you wanted to expand on why this cyclical boom and bust nature. I mean we talked about how it burns out activists and it creates cynicism. Was there anything else you wanted to add to that?
Alastair McIntosh 3:08
No, were we talking about Dougald Hine’s book at all? Or was that a different conversation?
marc hudson 3:12
No, we were not talking about Dougal’s book. Tell me about Dougal’s book in this context
Alastair McIntosh 3:20
Well, Douglas produced… Do you know him
marc hudson 3:24
a little bit? Yeah.
Alastair McIntosh 3:26
Yeah. I mean, he’s written a book, which was launched in the GalGael Trusst. The other night or something from the ruins. And I was on a platform with him. I can’t find the title of this now.- “At work in the ruins: finding our place in the time of science, climate change, pandemics, and all the other emergencies” just published by Chelsea Green in hardback. Okay, at work in the ruins. So basically Dougald is a former BBC bod, now lives in Sweden. And his take is that science does not provide the means to take us beyond the map. Science provides a map but it doesn’t take us off the map into the mythic realm, which is where we need to go. And it’s a book full of a lot of spry perceptions and many different experiences because of the kind of career that he’s led….
So what I’d like to do then is I’ll ask you, what do you think are the causes of this boom and bust cycle? Obviously, there might be one cause or there might be multiple? Any thoughts?
Alastair McIntosh 9:30
Yeah, okay. Well, that’s an important question. First of all, and as I think Dougald’s says in his chapter, I don’t. I’m losing track between what I’ve written and what he’s written. So let me just take it separately from who said what. But basically, when Greta Thunberg came on the scene, in tandem with the appearance of XR, there was already a hell of a lot going on in the world about climate change. Indeed, there is a criticism that what this movement has picked up on was the prior 20/30 years work on climate change, that mainstream bodies like Friends of the Earth, and WWF and Greenpeace had been doing and then they kind of came in and picked it all up and took the credit while at the same time, specifically in Hallam’s case was, you know, breaking into Greenpeace and such like and hammering the place up. – do you remember that then, then rubbishing these groups as being part of the problem, rather than being the people who had worked things up to the level where they were in 2018.
Above all, we must remember that 2018 was the year that the IPCC released the Special Report on keeping global warming to around 1.5 SR1.5. report.
And so that was hitting the news just at the time when these more populist movements got going, and they were able to ride, they were able to surf in on that wave, basically. They were able to surf in that wave. But there’s always been a question in my mind, and as I saw it happening. At one level, I was very supportive of it and that’s why I spoke well, I was invited to speak on three occasions, I was only able to turn up on two. And on the third occasion, which was actually the first occasion, I provided a script, each of which was published by The Ecologist and is online, My address to Extinction Rebellion in Scotland. But I was happy to turn up and speak in the manner that I spoke at those events.
At the same time, I was uneasy, and if you read carefully between the lines in what I said in those speeches, you will see a number of areas of just sounding gentle warnings to friends bits of basically saying, “you know, be a little bit careful how you ride or how you surf this particular wave.” And one of the main reasons was that I could see, or I felt I was seeing that it was picking up a wave that was not of their own creation. Fair enough. Great. It was bringing it into popular awareness with actions of student strikes and what have you.
But, there was also particularly within some of the XR dynamics an ego entanglement, very clear especially in the Hallam dynamic ego entanglement that was not acknowledging the shoulders in which was standing, or doom picking. And as such, it felt to me that this would be a wave without deep substance. This would not be a wave of deep substance. That’s a problem. My hearing aid wasn’t pressed and I was getting echo and my own thing. This will be a wave without, without deeper substance, amplified by the fact that both Greta and XR were saying we’re not here to posit solutions. XR’s excuse for that was saying “we leave the solutions to the citizens assembly. Once we’re brought down the government.” Out with democracy we’re going to bring down the government with our 3.5% wheeze. And excessive reliance on this book, as you are probably aware – Chenoweth and Stephens “Why civil resistance works,” a very interesting book, although devoid of spiritual analysis of nonviolence And the basis from which Hallam develops what I describe in Riders on the Storm as an instrumentalist approach to non violence, i.e. “We will use it because it works.” Now he’s also woven in.
So basically I saw this instrumentalist approach to nonviolence raising. I remember when a colleague here in Glasgow, probably about the end of 2018, or beginning of 2019, sent me a link to a video of Hallam speaking about nonviolence and I thought he made a brilliant exposition of the power of nonviolence, but there was a deep hollowness at the heart of it.
He used the vocabulary of a spiritual movement, but he was missing the point of what it means for something to come from a spiritual place. I’ve unpacked, I’ve explored that – carefully thought out in Riders on the Storm in chapter six. And that really bothered me because I thought there’s something here that is being built on sand rather than foundations of rock. Therefore, I don’t think it can last. I think it’s fairly quickly going to collapse. And the product lifecycle, to use that language, of these types of movements tends to be about 18 months to about three years maximum.
That guy Chris Rose, you know, the former Greenpeace head of campaigns, he’s written a very extensive detailed paper on some of the things relating to XR. You may have seen it, the references to it, and to a shorter piece he did are both in Riders on the Storm. And he, and you know, he was also picking up some of these kinds of things, but this was my immediate gut reaction – that this is built on sand, and therefore, it’s, it’s good to be going on with, but you’ve got to build deeper on that. That’s what I didn’t see happening.
marc hudson 17:35
Sure, so can I ask if you think that the same explanation can be given to the previous waves of environmental concern, from sort of 1969 to 1972, 1986/7 through to 1991 and then 2005/6 [to 9] – do you think it’s the same cause each time?
Alastair McIntosh 17:58
Absolutely, absolutely. It’s all you know, it’s just the way issues work in popular consciousness, it’s a wave… Look at Black Lives Matters. For example, you know, we had a huge wave of it and now there’s a sense of it, mind you in America is a bit different because of the heavily repeated police atrocities that revitalize it. But the extent to which it’s up there in the headlines, does not last. That’s the way the media works.
Now, I think if we’re going to be activists in it for the long term and in it for a lifetime, it’s so important, we understand that otherwise, we just set ourselves up for disillusion.
marc hudson 18:49
So moving on, to
Alastair McIntosh 18:53
So can I just, You mentioned the way from about 1986 to you said 1991. I’d give it maybe to about 93, the epicenter of which was the Rio Summit in 1992. The Earth Summit the UN Earth Summit, which was when the sequence of COP meetings just got set up and those other things got going. If you remember Local Agenda 21: A lot of, some of, my students got employed and Local Agenda 21 initiatives you never hear any more about it now, because that wave has passed. And I remember thinking it was a real thing. Okay, this is all very exciting, but don’t let it distract me from the day job, or just a day job. The day job is sowing the deep seeds, opening up patterns and examples of how we can alternatively be. So I see these things literally as waves on the surface of the ocean. They’re very important for surfing in on, provided you don’t get stuck there. And provided you don’t forget that the deeper work happens and that deeper end of the pool.
marc hudson 20:09
Alastair McIntosh 20:11
So what we’re called to know. It may be
marc hudson 20:14
so, thanks. Do you think that other people in the movement think that this boom and bust is a problem?
Alastair McIntosh 20:26
No, they don’t. They mostly don’t see it. And that’s a problem
Because they then get disillusioned. You know, I meet a lot of activists, though, who are confused as to where it’s all going. They may have engaged in personally costly action with criminal records that will stay with them for life. If they ever wanted to travel internationally and so on, it becomes a problem for visas and what have you, career-wise and so on. It’s something always on their record, which may have been a noble thing to do at the time, but which with time and depending on what kind of course your life leads can be problematic.
And so. I think that some of them end up disillusioned if they have not thought those dynamics through.. If they had believed the narratives that “one more push you know, if enough of us get arrested, we’ll fill the prisons. We’ll get our 3.5% tipping point and we’ll bring down the government. There will be a citizens assembly of 110 people, who will decide upon the future of British and world politics and then the planet will be saved, not least from the politicians who we democratically elect.”
All very nice, if you believe in an oligarchy, indeed such was precisely the kind of reason why Plato argued against democracy. Because an oligarchy of philosopher kings i.e. those who have been properly educated in the matter, in their citizens assemblies, Plato considered to be wiser than the demagoguery of democracy. But unfortunately, the means by which they were going about it was itself demagogic. And so of course, it’s collapsed into ridicule, in my view. And it’s hurt a lot of people with it, and at the time, just specifically obviously a question. I think most people involved in the movement were not ready to hear that.
Whenever I would air it, I would get pushback. To the point where I said to people, “well, how are you going to assert your citizens assembly, when there were other powerful forces in society, but if you will, legitimize bringing down the government might do so in ways that are very different from what you’d like, or what I would like, perhaps, you know, a very different, what we might like from a climate change perspective? And which would set loose forces that would poison social and environmental justice.” And, you know, that just… I encountered intelligent people, I’m talking about people like university lecturers who were not able to deal with it. They had not gone into it deeply enough.
That is why Matt Carmichael, having cut his teeth in Climate Camp, I think around 2013 or thereabouts, that is why Matt and I wrote Spiritual Activism. Because we wanted to open up deeper areas of understanding, of psychospiritual understanding. That book was 2016. It was before the era we’re currently talking about, but well, interestingly blinked over that title note from Green Books, Green Books are kind of retiring. Bloomsbury is taking Spiritual Activism over. And I said to them the other day that if they do provide an opportunity for any revision, I think we would want to build in a reflection on the period we’ve just been through from 2018 to about 2022.
marc hudson 24:19
Sure. A kind of sideline question which I put in a couple of days ago because I’d been thinking about metaphors, as well. What metaphors have you heard activists use to describe the growth, or the growth and demise, of their organization, of their movement?
Alastair McIntosh 24:46
Primarily the word cult.
marc hudson 24:49
Well, I’m thinking of people who are positive about the growth, this you know, the sudden explosion; how did they frame how have you heard them explain it/frame it
Okay. Yeah, I’ve
Alastair McIntosh 25:06
Yeah, yeah. That you know, “this needs to be a revolution.” The problem was that the revolution had a flawed theory of change with the 3.5%. They had an obstructive movement but had no plan for a constructive movement, asI’ve got it in Riders on the Storm. It knew how to try or at least it thought it knew how to pull down the system. Of course, it had not a clue as to how to pull down the system. It failed to pull down the system and had it pulled down the system. God knows what it would have put in place instead. But it never had any plan for what then. It avoided that – Greta by saying, “I’m just a child. It’s for the grownups to work out where to go now”, and XR by saying “it’s for the citizens assembly to do it.” So there was this hope in a revolution, which I described as being a millenarian movement. I mean, a millennium, in mythological terms in the language of religious and mythological studies, is the end of a new era and the replacement with a renewed utopian order. I describe it as a millenarian movement because it had that kind of framing. People who are less polite or less scholarly than the approach I’m taking,describe it as a cult. It was leading people along a delusional path of thinking. Because without a plan as to where you could go where the fuck were you going to go? Indeed, I’m using an academic term there of course. What I just said,
I mean, it’s made so clear, the issue here in “This is not a drill” the essay by Hazel Healy where she talks about talks ever so frankly, I’ve quoted the relevant passages in Riders on the Storm. But she talks ever so frankly, about the spartan nature of life that won’t be required to bring about net zero by 2025. And it’s kind of like “thank you for your honesty Hazel,” but I actually wondered if she knew exactly what she was doing. And she was actually saying to her own kind, “you know, folks, we need to think a little bit about what it is we are really demanding of the government, the demands we’re making.”
marc hudson 27:55
Yeah. I’m conscious of time. So there are, you know, there are various responses, but I’m gonna just keep to the questions.
So if you’ve not heard any discussions or been part of any discussions about this boom and bust cycle, why do you think that is? I mean, do you think these discussions ARE happening and you’re just not invited? Or do you think these discussions are NOT happening? And if they’re not happening, why is that?
Alastair McIntosh 28:29
Well, I wouldn’t want to say they’re not happening, but they’ve certainly not been high-key. And I certainly at that time, 2018 to 2020ish at which point, they were saved by COVID. You know, the advent of COVID meant that XR was able to avoid facing its own nemesis, full on, it was going to collapse anyway, I mean, Rupert Read was acknowledging that from the surveys they were doing, showing how little, and how rapidly declining public support was. So they were going to hit Nemesis after the Hubris. But COVID stepped in, and they were able to say, “well, you know, because of COVID we can’t do our demos and what have you,” notwithstanding Hallam etc.
As to why is it? I think it has to do with the ontology of activism. That especially for young activists, and I include myself here when I was a young activist, so much of this is about ego formation, which is entirely appropriate in the first half of life, psychologically speaking, it’s about establishing who you were, and asserting yourself in the outer world. It’s only as you move on a little bit, you start to realize the need for inner life deepening.
And so I think there was just a blissful unawareness of it and being caught up in the crowd mentality, caught up in the excitement that “we can do something. We can, we can do something that the scientists, politicians have not been able to do. We can save the world.” But without a plan and that was where the hubris lay. And what I think is so important, though, to avoid leaving people just shattered on the floor, is to pick up those pieces and learn from them and say, “okay, so how do we build deeper movements, and deeper theories of change?” A constructive program as distinct from – what was it Gandhi said, the obstructive program. What is the constructive program going to be?
marc hudson 30:49
So we’re gonna come to that in a minute. Final question in this section is – Do you think people in other movements and I’m thinking the peace movement, the anti-nuclear movement, feminism or gay rights, do you think they perceive the boom and bust patterns in their movements? [notably silent on disability rights!]
Alastair McIntosh 31:12
I think, Hmm, well, in Scotland, we have a lot of experience with the anti nuclear movement because all of Britain’s nuclear weapons are stored in Scotland, with the Faslane and Coulport naval bases. So we have a lot of experience and that if you go on my website, you’ll find the paper I’ve just published in this volume here, the Wiley Blackwell companion on religion and peace. And my paper on spiritual activism and nuclear theology. And in that I’m documenting the key role played by religious organizations in Scotland on that debate. And interestingly, just the other day I was asked by the organization, Scottish Christians against Nuclear Weapons, which involves some leading Scottish clergy who’ve been arrested at Faslane like I’ve also been so on one occasion. They’ve asked me to come and talk with them about the theological implications of where we’re at, because they’ve all seen it. They’ve seen the boom and bust come since the 1960s. And they understand that we need to think in those terms. And you know, what will be the next thing that gives a lift to revitalize the opposition and awareness of the abomination that nuclear weapons are.
And the meantime you work on the deeper levels you work on. We Quakers talk about taking away the causes of leading to war. That’s your work.
marc hudson 32:54
Okay. We’re gonna we’re coming do that now. So the next set of questions is about sort of what has been attempted to be done about the “boom and bust” in the past. So what if anything, have you tried to do to overcome the boom and bust in groups that you’ve been part of and what happened? And that’s distinct from giving speeches and warning people. I’m interested in sort of practical ways of overcoming the boom and bust within an individual group.
Alastair McIntosh 33:37
Um, well, first of all, every time I speak, there’s just one moment I’m just trying to get my Yeah, I’m just looking here on the Riders on the Storm of my chapter on rebellion and leadership and climate movements put a page one on one what Gandhi called the constructive program, that we’re building alternatives to systems based on domination and exploitation.
So it’s Gandhi’s term constructive program and it’s in contrast with an obstructive program, okay. So you’re what we’re looking at was an obstructive programme that lacked a constructive program that saw language had sort of slipped from my mind. So can you come again, on your question there again?
marc hudson 34:36
Yeah, I’m interested in practical actions that people have tried to undertake within groups – as distinct from giving public warnings about the existence of boom and bust or its causes. I’m interested mostly in this project, in what people have done and also in what they think could be done. Which is the next set of questions. So in this set of questions, it’s what have you personally done? And then the next question is, what have you seen other people do?
Alastair McIntosh 35:14
Well, my main work has been and remains, land reform in Scotland. And trying to inspire people in England with the same mission. A copy of the Land magazine arrived today, the magazine of the English based magazine of land reform, which I would highly recommend.
So land reform work, getting land back into the hands of people. We’ve now got over 400 land trusts in Scotland. And I’m constantly engaging with communities. practical advice, as to how to go about it and so on. How does that relate to climate change? The last two chapters of Riders on the Storm, I give reconnection with the land and rebuilding communities of place as a key example of how we can learn with sufficiency but using less material stuff, because we build community in its place.
That’s largely a rural solution, but here in an urban context, I’m speaking to you from Govan, a hard-pressed area of Glasgow. And the reason that Vérène and I live here is just down the road. I’m a founding trustee of the Galgael Trust, which engages with issues of urban poverty, mental health, the whole dislocation of poor people -poverty dynamics in Glasgow and basically you know, we hold a space with all the beautiful space of things like boat building woodworking, artwork, music song, Dougald’s book launch the other night. It was an epicenter for cop 26 because we’re just a mile away from the venue. So we’d have 150 people a night coming through Galgel. with all kinds of speakers and so on, going on. So, in my work, those would be the most practical examples.
In terms of you know, nuclear weapons you mentioned, for a quarter of a century now I’ve regularly spoken at military staff colleges across Europe at the UK Defence Academy advanced and High command and staff courses on nonviolence I mean, that’s the talking area. But you can only talk if you do it.
marc hudson 37:49
Yeah, yeah. So what have you seen other people do in response to this boom and bust? And with what effect?
Alastair McIntosh 38:00
Yeah, I mean, I see people setting seeds are growing community. I see that across the world from the people we have been working with recently in Papua and West Papua Provinces, Indonesia, and in Papua New Guinea where I spent four years. Right across here to Scotland where we’ve often been learning from them but also sharing our experience with them, of building communities. So it’s things like renewable energy schemes, the island of Eigg runs almost entirely on renewable energy. Now they’ve got their own electricity grid.. Social housing, small businesses, that kind of stuff.
marc hudson 38:38
And so I realized as we’re speaking that I have not framed these questions well enough, and that there is a tension in this word “activism.” And it really needs to be separated out between the constructive building the new future institutions, the Gandhi stuff, and the more oppositional.
obstructive protests side, because of course, both are needed.
Alastair McIntosh 39:13
Yeah, both are needed, both are needed
marc hudson 39:15
But have you seen people involved in the protest/obstructive end of things, trying to get past boom and bust?
Alastair McIntosh 39:30
Oh, yes. Because I mean, if you take for example, the 1990s road motorway protests. The Galgael Trust started as the M77 Pollock Freestate motorway protest. It started in the early 90s. By 1995/96 when the motorway started to be driven through and the tree houses were knocked down, the late Colin McLeod, who founded the Galgael, with his wife Jehanne. And another half dozen or so of us were the founding trustees said, “Well, we’ve shown them what we’re against. Now we’re going to show them what we’re for.”
marc hudson 40:09
Okay. No, I totally understand this is a – some of the other people I want to or that I’m going to interview cut their teeth on genetically modified crops or the roads protests, and are now involved in various social enterprises, around food or um domestic energy, etc, I suppose.
Alastair McIntosh 40:37
Food, energy, small business. You know, my wife is just right now working with Glasgow’s Food Plan. Yeah, that kind of thing. Yeah.
marc hudson 40:45
So and that’s often held up as the natural order of things. But it seems to me that what that does is it treats protest as the kind of “apprenticeship” that some people do for two or three years.
And then either drop out and get a real job or go into the social economy. And what I’m, the reason that I’ve started this project, is because I’m interested in, is do people think it is possible to sustain oppositional protest-oriented groups, whether it is physical protest, getting arrested, or whether it is What’s also been called “monitory democracy,” where you keep tabs on what a government or a corporation is doing.
And you don’t go into either, quote, “real world” or into this into the green economy. And so that’s the form of activism that I’m particularly interested in.
Or do you think that people just inevitably get fed up with exposing the malfeasance and the complacency and the hypocrisy and the corruption and decide that they can’t do it anymore? And take their skills and their energy and their knowledge and go and do something else?
Alastair McIntosh 42:19
Yeah, well, it’s a mixture of both I think, you know. Galgael Trust, and the late Colin’s wife Gehan. You know, she cut her teeth at the Newbeury bypass and then the lastly in peace camp. And then the Sky bridge campaign, and then the M77. And now she’s the key figure, the visionary figure in holding the Galgael together. Now in holding the Galgael together running on a budget of about a quarter of a million a year – something like that. You’ve constantly engaging with the government, with agencies, you’re constantly in situations of having to be accountable, and so on. So inevitably that takes away from the shouty sort of aspects of activism.
Inevitably causes a tension within oneself because you’re constantly – if I might speak for myself, – you’re constantly asking yourself, “Am I selling out here? Or is this the kind of compromise of the real world that we have to engage with? If we’re going to do anything deeper than simply stay at the shallow end, shouting and splashing and well?”
If I again speak for myself, rather than anybody else, you know, I find myself having to constantly discern that question, “Where am I going to be most effective in what I’m doing?” Plus another dynamic which is very important to acknowledge that the freedom you have as a young person to go out and do wild things, to climb up trees and all the rest of it. As you get older, with what age, responsibility, family and all the rest brings on you. becomes less easy to do. You’ve got to think of where your other responsibilities lie. You’ve got to realize, you know, I’m 67 now. One of the things I’m doing right now is sorting out money issues, because up until this point in my life, I’ve never accumulated anything. I’ve only lived hand to mouth and now with my mother having died and having some inheritance from her. I’m actually having to look at this set because I have to be realistic and say, I’m not going to be able to carry on putting a couple of 100 quid here 500 quid 50 quid elsewhere to keep myself going. Because the likelihood is that as I get older, I’m going to be less able to support myself constantly on the hoof like that. So these things all kick in.
marc hudson 45:13
So we’re on to the sort of penultimate section here, looking at imagining a world where these sorts of protest groups are able to sustain themselves, and sustain their knowledge and their institutional memory and their capacity to act. For that to happen, what do you think could be done by people like us, what resources and circumstances would be required?
Alastair McIntosh 45:55
I think two main forms of resource.
First of all, some of the most useful money that I’ve had in my time has been from people like the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust with the now defunct Quaker Concerns Fund. Where for four years. I think it was later supported me to do what I felt I needed to do and I’d report back to them
And so identifying people, your movers and shakers type thing, identifying such people and resourcing them to take those initiatives is one area. That’s the outer life.
On the inner life, psycho spiritual deepening, which is why Matt and I wrote Spiritual Activism, to look at, to look at these deep life processes by which we resource ourselves from within. And in my view very strongly, that is about a spiritual journey. That maybe starts off in the realm of ego expression and ego formation by the ego and outward self, the conscious “I” interfacing with the outer life. But increasingly, if it is not to run dry, if the oil wells in your life are not to become depleted. Your cat has just arrived – if the oil well got to be depleted. And if you’re not just start slant drilling to steal oil from elsewhere, you’ve got to find your own inner wellspring. That’s where you hit on Jesus and the metaphor of the virgins with a lamp, with the oil in their lamps. You got to do your spiritual work. And if you don’t, that’s when you either burn out or sell out.
marc hudson 47:43
So skipping ahead, because I’m conscious of time – it’s just gone six o’clock -the final sort of philosophical question that I’ll ask is what if any other responsibilities of experienced activists during times of abeyance, as the streets empty and organizations wink out of existence?
Alastair McIntosh 48:10
Yeah, I mean, I’m spending most of my time these days mentoring. I am getting very little time for creative writing. I’m having to accept that the dozen books that I’ve written that are on that shelf behind me, well somewhere up there the stacks and stacks of books that I’ve written, my main life’s work. And the most important thing that I can be doing is responding to the constant flow – often several of the queries, often from young activists, people doing their PhDs, people struggling with life – having a zoom session, like we’re doing just now with them.
I’m giving most of my time to that. It does leave me with a dilemma. I think, you know, might have not been effective writing an article for a newspaper that will be read by several thousand people or spending another hour and a half with Marc Hudson helping him with his research . I believe that just as I benefited from mentoring, it’s my time to offer that to others.
marc hudson 49:25
So more generally are there other things besides mentoring that experienced activists activists ought to be doing as the streets empty?
Alastair McIntosh 49:36
Well, yes. building their communities. Being anchor people in their communities, serving on boards of organizations. Helping people understand and process conflict. That’s so important. That’s something that you can do when you’re older in a way that you cannot do – or it’s not so easy to do when you’re younger. But younger folks need that, if they see that older folks are with them.
Making food, sharing food. You know. We’ll put on events at the house here where we’ll bake some potatoes and get some fillers and invite people to come along and discuss a book. You either bring a … I mean, I did one on Walter Wink. You either had to bring a copy of Warren Wink’s book like engaged the powers of activism here – you can see how mine is literally falling apart – you either had to bring a battered copy of one of Walter’s books, or you had to bring a bottle of whiskey as a forfeit. I did well last night intellectually and had several bottles of whiskey and we had a great evening of it.
I had a session with – I can say who it was – it was Professor Alison Phipps, who’s the UNESCO professor of refugees at Glasgow University. She was saying to me when I was visiting her and her husband Robert the other day, we need another session at your house like we did on the place for – I forgot the exact words – but the place for inner stillness in.what we’re doing. These are spiritual understandings that older activists, seasoned activists, if so inclined, can offer
marc hudson 51:25
Which leads very nicely on to the sort of housekeeping questions. Who else should I be talking to, especially people who aren’t like me, you know, white middle class men of a Certain Age?
Alastair McIntosh 51:41
Well, I think Alison Phipps at Glasgow University, who is exceptionally busy because she’s wrestling to hold together budgets for work supporting people’s empowerment, women’s empowerment, especially in Africa. Alison would be good to talk to, if you can get hold of her. My co-author with Spiritual Activism. Matt Carmichael, who is a school teacher who also advises on climate change in the school curriculum in England,would be good to talk to, with his grounding in climate camp.
I mean, there’s any number of people in Scotland who’ve been involved in the anti-nuclear movement you could talk to. Somebody like Brian Quail who’s been if you read my paper on the atomic theology, you’ll see him quoted very powerfully. He’s a leading figure, Molly Harvey, and Reverend John Harvey, her husband of the Iona community – years and years of activism and time in jail and all of that kind of stuff.
Land reform. What’s interesting about the land reform movement in Scotland is that there’s never any problem of getting good women speakers because it gets on the ground most of that program is led by women activists. So somebody like Camille Dressler, the historian of the island of Eigg. There’s a book there called “Eigg the story of an island” . I mean, Camille would enjoy talking about these kinds of things. She was involved right from the beginning in Eigg and is now a director of the Isle of Eigg Trust.
Most of these people, if not all of these people that I’m describing, are coming from a position of having started off in other forms of activism. You know, I would go into houses of people who had very little money in Eigg in the 1990s and there’ll be Fairtrade tea and coffee, they’ll be serving that type of stuff. These are people who have been concerned about the state of the world, often going back to the 1960s with the older ones of us now.
And they now experience it in serving on the boards of their community organizations and organising conferences, in mentoring others in communities trying to follow in their footsteps, Mentoring and eldership, those two things. Big time, big time.
marc hudson 54:27
A final question.
Alastair McIntosh 54:29
Tad Hargrave reappeared the other day. A Canadian guy who wrote a book called “Marketing for Hippies”. You’d probably find him interested here. He also published a book where he got together about all 365 voices of all kinds of people, you know, the Desmond Tutus and Gorbachev and God knows who it was, each to contribute a couple of 100 words and how they see the state of the world. Ted Hargreaves are hardly been forgotten now, but he would be interesting to talk to and would enjoy a blether with you I’m sure.
marc hudson 55:08
Right. And the final question, things that you’ve read, which might be activist or academic fiction, nonfiction, that speak to the issues we’ve been talking about, that you think I and other people should read, besides your books?
Alastair McIntosh 55:27
You see shelves and shelves
marc hudson 55:31
Anything that leaps out, particularly things that leap out particularly about linking up that thing, specifically around this question about the longevity and resilience of protest groups?
Alastair McIntosh 55:47
I think I think that guy that I mentioned, Chris Rose.
You know, he’s somewhere around here. I think he would understand those kinds of dynamics. Who else is an activist philosopher? Evans, Jules, Evans brother who’s on Twitter. He runs the climate psychology thing. Audio, he’s also written a book which is here somewhere. I’m going to just be pulling some stuff off the shelf. Yeah. I’m not saying this book right away. I mean, there’s Keith Hebden, an English vicar I think he is – “Re-enchanting the activist: spirituality and social change.” Director of the Urban Theology unit in Sheffield. Yep, so he would be one
In America, Michael White would be one, a, black young black activist who was involved with the Occupy movement.
marc hudson 57:15
Yeah I know his work. You know,
Alastair McIntosh 57:17
you know, you know his work
marc hudson 57:25
Alastair McIntosh 57:27
I don’t know if Fran Peavey is still around – Heart Politics – made a big splash in the 1980s. Set a lot of ground for bringing heart into politics if you can get hold of her, she would be….
My wife, Verene Nicolas, would be worth talking to. She’s setting up something with her friend
Miki Kashten is a leading figure in…
marc hudson 58:09
Alastair I’ve lost the sound. Sorry, yeah. Oh, no, you’re still there. Good. Great.
Alastair McIntosh 58:17
My wife is very much into nonviolent communication = NVC. I am not all that into it. I take a different approach to my no violence. But Verent works closely with a woman called Miki Kashten. Together with a few other people they are setting up something called Nonviolent Global liberation, about how to hold spaces, have the conversations and so on, how to do the work that leads to organizational change. And Varen’s very specific – she does not want to work with individuals – she wants to work with organizations in bringing about change. So I think you might find her interesting to talk to. She’ll have different views to what I’ve got, but I think you’ll find them useful.
It’s like trying to see the wood for the trees just now because so many, so many people. So many people. Most of the books I’ve got people now dead. You’re like there’s Thomas Merton with Raimundo Panikkar. Dorothy Soelle, I don’t know if she’s still alive. Sheila Cassidy the English theologian. Um, yeah, anything else?
marc hudson 59:50
Yeah. Well, that was always traditionally the last question that I do is “anything else you want to say – anything that you thought I was going to ask but didn’t, or anything else you want to expand on?”
Alastair McIntosh 1:00:07
I think it’s just that a lot of the climate movement has predicated itself on doom, extinction. That we’re all going to go extinct. But we don’t actually have a plan. We don’t have a construction program to get our way through it, we have to rely on others while at the same time. We don’t like politicians. We don’t trust scientists and so on. I think none of that is good enough. We’ve got to move to a deeper level in the pool. Then that kind of adolescent activism. That’s a good starting point, but it’s not a good finishing point.
And I think we have to consider that it’s quite possible that life on Earth, human life on Earth might be a going concern for most people. You know, Roger Hallam might be wrong, that between six and 7 billion of us are gonna die because of climate change, not because of old age, but because of climate change this century. Guy McPherson might be wrong that human beings will be extinct by 2026 although he’s recently uplifted it to 2030. He keeps on shifting the goalposts. It might be that a few generations time we’re still around. And so we need to think long term and not just should not just be shocktrooped into the short term.
marc hudson 1:01:44
That’s a really good place to end. So what I’ll do is I’ll tidy up the transcript in the sense of fixing transcription errors,