Alex Evans

About Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, and the author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren't Enough? (Penguin, 2017), a book about the power of deep stories to unlock transformational change. He lives in North Yorkshire and is currently working on political polarisation and learning dry stone walling. Full biog here.

10 thoughts from an Extinction Rebellion newbie

Two weeks ago, I went to my first Extinction Rebellion meeting in Leeds, curious to find out more about it ahead of its national actions in five UK cities last week. It turned out to be the beginning of an in-at-the-deep-end experience: just a week later, I’d become one of two media coordinators for the Leeds action and found myself filming the moment activists took Victoria Bridge and later acting a spokesman for the action on Channel 4 News. Another week on, I feel a slightly surreal sense of “what just happened?”. So here are 10 reflections as it settles in my mind…

Making climate breakdown real. I’m surprised by how much involvement in XR has changed how I think about climate change. I’ve worked on climate policy for over 20 years, so I figured I already knew the science and projected impacts. But being involved with XR, being out on the streets, talking about the urgency with real people rather than other policy wonks turns out to make the whole issue a lot more real, visceral, and urgent. I’m feeling climate breakdown in my gut in a way I wasn’t before. 

Welcoming new activists. Something XR gets right: the warmth of the welcome to newbies. It’s so easy for political infrastructures to founder on this ground, with the veterans making the rookies feel patronised and creating a wholly unnecessary divide. When I worked at Avaaz we helped organise tactical voting at the last election and heard this story again and again from young volunteers going out canvassing for the first time. I never felt a hint of that during my first weeks with XR. 

Resisting the urge to other. Something else XR nails: I never saw any hint of othering, i.e. feeling or showing contempt for sceptics, critics, or opponents. This is a big deal. All progressive activists face the dilemma of whether just to fire up their base, or to build bridges across political divides. I think the latter is crucial on climate: as George Marshall notes, climate’s just too big an issue to be solved without broad consensus across society. We’re going to win this through a process of reaching out and healing, not through crushing our opponents underfoot. XR gets that deep in its DNA, and that’s rare and precious.

How XR comes across. On the flipside, I wondered a few times if there are easy things XR could do to make it harder for its opponents to dismiss. Its members can look a lot like the stereotypical eco-activists of popular imagination and media caricature. On one hand, it’s clearly up to individuals how they choose to look and dress. But from a movement effectiveness point of view, I wonder if it would help XR to confound people’s expectations and assumptions – much as US civil rights activists in the 50s and 60s took their look very seriously. There’s also a definite lack of diversity.

The power of small groups. As someone who’s both run online campaigns at Avaaz and seen their limitations, I think that much of movements’ success depends on having small, tight-knit groups as their building bricks. Look at Obama 08, 350.org, the 2016 Bernie campaign, or (further back) at the role of religious congregations in 50s/60s civil rights or the abolition of slavery. XR gets this in theory with its idea of local ‘affinity groups’ – but I haven’t yet been allocated into one, and nor did I see much evidence of them at the action. I’m curious to see whether they figure more prominently in my future XR journey. I suspect future movement growth will strongly depend on getting this piece right. 

Getting field/HQ relations right. While XR prides itself on being decentralised, it’s also clear that “XR Central” is a crucial hub for operational coherence, as a knowledge base, and in coordinating comms. As a total newbie, I clearly have an incomplete view – but my impression was that some significant strains were showing, in both systems and relationships. That’s to be expected during a major operational surge, of course, and of a piece with every other organisation I’ve ever seen that has to manage field/HQ relations. But it’s also another element that XR will need to invest in understanding and getting right as a foundation for future movement growth. 

Managing burn-out risk. Relatedly, I think XR faces some very big questions about the risk of burn-out among activists (and especially its organisers and coordinators). Of course some stress is to be expected when a major national action in 5 cities is being put together. But given that this will be a marathon and not a sprint, I worry about the long term sustainability of XR’s model of activist engagement. I felt frazzled after just a couple of weeks of working as one of two Leeds media coordinators – and lots of others were working way harder than me. To be fair, XR clearly gets the need for a long term regenerative culture. But it feels like there’s quite a big gulf between theory and practice.

Legal advice and arrestee support. This wasn’t an area I saw close up in Leeds, given that we had no arrests, but I came away thinking that it’s an area of vulnerability for XR. The legal advice given at the nonviolent direct action training I took part in was very incomplete, and factually wrong on some key points. I also didn’t get a strong sense that XR has all that much support in place for people who do get arrested and charged. XR is asking a lot of its arrestable activists – justifiably. But by extension, it must provide good information to activists considering arrest, and ensure massive support for arrestees and people who get charged (especially given the prospect of harder police crackdowns). It will matter like hell for the morale of the movement.

XR’s theory of change. A big one, this. XR’s ToC to date has been to (a) block roads and disrupt traffic, and (b) get as many people arrested as possible. The evidence from April is that this was effective, both in moving the government and Parliament (see below), and in shifting public opinion.

But will this continue, or does XR need to consider alternatives? Blocking roads has clearly had some shock value and forced people to think about climate change. But I suspect XR will see diminishing returns and declining public sympathy if it just keeps doing this – especially if the requirement for all movements to keep building momentum means that the disruption to people’s lives grows and grows. So what could XR do instead? I wonder about:

  • Targeting Parliament, Downing Street or the Treasury, e.g. with a human chain. Jubilee 2000 did something similar at the 1998 G8, with 50,000 people, but only for 20 minutes. What if XR used the same tactic, but for (much) longer? It would have clear moral power; targeting politicians rather than the public would be more consistent with XR’s focus on system change; above all it would convey XR’s message of urgency.
  • Rapid reaction actions in response to extreme weather events. The news media is often pretty pusillanimous in attributing heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires etc. to climate breakdown (and there’s also some evidence that extreme weather events are weaker than we’d expect in shifting public opinion on climate change). So what if XR shone a bright spotlight on the root causes each time such events happen – and perhaps built public sympathy by assisting with emergency response while doing so (think XR activists helping people to save possessions from flooded homes, or filling sandbags…)?
  • A huge deep canvassing push. Deep canvassing is about reaching out past ‘our’ base, engaging opponents respectfully in real conversations on doorsteps, listening deeply and actively, and searching for empathy and shared emotion as a basis for eventual consensus rather than calling out or hectoring. It’s been hugely effective in the US on building support for equal marriage and trans rights. I think we need something like that on climate change too. 

XR’s demands. Lastly, there’s the question of XR’s demands. I came in to XR with a bit of unease about its stated aims – that government should tell the truth about climate and declare a climate emergency; that it should commit to net zero emissions by 2025; and that it should create a citizens’ assembly to decide on a way forward on climate, which should have direct legislative power – feeling that they’re (a) unrealistic and (b) too vague. 

Having now done a media spokesperson role for XR, I’m less worried about the realism. Movements are supposed to be transformational, not incremental. Demanding the (apparently) impossible is their job. And look how much progress has been made: Parliament has declared a climate emergency (though without much new policy to make that real); Theresa May announced net zero emissions by 2050 (though UK emissions aren’t yet really declining, and the date needs to be much sooner); and six Parliamentary committees have announced a citizens’ assembly on climate change (though XR is right to be worried that this risks just leading to another report unless the government signals its willingness to implement the conclusions). Despite the shortcomings in each case, this is incredible progress in just a few months.

But I am still worried about the vagueness. As XR gathers pace, it has a lot to do to fill those demands out: what they’d mean for people’s everyday lives, what they’d cost, and how the massive challenges of transforming the economy would be managed – economically, socially, logistically, culturally.

Overall, though, I feel energised and hopeful by what I’ve seen. XR feels very different – in its focus on solutions rather than just protest; in its refusal to play them-and-us politics when they’re on the ascendant all around; in how it aims to combine community level organising with international mobilisation. Climate change has for a long time felt like everyone’s watching everyone else, waiting for someone to do something. XR doesn’t feel like that. And so far, it looks like it’s having a powerful effect.

Public interest in the SDGs

I got curious about what’s happened to global interest in the SDGs since they were agreed in 2015, so I ran a Google Trends analysis on it.

Top line: turns out there’s been a steady increase in global interest since 2015, which is pretty much the opposite of what I expected to see (spike in 2015 and precipitous decline since then).

But then when you drill down into where this interest is coming from you find a *huge* regional skew. All of the top 10 most engaged countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa – whereas countries like China, US, Germany, France, UK, Brazil all score less than 5 out of 100 on the engagement scale.

TLDR: these may well be the Goals the world needs in the early 21st century. But even as publics all over the world vote for radical change, not many of them are looking to the SDGs for it.

What kinds of personal transformation help to drive system transformation?

What kinds of personal transformation help to drive whole system transformation? That was just one of the questions explored at a fascinating event hosted by Perspectiva earlier this week – if you don’t know them they’re really worth checking out, especially their great project on Beyond Activism.

It’s a really good question, relevant not only to politics, but also to what we need our education systems to do at a point when we’re less clear than ever on what kind of skills our kids will need in a massively uncertain future.

So here’s a first go at thinking through ten areas where progress in personal transformation would contribute directly to wider systemic transformation – and which (if we were smart) our societies would actively invest in training us on, throughout our lives:

  1. State management. Can we manage our mental and emotional states, and ‘untrigger’ when necessary?
  2. Perceiving. Are we mindful of our biases and framing assumptions? Are we able to think critically?
  3. Identity. How much do we see ourselves as individuals and how much do we identify with a larger collective? How big is the ‘us’ that we think we’re part of?
  4. Purpose. Do we have a clear sense of what we’re actually trying to do in – both individually and collectively?
  5. Ethics. Irrespective of whether or not we’re religious, do we have a clear ethical code, covering not just individual behaviour, but also taking responsibility for our share of collective behaviour (e.g. on social media)?
  6. Openness. Are we able to be honest about our feelings and experiences? Can we tell our story fearlessly?
  7. Empathy. Are we able to listen deeply to what others tell us back? Are we able to hold our views lightly, and be prepared to have them challenged and changed?
  8. Collaboration. Are we able to work with others, and how much are we able to do it through self-organisation rather than relying on top-down hierarchies?
  9. Creativity. How much are we able to create and think laterally? Are we able to do it with others?
  10. The numinous. Are we able to connect with and draw on a deeper source of inspiration – whether through silence, nature, meditation, prayer, or awe?

Am sure I’m missing lots here – do ping me on Twitter and tell me what I’ve missed…

[Image credit: Steve Greer]

Myths for an age of political polarisation

Want to change the world? Then what you need most isn’t facts; it’s a really great story. So I argued in a book called The Myth Gap (summary here), which came out last year in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the US election.

Donald Trump and Nigel Farage had hardly triumphed thanks to their evidence base, after all. Instead, it was thanks to their power as storytellers and the resonance of the tales they told: of taking back control, of building bigger walls, of threats from a shadowy ‘other’.

Part of populist leaders’ attraction, I suggested, is their ability to speak to the contemporary absence of – and deep hunger for – grand narratives that explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all who we are.

To win against these kinds of adversary, I argued, progressives need to reimagine themselves as mythmakers and storytellers. And while there’s clearly no single myth that will work for everyone, I argued that the kind of narratives we need today share three defining features.  

First, prompting us to think of ourselves as part of a larger us rather than a ‘them and us’. Second, to situate ourselves in a longer now, in which we get back to thinking in generational timespans. And third, to help us imagine a better good life in which growth is less a story of increasing material consumption and more about finally growing up as a species.

A year on from the book’s publication, I still think we need these kinds of myth. But I’ve also become preoccupied with how to build bridges across the chasm that defines our politics in an age of savage political polarisation.

My concern partly stems from a year spent running the Brexit campaign at Avaaz. Having started out a convinced Remainer, I ended up thinking the biggest problem wasn’t so much leaving the EU as the prospect that any outcome would leave UK politics poisoned for a generation, with both sides feeling stabbed in the back.

Spending six months on sabbatical in Jerusalem has only deepened my unease. I was last here in 2004, and it’s horrifying to see how extreme the polarisation between Israelis and Palestinians has become. Each side now blames the other for everything, and is simply unable to see how it has also helped to create the current impasse, or what it might have to sacrifice for peace.

The abyss in UK politics isn’t as devastating as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, of course. But the political similarities — the anxiety, irritability, tuning out and ‘othering’ those who disagree — are still striking. And they’re getting worse.

The divide we face is bigger than just Leave and Remain, too, as David Goodhart observes with his idea that British politics is now split between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’.

Somewheres, he argues, are rooted in specific places, usually where they grew up. They value security and familiarity, and are conservative on cultural and social issues. They tend not to have gone to university, do less well economically, and often experience change as loss.

Anywheres, meanwhile, like openness and mobility. They’re mainly graduates, who’ve left where they grew up to live in London, the south east, or abroad. They’re comfortable with social change, and internationalist in outlook. They are much more individualistic, and tend to curate their identities rather than having them ascribed to them.

I find Goodhart’s two tribes fascinating — especially from the perspective of story and myth.

I feel as though Somewheres start with an advantage in storytelling because the best stories are so often specific to places. The tale of a 7 billion ‘us’, on the other hand, is still just an outline draft. And by extension, I also have a hunch that Somewheres have something important to teach Anywheres about belonging.

The individualism that Anywheres are so fond of has a long shadow, after all. George Monbiot points out that individualism is ground zero for consumerism, neoliberalism, and today’s epidemic of loneliness. Adam Curtis observes that the sense of group identity that political movements depend on struggles to survive when self-expression has become the highest good. The sense of belonging that’s at the heart of what it means to be a Somewhere is powerfully relevant here.

Of course, Somewheres’ focus on belonging can be very dark too: just look at the far right. But a point that Anywheres are prone to miss is that it doesn’t have to be. Take the SNP. It’s internationalist, progressive, cosmopolitan; yet also firmly rooted in place and national identity. English politics might look a lot healthier if a similar synthesis were available south of the border.

And I think that it’s just that — a synthesis of the best of Somewhere and Anywhere — that we need to be looking for. Fuzzy compromises on the most charged issues, that do nothing to resolve the underlying clash of values, won’t satisfy anyone. Instead, we need to find a way to talk about, and work through, the divergences between two very different worldviews.

Somewheres and Anywheres clearly value different things, after all. The real question is whether those values are necessarily at odds, or whether they could in fact be reimagined as complementary.

And that’s the basic question now facing each of us.

If you take the former view, from either side of the political divide, then your only real option is to fight like hell. It’s an honourable point of view, but the problem is that it just leads to more of what we have now: acrimony, attrition, and all political bandwidth taken up with patching over the cracks instead of actually tackling the defining issues of the 21st century.

If you take the latter view, on the other hand — that politics isn’t necessarily zero sum, and that the possibility is there of a conversation that enriches all participants and proves that we do indeed have more in common than what which divides us — then you are, unavoidably, in the business of collective storytelling.

In one sense, it’s a radically new and cutting edge skill-set at the heart of what 21st century citizenship is all about. In another sense, it’s the oldest and most quintessentially human skill in the book. It’s time to dust it off and relearn how to do it.

This post was originally published on the Young Foundation’s blog, ahead of a talk I’m doing there on 18 September on the Myth Gap a year on from its publication – tickets available here

10 thoughts on the future of activism

So here are 10 thoughts on the kind of activism we need at a point of widespread crisis and deep polarisation – a distillation of what I’ve been thinking about over the course of the first half of a six month sabbatical.

1 The best activism works for both inner and outer transformation, because it understands that the crises burning around us are external expressions of our inner worlds

2 The best activism moves beyond the idea of victory, and categorically refuses to become a story of “us versus them”

3 Love has the power to change the world, but love and care for others only becomes possible with love and care for self

4 Change depends on shared stories, but we cannot truly listen to anyone else’s story, much less develop shared ones, unless we are brave enough to truly tell our own

5 Self-help is great – but if it extends no further than individual level then it’s stunted. In a time of culture wars and deep polarisation, what we need now is *collective* self-help and healing

6 Moral evolution is the central story arc of human history, and we are poised right at the cusp of our species’ emergence from adolescence and into adulthood

7 Our civilisation faces an initiatory moment of death and rebirth, and myths about these themes hold deep wisdom for us at this point

8 The universe is intelligent, conscious, and non-random, and at the most basic level for us rather than against us

9 Unbelievably rapid, non-linear change becomes possible when we remember that we create the reality around us through our expectation, attention, and intention

10 Our best days are before us, not behind us

Vote remain – winning the home front

I’ve been posting a ton of stuff in favour of remaining in the EU on Facebook and Twitter in recent weeks. So have most of us, given that we’re young(ish) and young people overwhelmingly want to stay.
 
But I’ve also been increasingly realising that actually, we’re kind of just talking to ourselves here. Sure, we need to do everything we can on pushing up young people’s turnout on the day. But I also think there’s something crucial we can to do to win over people poised to vote leave.
 
I think that in this last week or so of campaigning, all of us need to do *everything* we can to win over our parents, grandparents, and their friends.
 
My hunch is we won’t do this through facts, as persuasive as I find the economic evidence. Our elders are overwhelmingly going to vote on values and identity, and while the Remain campaign has totally failed to engage them at this level, we absolutely can: as their sons, daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters, how could we fail to? 
 
We can ask them – very respectfully, at all costs avoiding a dinner table row – if they’d be willing to consider voting remain even if their personal views tend the other way. Not for them, but for us.
 
Because throughout our childhoods they put us before them, and now we can say that we’re asking them to do it one more time, for our futures and for those of our kids.
 
Because this is a vote about the long term future, and because it’s irrevocable if we leave. And because this is the kind of decision that needs to be made not just on personal self-interest, but on the basis of interests of whole families, across generations.
 
Our politicians can’t make these kinds of argument (or if they do, they’re all too easily tuned out). But we can – in the process, making a small but real contribution to the kind of positive sum politics that we all actually want.
 
So let’s spend the last week reaching out beyond our social media echo-chambers of the like-minded, and maybe we can have the kind of debate at family level that our leaders have so manifestly failed to have at national level. Maybe we can cook them dinner first and them ask them over dessert. Maybe we can do it in handwritten letters like the thank-you letters they used to nudge us to write when we were 9 years old. Maybe we could make even them a card like we used to do when we were 4 (or – real Machiavelli coming out here – get our kids to do it for us). But let’s not miss this trick.

9 take aways from COP21

Having attended COP21 as a member of the Ethiopian delegation, I’ve been meaning to write up a post with some take-aways and reflections on the outcome, and will still do so if/when I have a second – but in the meantime, here’s an excellent piece by Christian Hunt, reproduced here with his permission.

My take on the Paris climate agreement is that it’s inadequate. But I think it’s still a really good thing.

Others have been less equivocal, arguing that the Paris agreement is either the best thing since sliced bread, or a disaster and a betrayal of real action on climate change.

So over the past few days I’ve been jotting down some thoughts to help me figure out how I feel about the agreement, and why – mental work in progress, that I’ll share in case it helps you organise your thoughts, or prompts you to email me and tell me I’m wrong.

So here goes:

1) Some preliminary analysis says the agreement, if implemented, would put us on track to 2.7°C by 2100. (Or even lower, with a ratchet mechanism.) I remember when similar analysis said we were on track to between 4 and 6°C, depending on which report you pick. Parking the obvious caveats, isn’t that a good thing?

2) Straight back to those caveats – “if implemented” is a huge one. In fact, it’s kind of the same caveat that existed before the agreement was done – “if we do something about this”. So obviously, the agreement in and of itself doesn’t fix the climate problem. It will require a huge effort from civil society to make the words of the agreement real, in political cost, in infrastructure, in financial decisions. And it will require more moments in the future when ambition is increased again, and again.

3) So let’s not get too hung up on the 1.5/2 degrees targets, and whether they’re realistic, or whether the deal does enough to secure them. My honest answers are: a) We don’t know if they’re realistic – it depends on how you define realistic, there’s a range of opinion, but we know they’re really tough. b) No global agreement will ever do enough to achieve them unless it is supported under the surface by an iceberg of agitation, campaigning and radical shifts in the global economy that still need to be fought for and built, and c) We should just stop obsessing about targets anyway and start arguing for and enabling the end of fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. Oh, and d) The 1.5 target came about because of advocacy by countries that face being literally wiped off the map by climate change, so let’s be a little careful about dismissing it out of hand, or as a way to buy off poor countries, because that strikes me as quite a disempowering and in some ways arrogant thing for those of us in richer countries to argue.

4) So congratulations civil society, we still have a massive job to do. But I would cautiously venture that having every government in the world committed to try and limit warming to 1.5°C is a great lever to move them with – a lever that gives more traction.

5) In fact, let’s quote what I see as the best part of Bill McKibben’s reaction to this – “What, you want to build a pipeline? I thought you were going to go for 1.5 degrees. You want to frack? Are you fracking kidding me? You said you were going for 2 degrees at the absolute worst.” On decarbonisation, if governments are sincere in what they say, let’s help them achieve their goals. If they’re insincere, let’s bust the hypocrisy.

6) Decarbonising our energy system, then our society, then reworking the relationship human society has to resource use and sustainability remain big, hard, daunting problems. Agreement in Paris doesn’t change the calculus of climate change.

7) In reflecting the way the world is arranged, the Paris agreement is an unfair deal for the world’s poor. Equity needs to be a much bigger part of the mainstream climate debate. One positive thing might be the emergence of strong campaigns for climate reparations, led from the global South and with the support of northern allies. (Or whatever the right approach is to opening up that space.)

8) Paris produced a treaty-level agreement, but was a document born of compromise. So while the ‘wrapper’ is binding, different parts of it have different levels of binding-ness. But crucially, important parts of it are actually binding – for example, the verification of what a country’s emissions are, a process to increase ambition over time, a long-term goal for emissions reductions. These are tangible things. So it’s not just nice words, or symbolic. (As an aside, the era of binding multilateral treaties is probably over, a friend pointed out to me the other day, because these days it’s more complicated than just getting the US and the USSR to agree to something. Not that it was ever necessarily simple.)

8) NGO messaging that says this is a “historic deal that will fix all our problems” can be annoying, I agree, because it sounds a lot like “job done”. But we should remember that we (in civil society) are not the target audience for that messaging. Such messaging is directed at the general public (to try and create a narrative shift that can enthuse people and build support for further climate action), or at investors (to increase investment risk, as with the divestment movement). It’s probably also directed at supporters (to make them happy about the impact ‘their’ NGO is having). Luckily, we can just ignore it, although I agree some of the crasser examples need to be called out.

9) In summary, if anyone has a good argument for why we’re in a worse place with a climate agreement produced in Paris than we were before, I’d be really interested to hear it. I accept that I may have drunk the kool-aid… But I don’t think so. Paris is the beginning of a process – a means to an end, not an end in itself. Civil society has played a huge role in getting us to this point, and will have a similarly important role to play in what comes next.

(Christian Hunt is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant, focusing on climate, energy, peace and conflict. He was founding editor of the website Carbon Brief, previously worked for Greenpeace and the Public Interest Research Centre, and is a co-director of the infidelity offsetting company Cheat Neutral. He lives in Minneapolis, USA.)