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.

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

NGO air miles? Whose bright idea was THAT?

Remember a time when people went out and joined hands in the streets to demonstrate their passion about the issues they cared most about? Well, forget all that sentimental crap and get with the 21st century, my friend. These days, it’s all about the NGO airmiles.

NGO air milesThis is an excerpt from the website of the Global Citizen Festival, next weekend’s jamboree in Central Park at which Coldplay, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, and Pearl Jam will extol the virtues of the Sustainable Development Goals. Wondering how to get hold of a ticket? Answer: you have to go on an “Action Journey” (yes, really). Once you accumulate 65 points from taking actions like the ones above, presto! – you’re entered into the lottery for tickets.

Now, call me old fashioned, but isn’t the point of mobilising people for demonstrations to show politicians clearly that said demonstrators really care about the issue in question? True, that clarity may have got a bit blurred once demonstrations started turning into free U2 gigs like Live8. But that’s nothing to the mixed messages we’re sending politicians once they start to wonder if the people tweeting them about water and sanitation are actually just after free Beyonce tickets.

Worse than that, we’re also sending people the implicit but still unambiguous message that the SDGs aren’t worth caring about in and of themselves; that we understand that of course we’ll need to throw in some freebies in order to get you to give a shit about ending poverty by 2030, or bringing today’s levels of inequality under some kind of control, or ending violence against women and kids. Seriously? Is that really our model of activism?

Reflections from the #BigIF

The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign held a rally in Hyde Park this weekend. Three things stood out as major highlights for me:

1)      Wow. Getting 45,000 people to take any form of coordinated political action is an extraordinary achievement, particularly in the face of austerity, deep public scepticism about politics and an increasingly fractured media market that makes it ever harder to have a genuinely national conversation about anything. This was not a mass mobilisation on the scale of Stop the War or the Countryside Alliance but hats off – the domestic charity sector would kill for a show of strength like this.

2)      At one point during the day the MCs asked people to shout if they had been in Edinburgh for Make Poverty History and again if this was the first thing like this they’d ever done.  About half the crowd fell into the second camp, implying that IF has done a sterling job bringing in new blood to the global justice movement. If we’re able to keep a hold of them and integrate their diffuse networks into the NGO and churches infrastructure which has long been the backbone of development campaigning we will have built something truly formidable.  I spent the event in front of a lovely group in their late fifties who tutted loudly and in unison whenever one of the terrible statistics about hunger was mentioned by a speaker.  That relentless quiet crossness  is what gives me hope that we finally have a real shot of exercising political influence even without a government which has internationalism in its DNA: the tutters for justice are not going forget what they saw yesterday the next time a canvasser knocks on their door.

3)      I’ll admit to being sceptical about whether a minute’s silence at an event with a Glastonbury vibe was going to work. I was completely and utterly wrong – it was one of the most powerful political moments I’ve ever been part of. Led by the former Archbishop of Canterbury and held in memory of the millions of people who have died of hunger in a world of plenty, the silence worked precisely because the crowd could not otherwise have been further from a stiff picture of solemnity. Likewise, with one powerful exception, the footage on display was relentlessly focused on the opportunity before us, rather than the scale of the problem itself.

So three cheers for some truly heroic efforts over many months by more than 200 of Britain’s best-loved charities. The next ten days won’t be plain sailing though, so three things to watch as the next stage of the campaign unfolds:

1)      It still isn’t clear what the underlying political analysis of this campaign is. Are we trying to maximise pressure on the Prime Minister because we suspect he isn’t really that committed? Or is his personal passion to be treated in good faith but he needs our help with winning over his party and right-wing critics? Or are we not really interested in the UK at all and trying to show the other leaders that they better turn up ready to do some serious business? Or perhaps the priority is less about policy change and more about attitudinal change, using the hook of the G8 to recommence a conversation with the public about the good their aid is doing. There is an argument for each of the four (and they are not all mutually exclusive) but it isn’t clear that even the most involved member agencies would prioritise the four in the same way.

2)      Nutrition specialists were rightly pleased with Saturday’s announcement of new commitments emerging from the hunger summit while tax specialists aren’t holding their breath for a breakthrough of anything like the level of ambition that we need. Which side is going to ‘own’ the overall G8 verdict for the whole coalition? The campaign has shown remarkable message discipline so far, but the risk of fracture is always highest when the decision comes about how to price a partial victory.

3)      In the last few months the global justice sector has secured two massive victories (a global arms trade treaty and an end to secret deals through new European rules) against some of the most powerful vested interests in the world but change was delivered by coalitions more focussed on uniting the organisations they genuinely needed to win than on recruiting and retaining the widest possible group of NGOs. IF is the first time the UK development sector has come together in such numbers since Make Poverty History and the transaction costs remain as high as they ever were. It is unexpected pincer movements that make the biggest difference so we need to remember all time spent managing internal sector politics is time not spent doing creative outreach with high-impact unlikely suspects, like the vloggers Save the Children have been working hard to cultivate.

There will be plenty of time for post-mortems of the whole campaign later, but this weekend was overall a good reminder of the thing that brought most of us into campaigning in the first place: politicians have the power to change things and we have the power to make them. If you want to know more, there’s a good tick-tock of the day here.

Whatever happened to the AIDS apocalypse?

When I first started working in the AIDS movement in the mid noughties the picture was plausibly apocalyptic, but on World AIDS Day 2012 we are celebrating that an AIDS-free generation is now within our grasp. So what happened?

The acceleration of the science is one huge part of the story, but the effectiveness of the AIDS movement is at least as important and future campaigners can learn a lot from one of the most successful global mobilisations of the last few decades. For me four main lessons stand out:

1)      It starts with rights. Determining when to claim partial victory is the sort of thing that keeps movement leaders up at night. Overstate it and you lose the incentive for supporters to act, understate it and you lose the incentive for policy-makers to act. The moral and strategic tensions are captured in a (no doubt apocryphal) story told about a dispute inside the debt movement where one staffer accused another of being ‘the kind of person that during abolitionism would have been lobbying for more comfortable boats’. AIDS activism has successfully defined those tensions away by being more of a human rights movement than a development one. With early roots in gay liberation politics, the movement has always focused on those whose needs are greatest, not those whose stories are easiest to sell. It takes real courage to advocate for heroin addicts and sex workers at the same time as orphans and infected newborns, but unflinching honesty about the true nature of the epidemic has been, in the end, one of the movement’s great strengths.

2)      Injustice speaks for itself.  From the UK’s Terrence Higgins Trust to South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, the highest impact organisations have not been founded in solidarity by the charitable but in fury by the affected. I have written before about the importance of advocacy’s amateurs and for me the history of AIDS is the clearest example of why the advocacy ‘professionals’ should get out of the way and let the people who need to know ask the powerful how much they think their lives are worth.

3)      Institutions matter. The Global Fund, for all its faults, is multilateralism’s great success story. Its record is a triumph of institutional design, the result of a very special chemistry between the public, private and third sectors and people affected by the three diseases. While some education advocates have already started pushing for a replica for education, there is no other institution quite like the Global Fund, and no particularly good reason for that to be the case. The case for reform of global governance is painfully familiar to Global Dashboard readers, but we should try to learn at least as much from what we’ve got right as what we’ve got wrong.

4)      It takes coalitions of the willing. It bears constant repetition that the man behind the world’s first government anti-AIDS campaign was a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Likewise, while the global AIDS fight is now one of the few areas of bipartisan consensus in the United States, it was a Republican rather than Democrat incumbent of the White House who first initiated a scaled emergency response and a distinguished veteran of George Bush’s PEPFAR who will now be leading global efforts at the new chief of the Global Fund.

We still have a long way to go but at a time when so many promises are being broken, tomorrow provides a good chance to remember that, just sometimes, campaigning works and the results can be spectacular when it does.

 

Are gay rights a development issue?

Next week I am speaking at an event jointly organised by LGBT groups and development campaigners to consider whether legal reform drives social change. While there is patchy evidence from India that decriminalisation can spark some changes in social attitudes, the activist who filed the original legal challenge with the Delhi High Court thinks her victory has done little to shift social norms and reports suggest that over 70% of Indians would like to see it overturned. In Brazil the 2011 Supreme Court victory on partnership rights took place the year after 260 LGBT people were murdered in the country while South Africa, which boasts some of the most comprehensive gay equality laws in the world, has become globally famous for the “corrective rape” of lesbians.

Meanwhile Britain’s laws are so progressive that the UK has been recognised as the best place in Europe to be gay, but researchers put the huge shifts in British social attitudes down more to pop culture than hard fought legislative change. Public opinion in the United States is slowly (but not smoothly) heading in the right direction, but the marriage amendment battles across the country are opening up new fronts in the culture war, like the viral hit “two lesbians raised a baby and this is what they got”.

So the big question for international campaigners is this: if the national law-makers of a country can’t reliably bend its public opinion, do any of us have much hope of winning hearts and minds from afar? One approach has been the mobilisation of a global transnational movement, modelled on Avaaz.org.  All Out is a global campaign supported by over a million people (half of them straight) who have organised online to highlight everything from ‘gay cure’ church services in Europe to the arrest of a gay man for sending a romantic text in Cameroon. Another new initiative is The Kaleidoscope Trust which focuses on providing funding and practical support to organisations on the ground, while The Human Dignity Trust connects multi-national law firms with lawyers bringing human rights cases against their own governments.

But perhaps of greatest interest to the development campaigners in the room will be the role that donor governments can play. A recent spate of high profile anti-gay initiatives in Africa caused Prime Minister Cameron to use a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last year to draw explicit links between continued British aid and respect for gay rights while President Obama instructed USAID to factor a country’s gay rights record into its allocations.

That raises all sorts of difficult questions. Is aid a ‘reward’ for good human rights behaviour, or solely an instrument of poverty reduction? If it is the former, how and why would we measure gay rights performance compared to, say, protection of ethnic minorities or the disabled? And if it is the latter, how do we manage the transition from direct budget support if the evidence suggests that it has the greatest impact on poverty in the country concerned? There is a question too about whether perceptions of outside ‘interference’ do more harm than good and encourage some governments to increase persecution of gay people as an assertion of independence.

Notwithstanding the great work being done by all the organisations above, I haven’t been able to find much analysis of how these competing justice claims can be reconciled, nor very comprehensive evidence about when external pressure has been the decisive factor in a gay rights victory. I’d love reading and watching suggestions if you have them, so please leave in the comments below.

In praise of advocacy’s amateurs

In light of the great news that Oxfam are shifting to “focus more on national level change and relatively less on often-fruitless global summitry”, I’ve been thinking a bit about potent national campaigns like those started by David Kato in Uganda and Zackie Achmat in South Africa.

In both cases their activism was a response to a lived imperative, not a priority sifted from a list during a strategic planning process. It led to campaigns which were creative, insistent and bold, because failure meant dire personal consequences unthinkable to those of us in the North whose biggest worries are restless trustees and falling donations.

Their movements got momentum, in part, because the political could not have been more personal. That entanglement between the story and the strategy also seems to be one of the drivers of the huge growth of Change.org: it is hard to imagine, for example, 2 million signatures on a petition started by anybody other than Trayvon Martin’s parents.

Likewise, last week’s news in Britain was dominated by the damning findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel which uncovered what the Telegraph, reporting the Prime Minister’s moving Commons Statement, called “a campaign to smear the dead”. In the face of those slurs, victims’ families have waged a 23 year campaign of their own, in the process taking on one of the most powerful newspapers in the country and a police force engaged in what the Guardian called a conspiracy mounted “with the connivance of several pillars of (the) establishment”.

Faced with those odds, how many big brand charities or public affairs firms would have taken on the fight, far less kept it up for nearly quarter of a century? And would any of the advocacy “professionals” we know have been as courageous or effective as this extraordinary group made up of the affected, the angry and the amateur?  It has all got me thinking that maybe subsidiarity in an NGO context could mean not just devolving campaigning power to the right countries, but further down to the right people too.