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.

It’s developed country, not emerging economy, attitudes that are the problem on sustainability

One of the best sets of data available on attitudes to sustainability around the world is the ‘Greendex’ produced by the polling company Globescan for National Geographic magazine. Its most recent version, published in 2012 (highlights; full pdf), paints a fascinating – and often surprising – picture.

For me, the key headline finding from the survey is all about the gap in perceptions between people in emerging economies and those in developed countries. Despite the fact that emerging economy citizens have much lower per capita consumption levels, the survey found that:

  • Emerging economy citizens are substantially more concerned about environmental problems than developed country citizens. The six countries in which most people agree with the statement “I am very concerned about environmental problems” are Mexico, China, Brazil, South Korea (which is a developed country, of course), Argentina, and India. The bottom six (with the least concerned last) are Japan, the US, Germany, Britain, Australia, and (weirdly) Sweden. When prompted about global issues, environmental challenges like climate change, air and water pollution, fresh water shortages, and species and habitat loss all score consistently highly as concerns in emerging economies. In developed countries, on the other hand, consumers are less concerned about the environment and more focused on the economy and the cost of energy and fuel.
  • People in emerging economies are much more likely than people in developed countries to say that they feel guilty about their environmental impacts – despite the fact that their per capita environmental impacts are much lower. The countries in which most people agree that they feel guilty about their impacts are India, Mexico, China, Brazil, and Argentina; the lowest scoring are Britain, France, America, Australia, Germany, and (last and least) Japan.  Yet when these findings are plotted on the same graph as countries’ actual Greendex score – a measure of the sustainability or unsustainability of their consumption patterns – it emerges that those countries that feel least guilty are in fact those with the highest environmental impacts.

Greendex vs guilt

  • Emerging economy citizens are far more likely than those in the rich world to agree with the statement that “as a society we will need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations”. The countries that most endorse this view are Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and China; the US, Australia, Germany, and Japan are least convinced. And even though developed countries are least convinced of the need to consume less, they are also the most sceptical of the view that “people in all countries should have the same standard of living as people in the most wealthy countries”, with Germany, Canada, America, South Korea, and Japan all in the bottom five. (Interestingly, though, Britain and Spain score significantly higher than most other developed countries on both fronts.)

A similar story emerges on the specific issue of climate change. Of the 17 countries covered in the Greendex survey, the six in which most concern is expressed about climate change are Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, India, and China, with over 70% of people in each country saying that they are either concerned or very concerned about the issue. Britain, America, and Australia, on the other hand, rank  lowest, in every case with less than 45% of people in these two categories.

People in emerging economies are also much more likely to agree that “global warming will worsen my way of life within my own lifetime” than those in developed countries, and to support the statement that “most scientists are convinced that human activity causes climate change and global warming”.

Why can’t politicians ‘cut through’ on climate?

In the Guardian, Hugh Muir complains that the Daily Mail has “helped erode trust in the probity of the political establishment to the extent that politicians cannot now receive a fair hearing on anything.”

We don’t listen much to any of them these days, and sometimes that doesn’t matter, because we live quite happily day to day without ministerial interference. But when it comes to issues that affect the state and mood of the nation; the inability of even serious politicians to cut through becomes troubling.

This is spot on for climate change, as can be seen by a look at how Hugh’s own paper covered three stories in the run up to the Warsaw summit.

First, fossil fuel subsidies, where the Guardian gobbles up a global report from the Overseas Development Institute and presents it through a primarily national lens.

Fossil fuel subsidies

As I have explained, the Guardian’s framing is largely fallacious, but to pick up Hugh’s point, the government’s position is not reflected at all. No quotes. Nothing.

Only a tiny minority of readers would suspect that ministers deny Britain has any inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at all (or understand why). Nor would they realise that eliminating the ‘subsidy’ identified by ODI equates to quadrupling VAT on all domestic energy, whether it comes from fossil fuels or renewables. Continue reading

“I think we’re fucked” and other reasons not to publish a book

Last night saw the launch at the Science Museum of a new book called Ten Billion, by Stephen Emmott. I’m not sure I can recall another book that’s annoyed me this much.

Emmott is head of computation science at Microsoft Research. He’s smart, and clearly makes full use of his mandate at Microsoft to think about big issues. And his book, as the blurb puts it, is “about the potential consequences of the collective activities of the human population as we continue to grow towards ten billion. Its message is simple: We are in real trouble, are heading for deeper trouble, and are failing to do much about it.”

His analysis, in a nutshell, is that: a massive resource scarcity and climate change crunch is rapidly approaching; we’re kidding ourselves if we think that technology is going to let us off the hook without having to face up to any change in our lifestyles; developed world publics are in no mood to consume less; and since we’re not willing to face up to the questions about fair shares in the context of environmental limits, it’s most unlikely that emerging economies will do so any time soon either.

While he gets some of his data wrong, I agree with the broad thrust of this argument 100%. So why the fury? Because of how he finishes the book. Here’s his conclusion (and I’m quoting verbatim):

“We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.

I think we’re fucked.”

Now, I agree that we’re in for a bumpy ride. I agree that it’s going to take something nonlinear and spectacular to make the transition successfully. And it’s fair enough if Emmott can’t imagine what that might look like; I can’t predict it either.

But the point here is that anyone spinning ‘collapse’ stories like this – and especially anyone who is, like Emmott, an opinion former of considerable influence (as I type, his book is the #1 bestseller on global warming or climate at Amazon) – is creating narrative frames that other people are going to use to make sense of what’s going on, how we get here, and what happens next.

And Emmott’s story is not helpful. It’s toxic.

Stories – myths – are deeply, deeply powerful things. They create our reality as much as they describe it. And the more opinion formers get behind collapse narratives, the more likely these narratives are to become self-fulfilling prophecies, contributing to a mood of despair rather than resolve when shocks open up moments of opportunity.

Thinking that we’re “fucked” is a legitimate intellectual position – but if that is what you genuinely believe, then the responsible course of action is to shut the fuck up about it – and leave the narrative bandwidth to others with something more hopeful to say than you.

What have you got to lose by doing so, if you already think it’s all over? And conversely, what are you adding to public debate if you don’t have the imagination even to admit the possibility of success? Either lead, or get out of the way, as a climate negotiator once put it to the US delegation.

All of which begs the question of what I think a more hopeful narrative would look like, given that I buy Emmott’s analysis of the severity of the situation and the lack of obvious answers. I don’t think there’s a single answer, but I’m personally pretty interested in stuff like this. It’s the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this week, and is a first attempt to put together some thoughts that have been bubbling away for over a year.

The talk was at the annual conference of the very cool Modern Church movement – they were founded in the 19th century to oppose religious fundamentalism from within the church, and these days work on areas like religious pluralism, defence of science, and gender equity. Anyway, work in progress – feedback very welcome.

Where it all went wrong on US climate policy

Remember back in 2006 and 2007 when it looked as though the US was about to get really serious on climate policy? You know, when not only Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Barack Obama but even John McCain supported legislation on cap and trade? Well, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol has just published a 140 page report (pdf) about what happened next and where it all went wrong, commissioned by the Rockefeller Family Fund. It’s very very good. David Roberts at Grist has the best summary I’ve seen if you’re too busy or lazy to read the whole thing: here are the key messages that he picks out from the report:

Enviros vastly overstated Obama’s agency throughout the process and his responsibility for the outcome. Skocpol exaggerates enviro cluelessness a bit here — I doubt all that many really think they would have won if Obama had just made a few more speeches — but she’s definitely on to something. An amazing amount of the commentary around the bill was devoted to criticizing Obama, or saying what Obama should do, or questioning Obama’s heart. Enviros were constantly “calling on” Obama to say or do this thing or the other. But Obama was not at the center of the action. The dynamics that mattered took place in Congress. Obama did not exactly distinguish himself as a climate champion, but he was a sideshow — he could not have changed the outcome.

On public opinion, cap-and-trade supporters were too concerned with breadth and too little concerned with intensity. An enormous amount of time and money went into national polls and national advertising. National polls tell enviros what they want to hear: In the abstract, majorities always support clean air and clean energy. Enviros mistook these poll results for constituencies. But poll results do not attend town halls or write members of Congress or exhort their fellow citizens through ideological media. Constituencies do that.

Failure to fight back in the summer of 2009 was a fateful mistake. Just after the Waxman-Markey bill passed the House, summer arrived, legislators went home, and enviros cracked a beer and put their feet up. Meanwhile, a well-funded, well-organized Tea Party invaded town halls, dominated talk radio and Fox News, and generally scared the bejesus out of Republican legislators. They bashed on “cap-and-tax” for months, with very little pushback. By the time the Senate returned to consider the bill, members had learned their lesson.

Most of all:

Enviros were slow to perceive and understand the accelerating radicalization of the Republican Party. The USCAP strategy was based on securing the support — or at least defusing the opposition — of key business constituencies. The presumption was that the GOP is the party of business and would follow the lead of key corporate constituents. It was further based on securing the support of key “maverick” Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. The presumption there was that their support would provide cover for other moderate Republicans to cross the line. Both presumptions were based on an outdated model of the Republican Party.

Continue reading

Post-2015: where does sustainability fit in? (Updated)

Climate, scarcity and sustainability are among the most important – and politically challenging – elements of the post-2015 development agenda on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals.

While sustainability issues did not feature heavily at the recent London meeting of the new UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which was focused mainly on household level poverty, they are likely to figure much more prominently at the Panel’s second and third meetings – in Monrovia in February and Bali in March – since these meetings will focus on national and global level issues respectively.

Before these meetings, sustainability advocates have some hard thinking to do: on both their policy objectives and their political tactics, in both the Panel and the post-2015 agenda as a whole. To try to contribute to that thought process, here’s a 6 page think piece. It’s deliberately provocative, and also still a working draft – so feedback is very welcome.

Update: The paper’s now been finalised and published as a Center on International Cooperation think piece; many thanks to everyone who commented.

Climate, Scarcity and Sustainability in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

What should sustainability advocates aim for in the post-2015 international development agenda – and how should they go about it?

Download Report