Today marks exactly 10 years since the first meeting of “Manchester Climate Forum”. It was held to help explain the implications of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Professor Kevin Anderson, who has since become a good friend, gave a presentation and answered questions, at a well-attended (75 people or so) at the Friends Meeting House.
The Forum was set up for two reasons, one ‘personal’ and one ‘political’ (the two categories overlap, of course). Personally, I needed something to do locally, since it was clear to me that, via a facipulated decision to keep doing annual spectaculars, the “Camp for Climate Action” was going to chew up a lot of people’s energy and passion and spit out a failure. I didn’t want to be one of them. But I still wanted to Do Something on climate change, and local seemed one sensible way forward.
The political reason was that it was clear that the Socialist Worker’s Party would do with climate change what it had done with the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement of the late 90s and early naughties – that is, set up a boring and vampiric front group that would – by virtue of its loudness and organisation – divert people from (what I considered at the time to be) more effective and less Leninist/Stalinist/Trotskyist groups. And so Manchester Climate Forum was born as a way of blocking them from doing that, at least in Manchester, and ‘holding the ring’ so that mythical Concerned Citizens could come and hear about the problems, hear from the different groups active in Manchester and then make their choice of which group sounded most up their street.
That was the format of the early meetings – a speaker and Q and A, then the second half each activist-y group (and there were many) saying what it was doing and how people could get involved. Manchester Climate Forum ran a bunch of meetings in 2007 and 2008 and some in 2009 and 2010 (including the only one to date (that I am aware of, or can remember) on gender and climate activism). They also usually had a take-home booklet. The pages of the booklet for the first meeting are inserted throughout the following text, for light relief…
In mid-2008 Manchester Climate Fortnightly was born, as a two page (and soon four page) newsletter of what was going on, what was coming up, what had been happening. That would have folded quickly, but for the totally amazing Arwa Aburawa who co-edited it for a long time. Our spirits were lifted and our pages brightened by the brilliant cartooning of Marc Roberts, who is a top bloke.
In 2009, disgusted with a useless Council-funded document (to the tune of at least 26k) called the ‘Call to Action’ we launched the ‘Call to Real Action’ process, where we (about 15 or so) activists wrote a response document in 6 weeks, about what could and SHOULD be done. The success of which caught everyone by surprise. That gave the Council the idea to make the production of the “Climate Change Action Plan” less undemocratic than it otherwise would have been. (They needed something for Richard Leese to brandish while at a world conference of mayors at the end of the year, and knew that business as usual could not deliver. Buy me a beer and I will tell you my version of it.)
We tried to stop everyone obsessing over the 2009 Copenhagen conference, without success, and once the Council started breaking its promises in a serious way (they’d been breaking them since 2008) all we could really do was report it. Which we did. Manchester Climate Fortnightly, which came out every second Monday (Xmas breaks were taken) ran for 63 issues, until November 2010. We only missed one deadline (my fault – and only by a couple of hours).
Manchester Climate Monthly ran as a paper publication from January 2012 to October 2013, thanks again to Arwa Aburawa, who was demoted to working for Al Jazeera in June 2013. We covered the ongoing, escalating and contemptible farce that was the ‘Stakeholder Steering Group’. We were so effective in this that we were banned from attending the 2013 ‘stakeholder conference’, which was then abolished by the next Stakeholder Steering Group chair.
I was a co-founder of Steady-State Manchester, but then legged it after a few other people did, and do not regret that decision in the slightest. Since November 2013, Manchester Climate Monthly has been web only. There isn’t enough real news going on in Manchester (as opposed to bullshit press releases and activist fantasies) to fill a monthly publication anyway. So it goes.
For the future? Well, who knows. The chances of anyone else taking on Manchester Climate Monthly when the current editor leaves town are low (i.e. zero). It’s been an interesting project. At least I’ve had my eyes open(ed) while staring into the abyss.
What I learnt about academics (and what I would do differently)
- Academics can write articles that you think are Right Up Your Street but which are actually totally useless and riddled with turgid pointless jargon to disguise a central banality of crushing banality. And they get well-paid for this.
- The lag time on academic production is two years – which may as well be a century when you’re engaged in close-quarters combat with an opponent.
- There is very little useful writing – at least that I have found – about the micro-mechanics of activism by academics. One exception is the magnificent’ Democracy in the Making‘ by Kathleen Blee.
What I would do differently
- Refuse most of the interviews. Waste of time and energy, unless you are being asked good questions by a smart researcher, which happens far less frequently than you’d think. And then they don’t send you a transcript for longer than they promised.
- Make my own recordings (there was one horrific example when some PhD student interviewed me and then wouldn’t admit that her tape recorder hadn’t worked. That only came out when I complained to her supervisors).
- I have written about all this here – me and your research
What I learnt about activist groups (and what I would do differently)
- Everyone always really gets hung up on the Next Big Protest. I eventually came to call this ‘emotathons’. In mid-2009 Manchester Climate Forum held a public meeting where we tried to get people to think about where things would be in mid-2010, after the Copenhagen conference, which everyone wanted to summit hop to. People just couldn’t (wouldn’t?) do it.
- Some groups are so desperate for affirmation, so desperate to feel like they are Making a Difference that they will overlook the most shameful and disgusting behaviour on the part of their bosses (hey, SWP) or the Council (Friends of the Earth). Some people are content to be fig leaves and call it activism.
- Other groups are just totally disorganised and act in ways completely the opposite of their stated beliefs. E.g. an “anarchist” group collapsed when one key individual (yes, that should be a contradiction in terms) left town. I am not making this up.
- Activists have no idea how to retain interested people, and no real interest in learning how.
- Activist groups spring into existence like spring flowers when the media rains down stories and attention. And they fall over within months or at most a couple of years when the media caravan moves on, if not before..
- Activist groups will applaud you when you analyse the enemy’s lies (be it the Council, Evil Multinationals), but get offended when you call bullshit on their bullshit.
What I would do differently
- I wish I could have all that time I wasted going to various meetings back. The Wife did warn me, and actually eventually helped me break the habit.
- I wish I could have passed on meeting design skills and facilitation skills (“etc”) but not only are groups not interested in getting it from someone they don’t like (i.e. me) but they aren’t really interested in it at all (‘the smugosphere’).
What I learnt about local authorities (and what I would do differently).
- Local Authorities are elephants, and elephants don’t tap dance, especially on empty stomachs.
- There are precious few people with both a brain and a spine, and these ones are usually (and rightly) perceived as threats by people higher up in the hierarchy, and so sidelined or sacked.
- There is a culture of risk aversion and public relations horseshitting that will overcome any attempts at culture change.
- They will break their promises as easily as look at you.
- They lie, they lie they lie. And so do their hangers-on, toadies and camp followers.
What I would do differently/advice
- Understand the Peter Principle, and John Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach
- Always keep all the documents, and electronic copies of them, so you can refer to promises easily
- Figure out the policy-making structures and the points at which it is possible to intervene
- Become very good at using the Freedom of Information Act, it is your friend
- Cultivate insiders (this is probably easier with the members than the officers), but do not become beholden to them, captured by them.
What I learnt about the species
We want to kill ourselves. And we will get our wish.
What I learnt about myself (and there is no need to do anything differently, because I always have been – and always will be – perfect)
- I am a good meeting designer, a good facilitator on my day.
- I have a tolerance for hard work, even for the boring slog of documents etc etc.
- However, I have zero tolerance for shite meetings, especially those perpetrated by activists or academics who claim to ‘get’ non-hierarchy and non-hierarchical pedagogy. These meetings break my heart, because they are always a missed opportunity for genuine connection, genuine network- and movement-building.
- I just don’t have the patience, tact and diplomacy to be a “leader”.
- Other stuff too, but this is a public blog, so will keep schtum.