This morning bridges in London were occupied by thousands (or hundreds, if you read the BBC), of people concerned about well, the possible extinction of the human species from climate change. It seems likely that we are entering a renewed period of activity on the climate issue (the last one lasted from 2006 to 2010). My prediction of ‘2019: How we blew it again’ is only off by about 7 weeks, it seems.
But seriously, these things often follow a cycle, often on about 2 or 3 year cycles, which seems to be all that individuals and groups are able to sustain at a high pitch. We need to be alive to the threats and opportunities in these cycles. The following blog post focuses NOT on the large scale public order situations, nor the dynamic of groups forming and developing certain cultures and habits, nor the nitty-gritty of trying to keep a (local) government to its promises (something I know a fair bit about, mostly learnt through repeated failure).
Instead, it looks at how we might expect one particular repertoire to unfold – the weekly #ClimateStrike gatherings (yes, I’ve written about this yesterday – these thoughts below are a second bite at that cherry, trying to take a more chronological approach. There may (or may not) be another post about the kinds of skills that would be needed to keep this repertoire useful over a long period, if anyone wants it.
The blog post starts by laying out what might be useful in the gatherings, and how that can be sustained. It then argues that there are three phases – growth, plateau and decline – that we can identify. Each has its own internal dynamics and characteristics. There is of course fuzziness, and accidents do happen to mess with the pattern. Sometimes. It then briefly argues that if the gatherings are to be ‘successful’ (and that is defined) then there will need to be organising teams rather than individuals, but that this of course comes with its own difficulties.
What is interesting/useful in weekly gatherings
- Weekly gatherings are an opportunity for organisers to learn new skills, pass them on, spread them around, and (this matters) sustain morale
- Weekly gatherings might improve communications between disparate groups/individuals whose paths would not usually cross (both in creating, recreating, maintaining relationships)
- Weekly gatherings might be a gateway for ‘new people’ to come along, dip their toe in the water, get some sense of what is going on (n.b. Groups will fight over access to the new people, wanting to be seen as the dominant/cool kids. It was ever thus.)
But everything comes to an end, sometimes a lot sooner than we want it to. What could be left behind – if (and only if) people choose to take a long-term view at the outset – is the following
- a much thicker web of people who know each other a bit/quite well (relationships, which are more likely to survive repression, burnout, exhaustion, despair etc).
- a higher number of people with ‘core skills and knowledge’ (whatever those might turn out to be as we enter the terminal phase of anthropocene capitalism), so the wheel doesn’t have to be re-invented quite so often.
- a culture of climate campaigning that is less tone deaf to its white, middle-class smugosphere tendencies.
For me, i think most of these sorts of things – whether they are Fridays for the Future, Extinction Rebellion, Climate Camp, Reclaim the Power or whatever, have a shelf-life, a life cycle. The trick, surely, is to
- Extend that lifespan as far as is healthy by avoiding the stupidest of the old mistakes
- Make sure people come out with at LEAST some new skills, knowledge and connections, and hopefully not too bitter and cynical
- Make sure that the lessons learnt are not quickly forgotten. Our opponents do not forget the lessons from previous encounters.
So, about those three phases- growth, plateau, decline. They will be different lengths in different places, due to local factors. I don’t know of any way of predicting. Life is very very unpredictable, after all. I could throw lots of literature at you about life-cycles, dialectics, blah de bloody blah. Life really is too short.
More people each time, including both established and returning activists, activists from other issues and the mythical “never-done-this-sort-of-thing-but-so-concerned-about-the-issue” types.
There’s a positive vibe: it’s the honeymoon phase, and almost all tensions are subsumed within it.
What can keep this phase going
- Positive press coverage
- Good word of mouth
- Good weather
- Progressive increase in numbers, especially from beyond the usual suspects
What can accelerate a move into the next phase (the plateau)
- Bad weather
Bad vibes (police, counter-protestors, venue difficulties (“not public space/you need a permit” etc, various dickheadery wth megaphones and newspapers that are not managed well because organisers are under-skilled, under-resourced, lack enough legitimacy, are burnt out etc
- Unmanaged tensions that lead to public divisions within organising team.
The gatherings have achieved a certain size, but then are not growing in total numbers any more. Most of the people who would be likely to come know about it, have come, do come occasionally, but the novelty has worn off and the usefulness to them individually or their organisation has gone down. They are only attending intermittently, and with a more ‘instrumental’ mindset (“I’ll go, distribute a lot of leaflets about the upcoming meeting/demo, then go for a coffee”. The event has settled down into a largely agreed format, which may or may not be sub-optimal. There may be attempts to streamline/improve the event by people who think (rightly) that the gathering is in danger of becoming stale and losing its usefulness, but these attempts are likely to fail, as a social norm is hard to dislodge, and other people resist innovation.
What can keep this phase going
This plateau phase might only last a short time (four or five gatherings) or it might be prolonged by renewed political/media attention to the issue (a new scandal, a new disaster). However, sooner or later, a decline is likely to set in.
What can accelerate a move into the next phase (decline)
- Open conflict between organisers,
- Successful and demoralising harassment by opponents
- Bad weather or scheduling conflicts (other things happening same day or close to) that leads to two consecutive or closely linked gatherings with undeniably low attendance
There may be attempts to prevent the “bad” behaviour, but this will often be predicated on the analysis that it’s “one or two bad individuals” who are “spoiling it for everyone else” rather than any longer-term and/or dialectic/institutional view
Numbers at the gatherings are steadily declining. There are fewer and fewer new faces, and fewer of them stick around. The ‘hard-core’ keeps coming, but is at a loss about what to do to reverse the trend (and in truth, it probably can’t be reversed).
The gatherings might stagger on because nobody wants to admit ‘defeat’, and there is hope for a return to the glory days…. But sooner or later, it will be back to the original organiser and their friends. One day, they’ll look at each other and say ‘ah, what’s the point?’
So, how long does this take to unfold? Who the hell knows. And maybe it will play out differently this time? An actual “end of the world” threat may tear up the rulebook. But probably won’t.
Who says organise, says tyranny
Finally, I would argue that to have much chance of lasting a useful length of time, then these gatherings need, in each local, an organising team rather than one individual.
One individual can burn out, have to stop doing it (get sick, have to care for others who get sick, new job, etc etc), lose perspective, not have sufficient legitimacy, and can’t be there week in week out anyway.
Therefore a group of people. But how are these selected/elected? To whom are they ultimately responsible. And what power do they have? Where does their legitimacy come from? How does that group avoid becoming a clique/tribe/party, or captured by a subset? How are those who leave replaced? These are neither trivial questions nor easy ones to answer.
And saying “aw, shucks, we’re just gathering once a week to show we care about climate change, why do you have to go complicating things so much?” is a tempting response, but history would suggest it’s unlikely to be one that copes with things going wrong.
The skills of creating that team of people will rely on soft skills, prior social standing, managing tricky people, etc etc. It’s an unusual set of skills… The transparency question is tricky too. But a clear set of written principles (no selling newspapers, no megaphones, no general dickery) might help a bit. Or it will be a red rag to the red rag sellers, who see it as an affront and/or a dare.
If anyone is interested on my thoughts on “What are the skills that would be needed to turn Fridaysforthefuture into a useful way for ‘ordinary people’ (sic) to attend and then become (more) involved in climate action”, then get in touch and I might feel motivated to flesh that out. Especially if you’re in Manchester and you’ll buy me beer and veggie burger.