The danger of “Activist Vuvuzela”. Interview on #climate, #ExtinctionRebellion and much else

Calum is a 40 year old husband, father to two boys who lives in Stockport.  He kindly agreed to answer questions put to him by email.  The answers are thoughtful, provocative and useful.  Comments welcome, but nowt ad hominem please!

1. In an email you described yourself as “someone with no experience of activism or protest (other than 38 Degrees stuff, mithering the snot out of my MP and signing many petitions”.  Two questions from this
a) what do your friends and acquaintances think of this activity – do they regard it as a strange hobby, ignore it, something else?
The 38 Degrees campaigning is mostly ignored, with a few being appreciative of issues they regard as close to home in one way or another.
b) what’s your take on the difference between those forms of activity and – say – going on a protest march, or attending a meeting.  Do you have a sense of hierarchy between the two, as if the latter is somehow more ‘real’, more ‘authentic’?
What matters is results. That’s why people campaign about things – they are trying to bring about some form of change (or prevent it). 38 Degrees (to take an example) does not set out to change the world – it focuses on what might be called “achievable goals”, eg allowing certain chronic conditions to be treated with “medical” marijuana. Ultimately, it was a campaign to change one politician’s mind about the topic. Conversely, they also get involved in trying to influence very “consumer visible” brands like Walkers crisps to make their packets recyclable. Worthy, but ultimately not “world changing”.
Even bigger topics like getting the UK government to stick by promises of funding for the NHS in the face of Brexit basically come down to getting people to influence an MP to vote a particular way, once. But they do get some results, sometimes.
Contrast this with the kinds of issues people are marching about at the moment -eg the anti-Brexit march that attracted a significant turnout in London – hard to call a specific outcome, but you could probably argue that it galvanised the “Remain” contingent at a time when this mattered, and that the discussion of second referenda, etc etc is now happening as an indirect result. I’d say it definitely had more impact than a letter writing campaign or similar in moving public (and political) opinion.
Now consider marches and civil disobedience as we see from XR just now. It takes more commitment on a personal level to turn up to physical event, particularly if either is physically distant, or if you have other responsibilities. So in that they require greater personal commitment (particularly for those involved in XR or anti-fracking campaigns and willing to be arrested etc) – there is a level of hierarchy there, yes.
HOWEVER – where I might draw the distinction between eg 38 Degrees and XR, is that 38 Degrees tackle much more focused, specific problems, where declaring “victory” is relatively straightforward, and the stakes are (relatively) low.
In the case of climate breakdown, the stakes could not be higher, but the “how” could not be less obvious. Similar actions have yielded minimal results in the past. Notwithstanding actual ratification of laws and treaties by multiple governments around the world, we are still basically proceeding as if there is no problem (and that’s not even considering that we will hit peak oil and peak gas before long – even on its own terms, FF powered society is living on borrowed time).  The thing is, how do you up the stakes from here? Where are the metaphorical testicles by which you can grab the problem and squeeze? What levers can be pulled, and what cracks could be opened?
2. How have your views/concerns about climate change shifted over time?  When were you first aware of it? Has the recent events (hot summer, IPCC 1.5 report) shifted things/

I first learned about the idea of climate change (then usually referred to as Global Warming, or AGW) in 2004 when I stumbled on on line discussions about Peak Oil – in those days the fear was more that the end of cheap energy would bring down industrial civilisation imminently and we would all be sent back to the Victorian era  / Iron Age / choose your preferred historical parallel. As it became apparent that Peak Oil was a thing, but that it was simply prompting the pursuit of dirtier forms of energy (see: Tar Sands) my awareness swung back to “how far will we take this?” I think I really started to become worried after Copenhagen, but somewhere in my mind was the idea that all the governments of the world couldn’t simply ignore a problem as big as this.  However, I became more and more aware of the disquiet among climate scientists, and that despite warm words from politicians, the big policy announcements and radical changes I was somehow expecting simply weren’t happening. During this time I met my wife, got married and we had our first son in 2013. Not long after he was born, I discovered Guy McPherson’s “Nature Bats Last” site, which was more than my ‘new father’ psyche could handle and to be honest I blocked the issue out for a year or so, although it lingered in the back of my mind, prodding me that I could not and should not ignore it.
Our second son was born in 2015, the same year as I lost my father. (I’d discussed with my wife that we are living in uncertain times and it was actually this, indirectly that prompted our decision to have a second – we did not want the first to grow up an only child and be burdened with two aged parents to care for – we knew that pension provision for our generation would be quite different from what our parents have experienced, for one thing. I am one of three children, my wife is an only child; the experience of having siblings as life allies also played a part here).
After the Paris meeting there was huge fanfare, but the message outside of the mainstream media was that this was a deal that didn’t do enough, and in any event wasn’t likely to produce real results, particularly given the US political situation. I was also becoming more and more painfully aware that our problems are not limited to CO2 emissions; I’d been aware of the global fisheries collapse for some time, but then the reality hit – it was birds, and forests, and insects, and well, everything.
I’ve had an allotment garden for six years and although it’s not very productive (mostly due to the limited amount of time I have to tend it), it is very instructive on how basic human endeavours like growing food can fail when there is no rain for months at a time. So an abiding sense of unease that things were Not Right (more so than usual) was affirmed by the IPCC 1.5 report – I knew that the uncertain future I was concerned about was much closer than I had feared.
3. You mentioned you have children – what have you told them, so far? What sorts of conversations are you expecting to have with them, and how are you preparing for those (if you are).

They are three and five years old, so their ability to understand is limited. The psychological and neurological evidence is that fear and trauma early in life simply damage people’s ability to cope with stress later on. Given the future that faces them, for now, I concentrate on simple things – appreciating wildlife wherever we can see it, the value of keeping our local environment clean and tidy (took them litter picking the other weekend which taught them how much waste the local McDonald’s generates), of conserving all resources (food, energy, water, soap, clothing) – principles which will hopefully lay the right foundations (in as much as anything can be “right” given what we face).
As time goes on, and most likely the news worsens, I have resolved to tell them as much as I can, in an age-appropriate way. My concern is that at some point, given that I am generally honest about things to a fault, is that I will have to spell out how bad things are / could get, and that there is no realistic chance they will improve in the long run. My feeling it is ultimately better that they understand the world around them, rather than have the world view that everything is OK, only for that to be shattered either by news from elsewhere, or events in our own lives. Honestly though – I do not know how to tell my own children that their parents and grandparents generation ****ed up their future, and their world
4. What would it take – what would groups like Extinction Rebellion have to do – to make you think that being an “activist” (see question 1b above!) would be a good/necessary/obligatory thing?
I want to know a bit about what “winning” looks like. Demanding a zero carbon Britain in seven years time is a fine and noble goal, but how do we get there? Why do they think that the campaigns they are staging will eventually force anyone to listen? If we had a completely willing government with a sizeable majority (ha), what policies would be enacted first?
“Matthew Bolton writes that the first principle of making change is that ‘you only get the justice that you have the power to make happen’, the justice that you have ‘the power to compel’. The point of campaigning is to make a difference. It’s not to live in an activist bubble where we can comfort ourselves that we have the right ideas and everyone else has the wrong ideas. “
Who could they ally with to achieve this? Mass letter writing to MPs from 38 degrees? Crowd sourcing local ideas? Asking experts (whoever experts are) for skunkworks ideas ie what will have the most impact the quickest? Working with artists such as the one recently featured on MCM to try go gain some public engagement via a different route?  My fear is that XR may turn out to be something of an ‘activism vuvuzela’ – at first interesting, difficult to ignore, but ultimately will people just get bored of them and want them to go away – notwithstanding the utterly compelling nature of the predicament we are in, many people are already struggling to keep their heads above water. For them, collapse is already their reality. What hope can they be offered – a sense of worth, of being valued, listened to?
5. Anything else you’d like to say
All of the previous answers notwithstanding, I find myself increasingly afraid that humanity will bequeath the current and next generations not only a degraded world, but a lack of hope that anything can ever be better, that there is any point to trying. I hope to find the courage in myself to do the best I can, for as long as I can, for my family, my community, and our planet.
(Sounds trite as I read it back, but there it is).



About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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