[The text below is an attempt to think through how, a year from now, “we” might be in a far better place than we are now. Please share it, comment on it, share it, write your own versions. This is a crucial discussion. Although I take responsibility for it, I also must acknowledge the many excellent suggestions and supportive critiques of Rose Arnold and Calum.]
“What a difference a year makes” said Alex to Cameron (names have been changed to protect the innocent), as they surveyed the final format of the People’s Green Summit, now, in March 2020, only a week away. It was a day packed with skill-share, facilitated discussions, information sessions and barely a keynote to be seen. People who attended would be participating, not sat in rows listening to presentation after presentation after presentation from the stage. Everyone would leave with new contacts, new ideas, having been able to share their thoughts and experiences on a vast variety of topics.
Last year at this time activists had been out in force at the farce that was the second “Mayor’s Green Summit.” It had been another depressing debilitating spectacle, full of people being talked at by the great and the good. The last minute cynical insertion of a youth climate activist and a “listening” panel had not been able to disguise the fact that neither Greater Manchester nor Manchester “leaders” had a clue what to do. Instead they had just recycled the same old greenwash, the same old promises-soon-to-be-broken. It had convinced those who wanted to be convinced, who needed to believe that the last ten years hadn’t been wasted and that business as usual would provide the radical transformation required. But it had not convinced those who wanted to see real action, despite Andy Burnham handing the microphone to the Extinction Rebellion ‘invaders’ at the end.
There would be no more willingness to sit and rows and be told by economic and political elites that a survivable future could be achieved without any real disruption of those elites. There would be no more silence when soothing blandishments about “Paris-compatible” and “science-led” were bandied about. There would be no more looking the other way as “leaders” flew around Europe talking about carbon dioxide.
People started realising that supporting young people in the strikes was not enough. They started their own strikes, low numbers at first but growing ever larger.
A dense and growing network of organisations – youth groups, sports clubs, mosques, churches, unions, small businesses and the like, were learning how to communicate and co-ordinate with each other to not merely shame green-washing leaders but to deliver real leadership, by example. That meant that every single councillor had been “adopted” by activists who lived in that ward, or nearby, who were educating, pressuring and praising-where-due. It meant that when people met to break bread, to worship, to play sport, they thought about what is unfolding on this planet, and how they could minimise the damage by changing their behaviours and pressuring not just politicians, but corporations and organisations. It meant that there was relentless radical explanations of the causes and consequences of climate change at cultural events. It meant that people struck up conversations with friends, family and acquaintances whenever they felt it would be helpful (and even, sometimes, when it might not).
The People’s Green Summit – basically the day-long “stakeholder conference” that the Manchester City Council-controlled “Steering Group” had failed to implement between 2011-14, before giving up altogether – was not the focus of Greater Manchester’s climate activity, nor its culmination. It was, however, a handy measuring point, a chance to take stock and look honestly at what had succeeded and what had failed in the last year.
Everybody knew the risks of seeing it as the peak of an emotional journey, and everyone knew that the day after the Summit, more work would be required, onward and onward. People knew that they could not – should not- try to be involved at maximum intensity, for risk of burn-out. They also knew that the organisations the were part of had it covered – there were few bottlenecks and single-points of failure. Everyone was wanted, but nobody was indispensable. If there were skills and knowledge that were in only a few hands, those were carefully shared, increasing resilience.
People were encouraged to not over-commit and then under-deliver. Status was not to be gained through intense busy-ness but through being a steady and reliable member of a group/multiple groups.
It had all kicked off back in April 2019 when a bunch of activists – some affiliated, some not, some old/experienced, some new, had gathered for a meeting to figure out what was to be done, and how, and by who. Normally these meetings were full of different groups each wanting to be the “lead” group (whether they would admit that – even to themselves – or not). Normally the meetings would also be bloody arenas for (undeclared) ego-battles. This meeting, however, was different. Instead, the agenda, format and facilitation was skilfully done, for once. Attendees were asked to do some pre-thinking, that was then shared with the wider group. There were mechanisms by which anonymous appraisal of past efforts could be made. Everything was up for grabs – the lack of decent social media skills among groups, the appalling ways that meetings were held (all info-deficit smugosphere), the lack of media training, the lack of any strategic approach, the willingness of groups to stay stuck in stale repertoires that made them feel good, the inability to conduct meaningful research and investigation into the failures of official climate policy and – above all – the staggering inability to make use of all the new energy and skills that was available the absorptive capacity problem.
[see also 2019: How we blew it again]
From the meeting came a commitment that the activist groups themselves should do what they had forever been demanding governments and corporations do – “Do More. Faster!”
spotted their lacks and they looked around to share their skills and knowledge.
innovated in the format of their meetings, both public and “business,” to makes sure that they were genuinely welcoming to new people and allowed everyone -old and new- to get involved in doing things BETWEEN meetings
focused more on having dialogues with other concerned (and unconcerned) citizens than in stroking the egos of politicians, while still doing the necessary lobbying and pressuring
realised that the traditional success metrics (of bums on seats at meetings or marches) were totally inadequate, and that long-term involvement, even if it was at a relatively “low” level, between meetings and away from meetings (most people would only come occasionally) was the only way forward
The adults ruefully realised that the tendency in February and March, of “stepping aside” for young people to lead the climate revolution had been a symptom of their shame and guilt, and that if they wanted to be actual allies, they had to up their game,and sort out their own activist practices. Waiting for Greta Thunberg and her Manchester equivalents to save us was not going to work.
It wasn’t easy, and there was a steep learning curve around project management, time management and the like – all things that were anathema to the “usual” culture” of activism in most groups. Those who met – who stayed in touch and gradually invited more people to be part of their broader “unofficial” network, were well aware that they were up against ingrained habits by which – in a kind of Gresham’s Law – ineffective (predictable, self-indulgent, co-opted) activism could drive out the good (sustainable, innovative, resilient, inclusive), and that there would be mis-steps.
They made sure that they supported each others’ efforts but were also willing to critique (in private, primarily) efforts that smacked of slipping back into old comfortable and futile ways of behaving.
The activists made sure that when they were invited to attend a mosque, a cricket club, a union meeting that they were well-prepared with stories, analogies and metaphors that “made sense”. They made sure that they went in a a spirit of dialogue rather than “filling a deficit” talking at people and telling them things .
They realised that they needed help – they did call outs for storytellers, artists, facilitators, people skilled in delivering workshops. They tried to find insiders to represent, people involved in the community who understood the particular challenges and had relationships with those they were meeting with.
They realised that Rome was not built in a day, and that organisations would need support and encouragement for the journey. Activists made sure that rather than trying to be at the centre of a web of influence, that groups were connected with each other, knew how to get specific help from other relevant organisations, be they local authorities, central government (everything was totally fine now that Saint Jeremy was in Downing Street) or a charity. If they showed a film, they made sure there was a proper discussion. If they held a panel discussion, they made sure the Q and A was not dominated by the ‘usual suspects’. Simple things, but they made a surprising difference over time.
Some thought this emphasis on building networks of communication and co-ordination were a distraction from the more urgent work of blocking roads and getting media attention. But the activists who wanted the networks to be built were able to convince enough people that mobilisation for the long-haul depended on social movements, and movements in turn depended on wider networks. Those networks meant that when an activist group needed skills, or knowledge, or support, it could draw on far wider resources than just the activist ghetto. There was not just good will, but also a willingness to support the more radical and confrontational actions. [Those with a military bent pointed out that only one tenth of an army is involved in active combat with the enemy. The rest are making sure the frontline troops are fed, watered, clothed, paid.]
But beyond the practical reason were moral and philosophical reasons. Part of the problem of Western society was the creation of aching, gnawing loneliness (and its cousins, despair and hopelessness), the holes that people try to plug with high-carbon consumerism (disposable clothes, cheap holidays in someone else’s misery). And beyond that, the problem of distrust and disconnect, of hollowed out democracy. Unless activists tried to combat that, to “prefigure” a different world through creating webs of support, affection and trust, then nobody else would, and the so-called “zero carbon” future would be just as depressing as the current high-carbon abomination.
The decision to even hold a People’s Green Summit had been fiercely debated. Some warned that it was just another part of the “emotacycle”, where a big orgasmic event is promised, with feeder events beforehand.. Others saw the danger of that, and proposed that there would be a programme of events and actions planned for AFTER the PGS too, and that the feeder events would not just about the PGS. This view prevailed, and everyone had worked hard to make all of this a reality. The feeder events had not, thankfully, all been in the city centre and South Manchester. All ten boroughs had had events, and different formats had been deployed. Similarly, real efforts had been made to engage with – and learn from – the “unusual suspects” – refugee communities, BME, LGBTQI and other groups beyond the usual bubble of white, tertiary-educated middle-class people.
Efforts were made to make sure the day was planned with consideration to all the groups now involved in the movement. The venue was accessible, there was childcare, it wasn’t held in a place which sells alcohol nor on a religious holiday. There were NO talks, instead there were activities which were designed to get people interacting with others they didn’t know, scribbling ideas on joint challenges – groups then brought together to flesh these out.
It helped that a bunch of academics, disgusted with the emptiness of the leaders’ rhetoric had gone beyond merely saying they supported Youth Climate strikes, but actually thrown their brain power and institutional power into the service of civil society organisations. Sure, there had been tensions, but nothing unmanageable
[ see also this short story about an activist and academic handcuffed to each other, fleeing a public order situation – The Defiant Ones ]
Not all plain sailing
It wasn’t all plain sailing of course. The Council and GMCA, after a period of ignoring the activists, made a concerted effort to co-opt the rhetoric and some of the activists, before giving up. The exposure in September of the undercover cop in one prominent organisation – after an exhaustive and secret investigation lasting several months – was relatively well-handled. A few people were left emotionally bruised, betrayed by someone they had thought was a friend – but no lasting harm was done. That was in part because there was now a strong awareness that the “management” of emotions in social movement organisations was a crucial and skilled task, that all could and should contribute to, especially when facing such an overwhelming and overwhelmingly terrifying prospect as abrupt climate change.
Victories were small, but they did exist.
- There was a network of play streets and chemical free allotments,
- The campaign for better buses had won some serious victories, and decent and cheap public transport was – slowly- becoming a reality.
- Under enormous political pressure Manchester City Council had been forced to sell some shares in the airport to invest in local energy company,
- They also agreed to change their procurement process giving a boost to green businesses across Greater Manchester.
- The chief executive finally did her carbon literacy training, and the Executive Member for the Environment even gave a speech one time about climate change- albeit at one of the climate strikes which she had tried to prevent. Small victories.
Real hope had been and still was a problem – there was a constant battle to find straws of hope, reasons to be cheerful in the midst of unfolding chaos. While ‘hope’ as such was still scarce, while it felt scary, there was an energy and a feeling of connection, of community and of working together which carried people through. People read Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope and discussed how they could make it real in their lives. Meanwhile, those who didn’t need hope to keep going – or felt that as per climate scientist Kate Marvel that we need courage not hope – learnt to shut up, so long as the hope-efforts were not distracting from the overall goal of building networks (nay, movements) of people who were taking action in their daily lives and effectively demanding action from politicians and other so-called leaders.
Cameron turned to Alex, as they finalised the preparations for the post-People’s Green Summit action plan. “Yeah, I didn’t use to think we could do this. But this last year… we just gotta keep bringing in new people, new ideas, new energy. We can turn this around.”