Disclaimer: What follows are the personal views of Marc Hudson. They should not be taken as representing the view of Climate Emergency Manchester collectively or any of its other core group members.
I went to the Manchester climate “strike” today. There were maybe 140 people present (excluding cops and Metrolink people nervous ever since a blockage way back in 2019). These numbers are a distinct decrease on previous strikes, and I will be honest, the event was every bit as depressing and dispiriting as I thought it would be (for reasons explained below). Here we are, weeks from a well-publicised COP, with the planet on fire and… the Manchester climate “movement” (such a beast does not in fact exist) can muster 140 people. The signs are not good, are they?
So, here’s 11 more theses about where we are, what might still be done. Any comments (above and beyond “you’re a knob and I don’t like you”) would be welcome.
Thesis One: We have been here before, though who knows if we will be here again
For those of us with grey hair and memories, it’s déjà vu all over again. People gathering in St Peter’s Square to protest government inaction on climate change. Placards, speeches. There have been several big waves of public agitation about environmental matters (1970-1972, 1988-1992, 2006-2009). There has been another wave, from 2018 to well, now, but we seem to be near the tail end. History doesn’t repeat though (she rhymes). The climate issue won’t disappear the way it did in 2010, for various reasons.
If we do not know this history, and think about what it might mean, then we are very likely to repeat it.
Thesis Two: COVID is an excuse, and not a very good one
When I spoke to people today about the smallness of the demo, they kept bringing up COVID. But look, there are ALWAYS competing issues/barriers to climate activism. That’s the nature of the beast. What have groups actually done to use the time to build capacity, to build networks, to learn new skills, to embed new folks? The group I am part of, Climate Emergency Manchester, has shown that it IS possible to get stuff done (we forced Manchester City Council to rename one of its scrutiny committees, we produced student guides to climate, we did other stuff. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. But we showed that it was possible, during COVID, to build capacity.)
I am not trying to ignore the enormous financial and emotional stresses COVID has caused. But they are pretty mild compared to what we all know is coming (soon). If we can’t cope with COVID, what makes us think we can cope with the more hellacious disruptions to come?
Thesis Three: When we demonstrate badly, we demonstrate … our weakness
The “strike” (actually a rally) today had about 140 people on it (I counted, a couple of times). That’s far FAR smaller than previous such strike/rallies. What does that demonstrate to others, to us?
To politicians, it demonstrates our weakness, the fragility of public agitation.
To each other it demonstrates that many people who were involved, at whatever level, two years ago, are no longer bothering to show up. It demonstrates our weakness
To new folks, it demonstrates that the “movement” is tiny.
To the police and security services we demonstrate that they are going to need better pretexts than us for their next bid for a bigger budget and permission to do more spycops style infiltration
Thesis Four: We should not give bad faith glib politicians free publicity, even if it seems to suit our short-term needs
I just don’t think we should give politicians free platforms to look like they are doing something/listening, on the frankly cynical view that the politician’s presence will mean additional media coverage. It is an own goal for an organisation, if not necessarily an own goal for some individuals.
Thesis Five: If we don’t innovate, we will get the same returns, only they will be diminishing returns
To return to the numbers. OF COURSE people stop coming after a while. They come to one of these things, hear some bad speeches through an inadequate sound system. What they do hear is stuff they already know, don’t understand or can’t use. They mill around and/or go for a jaunt around the city. After the third time of this, what normal person would fall out of bed for another one? So, the numbers of new people coming in do not make up for the loss of others, and numbers shrink, demonstrating weakness (see above)
Thesis Six: Our feelings are not an end in themselves
Several people tried to justify the existence/importance of the event on the basis that it “creates community” or “makes people feel less alone.”
Let’s take those in turn. Even if you were to accept the first proposition, it’s a very weak and fragile kinda community. Many people come to these events and leave without having spoken meaningfully to anyone they didn’t already know. And the community shrinks over time.
On the “less alone” front. Sure, morale matters. But if the only/main way the “movement” has developed to make people feel less alone is a monthly/quarterly milling around, then the “movement” is a) weak b) doomed.
And our feelings only matter if they make it possible for us to do MORE and to do it BETTER. When we prioritise our feelings over trying to achieve real goals, we are simply wallowing in our own privilege.
Thesis Seven: Even getting people to admit that innovation is possible is difficult – you will get strawmanned
Every time I tried to point out that rallies aren’t working, haven’t worked, I was met with “but we have to do something” – as if I was advocating doing nothing. It’s exhausting, and I no longer have ANY patience (or compassion?) for this whatsoever. I bluntly pointed out to someone that they were setting up a strawman rather than engage. To their credit, they saw the point.
We constantly demand that politicians, governments, bureaucracies and corporations change radically, but as soon as someone suggests that the activists need to change some of their comforting rituals, the tawdry defence mechanisms are deployed…
Thesis Eight: Innovation is possible, but painful and may well fail
On a banal level, if you have people for an hour, rather than have all of them listen to a consecutive series of frankly inaudible and/or indifferent speeches, you are basically turning everyone into ego-fodder for the benefit of the speakers.
Instead you could say “it’s really important that we create cross-fertilization, cross-connections. So for the next ten minutes, go stand next to the sign that is closest to where you’ve come from (and have signs for the ten boroughs of GM) and introduce yourselves to folks you don’t know. Then we will have a speech or two. Then we will redivide into issues you care about – aviation, wildlife, education, food, transport, whatever.
Will this work? Not the first time, probably. A whole bunch of people (mostly the old) will resent that the comforting/zero-effort-in-exchange-for-good-person-for-having-turned-up tokens are being withheld. But over time, you could – if you were willing not to allow your mates to turn everyone into ego-fodder – change the expectations of rallies and they would become useful ways for a thicker and thicker set of interconnections and sense of genuine community and not-aloneness to come into existence.
Won’t happen though.
Thesis Nine: Change of personnel means there is the potential for institutional change, but only the potential
On Manchester City Council – something I alluded to in my “good news/bad news” speech. We get a new leader, after 25 years. There is at least the POTENTIAL for change, with a new personality imposing their will, to some extent. For various reasons I am intensely sceptical that the potential is very great. BUT there will be zero change if we wait for it to be lead by the new leader. Only if individuals and groups act strategically, with determination, flair and persistence will even the smallest thing change, for even the smallest amount of time. It’s not impossible, but given the current strength of the “movement” it’s damned unlikely.
Thesis Ten: There is a post-Glasgow shitstorm coming
According to one particularly ludicrous millenarian poster I’ve seen, after COP26 “Injustice is over.” There are still people who seem to think there will be a magic resolution/revolution. It just isn’t going to happen. COP26 will be some shade of shit-coloured shitshow. Afterwards, people will feel deflated, and embarrassed that they even had any hopes. Many, looking at the shrinking demonstrations (did I mention that already) and the non-functional or massively dysfunctional groups, will give up. That will have knock on effects. This will be happening at a time when the material costs of Brexit (and other events) are becoming ever more real. Fuel poverty, evictions, food shortages, “etc”.
Thesis Eleven: The point is to change it, to be better in the game.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Or rather, it didn’t. The mess we are in, as a “movement” is down to a series of choices – what we chose to focus on, what we chose to ignore. What we chose not to do. Yes, it’s tough, yes COVID, yes other horrors.
Our current trajectory is dreadful. The likelihood is that we as a “movement” will fail, and that even if we succeeded, it would look like several shades of failure. But if we don’t innovate, if we persist with these soothing rituals, then we are certainly screwed, as are the generations of humans and other animals to come. No pressure, then…