Most of those within the UK radical climate movement seem to agree that our movement is in need of re-invention, given the new political context of the cuts and the apparently decreasing presence of climate change as an issue in both the mainstream and radical political agendas. Here, I offer some thoughts on the radical climate movement that I hope could offer an insight into future strategy, ending with a plea for the imagination and creativity of others. As a disclaimer, I don’t want to claim that anything that I have to say here is particularly original or groundbreaking…
As I see it, the thought underlying the radical climate movement is that those with power – certain individuals, governments, global institutions and corporations – are not going to deliver the widespread systemic change that we require in order to avoid runaway climate change. Therefore, what is needed to sort out climate change is direct action – we need to make the changes that are necessary ourselves, instead of attempting to influence those with power to do this for us.
So, the question that we must ask is the following: is our direct action doing what we want it to do – are our direct actions leading us towards the systemic change we want? Suppose that we plan to shut down a coal-fired power station. What, when we plan this, are we aiming at? Firstly, there’s the immediate aim of stopping emissions – by putting our bodies in the way, we can stop several thousands of tons of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. This is a noble aim, but I don’t think it’s all that we’re aiming at. Because, obviously, stopping one power station emitting for a day or even a week means nothing when countless other power stations keep on belching. So, we also hope that by shutting down a power station, we will get a platform to expound our systemic critique. The idea seems to be that the that the act of shutting down a large piece of fossil-fuel infrastructure will allow us to affect changes in peoples’ consciousness about climate change, the fossil-fuel economy, capitalism, the failure of UK democracy and whatever else. The hope is that if we, through shutting down a power station, manage to affect changes in peoples’ consciousness, then our movement for systemic change will grow.
To use another example, what if we plan to shut down BP head-office for a day? What’s our aim here? We should acknowledge that if we successfully destroyed BP tomorrow, all that this would mean is that Shell would expand their share of the market and, probably, a new destructive oil giant would emerge soon. What this means is that the main aim of a direct action that targets a particular corporation – a common tactic for the direct actions of the UK climate movement – is to affect changes in peoples’ consciousness. The hope has to be that via targeting a particularly destructive corporation, we will gain the platform we want to expound our critique of the capitalist system that allows the likes of BP to exist.
So, as far as I can tell, our direct actions are largely aimed at affecting changes in peoples’ consciousness. Now, this seems like the right aim for our movement to adopt right now. Everybody acknowledges that in order to build a truly powerful climate movement with the potential to bring about the system change it wants, we’re going to have to drastically grow. We have to move from the few thousand dedicated, largely middle-class people that we are now, to a mass movement. The question we ought to ask now, then, is whether our direct actions are effective in bringing about the changes in peoples’ consciousness that we want. My worry is that they are not, and that there are more effective ways of fulfilling this aim.
Now, at present, a lot of people are going through consciousness-changing times in the context of the cuts. People are realising politicians lie, the economy is structured to benefit the rich and that the state will physically hurt you if you try and stop this. How is this consciousness-changing happening? People are feeling the cuts in their own lives and they are doing so whilst seeing that corporation tax is being slashed, whilst seeing that the rich don’t have to pay their taxes and whilst seeing that those in the top 100 rich list are a third wealthier than last year. When the majority of people are suffering at the hands of the cuts and corporations and the rich are benefiting, people begin to realise that the economy is rubbish because it’s structured to benefit the rich, not everyone. And then people come to ask how we let this happen, and start to realise that it’s because voting for one party or another every five years doesn’t change this fact about our economy. And then people ask why the cuts are still happening even though so many people realise that they’re just a result of our rubbish economy, and people come to see that under our sham democracy, we don’t really have any power over the forces controlling our own lives.
As the radical climate movement, we argue that the economy is rubbish because it’s structured to benefit the rich, not everyone. We argue that voting for one party and not the other once every 5 years won’t change this fact. And we argue that under our sham democracy, we don’t really have any power over the forces controlling our lives. We then go on to argue that as a result of these broken economic and political systems, we’re been driven towards runaway climate change. Apart from this last step, the systemic critique that we adopt is, in fact, being adopted by many of those who are being radicalised through the anti-cuts movement. I think that, given this, two things follow for our strategy.
Firstly, there’s a point about strategy pertaining to the anti-cuts movement. We have to devote energy to seeing that the anti-cuts movement develops a strong systemic analysis so that the movement keeps on radicalising people (this seems to be part of the thinking behind Network X). Secondly, we need to raise consciousness within the anti-cuts movement of the fact that the same economic and political forces behind the cuts are also causing climate change and what this means for future generation s and those in the global south.
Secondly, we should draw a general lesson from the anti-cuts movement about how to broaden the climate movement in general. Whilst the cuts are close to home, climate change is not. This is why the anti-cuts movement has grown so quickly and why the climate movement has not. My suggestion is that in order to affect the changes in consciousness we want in the climate movement, we would do better to focus on communicating the effects that our broken economic and political systems have on the lives of the majority of people in the UK, as opposed to their effects on the global climate.
We’ve noted that our strategy has, thus far, largely been based on the following formula: 1) Do direct action targeting either a physical manifestation of the fossil fuel economy (banks, carbon traders, ‘the city’), a piece of fossil-fuel-producing infrastructure or a fossil fuel-producing corporation. 2) Communicate our politics by linking the specific target to the broken economic or political system in an attempt to affect changes in peoples’ consciousness towards the need for system change in order to stop climate change. My worry is that this formula misses out the most important step, which is to relate the broken economic and political system that we talk about to things that affect the lives of people living in the UK.
Communication should begin at this step, in order to make climate change closer to home. We ought, firstly, to talk to people about how our current economic and political systems cause the cuts; widespread inequality; disempowering, unfulfilling and underpaid labour; the power of corporations to crush local democracy, for instance, through community-devastating open-cast mining projects; fuel poverty; the breaking of electoral pledges; corruption and untransparancy; police brutality; the gender pay-gap… clearly, we could go on as long as we wanted. By first-off talking about these problems and how they are a result of our current economic and political systems, we stand a good chance of affecting the changes in consciousness that we need towards these systems. Only having done this ought we to go on to talk about how from the same root causes, the climate crisis has emerged, and what this means for future generations and people in the global South.
So, we ought to communicating our politics in a different way. But how should we go about doing the communicating? My point is not that we should keep our same strategy of direct actions against specific fossil-fuel related targets whilst developing a different dialogue around these actions. Nor do I want to suggest that direct actions of this sort are useless. When the climate movement was still fresh, these actions successfully changed the whole discourse around climate change – mass displays of public unrest issued behind the banner of system change not climate change gave the debate around climate change a sense of urgency and, crucially, ensured that the debates moved from the scientific domain to the political. These actions make us more visible and exciting. They offer a chance for those within the radical climate movement to vent their anger, foster a strong community based around a shared sense of resistance and purpose, and give us a taste of the empowering, participatory and sustainable future we want to see. Actions of this sort stop emissions. All this is wonderful.
However, my view is that if we want to have the capacity to take direct action on the scale that poses a real threat to the existing economic and political order – if we want a movement with the numbers we need to literally grind the fossil-fuel economy to a halt – then our focus should be growing the movement. And this means that our communication should not be something that we do simply in the press releases that accompany spectacular direct actions. Instead, we need to devote much of our time to communication itself. Here are a few initial suggestions of my own, not particularly well thought through, on what this might actually look like:
1) We are already good at utilising many means of communication – social networking sites, our websites, blogs, leaflets, pamphlets, film and so-on. Let’s keep using these avenues, let’s get better at using them and, more importantly, let’s re-think our communication along the lines I’ve suggested, beginning dialogue not with climate change, but with problems that relate to the lives of people within the UK.
2) As is argued by Michael Albert, if we want to engage new people, then we need to lose our fear of talking to them. This means entering into the spaces that people spend their time and entering into discussions on a person-to-person basis. We need, then, to be in workplaces; pubs; highstreets; supermarkets; and we also need to be on peoples’ doorsteps.
3) Where communities are engaged in local struggles, we stand alongside them in solidarity and we share our relevant skills. We’ve already proven that we can do this, for instance at Vestas, at Sipson and in opposition to open-cast mining in Scotland. But we shouldn’t limit our efforts to those struggles that have obvious links to the climate. We need to be at anti-cuts mobilisations, including student occupations; public assemblies; union-organised marches; mass demos and whatever else. We can share our knowledge about dealing with police brutality and legal rights with minority communities that suffer the worst of police violence. We can stand alongside striking workers. We can form migrant solidarity groups to help migrants fight detention and deportation. Clearly, the list goes on… What this doesn’t mean is turning up at other peoples’ struggles and hijacking them to make them about the climate. What it does mean is adding our numbers to these struggles and sharing the knowledge and skills that we’ve developed. And, when it’s appropriate, it means engaging in the dialogue that we’ve talked about, making the links between UK struggles and the struggle around the climate. And it means having active and inclusive climate-action networks set up to point those who are interested towards.
4) We can start looking at alternative modes of direct action that focus on building DIY alternatives to the problems that people in the UK face. This might mean providing cheap community meals. It might mean forming workers’ cooperatives to create sustainable and empowering jobs with a view to helping people in their day to day lives i.e. insulating homes, providing cheap small-scale renewable energy, growing local food. It might mean running free bike repair workshops. It might mean creating new public spaces for people to come to re-form the communities that have slowly been eroded. It might mean creating free shops and free-cycle networks. Through providing these solutions, we can make the links with people and have the discussions that we want to have, whilst actually doing something that’s immediately useful.
5) We could, alongside unions, anti-cuts groups, existing activist networks, student groups and so-on, look towards building grassroots community action groups in towns and cities across the UK. These groups could provide a platform for people to get together to discuss local problems and possible courses of action against these problems. Our role in these groups could be to encourage the development of a systemic analysis of these problems and, again, to share the knowledge and skills that we have learnt over the years. Obviously, our aim would not then be to go on and hijack these groups to form climate-action groups. Rather, should such groups evolve and develop a systemic analysis, my suggestion has been that making the links to the climate should come naturally, which would allow existing climate-action networks to grow alongside these new community action groups.
I think that the model of communication that aims to bring climate change closer to home is a good way forward, but I’m not certain of what the best way of implementing this model looks like. We’re going to have to think way beyond the few suggestions I’ve made above if we want to get anywhere, but perhaps these ideas (that are in no way original) offer an insight into the kind of approach we ought to be considering. I am sure that there are far more imaginative and creative people within our movement who will be able to come up with new communication-based projects that, in fact, are just as spectacular as our direct actions have been in the past. Let’s hear about them please…