24 January 2013

Rebuilding optimism of will for effective climate activism

Many climate activists have experienced depression, exhaustion, and alienation as the time-frame for acting to avoid climate disruption shrinks. So whilst pessimism of the intellect is growing sharper, how do we “right the balance” and grow optimism of the will?

By Trent Hawkins

Che Guevara said that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love”. But not just any love, the love of humanity that transcends the day to day love of individuals (our family for example)  In a way its a shame that the actual content of this paragraph from Che has been bastardised to be about some nebulous love that drives revolutionaries. Instead what Che was talking about was a very real dilemma. How to keep ourselves motivated, heading towards the goal, when we have so little time for our real “loved ones”, so little time for ourselves, and to develop our personal lives.
      This is a serious issue that is often unconsidered by the left. But more over today those of us who have invested years to the cause of stopping climate change are at risk of demoralisation, depression, exhaustion, and alienation. For me this has been a confronting reality as I have struggled with depression for the better part of 2012 and have undertaken to see a psychologist. I suspect there are others out there in a similar state of mind.There is an idea that well sums up the reality of our task as climate activists “combining pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will”. Unfortunately getting the balance right is no easy task, nor will that balance be achieved accidentally. 
      My view is that scientists are now saying we have "blown the budget" and we are certain to overshoot the 2 degree C "threshold". David Spratt has been writing some good pieces about this lately and the fact that even if we could adhere to a budget it is increasingly necessary that emissions "fall off a cliff". These two pieces are highly recommended:  Arctic warning: As the system changes, we must adjust our science and A sober assessment of our situation.
     Given that the climate movement has focussed on setting targets/deadlines/time-frames, seeing an ever shrinking time-frame for acting to avoid climate disruption is very depressing indeed. Moreover many of us look at the size of the task and further despair at how far we have to go to win the support necessary for change.
     So we are faced with an unanswerable riddle. How to steer the boat away from the iceberg, when the captain and crew are convinced there is no iceberg, and the passengers are too busy enjoying themselves. How does a small group, aware of the problem, organise a mutiny in time?
     So whilst pessimism of the intellect is growing sharper, how do we “right the balance” and grow optimism of the will?
     It is my view that the only real time-frame of concern to us is the time-frame necessary to build a movement large enough to win the political power necessary to enact change. In my view it takes nothing less than ten years to build such a movement, after reaching the point of achieving a unified leadership. Sadly we are too disunited and have too many bases for disagreement that a united leadership is some way off. Panicking about impending doom doesn't help us much with the organised patient work of building a movement.
     So where do we begin?
     It is the imperative of the climate movement leadership to rebuild optimism in the face of our challenge and there needs to be concrete demonstrable actions undertaken to illustrate to all the activists in the climate movement reasons to be optimistic.
     The first demonstrable action should be a commitment to greater unity amongst the climate movement and the marking out of points of agreement.
     My observation is that the climate movement is presently dominated by a number of different NGOs each trying to compete for funding, members, and political space, ultimately acting in their own self interest. This obviously has an impact on trying to develop unity.
     The socialist movement has a good slogan “strike together, march separately”. Different groups and organisation have different strategies for social change and thus we can accept that we will “march separately”, but wherever there is a basis for unity on a specific issue we can “strike together”.
     What I mean by this is that there are two levels of unity. Unity at a strategic level and unity at a tactical level. On both levels however it is essential that unity is marked out on clearly defined basis. We need genuine unity, not amorphous getting together and papering over the differences. This is what is happening with the merger between a number of Socialist organisations in Australia. When I quizzed Colleen Bolger from Socialist Alternative on what they where actually proposing as concrete points of unity, that is. what they actually agreed upon, she said “well we both agree upon being revolutionary”. This kind of amorphous phraseology just won't do; the specifics need to be traced out explicitly.
     There is an elephant in the room here which is the fundamental disagreements between two different camps in the climate movement. Those that see incremental reforms as a precursor to achieving the political will for large scale change on climate policy, and those that see those incremental reforms as a diversion from winning broad political and grassroots support for political change that acts at the scale and timeframe that the climate science indicates is necessary.
     My view is that it ought to be our focus to build a grassroots movement and that all those groups who fall into this camp need to get together to mark out points of strategic agreement in achieving unity at this level.
     But this is not to reject the other side as being completely useless. Instead as I said we can “strike together, march separately”. Where there is a confluence of views on a particular issue why would we let our strategic differences get in the way of working together on an issue we do agree upon? This doesn't stop us from voicing our opinions about the inadequacies of each others strategy. We can certainly voice criticisms and highlight the contradictions when they become apparent, but constant verbal assaults are not useful when they jeopardise working together at particular points in time.
      There are plenty of examples that show how solidarity can work. Look at the Vietnam War. The main demand here was “Bring the Troops Home”. A number of groups could agree on that, even if they had substantial disagreements about the nature of the Vietnamese Communist Party, or the role of the United Nations. The same thing can be said of the “Equal Marriage Rights” campaign. A clear demand that unites people and groups, but sets aside the trickier differences around issues like the nature of marriage under Capitalism.
     The problem is that unity is often couched in ideological terms based on agreement with scientific principles, e.g., what amount of atmospheric CO2e amount is considered a “safe climate”; or whether 2 degrees is an appropriate target to aim for. Unity needs to be based on actual strategic or tactical issues, some examples of these might be: do we need a revolution or not; is it more important to find the best messaging, or do we need to build networks on the ground; is door knocking a useful tactic or not; etc, etc. It would be great to use the Climate Summit as a space to brainstorm some of these.
      I strongly believe the challenge of building unity is a problem of leadership. We need leadership that puts collective interest ahead of self-interest with a long term vision for growing a culture that fosters unity and challenges egotistical, selfish behaviour. The climate leadership needs to guard against individualising forces and the disruptive behaviour of self serving individuals wanting to get their way at the expense of the group.
     Leadership is a space or forum for getting together and working out what to do next. It is not a hierarchical representative body that makes decisions in the interest of others. In that sense the 'leaders' in the climate movement need to consciously cultivate an non-exclusionary environment based on patience; respect; constructive healthy debate; democracy and teamwork. I intend to develop these ideas further in later pieces. 
    Granted I work at BZE which has certainly not been at the forefront of this attitude. Whilst I don't write this with my BZE hat on, I do recognise this has been a weakness of the organisation. I'd like to think the organisation has started to address this and I believe there is a broad view amongst the group that it needs to start seriously rebuilding alliances.
     Now we have all had a large dose of fear and dread around the latest news on climate change I hope we can shift the debate to what needs to be done to build a successful movement. I think we need to put to the backs of our minds the approaching (or potentially lapsed) deadlines, and accept the reality that it is going to take a large amount of time and work in order to build the grassroots social movement capable of winning the political power necessary to stop climate change.
     We need to build genuine unity and develop strong bonds/camaraderie between climate activists as an anti-dote to the grinding down we face under the weight of the challenge. Finally, continuing from his observation about love, Che went on to say:
The revolutionary leaders must have a large dose of humanity, a large dose of a sense of justice and truth to avoid falling into dogmatic extremes, into cold scholasticism, into isolation from the masses. They must struggle every day so that their love of living humanity is transformed into concrete deeds, into acts that will serve as an example, as a mobilizing factor.

Trent Hawkins has been active in the climate movement since 2006, initially in Perth where he helped to organise a number of public demonstrations and events including the 2007 Students of Sustainability Conference. After moving to Melbourne in 2008 he continued his involvement in the climate movement assisting the first human sign protests, participating in the Newcastle and Hazelwood Climate Camps, and the Canberra Climate Summits. Trent was until recently a member of the Socialist Alliance and ran for parliament in the 2007 and 2010 Federal Elections, and the 2010 Victorian State Election. Trent is a mechanical engineer with experience working in renewable energy and volunteered as a researcher for Beyond Zero Emissions on the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plans, specifically on the wind energy and transmission upgrades sections (including producing the Google Earth maps). Trent has been spent much of the past two years working as the Project Director of the Zero Carbon Australia Buildings Plan.


  1. Trent - The fine print of what you write " In my view it takes nothing less than ten years to build such a movement" is both defeatist, profoundly depressing, irrelevant and wrong. The leadership has been steadily developing in the scientific community and has now reached to point of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group ( of scientists ) demanding action this year to restore Summer ice to the Arctic Sea. In this regard they have written their version of what Lenin wrote in 1901 in his "What is to be Done?" , by releasing their Strategic Plan http://www.ameg.me/index.php/2-ameg/45-strategic-plan . There is " a basis for unity on a specific issue (where)we can “strike together”", and absolutely must.

  2. Hi Ricky,

    The fact my statement is defeatist and depressing is my exact point!

    Many of us in Australia despair at the state of the climate movement and fail to see how we can achieve social change when the time to act is rapidly diminishing.

    We need to get over the pessimism of the diminished time-frame for acting and just patiently build the movement!

    In terms of the state of the climate movement - where has been its response to the horrific bushfires and record heatwave in NSW, Tas, and Vic? In fact Julia Gillard is ahead of the movement, by linking them to climate change!

    I would love it if we could build a successful movement quicker than ten years, but i really can't see many examples that show this. Lenin and the Bolsheviks didn't win power for another 16 years after writing "What is to be Done".

  3. "Another" grass roots movement, sorry Trent I really think you need to look at the previous post on David's website from Chris Hedges.
    I think we may have met in Melbourne when I was active with the Climate Change Network, remember the debate on use of the word "emergency" 6 or so years ago?

    Basically that won't wash, as far as 99% (there's that number again) of the people of the world are concerned there is no emergency. You, and I are in the wrong 1% again, and every year there are 200,000 fresh new faces bursting through the immigration gates who can't wait to get there hands on some 1st world prosperity.

    Personally I think you're just going to have to accept that the grass roots movement that Bob Brown created AND which has been extremely effective, is AS GOOD AS IT GETS. I think it's worth putting time into ensuring it doesn't get trashed just like Cameron is trashing everything the U.K. has done.

    It wasn't good enough for me, so I permanently relocated to Spain, you know, the home of Gemasolar, fast trains, 7 tonnes per capita carbon footprints, and guess what, just like Kerry Packer said after his heart attack, "there's nothing there". Oh sorry, in April 2012 Barcelona formed a Permaculture group.

    It's quite easy for the Indignados to get 600,000 people out on the street, but they want jobs, they want a bit of pre 2008, they are hungry and don't really concern themselves with the environment.

    I don't think I'd be getting too excited about Obama either, he's a dud. He's just given the green light to GM corn and soy with 2,4-D as the active ingredient. Have a look at Dow Chemicals website, they even claim it's "sustainable".

    I think any self respecting climate activist has put time into counselling, and yes there are benefits, but the crunch came and went at Copenhagen and will never come back, and if you think that a better "grass roots movement" than already exists in Australia can be formed good luck to you. But first, I would buy a round the world ticket, or take the boat and train like I did, and see what's on offer everywhere else, it ain't a pretty site.

  4. Please may I repeat my plea that all CCR readers read what AMEG says at:

    and then publicly support their call, and salute the fact that these scientists are giving leadership. EMERGENCY is the word to use now as most folk in the World have not heard the climate catastrophe described in those words.

    I don't know the answer to the movement question, however I suggest we must realize that we cannot return to 2008. We should also explain that a more frugal lifestyle can be achieved with dignity if, and only if, we embrace socialist principles.

  5. John Nissen, Chair of AMEG recenly posted this brief message:

    Here's the offending quote from Neven's blog site [1]:

    "Whether there still is time to save the Arctic sea ice is difficult to tell, but as we've seen, serious consequences will flow from the disappearance of the sea ice. It appears that these consequences can only be mitigated by keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and carbon out of the air. Whichever way you look at it, business-as-usual is not a sane option."

    For "serious consequences", we would put "catastrophic life-threatening consequences for all mankind". These consequences (from warming Arctic as sea ice disappears) include:

    1. Eventual disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet, with a sea level rise of about 7 metres almost certainly triggering another 7 metres or so from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet;

    2. Accelerated increase in Arctic methane emissions, enough to kibosh efforts to keep to 2 degrees warming and with the risk of methane feedback cause runaway global warming;

    3. Further disruption of jet stream and other atmospheric circulation structures, leading to an escalation in climate extremes, crop failures, food shortages, food price index rising higher above the crisis level, and rioting, with a risk of mass starvation, global economic collapse and world war.

    It is unlikely that civilisation could survive these consequences, and runaway global warming would take us all out.

    This is why it is vital that we cool the Arctic quickly enough to save the Arctic sea ice. None of these consequences can be mitigated by emissions reduction alone, whether of CO2 or short-lived climate forcing agents like methane or both. However, we agree that reducing the level of climate forcing agents in the atmosphere will help in cooling the Arctic and is necessary for our longer-term future on this planet. Saving the Arctic sea ice is a prerequisite for limiting global warming and climate change to acceptable levels.

    That is the AMEG message to governments and leaders around the world.


    Chair AMEG

    [1] http://neven1.typepad.com/blog/2012/08/wasislac.html

  6. Great article, and timely.

  7. Fascinating post, Trent, thanks. Especially for the honest searching of difficult, painful emotional terrain that appears to have made it possible.

    Strangely enough, I too wrote a piece, almost concurrently, on the very "elephant in the room" that you identify, and the frustration, arguments and depression that it can lead to.

    I'd be interested in any thoughts you have on how my perhaps more introspective take relates to your thoughts on organising..?

    All the best,

  8. Hi Shaun, i'm grateful to see you read and enjoyed my piece - thanks!

    My view on the dichotomy between not having enough time for a revolution vs needing a revolution is that we need to do both (not neither).

    To stop climate change will take a coordinated unified grassroots movement. For this to be effective we need to win political power from those in control today. A situation where the majority of the world is in power, is one where we can transform society entirely.

    People transform themselves through conscious activity, not through ideas, words, thoughts. People acting together on a common project to stop climate change will have an incredible impact on their lives.