By Aidan Ring - 10 February 2019
2018… what a year!
Personally, it was my first full year as an activist and it flew past! It has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. However, those Tuesday night YFoE meetings have, for me anyway, served as a beautiful constant and a reminder that there are people who do care and, if you actively oppose mindless consumerism and corporate greed, you can play on the same team as those people. I’ve had the chance to reflect on all that has happened in 2018 (which is quite impressive) and what I, personally, have learned from it. Hopefully, it makes for relatively happy reading. As a dear colleague Aideen was heard to remark at a recent event ‘It is going to be a great 2019’.
So here is a little of what I’ve learned, with ample anecdotal, and some scientific, evidence provided. This is not an exhaustive list and its contents are not specific to YFoE. Many of the examples are inspired by the efforts of different groups or external collaborations (due credit is given of course). However, these are all things which I have been exposed to as a result of being a member of YFoE and of the environmental movement in general and so I feel entirely justified in writing this. Here goes:
What I learned through YFoE this year:
- Change will not come from the top down but from the bottom up
This is the assumption on which grassroots movement is based. Ireland’s reputation as a ‘climate laggard’ in Europe did not emerge from nothing! Now, on a global scale, we are currently an entire species of climate laggards, but it’s particularly bad here; our government has consistently proven itself to be incapable or unwilling to face the problem of Climate Change head-on. It is clear from the tardy publication and wholly inadequate content of our National Mitigation Plan to the fact that the 2019 budget is devoid of meaningful Carbon taxation.
Now, this is not the case for everyone in positions of power and the Irish sustainability movement has encountered great support from many public representatives (e.g. TD Bríd Smith, TD Eamonn Ryan and Lord Mayor Nial Ring to name but a few). In fact, very few decision-makers are daft enough to deny Climate Change or the need to act upon it at this stage. But acknowledging the problem without making any attempts to solve it is arguably worse than ignorance. I, myself, have been told in the past in a personal conversation with then TD, now Minister for Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton that our 2020 Climate Targets will be ‘very difficult’ to achieve… and he left it at that. This is what we are dealing with. The solutions we need will only become important to politicians if enough people tell them so. That’s us.
Flyer from our Chew On This campaign
- But we do have that power!
That’s right, we, as concerned citizens, are literally the only thing that stands in the way of the powers that be selling our planet’s future to corporations for thirty pieces of silver… and we, by which I mean YFoE and every other environmental activist group, have already achieved A LOT towards this end. These achievements range from the local and intimate (e.g. YFoE, playing an integral part in preventing the unlawful closure of Bridgefoot St Community Garden) to the national and all- encompassing (e.g. a fruitful collaboration of diverse groups ensuring the passage of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill in the Dáil). The range of different types of achievements illustrates, for me, that good things are done every day and there is literally no limit to the amount of forms these good things can take. This is in spite of overwhelming reasons to be pessimistic. To quote Audubon Rutledge from ‘Saving the Sage Grouse’ in the November 2018 Issue of NGM – ‘Everyone says you can’t change this… But I don’t think it’s any excuse not to try.’ We are trying.
- Give special attention to your online presence.
Social Media may well be one of our greatest allies in this cause. It is not just because this is a movement which is more oriented towards the youth but because our power, in the modern age, to reach a vast network of people with a timely message and fast, has never been greater! We are in an unprecedented age of connectedness (this has its pros and cons) and so a well-considered communication strategy can be invaluable to your organisation. If you wish to grow, you do have to engage in marketing; to attract more members, to organise and popularise events and to generate interest in campaigns. For instance, at YFoE, we have a dedicated New Member’s Meetings every few weeks... and we push it hard! (next New Member’s Meeting is February 26th). For events, we try to have a dedicated communications coordinator to promote, and then capture, the event; high attendance facilitates expansion and there’s also something TOTALLY RADICAL about using the tools of advertising, developed by Capitalists to promote pathological consumerism, to support a movement which opposes it… radically.
- Seize the moment and capitalise on momentum
Following on from online marketing is the need to seize the moment! This is a key tactic. The most powerful images of ecological catastrophe are not staged but are taken opportunistically. Cause-based legislation gets passed due to temporarily heightened waves of public concern about those causes. Politicians respond most strongly to the most pressing issues of the day because they are human beings (for the most part!). How do they know which are the most pressing issues? Because the people tell them!
Human beings are psychologically geared towards short-term self-interest over long-term group benefit. We think moment to moment. This is particularly true in the modern age of technologies serving our instantaneous reward systems (social media, video games, slot machines etc.) Now, while this is not the type of thinking needed to tackle the slow advance of Climate Change, we can use it to our advantage to build awareness and to exert pressure on politicians. For example, on the back of the most recent and most stark report by the IGPCC Report which states that we have a mere 12 years to avoid all-out disaster, a small coalition (the Dublin Eco-Feminist Coven, Friends of the Earth et al.) swiftly organised a protest outside the Dáil within 3 days which gathered over 300 people, generated a wealth of photos and passionate rhetoric and, as it was on a Tuesday, was followed later in the evening by one of the best-attended YFoE meetings I’ve ever been at. So, while our modern smartphone obsession comes with its own host of problems, if you see an opportunity for a great photo, you take it!
- It’s a movement so reach out, collaborate and network…
Networking with other groups holds unimaginable potential; you will, literally, not be able to imagine the connections that can be made. You’ll find that an individual or a group, from bankers to ballerinas, who you never thought would be interested in sustainability are very much interested and willing to help! At YFoE, we’ve collaborated with festivals, music promoters, restaurants, fire performers and venues (the most notable venue was The Mansion House for our most recent Networking Event!). The point is that the projects with the greatest scope are collaborative and this approach works for many reasons. A ‘multi-disciplinary team’, so to speak, tends to have a more complete picture and find it easier to innovate; the larger your network, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find the resources you’re looking for (information, equipment, venue etc.)… and, of course, the more opportunities are liable to come your way which brings more moments to capitalise on.
YFoE Eco-Networking Event
- … And then maintain that network!
Just keep on top of things! Low membership retention rates can become a major issue if allowed to be. Once people are in, keep them in by giving them tasks to do straight away if they want. Keep your members updated with a consistent stream of on brand messages and valuable content going out into the network. For example, if you have a website, this is something which you have to update with regularity (I shame myself saying this but I’m going to be better, I promise!). So why not assign a new member to the task? Get creative as well with videos, performances, food puns… the possibilities are endless! There are also endless resources available online to help you build your online presence, using social media or otherwise.
- It is tiring and challenging work…
Climate Change is dense, it is complex and it is one of the best examples in political and social science of a ‘super-wicked problem’ i.e. one which is very difficult or impossible to solve due to incomplete, conflicting or unpredictable internal factors.
It is not easy. You will fail sometimes... But remember that each failure brings you closer to success in your goals… which means that every individual failure is, in fact, a miniature success. My advice would be to try never to lose sight of the bigger picture and what great work you’re actually doing! Surround yourself with evidence of previous successes, balance your reading of bad news articles with hopeful ones but, if things are really getting you down…
- …Everybody needs a break from saving the world sometimes
SELF-CARE!!! I cannot stress this enough (no pun intended). There is a tongue-in-cheek adage which says that ‘the work of the environmental activist is never done’. While it is true that we are a long way off being the stewards of the planet we need to be, raising our behavioural standards is, usually, a gradual process and sometimes the task can seem insurmountable. At such times, take a break! We need to be careful not to burn ourselves out; a burnt out activist will not help any cause. Happily, the need for self-care and stamina in activism is gathering greater recognition all the time.
At YFoE, we take a few days out each year at our Network Gatherings. We also do nature hikes and self-care workshops. Whatever your issue is, be not afraid to ask for help, make sure that you do not spread yourself too thinly and never apologise for respecting your physical and psychological limits. Most importantly, be assured that you are not alone. The Active Hope Network offers wonderful workshops on the topic.
Gyreum Eco-Lodge; everyone needs a break!
- Go have conversations about Climate Change!
As a colleague, Clodagh Schofield, pointed out in her recent article on the Repeal the 8th Referendum, conversations about an issue with people you know can be very influential indeed.
As she points out, a powerful factor for many of those swayed to vote repeal during the campaign season was a conversation with someone they knew. As we know from YFoE Roadshows, there are a lot of perspectives out there worth hearing and a lot of people who do want to know more! If there is one skill that should be made vital in activist school (LOL) it would be the art of casually bringing Climate Change up in conversation like any other topic. And why not start practising on your fellow activists? From the sheer diversity of activists I have encountered, I feel confident in saying that the person next to you has an opinion, a perspective or a fact which you don’t know and which you can use.. and share!
- But do NOT preach!
‘It is the task of environmental activists to figure out how to tell people what they’re not asking to hear’ (Stanley, 2016).
Recall that Climate Change is a scary proposition for pretty much anyone who takes the time to properly think about. Most of the human beings them are just doing their best to survive in this extremely complex and rapidly changing world. Telling people that they are not good enough because they don’t own a keep cup, or that their children are going to experience biblical flooding because they drive a petrol car, is not helpful! Recently, I had the experience of being harshly rebuked in a revelatory chat, at an event I had organised, by two other activists I did not know, because I was not vegan! As it transpired, they were not interested in engaging with me (someone they could easily have collaborated with on food sustainability actions if their approach were smarter) but rather confrontation. But this is the kind of carry on which leads some potential allies to the incorrect conclusion that all activists are pompous, condescending and insufferable. It’s no good for us. I beseech you all to be mindful of other positions and consider people’s backgrounds when talking to them. Books such as Getting to Yes (2014) are a good introduction for this approach.
- There are A LOT of members of our generation who want a future…
Would you believe that there are many Generation Xers and Millennials who are, in fact, not in favour of environmental catastrophe and the poisoning of their planet? The vast majority of the public, when surveyed, are actually in favour of measures to reduce global warming. We’re talking about much higher levels of support than any other issue really; very few people could or would argue against keeping our planet habitable for future generations. Just think of it. The habitability of our planet is at stake. But even so, most people do not feel compelled or empowered to act upon this. A miniscule body of decision-makers are currently almost single-handedly responsible for all of the shady and damaging policies and decisions made in the interests of corporate bodies who covet immediate prophet, not long-term environmental sustainability. These decisions may yet rob our generation of any kind of a future.
So we need to harness the power of the 99% to rob it back! As Friends of the Earth Director Kate Ruddock remarked during a speech at the Environment Ireland Conference 2018 ‘I have never known a community that says ‘Let’s go build a coal mine!’’. Do not EVER listen to reasoning which downplays the importance of the very air you breathe, do not be fooled by complex rhetoric and empty assurances of progress by the same bodies which are pillaging the Earth, only believe in progress and solutions when you see it and know it with your own senses.
- … and so the Irish Government, as well as governments in general, need to cop on!
Just going to leave that one there, it’s self-explanatory and it needs to be said. Sadly, we can’t learn that lesson for them… this is why so many governments globally are getting taken to court for egregious climate inaction, including our own. Fine Gael have kindly reminded us of this by greenwashing their website a few days after being taken to court. Sadly, that won’t cut it lads!
- Everybody has something valuable to bring to the movement
This is the very essence of public participation! I have been consistently dismayed by how little funding there is available to environmental protection organisations… and equally astonished at just how much extremely valuable work they get done anyway! Indeed, it almost seems that funding is inversely proportional to creativity and the nexus of creativity and activism has world-changing potential!
The types of lateral thinking needed comes from everyone within a project just getting stuck in. YFoE’s 2018 campaign on Food Sovereignty ‘Chew On This’ tapped into this again and again. And my goodness, it is a glorious thing to watch when a bunch of passionate people come together, very few of whom have any experience of a particular project, and they just figure out how to do it. People just use whatever skills they have, they offer their opinions, informed or not, they reach out to other parties in good faith… and stuff just happens. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful and there’s just nothing quite like it for enriching the blood.
- So roll up your sleeves! The time is now
Climate Change is a global issue which literally effects everyone… so we need everyone on board. Climate scientists talk a lot about ecological tipping points, so why don’t we create a social tipping point of our own… by reaching a critical mass of people within the Irish environmental movement for a social avalanche to occur. This is nearer than you might think. According to Rogers classic model of the diffusion of innovation (Rogers, 1962/2010) every movement needs innovators (this cause attracts many). Then it requires early adopters and opinion leaders to facilitate social diffusion and contagion (as already mentioned, environmental sustainability is a universally popular cause). Then, once the mainstream majority see how it works, they feel comfortable joining in… and you get your social avalanche. That’s where we need to be. We have a lot to do and twelve years to do it in but, once we reach this tipping point, what needs to be done can become ‘the done thing’. We just need it done in time.
There is a Chinese proverb which states that ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’ That time has to be right now.
The time is now.
Fisher, R., Patton, B. & Ury, W (2014). Getting to yes. New York: Penguin Books.
Rogers, E. M. (1962/2010). Diffusion of innovations. (4th Ed.) New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Stanley, V. (2016). The Business of Changing the World. In: N. Gallagher, ed., Tools for Grassroots Activists, 1st Ed. Patagonia, p.6.
Aidan has been involved in YFoE since the Summer of 2017 and has represented YFoEI both at a local and an international level. His passion lies in environmental psychology and he uses his knowledge of this relatively new discipline to find unique ways to frame and spread our message. He is a lover of nature and you will probably find his material reflects this!