[The author is currently part of The Summer of Solutions, but views are personal]
Over the past few days, we have seen a lot of contention on Its Getting Hot in Here over the critiques posed by the Breakthrough Generation fellows. On the one hand, recent posts call for open and collaborative discourse so we can more carefully evaluate our strategies and tactics, sentiments with which I generally agree. Conversely, responding comments took offense to the frequent posting of Breakthrough fellows, the perceived attack on certain tactics like “Direct Action”, and the privilege of a group whose alleged central organizing strategy is to think, talk and message (check the comments on the above linked posts to review these critiques). I have close friends on both sides of the argument, and I agree with much of the Breakthrough philosophy as much as I feel that many of its recent tactics are not in alignment with their frame. Far from seeking objectivity, I’m simply pointing out that as we start operating under an interest group mentality we lose the ability to appreciate the truth in the other person’s voice, obscuring participants’ internal conflict – as powerfully expressed by a recent Breakthrough Generation post. A friend here in Minnesota introduced me to a new term yesterday after we read all of the critical back-and-forth: “flame war” – something that happens on blogs and other internet sites when everybody’s well-reasoned arguments turn into fiery antagonism.
Friends – and the pun is intended: its time for a break through.
A couple months ago, another close friend in the movement highlighted the need for a “winning strategy” that would allow us to redefine our message, our understanding of power, and our relationships with others, giving us tools to evaluate many different strategies and tactics in different situations to continuously build towards a larger goal. We may have real differences of opinion over our conception of power, our image of victory, and our vision of the path forward, but that only emphasizes the need for trying to figure out a winning strategy. I think Breakthrough has been trying to open that dialogue, but given the flame war over the past few days, I think we can all work on aligning our values and honing our methods to work more constructively with each other. There is something in this dialogue that suggests one of the principles of a winning strategy – a chance for growth and change. There’s some opportunity here!
I’m currently spending the summer working with a bunch of rocking activists in the Twin Cities to try to figure out how we build models for organizing that will help everyday people take charge of the solutions to the climate and energy crisis. Like many of you, the Summer of Solutions is trying to invent ways to approach sustainable community development that build people power and challenge the power of a fossil-fuel-based political, economic, cultural and physical infrastructure in ways that transcend just telling others what we want them to do – whether the way of telling is polite lobbying or creative protest – to actually take charge of creating the solutions that will engage ordinary citizens, politicians, and economic forces alike in the process of visionary and transformative change. I find myself at a very curious juncture in this ongoing IGHIH debate. The heart of many of the strategies we’re employing here in Minnesota is the same frame of opportunity, positive change, and innovation that Breakthrough promotes – though I think we put more stress on innovation as cultural, economic, and political as well as technological.
Further, I’m not at all disturbed that Breakthrough exists as an entity that seeks to change how the movement works – in fact I think we have to embrace that as part of our mission. I’ll be completely transparent that I see my work (and many other people here at Summer of Solutions would agree) as a conscious effort to improve and transform the way all of us in this movement work together to make us stronger, more innovative, more open. This blog post itself is an attempt to change the way we think, speak, and act, as individuals and as a movement. I think we have to be comfortable with the understanding that our “targets” for creating positive transformation are not only “other people” or “those outside the movement” but also each other and ourselves. If transformation is something you do to or at someone, that’s problematic and deeply disturbing, but if it is something we do with someone or work together to find within ourselves, having an internal goal to transform the way the movement works because we think it will work better should be an admirable goal.
As a movement, we seek to change the way society operates – and to be very explicit that means we seek to change the way people – and this includes those of us in the movement too – think, act, and interact. When I first read the book Breakthrough, I found a central argument in it incredibly powerful and intriguing, and I think the failure on all sides to apply this principle to their own efforts is the central reason why we are currently having flame wars. I find it quite ironic that one of the “sides” in this conflict is supported by the people who wrote the book in the first place, and thus should know their own lesson quite well.
One of the main points of the book is that environmentalists have traditionally tried to change the behaviors and actions of people around them by telling them how wrong the way they live is, or how big the problems are: the doom-and-gloom message that I am sure we are all SO bored with by now. Nordhous and Shellenberger point out that criticizing people and telling them that they need to change has rarely worked, and has usually resulted in defensiveness, inaction, and the perception that environmental groups are closed-minded interest groups trying to advance their own agenda. When you make people feel insecure, attacked, or undermined, they generally don’t respond very positively. They argue instead that we need to be offering a visionary and powerful message of opportunity that springs from the understanding that we can build a post-carbon society that reaches across borders and supports social justice, global development, and profound sustainability in the same breath. Come on – you have to love that! It makes so much sense.
What disappoints me about the book, and the subsequent approach of its authors (which I think in turn has both skewed the tone and blocked our openness to the ideas expressed by some of the Breakthrough Fellows – some of whom I know personally as empassioned, thoughtful, and very much on-the-ground activists), is that they don’t take their own advice at all. They spend two-thirds of the book – and most of their subsequent communication – attacking the “conventional” environmental perspective (which I would say only partially applies to the youth climate movement) and challenging the current way of doing things. The message that I think often comes across is “you need to change. You are being ineffective, counter-productive, and not very savvy either.” And thus, feeling attacked and criticized, we as the rest of the movement get defensive, oppositional, and see those making the argument as an outside interest group trying to advance their own agenda. This should be common sense – and furthermore, Breakthrough the book expressly says it.
So if we cannot bring movement transformation by shaming each other for what we are doing wrong – and I think this goes for all sides – what can we do?
If we were to take the advice of Breakthrough the book, we would be expressing visionary and positive ideas of how we can do things better as we move forward move forward. We’d be painting a picture of what we CAN do if we rethink the way we operate, and how that is really relevant here and now to the struggles that real people are engaging in on the ground today as well as what strategies we’re going to need to move forward into the future. We would be proactive, not reactive. I like that plan.
We should recall as we move forward a central theory of any effective community organizing that I’m sure we’ve all used in countless situations before: We have to meet people where they are. We have to align values with the people we are working with so it’s not an “I’m organizing you” relationship but a “we’re building collective and transformative change together” relationship. We have to be fully aware of the implications of our words and actions not just on our “target audience” – which to me suggests manipulation, not collective empowerment – but on everyone around us. We have to listen – in the words of another close movement friend – to understand and not to respond.
Armed with this transformative sense of communication and community, we can transcend the false dichotomies. We can acknowledge that direct action tactics can hurt our credibility and alienate the public when used poorly, but used well they can empower our action in ways that invite engagement and participation – and we can focus on choosing rightly. We can recognize that we really do need a thinking revolution that engages in thoughtful strategic debate, but that it needs to be done in ways that empowers forward motion while only accelerating our social movement with a deadline. We can harness the strength of our diversity by internalizing the meaning of “step forward, step back” as something that is powerful and strategic, not just politically correct. And we can apply these insights across scales – to our IGHIH posts, to our campaign strategies, and to our daily lives.
So I apologize for the clunky phrasing of this “winning strategy principle” – if anyone has a better idea, please suggest it:
We work to transform the ideas and actions of others across scales (ie this applies both “inside” and “outside” the movement) not by telling them what they’re doing wrong or what they need to do, but by working together to build an innovative vision of what we can do differently and continuously expanding the circle of we through real dialogue (talking and listening), collaboration, and relationship.
And this is only a beginning! We need a winning strategy profound enough to transform the shape of society and open enough to include all of our constituents, who are the global community. We’re going to need to reframe who we are as a movement and what we’re capable of so we won’t always be the marginalized and powerless, yet when we prepare for governance, don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. We’re going to have to dig this transformation deep into our hearts to reshape ourselves, and expand it sky-high to the farthest limits of global decision-making and economic function.
And most of all, it has to be real. Actions speak louder than words, and with a winning strategy, we’re going to need ways to live our message through the initiatives we start and the change we build. We’re going to need to think of those scary mid-range actions that aren’t a sequence of events and aren’t the post-carbon society (because we’re not there yet), and figure out ways to bridge the gaps between thought and action to engage what’s really going on in people’s lives and find out how to weave our dreams into this larger framework – and then make it real. Our solutions have to be made concrete in reality, and they have to be open to participation and transformation.
Speaking of which: I need to get back to making it happen at The Summer of Solutions. Please step forward: share all the amazing solutions you’re creating this summer – and suggest how through it, we can build a powerful frame and a winning strategy.