This recent tweet from the stellar climate writer Eric Holthaus pretty much sums up both the mental state and mission statement of Climate Pledge Collective.
I wouldn’t personally go so far as to say nothing is working. Climate organizers have had a lot of successes — public perceptions of climate risk are changing rapidly, renewable energy is growing fast, relentless pipeline protests are actually keeping tar sands oil in the ground and divestment campaigns have oil companies running scared. But when we consider the scale of the challenge, these small successes virtually disappear from sight.
Eric’s thread careened through a raw and powerful list of climate successes and anxieties and ended on this courageous note.
The solutions to our climate crisis exist — I know people who work for the Ontario government who say they could bring emissions close to zero in the province if the government was willing to put up the money and tell them to do it (although freight transport and air travel remain very hard to decarbonize) — the problem is building the policital will to force governments to act. And that requires numbers and determination. It’s not enough that most people are loosely on our side — we are up against something that economists call ‘regulatory capture‘ on a massive scale. We hear a lot about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ — but we should also be aware of the ‘tragedy of the corporation’, a world in which we have created blood-sucking institutions that will defend themselves from regulation even if doing so threatens the future safety of their own employees. Regulatory capture is a common phenomena because businesses, beef farmers for example, care a lot more about cattle regulations than the average person does. They will put up money and make calls and join forces to lobby very, very hard for regulations that protect their profit margins. Fossil fuel companies are spending millions on lobbying and earning billions more in subsidies in return.
So what can the climate movement do differently? Why haven’t we succeeded yet? It is my view that we have to recognize that climate change is part of our daily life, just like fossil fuel regulations are part of the daily life of fossil fuel executives. This is not a new idea — important voices on climate twitter like Dr. Vive and Katharine Hayhoe are calling on us to talk climate on a daily basis. Nor am I confidant it is the best idea — part of the path forward has to be different people trying different things — but I think it is worth taking a closer look at how daily life and climate organizing connect — or fail to connect.
What does it mean to open up climate organizing to peoples’ daily lives? We don’t think much about this — partly because many activists are rightfully suspicious of proposals that suggest individual actions as a response to a collective problem. But we have to remember that collective action is the statistical and sometimes chaotic sum of billions of individual actions — patterns and customs within daily life shape those actions as much as any individual law ever will. This is not my own insight — it is a common view in relational sociology (see for example Deleuze and Guattari, Anthony Giddens or Eiko Ikegami). Other research shows that social movements like workers’ movements and the civil rights movements are most effective when they are built out of the raw material of people’s daily lives. Manuel Castells’ (1983) work on social movements makes the case that the most successful worker’s movements happened in places where the workers lived close to one another. In particular, he highlights the role of women in organizing strikes and uprisings. When workers lived together, their wives were able to organize their social networks around a common cause, organizing even while they prepared meals, provided childcare or went to the market. Historically, women have done the work of daily life. When women alter their routines, change comes very rapidly. Others have suggested that while racial ghettoes are terrible for many reasons, they have often made the work of political organizing easier. Climate change is an issue that impacts everyone and we need to start organizing along our regular networks — where we are already known and trusted — and during our regular routines — so that we have sufficient TIME to organize.
Climate Pledge Collective is committed to finding ways to help people integrate climate action into their daily lives. This is one of the reason our pledge system includes individual choices like food and transportation — because people talk about their daily lives A LOT — and talking about a change like eating less meat or riding a bike is more natural than talking about carbon tax policy or scientific findings. When we change our daily lives, people notice and we seed the ground for more change.
One event we’re working on is a campaign to get everyone to email everyone in their contact list about climate on earth day — in the hopes of smashing filter bubbles and tipping the ‘availability cascade’ (see below) further in our favour.
I’m also working to find ways to make climate my number one response to stock questions like ‘how are you’ or ‘what have you been up to’ — working on climate a lot makes this easier, but it’s still hard sometimes. Another thing that can help is bringing along a team. At a recent high school reunion, I emailed a few friends in advance and asked them to commit to talking about climate change — together we seeded the room and it felt like every little circle I stepped into was a conversation about climate. People want to talk climate — but they don’t always feel comfortable bringing it up.
Bringing up climate change in ordinary situations isn’t always easy — the tyranny of politeness makes it hard to bring up a truth as horrible as our current ecological crisis at a birthday or brunch or water cooler. Small talk won’t be successful right away — but it can gather momentum quickly. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about ‘availability cascades’ — basically, topics we hear about often come to mind more easily — this is why everything connects to climate for people who follow climate news and nothing connects to climate for people who are still safely ensconced in a bubble of pre-chewed infotainment. Once we start breaching the topic of climate change in daily life, others will start thinking about it more often as well and eventually will see the issue in the same way we do. But we have to bring up the issue EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME.
Movements like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion are working to bring the issue into public space (and I’ve been right there with them here in Toronto) — but we can’t protest all the time — we have daily errands that we must attend to. Luckily, there are many other smaller spaces of daily life that we need to occupy as well.
This sign is above my doorbell. It doesn’t have a profound impact, but imagine seeing these three or four times a day? The availability of the topic in the front of your brain would start cascading like a tsunami.
And this is my hat. It promotes Climate Pledge Collective’s first in-person event — a day in the park with food and scientists and musicians and climate organizers — which was designed specifically to fit climate organizing in alongside daily needs for nourishment and self-care. Climate Picnic will take up public space, but it will not be oppositional. It will take time, but it will hopefully allow people to also do things they would have done anyway, instead of burning their energy. This is a particularly important point — and one that was explained to me during my Masters’ Degree in Community Development. Most people don’t have time for political organizing, but they need to eat three times a day, so if you can combine organizing with meal times, and especially if you can provide food, you open up a whole world of opportunity. Hats, front door signs and picnics may seem trivial in the face of a problem of this scale, but there are hundreds of millions of people who want action on climate change — if we lower the barriers to participation we can engage them all and then the availability cascade will become an overwhelming flood.
Stone Soup — One simple project that I’ve been planning to try, but haven’t found time for, is a vegan stew and climate chat in my home. I will make a few litres of my favourite sweet potato chickpea coconut curry, invite all my neighbours and just talk openly about climate change and climate organizing. Of course, I will be careful to invite a few other people who are supportive of meaningful climate action, so I don’t get swamped by deniers — just as I planned a group approach to my high school reunion.
My dream for Climate Pledge Collective is to open a restaurant based on the stone soup idea — it would serve a simple menu of vegan soups and stews, but mostly it would be a climate organizing hot spot — a place that people could drop into for a quick, cheap, healthy meal and receive a side-order of solidarity and climate news or maybe a documentary screening or a music night or a petition or a phone campaign. Imagine getting more involved in the climate movement was as easy as popping into a shop to by a bowl of soup! And from there, once people had a place to connect, it could grow, perhaps also stocking a small selection of ethical, sustainable clothing — meeting more and more of people’s daily needs in a manner that minimized the endless variety of material consumption and highlighted the broad array of weightless, no-footprint cultural products that we truly need to sustain us.
If we can combine food, self-care and climate organizing into a single package — we will become an unstoppable cultural force.
Castells, M. (1983). The city and the grassroots: a cross-cultural theory of urban social movements (No. 7). Univ of California Press.
Kahneman, D., & Egan, P. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.