The author and activist Naomi Klein is currently on an Australian book tour, bringing us the terrifying message that climate change “changes everything”. I say terrifying because, if you follow Klein’s logic to its conclusion, the only way to stop climate change is literally to change everything: our cities, economies, energy systems and patterns of consumption.
Klein’s argument is that climate change threatens every dimension of our life on Earth – the result of an abusive relationship between people and planet, made possible by a voracious hyper-capitalist economy. Fixing climate change means changing how that economy works at its core.
That may seem a rather all-encompassing observation, but the persuasiveness of her argument comes from the insight that climate change isn’t just another “issue” on a shopping list of social problems. It’s an epidemic whose cure offers an opportunity to turn around myriad injustices perpetrated in the name of the economy.
But if climate change is connected to “everything”, how do we get “everyone” together to change it?
Worldwide local action
There isn’t one single approach, of course. Klein is careful to argue that a new world will only be possible if thousands of grassroots movements bloom across the globe.
But one aspect of her argument deserves more attention. How do you foster coordination and collaboration, both across geographical boundaries and between traditional adversaries?
Collaborations can create tension, and battles over competing interests often see good intentions fail. We are used to the familiar tension of “jobs versus the environment”, for instance. There are also difficulties in balancing the need to coordinate campaigns nationally (or globally) while still ensuring that local communities feel that their efforts are meaningful.
The answer to better collaboration is to build effective alliances and coalitions based on mutual interests and values, not just single issues and events.
But being good at campaigning and being good at coalitions are not necessarily the same skill. Campaigns require fast action, a clear strategy and a smorgasbord of tactics. Coalitions between people who haven’t worked together, or between national and local players, require trust.
Trust takes time. Time to break down the stereotypes (“blokey” unionists, “demure” Christians, “hippy” environmentalists) and time to discover where the common ground may lie.
Forging new bonds
It’s no surprise that the most successful and creative climate action, both in Australia and among the examples in Klein’s book, have come from regional areas. Lock the Gate and Fight for the Reef both emerged from local rural communities.
Sure, every community has its share of tensions and regional Australia is no exception – as shown by encounters between loggers and greenies, or farmers and indigenous leaders. But these regional communities also have relationships that are stronger than in cities. They are places where more people know each other by name, and where saving the place where they live (whether we’re talking about farmland or the Great Barrier Reef) is a tangible unifier – literally and figuratively common ground.
So what will it take to bring these kinds of unusual alliances to our cities? At the moment, factors like anonymity, busy lifestyles, and professional cliques all hamper the building of trusting relationships across different groups.
In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis interpreted climate change as an invitation for us not only to renew the relationship between people and planet, but to reimagine our relationship with each other.
So while we work to end our utilitarian relationship with the planet, powerful climate action can only be built if we follow that example and see each other and each other’s organisational leaders as whole beings, with a full range of dreams, aspirations and motivations.
Building a broad movement will challenge those who are currently inside or outside the climate movement in different ways. For those “outside”, it will mean recognising that the welfare of the planet is all of our issue, and making space for thinking about how climate affects every issue we face.
For those “inside”, building a diverse movement means letting go of some control. If we are to stop climate change, no one group can “own” the issue – including the “greenies”. It will be much easier with everyone on board, after all.
New groups and constituencies that embrace the challenge of climate change need to feel like it can be their space too. It won’t work if people are made to feel they need to become a “lefty” to care about the planet.
First understand, then act
One tip for building a diverse movement is learning the art of the “relational meeting”, where people take the time to understand what makes each other tick. Coalitions that use community organising, like the Sydney Alliance (of which I am the founding director), tend to train their leaders to build relationships before working on issues. As a consequence, they have cultivated relationships between traditional strangers – from the Catholic Church to the Cancer Council, and from the Arab Council to the nurses’ union.
Another ingredient that makes diverse relationships work are “bridge-builders” – the translators and diplomats who can speak many activist languages, like those who are fluent in both “climate” and “union”, say, or “church” and “neighbourhood group”.
Yet another is the habit of letting the relationships lead groups to the solution rather than presenting people with fully formed prescriptions for action. We all know we need to work together across the planet to stop climate change, but we also need to respect everyone as capable actors in the process – including those who live in vastly different places or think in very different ways.
For instance, Lock the Gate has worked because local people have led and directed the strategy for opposing land clearing at the Maules Creek mine, and national climate campaigners supported their lead. If national groups had tried to dictate the strategy, the movement might have fractured.
This is the “walk and chew gum” manoeuvre that the 21st-century climate movement needs to master: building new relationships while still mobilising the old. It has to be an open-minded, open-hearted journey in which all are open to learning and change.
If we need to “change everything”, let’s hope that includes ourselves. Let’s reimagine how we work, what strategies we use, and what we fight for as we work together to save our common home.