‘Does anyone here think that’s actually going to happen?’
We’d just spent two days at the National Climate Emergency Summit in Melbourne in February, discussing the need for governments to declare a climate emergency and act on it. This was after the horrific summer of fires and smoke, but before we realised that a pandemic was on its way, and before the murder of George Floyd and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. There had, over the weekend, been vociferous discussions about the need for climate emergency action, what such action might look like, and to what extent emergency declarations might be anti-democratic, inequitable and otherwise problematic, with a worrying lack of concern by some of the speakers about that last question.
I was speaking on a panel about citizen action, arguing for a focus on community-building projects that construct grassroots democracy as a critical path to urgent and deep climate action. The question was put to me, as it often is: ‘Do we have time for the deep change you’re talking about? Isn’t it too late? Don’t we just need governments to declare an emergency and get on with it?’
So, perhaps a bit heatedly, I put it to the room: ‘Does anyone here think that’s actually going to happen?’ Does anyone think that there is any realistic chance that the current federal government, or the next one, will actually declare a climate emergency and act on it with the seriousness and urgency that that requires?
There was a bit of nervous tittering. One or two shouts of ‘No!’ Not a single person raised their hand. Among the 250 or so passionate climate activists in the room, nobody—not even the questioner—said yes.
Afterwards, I chatted with people who had a sense of flailing desperation in their eyes. I’ve seen the same desperation in the eyes of numerous people leaving the huge School Strike for Climate rallies, inspired by the event and the turnout, but hearing already the rejection from government and alternative government, and not knowing what to do next. It’s the same desperation I saw among so many after last year’s federal election. ‘But we have so little time.’ ‘We’ve missed another opportunity.’ ‘Another few years will go past with nothing to show.’
We don’t have time any more to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We don’t have time not to rewrite the rules. We don’t have time not to change everything.
Australians, or at least most of us, like to think of our democratic systems as robust. In a country that prides itself on larrikinism and counts Ned Kelly among its cultural heroes, it’s perhaps odd how much we seem to trust authority. Until 2007, confidence in Australia’s democratic systems was astonishingly high, floating around 80 per cent. After a plunge in confidence matching global trends over the next decade to a low of 30 per cent in 2019, trust has risen dramatically in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching 54 per cent for the federal government and far higher for some state governments. When times are scary, it seems we might be willing to invest our trust in those in power to do what’s right to keep us safe. At least at first. As a second wave of the pandemic arrives, there are signs that that trust is weak. There has been a return to the panic buying that, alongside a swift rise in mutual aid, revealed the lack of trust that characterised the early stages of the first wave.
Of course, as a settler-colonial nation built on the genocide of the continent’s original inhabitants, it’s fair to say that our democratic systems have always been, at best, incomplete, exclusive and fragile. Despite hard-won reforms expanding the franchise—to women ahead of most of the world, to Indigenous people horrifyingly late—structural inequities and systems of entrenched power that undermine that franchise have always lurked beneath the surface, occasionally becoming visible. The lockdown of public housing flats with armed police ahead of broader quarantine measures in Melbourne, and the role of the aptly named Neville Power in facilitating his own private profit through a federal ‘gas-led recovery’, are recent examples.
But it’s worse than that. For some time now, around the world, democracies have been quite directly under attack and various forms of authoritarianism on the rise. In countries such as Hungary and Poland, the step away from democracy is explicit. In Australia, suppression and criminalisation of protest and advocacy, prosecution of whistle-blowers, raiding of media organisations, and corporate capture of political parties and regulatory processes are the tip of the iceberg. The situation for First Nations people, refugees, culturally and linguistically diverse and gender diverse communities, and the ever-expanding group of unemployed and working poor is far worse than for the well-to-do dominant minority. But we share a common, dark future if we fail to address this very rapidly. Because we have to introduce the failure to address the climate crisis into this picture. And when we do, entangling power, inequality and ecology, two things become clear.
Firstly, our current democratic institutions and norms are simply incapable of tackling the immense, overwhelming and interconnected crises we face.
It’s not just that we haven’t yet succeeded. It’s not that we need to fight harder, shout louder, to convince those in power to act, on the climate crisis, on Aboriginal deaths in custody, on intimate-partner violence, on economic inequality and on so much more. The systems we are working within are built on, and structured so as to enforce and buttress, the fundamental interlinked inequities—capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, resource extractivism—that are the cause of these crises. As such, they cannot enable the solutions—certainly not in the time frame we have. The interplay between the major parliamentary players, the executive government, the media, and corporate power, as well as the adversarial system itself and the culture of our politics—the common sense of our political discourse—make the necessary changes inconceivable.
It has ever been thus, in the modern world at least. But here’s the kicker, at this particular historical moment: these systems are spectacularly ill-suited to enabling human survival in the far less hospitable world that they have created.
In the years ahead, as climate disruption worsens, as ecological collapse introduces more pandemics into human society, as food supplies teeter, as desperate governments lean more towards authoritarianism to hold onto control, political systems based on adversarialism, individualism, narrow efficiency, the primacy of money, and brute force will only increase the chaos. They only make human extinction, taking with us so much of the precious and beautiful diversity of life on this planet, more likely. What we will need is more networks of support, more social cohesion, more layers of redundancy, so that when one safety net fails another several remain, and more cooperation and generosity—all aspects of society that are currently unvalued, indeed erased, by our political norms and institutions.
In order to both turn around ecological collapse and generate the collective resilience that our societies need to survive and thrive in the decades ahead, we need to cultivate new democratic norms and institutions, based on the principles of ecology itself. We need to cultivate complex, adaptive political systems, embracing interdependence, appreciation for diversity, and the certainty of change, turning our adversarial, antagonistic, gladiatorial politics into a space for agonistic, deliberative, creative discussion. And we need to grow it from the grassroots up, pushing through cracks in the pavement, sprouting from the trunks of rotting trees, ready to flourish as the monocultures break up and the old edifices come tumbling down.
This situation raises vital questions for environmental and social campaigning organisations, and for Greens parties worldwide. We have all, throughout our history, had a complex and ambivalent relationship with the existing democratic systems that have continued to facilitate massive environmental destruction, ongoing abuses of power, and increasing inequality. From the earliest days, the Greens’ place in parliaments has been a strained one, pulling between advocacy and negotiation, legislative amendments and deep change, revolutionising the system and reforming policy. Greens parties have always trodden a delicate line, critiquing the system while operating inside it. Similarly, there’s been a constant tension among, between and inside campaigning groups of all kinds. This is often characterised as choosing between being inside the tent or outside it. But, of course, where you see the walls of the tent is very much in the eye of the beholder. The most inside-game campaigners are still kept away from the true inner sanctums of power. And, problematically, the most outside-game activists are still playing inside the tent of the system itself.
Climate campaigning has already evolved substantially over the past two decades, from very instrumentalist activities aimed at directly lobbying governments and corporations to change specific policies into a more sophisticated social-change movement, interweaving its demands with broader efforts towards social, economic and racial justice. Imperfectly, of course. But the progress has been tremendous. Nevertheless, at essentially every level, it is still aimed at asking governments and corporations to act—even if it is framed as ‘building a mass movement’ to ‘demand’ action. The movement still operates within a supplicant politics, seeking to build the maximum possible influence over those with the real power. The same could be said of Greens campaigning and advocacy, which, while presenting the option of voting Green as an alternative, tend to fall back on demands for governments to act, for oppositions to change policy, for those in power to work with us towards change.
When we know that this won’t happen, as all those in our citizen-activism panel recognised, and as so many attending rallies and campaigning at elections realise, this is an inherently self-defeating and demotivating approach. It can even be dangerous.
For example, currently, ‘climate emergency’ campaigns targeting governments at various levels, and often using ‘war mobilisation’ language, are seemingly blithely unconcerned that the standard response from government at times of declared emergency is to suspend democracy. If we give credence to the idea of governments declaring emergency, do we realise what we’re opening the door to? Yes, in fact, we do. At February’s National Climate Emergency Summit, more than one keynote speaker, from a position of immense privilege, explicitly stated that this was a Faustian bargain that they were willing to make. Other speakers, and many attendees, pushed back hard against that view. But, if that type of emergency action isn’t what we want, what do we want? And how do we intend to achieve it through a government-declared emergency?
At the same time, Extinction Rebellion has arrived with the explicit goal of disrupting the status quo so deeply as to trigger crisis. The absence, however, of a concept of what might follow that crisis beyond an undefined proposal for a citizens’ assembly should scare us in the same way that government-led emergency declarations should. In the paraphrased words of one of the most important philosophers of political change, Antonio Gramsci, ‘when the old world is dying and the new is struggling to be born, there will be monsters’. If we aren’t actively building the new institutions to replace the old ones, the answer is ready and waiting for us: authoritarianism. A brief glance at the Queensland (Labor) government’s response to Extinction Rebellion (introducing new laws to suppress protest) and the Victorian (Labor) government’s response to protests at the International Mining and Resources Conference (sending in mounted riot police to clear the way for mining executives) shows how real that danger is.
Meanwhile, many are mobilising around ‘3.5 per cent’, a figure drawn from Erica Chenoweth’s research, as the proportion of a population needed to reach a tipping point that forces change.1 But the number is quoted, generally, within a goal of driving policy change, when in fact it’s the threshold Chenoweth and colleagues identified as necessary for overthrowing oppressive regimes. Which is our goal? What change are we mobilising for?
The rapid growth of Extinction Rebellion, long-term sustainability activist Michael Mobbs’ declaration of survivalism,2 and the desperation in the voices of school strikers all reveal a community searching for answers, seeking a way forward, and finding precious little in contemporary politics and activism to give them real hope.
There is, however, a tremendous amount to give us hope. And it can be seen in the extraordinary and exciting experiments with different forms of collective organising, innovations and rebirth of old forms of democracy, across the globe over the past decade, as confidence and trust in existing democratic forms has collapsed. From Zuccotti Park to Syntagma Square, from Barcelona en Comú to London’s Participatory City, citizen-led, grassroots democracy has taken root and sprouted. From the Next Economy bringing communities in coal regions together to imagine a different future to Voices for Indi building a new constituency for progressive politics in regional Victoria, from the growth of neighbourhood sharing groups and repair cafes to the advent of welcome dinners for refugees, people around the globe craving community cohesion are refusing to wait for someone else to do it. In 2019 we saw massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chile and Lebanon. In 2020, with the arrival of the pandemic, we saw an explosion of mutual-aid projects, as communities chose not to wait for government to act but to take matters into their own hands and support each other collectively. And then, following the police murder of George Floyd, millions of people around the world became aware of the reality of community protection as the idea of defunding the police took hold.
In this context, continuing a supplicant politics, where we beg or demand of governments that they act, is both destined to fail and underplaying our hand. At this moment in history, with the pandemic forcing social, economic and political changes unlike anything any of us have ever seen, with the rise of extreme right anti-politics, and with the failures of the current system exposed for all to see, we urgently need to consider this relationship afresh. While, of course, the urgency is such that we must keep constant pressure on all actors, our strategic goals should reach far beyond such pressure and into cultivating the new democratic systems and institutions we need in order to survive and thrive—grassroots-driven, multilayered, polycentric institutions based on ecological principles of interconnection, diversity, flexibility, and the recognition that we are all part of and entirely reliant on the natural world.
Looked at in this light, we could embrace this terrifying moment as an opportunity to evolve our campaigning and advocacy towards cultivating deep, regenerative democracy that will benefit all of us and all of our causes together.
The centralised, dominance-based, adversarialist power structures of our current system, in government, business and civil society, and in the relationships between them, are the heart of the problem. Through them, we can only see power, like everything else in our late-capitalist world, as linear, as transactional, as a zero-sum game. Within this world view, the only option for those seeking social change is to organise as supplicants, to build influence over those in power, or occasionally seek to change who holds this power. While there is a temptation for those seeking change to attempt to take control of centralised power to drive swift transformation, the structure of that power makes that impossible. In addition, in the highly unlikely event of success in taking control, the exercise of such power is deeply problematic, and unhelpful in the task of enabling survival.
One of the reasons campaigning organisations and the Greens have always been ambivalent about involvement in existing political institutions is that we are sceptical of dominance-based power and of adversarialism. The principle of grassroots democracy that underpins modern environmentalism, and the (not always successful) practice of consensus decision-making that much of the movement works with, means that we seek to practise power very differently, emphasising cooperative and creative modes of ‘power with’ and ‘power to’ rather than ‘power over’.
It is ironic, then, that our campaigning and advocacy have a tendency to emphasise the existing model. When we demand action of governments and ask people to demand action with us, we are effectively buttressing the dominance-based power structures. This is both a structural process of effectively abdicating our own power and also a values-based process, emphasising dominance over cooperation.
But we don’t have to accept and abide by that model of power. Like everything else in our ecological world, power operates at many levels, in different ways, intersecting and interwoven, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes in cross-currents. Power both inhabits and determines the structures of the system. Only by changing power can we change the system.
It was Gramsci who developed the idea of hegemony—world-defining power—as a combination of institutional power and cultural power. Control of institutions (parliaments, executive government, media, the economy) exists in interplay with control of the common sense—shared understandings of how the world should be. If those who hold the institutional reins lose control of the world-shaping narratives, the whole edifice can disintegrate.
From our historical vantage point, we might add another layer: an extra-human layer of ecological power. When human powers reach ecological limits, both cultural and institutional power begin to crumble.
Welcome to 2020.
Ecological reality is making itself felt, with fire, flood and plague. The common sense of capitalism—that the invisible hand of the market will take care of things if we all follow our own self-interest; that eternal growth on a finite planet is possible; that we are separate from and superior to the natural world; that we are all individuals and there is no such thing as society—cannot withstand that reality. Those whose power depends on that common sense are holding onto their institutional power as hard as they can, while also scrambling to adapt to an emerging, new common sense.
In this context, the true struggle is between those who want ‘power over’ others and those who seek ‘power to’ effect change for a better world.
Although the citizens’ assembly demand of Extinction Rebellion remains largely unexplained and unexplored, its presence in the discourse provides an opportunity. It’s the first pointer to the climate movement embracing the radically different, citizen-led politics that is growing around the globe, involving the active participation of the people in determining our own common future.
Citizens’ assemblies are not, of course, the beginning and end of the story. A true citizen-led approach encompasses a wide array of projects that involve living more sustainably and cultivating social cohesion and social justice while not just building political power but distributing power as widely as possible. In essence, it aims to pivot the broad but shallow community mobilisation around specific goals that environmental and social movements and the Greens have become experts at into deep, community-building projects. What’s the difference?
Sophia Burns, in a 2018 blog about social organising after Trump’s election, wrote:
It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.3
Community mobilising primarily sees Greens and campaigning organisations reaching out to large numbers of community members, by email or social media or at their doorsteps, and asking them to vote for us, or to back our calls for governments to take certain actions. Everybody involved knows that, while we might get occasional discrete wins, our chances of delivering the necessary deep changes are vanishingly small. This can risk contributing to disenchantment, making it ever harder for us to engage people in our campaigns. It also adds to the already high levels of climate anxiety and depression, as people lose still more hope. In addition, with these campaigns often being inherently adversarial, it drives us further apart from one another.
In real terms, right now, in the context of the arrival of the era of climate consequences, this style of community mobilising won’t help us succeed, and it won’t help us survive. Community building just might help us succeed, and it will definitely help us survive.
Community building creates hope for people by actively involving them in building our common future together. Instead of recruiting people to our ‘mass movement’ to ‘demand’ policy change, failing to get that change, and having to reach out again to ask for the next thing, community building recruits people to get involved long term in fun, creative, mutually beneficial activities, projects that make people’s lives better while also benefiting the community and the environment. It then, subtly and gently, cultivates those separate and diverse projects as the seeds of a new set of democratic institutions, grown from the grassroots up.
For some, it might start with walking school buses or local ‘last-mile’ transport initiatives that help elderly people get their groceries; the introduction for others might be community gardens or communal food preparation, with meals set aside for struggling members of the community; it might be repair cafes or renewable-energy co-ops, dinner discussion forums, nonviolent direct-action groups, or formal citizens’ assemblies that bring another group of people in. Professional groups might be involved by imposing green bans, residents by converting streets to parks, or groups of small businesses by establishing a local non-monetary currency. The projects could be interlinked in appropriate ways with Indigenous, refugee and multicultural groups, sports associations, community arts projects and much more. All these diverse, grassroots, citizen-led projects might overlap with party branch meetings or meetings coordinated by established campaigning organisation, or they might be at arm’s length or entirely separate. Over time, with the right approach, they will combine, cohere and intertwine to form new, deeper, longer-lasting forms of power.
Because people enjoy being active participants, they stay involved, are willing to commit more to political and electoral campaigns, and become effective ambassadors. If their electoral campaigns and political demands don’t succeed, participants know that their local projects are making a real difference regardless. The diversity of approaches makes involvement more accessible for a wide range of people. Learning by doing, they develop expertise in democratic practice, taking part in and facilitating creative disagreement and collective decision-making for common benefit. By building social cohesion, growing food, and sharing stuff, they are creating care, connection and resilience in their community in the face of climate disasters, economic disruption, or the next pandemic. They push through the sense of impending doom into an ‘apocaloptimistic’ attitude: although we know collapse is coming, it doesn’t have to mean the end of the world.
The movements we will build together through this approach will be stronger, deeper and broader than anything we have done before, because they will be truly intersectional, understanding that all our causes are as inextricably intertwined as our lives are. They will be more capable of shifting public opinion, of bringing potential allies on board, and of creating the major systemic changes we know are needed, because they will hold ‘power to’, distributed among them, rather than still needing to beg governments with ‘power over’ them to act.
The keystone of this approach is the shift from alternative to transformative, connecting diverse projects into a collective whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts—an ecology of projects that grows from random ideas at the margins into genuine new, distributed democratic institutions of the commons. For this to work, it must be collective and coordinated but not dominated by centralised power. That is a major challenge, but there’s been a tremendous amount of work done by Elinor Ostrom, Murray Bookchin, Abdullah Öcalan and others, learning from Indigenous governance, around how to facilitate and support distributed, interconnected, polycentric models. It is difficult but entirely possible. The Greens, Friends of the Earth and others, having practised a distributed model more or less successfully for thirty years, have pre-existing structures and expertise to help make this happen. Newer groups such as the school strikers are building on the same model. And, of course, we must step back and learn directly from Indigenous people, who have brought their ancient shared-governance structures into current operation through locally controlled models such as Community Controlled Health Organisations.
One important path will be to parlay existing centralised outreach into open-source community building. What if we used doorknocking and letterboxing, which we already do so much of, to let people know about local sharing groups and community gardens, repair cafes, co-ops and sports associations, and invite them to community meetings to co-design their own local climate-positive, social-cohesion projects? What if, where we had the capacity, we used elected office to provide resources to communities for such projects, and invited community members to help inform our decision-making? What if branches, volunteers, and elected representatives supported communities to hold formal and informal citizens’ assemblies, or whatever form of community planning meeting they were interested in, perhaps connected through those local groups, through unions, creating space for Indigenous leadership, actively embracing culturally and otherwise diverse community members, connecting over distance among communities of interest, or just gathering around a group of streets, to discuss what each community could do to confront and prepare for the climate crisis?
What if each of those assemblies and gatherings sent representatives to regional assemblies, and shared what they’re doing through online clearing houses, so they could learn from and inspire each other, and so they could consciously envisage their actions as vital pieces of collective action that, together, are cultivating the new, ecological democratic alternative?
That’s starting to look like a new set of democratic institutions, similar to Bookchin and Öcalan’s ideas. It’s starting to turn those fun, life-improving projects at the margins into the foundations of a new civic space, venues for debate and discussion, the basis for a new democracy.
If this is to happen, it needs to be led from the grassroots up. But it also needs to be enabled and resourced properly, with resources made available by many currently in the space, such as larger NGOs, open-minded philanthropists, and supportive elected representatives. There may even be opportunities for forward-thinking local and even state and territory governments to actively encourage and enable the kind of community-building work that underpins this approach. For all these groups, it will take a shift in focus—a radical vision, a willingness to let go of control, or at least to collaborate more deeply and openly with others who have a dramatically different approach to change-making.
This will be hard. But it’s well past time we admitted to ourselves that the current path is a dead end. Working within the system that created this crisis, or at best attempting to tweak it closer to what it was a generation ago, will see us continue to fail to address spiralling inequality and social injustice, or to avert catastrophic ecological collapse. Worse, it will leave us living in a system spectacularly ill-suited to enabling our survival in that world.
But, if we take the citizen-led path, embracing the different modes of power we already believe in, the opportunities and possibilities are extraordinary. At the very least, we will create a serious grassroots counterbalance to existing power. At the most, we will lay the groundwork for radically transforming, if not replacing, state and corporate power.
We won’t just be building a movement to demand change of those in power. We will be building our own power, distributing it widely, and creating new, regenerative democratic institutions and norms that will enable us to not just survive the coming storms, but thrive.
2. Tim Hollo, ‘As the climate collapses, we can either stand together—or perish alone’, The Guardian, 4 October 2019.
3. Sophia Burns, ‘Strategize, Don’t Moralize’, Gods and Radicals, April 2018.