Guest post by Tim Gee, author of “Counterpower: Making Change Happen”
The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain report is a gift to the environmental movement; proof that zero carbon is not only possible, but possible with current technology, without nuclear, without reducing population, and in line with the time-frames dictated by climate science.
Last month, I was one of 300 people at the report’s London event. As is usual at public events, the very first question from the floor once the presentations had finished, was ‘how do we generate the political will?’
The question is a pressing one. Through the lens of the scientific necessity, the report is realistic. It is also completely different to the stance of any major UK political party. The transition then, over the next 16 years will need to be transformational, and to take on the structures preventing such common sense proposals from having been adopted already.
Fortunately, history shows us change can happen, and points to some suggestions for how. Even better, it is possible without an authoritarian methodology. That no ruler can rule without the co-operation of the ruled is in some ways obvious. But considered carefully it is the key to possibility.
Certain studies also help cut through the environmental movement’s interminable debate about whether political lobbying, community projects or direct action are the route to such change: Almost every theorist of past movements seems to more or less agree that there are different points in a transformations when different tactics are more or less useful.
For me the best summary of this is offered by George Lakey, who advises that change happens in cumulative stages. First comes cultural preparation and awareness-raising, and then the building of resilient community organisations and institutions. Once the movement is growing, acts of ‘propaganda of the deed’ become useful, alongside ongoing, more radical community organising. All of this paves the way for the all important fourth step; mass non-cooperation – in this case with the carbon system. Only through such a route comes the opportunity to switch to and consolidate the parallel institutions built earlier. Seen this way then, the question is less about creating the will of the existing politicians who have failed so spectacularly, and more about shifting the balance of power away from them, so that the people rather than the politicians are the drivers of change.
After the report presentations I ran a short workshop asking what kinds of tactics might be needed to get us to zero. People suggested ways of awareness-raising like Zero-Carbon Britain events, getting the message across through television and film and a focused cycle of lobbying – especially of those parties currently in opposition who could form the next government. But as most of us know too well, there’s a difference between winning arguments and winning campaigns. Policies leading to overhauls of unsustainable land use and fossil fuel subsidies won’t be adopted without a push. And even if politicians promise things they shouldn’t always be taken at their word.
So then to the stage of building the resilient movement and institutions. As the participants pointed out, we’ve already got small-scale practical examples of energy co-ops, tree-planting schemes, bike buses, re-use initiatives, insulation drives and community food growing projects. In every place, different methods of expanding them will be appropriate. The challenge, thinking strategically, will be to find ways to help them act as structural drivers of behaviour change as well as inspirations for wider environmental policy.
So far, so comfortable, and so familiar. We can keep switching on renewables and enjoy doing so, but at some point we also need to switch off the dirty energy that is polluting the atmosphere in the first place. And that means also preparing at these early stages to seriously tackle power.
Perhaps the Quakers’ recent decision to divest from fossil fuels could be seen as a gentle, early act of ‘Propaganda of the Deed’, with the potential to create a rolling precedent for faith groups, universities and other collective institutions to do likewise. Similarly the bravery of people putting their bodies in the way combined with determined community action to challenge local authorities, has so far delayed the roll out of fracking for gas in the UK. Indeed similar methods also helped hold back a third runway at Heathrow and a replacement for Kingsnorth Coal Power station in the late 2000s. Imagine how much more progress could be made if willingness to engage in such tactics was widespread.
The next step – moving from isolated actions to mass non-cooperation is where our social science will need to be as innovative as the technology that will eventually be part of the alternative. Could workers in dirty industries help lead the replacement of their power stations with renewables? Could faith communities en masse go beyond disinvestment to civil disobedience which would challenge the powers that be? Could whole estates or towns, or even cities, declare themselves independent of the dirty energy system, eventually reaching a critical mass?
The answer to all these questions, is, in theory, yes. All of these have their equivalents in other transformational changes of the past. And whether it is these or other approaches we ultimately go for, they represent the scale of action for the scale of change we’re working for, if we want the practical examples of existing alternatives to be anything more than drops in a rapidly swelling ocean.
I’ve long been inspired by the idea that what in hindsight seems inevitable, at the time usually seems impossible. In this case we’re in a slightly different situation. Thanks to the Zero Carbon Britain report, what before seemed impossible now seems plausible. Now that the scientists have done us the favour of giving us a vision of a sustainable future, it is up to those of us who want to live in it to make it happen.
About the author
Tim Gee is the author of “Counterpower: Making Change Happen”, which was shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Prize for radical nonfiction. He has campaigned as part of Occupy, Climate Camp, the Traveller Solidarity Network and the National Union of Students amongst others. He writes for the New Internationalist magazine.