During the lockdown (and beyond?) we are interviewing folks active in climate campaigning, asking them to reflect on coronavirus and ‘what next’. Below is an interview with Chris Shaw, who you can find on Twitter as @kalahar1
Research Programme Lead, Climate Outreach. Research Associate, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. Book, ‘Liberalism and Climate Change’ due 2020.
1. Tell us a little bit about who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re working on (both academically and activist)
I was working in marketing with the side hustle of learning how to communicate climate change to a mass audience. In 2003 the West attacked Iraq – supported by the media – at the same time Europe was burning in an unprecedented heatwave – a harbinger of climate change totally ignored by the media. I was the father of two young boys and I wanted to do something to atone for the mistake of having brought two people into this horror show. I began a campaign organisation called theirfuture.org, which got as far as creating a website when the chance to study a masters in social research methods arose. I took that opportunity as a means of understanding how best to make the theirfuture.org campaign effective. However, the Masters became a PhD. I then worked at Sussex University for a while, then the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University and for the last 5 years I have been working at Climate Outreach, where I am now the Research Programme Lead. The work focuses on how to communicate climate change in a way that reaches beyond the liberal left green ghetto. Currently there are several areas of work underway around communicating a just transition, which feels like very timely and important work. As someone from a working class background given a second bite at the cherry following a job change aged 40, I feel very privileged and grateful for the chance to be earning a living dong this work.
2. What brief reflections do you have on what COVID19 and the response to it tell us about the state of human civilisation, and how that does (or doesn’t) relate to climate campaigning?
It indicates the veneer of civilisation is simply that, a thin crust, a fantasy of control, rationality and reason, that has felt like it could break apart at any moment over the last few weeks. And Covid-19 is nothing compared to the systemic shocks climate change is about to unleash. I want to believe that we will find a new way to live after this, but ultimately there is no strong organised resistance to drive that change forward and so regardless of opinion polls about what people want, we don’t have the power to make that happen. We can only hope for some form of collective awakening.
3. If you look at “the environment movement” over the last 50 years it’s had a few localised successes but the general picture is one of overwhelming defeat. Assuming you agree (and tell us if you don’t), why is that and what should “the movement” have done differently?
Empirically of course environmentalism is an utter failure – how could the numbers on biodiversity loss and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases support any other conclusion? But so of course is socialism an utter failure. How could one draw any other conclusion from the growth in inequality in countries such as the UK over the last 30 years or so?
I don’t blame environmentalists or socialists for this failure. The enemy is so strong, their resources so great, their brutality and viciousness unimaginable. I guess the one mistake across both movements is to imagine it is possible to compromise with these forces.
4. What are, in your opinion, the biggest mistakes that the “climate movement” should try to avoid in the next 12 months? What are the motives/institutional incentives underlying the likelihood of those mistakes?
The rent still has to be paid, and so that will ultimately define what it is possible to do, the limits to what it is ‘feasible’ or ‘reasonable’ to hope for. The biggest and most important task now is to find a way of connecting climate change with where people are now, rather than campaigners (implicitly) insisting the only way to care about climate change is by everyone agreeing to have the same middle class values as the other people in their Transition Town group.
5. Based on your answer to 3 and 4, what in your opinion should people (academics, activists, whatever – you decide) be trying to do in the next 12 months?
Be respectful of the opinions and hardships of people struggling to get by, for whom the local area is more important than the ‘global community’, for whom the opinion of family and friends matters more than the opinions of politicians. Don’t keep overestimating the role of reason in human affairs. It is about the gut and the heart – thinking is hard and most people, understandably, would rather not have to bother.
5. Anything else you want to say?
Everything critical I am saying here is me sniping from the sidelines. I have massive respect for all the great people I have met working tirelessly to make a better world, who keep the stories of a better future alive, and I hope they never give up.