This is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while, I think as far back as CEM’s last in-person away day in January (back in the Better Times- remember those?). On our pre-COVID agenda, we proposed a vote over whether we launch a new petition for a seventh council scrutiny committee dedicated to the environment. The conclusion we ultimately reached was one of agreement, but disgruntlement: we were all aware of the constraints and pressure that the previous climate emergency petition entailed, which didn’t make the prospect of launching a new petition particularly appealing. But equally, we couldn’t see any other alternative in order to meet our aims (the petition is still ongoing- you can learn more and sign it here). This reluctance seems at odds with a sense of commitment to necessary action, and it got me thinking about how my own stance on climate activism follows a similar pattern. I think I would call myself a reluctant environmentalist.
I’d argue that there’s an element of reluctance to all climate activism. No one involved wants to be doing what we’re doing. No one wants to be campaigning for a world that’s on the brink of an irrevocable tipping point. But I also feel a personal reluctance in the sense that both climate science and climate activism were never my personal areas of interest or expertise. I’ve obviously always valued the natural world, but in previous years I never saw myself dedicating so much time and headspace to climate activism. This isn’t something I feel academically motivated to do, but something I’m compelled by out of fear.
Climate science- nay, science in general- was never something I anticipated myself pursuing growing up. In part I blame the binary and highly specialised nature of the UK education system for this, and the way it so often forces its students to self-identify as either scientific or artistic. It will probably come as no surprise to those who know my background that I felt more comfortable pursuing a humanities-based education, and I dropped Maths and Science at school as soon as I could at sixteen. Looking back, the problem wasn’t that I was unscientific. My progress through the education system had simply led to a lack of confidence in my own scientific ability.
Naïve as it may sound, in some ways I thought I’d seen the back of studying science at this point. Yet this has well and truly turned around and slapped me in the face in the form of awareness of climate breakdown. Over the last year, as with so many people of my generation, I’ve become more acutely aware and preoccupied by climate change. This has involved finally admitting some horrifying truths to myself about the state and trajectory of the world that I wasn’t previously ready to acknowledge. I’m sure this is a much-uttered tale, but this acknowledgement initially led to various sustainable changes in lifestyle that I had not previously contemplated. The weight and impact of the realisation that the plans and visions for your future may be drastically different to your imaginings – as well as, more horrifyingly, the futures of the vast majority of people on the planet – is a particularly heavy thing to come to terms with. I quickly reached a point where I felt I needed to do more than simply reduce my own emissions.
I’m a recent music graduate, and I work as a musician, music researcher and writer; the skillsets these roles entail have developed as a result of my choice to pursue a more ‘creative’ career. Given this background, I feel that the ‘easier’ option in order to scratch the proverbial itch of climate discomfort would have been to assume a route of direct action involving forms of ‘artistic’ protest. Indeed, this was a path I initially considered when ‘shopping around’ for climate organisations to involve myself with. I soon realised though that no matter how creatively minded I felt, I wanted to be involved in enacting change in a way that felt tangible to me, and (attempting to) impact climate democracy on a local level seemed a sensical means of accomplishing this. Hence why I’m writing this post for CEM 18 months or so later.
Finding a fit in an activist organisation has been a meaningful experience, but I’ve also encountered a personal problem: both the scientific specifics of climate change and the workings of climate democracy are far from my area of expertise. After 4 years and counting of being entrenched in higher education, it can be too easy to view areas of knowledge you’re unfamiliar with as something that can only be accessed through similarly long periods of formal study and qualifications. I feel like I often fall into the unhelpful and untrue thought pattern that because these concerns are far academically removed from the experience I have, there’s no way that I’m qualified to speak on them. I’ve always loved learning, but with climate science especially, there’s an infinite amount of information that I could learn with no quantifiable stopping point where I feel ‘knowledgeable enough’. To make matters worse, so much of this information holds a highly depressing outlook. The struggling of continually feeling like you’re never knowledgeable enough is not new to me by any means – I’m sure anyone with imposter syndrome can relate – but it takes on a new form here in this internal reluctance towards climate activism, and sits entirely at odds with my innate fear for the future and desire for change.
Like climate science, the structure and processes of local democracy and the city council can be equally difficult to understand. The difference between the two lies in the fact that the difficulty in learning and understanding the subject isn’t just due to its complex nature, but the fact that the system is made purposely convoluted to anyone viewing from the outside in. Designing bureaucratic systems to appear inaccessible to interested parties in the general public may sound like I’m spouting conspiracies theories, but it has an effect of keeping those not ‘in the know’ in the unknown. You only have to attend a couple of council subcommittees to witness this for yourself. Speaking out against the practices of systems like this when you’re aware of your own supposed inadequacies of your understanding requires courage, and this is definitely something I’m still trying to cultivate.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for blindly speaking out over issues you have no understanding or knowledge of. You don’t have to look much further than the various Etonians in the House of Commons to understand why that’s a terrible idea. My point is more that when there’s an issue that you care deeply about, but feel like you’ll never be prepared enough to be considered qualified over, making your feelings (and in the case of climate change, your fear) known is not a bad thing. Actually, this is just an opportunity to work through the discomfort and reluctance you may feel in your advocacy for the subject. I know that there will always be more details that I can learn about the workings of the city council, more articles I can read on the specifics of climate science, but there’s no quantifier for when I’m truly ‘qualified’ to speak on these issues. I have to decide that for myself.
Equally, this doesn’t mean that complacency of knowledge is ok – educating yourself is still a requirement of working through this reluctance. Certainly in relation to climate science, the way I’m attempting to do this is, in true nerdist fashion, by reading lots of pretty depressing books. This educational process is still very much ongoing for me, and I’m hoping to document this in a number of blog posts of the different books I’m reading and the process involved. We’ll see if this becomes a series, even just as an intermittent one, and I’m hoping others could find this potentially helpful, or at the very least relatable reading – I have a sneaking suspicion I may not be the only reluctant environmentalist out there. This process of ongoing self-education never stops, but following the journeys of other people in similar positions has always been something that I have found relatable and useful.