What does it mean to win, when we face the massive crisis of climate change? Within the core group at Climate Emergency Manchester we have been thinking more deeply about this question to help us better understand our own experiences, beliefs and emotions, and to help us strategise. This is a work in progress, and far from the last word. We welcome your reflections in the comments or on social media. If you want to write a longer guest post response, then contact us by email [firstname.lastname@example.org].
The first thing to note is how far we have come without having previously had this discussion, without using these terms before. So does this mean that we don’t need to know what winning looks like? Certainly, it suggests we can exist for some time as a group through other shared goals and values. We did not commit our aims to digital paper until some 18 months in. Even now that we are talking about winning, I think it’s fine for us to have slightly different definitions of what winning would mean for each of us, providing these all hang together.
We have thought about related issues. We have openly discussed that we are unlikely to change the Council, or agreed that should not be the aim. But I feel there are still some loose threads here. We must have, at times, thought that we could make a difference in some way, whether that be through Operation Climate Vote or the petition for the seventh scrutiny committee. Both projects had some elements of success, but I don’t think we’d call either a win.
We have also made a point of looking out for each other – the thriving aim. This is ongoing, necessary work. Mostly we do it well, sometimes less so or in too passive a fashion. But where’s the win? Even if we are talking about winning, something continuous rather than a one-off, I’m not sure us all still being OK(ish) quite fits that description. And if one person in the group was not doing well, would we have failed or ‘lost’? We have a responsibility to each other but are not ultimately responsible.
We’ve also had some discussion (maybe it even initially brought some of us together) about the likelihood of the bigger, global win. We’re not optimistic about the chances of keeping emissions and temperatures within the necessary limits. And much of our work has focused on getting local actors to be more open about the fact that we are not on track. But we’ve also spoken several times about the balance between foregrounding emotions, being frank and open about failures versus the problems around doomerism or apocalyptic language if you are trying to work with supporters or encourage others to help you, join you in some way.
This brings us to where I think we can win: building the skills and capacity of others in the local ecosystem. My motivation for much CEM activity (which must have a relationship to winning) has long centred around working with others. I’ve read articles and drawn up plans. And practised at least some of what I preach, particularly in the past year. But there are still several elements of this that are unresolved in my mind. What does a win around building the capacities of others actually look like? Here’s where I am up to:
- Baseline: the supporters have skills and knowledge that they did not have previously (this is why it feels rewarding – more like a win? – to work with people who are not long-term members of other groups). We have definitely achieved some of this although it still bothers me how much our supporters look like us.
- Reflection: Can these supporters reflect on their skills and knowledge (the gaps, what they have, what they need)?
- Passing it on: Can these supporters share what they have learned with others?
- Self-sufficient, mutually reinforcing: This type of win has to be linked to making ourselves redundant. At least in theory, could those whose capacity we had built up continue, support each other, and deploy their skills and knowledge in other contexts without us?
- Is there a numbers element to this? We’d all say ‘oh no, there’s no set target number’ but we have to be operating at SOME kind of scale for a win. Sure, you could declare I helped an individual, and maybe we need that psychologically from time to time, to count that as some kind of micro-win to get through the day. But for me winning has to be a bit more ambitious than that.
- A difficulty comes when trying to connect or recruit supporters if your definition of winning is (only) to help build the capacity of others. For many, that seems too vague. Maybe we just need to get a bit better at articulating this to others, describing the link between actions in the next (e.g.) month and the wider aims.
- People outside the group want to know what you are trying to do now and what they can do to help. Sometimes the right thing to do is to signpost or connect. When someone tells you what they want to do (and it often includes the phrase ‘hands on’), maybe there is another type of local group that is a better fit – growing, stitching, whatever.
- But there are also a good number of people who are up for the type of work we have done to date and the types of jobs we could give them. Yet even this sub-group responds better to something concrete (time-bound etc etc). We are not a single-issue group, but we do get people on board when we have a current focus or campaign.
- There’s a balance to be struck between bright siding (don’t think we do this generally!) but also not making it all sound futile.
Final reflection: is winning possible? Is it better to define a win that is feasible, that we could achieve? Or should the notion of winning be something that pushes us further, spurs on? Maybe we have successes on the way, and we celebrate them accordingly. Maybe we want to win but winning must always be out of reach.
I will always respect something Enoch Powell said.
Got your attention now? It was this –
“All political careers end in failure.”
And so does climate activism. An anecdote will work here. In 2006 I was heavily involved in the “Camp for Climate Action.” It had held organising meetings in different (Northern) cities in the first few months of the year, always with about 50 or 60 people present. Ahead of the London meeting (in May, if I recall) I had assumed our numbers would double or triple. Cometh the day and… they didn’t. I remember talking about this at the squat, with a friend I have enormous respect for. He explained why he was not surprised about that; “No smell of victory” he said. And he was right. You could imagine stopping this road, or that arms fair, or even keeping GMOs off supermarket shelves. With the right constellation of elite splits, popular pressure, tenacity and dumb luck, you can “win” those. But climate change? Think about it for five minutes and think about the tragic trajectories of this species (and yes, intersectionality etc, but we have been in the extinctifying game for hundreds of thousands of years) and, well, it’s an Enoch situation. And most people stay away from hopeless agonising battles. Most people don’t stare into the abyss.
So what would winning look like? I gave up on Manchester City Council behaving as it should ages ago. The Labour Party and the bureaucracy of the Council are simply incapable of change, of acting in keeping with their own words, or even their own long-term interests. That’s common around the world, but in Manchester there are some extra pathologies, and I cannot envisage that changing, or being changed by any constellation(s) of actors, no matter how cunning, determined and well-resourced.
For me, then, it’s about building the capacities to act for “what comes next.” For me that’s about individuals’ skills, knowledge and relationships. It’s about groups thinking through what they want to do, how to maintain morale and behave strategically and responsibly, and not fall into the smugosphere.
This all seems abstract or unconnected to immediate “struggles” (such as the coming shitshow in Glasgow). But trust me on this – I’ve seen, from the half of my life I have spent in England, various environment groups go up like a rocket and come tumbling down like a stick. These groups leave no trace, no residue, except dozens-to-thousands of dis-visioned and despairing people who are quiescent, and probably blame themselves for falling off the emotacycle. A few people get gigs in NGOs, but other than that it’s a desert. And then, a few years later, a new group or set of groups comes along, determined NOT to learn, determined to repeat the same adrenaline-drenched failure.
So, creating the conditions for the avoidance of that defeat, even for a few folks, is victory enough for me. Those people, with those capacities, maybe they will be able to salvage from the storms to come, as our civilization slouches towards its terminal failure. Something something Sisyphus something.
Back in 2018, not long after my 40th birthday, I had an emotional experience that I suppose you could call a nervous breakdown. All the barriers I had erected in my head so as to continue believing that the future was, or could be, better than the past, just collapsed. I had weeks of fitful sleep, waking up with a racing pulse, short tempers, manically turning off lights and reducing thermostats, as if it would make a difference to anything.
In the weeks and months that followed, I had to find and build a new relationship with “the truth” about climate change, and our chances of dealing with it, being changed by it, or being wiped out by it.
As I binged on climate reading, the galling avoidability of our predicament hit me over and over again. The wicked nature of the climate problem, the ravenous and insatiable appetites of industrialised capitalism, the failing political systems of the West – all feeding off one another and binding the hands of anyone who might seek to truly grapple with the terrible nature of what we are doing, which is despoiling our only home.
And somehow, despite the terrifying clarity with which we can see what we are doing, still nobody is prepared to reckon with it. We have a political and social system that gives “developed” civilisation a wilful blindness. So while political leaders pay lip service to “the climate issue”, absolutely none of them are treating it like the emergency it is.
CEM was founded because Manchester, despite liking to pretend that it “does things differently”, is falling into all the same traps as so much of the industrialised West – lots of fine words, precious little meaningful action, sinking forever deeper in the morass of car centric planning and building ever more ambitious glass and steel towers that no-one will be able to live in.
I once thought that maybe “winning” could be an acknowledgement from Manchester City Council that this mode of being cannot continue; that the city and the surrounding boroughs need to adapt to floods, to ever hotter summers, to the need to use less energy in everything we do. The national political situation means that local authorities do not have the means, the expertise, the capability we need them to have right when it matters more than ever. But finding ways to help their constituents to act, acknowledging that more could and must be done, would be a way forward. It could help people to feel and know that those who would govern them have some understanding of the perils that we all face.
However the last couple of years staring down a political animal that is ossified in place, unable to change or even acknowledge the need to do so has made me feel that such a victory is not achievable – it seems we will continue to put a coat of green paint on the behaviours that have got us here, while claiming they will get us out.
As time goes on, and things get worse, maybe things will change. We will have lost so much time, and damaged so much that cannot be repaired. But whatever cracks may open up, whatever opportunities may exist to be seized to make things less bad rather than worse, we need to be ready. I’m not sure exactly what “ready” looks like, but building as much trust, solidarity, understanding, knowledge and skill as possible, between as many people as possible, seems like a good place to start.
Can you win with climate change? In one sense, you can’t as it’s a far bigger more complex system than one person or group can change let alone the institutions that seem hell bent on continuing as they are and making the situation a whole lot worse for the future. Privileged humans have already done so much to alter climate now and we’re now starting to realise the scientists might have been a little optimistic in how bad it’ll be at an average of 1 degree of heating. You’re definitely heading for burnout if you think you can solve the whole problem simply and quickly by just ‘getting on with the solutions’ in a chaotic and poorly considered manner as we’ve been told by some elected councillors. But then dwelling on the futility of our actions for too long can lead to low morale and thinking there’s no point in trying. To me that’s on the spectrum of delay tactics and you might as well be in denial about the whole thing or worse: working for an oil company.
Winning means to me that I start to observe and see more of my community building relationships and groups with an aligned common cause that isn’t always in direct conflict with each other or the long-term thriving of our species on this planet. Winning feels like coming together with other volunteers discussing a problem or potential solution, listening to each other, respecting diversity of opinions whilst calling out bad actors, delegating tasks, checking that tasks are resourced appropriately, deadlines are set, actions are monitored and followed up, supporting the development and growth of those who want to learn from others or learning to do something new together. Winning feels like becoming a stronger more functional group because you’ve focussed on producing decent outputs and are willing to negotiate on the desired outcome not sticking to exactly what was laid out at the start.
We just need to make sure it’s not a win at all costs approach for that original outcome because this isn’t something that usually happens quickly or without a large pinch of luck. Yes, we’re in an emergency, but if we don’t have a considered approach grounded in some form of reality to tackling an emergency it results in a whole lot of pain and excess deaths. We all have lives worth living, relationships to maintain and should find time to enjoy ourselves because it’s not going to get any easier and no one is immune from burnout or worse.
Society values competition winners, prioritises sporting championships and TV shows to assess champion bakers and apprentices, to tell us the best person will win. These games message us to say, public life is meritocratic and rational, when it is anything but.
If you play me at a board game, you’ll see that I enjoy trying to win – yet I’m suspicious of the very idea of winning. The games being played are not exactly what we think; but they are also conditioned by what we like to believe.
What games are we playing at CEM? Political games, but from a position of little power. The significant win we made last year and confirmed in this one – the constitutional change to allow more climate scrutiny – took so much effort from so many people who are in a position of institutional exclusion. Yet to make the change, Leese just needed to relent a little. Isn’t that infuriating?
Everyone wants to win, but not everyone can. How to square the circle: let even the losers feel like they are winning. Choose a metric, win by your achievement of it. Zizek recounts a horrendous joke (trigger warning – reference to rape) from the soviet era where someone celebrates because they got dust on the testicles of the man raping their partner. Awful and absurd, yet rejoicing in false victory is always a temptation. Think of Roger Hallam of XR, who sought victory by asking the police to arrest more activists, faster.
Winning comes back to strategy, tactics, where you define the terms of your own success. You may not even seek to really win, but leave content with a defeat in which you ‘won’ – like a losing football manager who praises the performance.
The climate has already changed drastically – the earth’s average global temperature is now over 1 degree warmer than it was! – and it will continue to change through further heating, with many devastating effects. The climate fight is without an overall victory. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t wins to be had. We have to define the nature of the wins for ourselves.
Robbie is a core member of Climate Emergency Manchester.