Thursday, 22 July 2010

Calls for "grassroots" campaigns - energy without strategy?

There's been a lot of talk in climate change activist circles of the need to revitalize the grassroots lately. On some of the group email lists I'm on people say it's the only way forward, etc. But I'm not so sure.

One example given of recent grassroots success,, was actually a spectacular international "grassroots" failure - looked fabulous, zero impact on Copenhagen (the objective of the movement). Ditto TckTckTck. This is a painful thing to say; I've been part of some of these efforts, and many of my friends have invested huge effort and money in them. But such efforts are patently not succeeding.

I now see these campaigns as energy without a real strategy. We need the two together.

In Obama we had a kind of triumph of a grassroots movement with a simple objective (elect him); yet, once in WDC, as usual, incumbent interests are able to deploy funds and Fox to neutralise what turns out, also as usual, to actually be an ephemeral movement.

Eventually community sensibility will, of course, shift and the changes we need will seem obvious solutions - but we need some tougher minded and more immediate strategies than vague and directionless calls to "build the grassroots" (a.k.a. "empower the people") or "tell
the politicians what we want".

(We see the same thing reflected in investor circles, with IIGCC and INCR and the like drawing up lists of demands and presenting them, almost naively, to politicians being arm-wrestled by business lobbyists.)

We have a corporatist society, especially in the US, where democratic participation is in practice highly restricted to issues that don't impact on corporatist agendas. (Worried about a climate bill? Stoke a "grassroots" anti-gay marriage campaign. Etc.)

I'd like to see that system changed; but it's probably not going to be in my lifetime, and that's partly because in most places we have so little experience of what a participatory democracy of informed citizens looks like that it's going to take a long time to develop new modes. (I look at the EU's laborious and inclusive standards setting and think perhaps that's how it might have to work; and China may yet give us some new models of inclusive community participation that avoid polarising elections entirely).

Strategy in the next 5-10 years, our "fix-it or miss the boat" period for climate change, will come down to how we convert rather than fight the corporatist world, so they then do as they always do, and find a way to give governments their marching orders.

There is a chance we can use all that "grassroots" energy on the specific strategy of peeling off the juvenile (only just coming of age) part of the corporatist world - institutional investors - and get them to flex their muscles and start telling the more selfish bullies on the block (e.g. fossil fuel companies) to get in line. Or at least quietly back those parties that do that dirty work for them. It looks to me to be one of our few chances ... but then maybe I'm being hopelessly naive myself ...

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