The fossil fuel divestment campaign at the University of Toronto is still dealing with the disappointment of President Gertler announcing such an uninspiring response to the social injury and financial risk associated with fossil fuel investments.
One early response from the campaign was to hold a creative direct action outside Simcoe Hall, home to the Office of the President and the Governing Council.
The action made me think about different ways in which acts undertaken to provoke social or political change can be evaluated. At least two possibilities come to mind: evaluation in terms of the subjective experience of participants, and evaluation in terms of the effect on the thinking or behaviour of the mass public or elite decision-makers.
Subjective experiences (AKA “feelings”) are not trivial. I think the biggest challenge activist groups face is maintaining the health and motivation of their members and key organizers. Indeed, when it comes to big marches like the People’s Climate March and March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate I have reached the conclusion that they are more important in terms of energizing participants than in terms of changing public opinion. Not least, this is because the media tends to wildly under-report them.
That being said, I think activism by definition is an effort to change how the world works and that doing that requires changing the thinking and behaviour of the mass public and decision-makers. To be effective in that, we need to think hard about why people believe what they believe and make the choices they make, and what kinds of interventions can change those things. As activists resolutely focused on achieving positive change, we need to focus on producing good outcomes which would not have happened without us.
From the second perspective, I am less confident about how productive the action outside Simcoe Hall was. For the random student wandering by – or the random administrator listening through their window – did it improve the odds of them supporting fossil fuel divestment? The more militant members of the campaign often talk about “building power”, but we ultimately cannot force the administration to do anything. We need to convince them, which takes us back to serious strategic thinking about how to change the beliefs and behaviours of non-activists.