Metrics of activist success


in PhD thesis, Politics, Psychology, Rants, The environment

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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

anon April 3, 2016 at 2:17 am

For one group of people to decide that a thing should not be done, then agree to use misinformation to trick everyone else into acting that way, is insidious, paternalistic, and duplicitous.

anon April 3, 2016 at 2:25 am

Can a properly-structured democratic system solve or control environmental problems, or does dealing with the largest ones require abandoning democracy?

anon April 3, 2016 at 2:54 am

We have no fundamental reason for believing that people have rights, but the world seems to work better when we act as though they do – so let’s act that way, and let the feelings and consequences follow.

oleh April 4, 2016 at 10:21 am

It seems that one of the attributes of the action at Simcoe Hall was the simplicity of the message. Such actions would seem to serve both purposes you identify. It seems to me that from such a variety of efforts there has been widespread recognition and acceptance that the reliance on oil must end.

Tristan Laing April 4, 2016 at 5:30 pm

I personally read the report released by the Presidents office, and if I didn’t have personal contacts with people in the divestment movement, I may have interpreted it to mean that U of T had basically accepted the proposal, with some technical changes to increase the effectiveness of changes in decision making regarding investments to improve the social impact of U of T’s investment portfolio.

In other words, social economy language – because it integrates so easily into the logic of capital – can be co-opted by agents to confuse and misdirect attention of well meaning individuals.

I wonder, along Heideggerian lines, whether the problem with Capitalism is not that it endeavours to maximize profit, but that it endeavours to maximize something measurable, and to measure and calculate endlessly to what extent it is maximizing. Allowing moral matters to come under the purview of instrumental rationality turns politics into an exchange of ideas (or, at worst, mocking insults) between experts , as the public sphere becomes a gladiatorial arena and facts and analysis become tools to batter your opponent rather than tools to understand.

You continue to believe that “We need to convince them” – but doesn’t Gertler’s report prove that no amount of convincing them, if that means encouraging them to speak and evaluate in the discourse you provide for them, actually has an effect on their plans? Rather, their plans are translated into your discourse, and they continue unabated.

Or, does the fact they are forced to speak in this language of social and environmental accountability have a substantial limiting effect on what they can practically get away with?

In any case, the question I can’t answer, but must answer, is – does the proposal just put forward by U of T make a difference? Or, is it just more of the same, translated into the language by which they are being criticized, to appear to have taken all the views into account.

anonymous April 24, 2016 at 6:09 pm

“The habitual tactics of marching, holding signs, and establishing contemporary autonomous zones risk becoming comforting substitutes for effective success.”

-Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams “Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” 2013

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