Confronting ineffectiveness as an activist

Conversing with my friend Nada about in-group dynamics, the psychological property of agreeableness, and group cohesion, she raised the matter of the difficult psychological disjoint between the change which activists desperately desire in the world and the practical realization that they generally aren’t achieving it. There have been moments of triumph for some social justice campaigns (enfranchisement of women, gay marriage, banning leaded gasoline) but most activists at most times have not experienced major policy change of the sort they are seeking.

When confronted with this ineffectiveness, people are provoked to respond emotionally and also (somewhat separately) to consider their situation analytically. Emotionally, frustration, anger, and self-righteousness may be the inputs from which defence mechanisms emerge or are maintained. Analytically, an activist in an ineffective campaign may be driven to consider how their movement or situation differs from others that seem more capable of affecting policy outcomes. Activist organizations tend to be informal, volunteer driven, with high turnover in people involved, few accountability mechanisms, and with modes of democratic decision-making which may seem to both produce poor decisions and leave people feeling unhappy. They are often up against status quo opponents with paid professional staffs, more formal decision-making structures which are more often seen as legitimate by insiders, money, and privileged contact with policy makers. The contrast can leave activists both dispirited and despairing about their odds of success.

These unpleasant feelings arguably flow from a faulty assumption which is nonetheless tied to the very idea of being an activist: the belief, or at least the hope, that you can actually make a difference. For a problem as massive as climate change, there is no necessary reason to think that non-violent grassroots organizing can change enough behaviour globally to avoid the outcomes which we most fear. Similarly, there is no reason to think that a hierarchy-based or violent approach would necessarily be effective.

Psychologically, this also seems tied to cognitive dissonance, which I think is most meaningfully defined as a situation in which a person’s beliefs and behaviours are contradictory, and where the tendency is most often for them to adjust their beliefs to match their behaviours than to do the converse. If the behaviour is ‘doing activism’ and the belief is that this will change the world, at least a little bit, we can ponder the psychological response to being shown that your belief isn’t presently well supported. It may be rational to try something else (go and join the civil service, run for political office, try to influence people through your writing, become a charismatic leader in a new organization), and at least some of the time people do these things. More often, perhaps, the response is to find a way to believe that you are making a difference, perhaps by ‘raising awareness’ or something equally woolly and intractable. Another option is either a secular or theological faith that somehow in the long term the success you seek will be achieved (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”). It’s clear why this works as a psychological defence mechanism, since it mitigates the despair of seeing the threat that motivates you alongside little or even negative progress away from disaster. What’s less clear is whether such psychological defence mechanisms are effective in terms of maximizing the odds that your campaign actually succeeds by encouraging smart choices, effective teamwork, and other practical inputs to success.

I don’t think the question of how activists should confront ineffectiveness has a clear answer. Personally, I think ‘the power of positive thinking’ is dangerous nonsense that probably reduces most people’s odds of success in most situations (though it is likely better than utter despair, if that’s your only other option). Perhaps something like an emotionally-aware version of the rational ideal is possible: a hybrid mode of self-consideration in which you both recognize the psychological bases which are necessary to keep going as an activist, while also remaining capable of dispassionate consideration of which options for behaviour are actually open to you and whether any of them can advance your cause. As mentioned already, it’s totally logically possible that no political movement can prevent absolute climate change catastrophe at this point. Whether or not that’s true, however, for those who are determined to fight on, some sort of psychologically-aware strategic planning seems like a not-entirely-impossible objective.

A further challenge is applying any such model of personal reflection in the social context of an activist organization. For example, presenting totally valid and well-justified points made about strategy may undermine social cohesion to the extent that the group becomes ineffective or falls apart. At the root, activists collectively involved in a campaign are allies rather than friends and must somehow maintain healthy relations as a route to collective effectiveness. Pulling this off while everyone is erecting and reinforcing personal defence mechanisms, and while huge uncertainties about which courses of action offer the best chances of success, is a challenge of such a magnitude that it may itself contribute to how rarely activists achieve meaningful and durable progress.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

36 thoughts on “Confronting ineffectiveness as an activist”

  1. This episode of the new Warm Regards podcast is very much worth the time it takes to listen, and has relevance to this discussion (mp3).

    These climate experts are of the view that keeping climate change to less than 1.5–2.0 ˚C is no longer possible through emissions reductions, and could only be achieved by geoengineering.

    They have a lot of interesting things to say about the science of projecting climate change impacts, and how that connects with ongoing political debates.

    I listen to a lot of climate change coverage, and this is quite unusually worthy of attention.

  2. This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking entry. The dilemmas you describe for activists are imposing and relentless. The effects of activist endeavors are elusive and slow. It is enough to discourage the most passionate and dedicated person and yet without such people, nothing would ever change. Global warming has become central news around the world and people accept that it may be irreversible and unstoppable. Every day, individuals and groups are challenging the status quo through information, education and action. There are just too many of us and we all want to live, eat and attain a certain quality of life.
    I do not know if we can make enough difference to avert catastrophic warming, but the efforts of activists and ordinary people are still significant and inspiring. There are so many often conflicting factors and this makes the cause much more complex than slavery (that was just wrong) or tobacco (that was harmful to health). I do believe that activism must come from many different sources or it is in danger of being marginalized like the Occupy movement.

  3. If “raising awareness”, or attempting to influence public opinion, were so wolly and pointless, then all this talk of the power of the PR industry – both in its real size (14 billion dollars globally according to the “Holmes Report”), and it’s ideological power (pretty much all major political parties and corporations employ them).

    This seems to be a contradiction in your presentation here – on the one hand, you recognize the power of raising awareness when you speak about the disparity of resources between activists and the status quo which can employ highly professional PR firms, and on the other hand, you seem quite negative about the idea that raising awareness, on its own, can be called meaningful.

    As an individual activist, you can surely do a great deal. You can influence at minimum the opinion of your friends, and more than that, the opinions of many others around you. The difficulty that I see, or rather the problem is that we don’t see generally speaking, those changes in opinion having impact.

    At this point I’m just speculating, but I have done a lot of activism and I wonder if there is a kind of fundamental difference between two aspects to it, one being “raising awareness” – we might better call this, changing people’s opinions. And the other is utilizing those changed opinions to achieve political victories, i.e. divestment resolutions, etc. In some sense, I feel drawn to call the first part “activism” and the second part “politics”. I wonder if this distinction would do anything to help clarify disorder and delusion/self-deception that, as you rightly point out, can become dominant in organizing groups.

  4. I find the idea of “raising awareness” is usually a consolation used when an effort has failed to produce any identifiable practical results. For instance, you hold a march or protest that is totally ignored by the people who you are trying to influence.

    “Raising awareness” or “public relations” is meaningful when it changes behaviour, and then it’s the behaviour change and not the awareness that matters. This can be seen in the distinction between, for instance, anti-smoking measures known to be ineffective, like exhorting people not to smoke via TV ads, and others that have been shown to reduce actual smoking, like pictures of diseased tissue on cigarette packaging or mandatory plain packaging.

    We have some pretty clear metrics for evaluating success in climate change activism: are new fossil fuel infrastructure projects being built? What about appropriate infrastructure, like improved energy efficiency and renewable energy? What’s happening to the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases?

    By most of these measures, there is some success, relative to a case in which absolutely nothing was being done. At the same time, as the podcast above nicely illustrates, what we are doing is nowhere near enough to stop the problem from getting worse and worse, to the point it eventually threatens all human prosperity and civilization itself. In the face of that, making people briefly contemplate climate issues in ways that don’t alter their behaviour is a waste of resources, and strategies that only or mostly produce that result need to be rejected.

  5. I don’t think it makes sense to evaluate success in changing public opinion by success at changing those decisions made by institutions which are influenced by public opinion. I believe this for two reasons. First, because the translation of public opinion into decisions made by institutions is not direct, and second because powerful institutions are interested in Public Opinion directly, not only insofar as it impacts their ability to make decisions. Powerful institutions literally pay polling agencies huge amounts of money, all the time, to tell them what public opinion is. They do so because they want to be able to pre-act rather than re-act in relation to situations where their decisions conflict with public opinion. Perhaps one of the reasons public opinion seems so weak is precisely because powerful institutions are so skilled at pre-acting to prevent apparent clashes between their decisions and public opinion.

    Collapsing effectiveness at changing public opinion to effectiveness at altering decisions impacted by it might sound like good pragmatism, but I think it sets unrealistic standards for success, especially interim success. Sure, it is a danger that activist groups can re-define effective failure as success, but it is also a danger that by defining aspects of success as simply part of overall failure, the work will feel meaningless. Ultimately, I don’t think low-resolution (i.e. birds eye view) pragmatism is the best materialist analysis of the situation of an activist.

  6. Nada’s comment was less about how to judge the effectiveness of various campaigning tactics, and more about the psychological impact of the perceived lack of success among activists.

    Clearly, one set of defence mechanisms are based on deliberate efforts to interpret all outcomes optimistically, drawing attention to some incremental change in public opinion, or saying “At least we tried”.

    A bit of that is probably healthy for both individuals and groups but, as in many other contexts, this kind of deliberate optimism risks spawning complacency, or leading to too much effort being expended on ineffective tactics (see, for example, Micah White’s criticism of big marches).

  7. Well, if that’s the way you want to take the discussion, then I’d say that “raising awareness”, while certainly it can be gestured at in a self-deluding manner, is also something that can be rigorously evaluated. So we need to make a distinction between serious efforts to influence public opinion and the consideration of the success of those efforts independently of their immediate translation into political victories on the one hand, and the appeal to the discourse of “raising awareness” without any real evaluation of one’s impact on public opinion in order to interpret a political failure optimistically.

    This conversation encourages me to recall the moment when the Graduate Student Union at the University of Toronto voted to endorse BDS. This was a political move, various strategic meetings were held leading up to time of the general meeting. What we were doing was capitalizing on changes to public opinion (specifically amongst U of T graduate students) which had already been accomplished over several years. However, before the vote, we honestly did not know what the public opinion was, and some of us were very hesitant to bring it forward to a vote for fear of failing and have it come off negatively for us. In the end, the vote passed with about 95% of the votes in favour of endorsing the BDS program.

    Maybe one of the solutions to the above mentioned danger of self-delusion is to have a rigorous and extensive modelling of how various segments of public opinion can be politically translated into local victories, and to focus on those victories which are concrete measurements of change to public opinion at the same time as victories which will be politically effective.

  8. I found White’s criticism of big marches a bit lacking given the fact that Chomsky had criticized the marches while they were going on explaining why they would not be effective because they did not learn the lessons of the 1960s. It’s pretty much the reverse of White’s critique, although it’s similar in that activists failed because they believed they were doing what folks in the 60s did – the difference is, for Chomsky, folks were actually not doing what folks in the 60s did. A single day of big marches doesn’t endanger capitalism. However, ongoing, continuous mobilization, with demands for more direct democracy, that does. The analysis I’ve heard in Chomsky and elsewhere about why the 60s activism was effective in relation to Vietnam is that there was a percieved need to bring troops home to quell domestic disturbances. The large anti-Iraq war marches did not create domestic unrest requiring significant troop deployments. And even the most significant symbolic state resistance, i.e. such as French and Canadian refusal to participate fully in the invasion, went no where near far enough to stop the war. I don’t remember seeing anyone demanding that our state offer security guarantees to Iraq (although probably some serious French anti-war activists might have gone this far because their republican sensibilities tend to endorse the possibility of a positive role for the state, even amongst anarchists).

  9. Thinking about this more, I think that my response to this is basically, it’s a category error. What it means for activism to be effective is that people are activated, i.e. opinions changed, and ready for action. But what it means to be politically effective is something quite different, you have to engage in the real dynamic of power, and activated folks are basically a resource that you can draw on. Just look at the way Erdogen activated his supporters and used them as a resource to prevent the coup in Turkey from succeeding. The thing is “organizers” are often engaged in both activism and politics. If they confuse these two roles, which is to say if they confuse influencing public opinion with the achievement of political transformation enabled by those changes to public opinion, I suspect they could not help but fail to act in a strategic manner.

  10. What an interesting discussion. I think that Tristan is right that activism has at least two roles. Activists can influence people around them and make considerable changes in attitudes and even in their environment. To make big changes, it is necessary to mobilize many players and to prove to them that a certain position is no longer viable or justifiable. Both stages of the process are critical. I think that the hardest part is to reach consensus in a democratic way.

  11. As noted here, democracy is actually an alternative to creating a consensus – it’s a way to move forward when it’s not possible to get everyone to agree.

    There are many deep disagreements among those who want to avoid dangerous climate change, including whether market mechanisms can help or whether capitalism must be rejected; which energy sources can actually be deployed quickly enough to avoid the worst impacts; how aligned the climate movement should be with other environmental and social justice struggles; etc.

    There’s never going to be consensus on this, either among activists or within the general population. If we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change we will need to do it in the absence of consensus.

  12. Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.

    – Bertrand Russell

  13. I think that some of it will happen by necessity as in China and through people’s demands and active resistance as with the aboriginal people. Everyone is aware now.

  14. For decades, fossil fuel corporations have captured the political process and thwarted climate policy. Grassroots climate action spreads, but not quickly enough to out-flank corporate influence. Meanwhile, the climate crisis grows more urgent.

    In this context, the fossil fuel divestment movement sprang to life. It aims to challenge corporate power, achieve climate action, and grow the climate movement. Divestment stigmatizes the fossil fuel industry in order to degrade its political influence and legitimacy. With corporations on the defensive, opportunities for meaningful climate policy can emerge. Divestment also provides the foundation for broad-based inclusive action. Everyone is part of an institution with something to divest—from an alma mater’s endowment to a city or state pension fund. The fossil fuel divestment movement is about more than moving investors’ money.

  15. Midlife brings strange changes to us all. After a lifetime of viewing demonstrations from the other side of the barricades, I was one of the many who admired the orderly commitment and resolution of the women’s march on Washington the day after President Trump’s inauguration. Yet my admiration is mixed with worry. As I step through the police lines, I bring a message with me: Your demonstrations are engineered to fail. They didn’t stop the Iraq war. They won’t stop Donald Trump.

    With the rarest exceptions—and perhaps the January 21 demonstration will prove to be one—left-liberal demonstrations are exercises in catharsis, the release of emotions. Their operating principle is self-expression, not persuasion. They lack the means, and often the desire, to police their radical fringes, with the result that it’s the most obnoxious and even violent behavior that produces the most widely shared and memorable images of the event. They seldom are aimed at any achievable goal; they rarely leave behind any enduring program of action or any organization to execute that program. Again and again, their most lasting effect has been to polarize opinion against them—and to empower the targets of their outrage. And this time, that target is a president hungering for any excuse to repress his opponents. Look at how Trump positioned the University of California—whose out-numbered police battled to defend the speech rights of one of the most provocative and obnoxious of Trump’s minions—as a target for retaliation.

  16. The problem for climate change activists isn’t ineffective tactics but lack of power. The forces pushing for unlimited fossil fuel use have extremely potent means of controlling the decision making of governments, while climate activists have nothing comparable.

    The question then is whether any means can reverse that power dynamic. If not, it’s inevitable that efforts to avoid major temperature rise will fail.

  17. But the biggest mistake sometimes made by activists – when I was an activist, sometimes I made this mistake – is forgetting that once you’ve got the attention of the people in power, then you have to engage them. So you have to do your homework and you have to have facts, and you have to be willing to compromise and not expect that you’re going to get 100% of what you want, because – at least if you’re in a democracy – your demands may clash with the demands of someone else. It’s very important to be willing to put pressure on government but it’s also important to propose concrete solutions, to take what you can get and then try to make more progress after that.

    The second thing that is increasingly important is how to shape public opinion. It is very important for people who are interested in issues like climate change or inequality, or whatever it is that you care about, to find effective ways to speak to the public and to change public opinion. Abraham Lincoln used to say: “With public opinion there’s nothing I cannot do, and without public opinion there’s nothing I can get done.” And I’ve learned that first-hand myself.

  18. There are two opposing models of how the Internet has changed protest movements. The first is that the Internet has made protesters mightier than ever. This comes from the successful revolutions in Tunisia (2010-11), Egypt (2011), and Ukraine (2013). The second is that it has made them more ineffectual. Derided as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” the ease of action without commitment can result in movements like Occupy petering out in the US without any obvious effects. Of course, the reality is more nuanced, and Zeynep Tufekci teases that out in her new book Twitter and Tear Gas.

    “The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” is the book’s subtitle. The power of the Internet as a tool for protest is obvious: it gives people newfound abilities to quickly organize and scale. But, according to Tufekci, it’s a mistake to judge modern protests using the same criteria we used to judge pre-Internet protests. The 1963 March on Washington might have culminated in hundreds of thousands of people listening to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, but it was the culmination of a multi-year protest effort and the result of six months of careful planning made possible by that sustained effort. The 2011 protests in Cairo came together in mere days because they could be loosely coordinated on Facebook and Twitter.

    That’s the power. Tufekci describes the fragility by analogy. Nepalese Sherpas assist Mt. Everest climbers by carrying supplies, laying out ropes and ladders, and so on. This means that people with limited training and experience can make the ascent, which is no less dangerous — to sometimes disastrous results. Says Tufekci: “The Internet similarly allows networked movements to grow dramatically and rapidly, but without prior building of formal or informal organizational and other collective capacities that could prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will face and give them the ability to respond to what comes next.” That makes them less able to respond to government counters, change their tactics­ — a phenomenon Tufekci calls “tactical freeze” — make movement-wide decisions, and survive over the long haul.

    This taxonomy also informs government reactions to protest movements. Smart responses target attention as a resource. The Chinese government responded to 2015 protesters in Hong Kong by not engaging with them at all, denying them camera-phone videos that would go viral and attract the world’s attention. Instead, they pulled their police back and waited for the movement to die from lack of attention.

  19. Another dimension of this which is specific to climate change activism are the frequent statements that we have X years left to avoid crossing a certain temperature threshold. The next few years specifically will make the difference between a comparatively attractive future and a relatively disastrous one, so we somehow need to go from decades to failure to at least a few years of great success almost immediately.

    Believing that sort of a change can happen arguably puts you at odds with sound political analysis but, at the same time, believing that it can’t happen is the road to apathy and cynicism.

    Living inside what you know to be a narrow window where it is possible to avert disaster, and then just seeing failure, moves backward, and incremental progress is the cause of considerable stress and mental turmoil, and perhaps also dysfunction within climate activism.

  20. The climate movement isn’t in a particularly strong place right now. The biggest debates currently revolve around how exactly movement leaders should talk about fighting climate change in a world where it feels like getting out of bed in the morning is a major accomplishment. The most successful climate actions so far this year have been in response to salvaging unexpected losses, like how to keep U.S. commitments to the Paris Agreement after our president announced his intentions to withdraw. An audience of activists seeking direction might require more of a pep talk than Gore’s motivating message of cautious optimism.

  21. No matter how discouraged they get with failure in the near term, activists can cling to the distant hope that they will be proved right in the end – either when their desires are implemented and disaster is avoided or when tragedy occurs and they are at least proven right.

  22. A present benefit for activists comes from knowing that you are doing something to address or change a situation that you are concerned with.

  23. The decentralized Black Lives Matter movement burst onto the national scene following the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. Since then, activists have protested police brutality by stopping Black Friday sales, shutting down rail stations and becoming a fixture on the presidential campaign trail. They have disrupted Bernie Sanders, confronted Hillary Clinton and protested Donald Trump, leading to tense confrontations and violent reactions.

    For these demonstrations, Black Lives Matter activists have received plenty of criticism from political candidates and their supporters and surrogates.

    The majority of Americans haven’t embraced the activists’ message or strategies, either; fewer than a third of Americans said Black Lives Matter focuses on real issues of racial discrimination while 55 percent said the movement distracts from those issues, according to a September PBS News Hour/Marist poll. Another poll conducted that month by NBC News and Wall Street Journal found that 32 percent of Americans had mostly positive views of the movement; 29 percent had mostly negative views and 39 percent were neutral.

    Such tepid acceptance of black activism isn’t surprising. This country has a history of disapproving of civil rights protests and demonstrations. And perhaps nothing better demonstrates that dynamic than the movement of the 1960s.

    Today, sit-ins, freedom rides and marches for voting rights are viewed with historical reverence. Schoolchildren across the country memorize Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Conservatives invoke the moral authority of the civil rights movement as a model for their own activism. Civil rights workers are viewed as national heroes.

    But in their day, activists were met with widespread disapproval. A review of polling data from the 1960s paints a picture of an America in which the majority of people felt such protest actions would hurt, not help, African Americans’ fight for equality.

  24. As the rapper Tef Poe sharply pointed out at a St. Louis rally in October protesting the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.: “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”

    He’s right. It looks, sounds and feels different. Black Lives Matter is a motley-looking group to this septuagenarian grandmother, an activist in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Many in my crowd admire the cause and courage of these young activists but fundamentally disagree with their approach. Trained in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., we were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity. BLM seems intent on rejecting our proven methods. This movement is ignoring what our history has taught.

    The baby boomers who drove the success of the civil rights movement want to get behind Black Lives Matter, but the group’s confrontational and divisive tactics make it difficult. In the 1960s, activists confronted white mobs and police with dignity and decorum, sometimes dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests to make a clear distinction between who was evil and who was good.

  25. The lone Steelers player to come out for the national anthem says it was a ‘mistake’

    Villanueva sought to dispute that interpretation on Monday. “Unfortunately I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally,” he said. “Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself I feel embarrassed.”

    He also emphasized that he is not opposed to players who sit or kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. “People that are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military, they’re not saying anything negative about the flag, they’re just trying to protest that there are some injustices in America,” he said.

  26. Their starting point is that much research has been done on the direct interactions of activist interest groups and business/academic/political groups, but much less has been done on the indirect effects of radical flanking. It may be that a radical campaign does not succeed at achieving its own stated goals, but causes important shifts elsewhere in the debate.

    This, more or less, is what they speculate is true of McKibben/’s divestment campaign. Shortly after the 2010 midterms, students began advocating that their universities divest from investments in fossil fuels. McKibben and 350 took up the charge and popularized it, to the point that, as of today, 749 institutions are participating, worth about $5.53 trillion in investments.

    Schifeling and Hoffman acknowledge that the divestment movement has not — and, realistically, probably cannot — accomplish its goal of substantially affecting the financial health of large fossil fuel companies.

    But that was not its only aim. It also set out to remove the “social license” of fossil fuel companies to operate, to cast them as moral outlaws like cigarette makers. And it was paired, in 2012, with McKibben’s widely read “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which made clear that the vast bulk of existing fossil fuel reserves could not be developed in a climate-safe world — that fossil fuel companies’ interests were at odds with humanity’s interests.

  27. “But be sure to ground your touchdown dance or celebratory round of kombucha in the recognition that this was one of the easier fossil fuel mega-projects to stop. Of the oil sands pipeline proposals made in the last decade, Energy East has always had the most questionable economic prospects and held the most risk for the Quebec-dependent Liberal government.”

  28. In January 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. and a group of civil rights leaders gathered just outside of Savannah, Georgia for a meeting that would change the course of American history. The movement had just suffered one of its most stunning defeats: the Albany campaign.

    The massive desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia had started with energy and massive participation. Thousands of people were willing to go to jail, including King. But after two years, they had fallen short of winning any concrete demands for the local movement.

    Why did Albany fail to achieve its goals? Most casual observers point to the shrewdness of Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett.

    During previous campaigns, like the recently victorious Freedom Rides, civil rights organizers had largely been met with aggressive, obstinate and overtly racist police leaders. Some of these men actively ordered their departments to attack and violently arrest activists, while others collaborated with white supremacist groups to support extrajudicial assaults. Pritchett, however, took a different tact.

    Much like the protesters opposing him, Pritchett had also read Gandhi and, therefore, understood what they were trying to do: use the drama of arrests, police violence and local officials upholding segregation laws in defiance of federal orders to land front page coverage in national newspapers. Armed with this knowledge, he only arrested protesters under “law and order” regulations and directed and trained his deputies to show restraint when policing marches and performing arrest.

    The result: Albany stayed in the back pages of the newspapers, which ensured that the federal government had no direct cause to intervene in the city.

    This lesson speaks to our current moment. In September, the British Columbia detachment of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP, established something called the Division Liaison Team. Dressed in grey windbreakers and polo-shirts, this team exists to “work with all groups that are planning and executing events so that they are able to fulfill their objectives in the safest manner for everyone.”

  29. Tanya Luken, a chartered accountant who lives in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona is another first-time activist. Before Mr Trump won, she describes herself as “a good voter”. “There was one primary I didn’t vote in and I felt guilty for two months. But I’m Catholic so that comes with the territory.” She strains to be fair to the other side: “I know and respect a lot of Republicans, especially in Arizona. My closest friend is a conservative Republican. The things that I think are the worst about the president—those people don’t support them.” She also cares deeply about fairness as it applies to strangers: the tax bill signed by the president offended her idea of social justice. Activism has its frustrations. “We’re so busy accommodating everyone’s feelings that we don’t get anything done. I go to forums and we have to spend 45 minutes talking about our feelings,” she says. Nevertheless, politics has become so important to Ms Luken that she says she will leave the country if Mr Trump is re-elected in 2020.

  30. Each year the situation becomes more critical. In 2018, global emissions of greenhouse gases rose by 1.7%, while the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped by 3.5 parts per million – the largest ever observed increase.

    No climate report or warning, no political agreement nor technological innovation has altered the ever-upward trajectory of the pollution. This simple fact forces me to look back on my 20 years of climate activism as a colossal failure.

    Many climate scientists think we are already so far down the path of destruction that it is impossible to stabilise the global temperature at 1.5℃ above the pre-industrial average without yet to be developed drawdown technologies such as those that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. On current trends, within a decade or so, stabilising at 2℃ will likewise be beyond our grasp.

    And on the other side of that threshold, nature’s positive feedback loops promise to fling us into a hostile world. By 2100 – just 80 years away – if our trajectory does not change, it is estimated that Earth will be 4℃ warmer than it was before we began burning fossil fuels.

  31. If you are a member of civil society, if you demonstrate and call your representatives and donate to human rights campaigns, you will see politicians and judges and the powerful take or be given credit for the changes you effected, sometimes after resisting and opposing them. You will have to believe in your own power and impact anyway. You will have to keep in mind that many of our greatest victories are what doesn’t happen: what isn’t built or destroyed, deregulated or legitimized, passed into law or tolerated in the culture. Things disappear because of our efforts and we forget they were there, which is a way to forget we tried and won.

    Even losing can be part of the process: as the bills to abolish slavery in the British empire failed over and over again, the ideas behind them spread, until 27 years after the first bill was introduced, a version finally passed. You will have to remember that the media usually likes to tell simple, direct stories in which if a court rules or an elective body passes a law, that action reflects the actors’ own beneficence or insight or evolution. They will seldom go further to explore how that perspective was shaped by the nameless and unsung, by the people whose actions built up a new world or worldview the way that innumerable corals build a reef.

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