Jamie Bartlett

The trouble with ‘activists’

The trouble with ‘activists’
Text settings

I often ask myself why there aren’t more people on the streets over climate change. After all, there is a near scientific consensus that we’re on the path to destroying every single living thing on the planet, including ourselves. Seems a pretty worthwhile cause. Yet you’ll typically find more people attending an English Defence League demo or a bitcoin conference than trying to close a coal mine.

I’d like to propose an answer: ‘the activist’. I don’t mean the gran who donates each month to Greenpeace, or even Caroline Lucas. I mean the pros who roam the country, joining causes and taking risks. The people for whom being a climate activist is part of their identity and social circle. The soft moralisers for whom it is not just something they do, but something they are, like being a ‘hacker’ or a yoga person. These are the people you see at the demos, chaining themselves to coal diggers, etc.

Over the past couple of years, while writing my new book ‘Radicals’, I spent a lot of time with these people, as I went in search of fringe political movements. I attended several events with them, and even took part in a spot of civil disobedience, shutting down the UK’s largest open cast coal mine in South Wales. The Swampy clichés are inaccurate and lazy, they are mostly decent people who undergo personal sacrifice for (what I consider at least) a very good cause. They are, after all, trying to save the planet for everyone, while most of us sit around using plastic and taking flights. The future will judge them kindly.

Here’s the problem. Because climate change is vague, international, indirect, becoming a climate activist is a choice. They’ve become a self-selecting group of very similar people – usually well educated, well-off, right-on people. And like every group of like-minded people who spend lots of time together, they’ve created a weird subculture which puts most ordinary people off. 

The climate activist subculture has several key components, ranging from language to dress code to dietary habits to decision-making procedures. They’re a tribe, really, and you need to know the correct behaviours to get along. First up you have to use words like intersectional, cis, and social licence, otherwise you’ll get a headshake rebuke. (I heard one activist trip over herself to call The Greenham Common protesters ‘people self-defined as cis non-men’). You further must accept that climate and capitalism are incompatible. You have to hate hierarchies too, since they are inherently capitalist and/or oppressive and/or patriarchal. And you absolutely must sign up to a slightly complicated system of ‘consensus based’ decision making, in which a large group decide together through a set of hand gestures what they want to do. When a proposal is discussed, people twinkle their fingers in the air pointing upward if they agree or vote yes, point down for no, point straight in front if they aren’t sure, and cross their arms on their chest for a ‘block’, which is designed to halt debate.

In one climate event, we sat through workshops on how to build ‘solidarity’ with other movements; we drank tea from enormous urns; we read home-printed leaflets about upcoming events; we ate vegan food prepared by volunteers; we spent ninety minutes learning how to spot undercover police officers; we concluded that capitalism in any form was incompatible with environmental sustainability; we sat on chairs facing one another in pairs and said ‘What if everything we do is never enough?’ for two minutes to help us avoid ‘activist burnout’; and we pinned the locations of different protests taking place across the country on to a large map of the UK.

Here's the thing: you can’t really blame them for this – they are who they are. That’s the tragedy of it. Their efforts are laudable too, since the goal is to make for an inclusive, welcoming movement. And yet anyone turning up who’s not initiated into this strange world must surely find it off-putting to see a group of adults discussing intersectional issues by solemnly ‘twinkling’ their fingers in the air. 

It certainly put me off. I preferred the time I spent marching across Europe with Tommy Robinson and his band of anti-Islam supporters. Not because I agreed with them more than greens (I think saving the planet is good and shouting at Muslims is bad) but because I felt more at ease with EDL types, since I come from a place where EDL-type views and people are not uncommon. People rarely commit to a cause based solely on a rational consideration of statistics and facts. They sign up because they think it will be fulfilling, or because their friends are in it, or because it looks like their sort of thing. That includes things that on first sight appear frivolous – language, dress sense, accent, social background, class, skin colour and a thousand small things – but which help people find self-realisation, belonging and fulfilment.

This is a self-reinforcing cycle, and the end result is that activists basically all look, act, dress and sound the same. Although they spend hours in draining workshops trying to figure out how to engage more minority groups and working class people and so on, it’s an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, left-wing graduate affair. In 2015, the head of Friends of the Earth called the UK environmental movement a ‘white, middle-class ghetto’. 

What’s infuriating about this is that, of all the movements deserving of attention in the twenty-first century, climate-change activists have arguably the most persuasive casus belli. For it to make any big difference, it needs to be as wide and inclusive as possible. Personally I hope they can figure out how to fix this – which may mean ditching some of their cherished codes. There have been some interesting partnerships with the more diverse anti-fracking movement, which seem like a good avenue. As the oil keeps flowing, the coal keeps burning and the temperature keeps rising, you’ll be seeing much more of the climate activists in 2018. More disruption, more trespassing, and more extreme ‘actions’. In doing so, they might accidentally prevent climate activism reaching the critical mass it needs in order to change things. The worst part of all this is that I think they know it, too. They just don’t know what to do about it.