The Action: Communicating Hope #3

After the science and the theology has to come the ‘so what?’ What are we actually going to do about all of this? Andy Atkins (CEO of Friends of the Earth UK and Chair of Friends of the Earth International) was our third speaker at the Communicating Hope gathering and his presentation aimed at looking precisely at this question. This post won’t cover everything he had to say (you had to be there to hear that!), but these are some of the key points.

Andy reminded us again of the urgency and scale of the problems, both globally and within the UK, and gave us the challenge that we can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again.

We need to look at what we can do differently:

  1. Scale up. We’ve got to scale up the solutions not the organisations, asking ourselves what can make the biggest difference now.
  2. Join up. Need to engage many more people in backing those solutions, finding out how to connect our issues to their concerns.
  3. Team up. Andy pushed for strategic alliances between organisations. This does not necessarily mean big branded campaigns, but organisations working on the same issues with their own constituencies. It was really encouraging to hear that the heads of the major organisations meet together to plan and work on a 10-year strategy.
  4. Link up. We must link up our knowledge, asking what knowledge do we need? Where is it and how can we link to it? For example, FoE has lots of knowledge that smaller Christian organisations can use and make the most of.
  5. Speed up. We’re in a dynamic situation where things move quickly. We need to be able to react fast, particularly with regards to the media.

This has implications for us as Christian leaders, presenting us with some strategic dilemmas:

  1. Do we convert more of our own within our churches or go with what we’ve got?
  2. Do we align much more with our own number, with other church groups, or do we ally with secular groups? Or both?
  3. Do we focus on local or national or international issues?
  4. Do we get practical or political?

Coming from his perspective at the top of a large environmental NGO, Andy had some strategic words of wisdom to those of us listening. He encouraged us to focus much more on working and making use of the people we’ve already got rather than concentrating our efforts on trying to ‘convert’ those who are not yet there. He pushed us to be coordinating more behind the scenes on strategy, asking ourselves where we want this country to be in ten years’ time and what we need to do together in order to reach for that. As above, that action does not have to be a big branded campaign, but it does need coordination behind the scenes, acting together publically at the right moment. Andy also encouraged us to get behind the major secular campaigns saying that whilst the secular organisations can have the intelligence, it makes a huge difference if they are supported by a wider constituency. It is the breadth of coalitions that turns a campaign into something that the politicians cannot ignore.

Personal Leadership Lessons

Finally, Andy had some helpful thoughts for the many of us present who, both as individuals and in our organisations, have committed ourselves to being leaders in some way on this agenda:

  1. Look individually at what are you made for: what’s your particular vision and role? What are you here for? You can’t do everything so stay focussed on the role that God has given you.
  2. How do you stay informed? There is always a danger of getting too much information so ask yourself who has got the knowledge you need to sustain your vision?
  3. What’s your sphere of influence? Wherever you are, whatever role you’re in, you have a bigger sphere of influence than you realise – church, family, friends, work… who might you try to influence to get on board?
  4. What are your own strengths and weaknesses, your passions? What do I do well? It will probably be in that area that you have the biggest impact.
  5. Who are the individuals who you can most effectively work with, both formally and informally? Make the most of those people.

Conclusion: Practical Visionaries

Andy’s talk was inspiring and challenging; all the more so because of the position that he is in and his track record on successful campaigning. It left us with lots to think about and act on, in particular the need to coordinate more together behind the scenes, rather than us all doing our own little bits and pieces. I think we also need to heed his words about focussing less on trying to ‘convert’ Christians to the earth-care agenda and concentrating more on working with those who are already there.

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28 thoughts on “The Action: Communicating Hope #3

  1. I think some simple clarity that evaluates, “the urgency and scale of the problems, both globally and within the UK” is certainly needed. There is a general awareness yet little clarity around timescales and extent of the problems we face. There are conflicting opinions and the message is constantly segmented, unhelpfully in my view, by tedious magazine style ‘5 minute insights’ such as those churned out by BBC Breakfast TV!

    We live as authentically as possible yet without a clear overarching picture that is less about doom & gloom, and more about the challenge and practical responses that can be made.

    Campaigning is to my mind a very 1990s approach. The politicians know how to skilfully manage all such campaigns – a million march against a war and we go ahead anyway; David Cameron carefully parades his Green credentials to get elected and then, having rearranged the dates of the Brazil summit to fit in the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, fails to attend in person. Campaigning always feels like it is achieving something, yet seldom does in real terms.

    So a clear evaluation of the global and UK situation with some clarity about steps we can take. Obviously this won’t get us too far if we consider that avoiding obesity reduces heart disease, yet we remain committed to obesity. So whilst Hope springs eternal, we perhaps need to know how both to advocate for Hope and to live Hopefully.

    I am sure you can lead us in this direction, Ruth!

  2. Not so sure about that, Micha, but anyway…!
    I feel conflicted with regards to campaigning. I used to do a lot of it, but became quite disillusioned with it like yourself, and so turned instead to focus more on the ‘lifestyle’ stuff, concentrating on getting my own house in order, so to speak, to the degree that I’m able. But having done that for some years now, I realise that that isn’t enough and I know think that the lifestyle angle has to be accompanied by a more outward-looking campaigning angle too, and vice versa.
    So I start looking at the big picture and what we can do and how I can get involved, then feel frustrated, disillusioned and impotent with that so think, ‘well, I just need to focus on myself and what I’m doing because I can do something there’, but then after a while that feels too insular so I’m pushed back to the bigger issues, and so I swing backwards and forwards.
    I wonder if anyone else experiences the same thing or if it’s just me?! And maybe God is in the moving backwards and forwards somewhere, not letting me settle with one thing?

    • Perhaps we might agree on campaigning with ‘teeth’. So if a million people marching against the war had simply sat down in Londin and refused to move, the impact would have perhaps been more significant. Suffragettes lead the way to secure votes for women, and Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement used direct action in their anti nuclear arms campaigns. We so often want to campaign yet at the same time be comfortable. I think the two are mutually exclusive.

      I also recognise that politicians are no longer accountable within the democratic system we operate in this country. They are independent of the will of the people and so they may acknowledge a campaign yet have no intention of acting in light of the substance of the campaign and commitment of the campaigners.

      Just my observations.

      • I think this needs a bit more historical perspective.. is campaigning so 1990s? What of the suffragettes, the civil rights movements, or further back the Chartists and early trades unionsists or the anti-slave trade campaigners in the 19th century?

        What if Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, the Pankhursts or Gandhi had said after the first few setbacks, campaigning achieves nothing?

        Of course, not all campaigns achieve their goals, and those that do frequently take years, if not decades to “change the wind”…. Most campaigns face setbacks, need to change tactics, regroup, innovate, and respond to changing contexts.

        But if we allow ourselves to be convinced that there is no point in even trying, we will have given up on our hope that a better world is possible…

      • Niall, you are describing campaigning with teeth – it hurts, it costs lives and it carries a stigma for the campaigners. We tend to campaign with rather polite signature campaigns or gentle strolls through the metropolis. If we want to express an opinion in the public square we will need to determine to pay the price of free speech. Something spoken has not necessarily either been heard or understood. Suffragettes were imprisoned and force fed, one threw herself under a race horse and died, chartists were transported as criminals, trade unionists were imprisoned and beaten etc. etc. So yes I like your illustration and believe you may be able to guide us in determining what effective campaigning might take. Thank you. MJ

  3. I’m struck by the comment that ‘campaigning with teeth’ can’t be comfortable. I read an interview with Peter Tatchell recently: he lives in a council flat, on an annual income of about £8k. Because of all his campaigning, his flat has bars on the windows and re-inforced doors, and he lives very aware that he is often in physical danger. I was very humbled by the life he’s chosen.

  4. Micha – I may be being a little dense here but I am not sure what you mean by this:
    “I think some simple clarity that evaluates, “the urgency and scale of the problems, both globally and within the UK” is certainly needed. There is a general awareness yet little clarity around timescales and extent of the problems we face.”

    Are you saying that you suspect that this information is out there and no-one is bothering to communicate it? Or at least not simply. Or that the scientists don’t seem to have thought of finding this information out and that they should do?

    I guess I am curious as to who should be finding out these answers and communicating them. From my understanding the scientists are doing the best they can as are the organisations that seek to promote care for the earth. And yet I get the impression that you think someone is not doing their job very well. I can think of a number of websites that do a fantastic job on the science and yet they are largely ignored. After all ‘a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.’

    • Hi Ruth. No, I am not critical of what everyone from scientist to activist is doing. Rather I as an individual am bombarded with information of the cataclysmic state of things from a vast range of specific indicators. The breadth and extent of the information is beyond my reach and info management capacity to clearly understand what is required. There are any number of campaigning organisations requiring signatures to petitions etc. I can sign, often ill informed yet well intentioned. I don’t think I could give a five minute convincing summary presentation to motivate and mobilise a group or individual that this is an issue that needs to be addressed now. It would primarily be a presentation of my conviction, my passion and my request they join in.

      Hence the value of a clear precise summary of the situation and flagging what are the key pressure points that can be activated now that capture the popular imagination, mobilise mass engagement and will make some measurable and tangible difference over a specific period of time. Today, unlike the halcyon days of sweet male duos singing contemporary folk, a man is overwhelmed by a wealth of information his ears are assaulted by through tedious 24 hour news programmes and soon gets to disregarding the lot! The noise of chatter is incessant and the messages become mixed together and ultimately unintelligible. So we need to simplify, clarify, summarise and invite dialogue thereby ensuring our message has been both heard and understood. Then there might be some action and not simply moment by moment reaction.

      Sorry if I seemed to be attacking rather than provoking further discussion. MJ

  5. I don’t see you attacking at all: I think these are all really good things that we need to be talking about.
    Martin Hodson’s first session that I wrote about in one of my previous posts was a helpful look at the key problems we’re facing today. The problem, as I see it, is twofold: firstly, as Dave said, we only hear what we want to hear, and so most people ignore what’s being said. Secondly, the responses are often pretty complex and intertwined, thus making it hard for the ‘average’ person to know what to do. I often find myself overwhelmed by it all, and I’m supposed to know something about it :-)
    Something that I have looked at quite a lot is the global food industry, and I have boiled my response to that down to a few basic principles that I think would make a difference if we all followed them. Each principle contains ambiguities though.
    Somehow we have to find a balance of trying to live it out ourselves, trying to encourage others to do so, pushing governments and businesses to take responsibility.

  6. And that may be the nub of the challenge. Campaigns work best when it is a simple ‘yes/no choice. For example, Is it appropriate for UK to go to war in Iraq? The more complexities there are the more Liberal Democrat we find ourselves becoming; ‘on the one hand yet on the other…’ a series of equally valid stamens and perspectives that appear to counteract each other.

    Re the climate change/green agenda, the issues that are simple must be clearly stated because if they are not the ‘campaign’ or ‘movement’ readily recruits the ‘literati’ from amongst the middle class yet fail to capture the popular imagination. And change through campaigning requires the popular imagination inspired and engaged in the project.

    I think you have stated well my frustration. The subject mater is presented in too complex a way to mobilise the national conscience into effective personal and public action.

    • Personal bias: I’m not into campaigning much, and I think of myself as one of the ’literati’. Having stated that:

      Don’t be shy to take a smart question to the masses. They’ve been getting dumbed-down, yes/no questions for too long—since it’s the simplest way of manipulating them. And let’s face it, every leader can deal with another few million supporters! Even if in name only.

      Simple questions elicit knee-jerk reactions. Using your example: Is it appropriate for UK to go to war in Iraq? I’d immediately say “No!” That’s a knee jerk. I did not think about the question—I saw it was about war and since I think of war as a last-resort exception and not the rule, I am opposed to UK in Iraq.

      But what about posing smarter questions, ones that creates debate and thought? For example: “Who is interested in the UK going to war in Iraq? Who’s getting something for themselves? Who is losing, and what? And why? What are the different stakeholders’ motivations?” Very quickly you’re debating the Army, the combatants’ families, the Government, freedom of speech & of religion, the Iraqis (majorities and minorities), the Iraqi government, the USA & NATO, the oil industry, the Western companies who want to get rebuilding contracts and market positions in Iraq…

      Complex? I believe in treating people as if they had an intelligent thing to bring to any discussion table.

      …But I am not into campaigning, really. I want to radiate change, starting with myself, then my family, my friends, etc. I do not want to march down any street (too busy with the veggie garden for that, sorry). Which doesn’t mean that there’s no room for that at all—simply that there is no room in my life for that.

      • Thanks, Julio, I am with you. I am confident in living the change I seek to encourage. I am also all for the dialogues/conversations you speak of and these are best facilitated around our own dinner tables and coffee mugs – or in our allotments.

        I would want to apologise for giving an impression that the ‘common person’ is incapable of thinking. I don’t. I just think that like yo and me they are just too busy doing life – veggie garden or watching sports – to get out of bed for a campaign.

        If campaigning is part of what the group at Ruth’s event advocated then there needs to be some reflection on why campaigns are so often short lived and often fail to produce the outcomes they set themselves.

  7. Yes. The Jubilee 2000 campaign was a great example of taking a really complicated economic issue and boiling it down to something that people could understand and rally round. I do know that the big organisations try very hard to replicate that, even it not always with success! I like FOE’s current bee campaign by the way. Interestingly, many of the big organisations are planning a major campaign around food next year – not a big branded thing, but all of them campaigning on food from their own angles. I don’t know much more than that or how it will be presented. Like I said, I think with food there are some relatively straight-forward steps that can be taken. The problem is that we don’t want to hear them or make the changes (and the big food industry players would be massively resistant).

  8. So Ruth, where does this leave events like the current ‘Whose Earth?’ meetings which purport to recruit new thinkers to the Christian environmental/poverty issues, but which seem to end up ‘preaching to the converted’?

      • Yes, I agree, it’s a good question Mike. I honestly don’t know. I do see a value in that they encourage those who are already converted but who so often struggle with feeling isolated and frustrated, but you might not feel that that is enough. One of the really good things to come out of Andy’s talk is that I think the different organisations represented there really did listen to his call to get together and be more strategic. There’s a thing called the EIN (Environmental Issues Network) which brings together all us little Christian environmental organisations and it’s being put on their agenda for next month to look at how they can respond to what he was saying. And Andy has offered to help in any way he can. So I hope that our Communicating Hope gathering may lead to some more coordinated thinking and acting. We’ll see anyway!

  9. The challenge with the climate change / green agenda is that it is not simple. If it is made simple then those that dislike the implications will rightly point out that ‘it ain’t as simple as that’ – indeed that it is no longer scientific. The timescales are amongst the most difficult predictions to make and the exact nature of the problem (and the supporting evidence) is also counterintuitive. For example, just because the planet is warming doesn’t mean that everywhere will warm. Or… many seem to think that if there is evidence that sea levels are falling in some places then it disproves the sea levels are rising scenarios. After all water finds its own level. Or how can a gas that is present in such small quantities have such a massive effect.

    If the evidence is often difficult to really explain – especially all the exceptions – then the answers are even more complex. We need renewable power but it has got to be diverse. And some of the cheapest renewables – windfarms – are the most attacked.

    Further who will suffer most from it is also open to considerable debate. This doesn’t mean that the problems cannot be stated with confidence. When watching an incoming tide I may not know which of the next four waves is going to be highest, but I can still say with confidence that the tide is coming in.

    In the end the vote for women was a simple moral choice whereas dealing with our dependency on fossil fuels doesn’t have simple painless answers. All of this is not to say that there is no merit in communicating the message as simply and as clearly as possible. However I suspect that many will remain unconvinced.

    I have been reading Kahnmann and Aversky recently and there is growing evidence that humans tend to accept messages not because they are logical or have plenty of evidence, but because we instinctively like them. Soon there’ll be as much evidence for this as there is for climate change!

    In short the problem with climate change isn’t, in my view, that we have a particularly ineffective bunch campaigning but that the problems themselves are very difficult to deal with. If we acknowledge the true nature of the challenge then, just maybe, the debate will slowly but surely start to be won.

    • Here, here. I think you endorse my point well. The issue is not an ideal one to utilise the tool of campaign. Interesting simplification of the votes for women issue; only a man could say that!

  10. Micha – I think we must be talking past each other. I’m not sure how I endorse your point. As I am sure you are aware, plenty of women have also made the point that at its heart ‘votes for women’ was a simple moral judgement. It was not a best way forward judgement based on constantly shifting / emerging scientific evidence. The two I would maintain are very different. This is not of course to say that votes for women was an easy battle to win or that there weren’t significant disagreements on the best way to campaign. Or that there weren’t numerous complexities about all that it meant. The debates are clearly still going on! The goal and decision to be made on this issue however was clear and simple.

    Scientists like Katherine Hayhoe (a woman – obviously) are clearly of the view that there are a number of distinctives that make the climate change debate particularly problematic and unlike previous campaigns. I think there is good reason to take them seriously.

    • nO I think the women’s suffrage issue was a simplification of the ongoing battle for female equality. ‘Votes for women’ was a simple campaigning issue and so was addressed through the suffrage movement, whilst board room pay is a quite different matter and contemporary issue. Re slavery Wilberforce built a campaign around the ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, yet to say that campaign ended slavery would be an affront to the many wage/sex slaves we have among us today. Where a simplification of an element of an issue occurs then a campaign might be birthed, however a successful campaign is most likely just a small step in addressing the reality of the complexities of the overall issue. I think your first piece was well expressed and communicated the distinct difficulty of addressing issues via campaign methodology.

      As for taking things seriously obviously this is the market of ideas and each person will take seriously what is important to them. Hence, those concerned about climate change need to pitch their concern well into the bundles of ideas with which the general population are invited to evaluate and subsequently engage with. I cannot see we are that far apart in what we are saying.

  11. Here’s an off the cuff response, to develp my thinking as much as to inform anyone else.

    ‘Campaigning with teeth’ may mean significantly different things to different people. Some may understand that you should campaign with such determination that in effect you use force. Some may conclude that personal suffering for the cause is what’s missing, and embrace sacrifice for its own sake. One danger is that the commitment of ‘campaigners with teeth’ may appear self-righteous and condemning. They may thus alienate those they are seeking to enlist. Were the Pharisees campaigning with teeth?

    Jesus’ teaching on how the Kingdom grows may be relevant. He describes it is as like a tiny bit of leaven that lifts the whole loaf, like a tiny seed that grows into a huge tree, like a small light that can be seen from far away, like salt… (I’m not sure what quality of salt Jesus had in mind, but whether as a preservative or taste-enhancer a little has a pervasive impact). One obvious common theme is that the Kingdom starts small to achieve transformation. A more subtle theme might be that the transformation comes as the change agent insinuates itself, as it draws others in.

    This fits with recent research that shows that people do not usually change their minds or commit to action on the big issues based on better information alone. Opinions and values are formed much more by relationships, culture and peers. Perhaps that is why songs and stories can be so powerful. The Kingdom is not on the side of the big battalions, it is on the side of the virus!

    Two final thoughts before I must do some work:
    1. In any kind of democracy, you have to take most people with you for the long term, even those who initially disagreed. How?
    [The American civil war was fought in order to maintain the unity of the United States as it abolished slavery. This is not a good example.]
    2. Jesus told us to love our enemies. How do we express love for those we campaign against?

    Best regards, BB

    • My page has just updated to show that there have been many contributions I was not aware of. My apologies if my post was off the subject or repeated previous points. BB

  12. Wish I’d discovered Ruth’s blog earlier! Enjoyed this debate. I think campaigning is vital if you want big societal changes, and on climate change, that’s what we need. You can lose campaigns as well as win them, of course, and you can do it well or badly like any human activity, but campaigning can be powerful for both good and evil.

    On the evil side the campaign to set Barabbas free and crucify Jesus instead won out through a well-timed demonstration with a hint of mob rule; on the good side the Stop Climate Chaos coalition campaigned with more positive tactics to have a Climate Change Act in 2008, so now the law says each government has to aim to cut UK emissions by 80% by 2050. It doesn’t guarantee we’ll hit that target, but it does force the government to think about the target and report on what they’re doing to achieve it, and it also helps make our government more credible when they try to persuade other governments to cut their emissions.

    Of course we have to change our lifestyles, but governments can do things individuals and even communities can’t – for example I can choose to buy a tv with an off button instead of a standby button that wastes electricity, but the government can ban stand by on new tv sets.

    I think churches are superbly placed for campaigning because we’re already organised in communities, we know each other and can do things together – we have social capital in a way that’s getting rarer as other institutions erode. And we’re part of a huge international network, we’re one body so that when one part feels pain, each part acts – as is happening on climate as the church in the global south finds farmers getting hungrier as their climate changes. Because we have a god of hope, we’re more likely to have the stamina for a big, long-term, difficult confrontation like the battle against temperature rise, and because we can pray, our campaigning is more likely to be successful!

    Mind you I’m Tearfund’s head of campaigns, so I would think that, wouldn’t I? What do you think?

  13. Ruth,
    Many thanks for making the summaries of the talks available. It is great to have somewhere to direct people to – there is more detail than I was able to put in my article for the church magazine. It is an added bonus to have the opportunity for follow on discussion of some of the issues raised. On the lifestyle versus campaigning question discussed above my own view it is “both-and” rather than “either-or”:
    • If our lifestyle does not back our campaigning then our campaigning will have little impact;
    • There is a lot of doubt about the viability of some of the solutions offered by environmental campaigners – in the local church we have the opportunity to be a “pilot plant” for some of them and show that they work or avoid cul-de-sacs by finding out what doesn’t work;
    • But alongside lifestyle there is an urgent need for us in the church to exercise a prophetic witness to challenge society to make the changes that are needed to enable sub-saharan Africa to avoid the consequences of failure to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions.
    A slightly different question is who should we aim our campaigning at – the government or those who elect the government? We are urged regularly to write to/lobby our MPs but there seems to be less enthusiasm for us to get out and influence the communities around us. Someone asked earlier in the thread whether the meetings were just “preaching to the converted”. Something like “Whose Earth” can only go to a handful of places – what we should be doing is e-mail everyone who attends a copy of the Powerpoint Presentations and the script and urge them to go and cascade the information to their own community – we have used that method quite effectively in the company where I work to get other messages across.
    We need to remember we are in a marathon not a sprint – in fact it is a relay – to transform society from where we are to sustainability will take more than a generation.
    Thanks again

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