This post was adapted from a talk I gave recently at Cambridge University’s Green Week.

The longer that I work in this field, the more I am resolute in my belief that the only way to create change is through a multifaceted approach. We can’t rely on conscious consumerism; thinking that making small choices will unravel huge complex social justice issues is a notion that’s both too simple and basically impossible.

This isn’t to say that conscious consumer choices, if we are able to make them, don’t matter. I believe they absolutely do, but I also believe that we’ll get a lot more done if we combine them with collective action and policy change.

 So today I want to talk about community building and organising, and how vital it is to creating change.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something… vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

– Neil Gaiman on the importance of libraries

In the mid 1990s political scientist Robert D Putnam published research that suggested people gather in community far less than we used to. He found that since 1965 time spent on informal socialising had declined by as much as 25%, while time devoted to clubs and organisations was down by roughly half. Whether a PTA meeting, sports clubs, town meeting or political events, attendance and membership was down across the board. While there is no one reason behind these changes in social structures, rather a more complex combination of different factors, there is one thing I think we can see particularly clearly in the sustainable/ethical world: we’re gathering on the internet and social media instead.

We gather online, but we have to move offline too

Talking about social issues and justice is a good thing, I’ve dedicated a whole lot of my own time to it after all. In recent years we’ve seen significant cultural shifts when we look at public awareness and conversation around things like plastic pollution, unsustainable clothing or overconsumption. Alongside this, we’re also seeing more people engaging with larger systemic issues, especially within younger generations. All of these things are important but, as my friend Leah puts it, at some point we have to acknowledge what we cannot do. Conversation and awareness are incredible first steps, but we need these to instigate real, physical change, and we can’t achieve those changes alone.

We can’t change policy instantly and individually, but we can come together in communities that show up for each other, embrace one another, and get vocal about injustice. Collectively we can both support each other and other communities (remember when army veterans showed up in solidarity for Standing Rock?), and we can create more change through finding actions that we can take en masse. When we work together at a more localised level we can both identify specific problems to tackle, and create strategies that target our energy and efforts in the best places.

An example of misplaced energy is the public push to ban plastic straws. While banning single use and unnecessary plastics is not an inherently bad idea, banning straws is problematic for members of the disabled community who rely on them, and it’s also not an effective strategy for dealing with the plastic problem. According to Bloomberg and scientists from Ocean Cleanup straws make up 0.03 percent of the plastic in our oceans, while 46% comes from fishing nets, and other fishing equipment makes up a lot of the rest. Countries belonging to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation have already agreed on guidelines for how to change this, which involves marking gear so that those responsible for anything abandoned at sea are held accountable. If we could take the misplaced energy directed at straws and use to it create pressure for global seafood companies to adopt these practices and authorities to pass it into law, we’d see a much bigger difference and a much larger reduction in plastic in the ocean.

An example, however, of energy directed in the right place can be found in divestment movements across the world. Long term movements like Liberate Tate saw Tate drop their BP sponsorshipmore than 60 UK universities have divested from fossil fuels, and the entire country of Ireland has divested with all-party support in the lower house. The fossil fuel industry has recognised that divestment poses a threat to their business, and the movement continues to grow.

Long-term and localised strategy

Fights in the real world are often longer, and can feel harder, than working online. When we post something online we can receive feedback almost instantaneously, which can provide the satisfying feeling of having ‘achieved’ something with almost no delay at all. While a lot of the time we do achieve goals such as spreading awareness and education or encouraging debate, I believe this should be a starting point for what we want to achieve, not our only long term goal. Awareness is the beginning, but it has to transform into meaningful action and change too. This part of the work often feels less comfortable and more hopeless, but ultimately can be incredibly effective. Liberate Tate campaigned for six long years before Tate dropped BP sponsorship, but that sponsorship had already been running for twenty years before Liberate Tate formed. Gathering together really can achieve tangible change, if we centre our goals away from instant gratification thinking and towards long term strategy.

The other benefit to organising offline is localising the issues. The problems we face in the world today are vast and often overwhelming, but if we break it down into a few smaller, more local issues that we can gather and work on together, we can see more change overall. The divestment movement works so well because it’s localised. With campaigners across the world focusing on their local council, university or arts institutions we see more investment removed from the fossil fuel industry overall, rather than if someone tried to take it on as one overarching task.

Localised efforts are also a more effective way to get people to care and become involved in creating change. The threat of climate change is so huge that it often becomes existential and distant from us on a personal level, but it’s much easier to get people to care about air quality in their city, water pollution in their county, or soil health in their country. I’ve seen this happen first hand in Falmouth, where I live. Cornwall has a very strong surfing and beach-centred culture, so plastic pollution has become very important to those that live here because it’s literally right in front of them. After locals came together to create Plastic Free Falmouth nearly every business and restaurant has eradicated single-use disposable plastics where they can, and we’ve seen a plastic free shop open that is eagerly supported by the local community.

While localising means that we may not be able to tackle every problem all at once all the time, it does work to see more change achieved overall. Injustice is structural and systemic, meaning that many issues overlap with each other. Working to fight climate change, wherever we are, is also fighting for racial and economic justice as non-white, non-western countries are always hit first and hardest by climate catastrophe, and the poor suffer most under climate change. It’s a struggle against colonial and imperialist attitudes, as climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by indigenous communities including marginalisation, human rights violations and discrimination. It’s even a fight for LGBTQ+ rights, as recent studies have found that air pollution poses a higher risk to queer communities who tend to congregate together in specific, less affluent neighbourhoods.

This is not to say that working to redress issues in our own backyards abdicates us from the responsibility of fighting for these human rights either, whenever we can we also have to try and show up for the marginalised that hold less privilege than us. However, I do believe that by focusing on achievable solutions that move beyond awareness we also stand a higher chance of creating positive impact that touches multiple spheres in the world of social justice.

And the wonderful thing about gathering together is that we have a higher chance of actually finding these achievable solutions. Gathering different perspectives in a room leads to more innovation and ideas than we could imagine on our own. This is something else I can attest to from personal experience, I recently worked on a job that needed as many ideas as possible to be generated. On my own I could think of a handful, however I was put into a room with three people with different backgrounds to myself and we managed to come up with 74 ideas in a few hours. When you work together you create better solutions that will help more people, which is ultimately what we really need. If we look to the ‘failed’ 2011 activist movement, Occupy Wall Street, one of its major downfalls was that it lacked a coherent strategy or specific demands. Anyone in business will tell you that the best ideas clearly identify a problem before creating a solution. Activism has to be the same, and operating at a local and collective level allows us to do this more effectively.

Activism is supposed to be about positive, transformative social change that is inherently political.

Ultimately, many of the solutions and technologies we need are already out there. We just need more collaboration and conversation across communities, industries and individuals to achieve and utilise them. We’ve already started to see this happen in the zero waste models that work across industries, such as Pela case’s model of working with flax farmers. We just need to implement this type of thinking more broadly.

Other factors to consider

  • For any of this to work properly we need systemic cultural change and to embrace intersectionality

We need to recognise that the way society currently operates is inherently broken. While fighting for climate justice also works to fight larger social justice issues, we still need to work to increase accessibility and find solutions that are actually going to work for everyone, and we need to pursue ways to eradicate these systemic issues from our culture.

The straw ban is again a great example. If those holding the conversations at a policy level and those pushing the public movement had taken the time to invite discussion and collaboration from anyone within the disabled community, we wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation where people still do not know what they’re going to do when the ban comes into place. We need to look at problems through an intersectional lens that invites collaboration and input from marginalised perspectives. If you look at your collective spaces and find that they don’t reflect the community you walk around in everyday outside, then that is an issue.

This also means that alongside climate issues we need to look at poverty, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, ableism, classism and more. We need to advocate for local and international policy that removes these issues if we also want people to become conscious consumers. Because oppression and issues at this level makes it almost impossible for these people to consume or live sustainably, even if they want to. We need to think broadly about how we can create a society that means people have the money, access, and time to make these choices, and we need to exercise our privileges by showing up for things that don’t affect us. Those of us that can should lend our voice to lift up the marginalised whenever and wherever possible.

  • We need to identify where change can be most effective and focus on these areas

Beyond our individual choice, we need our collective actions to think globally, politically and systemically. Want to clean up your local waterways, use more renewable energy or reduce air pollution? Think about what will be most conducive to making this happen (for example reducing air pollution: pushing for more accessible and cheap public transport may be a better option than trying to convince every individual resident to drive less). In Falmouth we may have dramatically reduced plastic, but Cornwall has no separate waste service for food, which results in a ton of waste ending up redundant in landfill. This is something at local policy level that, if altered, could create a large amount of change to take us to the next level when it comes to waste reduction. We need to put pressure in the right place: on producers, institutions, and policy.

Another great example of this is palm oil. While it’s virtually impossible to go palm oil free as an individual, it makes much more sense to target Unilever specifically, who use 1 million tonnes annually in their products, and ask them to rethink their product formulas. They both have the money to actually do this, and if they changed to a truly sustainable alternative this would create a much larger impact. We need to target those who have the most resource and potential for impact, in order to create more meaningful change.

Ultimately individual choice still matters, but individual voices are much more powerful when we band together. Collaboration is key, and those of us with more power in society must use it to advocate both for our planet, and on behalf of those who will be most hurt by climate catastrophe.

In conclusion

  • Identify the issues you want to focus on, identify key problems, and find people who are organising around these things. Often you don’t have to start something new (although you could start a new local branch) as there are many organisations who are already on the ground and know what stategies work best, for example the divestment movement.
  • Try and seek out diverse voices and perspectives, together you will think of more solutions.
  • Look at what’s happening in your own community to get people to care and contribute. Focusing on a local level can result in larger long term change.
  • But still try to show up for the marginalised whenever and wherever you can, too.
  • Examine your own privileges, read up on intersectionality and understand that we need to create solutions that work for everyone. Invite people with less privilege than you into the solution making process.
  • Remember that it takes more time and it’s hard work, but it’s vital to take our voices offline.