What techniques can we use?
People who have been actively progressive could tell you many more things about how we might do things, and how to be effective, than are set out in this chapter.
The suggestions below come from my reading, observation, and very occasional action. They may usefully illustrate to you the varieties of means that are available to us to make progress.
And they may also help you to think about which processes and techniques are most comfortable to you. During the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand, the organisers of protest actions learned to ensure that people had degrees or grades of activity available to them, all contributing to the common cause. My friends and I set up a permanent presence in Parliament Grounds, and the major reason was to give people a peaceful focal point when they were not involved in, or felt they could not take part it, more direct action.
Not everybody will want to be in the streets chanting, or acting out, “Eat the rich” – that’s my guess, anyway.
I will stay away from the contents of the actions – that is what established progressive groups such as those discussed in Chapter 38 are all about – and focus mostly on the types or points of action which have been shown to work.
As a first, general, point, it is important that progressives get cleverer at what they do and how they do it, because the conservatives have been looking a lot smarter up till now.
Are conservatives actually smarter than progressives?
(This section is pretty much straight from Lakoff, and Oreskes and Conway) Recent history tells us that the political “Right” has been smarter than the “Left”. While progressives have argued detail, the warriors of the Right have learned how to use what they have much more effectively. They’ve learned how to sustain their own position by using such techniques as “divide and conquer” (eg through the use of “wedge issues”, aimed at splitting opposing opinion), delaying and seeding doubt (eg insincere engagement, legal battles and the “merchants of doubt”), appeal to our baser instincts (eg lotteries, reality TV), and using their excess wealth to bolster their positions (through think tanks, lobbying, and taking control of key institutions).
They are helped by being, by and large, wealthier. And their more extreme elements are also unhindered by genuine concern for their fellow humans, or by willingness to accept diversity. It’s their way or the highway.
But the bottom line is that progressives also have access to resources, and also have plenty in their ranks who are willing to act aggressively in pursuit of their goals.
However, we will fail if we adopt ALL the conservatives’ tactics against them. In particular the obviously unethical ones such as seeding doubt, and perhaps some forms of “divide and conquer” as well (for example, if progressives use wedge issues to split conservative ranks, they need to do it from a very sound base). We will fail because we will have allowed the ends to justify the means.
The good news is that there are plenty of signs that we are getting smarter (and still staying ethical). Many of the actions and tactics we are beginning to see internationally are becoming more effective in taking the battle to the conservatives.
People like Alan Atkisson are doing amazing work, working within the system with corporations and others on processes for effective change towards a better society. If you want a genuinely upbeat view on our current challenges from the progressive side, either of Atkisson’s books is a great read[i].
Here is Atkisson’s take on our prospects as a species,
“In a mere few centuries, with far fewer people, using very primitive technology, we have managed to create a huge, sprawling mess of a World, displacing much of Nature in the process. This tragic yet undeniably enormous accomplishment supplies the proof that we have the capacity to create – with similar speed, and at a similarly large scale – a bountiful and more sustainable World.” [ii]
Even locally, progressives are getting smarter. For example, I recently saw an article on the main news page of our local paper rebutting a previous “doubt-seeding” article which questioned the links between alcohol and cancer. First, the author managed to get it onto the main news page rather than the science page. And second, the text was straight out of the refutation techniques discussed in “Merchants of Doubt” – clear language, use of real science, and challenging both the arguments and the funding/motivation/industry/links of the author of the original article.
So, this chapter is about “smarter” ways for progressives to act. It is mostly from sources I have seen or heard recently, and is attributed accordingly.
First, a general observation about where we set to work. It’s not all about tearing down the old system.
We need to preserve and/or build on the good things that exist and the positive things that are happening, and either oppose or abandon the negatives (depending on which is most effective).
Building on the good includes things like purchasing from truly cooperative or Fair Trade organisations, and making ethical investments, and working with environmentally friendly methods or groups….the list goes on.
We don’t always get these things right – for example, we are sometimes conned by producers that they are indeed on the side of the good when they are not – but the general trend needs to be positive, and there is a growing industry in the progressive movement of monitoring and validation of “ethical organisations” we might deal with.
Actively abandoning the bad includes things like leaving banks which are investing in the fossil fuel industry (ie most of the mainstream banks), and taking investments (if you have them) from most mainstream corporations, and (getting harder now) giving up private transport, and stopping the use of plastic bags ….and so on.
Passively abandoning the bad means leaving things to wither, by not engaging with them.
Preserving the good and abandoning the bad are often quite easy types of action to take, because, while they might cost us something in terms of time or money, they represent clear and positive action in terms of our values. We make an immediate gain in smugness! our sense of our own ethical behaviour.
Opposing the bad is often harder, because it puts us into direct conflict. But many progressive groups are dedicated to directly challenging industries such as fossil-fuel extraction and indiscriminate fishing (think Sea Shepherd), to preventing the theft or misuse or plundering of land and resources (opposing the bad to preserve the good), to fighting corporate power directly…and so on.
And far too many of them are dedicated to ameliorating symptoms rather than addressing causes – to picking up the pieces as a result of pillage or neglect or war. One of the reasons progressives are making less headway than they might against the current system is that their values naturally lead them to try and support or rescue those who are suffering from it, rather than fighting the system directly. Alleviating the immediate pain and destruction that social Darwinism leaves behind will usually take precedence over attacking the causes of that pain and destruction.
I am not saying that a progressive needs to be actively engaged in all of these types of activity. I am simply pointing out that these are all valid ways to act in a progressive manner. Each individual needs to do what best fits their situation.
But, at the least, we should each consider which good things we might like to preserve or build on, and which bad things we might wish to abandon, or oppose.
A big issue for many of us is, “Where to start?”. In fact, I worked out the structure for this book as I was puzzling over exactly that question. Given the immensity and breadth of the challenge, what actions, or what points of pressure, will be most likely to be effective? Where is the most payback likely for the effort I/we put in?
In terms of the specific areas or actions we wish to be involved with, it’s up to each of us to find fellow-citizens who are interested in the same areas or actions, and to pool our resources. These days, there is bound to be a group, formal or informal, which is working in an area or on an issue where you would also like to work. It’s just a matter of finding them, and hoping they are geographically or ideologically close enough for you to be able to work together.
In terms of how you go to work, I think an excellent starting point is Donella Meadows’ schema in “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”[iii]. This 17 page article is also, by the way, a very enjoyable read and an excellent introduction to some of the key concepts of systems thinking.
After explaining how simple systems work, and how they get complex very quickly, Meadows discusses 12 “places to intervene…in increasing order of effectiveness”. Most of her discussion is based at the level of “our society as a system”, but the thinking can also be applied at smaller (sub-system) levels.
At the lowest end of effective places to intervene (Number 12) are “parameters” (eg air quality standards, minimum wages). Meadows says that we tend to spend most of our time on these sorts of issues, but, if we are interested in overall system change, most of it is equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Because only a very few parameters have an effect beyond their immediate purpose – most of them don’t kick off change deeper in the system, unless the system happens to be right on the edge of a tipping or destabilising point.
This may seem cruel to those who, for example, are campaigning for “a living wage” but Meadows’ point is that when the other parts of a system remain unchanged, acting on just a single point like this is a lot of effort for little return – and, in my opinion, it is also a battle that will have to be fought repeatedly.
Of course, the people campaigning for a living wage are only some among many campaigning at different points of the system – the question is whether they are, all together, acting at effective points for overall “regime change”. The efforts of the wage campaigners should not be belittled but, if done in isolation and when the system is not near a tipping point, will have little overall impact beyond being an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff”.
In the middle, at Number 7, is “the gain around driving positive feedback loops”. These are self-reinforcing loops, where the more something works, the more it gains power to work some more. Good examples of this are soil erosion (which causes less vegetation, causing more erosion) and wealth accumulation (which creates more resources, generating more wealth).
In the end, positive feedback loops, left unchecked, will unbalance and destroy the system. Meadows says that “reducing the gain” – slowing the growth – is the most effective leverage point on positive feedback loops if you want to preserve the system. So, replanting eroding hillsides, and reintroducing more progressive income taxes and wealth taxes, are effective ways to deal with the quoted examples.
Near the top end, at Number 2, is the “mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises”. These are the assumptions – often hidden or unspoken – on which the system is built.
A fair bit of what I have written in Parts Two and Three is about the paradigm underlying our current system, which I summarise as “social Darwinism”, and which includes such assumptions as “wealth is virtue”.
I’ll leave you to work out whether you think you can or want to work at the level of Number One, which is “transcending paradigms”. But it looks like an interesting place to be and work. Meadows describes it thus, “It is in this state of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, found religions, get locked up or “disappeared” or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia”.
Meadows points out that paradigm change can occur in an instant with an individual, but that it is much harder at societal level – “Societal responses to paradigm challenge have included crucifixions, burnings at the stake, concentration camps, and nuclear arsenals”. But she quotes Thomas Kuhn on what you can do, and this includes, for example, “…don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded”.
Overall, as we count down from Numbers 12 to 1, and the points of leverage get more effective, they also get more difficult. But, as Meadows points out, if we put most of our effort into changing the low level parameters, we will have little or no effect on the overall system.
My personal solution to this is to try to work at both high and low levels. I’m aiming to put some effort into challenging the high level rules or goals or paradigm (this book for example), but also to put some effort into attending mass actions, and cleaning up the beach. And while cleaning the beach isn’t even challenging the most basic “parameters” directly, it is at least cleaning up after the damage, and setting an example. Plus it gives me a better and more satisfying balance of physical and mental activity.
To wrap up this section, I hope you see from the summary above that Meadows’ article is a shining example of applying systems thinking to our current situation, and a great help in addressing the question “Where should I/we set to work”.
I started this section by suggesting that you should look for a compatible group with which to work. Perhaps an early act with the group might be to look at what it does through Meadows’ systems perspective. Not necessarily in the grand terms of “society as a system”, but definitely in terms of whatever system or organisation or activity the group was formed to challenge or promote.
The rest of this chapter on the techniques for effective action is not nearly as systematic as Meadows’ approach. It is more a grab-bag of possibilities I have become aware of, which will be attributed as I go.
First, from George Lakoff, the idea of using “strategic initiatives” of one kind or another. The first, which he does not give a name to, are “plans in which a change in one carefully chosen issue area has automatic effects over many, many, many other issue areas”[iv]. He quotes examples of conservative strategic initiatives: tax cuts (to make the wealthy wealthier, and the government, middle income earners and the poor poorer), and tort reform (to cap potential liability of corporations for environmental and other damage, leaving the costs external, progressive lawyers less funded, and the corporations free to ignore the public good).
Lakoff says that the last two strategic initiatives of this type from US progressives were the introduction of environmental impact reports and the Endangered Species Act – more than 40 years ago.
Lakoff’s second type of initiative is the “slippery slope initiative: Take the first step and you’re on your way off the cliff”. He quotes partial-birth abortion, school testing, and the “personalisation” of corporations as conservative examples.
His third type is the “stand-in initiative”, where an initiative evokes a larger issue. So, conservative opposition to same-sex marriage and to abortion is about the battle for control of the morality of the country, the intended triumph of the “strict father” model.
What’s disturbing about Lakoff’s description is that he finds modern examples of conservative strategic initiatives with relative ease, while he manages only one (I think) modern progressive one – gay marriage, which he was personally involved with. This is one of the reasons he raises the challenge that “conservatives are smarter than progressives”.
Lakoff’s view is that you should not respond directly to the other side’s strategic initiatives, but “reframe the larger issues at stake from your point of view”. In Meadows’ language, up the stakes from the rules of the game (Number 5) to the goals (Number 3) or the paradigm (Number 2).
Lakoff says little about strategic initiatives for the progressives, but they are clearly available. One way might be to reverse those of the conservatives’ (without confronting them directly). If tax cuts are already on the table, argue that they are wrong for all those good, whole of society, club or public, and equalisation reasons. If they are not, introduce proposals for tax increases, based on the same reasoning.
Most of Lakoff’s strategic initiative examples seem to be at the Number 5 level (rules of the game) in Meadows hierarchy. Tax cuts/increases are only at Number 12 (parameters), but they are among those few that have effects deeper into the system, as Meadows acknowledges.
Lakoff gives us a different but complementary way to look at the points at which to set to work, by considering both the direct and the indirect impacts of potential initiatives. (And, by the way, he also gives lots of specific suggestions on how progressives might act.)
Another idea, which seems counter to Meadows’ approach but has a complementary virtue, was given to me by a friend. He suggested that we should seek initiatives with immediate payback.
This was particularly in response to the idea we were discussing at the time, that the affluent world needs to reduce its consumption. Wearing hairshirts, and going without our comforts, are not attractive to those of us who are not masochists.
In the long run, there is little doubt that many of us in the affluent world will need to reduce our consumption (hopefully not too far, for most of us). But, Finlay says, let’s not make this our first step. Let’s find positive actions which offer quick payback, whether this is emotional gratification, or system change, or both.
This is how we get more emotional investment in the process of change, and commitment to taking further steps. It’s a sort of a “slippery slope” idea, but hopefully one which is done honestly and towards worthy ends.
And that’s how it connects up to Meadows and Atkisson. Effective changes to complex systems do not usually give immediate payback, because they need to work their way through the elements of the system over time. But, to make the changes in the first place, we need to work in a committed and concerted way. Initiatives with immediate payback strengthen this commitment, and create the foundation for longer term and deeper actions.
“Immediate payback” initiatives are likely to be very visible (ie results are immediately obvious), and more likely to be of a positive than a negative nature (it’s a lot more fun building a new kitchen than continuously cleaning up the old, past-its-use-by-date, one). Replanting beachfronts and cleaning beaches both offer immediate payback, but the replanting is the positive option – it’s not just (repetitive) damage control, but starting to create the preferred state of the beach.
And marine reserves and bird sanctuaries offered very rapid payback in terms of growth of fish and bird life in their immediate vicinities, as clearly demonstrated in a number of recent New Zealand examples.
This chapter started with techniques for changing the existing system. The “demonstration effect” is about providing examples of an alternative system. This enables us to act out elements of the new reality we desire, to influence others towards the new reality by seeing elements of it in action, and, when the opportunity comes, to offer it as an option when the old system starts to fail (“See, here’s what we’ve already shown can succeed!”).
Transition Towns, the permaculture movement, and self-government movements are all examples of this. And, for people in these movements, it can be a very positive act to set them up.
And then it can become frustrating and discouraging to be in a small minority group, making little apparent headway against a juggernaut moving in the opposite direction.
But they should take heart. The anti-profit, anti-power, and even the anti-possession movements are strengthening, and we may be nearer to tipping points than we think.
To quote an example from inside the mainstream, Kathleen Gallagher (from outside the mainstream) made an excellent film called “Water Whisperers” in 2010. The documentary included examples of the small number of New Zealand dairy farmers who had adopted more sustainable practices, such as fencing off waterways and planting riparian belts. I scoffed at this at the time, calling it “fringe stuff”, and doubting that the aggressive pursuit of profits underlying the expansion of dairying would allow such practices to remain anywhere but on the fringe.
Silly me. While they still have a long way to go to be fully implemented, and don’t address the central issue of dairying as a water-intensive, methane-producing, and inefficient form of protein production, the practices are now considered mainstream, indeed, best practice. I have apologised to Kathleen, and gotten a little more hopeful about the possibilities for positive change.
The demonstration effect, of course, can act in both positive and negative ways. But the demonstration practices which are being built on the progressive side are very important. They are lifeboats, centres for new types of social behaviour, for when our Titanic of the pursuit of profit and power finally hits the iceberg.
The key to building new societies in an effective way is to take a learning approach. First, because any fixed or stable utopia is, by definition, going to be wrong, as discussed in chapter 27.
Second, because new possibilities emerge as we go through the process of rebuilding, and a detailed blueprint will put unnecessary limits on our creativity in establishing the new.
And third, as discussed in chapter 35, the society we are trying to build MUST be a learning society, or it will quickly wither. So, best to start out the way we wish to carry on.
The essential parts of a “learning approach to redesign” are to conduct multiple experiments (to see what might work best), to have contingent options available when implementing likely solutions (to ensure nothing is irreversible), and to use systems thinking and double learning loops (ie both learning to do the thing right, and learning to do the right thing) where possible (to ensure that your thinking is dynamic, about a living system, not linear and sterile).
The only rider to this rather fluid looking view of how to build a new society is the need to lock in certain basics of the new society and, possibly more important in my view, to lock out certain aspects of the previous society.
If the foundation of the new society is a set of values, or basic concepts of design such as “subsidiarity”, then it is important to lock them in early, so they can act as a guide to redesign – a good Constitution can be very useful. But, of course, it is never enough on its own. And it always faces the risks of fossilising the foundation of the society, and restricting the development of new possibilities.
The discipline of “scenario planning” initially developed by Royal Dutch Shell (yes, I know they’re a fossil fuel corporation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them) is instructive in this regard. Scenario planning primarily aims to help people envision possible new futures, so they will be readier for them if they occur, or to consider whether they wish to work more towards one possible future than others.
But the action imperative which comes out of scenario planning is “take only such action as is compatible with all possible futures”. In other words, keep your options as open as possible.
So any constitutional base for a new society would lock in as little as possible of the new, to enable a learning approach to be taken.
But it should lock out as much as possible of the undesired and old. While it seems very negative to try to define a new society by what it is not, this may be the most effective way of setting off on a new path. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament of the Bible contain eight “Thou Shalt Nots” and only two positively phrased commands – to honour the Sabbath, and to honour your parents. They set moral limits on the new society, but left a lot of freedom about detailed design.
While we might ask for more positive and up-to-date expression of such a constitution these days, the Ten Commandments certainly left a lot of options open for a learning society.
Another way of looking at this idea of locking in as little as possible is to compare the design of a new society with the collaborative development of open source software. Such software is built by a community, and remains permanently available for amendment or redesign – so virtually nothing is locked in beyond the original purpose of the software.
And, whatever institutions are established initially, to stabilise and “ground” the new society, should be set up with suitable review periods, so that they in turn do not fossilise or become bases for gradual accumulation of inappropriate power.
An end-note on options for effective action. If you can avoid it, don’t martyr yourself by sacrificing what is most precious to you unless you absolutely have to.
Look for what’s plentiful – not only your ingenuity, but also resources which you have relative abundance of. See it as sharing rather than sacrifice. As I used to describe burglary, in the days before it became more organised – see it as a redistribution of goods rather than as a loss.
Some have, and some will, give up all material comfort or all prospect of it, to fight the progressive fight. If you are one of those, you have my thanks and good wishes, but I’m not ready to copy you just yet.
Turning now to what you might start by doing, if you are one of my “fellow fence-sitters of the affluent world”, and looking to get more engaged.
[i] “Believing Cassandra: How to be an Optimist in a Pessimist’s World”, Chelsea Green 1999 (2nd edition Earthscan 2011) and “The Sustainability Transformation: How to Accelerate Positive Change in Challenging Times”, Earthscan, 2009
[ii] “Believing Cassandra”, p194, Loc 4062
[iii] “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a system”, Donella H. Meadows, Sustainability Institute, 1997
[iv] “The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant”, page 26, Loc 622