Do Big Problems Need Small Solutions?
Originally published at Contributoria
“I don’t think you can love a whole planet. I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places.”
– Naomi Klein
Barely a month has passed since the 20th Conference of Parties (COP20) UN climate summit in Lima, Peru. Many a stern word was spoken, many a frustrated hand wrung, many a reference to ‘it’s now or never’ made. But in the end, like in each of the earlier iterations, just enough was achieved to avoid the most compliant of pundits from declaring the process DOA.
It’s January as I write this and already plans are afoot amongst NGOs and activists for COP21, with a mere eleven months to go before the armies of suited civil servants, ‘security’ forces and international protesters descend on Paris. The same questions that swirled around with a panicked urgency in previous years are popping up on emails lists I’m on: how can we make sure that *this is the one* where everything changes, and (perhaps more realistically) how can we avoid the possible come-down amongst supporters, *just in case* it isn’t?
As I scan through the posts and do my best to avoid chucking too much jaded cynicism into the email threads, I do a bit of rough maths in my head:
# of people fretting about these meetings
+ # of organisations paying their salaries
+ # of planning meetings held
+ # of months of lead-in time
+ # of voluntary activist hours spent organising
+ # of collective hours spent reading through these email threads
+ # of tickets to Paris booked…
While I know the equation probably isn’t mathematically sound, I quickly realised that there was a lot of time, money and energy being sucked into a place that not only drained the limited resources we have to fight climate change, but probably reduced these resources a bit with each peaking-and-dashing of hope that corresponds with the annual organising cycle. (We can only build ourselves up over a result that doesn’t come so many times, before it starts to feel like a bit of a charade…I’m sure there’s a modern day ‘boy who cried wolf’ story to be told here…)
The truth is, if the last 20 years are anything to go by, there is very little we can hope to achieve inside or outside of these summits, regardless of the theoretical potential their organisational scale offers. Carne Ross, who left his post as the UK’s Iraq expert at the UN Security Council over the Iraq War, had this to say about his time spent in the senior ranks of the Council, and the wider world of international diplomacy: “Between the reality of our problems and these [international] deliberations was a huge and unbridgeable divide… intrinsic to supranational institutions… To name a problem as “international” is to absolve oneself of responsibility and to place the solution in the hands of those proven manifestly incapable. The international is not international anymore; it is simply us.” [The Leaderless Revolution, pg. 149-150]
Beyond the specifics of the various COPout soirees, there is a bigger question that Ross’ experience forces us to look in the eye: what methods are most likely to stop the world from facing the worst impacts of climate change? Or even more broadly: what kinds of action are best suited to addressing global crises?
Big Problems, Big Solutions?
In most discussions, the answers to the questions above follow an understandable logic: if the problems are big, the solutions must be too. The allure of a ‘Big Solution’ is it represents the silver bullet we all so desperately wish we could find; the single answer to countless massive, complex and interrelated problems. It is the desperate hope that climate change can be boiled down to the text of one binding agreement. Progressive NGOs think we can negotiate the deal we need, many activists on the street think we can pressure it into being, but the push for a Big Solution is largely agreed. It’s hard to argue against it when we think about average global temperature increases, sea level rises and greenhouse gasses measured by the tonne!
With awareness of the scale of the problems we face – if we can avoid utter despair – comes a great weight; a sense of responsibility for something we can’t truly comprehend in more than an abstract way.
Many of us who actively try to help have become the loving-but-overstretched adoptive parents of seven billion children. We spread ourselves so thin that each of the children becomes an abstraction. Love becomes care, becomes like, becomes duty. We desperately attempt to find generalised solutions to apply to the infinite smaller problems we see the family struggling with, glossing over the specifics of each to give ourselves the sense that if we just find The Answer, we can make everyone’s lives better in one fell swoop.
Maybe this is what Naomi Klein was getting at when I interviewed her last summer. “I don’t think you can love a whole planet,” she said almost apologetically. It’s a phrase that has been swirling around in my head ever since, and would probably have felt incredibly depressing, had she not followed it up with the counterpoint: “I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places.” This resonated with me in such a deep way, and turned the initial statement from one of despair, into one of possibility.
Trade summits, climate negotiations, the UN, the WTO, the IMF, are all such abstractions in the lives of anyone who doesn’t go to work for them. Even the protests outside the meetings become part of the same abstraction, debating in equally removed terms about which Big Solutions should be pursued and applied across the vastness of the planet. Whether these Big Solutions are broadly more or less progressive is secondary; the processes themselves are out of touch.
The expectation that coordination at scale can or must be organised through a single entity or institution lies at the core of Carne Ross’ criticisms of schizophrenic intergovernmental structures and processes. Even a single national government is constantly working against parts of itself, as different policy priorities perpetually butt up against one another. This ‘left hand working against the right hand’ dilemma grows exponentially when you try to bring multiple governments together under a single banner.
We need everybody
As we focus on these summits and negotiations, we also reinforce an elite understanding of change. It relies exclusively on those who can directly influence policy makers, or can find their ways to protest at the summits where politicians and businesses hammer out the details of these destructive arrangements. Whether via policy or protest, we tell ourselves that if we can influence someone (with our votes or our voices), they (or someone they can influence) will make change happen.
But not us. Never us. Change is too big for us. No matter how many times those we hope will represent us don’t, we still put the vast majority of our eggs in their hand basket, wherever it seems to be taking us. I feel the kinds of changes the world currently needs will involve moving beyond representation towards the politics of action. This is critical for a range of reasons, but none more central than that representative strategies leave most of the world as onlookers, and our problems are too big for the vast majority to be left on the side lines.
As anyone involved in more local organising efforts will tell you, if the people affected aren’t actively invested in the process, any solution is unlikely to be sustainable. Luckily however, most of the world isn’t waiting for those at the summits to save them.
Rebellion starts at home
So instead of trying to make a theory work at the top and passing it down, why not flip the process on its head and start where we are? In my experience, threats to our water, air, homes and communities are realities that people will fight for. If we start there, social change immediately becomes a more democratic process.
As Paula X. Rojas wrote in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, highlighting the organising work of the Zapatistas in Chiapas and a range of more recent Latin American social movements: “…much of the political work happens close to home. It’s not that mass demonstrations are no longer considered useful. But there is a growing understanding that such tactics… are largely, if not entirely alien to the reality of most people’s lives… What if, as a tired overworked, underpaid or unpaid woman I do not have to add going to this march to my list of things to do? What if, instead, I could integrate my political participation into my daily life? What if there were a ‘space’ where I could build and learn politically with others, a space I could go that was part of how I take care of myself and others?”
A powerful development documented by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini in relation to the ‘squares movements’ (social movements that have camped out in public squares around the world, Occupy Wall Street being the most prominent) has been the move to re-localise these protests. Anestis, a movement participant quoted by Sitrin and Azzellini in Athens, describes the move away from Athens’ Syntagma Square into the city’s neighbourhoods as follows: “The neighbourhood assemblies have far more potential than the Syntagma occupation assembly, because they have the direct relationships we lacked in Syntagma.
We can be together everyday in the neighbourhood, we can talk about our common problems everyday – that the prices at the supermarket are very high, that we can’t go to the hospital, etc. – and it’s in our neighbourhood, not somewhere abstract and away from where we live…” [They Can’t Represent Us, pg 99]
In recent months, I’ve been involved in the Focus E15 campaign – a housing campaign in East London fighting the social cleansing of the 2012 host Olympic borough of Newham. Focus is incredibly local in its immediate reach; we resist evictions, go to court with neighbours and occupy relevant buildings in the borough to draw attention to the issues and help get others involved. We also spend a lot of time talking to people on the streets at a weekly campaign stall. However, this is not a tribal localism. Far from it.
Started by a group of young mothers who were facing eviction from a hostel and relocation away from their families and communities outside of London, this campaign has inspired countless others who have seen shades of their own housing struggles reflected in that of the group. Similar groups have emerged in other parts of London, citing both inspiration and direct support from Focus as helping them get active around their own housing issues.
We share what we do, we promote the work of other causes (both housing causes further afield and non-housing causes intertwined with the fight for decent homes), and we learn from what is happening elsewhere (Spanish and American housing justice movements, for example). Fani, another Greek movement participant quoted by Sitrin and Azzellini, describes the trouble of ‘social reproduction’ – or growing the scale – of movements based in a single city square in Thessaloniki, as part of the rationale for more local organising: “The answer lies in smaller-scale initiatives. Neighbourhood assemblies started multiplying exactly because they were trying to cope with the problems of social reproduction. It was difficult for the square movement to get involved with the electricity bills or the electricity cut-offs in different neighbourhoods. It was a more central organizational form. In a neighbourhood assembly– on the other hand, the neighbour can come and say, “My electricity’s been cut off – we have to do something.”
So we act immediately. It was the decentralized organizational project that helped us confront social reproduction issues.” [They Can’t Represent Us, pg. 101]
Similarly, the vast majority of what Focus E15 does is grounded in the neighbourhood, around immediate needs and practical alternatives, but its connections and influence extend well beyond. There is no bigger coordinating body, but coordination is happening, person-to-person and campaign-to-campaign, crossing neighbourhoods and even borders. The same patterns are at play in other parts of the world where neighbourhood assemblies have organised themselves autonomously, but with ongoing contact with and mutual support for one another, from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Madrid, Spain.
I’ve also seen these patterns in anti-mining struggles I’ve taken part in and documented in Canada and Mexico, where primarily Indigenous communities have successfully fought individual mines, while inspiring and sharing tactics with others facing similar fights elsewhere. And luckily for all of us, while the patterns of solidarity and mutual aid appear to be as old as life itself, the interconnectivity enabled by the internet is helping speed up the co-learning processes in ways we never could have imagined.
Local, Communal and Direct
These are stories where action is local (geographically), communal (connecting around shared experiences in participants’ lives), and direct (moving away from the logic of representation described earlier) and they offer us a number of distinct advantages that we seem to have deprioritised in the era of ‘Big Solutions.’ Here are a few I’ve noticed:
• Locality is visceral, not conceptual It is not a question of explaining how shadowy elites back political representatives, who attend global summits and argue against the interests they are meant to represent. It’s the outrage that your home is being sold to property developers or your water is being poisoned by a mine, and you can get in the way of it happening. It’s also the strong bonds that form between people in these moments of shared struggle.
• Locality (usually) trumps ideological differences While you might be a social democrat, and she might be a communist, and he might be a Red Tory, and I might be an anarchist, we all want to stop that private developer or that mine. And remarkably, we’ll probably agree on how to do it when the realities of the situation are upon us!
• Locality does scale via network, rather than via hierarchy By organising effectively where we are, we can go a long way to growing the number of people involved and areas affected, without relying on representatives or larger organisational structures. Small, interconnected local groups don’t have to tell each other what to do, but can still learn from one another’s experiences and adapt them to fit the situation. When a particularly strong way of halting evictions emerges in Barcelona, Londoners can take what’s useful, and throw the rest away, just as tenants in New York and Amsterdam can. The key is to improve communication networks, so good ideas can find their ways to where they are needed and can then be adapted to the particulars of those situations. Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze call this process ‘scaling across.’
• Locality makes change imaginable, and empowers people to do more in the process One of the first problems I noticed when I started organising around global issues was that we almost always lose. Even beyond the political/social/environmental implications, this isn’t sustainable for people doing the work. When we organise close to home, change sometimes happens the way we want it to. And if we can inspire and share learning with others when it does, our impacts become immeasurably greater.
Where do we place our faith?
In the 1960s, ‘think globally, act locally’ became a widespread call-to-arms in the environmental movement. However sound, the allure for many to focus on ‘Big Solutions’ has led us down a series of dead-end roads. Thinking globally became acting globally for many, and even as awareness of Big Problems has grown, this awareness hasn’t translated into Big Solutions. In 2015, with climate change and growing inequality the most pressing Big Problems of our age, it’s difficult to know if anything can still to be done to prevent catastrophes most of us can only begin to imagine. Without the ability to predict the future, we are left with two questions of faith that will shape the actions we choose to take going forward. The first is whether or not we should still try to remedy the destruction our species has inflicted on the planet. If you’re still reading, I imagine you’ve already accepted this as intrinsically worthwhile. The second unknowable question, for which a further leap of faith is required, is this: will I place my belief in institutions that seem to bring out the worst in people? Or will I place it in people themselves, who I have seen and experienced doing amazing things together? I choose the latter.
If we are unable to believe that the species that created the mess we are currently in, is not also capable of creating the kinds of changes we collectively need, what makes us think survival is something worth fighting for? The Earth will go on with or without us; I’d like to think that the coming period of human history might serve as a reminder that we are collectively capable of more than ecocide. If the human experience I’ve seen play out in so many local areas is anything to go by, we might actually have some remarkable gifts to offer one another and the planet we all call home. What do you think?
Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator and author of the book Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the more like people Facebook page.