Spiraling out – Gonçalo Paulo

It can probably be argued that at least from the 2000s on, the number of self-described activists has been rising. The usage of the word as risen continuously since the 1960s. The word activist has wildly different meaning depending on the context. When holders of power are being challenged, activists are used as escape goats and called utopists with no grasp of reality, in the best case, or disillusioned people who want chaos, in the most frequent one. When the public is hearing about this struggle it may think that activists stand for something brave, sticking to what they believe in and fighting for what is right, if they support the message, or think that they are lazy people with nothing better to do with their time than to bother regular people, if they don’t.

Activists often call themselves activist. Some prefer not to use that word publicly because of the stigma that may be associated with the word, but they still see themselves as one. Most would identify activism as fighting against an unjust system, or generally against power, to bring about some needed change that will make the system more just.

In general, it is considered that activism is an underdog fight, against a mighty, sometimes diffusive, enemy, and that the creation of a struggle is already victory. Indeed, different social movements have grown and faded, some achieving their goals, some not, all with a constant back and forth against the holders of power, not ever being clear that they were about to achieve what they were struggling for until the very end. Some where also content of being steppingstones for the next group to broaden the fight.

I’m not in a position to criticize the movement or any particular pattern of thinking inside the movement. I’ve done some of these actions and participated in these patterns of thought, and it probably can still be said that I do. That being said, I will argue that the way we view, and live activism is hurting the strategic capabilities of the climate justice movement, at least the western, Europe centrist, expression of it.

The enlightened few

When discussing in activist circles one theme is common: “We have to make people more aware of this injustice, and then, more of them will join us”. It is not true, however, that people reproduce injustices because they are unaware of the injustice. It’s not so uncommon that they do this because they feel they cannot do anything about it, or because they feel the “world is just like this”.

Because of this idea, some people in the climate movement still hold that people just need to know what we know, be better informed, and be told how their lifestyles, or other’s people lifestyles are hurting the environment. Because of this they continue to repeat numbers and figures that people have become inoculated against, without making them feel they can do anything about it.

 This idea of transmitting the correct information to people then leads to more internal divides than bridges to the outside world. Although most of the message is clearly the same, “there needs to be a global effort to abate climate change, and the actual response is not enough”, some specifics on the “who”, who are main culprits, the “how”, how do we stop it, the “when”, how much time we have, the “where”, what countries need to do the most lifting, have significantly divided the movement.

I will not argue that these are not important details. I have in my mind an answer to all those questions. But I do feel we antagonize, and are antagonized, by people who agree that something needs to be done and we continue to create smaller and smaller groups of isolated people fighting the way they think it’s the best never able to reach a point where they indeed can change the reality they live in.

The idea that people just need to be convinced, that they don’t have enough information, completely ignores the imbalance of power that currently holds us into place. There is no debating us out of 1.5ºC, the current economical and political system is not concerned about what ideas will win in the marketplace of ideas. It is concerned with maintaining it’s power, and we should be concerned about constructing a power that can challenge it.

Fight the power

There is a certain aversion to power in social movements. To some, activism is the expiation of the cardinal sin of living in a world corrupted by powers which we don’t like doing things we don’t want them to do. It’s only natural then that you don’t trust yourself, or the movement to hold power. We all know what happened to those beautiful revolutions and how they turned out 40 years later.

There is rarely an intention to create power figures, or structures, to replace the existing ones. This isn’t, for most, the main goal of activism. Firstly because, some would argue, that the crumbling of these structures of power is impossible to see and do in our lifetimes. Secondly, some would question the possibility of doing something if those structures would indeed crumble. After all, we  are the minority of people who do think the system is unjust. It would just build itself back together.

This is distilled self-defeatism, and we are drowning in it. Few people believe we might win, and I’m most certainly not one of them. This is clearly present in the actions and relationships between organizations, in the attitude of fighting just to fight, doing the same actions, speeches, over and over again, as our struggle ritual, not actually reflecting on why we are doing them or what we can actually achieve.

An island of one

We became focused on expressing our core values through our actions. We use our actions to make ourselves fell like we are doing something against the injustice, not to challenge that injustice. We have no plan on how to effectively engage with society and the political structures and change the system.

At the same time, we have created disdain between ourselves for not following the same mantra. Some organizations are too radical, others are too liberal, or lack class consciousness, some are just reformists, not understanding what’s wrong with the world. This is happening not only in the relations between organizations but inside themselves.

Organizations have become fossilized from the core out. The importantly deep and political understanding of the world has become a requisite for most organizations. Despite this, all of them disagree what the deep and political understanding of the world is. They focus on replicating old patterns and following old ideas, becoming so ideologically entrenched that they stop being attractive to everyone who does not completely agree with them. Their tactics and messaging become so technical and specific that people from outside cannot begin to understand.

It becomes impractical, if not downright impossible, to question the usage of a tactic or the implication of message, without the validity of your belonging being questioned. After all, there everyone agrees that that is the correct view, and so any dissidence can be chalked up to ignorance of the core views.

Spiraling out

To escape the internal spiral of self-irrelevance we must spiral out. We must expand ourselves, our numbers, and our area of influence. We have not to become marginals of society but to reclaim it as our own.

To make this we must make our movement more inclusive, really inclusive. We must create good leaders that want the movement to expand outwards not to fight inwards. We must encourage innovative behavior and talk to people outside our organizations.

We need to have goals and a strategy that can be shared between more than a few vanguard groups, while, at the same time allowing these groups to push the boundaries of what is allowed and what isn’t.

We must re-establish links of trust between organizations, links not based on transactional benefits, if I do this the other organization will do that but based on a common goal of social and climate justice.

We must trust ourselves and our vision, inspire others to do the same. We must guide and must be lead, help and be helped, teach and learn. But above all we need to win.


This text was written after reflections, conversations, and texts read during or because of the ULEX “Strategic training”, in may 2022.


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