Ecology of social movements – Leonor Canadas

Ecology of social movements: the Climate Justice movement, looking introspectively, and strategizing – a kind of exercise for activists and organizers

  1. Introduction
    As climate justice activists we often find ourselves overwhelmed due to the urgent need for action, the several undergoing attacks on the climate and environment and subsequentially on human life, and hence the necessity to be constantly ready to react back and resist while attacking the several different points of intervention.

    This often leads to frustration and exhaustion.

    We are working against complex interlocking systems of oppression, marginalization, and domination, that act on large scales, while we often struggle to make changes at smaller scales. We hence get the sense that we are failing and making too many mistakes (we often are), and when confronted with such complexity feel helpless and disempowered. (I will go back later to the issue of complexity).

    We keep on failing, while the system keeps on flourishing for the few, to the detriment of the majority. But this is exactly what it was designed to do. And it has created a strong “ecology” of institutions well-coordinated, which protect and reinforce each other and the existing power structures, in order to main or strengthen the status quo.

    If we wish to identify points of intervention among the system’s cracks and to create strategies for mobilizing and organizing for collective withdrawal of support from the existing power structures, we have to understand the interlocked systems oppressing us, how they are connected, and how power is organized. But at the same time, we also need to look introspectively, i.e., to the movement we are part of.

  2. The Movement
    Acknowledging the complexity of change we are aiming at, and that combating such interlocked systems of oppression requires a multiplicity of contributions, creativity, strategies, and synergies, we also need to take time to look at the current ecology of the climate justice movement and ask ourselves some questions: how it’s organized? which capacities are there? which ones are missing? and how is it that its current arrangement may be keeping us from winning?

    When we say the ecology of the Climate Justice movement we are talking about the different groups, organizations, platforms, coalitions, etc. that are working on behalf of a common aim: Climate Justice; even if with very distinct theories of change, strategies, and socio-political identities. They often interact, complement, and influence each other, but it may be the case that there are antagonistic relationships, even if we are not consciously aware of them.

    We need to understand how to create a movement that lays down the conditions for real progress and for winning.

    1. Mapping the current movement
      Hence, we shall start by laying out the current ecology of the movement, by mapping the actors, and the power or influence which one has; the relations among them, and the differences in these relationships (weak, strong, antagonistic, symbiotic). When mapping we can also characterize elements of the movement in terms of their capabilities, transformative strategies, and roles they play in the movement (see table below).
    2. Analysing the map
      Then we need to make a strategic analysis of this map. We can start by investigating which capabilities, transformative strategies, and roles are predominant and which ones are less present in the movement. This analysis should give us some information on what the movement is lacking, and what are its strengths.
      Build-in up on that, and keeping in mind the identified relations amongst elements, some interesting questions to think about are:
        1. Who are the more and the less powerful actors within the movement?
        2. Who maintains the status quo within the movement?
        3. Who is losing or being silenced or marginalized within the movement? And why?
        4. Which relationship shifts could considerably change the movement?
        5. How do we change these relationships?

      Question I can be answered by analyzing power from the general public perception or from the perception within the movement. These are both interesting analyses but it is important to keep in mind that they are not the same as they may lead to very different conclusions.

      Question II can be thought of both in terms of power relations, but also who is keeping the movement from radicalizing or diversifying strategies. It may also be interesting to understand, for the different movement capabilities, which actors hold the most power. For example, who are the most powerful actors shaping the narrative, how may these be constraining the movement from progressing, or how may these be shaping the actions of disruptive groups.
      After delving into those questions, you might come up with some interesting conclusions. Then you need a strategic plan on how to build the movement you’re envisioning.

  3. Strategizing in VUCA reality
    In this regard, I want to go back to the issue of complexity and introduce here the concept of VUCA reality, which is not only useful to keep in mind when thing about the interlocked systems of oppression we are up against but it is also useful when thinking about the current state of the movement we are part of.
    VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.
    This framework acknowledges that we can only understand a complex system to a certain degree, that there are a lot of actions and reactions happening at the same time, that impact the whole system, and that we can’t predict all the reactions our actions have in the system, nor prepare to react to all kinds of actions that may affect us.

    This, however, should not keep us from aiming for change. But then how do we strategize in VUCA reality? “Plan small steps within a big vision”. This does not mean thinking small, focusing on small issues, or decreasing ambition. Rather, by acknowledging a VUCA reality and that the systems we are working in react to every action we and others take, it may be most useful to, within an ambitious and long-term vision, plan step-by-step, and constantly reflect and analyze how the movement and the systems are changing, being ready to adapt to it.

    Reflect to break the cycle of habit, i.e., repeating the same actions without reasoning. “Stay a morning in bed” and deepen your awareness, enabling space for curiosity, introspection, and reflexivity.
    And then analyse. For example, think about cohesion, power, progress, and opposition and how they are changing (table 1), and try to study patterns rather than isolated events.

    Where do you need to build trust

    How can you do it?

    What other capacities and attitudes do you need to work on:

    Train for conflict
    Train attitudes alliances…

    What do you need to do for the vision to be clear and shared?(direction)

    How are we measuring power?

    Mobilize or organize?

    What roles do you need and when?

    Citizen mobilization
    Agitation and disruption
    Organizing and/or movement infrastructure

    What capabilities do you need to build and when

    Training and learning

    What accounts for progress or the lack of it?

    Define regonizable patterns

    Define landmarks

    Build you Theory of Change

    Create a responsive mechanism

    What forms did the opposition take?

    What kind of opposition do you expect and when?

    Think about:

    Backfire strategy
    Narrative and media
    Cycles within movements

  4. Final thought
    We need to change the systems in order to stop the climate from changing. We know this is a powerful, well-organized, complex system. We hence need a powerful, well-organized, complex movement, and we can’t leave it to others the task of creating it.

This text was written in the sequence of the “Ecology of Social Movements” course, by Ulex, in April 2022

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