I was talking with Resurgence & Ecologist Editor, Susan Clarke, recently, about how much I enjoy the Book Review section in Resurgence. How, in a world where information is readily reduced to 149 characters, the Resurgence book review section neatly summarises a whole array of the most important publications on ‘soil, soul and society’ in every issue – so those of us who sadly don’t have time to read the entire books themselves, don’t have to, but can stay informed.
As an occasional reviewer myself, the process of reviewing a book is in itself, intriguing. The focus required to distill the essence of a 100,000 word tome into a 750 word summary is intense – but on several occasions, that deep scrutiny has given me an insight into the subject that I may never have gained. For example, the latest book I reviewed was one that I probably would never had read: called An Activist’s Handbook – the title didn’t grab me and anyway, in my work at Artists Project Earth, I come into regular contact with activists – so maybe I didn’t need to read it… But Susan asked me to review it, and I gained such a deep insight from that process, that it has changed my whole perspective on activism and my role at work.
And that is that activists are practicing ‘participatory democracy’. Obvious isn’t it? Well no – activism by most people is seen as protesting against something: at best raising awareness, at worst, complaining. But as seasoned activist Aidan Ricketts points out in his fascinating book, activism enables us to participate directly in a democratic process that is otherwise marginalised to ticking a box once every four years. This simple fact, pointed out so cogently by Ricketts has given me such deep inspiration: because every one of the wonderful and courageous activists who dares to put their head above the parapet and voice their concerns about a particular issue, is taking part in an evolutionary process.
We are constantly being told by the media that the general public is disengaged from the political process. Really? We may have given up on the arcane and partisan first-past-the-post voting system that elects people we have no faith in anyway, but the rise of activism shows that participatory democracy is alive and kicking, effective and empowering! Being an agent of social change can be one of the most exciting journeys in life.
In case you missed it, here’s the Resurgence review, below.
ONE STEP AHEAD: because soon it will be your backyard, by Lorna Howarth
(The Activists’ Handbook, by Aidan Ricketts, Zed Books, 2011, ISBN 9781848135925)
It astounds me how NGOs and environmental activists are always one step ahead of the game: whether it’s campaigning against BP’s sponsorship of the arts or for more rigorous checks and balances on so-called biofuels, it is activists who are well informed, articulate and challenging the political and economic systems that are no longer fit for purpose. They are the nemesis of the corporate world, the freedom fighters brave enough to put their bodies in the path of the industrial maw.
But how do they do it? And how could you do it? Because the author of this book believes that one day you are quite likely to wake up and find an issue on your doorstep that you just can’t ignore.
Written by a seasoned activist, this book is a step-by-step guide to help you stand up for your principles using a variety of different strategies. From direct action to strategic litigation and conflict resolution, the author sets out the tools at your disposal and the different likely legal consequences.
The main thrust of the book is that activism is in fact the practice of participatory democracy and that being an agent of social change can be one of the most rewarding journeys in life, but it is important to be aware of the significant personal skills and awareness needed to avoid pitfalls, burnout and to survive the campaign with your sanity intact!
Whilst democracy is an idea grounded in the premise that political power is derived from the will, or at least the consent of the people, this is not always the case, so the practice of participatory democracy – or activism – requires each citizen to take an active role in the affairs to the community and nation, and to be prepared to make their concerns heard and felt. Individual activists can achieve a lot, but by far the most effective way to bring about social change is through organized groups or ‘social movements.’
Social movements are immensely powerful political forces because they harness the collective will and agency of the masses – indeed, it is interesting to stop and consider some of the more successful social movements, whose work we now take for granted: the suffrage movement; the anti-slavery movement; the movement to end child labour; the anti-apartheid movement and so on. In a sense, social movements operate almost like the immune systems of complex organisms as a way of bringing malignant power under control.
In his tool-box for addressing social inequality, the author includes ethical investing, ethical consumerism, consumer boycotts and shareholder activism – a sign of our times that much activism these days is aimed at businesses and corporations whose actions are detrimental to communities and the wider environment. The “feedback loop of effective corporate campaigning” draws the corporations into the debate because they are made to address the continued reputational damage the campaign creates – the best way for the company to address this is to accede to the agenda of the social movement. It can take a very long time, but the McLibel campaigners are probably chuckling to themselves as McDonalds now make their own biofuel from waste cooking oil, and source much of their foodstuffs within the UK. Corporate activism represents an increasingly important focus for participatory democracy.
One of the more traditional forms of activism and one that the author acknowledges as most effective, because it engages the “theatre of protest” is direct action – including blockades, marches, protests and interventions. Risky as they can be – because they often break the law – these forms of raising awareness are often colourful, carnival-like events that provide good media copy and images. The more inventive and theatrical, the better!
The newest form of participatory democracy is “digital activism” which has recently come under fire from seasoned campaigners as no more than ‘clicktivism’ – but Ricketts argues that coupled with the other tools at our disposal digital activism such as that practiced by avaaz.org and 350.org plays an increasingly important role. In the UK a petition of 100,000 signatures about a particular issue means the government must debate the issue in parliament and this has led to the cancellation of some risible policy such as the recent proposal to sell-off the national forests. Worryingly, the other side of digital activism is that it is much easier for governments to track organizations and groups that are engaging in a given campaign. We’ve recently seen moves for governments to ‘spy’ on internet communication, ostensibly in the name of anti-terrorism, but in truth it is to keep tabs on the rise of digital activism.
Being an activist can be an antidote to feelings of powerlessness and meaninglessness in life – it is about overcoming passivity, self-doubt and resignation and unleashing empowerment. Activism has the capacity to create change and betterment in the world, but it also engenders a deeply personal transformation, because when a person takes a stand on an issue, they are transformed, and often it is a spiritual experience too. Social movements are the most effective response available to correct malign social problems and policies. It is important to keep believing in their power. “The greatest challenge of our time can also be our greatest joy – to join together in the healing of our world.”