Monbiot: how grown-ups can amplify and help the young people striking to save their burning planet


We enjoyed (see last week’s editorial) the veteran environmental campaigner George Monbiot in conversation with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff last week. But our editorial did wonder why the two of them couldn’t come up with many practical and strategic suggestions, particularly around the youth response to climate breakdown.

Well, George has tried to respond in his latest Guardian column. See below:

I would suggest that the climate strikers develop clear rules of engagement, in order to give their opponents no ammunition. In my view, the global justice movement was gravely damaged by its failure to exclude or contain the black bloc: people dressed in black, some of whom came to protests tooled up for a fight and often smashed up random local businesses, denting support for the mobilisation with every blow.

Some people in the movement believed that everyone had a right to join it on whatever terms they wished. I see this as an unaffordable indulgence.

A good exercise is to ask yourself what the police and authorities would most like to happen, then do the opposite. They would love a violent faction to emerge that would erode the young strikers’ credibility and provide an excuse to send in the riot police and break up the protests. Never give them this excuse.

Successful movements also need an organisational model that allows them to keep growing. One promising approach is Big Organizing, through which campaigners create proliferating networks, each branch of which trains the branches that grow from it. It helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take her seat in the United States Congress.

They need clever, funny and innovative tactics, which take opponents by surprise and create a sense of forward momentum. Designing such tactics, narratives and principles is, I believe, best done by a small number of people, then put to the wider group for approval. I saw how Occupy became bogged down in the impossible process of developing complex policies through consensus.

We’re picking up here on the Big Organising link above - it’s a method used by activists for Bernie Sanders, and distilled in this book. Out of 22 rules, here are their main principles:

  • Trust and value volunteers at the same level of staff, allowing for the creation of a “peer to peer” culture throughout the organizing structure. This dispersal of trust and agency necessarily involves sacrifice for those used to a command and control model and the authors advise campaigners to allow for some messiness and imperfection as a price to pay for rapid growth and overall impact.

  • Despite the peer-to-peer collaboration and self-organization at the heart of the model, Big Organizing is not meant to be a free for all. However distributed, a central plan anchors the operation, according to the authors.

  • This plan, as devised and refined by Bond and Exley, involved a concrete set of predetermined actions, performance targets and milestones, all of which are transmitted to supporters through constant communication.

  • Also key to the plan are preconceived roles for volunteers and small, medium and large “asks” made of these supporters in accordance to their levels of commitment and experience.

  • Finally, the authors stress the importance of intake processes and training plans that lead new recruits from simple entry tasks to managerial roles with increasing levels of responsibility.

  • On the practical side, Bond and Exley underline the value of real-space events for recruiting and engaging new supporters. The great success of their “barnstorm” model, which brought together local supporters at campaign rallies and drove them to form volunteer-led work teams across the country is instructive for digital-first campaigners who may rely too heavily on web-based engagement when building their base.

  • The authors point out that Big Organizing is about more than tactics and tools. It also means embedding a commitment to movement building by acknowledging racism and systemic inequality. “White people need to understand that supporting Black liberation in a material way is an essential part of any political revolution,” Bond writes.

  • We may all do better by investing in distributed organizing networks that make space for and grant power to everyone. On this note, Bond states that “…it suffices to say that the Sanders campaign fell short of what the movement required”. But “if Big Organizing is able to go so far and so fast with a supporter-driven structure, the need to re-examine traditional campaign strategy and nonprofit management practices is obvious.

We would also note the work by Silas Harrebye, Stephen Duncombe and Srdja Popovic on the power of stunts, situations and events, or “clever, funny and innovative tactics”. Some serious playfulness, in other words - which you would hope could be easily sustained and generated by this networked, culture-driven generation.